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Sunday, 16 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 2

Wuhan to Jingzhou and beyond

The internal flight from Shanghai to Wuhan was straightforward but our escort, Iowa, inadvertently caused much merriment.  Before the flight, he provided us with lunch boxes containing a sandwich, fruit and other things to eat on the plane .  He thought that we may not like the "warm milk" served on the plane.  A bit of head-scratching at that statement but we thought that it must be a local airline custom on short hauls.  When the food came round on the plane, it was clear that he actually meant "warm meal" and a good laugh was had by all!  He was right about the airline meal - flavoured noodles and not much else.

First stop after disembarking was to see some artifacts discovered in a tomb dating back to 433 BC. Of these, a set of 65 bells and chimes weighing 5.5 tonnes was the most spectacular.  These are shown below.

   Massive bell and chime set

After looking round the collection, we were treated to a performance on a replica set with other traditional instruments which was superb.  Here's a short video of one piece they played - you might recognise the tune.

Replica bell set

From there, it was to our ship, the Viking Emerald and shown to our nicely appointed stateroom which had an open air balcony.  Holding some 128 staterooms, it never seemed crowded.   The Yangtze is some 6300km long and although our cruise component was significantly less than that, it struck a perfect balance between water and shore-based activity.

As a bit of semi-irrelevant trivia, on arrival at Shanghai airport, the handle on my wheeled suitcase was found to be jammed in the closed position and I couldn't shift it.  Ended up walking like Quasimodo with it through the airport as I naturally had no tools to effect a fix.  However, once on board the Emerald, a quick word with one of their engineers saw it fixed and returned within 30 minutes - awesome service!

The Viking Emerald (file photo)

Casting off and leaving Wuhan late afternoon we were treated to in incredible moving light show projected onto waterfront buildings and bridges stretching several km at dusk and into full darkness.  It was mesmerising and we could have watched it for hours.

Ever-changing colours and shapes on a bridge

Waterfront lights starting to come on at dusk

This is part of the waterfront after dark.

Another of the many bridges

Wuhan waterfront

Wuhan waterfront

Wuhan waterfront

Illuminated pier of a river bridge

Meals and service on board the ship were outstanding and at dinner that evening, we were able to reconnect with two couples we had met in the hotel, Kathryn and Richard from Miami and Janet and Greg from South Dakota.  We all had the same cynical sense of humour and we were to become great friends.

Pre-dinner drinkies!  Kathryn and Richard passing by

Jennie soon discovered the on-board tailor and was promptly measured for an evening dress jacket in silk.

Instant measuring service

The result a few days later........

Hot chick in silk evening jacket

Wuhan also has a large coal-fired power plant and significant heavy industry on the outskirts.  There, pollution was noticeable as it left a burnt carbon smell in the nose and a metallic taste in the mouth.  In other locations whilst we were there, it wasn't really noticeable.  There was a haze in many places but I suspect most of this was due to humidity and temperature.

Next day, we tied up at Jingzhou and visited a school which Viking sponsors.  What an utter pleasure that turned out to be!  There was a festival going on in the school grounds to celebrate National Children's Day the following day.  There were lots of parents also present to watch the performances.  

A warm welcome from some drummers

Schoolkids taking part in the festival

Yours truly crammed into a minuscule classroom seat.  Our escort Iowa is up front.

As an ex-teacher, Jennie was in her element

Despite the obvious barriers, it's amazing how well you can communicate with a few Chinese words,hand gestures and drawings.  It was so much fun interacting with the children and one of our true highlights.  We also sang them a song in English and the same one in Chinese, having been coached by Iowa.  They probably didn't understand a single word of the Chinese version!  Returning to the ship later, a raffle was held which raised approximately US$6500 for the school!

Roadside barber and hairdressing salon

Before casting off. we also visited the ancient city walls which were well-preserved. It provided a great contrast to the rest of the modern city.

City gates

Part of wall with statue


Pretty substantial defences

Massive stone statue of poet Qu Yuan (340BC-278BC)

Travelling upstream, I was fascinated by the river traffic and the different types of boats.  Many of them seemed to be bulk carriers carrying civil construction materials for the massive projects along the Yangtze.  A lot of the boats seemed to have very little freeboard but maybe in relatively flat water, you don't need much!  Also, we both remarked on the fact that the same bulk loads were being shipped in both directions which was somewhat curious!


Certainly not a lot of freeboard here

A decent load of logs!

As a retired professional engineer (cue eye-rolling from Jennie when I mentioned what I'd seen), I  noticed something odd on quite a few vessels.  A lot of them had the bow bulb designed to reduce drag but some had strange protuberances on their anchor ports which caused their not inconsiderable anchors to drag (pun intended) through the water.  Bit of a conundrum which I may or may not follow up. Don't want to be accused of being totally anal!  Here's an example of what I saw: 

Weird bow anchor arrangement

Great scenery and attractions, interaction with the wonderful schoolchildren and logistics/engineering problems to ponder - what could be better? (said with an almost straight face).

Next - the Three Gorges area

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt1

Auckland to Shanghai

By air and river

We've done a lot of travelling out east but China is a place we've never visited and have only briefly passed through Hong Kong.  The World Heritage-listed Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River, Terracotta Warriors and Great Wall have all long been on the bucket list and our fantastic travel agent put together a great itinerary where we could do that plus a few of the other "must see" attractions in China.  The China part of the trip was with Viking River Cruises, who have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.  For Hong Kong on the return leg, we did our own thing. All this in late May and June for a celebration of our 47th wedding anniversary, albeit a few weeks early.

I bloody detest long haul flying, not because I have a phobia or anything like that.  Living at the bottom of the world a long way from anywhere has some distinct advantages but inevitably means that any substantial travel involves sitting on your butt for hours at a time, going quietly insane.  There's only so many movies you can take in or similar before getting terminally bored or seizing up.  Odds on that it's an economy class passenger with long legs who finally invents a Star Trek - type matter transporter.  He or she will have the gratitude of humanity for eternity.  Jennie and I are way past putting up with ageing bodies taking a hiding in long haul economy.  A solid 18 hours non-stop to Doha on our way to Kenya and Tanzania convinced us of the benefits of business class on that flight so it's the same again up to China and Hong Kong for our latest adventure.  It may be a bit pricey but at least we can hit the ground running when we get there, rather than being knackered through jet lag and cramped seating.  The following photos in each part of this trip are just a tiny selection of the 800-odd we took altogether.  Definitely a case of what to leave out!

Auckland-Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific - don't waste your time watching the movie shown on the screen - it's crap!

The trip to Shanghai involved a leg to Hong Kong lasting a bit over 11 hours, an overnighter in the airport hotel, then a "redeye" flight to Shanghai very early the next morning.  We arrived in HK and headed for the carousel to pick up our luggage.  After a lengthy wait and a no-show, it was unfortunately discovered that our stuff had been checked straight through to Shanghai - bugger!  No point in getting upset so we had a laugh and made do with what was in our back packs, which wasn't much.  After about 4 hours sleep, we got on another flight feeling a bit second-hand and arrived in Shanghai, not exactly smelling of roses!

Viking had organised a 5 star hotel in Shanghai (the Westin Bund Centre) which was seriously good in every respect and it was only a short walk to the Bund and Yangtze River.  Shower, drink, meet some other people assembling for the cruise, meal, bed!

Bathroom with a view - everything was marble!

Next morning, we met our escort Iowa (which sounded phonetically like his Chinese given name).  What an absolute legend he turned out to be throughout the holiday.  Excellent English, totally organised and nothing was too much trouble.  He also had a very sharp sense of humour and was quite happy to poke fun at both himself and us - much laughter over the whole trip!  The other thing which was perhaps surprising but immensely refreshing was his transparency.  If asked contentious questions (politics for example), he was quite happy to discuss them from his personal viewpoint.  This helped our understanding immensely and was a great means of building bridges.  An outstanding ambassador for both his company and country.  What we particularly liked was Iowa's low-key approach.  Wherever possible after a good briefing, he gave us time to do our own thing rather than feeling shepherded everywhere.

A walk along the Bund revealed a thoroughly modern city with great architecture and equally impressive infrastructure such as roading. Temperatures were in the low 30's C with relatively low humidity so walking about wasn't a trial.  There was no obvious pollution whilst we were there - more about this further on.  Oh, and another thing....... the standard of cleanliness in towns and cities wherever we went was exceedingly high. I'd say higher than the average western equivalent.

View from the Bund

A wall of living plants several hundred metres long on the Bund

Example of architecture - retro Gothic in this case?

The rate of progress was starling - no mucking about once development decisions were made.  Where the land on which old privately-owned dwellings stood was required for development, it appeared that a fair price was offered straight up to the homeowner rather than trying to screw them or try for compulsory purchase like many countries including NZ.  This enabled rapid progress.  No way to verify this without further digging.

A visit to the old quarter of Shanghai followed which was a real delight with some of the structures being several hundred years old.

Just gorgeous

The aquatic equivalent of a street cleaner!

Tranquility in the middle of a city with a population of 26 million

Local Dim sum takeaway - yummm!

Next, it was off to a factory which made silk products, principally high end embroidered pictures and carpets.  The standard of work was breathtaking with individual pieces taking between a few months and a year depending on size and complexity.

Working on an embroidery of carp

The range of subject matter was huge, a case of something for all tastes.  Jennie and I tend towards simplicity and elegance, somewhat towards Japanese traditions.  The embroidery below took our breath away.  Seemingly simple, it was made up of several hundred slightly different shades of silk thread to achieve an almost 3D effect.  One of the most beautiful pieces of work we'd ever seen and the photo doesn't do it any form of justice.  Apparently, it took over 6 months to complete.  The asking price of about US$6000 might seem expensive but not for the time taken and the fact that it's a one-off piece of art.  Approximately 0.75 of a metre high.  We bought something far smaller and more modestly-priced!

An absolute masterpiece

Weaving a silk rug

Colourful collection of silk fans 

Next stop was Shanghai Museum.  We both love museums but seeing artifacts from 5,000 years of Chinese culture was something special.  The museum was huge so we just concentrated on the ceramics, bronzes and jade sections.  Here are a few representative photos from the stunning collections.  And most of this was when most of western civilisation was barely above barbarian level!

Jade dragon, barely over an inch long

Ceramic platter, about 3/4 metre in diameter - breathtaking

Beautiful engraving on a bronze vessel

I took the following photo just as we were leaving the museum.  With my interest in motorcycles, I noticed that a motorcycle cop had pulled over an electric bicycle rider rider and appeared to be booking him.  It certainly wouldn't be for speeding.  Other than the cop's bike, I only saw one other internal combusion-engined bike in Shanghai - a 1250cc Suzuki.  Everything else on 2 wheels was electric-powered - scooters by their thousands.  It would seem to be a deliberate policy to reduce pollution.

Let's have a look at your details, lad!

Separate lanes for scooters and bicycles - protective gear doesn't appear to be a requirement

That ends our stay in Shanghai and the next day was  a flight to Wuhan to begin the Yangtze cruise.  However, before starting on that, some general thoughts.   

It really was a great surprise to see how quickly China was modernising with great architecture and infrastructure which would match the best anywhere. Clearly, positive steps were being taken to address automotive pollution issues.  Driving standards were interesting.  When changing lanes, indicators were rarely used but everyone kept a decent gap.  It seemed accepted practice and apparently, there's no road rage. Young Chinese in particular dressed the same as young people in the west and all had mobile phones glued to their ears.  Everyone we met was friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. Food was outstanding.  We love Asian food anyway but the variety available would suit most tastes.  We tried some "unusual" food items just to say we'd done it and suffered no adverse consequences at all!

Oh, and a comment about using the internet.  China has some restrictions on what can be accessed through the internet, partially or largely due to the current trade sanction tit for tat with the US.  I was aware of this before leaving NZ and knew that it would affect my Gmail account.  I therefore installed a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on my phone to get round the problem.  I chose Express VPN as it got good reviews.  It worked just fine in Shanghai but for the rest of the trip, it was either patchy or non-existent.  Disappointing, but given the relatively low cost; not a really big deal.  

Bye bye, Shanghai!


Next - on to Wuhan.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

One for the Engineers or Techos amongst us

It's 11 years since I retired and a lot longer than that since I practised as a professional engineer.  However, once an engineer........  (accompanied by eye-rolling from my long-suffering wife), I can't just jump on a bike and ride the bloody thing.  Can't shut down the need to know a lot more about it - mostly stuff that is relatively unimportant and irrelevant to most of the human race and normal, sane people.  However, when we meet up with another rider who has similar inclinations, just try and shut us up!  Lifelong friendships have been forged with less of a bond.

This post is predominantly for Lee - friend, fellow IAM member and ENGINEER.  He posed some technical questions in the comments section of the previous post.  However, anyone without technical inclinations is most welcome to skip it.  And if you're a female, I am immune to eye-rolling and exasperated sighs as I've had 47 years of it from my beloved!

Bike forums are often known for opinion without facts to back them up.  My immediate mental response to that sort of comment is a grumpy "Where's the evidence?"  However, a recent forum post was about instrument errors on motorcycles.  By comparing speedo readings with those on my GPS, I knew that the speedo on my GSX-S 1000 was 8 km/hr fast at 100 km/hr.  I was immediately curious about the KTM so set off on the day before Good Friday to have a bit of fun and collect some data using the GPS as a reference point.

Bad Girl Lola at Kuaotunu, Coromandel Peninsula

The KTM has heaps of information on its TFT screen and even more info in a whole series of drop-down menus.  I was particularly interested in the accuracy of the speedo, odometer and fuel consumption.  Fuel consumption is influenced by all sorts of factors, not the least being your right wrist so I just rode how I normally do, switching between Street Mode and Sport Mode depending on road and traffic conditions.  I wasn't all that interested in absolute consumption, just what the instrumentation was telling me compared with fuel actually topped up at the end of the ride and distance covered according to the GPS.  Sad and nerdy person that I am, it was quite interesting.  I need to get out more.....

The main screen of the KTM 
(The range isn't really 720 km, it changes as soon as you get rolling)

These are the readings from a 170 km round trip on twisty roads.  Bike instrumentation compared against my Garmin GPS.

Speedometer:  Reads approximately 5% more than the GPS and looks pretty linear from a series of readings at various speeds.  At an indicated 190 km/hr, the GPS reads a little under 180 km/hr.  This particular reading is theoretical, you understand!

Trip Odometer:  Reads 6.6% more than the GPS.

Fuel consumption:  Bike instrumentation shows 8.9% more optimistic economy than the GPS distance divided by the actual fuel taken to top up the tank at the end of the ride.  True fuel consumption with a mix Street and Sport modes was 4.61 lt/100 km for the trip.  This looks about right for the 270-300 km that I expect from a full tank on an average journey without hammering but "making progress".

Just out of interest, compare this consumption with that of the GSX-S 1000.  On similar journeys, it used to drink 5.5 lt/100km.  On a trackday which Lee and I did in 2018, it was nearly double that consumption figure.  Lee's contention is that a combination of modern technology and Euro 5 emissions legislation is making modern engines more fuel efficient.  I don't think that there's much doubt about that and other factors such as power to weight ratio, gearing, drag coefficient all have a bearing on consumption.  Then there's external factors such as road conditions and your right wrist!

I'll repeat the experiment again on some longer future trip.

The other thing I recently tested was the headlight.  This is the first bike I've owned with an LED headlight.  Its angular or insectoidal-shape also made me wonder how good it was going to be in lighting up twisty roads out in the countryside with no ambient lighting.  We have nothing in NZ that's going to eat your face if you run into it, but collecting a sheep, cow or deer is going to sting a bit and spoil your day.

Based on a praying mantis or Alien from the movie?


 Full beam in daylight - bright!

Heading from Coromandel village to Whitianga township after dark is a good test as there's virtually no artificial lighting between them and lots of tight corners and elevation changes.  I'm delighted to report that forward illumination was really good and side illumination (road verges) was also good.  The latter was far better than I was expecting, given the headlight shape.  The following photos don't really do the headlight justice in reality but they do show that the important bits show up just fine.

Top of the Coromandel -Whangapoua hill.  Wet roads

Long Bay Road - good side illumination as well as distance

Naturally, lighting can always be improved with spotlights and the like.  However, I've done 5 NZ equivalents of the Iron Butt 1600 km in under 24 hour endurance rides on previous bikes.  There's around 11 or 12 hours of riding in the dark on mostly twisty unlit roads.  My yardstick is would I be happy riding in one of those events on the KTM?  The answer is yes - no problem at all.

If your eyes have glazed over after reading that lot, I apologise.  You can have a rest now as for part of May and June, Jennie and I will hopefully be having an excellent adventure in China and Hong Kong!

Fun in the sun