"Diamond Princess" - Ports Visited
Airlie Beach, Australia
Airlie Beach is a jumping-off point for holiday-makers in the Whitsunday Islands, whether yacht cruising, staying at one of a number of island resorts or fishing/diving further out on the lower part of the Great Barrier Reef. It was stinking hot and very humid when we arrived, and we went for a walk along the foreshore in preference to the tour offering, which included a crocodile farm. We also needed to stock up on breakfast items not found on the ship, and a couple of hats! The locals were running a lot of market stalls on the beachfront, full of local handicrafts and some produce.
The sea unfortunately has fairly dangerous jellyfish in Summer, but the town has a beautiful sandy artificial lagoon for swimming and paddling, with filtered seawater and grassy surrounds.
Port Douglas, Australia
Port Douglas is a resort town a little way up the coast from the regional city of Cairns, between the beach and the Daintree Rainforest. The beach has its own problems with not only stingers, but also the odd crocodile; we headed south (almost to Cairns) on a Princess tour to see the historic railway and train which heads up the Barron Gorge to Kuranda. We actually went up to Kuranda on a cable car; there was practically no water in the Barron Falls although the region had been reporting flooding only the previous week - I suppose you have to live there! Kuranda is beautiful and the Rainforest Cafe serves the hugest sandwiches you will find anywhere. We would have liked to stay longer to see the local handicrafts properly and the wildlife park.
The weather was still hot, so coming back down the gorge on the train was a bit of a trial; no air conditioning of course! It's hard to see much of the track or the train when you are on it, and we only got glimpses of the view between the trees. A Gestapo type who was a tour guide on another Princess bus didn't seem to understand that a busload of 45 didn't necessarily fit into a 36-seat carriage, which didn't help.
Darwin is Australia's northern capital; we were there on a Saturday so capitalism was temporarily suspended while the locals sought refuge from the stifling heat. The only pedestrian access to town is along a stone and concrete causeway between the harbour and a small lagoon; this seems to be about a kilometer long and without a scrap of shade, so we were a fairly sweaty buch by the time we arrived in town. A fair few of the locals seemed to have migrated the other way to a large wave pool, which is situated on the waterfont not far from where the ship was tied up.
Most of the attractions on offer from Princess seemed a way out of town, so we joined throngs of other Princess passengers walking around the city, enjoying the sights and the air conditioned shops. We also found a local supermarket and replenished our stocks of food again (and bought some reasonable wine).
Hong Kong, China
Our tropical cruise had ended a couple of days before we got to Hong Kong, but the day we arrived was overcast and colder than we had really expected. The Diamond Princess is too big to fit at the city's passenger wharf (built for the QE2), so we suffered the ignominy of having to berth at a container terminal and being bussed back and forth into town. Apparently HK is coverting their old airport to a new cruise ship terminal, which sounds as though it might be big enough. There is far too much to see and do in HK in a day, so we threw our lot in with Princess tours again and picked a half day tour which included Aberdeen village (which is basically wall-to-wall sampans and junks), a visit to Stanley Markets, and a trip in the cable tram up to Victoria Peak (well, down actually, but we were used to that).
Firstly we had to go to a diamond factory somewhere, "to observe skilled artisans at work handcrafting jewelry which is available for sale" according to the blurb. It turned out to be a showroom where we got harrassed so much that we took refuge in the toilets until the bus was ready to leave. The sampan ride around Aberdeen was great, and I had expected a lookout at Victoria Peak but it is more like a city on the hilltop; the lookout is on top of a humungous modern building full of shops and restaurants. We didn't have time for that but it didn't matter all that much because the remaining glimpses of the view were pretty smoggy.
In the afternoon we did our own thing browsing the shops (very expensive), and stayed in town for the city lights display at 8pm (our ship didn't leave until midnight).
We arrived in Keelung a few hours late as a result of some awful weather which had battered us all the way from Hong Kong. Keelung is at the northern end of Taiwan and is the port for the capital, Taipei, which is about 40 minutes away.
We booked a tour because Keelung itself is fairly depressing and we weren't game to try our luck with the public transport into Taipei. The tour included the National Palace Museum, which is an impressive structure housing all the Chinese treasures plundered by Chiang Kai-Shek before he decamped the mainland in 1949. Unfortunately it was very busy and we didn't get to see a lot - worth a longer visit. Next stop was the Martyr's Memorial, which is a shrine to the fallen Nationalist soldiers. The guard here changes every hour and takes about as long, with slow jerky movements reminiscent of an animation played at about one frame every two seconds! The process is conducted without music, but is very precise and is quite impressive.
We had a short photo stop in Taipei CBD to marvel at Tiapei 101, which is or was the World's tallest building, supposedly designed to resemble a bamboo stalk. One tourist uncharitably remarked that it looked more like a pile of noodle boxes, but he was right. The entire city block next door was a market garden; when asked why this should be so our guide explained that land-owners were free to do what they liked with their land.
The Diamond Princess was built in Nagasaki and seems to be welcomed home. The Mayor explained on board that the City's beautiful new cable-stayed suspension bridge had been designed so that the ship would fit under it (and it does, just).
We decided to do our own thing in Nagasaki and bought a couple of tickets for the City's tramcar system. Nagasaki was the site of the second US nuclear attack on Japan, and it seems obligatory to visit the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum, which we did. Most of the memorials are festooned with coloured oregami cranes and surrounded by dishes and bottles of water; tribute to the child casualties of the atrocity and the insatiable thirst suffered by survivors. It was a very sombre and saddening experience, but everything is presented and explained objectively and tastefully. Unfortunately the City encroaches on the place from all angles, so it is not as peaceful as one would hope.
Nagasaki was formerly the gateway to Japan from the West in much the same way as Hong Kong was to China. They have an interesting colonial past, as well as a monument to 26 Christian martyrs who were crucified here in 1597 for refusing to renounce their faith after the religion was banned. The Americans managed to take out Japan's biggest cathedral with their bomb, so historically this isn't the greatest place to be a Christian.
Nagasaki is a modern city and we had a look at some of the shops, including a beautiful glass shop close to where the ship was berthed. There was also a department store handy, and we were amazed by the amount and variety of electrical goods on offer.
Busan is on the south-eastern side of the Korean Peninsula and seems to have spent most if its history repelling attacks and suffering occupation by Mongol and Japanese invaders. Korea's "Golden Age" of the Silla Dynasty was contemporaneous and very similar to the Tang Dynasty in neighboring China. The greatest of the Silla Kings was Seongdeok, in whose memory the "Divine Bell" was eventually successfully cast by his grandson in 771, about 35 years after Seongdeok's death.
Our shuttle bus dropped us at the City's Yongdusan Park, which is on a small hill surrounded by the city. There is an observation tower (which we didn't go up on account of the smog - are you detecting a pattern here?) a shop, and a replica of King Seongdeok's bell, amongst other things. In the structure under the tower we found a small model ship museum; strange place to have it we thought, it has models of all sorts of ships (centrepiece is the "Titanic") but the most fascinating was a small wooden ship called a "Turtle Ship" successfully used by the Koreans against Japanese invaders in the 16th Century. This was an oared vessel (sails also) that had holes between and above the oars for cannon and bowmen; the top was completely planked over and metal sheathed, with large protruding iron spikes to discourage boarders from the larger, less manouverable Japanese ships. Elsewhere in the park is a 10m statue of Admiral Yi Sun Sin, who was a naval commander credited with some astonishing victories against the Japanese using amongst other tactics, the turtle ships.
We spent much of our day in Busan at the various markets, and in the City's underground shopping mall, which is sandwiched between the main thoroughfare and the City Subway, and was a welcome respite from the cold above.
Shanghai Port has a magnificent passenger terminal which, unfortunately, is three quarters of an hour's ride from the CBD; Princess' shuttle bus dropped us at a "silk museum", still 3km from town. We skipped the silk museum and the tours based on the HK experience and took a taxi to the Yu Yuan Garden, which is a collection old pavillions, gardens and ponds in Old Shanghai; the whole place is beautifully restored and preserved.
We walked from Old Shanghai along the river's famous Bund; this is a wide, elevated walkway which combines imposing views of the City's modern skyline across the river, with old colonial buildings opposite, looking slightly alien in the landscape with their waving red flags. Unfortunately it was very smoggy and we didn't ascend any of the taller buildings to see the "view".
From the Bund we walked along Nanjing Road, most of which is a broad shopping mall. They have a big TV screen in the middle which warns of pickpockets and hawkers. We didn't meet any pickpockets, but the hawkers in Shanghai were the most persistent we found anywhere, mostly selling fake Rollexes, handbags, and the current fad, single-axled roller skates. These seemed to work well on the smoothly paved streets; you could think you'd left one behind and he would be back in your face in a moment!
Further up Nanjing Road you come to the People's Park, which has in and around it a collection of some of the most imposing and architecturally inspired buildings we saw, including the stunning Grand Theatre. There is a good market in a multi-storied building further up Nanjing Road just beyond the freeway overpass; we had some bargaining practice there and bought a warm jacket for Beijing before getting a taxi back to the silk market.
Dalian is a city of only 3 million people, and ostensibly the summer holiday destination for Beijingers. We only had a half day stop there so didn't see a lot; we did our own thing again and just walked around the city. The locals were out enjoying a walk with the family or a game of Mah Jong with friends in a city park; a couple ventured tenatively on to the frozen lake.
Dalian is straegically positioned on the Liaodong Peninsula guarding the entrance to the Bohai Gulf. It was occupied briefly by the Japanese in 1895 before they were kicked out by the Russians who wanted it for themselves. The Russians connected the port with the trans-Siberian railway at Harbin (850km to the NE), so that they could be less reliant on the ice-affected Vladivostok. The Japanese came back in 1904, demolishing the Russian Pacific Fleet at anchor with torpedo boats, in what must have seemed like a pretty good blueprint for the Pearl Harbour attack 38 years later. Japan used Dalian as a base for its wars against China until they were again kicked out at the end of WWII.
P&O's old "Oriana" ended her days in Dalian as a museum and convention centre, before being badly damaged in a storm and scrapped.
Curiously, Princess included the Ice Festival at Harbin as part of their "things to see" TV presentation on Dalian.
Tianjin & China Generally
Tianjin is the port for Beijing; we were only there for as long as it took to join our bus to Beijing and saw nothing of the City. The terminal is very imposing and is all on reclaimed land (not on Google yet).
Beijing is very well documented on tourist itineraries without going into what we did here. Best advice is to get yourself a fairly central base from which you can walk to places like Tiananmen Square (the tourist bureaus are at the south end, which is where the a lot of tour busses start from), The Forbidden City (immediately north of the square) and Wangfujing St (which is a good shopping precinct a short way east of it). There are some ritzy hotels in Dongchangan Rd which connects all three, or you may prefer the Backpacker's near the railway station a little further to the south east. Most of the sights except the Great Wall can be accessed by the subway. The Great Wall is accessable in at least three places; Badaling, Ju Yong Pass, (which is on the way to Badaling) and Mutianyu, which is further north. Do your research before you leave and decide where you want to go; try to give yourself some extra days in case the weather or the smog is particularly bad.
The Chinese are a friendly lot who will take it in good humour if you decline to be ripped off, however there are three popular scams which we encountered or were warned about:
- Taxis are very cheap but you may find they are a lot dearer for your return trip, especially if it is at night and/or you are going to a ritzy hotel. Take a hotel card, because their English is only slightly better than your Mandarin is likely to be.
- Hawkers will bargain, but will try to increase their margin by giving you fake currency as change, or asking you to swap another note for a fake they will say you just gave them. Check your currency and give them the exact amount; don't be offended if reputable traders scrutinise the notes you give them.
- People will ask you if they can practice their English on you. In some instances you may be persuaded to go to a teahouse (because it is a "tea holiday") where you will pay $50 a cup for "really special" tea. Doubtless there are other variations.
Food hygeine practices in China are shoddy by western standards (even in our 5 star hotel). The water shouldn't be drunk and the air can be pretty thick, so take whatever medications you are likely to need, especially if you get asthma. Chances are, even if you are able to get what you need, you won't be able to read the label.