21 July 2003
First, we ventured out to Cape Point on a wonderfully hot and splendid day. It felt quite surreal especially when while hiking in the heat, we saw and tracked a huge school of dolphins (at least 100 of them) joyously swimming past the Cape. Absolutely amazing!!! To add to the surreal feeling, upon our return to the car a giant male baboon came running across the parking lot and jumped straight into our trunk, rummaging trough the luggage. We are not kidding! Supposedly the baboon had previously stolen someone’s bag / keys and had generally been terrorizing the tourists. As the baboon was about to jump into our back seat, a screaming local scared him away and out of our car. He then went running after some other tourists who had ice cream in hand and eventually placed himself on top of a van. Again—surreal. Not to say that we were scared of the baboon, but we decided not to explore the Cape further and headed back to town.
The second point of interest was Robben Island; consider this the Alcatraz of Cape Town. Nelson Mandela was there in solitary confinement for at least 18 of his 27 years in prison. What made our visit so memorable was that our tour guide wasn’t some kid out of college earning an extra buck—it was a gentleman by the name of Patrick Matanjana who was a prisoner there for over 20 years. As he guided us through the facilities, he would talk about his experiences—letters being forged or censored, no beds in the cells until 1979, stuffing tennis balls with messages to communicate between cell blocks—and took us to the very cell that housed him. While Botswana showed us the relationship between animal, man, and nature, this showed us, along with other experiences in the area, what man has done to man and the healing South Africa is still going through.
While we could go on and on about Cape Town and the wine lands, we figured you can put two and two together to know that great weather (aided by great wine) means a great time and we can tell more stories when we’re back.
Onto our next chapter, this started with a dilemma on where to go next. When we originally planned our trip at the beginning of the year, we had included a cruise on the Yangzi River to experience it before the Three Gorges Dam would flood the valley. When SARS came about we created an alternate plan, leaving the final decision on where to go to the last minute. Luckily the World Health Organization lifted the SARS travel advisories on Hong Kong and China (meaning that both countries had been SARS-free for at least 30 days), and, aided as well with information from friends living in the area, we decided to go to Asia. We left for Asia on July 2nd, arriving in Hong Kong on July 3rd.
Xi’an was our next city. Xi’an was the ancient capital of China and houses one of most famous ceramic figurines—the terracotta Army. We only spent a couple of days here and absolutely fell in love with the army and the city. From our previous experiences in Beijing and Shanghai, what we saw was a lot of new construction that was actually destroying the charm of China. Old houses, neighborhoods were being demolished for the sake of new buildings. Tourist areas were being reconstructed to look more like Disney. Xi’an definitely had new construction—we should point out its population is 6,000,000. But Xi’an was able to capture and keep some of the old charm of China. Because of that, it had a great feel.
The other thing which was striking here, and in all the cities that we visited, was the impact of SARS on tourism. In Hong Kong, our hotel (the Sheraton Hong Kong) was empty—we barely saw any Westerner tourists on the streets. In Shanghai we saw a few more Western tourists in the city, but once we were outside of the city in the water village of Zhou Zhuang we became the main attraction for the Chinese tourists. In Xi’an, it wasn’t much better. There were four other Westerners at the terracotta Army site—yes only four. The area was dominated by Chinese tourists and our guide said that the overall volume was low and usually there is a 50 / 50 split between Western and Chinese / Asian tourists. So because we were the spectacle, we had many people saying hello to us and begging us to buy their goods (you want… you want…, you want…). The usual line was “because of SARS we have no tourists, you buy”. While we understand and are sympathetic to the situation, we couldn’t just buy for the purpose of buying. Therefore similar to our negotiating tactics we used in Zimbabwe, we would just start talking to each other in Italian to diffuse the situation.
Our next stop was in Guilin—not for the city but for the Li River. Guilin, the city, is a very non-descript town that only comes to life in the evening through a magnificent array of fluorescent lighting. The true beauty of this area is outside the city limits and along the Li River. Now you’re probably wondering why we wanted to go to the Li River. The answer is its landscape. We’re assuming most of you have seen Chinese watercolor paintings with pictures of oddly-shaped mountain peaks towering with a river flowing through them. Well that landscape is real and the pictures are of this area. We took a four hour, 50 mile cruise down the river and found ourselves in amazement over this serene setting. We definitely recommend this to all and Guilin, with a non-SARS flight schedule, is only a 1:25 hour civilized Dragonair flight from Hong Kong. While you probably don’t want to hear how romantic this was (yawn) and our adventures in flying domestic airlines / “connecting” flights and pushing our way through farmer markets set up inside of the departure halls would take too long to write, we’ll stop here with detail on Guilin / China and make this another way for you to buy us a drink (or vice-versa) when we’re back.
We’re actually back in Hong Kong for a final few days before heading to Australia. Since we first landed here over two weeks ago, we’ve seen a remarkable change in the city—there are many more Westerners / tourists milling around town and many notices / advertisements on SARS have disappeared. This was a welcomed site to see and again, we just love this city.
Now with some parting thoughts... we may have complained about the weather and some other things in China (namely beggars), we should note that we knew what we were getting into with the weather and we met so many wonderful people during our travels there. And even though the Chinese government has mysteriously banned our website (www.borsetti.com) in China, we do hope to make many more trips to China in the future.
Until our next continent…
Kristen and Mike