Report: C. Town and Asia

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21 July 2003

Cape Town
When we sent out our last message, we were starting our adventure in Cape Town and it was a spectacular one. Since it was technically winter in Cape Town (equivalent to northern December), we packed some sweaters and other warm / wet weather gear. But we were pleasantly surprised with a dry, warm spell that had temperatures as high as 26°C / 79°F. Hmmm… warmer than a summer in San Francisco! ;-) So with this weather we enjoyed Cape Town (the city), Cape Point, and the wine country around Stellenbosch, Franschhoeck, and Paarl. While we could go into the nth detail of our adventures, for the sake of brevity we’ll just mention a few highlights from this area. 

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

The most striking aspect of our travels in Asia has been the impact of SARS on tourism and the local economies. We didn’t make any river cruise plans until we got to Hong Kong, primarily because we didn’t want to get locked into a non-refundable cruise when the fate of SARS was previously unknown.  What we found out in our ‘one’ broadband-enabled day there was that 1) most cruises had been cancelled with the high-end ones not even starting until October due to lack of Western tourists, and 2) that the area around the Yangzi was getting clobbered by on-going rainstorms. There were, and still are, floods, landslides, evacuations of over 2.3 million people and casualties going over 500. The best choice was for us to skip the area. This brought us to another challenge – the airlines.  We found out that airlines had drastically reduced their schedules to and within China, dropping entire destinations and trimming flights from several a day to a few per week; we finally settled spending a few more days in Hong Kong and reroute our trip to the cities of Shanghai, Xi’an, and Guilin.

Hong Kong
While both of us had previously been to Hong Kong, we really enjoyed our extra time here. This region is so amazing from its views to the simplicity and efficiency of its transportation system. Yes—we know BART is now going to / from the San Francisco airport, but you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen Hong Kong. The other ‘fascination’ for us is that we arrived in Hong Kong only a few days after 500,000 individuals openly protested the government on Article 23—the anti-subversion law. We could receive ‘open’ news via CNN, BBC, etc. on this situation, and then we had access to CCTV—the Chinese government official ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ news station. The morning when the vote got delayed (July 7th), we watched CCTV and the newscasters indicated that everything was in agreement and moving forward with the vote scheduled for July 9th. Hmmm… did someone forget to tell Beijing that the vote was delayed??? Or did Beijing not know what or how to communicate this delay to CCTV?

After Hong Kong, it was the jewel of China (as the government had put it)—Shanghai! To describe Shanghai is like describing the Blue Man Group (for those who have seen it will understand). The experience was pleasing, but you have to see it for yourself because words can’t exactly describe it. Because Shanghai is being touted as the international center of China and Hong Kong will merely be a ‘mole’ on China’s face—we expected a city as grand as and even greater than Hong Kong. Shanghai’s architecture is magnificent and the city is in a constant state of renewal—i.e., knocking down the old and building the new. But for some reason, we were underwhelmed by the city and similar to the Tony Bennett song—we left our hearts Hong Kong. Shanghai was also H
OT—HOT! Hong Kong was HOT but Shanghai was HOTTER—36°C / 97°F with very high humidity. While we have lived in this type of weather before (Chicago and Cincinnati respectively), you would think we could handle this. But touring in this weather is a completely different thing. Anyway aside from the weather, what we learned in Shanghai was that buildings in tourist areas (e.g. Yu Gardens) had interesting names—Hall of Mildness, Tower of Joy, Snack Optional Palace (i.e., a cafeteria). So we created our own names—Hall of Coolness (air-conditioned building, convenience store, museum, etc.), Hall of Moving Coolness (Taxi, Metro), and Tower of Coolness (hotel). When touring outside in this heat, we were in constant search and made many stops in the various Halls of Coolness.

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 ( in China, we do hope to make many more trips to China in the future.

Until our next continent…


Kristen and Mike

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