July 14, 2015

Washington, DC

So what was the Big Trip all about? What did we learn? Why did we do this in the first place? Did it live up to our expectations?

From Embry:

It has been an absolutely amazing trip, a trip of a lifetime, of course. (Who would ever do this more than once?) We have enjoyed experiencing it together and sharing all these wonderful experiences and memories.

  • It has made our marriage better and stronger.
  • It has provided a welcome “slowing down” and “growing into retirement” phase for both of us, especially for me.
  • It has stimulated a creative burst of energy for Joe through his blogging (perhaps leading to another book).
  • It has vastly increased our understanding of the world we live in, both the similarities between all members of the human race and the wonderful differences in the way they live their lives.

We will never forget how great it was, and never regret that we spent these four months together, as we ease into a new phase of our lives.

From Joe:

The idea of going around the world without flying was Embry’s. It sounded a bit crazy to me at first. Then I slowly warmed to it and got involved in the planning. This would be an adventure. We would see and do things we had never seen or done before. We would learn a lot about the world and about ourselves, and we would have surprises and stories to tell. And we would do something that few people, especially people our age, do (and perhaps for good reason). And if we were ever going to do anything like this, we needed to do it soon. Once you reach age 70, whether you admit it or not, you are in a countdown mode.

Part of idea was the challenge. Maybe the motivation was similar to why people climb mountains or cross oceans on sailboats or run marathons, or shoot class four rapids, or bike across the U.S. You don’t do it because it is easy and fun but for the opposite reason: because it is a challenge. Frankly, if you want to make a list of pluses and minuses about the Big Trip, this one is near the top of my plus list; but if truth be told, it did not come close to the examples just cited. This is something people our age (in decent health) can do with some planning, the right attitude (flexibility, tolerance and patience) and a bit of luck that nothing goes wrong. Looking back on it now, for us it was not all that hard.

We were fortunate in many ways. The trip had a lot of moving parts and connections that if missed could have thrown a monkey wrench into the machinery. We made every one of the connections, thanks in large part to two fabulous travel agents—D’Lane Maselunas for the European and Atlantic legs and Rebecca Mazzaro (Asia TransPacific) for China. All the hotels they booked were excellent, some fabulous. All the train bookings overseas worked out without a glitch. Most impressive, every train (out of at least twenty-five train connections) was on time, except in the US, of course, when our train from DC to Ft. Lauderdale was (only) an hour, and a half late and the train leaving Seattle was another one and a half hours late, arriving in Chicago eight hours late, par for the course we learned. The guides that assisted us in Russia and China were also excellent—dependable, professional, hard working and (mostly) knowledgeable.

The people we met along the way were friendly and kind to us two senior travelers. Without being asked, someone always helped us get our heavy luggage on and off the trains, never expecting or asking for anything in return. Help was always there when we needed it.

We would not change the overall itinerary. While traveling around the globe without flying sounds like you see a lot, we actually visited only eight countries (not counting the U.S. or Portugal, where our cruise ship stopped briefly in Madera). So when I make sweeping statements about the nature of the Planet Earth, it needs to be put into context. We have visited a whole bunch of other countries over the years (India, Vietnam, Thailand, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Jordan, many South and Central American countries, and most of the other countries in Europe), so we have additional traveling experience that colors some of our observations about this trip. But the fact is we really just touched the surface on this journey.

The countries we did visit, however, were good ones. They were huge (Russia and China), had had rich histories (all of them) and were all struggling with important issues.

Here are some concluding, summary observations. For those who have read every blog entry (bravo!), not much may be new, but hopefully it will put things in perspective. For those who have picked up snippets here and there, this may fill in some holes:

The Atlantic Crossing. This probably turned out to be the best value of the entire trip with a cost approximately the same as that of the Pacific Crossing on a container ship, about $100 per person per day. The big challenge, of course, was to avoid gaining a pound a day, as is the average for cruise ship passengers. We are generally not big fans of cruise ships, probably because of Embry’s Presbyterian upbringing and my love of sailing, but thoroughly enjoyed this way to get across the Atlantic. We would recommend it to anyone.

Spain. We spent about three weeks in Spain, most of the time in Valencia where we exchanged homes with the Parello family. The highlight for us were the famous parades during Holy Week, “Semana Santa.” The three parades, reflecting the moods of Maundy Thursday (Last Supper), Good Friday and Easter Sunday, embodied a universal spirituality that transcended Roman Catholicism. Other highlights in Spain were the excellent restaurant meals, the best we had on the whole trip, the beauty and charm of the historic areas, the dynamism and excitement of Madrid, despite the distressed state of the economy with high debt and high unemployment, and the friendliness of the population even though language was a barrier. In Spain we first encountered graffiti on a large scale, especially in Valencia, which signaled, to me anyway, that all was not well in Europe. In Madrid, of course, my wallet was stolen in something like the first two minutes we wandered out of our hotel. When I tell people I had it in my back pocket, the response usually is, “Well of course it was stolen in Madrid. What did you expect?” The final thing about Spain that stands out is that there was virtually no mention of the Spanish Civil War or the period under Franco.

France. The main purpose of the two-week French connection was visiting close friends—Embry’s “French sister,” Mireille, in Paris and our French sister-in-law, Martine, in Brittany. Both experiences were bittersweet because we do not know when we will see them again, and we are all getting up there in years. Some of us have health issues. Paris really captured me this time. Though I had been there at least a half dozen times, this time I really fell in love with it again and realized why it is the world’s most captivating city. We probably averaged walking close to ten miles a day, enjoying the fine spring weather and the street atmosphere that is uniquely Paris. Running into Josie and Melissa from All Souls Church was a special treat and surprise. Brittany was also special. There is nothing more beautiful than the French countryside, and no countryside in France more beautiful than the maritime countryside with its huge tidal variations, tidal estuaries and deep green pastures and fields. The best part of the French leg, of course, was spending time with people we love.

Germany. The only stop in Germany was a four-day visit to Berlin where we met our close friends, John and Grace Curry, now living in Ashville, who flew over to join us for this leg. This was the first time that I had visited Berlin, and the city lived up to its reputation as one of the most dynamic and exciting in the world. What impressed us most was the how the city had been totally rebuilt from the massive destruction of World War II and how tasteful and, in many instances, spectacular the architecture was. Though to a local person there probably remain big differences, as a tourist I was not able to discern what was formerly East Berlin from West Berlin. Most significant was how the Germans have not swept the Nazi period under the rug. There is a Holocaust Museum and plenty of information about this horrific period.

Poland. Warsaw was our first “transformation city.” Embry had been there in the late 1980s with her mother, who accompanied her on a Cathedral Choral Society/Charlotte Symphony concert tour, only a couple of years before the Berlin Wall came down. The city then was drab and gray with few places to eat, not much food on the grocery shelves, and pretty dismal. On this trip, while it was not as vibrant as Berlin, compared to what it was 35 years earlier and from the view of our Western eyes, it was thriving. (Interestingly our Polish captain of the Hanjin Copenhagen disputed that life is better since job security is not what it used to be and the safety net has shrunk.) The old section of the city had been fully restored and new high-rise buildings have gone up downtown. Restaurants and retail stores were everywhere. We joined John and Grace in attending the parade and daylong ceremonies honoring the Polish constitution, and the large crowds seemed happy and proud to be Polish. The second day there John and I took a day trip to Auschwitz, a moving experience that I have described in the blog. Talk about resilience and perseverance! Few nations have endured the hardships they have and have come back time after time.

Russia. We said goodbye to the Curries and made our way via overnight train through Belarus to Moscow. Embry and I had been here in 1993 and were not prepared for the total transformation that had occurred here as well, with all the new high-rises, fancy shops and malls. We watched with some trepidation as the soldiers, tanks and missile launchers paraded in front of our hotel during the commemoration of the Soviet Union’s defeating the Germans in the “Great Patriotic War.” Sidewalks were jammed with onlookers cheering their country and Mr. Putin. The real highlight of the Russian leg, however, was the great Siberian Railroad Journey across the country ending up in Beijing, a little over two weeks later. We were one of five Americans among the 100 passengers, mainly from Europe, and half the fun was getting to know many of them. The side trips every day exposed us to typical Siberian cities, most of them with populations around a million, not the kind of cities that you would want to live in necessarily—still a bit drab, frigid in the winter, scorching hot in the summer—but you got the feeling the Russians were really trying to move forward. The vastness and beauty of the Siberian landscape was to us as stunning as it was in 1993 with very few changes in the villages, which still looked forlorn and forgotten.

You did get the feeling that the country remains in a kind of malaise, saddened by the loss of world status and uncertain of the future. Good leadership will be critical in helping Russia find its new position in the world. Putin continues to be popular, especially when he rattles the nationalism cages, and for us Westerners he is a bit scary. Let’s cross our fingers that they can get it together without creating more world conflict.

Mongolia. Still on the Siberian Railroad tour, we spent three days passing through Mongolia, a vast and empty country of nomads and high plains, squeezed between two monster countries, Russia and China, neither of which they trust. During the Russian Communist era, they were a vassal state, which Stalin did his best to destroy. This was the scene of Embry’s ger (“yurt”) experience. Another highlight was our train’s pausing on the Gobi Desert at 5:00 am when our train was greeted by camel herders. Musicians with ancient stringed instruments sat in the sand playing ancient tunes as the sun rose to turn the desert first orange and then yellow.

China. We spent almost a month in this extraordinary country and for good reason. The story of China’s emergence in the last 30 years as a modern, economic powerhouse is one of the biggest stories of the last half century and probably of all time. A large number of blog posts were devoted to what we saw and experienced there. In a word, it was overwhelming. I was in China in 1986 when there was no such thing as a high-rise building and no experience in building new buildings or transportation infrastructure.

The number and size of apartment and office buildings in every city we visited stunned us. China’s trains were all on time, and about half the trains we took averaged over 180 miles an hour. Train stations were the size of our airline terminals. Their metro system was the equivalent of what you can find in London or Moscow but newer, faster and more pleasant. Over the past 25 years hundreds of millions of people have risen out of poverty. Their problems related to over building, over investment, and their shaky stock market are headlines in the U.S. but you can’t help feeling that with their can-do spirit and optimism, they will come through it. Many problems remain, the environmental issue probably being number one. How they handle this one affects not only the Chinese but also the rest of the world. We all need to hope and pray that they succeed.

The Pacific Crossing. As blog readers know, I was dreading this leg, fearful that we would be cooped up in a tiny room with our one porthole blocked by containers and bored to tears. The accommodations turned out to be great, and the three portholes were not blocked until the last couple of days. The food was pretty good and our traveling companions interesting, nice people, albeit a bit eccentric. After all, it is not your “average Joe” that travels on container ships. With the various DVDs of “Seinfeld” and “House of Cards,” time for writing, and our late afternoon cocktail hours, we made the most of it. I continue to marvel about how they get 5,600 containers off the ship and 5,600 new ones loaded back on in less than 24 hours. Many people have told me the blogs about the Pacific Crossing were their favorite.

Would we recommend a container ship for a world traveler? Yes, provided you view this as a means of getting across the ocean rather than a vacation. There is also the risk of having incompatible traveling companions and blocked portholes. It also appears than within the next few years, most officers will be Chinese and most crews from countries besides the Philippines. We may have slipped in at the end of an era.

The US Great Train Ride. Well, even though we were eight hours late getting to Chicago, the scenery was great and the Amtrak hospitality surprisingly improved from what is was several years before. Most of the people we met were friendly with interesting stories. Still, you have to ask yourself the question, how come all the trains we took in Europe and Asia were on time and why does the situation seem to be getting worse in the U.S..

So what to make of all this? For me three themes and one question have emerged from this experience:

Theme One: Suffering and Resilience.

When you travel through the eight countries we did, you can’t miss how sad and tragic life has been in each of the countries we visited. It stares you in the face.

You can’t miss hearing about the wars and hardships that have taken place on the soil of each country. Spain was in constant wars with France and England. There were the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews, the Inquisition, the Spanish Civil War, and Franco. In France there were wars with Spain and England, the French Revolution, Napoleon and World Wars I and II. The part of Europe now called Germany was the heart of the Thirty Years War, and the two World Wars, Hitler, the Holocaust, and the partition of the country in the Cold War. Poland suffered from all these events as well. One of my blog posts describes our experience at Auschwitz, which was on their soil. Russia, of course, is right up there at the top with hundreds of years of serfdom, both World Wars, the latter accounting for over 20 million deaths and another 20 million during communism. Mongolia and China—they too have had their ups and downs with dynasties rising and falling, civil wars, the Russian Communist dominance of Mongolia, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in World War II, the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. No country we visited had escaped.

But it is not only about the wars. We heard about the injustices and excesses that in many cases were the cause of these wars in the first place—serfdom, enormous gaps between the few who are rich and the many who are poor, corruption and graft in major institutions like government and the Church, human greed and raw ambition. Individual stories and histories follow the same pattern with way too much suffering for way too many people.

Nor does the US get off the hook. We have our own history of human suffering and misery: how we treated the Native Americans, slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and great disparities in wealth and income.

It is not a pretty picture, the histories of countries. What is it about us humans? Why do we have such a hard time dealing fairly with each other? Why is life so difficult for some people, often through no fault of their own? The millions of young men and women who died in all these wars were just doing their jobs, what they were ordered to do because their leaders could not resolve problems peacefully. Their deaths were not caused by their own shortcomings. Natural disasters, illness and ultimately death: it is part of  what we experience as humans.

But fortunately, this is not the whole picture. We humans are also resilient. We come back. We don’t throw in the towel. We move on. That is also the story of what saw and experienced on this trip. Just think about it. Every one of the eight countries we visited, by comparison to what they were experiencing 100 or even 50 years ago, is doing so much better now. There was unemployment, stagnant economies and discontent to one degree or another in the countries we visited in Europe and Russia, but compared to where they were a half century or so ago, what a comeback!

And what about China? Who would have thought even 30 years ago that if you wanted to find some of the world’s tallest buildings, fastest trains, and most expensive shops, China is where you would go in 2015? This is “communism” today in China. They have their challenges too, especially in governance, overinvestment, and pollution, but compared to where China was in the 1950s and 60s, what a success story! Indeed, times have changed.

So the message here is good news. Despite our human frailty and ability to mess things up big time, we seem to have equal ability to get back on track, sadly often leaving in our wake sadness and human suffering beyond measure. That seems to be the way life works on the Planet Earth. That is why “ Tragedy and Resilience” is first on my list as to what I have learned on the Big Trip around the world.

Theme Two. One Destination, Many Pathways.

The theme, “One Destination, Many Pathways” is about religion. As many of you know I have always had an interest in religion. I stumbled my way through Union Theological Seminary in New York City, earning a M.Div. in 1968. I came close to becoming an ordained Episcopal priest. I have been an active Episcopalian most of my adult life, serving in virtually every capacity available to a layperson at one time or another. I routinely present a four or five part lecture series on early church history and theology at All Souls Episcopal Church, our neighborhood parish. You might say I have paid my dues.

So what does one who comes from the Christian Protestant tradition make of the religious practices we observed on our Big Trip? In Valencia we witnessed one of the most moving religious events I have ever seen, the sort-of-Catholic “Semana Santa.” We also attended the Easter service at the large Roman Catholic Cathedral there and throughout the Big Trip witnessed numerous religious services besides Roman Catholic and Protestant—Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim. We did not witness the practice of Hinduism on this trip but saw plenty of Hinduism when we were in India a few years earlier.

What is a Protestant Christian supposed to make of all this? Aren’t we supposed to have it right? If we are right in what we believe, how can they be right too? In the Episcopal Church we say the Nicene Creed at every Eucharist, which pretty much says, this is the way it is, and if you don’t believe it, you are flat out wrong and not one of us. Certainly among most Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians, “my way or the highway” is central to their belief. That is what evangelism is all about—to convert to what you believe those who are worshipping false gods or who have no religion or do not believe what you believe. So how do you size up what these other religions or forms of worship are all about as you move from country to country and observe people of different faiths kneeling, bowing, burning incense and praying with what would appear to be great piety and sincerity?

For me anyway, this answer to this question is a no-brainer: there is one destination, many pathways. In fact I have trouble figuring out how anyone who made the journey we did and saw people worshipping in different ways—but also strangely similar in some ways like candles, incense, bowing, kneeling, chanting, and praying—could conclude otherwise. This has been my understanding of religion for a long time, and this trip has underscored and confirmed for me what is the obvious.

We as humans have the brain capacity to ask the basic questions: why are we here? What is the meaning of our short life on this planet? Why do we humans suffer? How do we find “an abiding sense of well being” (the words of our mystic companion on the container ship, Ron)? Religion is the process of coming up with the answers and–unlike philosophy, its first cousin– putting the “answers” into action by what we do and say. Of course, religion takes different paths because we are all influenced by what our experience has been, our culture, and our way of looking at the world. And, of course, our experiences and cultures are not the same.

Two questions come to mind. First, does this mean that all religious paths have validity and therefore that nobody has the Absolute Truth? My answer is basically yes. We are all searching. No one has a lock on Absolute Truth, and if we did, then we would be God. To believe that you are right and everyone who does not see things your way is wrong is arrogant and if taken to the extreme, blasphemy.

That said, I do not believe that all religions are the same, and that while I believe that many spiritual paths are valid, all aren’t. The religions that are exclusive, that preach hate over love, that are intolerant, and that deny human responsibility for helping others are false religions. They can be found in all faiths. We know who they are—ISIS and Islamic terrorists, “Christian” hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists , and intolerant and hateful religious groups of all types. They are present in every religion and every faith and in my view are invalid and an evil force on this planet.

The second question is this: If there are no absolutes that humans can truly grasp, then why bother? We bother because we do not have a choice. We have brains, which ask the question, why. That is the blessing and curse of our humanity. Just because we do not fully grasp or fully understand Absolute Truth does not mean we don’t get glimpses of it every now and then. And chances are that if you are following a path, you have a better chance of getting a glimpse or a taste than if you are not. And many of us do not have a choice anyway, simply because we are human. This is the second lesson I have learned as we made our way around the world on the Big Trip.

Theme Three: Lifeboats, Not Battleships.

When you travel around the world as we did, you can come to either of two conclusions: the world is very large or the world is very small. Despite the eight-day Atlantic crossing and the 18-day Pacific crossing, I see the world as being pretty small and getting smaller by the day. Countries are more dependent on each other than ever and more interconnected by trade, travel, tourism, and, more recently, their carbon footprint. What affects one country ends up affecting many.

Two major things have happened in my lifetime that make our current situation different from what human beings have experienced from time immemorial. First, since the mid 1940s we have had the capacity to destroy civilization through the use of nuclear weapons. Second, since the early 2000s we have witnessed rapid climate change that could ultimately change the planet in profound ways. For humans to stay on this planet long term, we have to get rid of all weapons of mass destruction and adjust our behavior to reduce global warming. The pollution we experienced in China suggests that we are closer to catastrophe than we think. We humans have to figure out some way to deal with these challenges in order for our species to survive on this planet.

That is why I suggest that we look at our predicament as being on a lifeboat where we all survive or go down together rather than being on a battleship where our goal is to blow up the enemy. The solution is cooperation, not conflict. What affects one affects all. To use a cliché, what is required is a new paradigm. More and more battleships will eventually result in disaster. We are already too close to a point of no return on the climate change and environmental issue. We have to work together, not against one another if we are going to make it.

Question: So Is The U.S. Still Number One?

Many in the U.S. still believe we are the best in everything—education, health care, living standards, governance,  quality of housing, and every other important measure you can think of. Well, when you see how other people live in other countries, you realize that this is simply not true. Western Europe has us beat on land use and urban design (but not on graffiti!), public transportation, the social safety net and on primary health care delivery. Other countries like Russia and Mongolia, which have made great strides in construction, are still behind us in many ways but struggling to catch up. Moscow’s metro system remains among the best in the world. Their love for the arts, music and classical culture is strong among all age groups. Ulan Bator is now thriving. We should wish them both luck.

China, of course, was the big story for me. China has moved by us fast on transportation and infrastructure and in the extraordinary building that has happened. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have come out of poverty, and the disparities between the rich and the poor are not as extreme as in the U.S.—at least not in the cities. There are no “slums” that we were able to see in any of the Chinese cities we visited. Also we did not see a single panhandler or homeless person during our month there. We did not even see any graffiti! There is in China a can-do attitude and an optimism that does not seem to exist in the U.S. right now or in Europe. As I described in my last blog post on China, they still have big challenges, do not have a democracy and curtail free speech and a free press. It is far from perfect. That said, I recall one conversation I had with one of our Chinese guides. It went something like this:

Guide: You have been asking a lot of questions about free speech and democracy in China. I have a couple of questions for you. How old is your country, around 250 years?

Me: Close to that.

Guide: Our culture is around 4,500 years old and our country about 2,500 years. We have had our ups and downs, been a dominant world power many times. We have never had a democracy. In the Chinese long view of things, this is a relatively new concept.

Me: Yes, but one that is worth trying.

Guide: Agreed, but give us a little room for now. We are a fragile country of 1.4 billion people. We can go only so far so fast.

A final observation is that the economic power on this planet seems to be shifting from the West to the East. While the U.S. will remain a major player as will Europe and Russia, Asia–primarily China and India–are becoming increasingly important and one day will have the final word as to how we do on the environmental question and how and whether we survive on the Planet Earth. Since they make up almost half of the world’s population, this figures. What has changed in the last few decades is that they have both have emerged as major world players and economic powerhouses. It soon will be their time. Maybe it already is.

So does this mean that we are no longer number one?

My first answer is that being number one is not important or the right question to ask. There are lots of countries and lots of ways of doing things, and countries are better at some things and worse at others. We need to do better in figuring out how all countries can benefit from the “best practices” that are found worldwide. You know the issues in the U.S.: aging infrastructure, poverty and income disparity, lingering racism, environmental issues, health care, education, urban blight, gun violence, lousy spending priorities, the Koch Brothers, and Citizens United. The list could go on. There is lots of room for us to do better.

Despite this litany of challenges, I believe we still stand out from the countries we visited in important ways. We are still seen by many abroad as the world’s last and best “land of opportunity.” People still view the U.S. as the one country where anyone can make it if they apply themselves and have some luck. People want to move here. We heard that large numbers of wealthy Chinese are sending their children to prep schools and to colleges in the U.S. There is a kind of freedom and perceived opportunity here that does not seem to exist elsewhere. I believe—and hope—they are right. Perhaps equally important with being a land of opportunity, we are becoming one of the most diverse countries in the world and far more diverse as to race and ethnicity than any of the countries we visited. This is something we should celebrate, not fear.

While our Democracy is messy, it remains the best type of government we humans have been able to come up with. China remains far behind on this one. Our Constitution provides vital protections for speech, association, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Our economic system is resilient and powerful. Many Americans fight hard for social change and social justice and do make progress from time to time. We have a great president. We have great artists and writers. We influence (for better or worse) a lot of the world’s  culture through our music and movies. We have a strong not-for-profit sector. We are a vast and beautiful country. We are, on the whole, generous people. We have a lot of blessings and much to be thankful for.

America is a great country. Yes, we have our problems and challenges. But there is no country I would rather live in, and I am deeply grateful that this is our home. It is great to be back!

And one last thanks for following us on the blog! We are honored and grateful. It has been quite a ride, as they say.


Note: Embry’s “lists” will follow shortly so  the blog posting is not completely over. Also if you have questions as to any practical aspects of the trip and travel planning, we would be pleased to answer them as best as we can. Finally, any closing comments  that YOU would like to post on the Big Trip blog  are welcomed and appreciated.

Homeward Bound

Day 109, July 6

Seattle, Washington

We arrived in Seattle on July 3 where we spent three days. It was a terrific three days! After saying our goodbyes, we left the ship at 9:15 am and were met by our old and dear friends, Rick (Embry’s first cousin) and Karen McMichael, who drove us to their home in Burien, a southern suburb of Seattle. We had visited them before and remembered that it was a beautiful home overlooking Puget Sound, but the spectacular views surprised us again.




The next three days were a whirlwind. That afternoon we drove to see Mount Rainier, where I was struck with how racially and ethnically diverse our country is compared to those we visited. That was followed by dinner at a great seafood restaurant on the sound. The Fourth of July we visited the Pike Street Market and the sculpture museum in the morning, then that evening viewed the fireworks from the highest hill in Seattle. On Sunday, July 5, we accompanied Rick and Karen to Southminster Presbyterian Church, a small, family-oriented, very friendly church, with a screen and projector for Power Point accompaniment to the sermon and hymns, then lunch at their house with my old friend from my Japan trip in 1962, Libby, and her husband, Don.


That evening we enjoyed a steak cookout on their secluded back deck, and the next morning a three mile hike down to the park on the sound beneath their house before having lunch at a neighborhood bar/restaurant and heading off to the train station. There we met George Wright, a colleague and good friend of Embry’s from Mathematica days, and his wife, Diana, for a mini reunion, most of which was spent in the waiting room of the Amtrak station, talking about old times and what these two activists and reformers had been up to in Seattle. It was quite a three days and great to be back in the U.S.!

Karen dropped us off at the Seattle train station around 2:00 pm so we could meet George and Diana, but at 7:45 pm we were still waiting for our train, The Empire Builder, which had been scheduled to leave at 4:40 pm. When we returned to the station around four o’clock after coffee with George and Diana , there was a long line to board the 4:40 train to Chicago but no Amtrak employee at the counter. I waited until it was close to boarding time. There was no announcement and no sign of Amtrak personnel anywhere. A national parks guide who would be joining us on the train had alerted us that there might be a problem and that late departures were not unusual. If fact, he said that it was rare for an Amtrak train to leave on time from this location or for that matter, any location. That there was no information about The Empire Builder at the time of departure, I thought a little odd.


At five o’clock, almost a half hour after the scheduled departure time, a woman wearing a blue uniform casually wandered into the waiting room and at the top of her lungs announced there was an unexplained delay. You could leave the line if you wanted but be back in the station by five-thirty. It was very difficult to make out what she was saying when she reappeared every half hour or so to provide updates, but as best we could tell, the situation was this: the reason for the delay was that our original train was several hours late due to equipment problems—it had been due around noon—and when it did finally arrive, it had to be diverted to replace another train which had broken down. They were waiting for a third train which could have been diverted to take the passengers to Chicago, but unfortunately there were some issues with that train as well. More information would follow.

By seven o’clock, however, there was good news. One of the broken down trains had made it the station, but additional repairs needed to be made. No further information was available. Another Amtrak employee dressed in blue yelled out they were opening the doors to the waiting room to provide some relief from the oppressive heat (since there was no air conditioning in the station), but if anyone tried to leave through those doors they would not be allowed to come back inside the station. I was wondering why there was no PA system, why no information displayed anywhere about trains and why all the trains were breaking down.

“Happens all the time,” the person standing next to me said. When we inquired about the chances about making our connection in Chicago, he responded, “Never count on making a connection on an Amtrak train. If you are making a connection, always give yourself at least a day, ideally two days.”

As we stood around complaining that we would miss all the great scenery in the Cascades since it would be dark, someone else chimed in that it was not always Amtrak’s fault because Amtrak really was dependent on the freight train companies like BNSF, which owned the tracks. Even if by some miracle they could fix the train that broke down that was supposed to replace the train that also had broken down that was supposed to be used to assist another train that had broken down, you still had to get the ok from cargo train companies to find a time slot. Another person said that we should be grateful the trains were running at all since last week the tracks were shut down for the entire week due to forest fires.

Welcome to passenger rail transportation in the U.S.!

As a point of reference, we had some 25 different train connections in the nine countries we visited in Europe, Asia, and China. Every one of them was on time to the minute.


Suddenly a few minutes after eight, the Amtrak representative shouted something unintelligible, and everyone rushed to get a spot in line. By 8:30 pm, The Empire Builder had left the station–only four hours late, leaving us scant hope for making a two hour connection in Chicago– and we were ensconced in our tiny two-seat/bed sleeper “roomette.” Because we got off to such a late start, as we had feared, we missed all of the spectacular scenery of the Cascade Mountains, which we passed in the dark.



Day 110

July 7

On Tuesday, July 7, our train passed through the Rockies beginning around seven in the morning and lasting through noon. While it was foggy and rainy with limited visibility, the scenery was still spectacular with clouds and mist creating a magical effect. It reminded us a lot of the China trip from X’ian to Chengdu over the mountains.


I could not help mentioning to the nice Amtrak attendant who was our “carriage assistant” that all the other trains we took on our trip around the world were on time. With a disgusted look on her face she groaned, “Budget cuts. Gets worse every year. Layoffs, equipment failures. Nothing we can do about it.”

We later learned that The Empire Builder, the train that was “only” four hours late, was traveling with one less car than it was supposed to have, due, naturally, to equipment failure, meaning that there would not be enough seats for all the passengers (all of whom, of course, had reserved seats and had paid their money). The “solution” was to partially convert the dining car to a passenger car and to allow people to sit in the aisles or to stand.

After several meals with other passengers, we came to understand that the problem was not Amtrak. It was our mistaken assumption that trains were primarily a form of transportation. Our fellow passengers reminded us that trains in the U.S. have nothing to do with getting from point A to point B except in the Northeast Corridor. If a traveler actually wanted to go somewhere, he or she would drive or take a plane. The purposes of taking a train in the U.S. are sight seeing and adventure. Of all the people we talked to, only one couple had traveled on an Amtrak train that was actually on time, but because trains were for other purposes our fellow passengers were not upset. For example, a Boston couple, originally from Korea, spent their previous nine days traveling all over the U.S. by train, and no train was less than four hours late. It did not bother them all that much though the husband did say they would never take a train again outside of the Washington-Boston corridor. Another couple our age from Iowa experienced two delays coming from the Midwest to Seattle, a 12 hour delay due to a freight train derailing directly ahead of their train and a six hour delay due to the train engineer exceeding his daily time limit of hours allowed to drive the train. Since the assistant engineer had been laid off due to budget cuts, they had no choice but to park the train on a side track until a replacement engineer could be found. No one seemed particularly bothered. This was Amtrak. This was what you expected.

While this description was not exactly accurate—later in the trip we did talk to several people who lived in small towns along the route who actually did use the train to get from point A to point B—it probably did apply to the majority of passengers.


I suppose you could say that our “problem” was that we had been in countries in Europe and Asia where passenger trains were actually used for transportation and where trains were the preferred means of getting around, compared to cars and planes. I suppose we knew all this about U.S. trains before our trip but had forgotten. In any event once we got the paradigm right, we could begin to enjoy the trip across the country by rail, the last leg of our journey.

I also must give Amtrak credit where it is due. The Amtrak staff were courteous, friendly and efficient—a vast improvement from what it was like when we took the train from DC to Savannah several years before. They worked hard and tried hard to please. Some of the food was not that bad either. The train cars or “carriages” as they are often called, were designed well and in reasonably good shape. There was also a club car with an observation roof. So Amtrak is making an effort. Several people told us that problems related to equipment failure and delays were for the most part beyond Amtrak’s control due primarily to insufficient government financial support (which is present in all the countries with good rail systems that we visited) and to the freight train companies calling all the shots on track usage.



The Empire Builder chugged along. Eventually the high mountains and mist gave way to foothills and partly cloudy skies, and then to prairie with occasional cows and horses grazing, followed by endless wheat fields. Our country is as vast and beautiful as any we visited. In fact the grasslands looked very much like the steppes of Mongolia and the plains of Siberia and the mountains in the mist, a lot like China. What made the view different from what we saw in Europe and Asia was the absence of anything similar to the small villages that dotted the landscape. In fact it was surprising how few houses of any type we saw. Somebody was growing all this wheat and raising cattle, but it was not apparent where they lived. That changed after Havre, Montana, when small farm houses and mobile homes started to appear, but whoever lived in them was not making a fortune. Some of the homes were close to falling apart. We learned later that most of the poor housing was on Indian reservations.


While the train was jammed packed with not enough seats to accommodate everyone, that did not seem to keep people from having a good time. Our fellow passengers seemed relaxed and happy, and everyone we talked to said they were really enjoying the journey. There were lots of families with kids of all ages, a good number of grandparents, and retired people like us. A fairly large group–25 or 30 people–were Amish, who we later learned used this train all the time because they do not take airplanes. It was a Middle American kind of crowd though not very diverse as to race or ethnicity, so in that sense not really representative of our country. But it felt good finally to be on The Empire Builder and good to be going home.



Day 111

July 8

The question for today was when might we expect to arrive in Chicago and would we make our two-hour connection to the train going to Washington. We woke up to rain and clouds and vast green fields of soybeans, alfalfa, and corn. I assumed we must be in Minnesota. At breakfast we learned that this was not Minnesota. In fact we had not yet reached Fargo, South Dakota, and now were officially running more than eight hours behind schedule. We were told this was due not to equipment failure, the usual culprit, but to having to “give way” to an unusually high number of freight trains. Also there was rumor of a car parked on the tracks.

We sat with two members (mother and teenage daughter) of a family from a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin, who used the train regularly to visit parents and grandparents in Montana. Of the dozen or so trips they had taken over the years, the train had never been on time but usually was only an hour or two late, often as much as four hours, but nothing like this, though the mother talked about delays of as much as 12 or even 24 hours that her parents had endured. Every year, she said, it seemed to be getting a little worse.

The Empire Builder chugged along during afternoon and evening as we sat in the club car, listened to a “Rails and Trails” Park Service volunteer talk about the history of the area, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The grass became greener and trees reappeared along with crops of corn and soybeans. When we reached the Minnesota we traveled alongside the Mississippi River into Saint Paul and then followed the river toward Milwaukee. There were more small farms than we had seen before, many of them fairly prosperous. The light of the late afternoon sun was spectacular. Travel guides describe the journey as being special when you cross the Cascades and the Rockies, but actually the scenery is quite beautiful the entire trip. You certainly can begin to get a feel for just how big—and how beautiful—our country is. We were sorry when twilight came and then darkness with four more hours to ride without being able to see the landscape.


When we finally rolled into Chicago at midnight, it was raining. We were exactly on time to the minute according to the estimate we received at breakfast that morning—but a full eight hours behind the original schedule. Everyone on the train with a connection to another location was stranded.

Now you might think that this would raise some questions as to why in the richest and most powerful country in the world our trains would run eight hours behind schedule, and in every other country we visited the trains ran exactly on time. Indeed, I had been asking that question throughout the entire journey on the Empire Builder. Embry, on the other hand, was loving every minute. This is what she had in mind a couple of years ago when she first had the idea of a trip around the world after she retired. I am not totally sure what she envisioned, but my image was that she would be traveling in a Third World country where nothing was reliable and she would just roll with the punches and see what happened. I had images of crowded buses, mired in mud in dirt highways in the Congo, third class hotels, backpacks, hitch hiking—activities making the experience truly authentic, but for a 20-year old, not a 70 year old! When I volunteered to join her last year, the concept changed from hardscrabble, third class to first class-all-the-way-baby. Embry was gracious to go along with me on this adjustment in concept and probably secretly was delighted to have a respectable way out of her fantasy. But now, on the last leg of the journey, she was having the experience she had longed for—an authentic, Third World experience where nothing was ever on time and you never knew what would happen next. She was in heaven.

An Amtrak employee came on the loudspeaker just before we pulled in and announced that everyone who had a connection that was messed up would have a hotel room, compliments of Amtrak. The remaining, bedraggled passengers stumbled off the train into a chilling drizzle and headed as directed to “passenger services” where after searching for the right place for awhile, we were met by a lone Amtrak employee. He herded us all into a large waiting room and motioned for us to sit down. I counted how many of us there were—over 150. No one complained, not even one grumble. A bunch of people sat on the floor because of a shortage of chairs including one guy in his thirties with two huge dogs, a German Shepherd and a dog that looked sort of like an enormous boxer. I had noticed him on the train as I passed through his car on the way to the observation lounge. The two animals were seated in the train’s passenger seats. He was seated on the floor.

Around 12:30 am, the Amtrak representative began calling out names. When you heard your name called, you reported to the office where you received your various vouchers—one for a taxi, another for the hotel and a $10 voucher for a fine dinner in Chicago, which could be used only inside Union Station where all restaurants , of course, were closed.

We were lucky. Our name was the third called. There were about 145 people behind us. It took about five minutes for a clerk to process one passenger, and only two clerks were on duty. I did the arithmetic and calculated that it would be well over two hours before the last, weary passengers had what they needed for the hotel. But that was, thankfully, not our problem as we rushed to the office, obtained the vouchers and boarded a cab at 12:45 am to take us to the hotel. At one in the morning we arrived at The Michigan Inn, which turned out to be the coup de grace for Embry. The lobby was shabby and plain but clean, the carpets in the halls wrinkled, torn wall paper along hall corridors, dirt marks on the walls, busted toe rails, and the rooms pretty bare, but clean.

When we checked in, the clerk had us fill out a form which asked for reason for using the hotel—tourist, vacation, business or “distressed Amtrak passenger.” We marked “distressed Amtrak passenger.”

“This is terrific!” Embry exclaimed. “It is just like being in Africa!”

So this turned out to be one of the best legs of the trip for Embry, a taste of what her original idea of the trip around the world might have been like, a great way to end our Big Trip. I had to agree. Her original plan might not have been all that bad.

However, does it strike anyone as ironic that our authentic “Third World experience” occurred on the Empire Builder and in the city of Chicago in the United States of America?



Day 112

July 10


We checked our email to find a confirmation of a booking leaving at 6:40 pm, the same train we should have been on the day before. We made the best of it by visiting the AT&T store and getting a SIM for my iPhone that I had purchased in Paris to replace the one that was stolen and fixing Embry’s email, which had stopped working. Then we met the former rector of All Soul’s Church, John David van Dooren, for lunch at the Corner Bakery near our hotel. It was a special treat to see this extraordinary Episcopal priest and good friend. He and his partner, Gary, have settled into Chicago where they both have great jobs. John David’s church is a thriving, (mainly) blue collar, very diverse, Anglo Catholic church, and Gary is assistant principle at a Chicago public elementary school.

After lunch we took a cab to the station where we sat outside in the sun and caught up with email before the train left, this time miraculously on time.


Day 113

July 10


The most interesting thing about our last day was breakfast with a tall, bearded guy from Southern California probably in his mix 40s, using a cane. He had a gold cross around his neck and we thought at first he might be Amish since there were a number of Amish passengers on the train. He was Christian but a member of an “extremely conservative” non denominational church. We pretty much got his life history. He was divorced, unemployed and going to South Carolina from California to visit his elderly mother. He had been involved in “not really legal” activities as a young adult but converted to Christianity when his father died and cleaned up his life, working at Wal-Mart on the night shift for some 20 years before retiring with disability due to a shoulder injury and epilepsy. He was obsessed with “upholding the constitution,” was home schooling his teenage son, and was a strong supporter of Ted Cruz. He was considering joining a Christian militia. His big complaint was the government giving a free ride to people who do not work. We listened attentively and resisted the temptation to point out that by receiving disability payments, he too was in fact receiving government assistance. When I asked him if the Christian militia had used their guns, his response was “not yet,” with an usually strong emphasis on the last word.

The train traveled along valleys and streams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia where streams were near flood stage, and the landscape was a deep green. Rail and Trail volunteers joined the train in West Virginia and provided a historical commentary as we chugged along to Maryland and then DC. When you get down to it, this part of the world is as beautiful as any we visited.

Hold your hats! Big news! Amtrak “Train 30” arrived on time at Washington’s Union Station at 1:00 pm on Friday, July 10, 2015. Our Big Trip was officially over. We were met in the station by our nephew, Alex, and our good friend, Naomi, who had been our house sitter for the time we were gone. Naomi produced a “Welcome Home” cake, which we enjoyed eating in the station before heading to Macomb Street.

What a trip it was! One more email will follow which will try to sum things up.

Many of you have been loyal and faithful followers to whom I am deeply grateful. Knowing that people were reading some or all of these posts kept us going. Several of you deserve special recognition: Embry’s older brother, Mike Martin, who is a writer, poet and artist and whose blog comments are themselves poetry; Bruce Swain, old friend from Davidson days, college writing and communications professor and our de facto writing coach, who has provided helpful and insightful suggestions and comments along the way, and both of our children, Andrew and Jessica, and their families who have been supportive of the blog effort, especially Andrew, who has cleaned up several of the posts and put in photos when our internet connections did not permit it. Thanks to each of you! And thanks to everyone else for following us.

Odd as this may seem, the blogging part of the Big Trip is near the top of my plus list. I loved doing it. And Embry did too. She also kept a detailed diary, which will add considerable depth and detail to a book effort if we ever get around to it. We would appreciate any thoughts you might have regarding whether you think the idea is worth pursuing.


So the Big Trip is over. It was Embry’s idea in the first place and a great adventure that would never have happened without her indefatigable spirit . We had a great time together and ended with a stronger marriage than before we began. So my greatest thanks goes out to her for her curiosity, free spirit, determination, honesty and most of all, for her love.

Stay tuned for one last blog post, which we will call “Reflections.”

Day 97-111: The Pacific Crossing

Day 99, June 19

The Pacific Crossing

On June 16 we were scheduled to depart China on the container ship, Hanjin Copenhagen. It is probably a case of the tail wagging the dog, but this leg has been the anchor of the entire trip and has controlled all our scheduling. Once you commit to going around the world without airplanes, you have to figure out how to cross the Pacific Ocean, and there are remarkably few options. Only a handful of conventional cruise ships even do this anymore, and none were feasible for us. The only other option was a container ship. Almost a year ago I started researching this on the internet—our two travel agents had long since thrown up their hands, concluding that it was simply not possible to do what we wanted to—and found that there were actually three or four companies that facilitated a “freighter-cruise.” I chose Maris because it was the only company that would actually commit to a specific date. What I did not know then was that the “specific date” or the “specific ship” would change at least a half dozen times before the Hanjin Copenhagen (actually the third ship we were assigned to) seemed to stabilize as a viable option toward the end of December, around three months before our departure date. So we gave Rebecca, our agent at Asia Transpacific, the ok to finalize everything for the umpteenth time for the China leg.

By the last week of February the departure date had changed again three more times. We decided not to pass this information along to Rebecca for fear of triggering a nervous breakdown or worse, a possible suicide attempt. But we did have to commit at some point and by mid February decided to go with the departure date in effect at that time. With fear and trepidation we held our breath and requested “one more last change,” which meant dropping the last week of the China leg since the ship’s departure was now on June 16 rather than June 23. Rebecca made all the changes without complaining, tried to get back as many deposits for the cancellations as she could, and emailed back, “This is it. No more.”

So we were now committed to June 16 and had no more wiggle room, no fail safe options. We also noted that the Maris contract stated the departure date to be “on or about” June 16. You can imagine my confidence level in Maris at this point though I have to admit that they were always responsive, professional and straightforward about the whole thing. It is simply the territory that goes along with a container ship crossing. It is not Maris’s fault anyway. All they are doing is matching passengers up with a containership, which they have no control over.

Now to be honest, from day one of trip planning I had misgivings about crossing the Pacific Ocean on a container ship. I know that this sounds out of character for a sailor and one who loves the sea. This was due in part to fear of the unknown but mostly due to an article I read in the New Yorker, where the author described her experience on a container ship as one of the worst of her life. She talked about the endless boredom, the absence of any amenities or opportunities to do anything, no opportunities for a decent workout, the lousy food, the Spartan, cramped living quarters, and the lack of human contact since the crew was always working. The only thing comparable, she said, was being in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, except that was better because at least there you had hope of a possible escape. What caused me most concern, however, was that if we were assigned to a small cabin with no light because the porthole was blocked by a container, I would go into a claustrophobic panic attack.

The crossing would take 17 days. Seventeen days in such conditions as described in the New Yorker article and no light? I was not sure I could do it. But I got a grip and with grim determination, convinced myself that 17 days actually was not all that long. And besides there were no other alternatives if we were going to go around the world without flying. What the hell? At least I would have another chapter for the blog.

If I survived.

So you can imagine that when I received an email message from Maris that the ship would not depart on June 16 as originally scheduled, I was not surprised and immediately extended the stay at the Mansion Hotel in Shanghai for another day. The next morning, however, June 17, we received the joyous news that the ship had arrived safely at the Shanghai container port and that a driver from the port would pick up at 1300 (1:00 pm). I felt combination of relief and anticipation. One reason for the anticipation was all the elaborate paperwork that Maris required: evidence of yellow fever vaccinations, evidence of insurance, certified health forms (which fortunately did not require any mental health certifications), which I cajoled the doctor in Beijing into signing, and two or three other signed documents of some sort. Would all of this be in order and would it be sufficient to allow us to board?

The driver arrived on time and off we went in heavy rain, which had been falling steadily in Shanghai for the past two days. The drive to the port took almost an hour; and once we passed through the security gates at the port, passing by thousands of containers stacked on top of each other 10-13 containers high, it was another 30 minutes before we arrived at the Chinese Immigration Office where we were met by two guys in their 20s wearing tee-shirts, cut off jeans, and who spoke no English. They moved our bags from the cab to another car and lead us into the immigration office where a lone official sat behind a counter in an otherwise totally vacant and forgotten room. Our “handlers” walked over to the counter and then returned to say the immigration officer was too busy and could not process us now. We would have to wait outside, not in the vacant waiting room. We trudged back to the car in the rain. Meanwhile one of the handlers asked for the passports and disappeared. It was an eerie scene: rain steadily falling, a gray mist creating a veil so you could barely see the buildings, and no people to be seen, no cars, no sign of life. We had ended up in a desolate corner of the port, seemingly off limits to everyone.

We waited patiently for fifteen minutes, which became 30 minutes and then an hour. The driver was engaged in watching some Chinese sit com on his iPhone. The rain continued. I thought that we could mysteriously disappear from this forlorn and forgotten spot, never to be heard from again and no one would ever know. Then miraculously the other guy, the one with a button that said, “Live it up, babe!” appeared at the car door waving the passports and motioning for us to follow him back to the immigration office where we found the officer in exactly the same posture as he was in a hour and a half earlier—sitting at an empty desk, staring blindly into space in an abandoned office. Our handler handed him the passports. He stamped them. We rushed out of the office, stamped passports in hand, asking no questions.

It took another 15 minutes to get to the area where all the ships were. As we left the strange, secluded area and turned onto one of the main streets we rejoined the action—hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of giant trucks with empty flat beds or carrying containers—lined up going in both directions headed to and from the piers.

At the immigration office, we had been joined by a clean cut, earnest, baby-faced young man in his mid twenties, Andrew, who announced that he was also a passenger on the ship. Originally from Seattle, he was returning home from teaching English for a year in Wuhan, a city on the Yangtze near where we had been on our river cruise. He seemed glad to meet us, confessing that he had been afraid he would be the only passenger on the ship.

After a couple of turns, our car came to a halt beside a huge pier with giant cranes on both sides lifting or lowering containers into docked ships . The third ship had its name prominently displayed on the bow: Hanjin Copenhagen. We had arrived!

The next challenge would be boarding. Did we have all the proper documentation—health forms, contracts, insurance, etc.? Would they actually let us on board? How would we get our heavy luggage up the steep, narrow stairway along the side of the ship?

We were met by a lone worker, a young man wearing an orange work suit. Smiling and extending a hand, he said in broken English, “Welcome to the Hanjin Copenhagen! I am Michael, your helper. I am from the Philippines.”

He grabbed one of our suitcases. A coworker appeared who grabbed the other and up we went. I was expecting some kind of formal procedure once we got to the top, but there was nothing—no mention of passports, visas, insurance or any of the other stuff we had worked so hard to get. No security check. We just walked in. There was not another soul in sight.

“Come this way,” said Michael. “Let me show you to your room.”

That was it. We had made it! The penultimate leg, the most problematic, the most critical to the whole journey, the most uncertain and unpredictable . We were now on board the Hanjin Copenhaggen and were headed to our room. I breathed a great sigh of relief: we were now on our way home.



We took the elevator up seven floors to Level G, two levels below the bridge (Oddly the “upper deck” is the bottom floor, the one below Level A.) and were shown our living accommodations for the next 17 days. Instead of the cramped cabin with no light that I had envisioned, it was a two-room cabin with a small bedroom, bathroom and sitting room, the size of a small efficiency apartment. Not bad. There were also three portholes, all facing forward, and none were blocked by containers. The room had a TV, CD player, boom box and refrigerator. I could manage this.

From Michael we also learned that the ship had an officer’s lounge, a small “gym” with an empty swimming pool, sauna, exercise equipment (two stationary bikes and a stair machine), and a ping pong table, and places on deck where you could sit outside. Most important for me was that there was a walkway under the containers all the way around the ship ( three laps per mile). Things were definitely looking up.


We had some time before dinner to rest up and spent the time watching the gigantic cranes take containers off the ship and then start replacing them with the containers arriving on the flat bed trucks. There were six cranes in all. Each one was probably the height of a 15 or 20 story building with a small booth at the top which slid along a track and housed an operator, who lowered and raised the containers. Trucks carrying the containers were lined up below. Empty trucks were lined up in another lane. The truck carrying the container would pause briefly as the giant clamp on the cable grabbed the container, pulled it up, carried it to the spot above where it belonged and then lowered it in place—and not all that slowly. Then the process would repeat itself as the empty truck departed, immediately replaced by another carrying a container. I timed the operation. A full cycle of picking up a container, placing it exactly where it belonged and then picking up a new one, took consistently between 95 and 100 seconds. The reverse operation went on for the containers being taken off the ship. This process–six or more cranes per ship, each one humming and buzzing and creaking and banging—was going on for other ships all up and down the pier, and up and down the other piers. There were scores of ships being serviced while we watched. Like everything else in China, this was on a size and scale unimaginable almost anywhere else in the world except a handful of mega ports.


A word about the Hanjin Copenhagen. The ship, built in 1999, sails under a German flag because it is owned by a German syndicate, with an unpronounceable name. “Hangin”, however, is a Korean company which leases the ship from the syndicate. The German syndicat also has a subsidiary management company, NSB, that provides the crew. Understand all that?

The Hangin Copenhagen is 915 feet long, about three football fields, the approximate length of the Zuiderdam, the Holland America cruise ship we crossed the Atlantic on, though with a narrower beam. The ship can carry a maximum of 5,618 containers and has a total crew 25 including eight officers. The Captain and two other officers are from Poland, another lives in Germany but is from The Ukraine, and the rest are German. All except the chief engineer, who appeared older, would appear to be in their forties or early fifties. The other crew members, the worker bees who do all the heavy lifting, are from the Philippines, and only one person appears much older than mid twenties. Average cruising speed in today’s high fuel cost economy is 17 knots though the ship was designed to cruise at 27 knots, the type of design of most container ships built 20 years ago. It is a race horse, but also a dinosaur since the modern ships are built for fuel economy, not speed. The ship is also small by today’s standards for container ships, which typically carry around 9,000 containers with the megaships carrying up to almost 20,000. The size and scale of these ships and the amount of cargo involved is almost beyond comprehension.


By late afternoon we had rested and were ready to take the elevator down to Level B where the officer’s dining room was. Dinner is served every day at 1730, ship talk for 5:30 pm. The dining room is small with only three tables—two for the officers and one for the passengers. Michael greeted us and directed us to sit at the empty table. The four or five officers eating diner nodded politely as we entered, and the Captain, a humorless guy with a shaved head and probably in his mid 50s, said in a monotone and without a smile, “Welcome to the Hanjin Copenhagen” and continued eating his dinner.

That was the moment that Ron walked in. Ron was dressed in solid black and was small and wiry with a thick head of black hair, a goatee and small mustache, a dark tan, tattoos on both arms and no less than a dozen silver bracelets on his left wrist along with a huge watch. There was no way for me to tell how old he was—maybe sixty, could be a little more or less. He really seemed to have a kind of ageless quality to him.

Ron extended a hand with a smile and said, “Welcome aboard, I am the fourth passenger. I have already been on the ship for over a month. It is terrific. You will love it!”

We learned at the first dinner that Ron was from West Palm Beach, having grown up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his family was in the “jewelry business”. (His middle name: “Cartier.”) He had masters degrees in business and social work and had worked in the jewelry business along with other businesses and had run a social service, non profit organization that he founded in Florida which provided guardians for indigent, frail elderly. For the last several years, however, he had been an artist (with his own studio, mainly large, abstract paintings) and a yoga instructor whose clients were mainly the rich and famous living in Palm Beach. He was a passenger aboard the Hanjin Copenhagen in order to complete a book on spirituality that he had been working on for years. Ron, I found out later, was 74 years old—a year older than me!

So when Andrew came down for dinner, all four passengers were present or accounted for: the two of us, a kid returning from teaching English in China, and an older guy on a spiritual journey. The four of us would be eating together three meals a day for the next seventeen days. We would have plenty of time to get to know each other.



Day 100

June 22

Fifth Day At Sea.

It is now day 100 of our journey around the world and our fifth day at sea. We are about two hundred miles northeast of Japan and headed toward the Aleutian Islands at 17 knots where we will make a turn to the southeast and head towards Alaska before we set a course to Prince Rupert, Canada. We should arrive in just under two more weeks. Though it does not seem apparent, because the Earth is a globe, this is actually the shortest route from Shanghai to Seattle. The wind is calm, but there are heavy swells pushing the ship up and down as we cruise along in thick fog, drizzle and midst.

So what were the first five days on the ship like?

The ship left the pier at midnight on June 17. The next morning was cloudy with winds at 5 to 10 knots and lots of commercial traffic. If you looked around, you could always see at least one other container ship and often as many as a five or six. We spent the day as we would spend the next several—breakfast at 0730, lunch at 1130 and dinner at 1730, a little early for my taste, and the food a bit more than I would like– edible but nothing special, basic fare of meat and potatoes — but nothing as bad as what was described in the New Yorker article. Frankly, it was a nice change from the Chinese food we had been eating three times a day for the past month. We managed to find time for a workout in the gym (Embry), two episodes of “Seinfeld,” and one “House of Cards,” along with some reading, blog writing and sitting outside on deck (though a bit chilly). We have established 1645 as the official start of cocktail hour.

For me the most remarkable part of the first five days is how tired I have been and how much I have slept. Every time I paused from doing something and took a break, I felt I needed to lie down and before I knew it was sound asleep, sleeping for two or three hours. I do not recall ever experiencing anything quite like this and was fearful that I had come down with some kind of bizarre, Chinese sleeping sickness. I was sleeping at least 16 or 17 hours a day, as much as a dog. Then I realized it was just my body’s way of catching up. We have been on a rather intense schedule for the last three months and are fortunate that we have been relatively healthy, notwithstanding my “Level 2 Meltdown” in Beijing and stomach flu in Shanghai and Embry’s bronchitis, also in Shanghai. It could have been much, much worse. I could almost hear my body saying, “Peace at last, thank you, thank you.” As my good friend, Doctor James G Killebrew, predicted when I described the Pacific crossing, it was just what the doctor ordered, a “forced relaxation.”

In any event I am happy to report that I seem to have fully recovered from my “sleeping sickness” and now have my strength and energy back and no longer feel the need to collapse for a nap every few hours.

The big deal on the second day of the crossing was our first stop en route to Seattle, in Pusan, South Korea, where we arrived at 1000 on June 19. The evening before I had asked the captain when he thought we would arrive, to which he replied, “We will be tied up at the dock at 1000.” That is what happened, exactly to the second.

As we approached Pusan, South Korea’s major container port, we were one of many ships entering this busy port. About 30 minutes out we were boarded by a pilot, who provided assistance as we navigated along the narrow but well marked channel. The Korean pilot leaped from the pilot boat onto our ship—how do these guys do it?—and then climbed up to the bridge, bowed to our captain and saluted. From the expressions on the faces of the three crew members present, I gathered they were glad he was on board. I watched from the bridge as the Captain, consulting with the pilot, gave orders and calmly but sternly supervised a perfect docking in a narrow spot with no more than a few meters of extra space. A tug boat pushed our stern in as the bow thruster pushed the bow out, and in we slid as if were just another routine maneuver, which, of course, it was.


We were docked in Pusan until two or three the next morning as the cranes did their job taking off some four or five thousand containers and replacing them with four or five thousand new ones, an activity that usually takes about 12 hours. We stayed on the ship observing the action and pursuing our routine of eating, reading, writing, exercising, sleeping, watching vintage TV programs and enjoying cocktail hour at 1645.

The next two days were spent in the Sea of Japan in flat waters with no swell and very light winds. The second day (yesterday) the sun came out in the afternoon. This was a big deal. Except for the few hours that we were above the clouds on top of the the Yellow Mountains, this was the first time we had seen the sun in over a month and a welcomed sight. To feel its warmth and to see the color of the water change from gray to blue was a gift for us and for our fellow passengers, and we all four spent the entire afternoon on deck enjoying the fine weather.

Two experiences stand out the most during this period. The first was the monthly barbecue. The second was the Karaoke party. To fully appreciate these events, you need to know a few things about the crew.

There are 25 crew members, eight middle-aged European officers, and 17 young men from the Philippines, who assist them. The two groups rarely, if ever, socialize during a regular workday. A ship may be the most rigid class system left on the planet. There are separate facilities for eating, socializing, and coffee breaks for officers and for crew, and you never see anyone breaking the code of behavior of no social contact on equal footing while on duty.

The no nonsense demeanor of the Captain may contribute to the all-business nature of human relationships on the ship. We have never heard much laughter from the officers, have seen only a few smiles, and when they eat together, they rarely talk much. They wolf down their food and are out of the officer’s dining room in minutes. It really has not bothered us passengers because we only see them briefly at meal times.  I know it is hard, brutal work and you are away from your family for months. There are good reasons to be depressed, one of which is on the Hangin Copenhagen, it seems to be mainly work and little play.

That is why the barbecue was so special. This event took place in the small rec room and balcony on our deck and is an event, weather permitting, that happens once a month for the entire ship–officers, crew, and passengers– when everyone is allowed to socialize without regard to rank or position. When we arrived at the appointed hour of 1730, the deck was already full of laughing people, mainly crew but some officers as well, and officers and crew were talking to each other, drinking beer, listening to the hip hop music blaring from the boom box and thoroughly enjoying themselves. What a change from the everyday class system! Even the Captain seemed to be having a good time though I did not catch a smile. Huge piles of steak, pork and chicken were beside the grill ready for cooking, and salads were on the serving table. Cases of cold beer were next to that. The Filipinos were singing along with the rap music and whooping it up to the apparent pleasure of the officers. Once a month is not a lot, but it surely goes a long way to making the experience of working on a container ship more bearable.


The next evening was the Karaoke party. Another custom aboard the Hangin Copenhagen is to allow crew members to celebrate birthdays on a somewhat regular basis. Sunday evening was a designated ‘birthday night.”

Embry left dinner before the rest of us did, only to return a few minutes later, saying, “You have got to go down the hall. In the crew lounge, they are doing Karaoke and dancing!” Hearing loud music, Ron, Andrew and I immediately headed down the hall. As I peered in the door, someone handed me a beer. Someone else proclaimed, “Joe is here!” And a third guy asked me to dance to some wild music that his buddies were signing to and everyone else was dancing to, which, of course, I did. A drummer was pounding away in the corner. It was the same spirit and frivolity that was present the evening before but with no officers.

There is no telling how long the dancing and singing went on. I left after about 30 minutes, but it seemed that a lot more partying was in the works.

So the first five days went by pretty fast. We settled into a routine of regular meals, planned diversions with movies and videos and regular exercise at the small gym or walking around the “track” below the containers. The weather was mainly cloudy but not too cold. That was soon going to change.



Day 101

June 23

Sixth Day At Sea

Drizzle and fog and temperatures in the 40s started out the day with visibility approaching zero most of the morning. Every so often the ship would sound a long blast on the horn, which I assumed was a warning to some vessel to move out of the way. When I ventured up to the bridge to see how the radar was doing, the fog started to lift, and below on both sides were dozens of bottlenose dolphins playing in the bow wake.

The Captain, who was in the navigation room, saw me and motioned for me to come into the room. In his strong Polish accent he told me he wanted to show me something and then proceeded to demonstrate all the electronics displaying where we were, our course, the weather and visibility. After he had showed me all the data on his computer and assured me that even in the fog it was unlikely we would have a collision, he turned to me and said, “I heard your table at breakfast discussing how bad it was that there was no mention of Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the anniversary of that event. What is wrong with you Americans anyway? Do you recognize the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand every year? What about Mylai in Vietnam? Do you make a big deal of that every year? Countries do bad things. They do not want to bring them up. You don’t. China doesn’t. Nobody does. Yet you Americans give everybody else a hard time. You are a bunch of hypocrites.”

That launched a discussion of the world in general and the Captain’s view as to what was wrong with it. In a nutshell here is what he said:

“I grew up in a small town in Poland. It was a happy childhood. My family had a nice house and a nice garden, and I went to a good school. You Americans think life was terrible under Communism everywhere, but I will tell you I was not unhappy and neither were my parents. We didn’t care about politics. We cared about having food on the table, a nice place to live, a good, secure job, and decent health care. You Americans do not understand that we had all that under a Communist government in Poland. Sure, there were limits on what you could say and who you could vote for but so what? We had the basics.

“Then along comes the big change in the 1990s. We gained the right to speak freely and to vote, yes. But look at what we lost. We lost our health care. We lost our jobs in many cases and we lost our security. You don’t think it is a problem knowing if you will have a job next year? Believe me, it is big problem. And what did we gain? We gained crime. We gained homelessness. We gained beggars. Compare now and then. For me, I take then any day. And what really makes me angry is you Americans trying to impose your will on everyone and not understanding that there is more than one way to do things.”

“Well,” I said, “That is very interesting. How much is all the cargo you are carrying worth?”

Ron had warned me that the rumor aboard the ship was the NSB would be terminating contracts with expensive Europeans and replacing them with Asian officers.

What was also interesting to me was that the Captain’s comments regarding more than one way to do things and the belief that the U.S. was pushing our values on everyone else was similar to comments we heard in China and in Russia. To a certain extent they have a point. We are pretty provincial in the U.S. and do not know as much about the rest of the world as they know about us and our culture, mainly because of our movies and TV programs, which everyone all over the world watches. And what kind of a picture does that paint of the U.S.?

In trying to change the subject to something less controversial, I volunteered the fact that I was an avid sailor myself and for this reason, took special interest in what it is like to command a huge containership.

“You, a sailor? You know what we call sailors? WAFIs. “Wind Assisted Fucking Idiots.” He was not smiling.

“How much tonnage did you say this ship carries?” I responded.

Despite the minor unpleasantries I have to give the Captain points for showing me the navigation equipment and for engaging in conversation though I suppose it could have been a little less adversarial. I do not think he meant any of it personally. You might say he lacks some social skills. As he left to check out something in the engine room, he said, “I have said this once and I will say it again: come up to the bridge any time. You are always welcome here. Any time.” This time he was smiling.

I was not able to tell if he was unhappy with his job or his life or both or if he just had a quirky personality. When I tired to commiserate about how tough it must be to have a 24/7 job and to be away from your family for such a long time, he countered by saying that it really was not so bad. He had four months on and four months off and had been doing this his entire adult life. He had been a captain of a ship for the past 19 years. He should be making a lot more money, given the fact he was responsible for the safety of crew, passengers, a $50 million vessel and $100 million worth of cargo, but otherwise, no complaints. He was married and had a daughter getting her PhD from the London School of Economics. After hearing all of this, I concluded the answer to the behavior question was mainly a quirky personality.

It was not long after our conversation that the sun burned off the fog, and blue sky and blue sea with whitecaps reappeared though the 15 knot headwind made it too cold and windy to sit on deck very long. Embry and I settled for walking a few laps around the ship




Day 102

June 23

Seventh Day At Sea

So how many times do you get to have a second chance in life? What if you had the chance to relive an entire day? What would you differently? Would this change your life?

Well, if you are on a container ship and cross the international date line, this happens. Yesterday was Tuesday, June 23. Today is also Tuesday, June 23. So what are we going to do about getting a second chance to live the same day?

The answer is nothing. What is more, this is not good news but bad news because I have to add one more day to my countdown for getting to Seattle. It is now an 18 day crossing, not 17 days.

But I have to admit that being able to relive a day in your life raises profound philosophical and theological question such as the meaning of time. Ron, in particular, is very sensitive to the meaning of time and insists that it is all an illusion. You live for the present, he says. You embrace every day, every minute and squeeze meaning out of that. That is how you live life to the fullest.

I also note that Ron, who has now been on this vessel for almost six weeks, follows a very strict routine every day. In the morning after breakfast he works on his book on spirituality. After lunch he does yoga and meditates. When the weather is good, he sits on the bow in a yoga posture for hours without moving. He will take time out for the coffee break at 1500, immediately followed by an hour working out in the gym, then dinner, then reading in the evening. He loves it. He loves the experience on the ship. For him it is exactly what the doctor ordered: no internet, no TV, no email, no news, no interruptions, decent (more or less) meals three times a day, the sound of the waves, the changing sea and sky. What could be more perfect for getting back in touch with your own spirituality, for reconnecting with the spiritual dimension in the universe that for lack of a better term we humans call “God”?

(I really do not know what our young friend, Andrew, does to pass the time away but he does not complain and seems fairly happy.)

But everyone is not like Ron. While I would like to “live for the moment” and reconnect with the spiritual dimension of the universe, I also want to know how the Nats are doing. I want to know how Carolina Blue did on the race Wednesday evening. I am especially curious about what happened with the Supreme Court’s rulings on health care and gay marriage, and I miss the emails from loyal readers of the blog. I miss hearing the latest news from our children, grandchildren and close friends and knowing what is going on in the world. We have only been at sea a little over a week, and I miss being in touch.

(I definitely do NOT miss all the political in fighting in Washington, the paralysis we face in dealing with important issues, the negativism, or any of the 25 or 30 Republican candidates who by now surely must have announced their run for the presidency!)

So that is why when we learned this morning that we would relive June 23, Ron rejoiced and I groaned.

But I also have to say that there is something to be said for slowing down, for having a “forced relaxation” period and for having an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the Big Trip. Though not altogether easy for a pathological extrovert like me-Embry is much better at this than I am– it is a blessing to have to slow down and to have an opportunity to try to make some sense out of where we have been and what we have seen. So in this sense, maybe reliving June 23 is a good thing, not a bad thing. Seize the moment, as Ron would say. And that is what we are trying to do.


Day 103

June 24

Eighth Day At Sea

For the second straight day it is cloudy, foggy at times, with light winds, big swells, occasional drizzle, and high temperatures around 40. In a word, miserable.

So how do you cope with such conditions, which, by the way, are predicted to continue for the rest of the crossing? You are a prisoner with no options except to grin and bear it. This is one reason few people are crazy enough to hop on a container ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. Maybe the lady who wrote the New Yorker article was not that far off base after all.

But actually it is not that unbearable. The routine continues with good conversation among the four passengers at the three daily meals and two coffee breaks (and an occasional comment from the Captain at the next table, usually criticizing the US about one thing or another). If it is too cold to spend any time on the deck, there is a gym of sorts, a “track” for walking and the there is plenty of time for reading, watching old movies and vintage TV, and of course the 1645 cocktail hour, which has now been enhanced by my brilliant decision to convert my seven day pill container to a small device for making ice cubes (by pouring water into it and putting it in the small freezer compartment in our tiny refrigerator), permitting the consumption of “Chevas-on-the-Rocks,” which heretofore has been impossible since apparently there is no ice anywhere on the ship. Life is looking up.


Day 104

June 26

Passing through the Alaska Passage

Eleventh Day at Sea

We are now officially past the half way mark, and it feels like like we have been at sea for months. The last five days have been cold, foggy and cloudy with rain off and on and high temperatures in the mid 40s, wind chills in the 30s. It has been days since we have seen another vessel or a single bird or creature of any type. We have been in the middle of the north Pacific, in the middle of nowhere, really. If you were doing this for a vacation, you would probably being going crazy right now, fighting off a nervous breakdown or contemplating screaming at the top of your lungs, “Enough!” Unless you were writing the great American novel or, like Ron, were on a spiritual journey and writing a book. We are doing neither, but I am working on the blog and Embry is typing up her extensive trip diary. She is up to page 70 and we have just left X’ian. She says she is exhausted, just reading about our hectic schedule in China and wonders now how we did it. She will have well over 100 pages when she finishes. If we ever decide to try to get a book out of this, the diary will be very important. Were it not for these writing projects, plus a fairly structured schedule, it would be a different story, but as it is we are hanging in there. Here is our schedule for a typical day:

0600 wake up, yoga for Embry

0730 breakfast

0830 blog time for me, reading for Embry

1000 diary typing for Embry, reading for me (or nap)

1130 lunch

1230 “Seinfeld”

1300 “Orange is the New Black”

1400 gym, walk laps around ship

1500 coffee, story time (aloud) with Ron (passages from his book alternating with blog reading)

1600 free time

1645 cocktails (ideally on deck, weather permitting but that has not happened yet)

1730 dinner

1900 movie or two episodes of “House of Cards”

2100 lights out. Adjust clocks forward one hour (nine, one hour forward clock adjustments from Shanghai to Seattle!)



Day 105

June 27

Twelfth Day At Sea

Land Ho! After what seems like an eternity of gray seas, gray skies, fog and drizzle, at approximately 0700 this morning the Hanjin Copenhagen entered the relatively narrow passage (probably at least 50 miles wide) separating the mainland of Alaska from the Aleutian Islands. The clouds prevailed but thinned out just enough for us to get a hazy glimpse of two, snow capped, giant active volcanoes towering 6,500 feet above the sea. At last we were out of the Bering Sea and headed directly to Port Rupert, where we should arrive on Tuesday morning, three days from now. We still have a ways to go but we are in the home stretch.

The evening of Saturday, June 27, was another Karaoke night in the crew lounge. It was much like the first one we attended with more singing and less dancing. Embry was a star of the show singing a half dozen songs, mainly from the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Presley and James Taylor. They were the only ones out of the thousand or so on the Karaoke device that she recognized. The various singers from the crew were terrific as well, and it seemed that everyone knew the words of just about every song without having to watch the screen. This time one of the officers showed up, the Ukrainian who lives in Germany, who seemed to enjoy socializing with the Filipinos. I thought, now this is really something: a woman almost 70, singing at the top of her lungs with a bunch of Filipinos, all young enough to be her grandchildren, and no one seems to think this is anything strange or unusual. We are on a cargo ship, which is still over a thousand miles from land in a dark ocean where it never seems to stop raining and you are not sure if the sun will ever come out again. The music continues. Everyone is laughing. Beer is flowing. Embry gets a big round of applause when she sits down. This is a special moment.



Day 106

June 28

Thirteenth Day At Sea

We heard the news via ship email from Jessica that gay marriage and Obamacare survived the Supreme Court. Halleluiah! Who would have thought? Hurray for the Supreme Court and for America!

In the same email she told us about the Charleston massacre. Two steps forward one back. Life on the Planet Earth.

At lunch Ron asked me to ask the Captain what he thought of the Three Gorges Dam. It was a setup. Ron had heard the Captain’s tirade on the previous voyage when the ship came across the Pacific from the US. The Captain raised his voice  and went on and on about how the weight of all the water in the lake had resulted in titling the planet and from what could understand of his broken English was single-handedly responsible for the climate change we are experiencing today. Somehow dinosaurs and volcanoes entered into the equation. The more he talked, the more worked up he got as everyone else in the room—the four of us and three officers– sat quietly, some staring at him, others looking down at their plates. No one said a word. Then he walked out of the room. Ron smiled and quietly commented, “See, I told you he was crazy.”


Day 107

June 29

Fourteenth Day At Sea

Up at seven. More fog and drizzle. We have now been on the Pacific Ocean two full weeks and have seen the sun on only twice and that was only for a few hours. This follows one month in China when we did not see the sun at all except when we were on top of a mountain which was above the clouds. How does the crew stand it? No wonder some of them seem depressed. (Mainly the officers, however. The Filipino crew seem always to be friendly and upbeat.) Oh well, we are on the penultimate leg of the penultimate leg. We have made it this far, and it could have been far more difficult. We have had no storms or rough seas. We can last for four more days. And there is always the chance, however remote, that, yes, there is a sun and that it will rise.

The question on my mind at 0700 as to whether the sun had permanently vanished behind a cloud bank was answered at 1300. The sun came out! First it peeped through a tiny hole in the clouds. Then the clouds gradually parted, and by 1400 we were basking in the warm sunlight and marveling at the blue sky. It is amazing how being deprived of something basic like the sun enhances your appreciation of it when it returns. My gloomy mood vanished and the whole world seemed brighter.

That afternoon Andrew and I were scheduled for a tour of the ship’s engine room, and while it was difficult to pull myself away from the sunlight, I joined Andrew for the tour with the chief engineer. The size and complexity of the engine area was much grander than I had expected. It was as deep as the superstructure on the ship was high—eight flights of stairs. The engineer took us down the steep, narrow stairs from one level to the next, explaining what everything was as we descended. I could not hear a word because of the roar of the engine. After awhile, the engineer ignored me and addressed all his comments to Andrew, who seemed to comprehend what he was saying. I did take particular notice of the drive shaft, which was the diameter of about four telephone poles, driving a prop that was over 25 feet in diameter. I was also impressed with how clean and neat the entire area was. The other two engineers were working on fixing something, and three or four of the Filipino crew were sweeping and cleaning up. Everyone wore large ear devices to reduce the noise and most wore surgical masks. I could not help thinking how difficult it must be to spend your entire work day in such conditions—no sunlight, intolerable noise, something constantly needing fixing.


After making our way back up the eight flights of stairs, we went into the engine room office where there was a window overlooking the vast engine room and a long consul with several video screens and scores of dials measuring the performance of the ship. The noise abated and we could ask questions. After the engineer discussed various technical items about the ship, complaining that because of high fuel prices a “race horse like this” which could cruise at 27 knots had to crawl along at 17 knots, I could not help asking him how he liked his job.

“Are you kidding me? You can’t be serious. How do I like my job? It is a goddamn prison, that is what it is. I hate it!”

That comment was the beginning of a long diatribe similar to what we had heard from the Captain about the tragedy of life in general. The engineer was also Polish and I wondered if that had anything to do with his and the Captain’s gloomy outlook. Like the captain, he had attended the elite maritime academy because under communism it was the only way besides being a diplomat that you could get out of the country, but the job turned out to be tougher and more demanding than he had bargained for. What he was most bitter about, however, was that most of the officers were being replaced by less expensive Asians. Because the German company he worked for, NSB, could not find a Chinese replacement for him yet, he had been asked to stay on for another four months but after that, no job. No justice.

No wonder these guys are bitter, I thought. In the engineer’s case, he was 64 years old and was eligible for his country’s retirement pension in a couple of years, but even so it would not come close to his current income, and he was facing harder times with very little opportunities for work. All this, plus the fact that he had spent his entire work life below the surface where it was always hot and always noisy and you never saw the sun. Yet instead of being appreciated you get fired because under the new “free market system” the owners go for cheap labor. Hard life, as they say, no justice.

That evening for the first time after Day One of the crossing, Embry and I sat out on the deck for cocktail hour, enjoying the warm sun flooding the deck from the west, and watching beautiful the blue sky, white cloud puffs and green sea. One day like this one and you forget all the gray drizzle of the endless days before.


Day 108

June 30

Fifteenth Day at Sea

We woke on our fifteenth day at sea to Carolina blue skies and sparkling blue waves with small white caps indicating a perfect wind of 10-12 knots. I am convinced that years from now when I am retelling the story of the Great Pacific Crossing what I will remember is this glorious morning and the previous day when the clouds parted and the world suddenly was transformed from cold and gray to magnificent splendor when you could see infinity and all was right in the world. Then, I thought, isn’t this the way our life is, a metaphor of what we humans experience living on this small planet.

The weather held for the entire day and the lives of all crew and passengers were affected. Everyone was smiling, even the Captain, who actually called us twice to report whale alerts; and when we scampered up to the Bridge, he was ecstatic like a kid opening presents on Christmas. “Look! There they are over there, humpbacks! Fantastic! More over there! Look!”

Because of the fine weather we passengers spent most of the day on deck, reading (Embry), meditating (Ron), or just enjoying the stunning scenery of tall mountains and tiny islands (Andrew and I). At 1200 we were boarded by two pilots (one in training), both wearing dark business suits, white shirts and polished black shoes, a bit odd attire for a pilot, I thought, but maybe that is protocol in Canada. After a delay to wait for a berth to open up in the container port at Prince Rupert, we slowly made our away along the coast and up the narrow coastal river, which resembled a Norwegian fiord. Escorted by two tug boats we had to wait patiently in the bay in front of the small town of Prince Rupert for a couple of more hours before we finally tied up at 1900 and the cranes began their work of lifting and replacing over 4,000 containers, a task that would go on all night and most of the next day.

The change in weather from near awful to near perfect was excelled by only one thing: the freshness of the air and its smell of the deep forest and lush evergreens towering along both sides of the deep harbor. There is nothing like it, a kind of primordial smell that connects you to the earth. You can’t help breathing in deeply again and again and giving thanks that you are here in this holy place at this special time. I think about our time in China and how polluted the air is in most places. They would go crazy in Prince Rupert .

As we tied up and the cranes started to empty the ship of containers, it dawned on me. We did it! We have just crossed the Pacific Ocean on a container ship—over 7,500 miles of open water. And we are here, in Canada, at this lovely spot, and only one more full day on the ocean before reaching Seattle. Time for thanksgiving and gratitude.



Day 109

July 1

Sixteenth Day at Sea

We woke up early the next morning and opened the curtains covering the portholes. Sun rays brightened the dark room and deep blue skies were overhead. A second glorious day!

It turns out that July 1 in Canada is “Canada Day,” the official national holiday celebrating the founding of the county some 148 years ago. What is it about the Big Trip that has allowed us to experience so many national events—the Holy Week celebrations in Spain, “Labor Day” in Germany, The Constitution Day Celebration in Poland, Celebration of victory over Germany in the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia, and now Canada Day? (And we will be in Seattle the day after we arrive for the Fourth of July.) Andrew, Embry and I left the ship at 0930 and walked the 2.5 miles to downtown Prince Rupert, a backwater, quintessential small town of about 12,000. The town is located on an island, over 80 miles from the nearest settlement. The port is the main generator of economic activity. There are also a few tourist hotels, a large RV camping area, a Wal-Mart, and the usual kind of main street stores you would expect to see in a town this size: liquor store, drug store, clothes shop, bank, and several diners.

Mid morning we stopped at a coffee shop, taking note of how many Asian looking people were there, descendants of the people who walked across the Bering Straight from Mongolia some 20,000 years ago and the original inhabitants of the area. By 1130 we had seen most of the town and found ourselves on the waterfront, where the holiday festivities were about to begin. Several hundred people—an interesting mix of scruffy Caucasians and Indians—were milling around or seated in a tent or on the grassy knoll in front of a performance tent, waiting for the program to get underway at noon. During the two hours we were there we saw the official flag raising and tried to sing along to “Oh, Canada,” then heard speeches by the mayor, the police chief dressed in bright red like a Royal Canadian Mounty, the chief of a coalition of Indian tribes, that also happened to own the park ground where the festivities took place (for which the tribes were thanked many times), followed by a concert which included the local community orchestra and choir, and several individual singers and bands. The most impressive was a seven-year-old girl who sang country western tunes accompanied by her father on the guitar and mother on the key board. There was face painting, balloons, a pet parade, a food truck, which I patiently waited in line for 52 minutes to get my first real hamburger in almost four months—and it was worth it—and free slices of “Happy Birthday Canada” cake if you got in line early enough, which we didn’t. The back drop to all this were green mountains going almost straight up with hints of snow on several peaks and a huge, blue, natural harbor with several large ships at anchor. Since Prince Rupert is known for its fog and gets on average 120 inches of rain a year, a sunny, warm day like this for Canada Day was, I surmised, a somewhat rare occurrence which brought out the whole town. By the time we left to walk back to the ship, there were probably several thousand people enjoying the splendid afternoon.

This was our reward for the Pacific Crossing—basking in the warm sun on a drop-dead beautiful hillside surrounded by happy people in a picture book setting. It made the whole voyage worth it.


When we reached the ship after passing through security and passport control (where we were not asked to show our passport), we discovered that containers now blocked our portholes, preventing any view and blocking most of the light. This is what I had been most afraid of: being cooped up in a small room with no light, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, a kind of prison from which there was no escape. But in our case, it was really not so bad because we had only one more day at sea. This was a friendly reminder from the sea gods that they had really been pretty good to us. This is what it might have been!

As the tug boat pulled us off the loading dock, I chatted with the Chief Officer, the second in command, a slightly overweight guy with a pleasant disposition. He volunteered that this was supposed to be his last voyage because he and all the other officers on board had been fired—as had been rumored and confirmed by the chief engineer–with no forewarning, including the captain. He was devastated. Since all major maritime management companies were dropping European staff in order to save money, at age 37, he now had to find a new career with no real options apparent. However, most officers would stay on for one more US/Shanghai run since NSB was having trouble finding qualified Asian replacements.

“Well, this may be an historic experience for you,” he said. “If you did this next year, you would have Chinese officers and a crew from Sri Lanka. So you would be eating Chinese food and would not have anyone to speak English with. But you probably would not be on the ship anyway since the rumor is they are cutting out the passenger business.”

The beautiful weather held that evening as we left the harbor and the Hanjin Copenhagen headed back out to the Pacific, turning south around 2000 towards Seattle. Embry and I sat on the deck, enjoying warm temperatures and smooth seas until it was almost midnight (and still twilight), finishing off the bottle of wine we started at cocktail hour and watching an orange full moon rise on our port and a dazzling sunset on our starboard while orcas and humpback whales occasionally popped out of the water on both sides. One magical evening like this justifies many times over the entire voyage.


Day 110

July 2

Seventeenth and Penultimate Day At Sea

We woke up this morning in the dark because the containers blocked light from coming in. I pulled back the curtains and tried to see what the weather was like but could only see red and blue containers until I opened up the porthole and poked my head out as far as I could and looked up. Fog! And howling wind! Just so you don’t forget how special the day before was, the sea gods remind you again: it is not always this beautiful, baby, as it has been for the last two days. And don’t forget, your portholes could have been blocked the entire trip. Be grateful.

Which we were.

We were due at the Seattle container port very early the next morning so today was effectively our last day at sea. By late morning the fog had lifted and you could see the mountains on Vancouver Island on the Canadian coast on the port side. The wind was howling at 25-30 knots, with white caps turning the sea white, spray in the air and huge waves, a thrilling way to end an 8,000 mile journey, though too cold to sit outside for very long and too dark for my comfort in our porthole-blocked cabin. I was thankful that we were not on a sailboat.

We spent the afternoon reading and writing. As luck would have it, after dinner the wind died to a 12-15 knot tailwind and it warmed up, so sitting on the deck one last time was in the cards and we made the most of it, admiring the tall peaks on Vancouver Island, waiting for the almost-full moon to rise, enjoying the sunset and looking for whales, which we did not see. Our adventure on the high seas would soon be over.


It is still probably too early to be able to put the container ship crossing into proper perspective. On the one hand, it was far better than I had expected and far better than it would have been if we had had the bad luck of having our portholes blocked the entire time or had to weather a storm or had no sunny, pleasant days to compensate for the chilling rain and fog. While spending three meals a day with the same people for eighteen days can be a bit tiresome, both Ron and Andrew were upbeat, positive about the experience, never complained and were interesting people, if at times a bit quirky. Andrew knows a lot about China, and his experiences added depth to ours. Ron’s spiritual journey was intriguing. We took turns at the afternoon coffee breaks at 1500 to read to each other, Ron from his book and I from the blog. I found Ron’s book, mainly personal stories about poignant experiences, to be very well written and thoughtful. He has an editor and an agent and plans to release it on Amazon in December. I wish him luck and agreed to write an endorsement. One could do much worse than we did regarding our fellow passengers, and if you had a complainer or a whiner or some who was totally incompatible, that would have been a disaster.

The officers and crew were cordial and at times friendly though they had lots of work to do and little time to socialize with us. That they have all gotten pink slips is probably why the mood of the ship was gloomy at times. The Filipinos, however, were always friendly and always smiled and said hello whenever you passed them. Everyone seemed to work very hard all the time.

As for the Captain, he remains an enigma. He at times was very friendly, going out of the way to alert us to a whale sighting or to recommend a movie, one of which, “The Book Thief” was one of the best I have ever seen, very artsy and sensitive, not the kind of movie a macho guy would like. He encouraged us to come to the bridge and answered all of our questions. He loved seeing eagles, and he braked for whales. He displayed a written code of ethics on the bridge that stated that no bridge officer should ever yell at crew and always should treat them with honor and respect. On the other hand, his moods were unpredictable, his manner at times intimidating, his obsession about  conspiracies and US failings a bit weird, and  his sense of humor  a bit weak. I have to admit, however, I  liked him.

But a voyage like this is not for everyone. The main adversary depriving you of a good time is boredom. You have to anticipate it and plan ahead for it. I give full credit to Embry for bringing along movies and DVDs of great TV episodes like “Seinfeld,” “House of Cards,” and “Orange is the New Black.” Without such diversions you would be at risk of going nuts. Having writing projects to do was also very important and occupied me for several hours each day. Embry spent equal time typing up her diary. All in all, I probably would not recommend this to someone looking for an enjoyable vacation. On the other hand it is an adventure and has an authenticity that far exceeds anything you would find on a cruise ship. Would I do another crossing on a container ship? To be honest, probably not. Am I glad we did it? Absolutely!


Day 111

July 3


The Hanjin Copenhagen arrived safely in Seattle around 0500 this morning when we were still asleep. At breakfast when we said our goodbyes to Andrew and Ron, it felt a little like summer camp. Your special, somewhat intense, relationship with strangers has come to an end, and you will probably never see them again, another one of life’s bittersweet moments. Were it not for the blog entries and Embry’s diary, over time our minds would tend to forget the down times and the long dreary days in the north Pacific and Bering Sea and remember only the sunshine, the crew parties, the stories and the adventure of crossing the world’s largest ocean on a cargo ship.

The Captain was in a stellar mood at breakfast, smiling and asking us what we thought about the voyage. When we complimented him , he smiled even broader and told us what great passengers we were and hoped we would do this again. Sadly the next time would surely mean a different crew, and all we could do was wish them well on the next leg of their life’s journey.

But what a journey this has been for us. A voyage of a life time! The Pacific Crossing has come to an end.

Howell Big Trip across the Pacific (Andrew)

Hi folks… it’s Andrew Howell here with a quick update on the Howellbigtrip gang. They are aboard the Hanjin Copenhagen and are currently about 20 miles southeast of the South Korean city of Busan, between Korea and Japan. We know this thanks to the world of cargo ship-tracking technology: check this link out for yourself to see where they are in real time. As to how they are enjoying life in the belly of the Hanjin, I suppose we won’t know for another 2 weeks…fingers crossed…

Also a note that I have added a few photos into the last few blog posts that were sent to me by the intrepid travelers, with a few more to come.


Day 95 (Embry)

June 17


This is a bonus post, since our boat was delayed for a day. Since Joe has been under the weather, I have had several additional adventures in Shanghai without him, and he suggested I fill you in while we are waiting to be picked up and taken to our container ship for the trip home. As before, I am typing straight from my written diary on these last days in Shanghai, starting with the evening of June 13.

I left Joe at the hotel—still feeling “wiped out” and nauseous—while I went with our guide, Vivian, who is wonderful, across town to an acrobatic show at the Shanghai Center Stage Theater. It was sort of like a mini-version of the opening show for the Beijing Olympics in 2010. There were about 7-8 different “acts,” all with amazing costumes and backdrop of a movie screen with beautiful scenery, which changed during the act to add to the atmosphere. For example, for a tumbling act the guys were dressed as warriors and had a war-like landscape in the background. For a romantic scene—with two incredibly graceful acrobats who had a dance-like act climbing up and down scarf ropes—you had a moon and star-lit background and romantic American music. (I was the only American in the audience, I believe; in fact they translated the introductory commentary into English, perhaps for only my benefit. This has happened several times for us here in China.) All the acts were very well choreographed. The most far-out act was the 8 men on motorcycles—real motorcycles—riding around inside a giant ball, which had been wheeled onto the large stage. They were going at an incredibly fast speed in there!

The next day Vivian picked me up to see some more of Shanghai.  First, we went to one of the most interesting things I had seen in China—the “marriage market,” which takes place each Sunday in one of Shanghai’s local parks. Thousands of middle-aged parents (male and female, and sometimes elderly grandparents with them)stand behind a written description of their child who is in search of a mate. The sign (usually without a picture/sometimes with) describes the young person with their age and height (always—tall height is respected here as a sign of higher social status). Other characteristics are also usually listed, such as his/her education, job, and/or place of residence. The sign may also indicate the characteristics that the parents are seeking in their child’s mate. They want the girl, for example, to be of a relatively young age, perhaps in order to be likely to produce their only grandchild.

The indications of social status seem to be the most important basic ingredient for finding the right mate. Of course, the basic characteristics of social status (particularly education) and financial means are incredibly important in the U.S. marriage market, too, but seem to be the dominant factor here. The typical bio-sketch on would always have a picture and emphasize a person’s “extra curricular interests.” (I don’t think the Chinese care about whether their child’s mate likes “walks on the beach at sunset.”)

The question, of course, is what about the young people themselves? They were nowhere to be seen, and  have nothing to do with this phase of the process. Apparently the parents try to find a few eligible young people they approve of  and then introduce them to their children, who then have a “blind date.” They are then free to say “yes” or “no,” or choose their own mate another way (but then have to deal with parental pressure, if the person does not meet their expectations). This system is the modern version of the past practice of “matchmaking” that was prevalent before the Communist era when women became free to choose their own mate and divorce, with the same rights as men to do so.

Next we went to a “silk museum,” which turned out to be primarily a shopping opportunity, but it also provided interesting information on the silk industry in China both historically and today. (A British guy who was there with his tour group told me how the British had “stolen” the knowledge of silk production and taken it to England in the 18th century where it flourished for a while in his home village.) I was a good tourist and bought a silk comforter and a beautiful silk jacket. My suitcase is becoming very hard to close!

Our last stop for the day was the Yu Garden, built as a “Classical Chinese garden” in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty. As with all classical Chinese gardens, it has incredible rock displays representing the mountains (One of the rocks apparently dates to the Song Dynasty, around 1000 AD, and was purchased by the rich official who built the garden.)

This garden also has a famous large dragon statue. I have been fascinated by this architectural detail (the dragon) that adorns many pagoda roofs, particularly in the Forbidden City. It is not only the dragon that usually appears, but also a parade of figures that are described to me as the “dragon’s babies,” which are gargoyle-like figures led by a dignitary riding a “phoenix.” The imperial buildings have the full parade—dragon, 9 dragon babies, and the dignitary—but any other building must somehow modify the ornamentation, or else I was told, “the emperor would come and kill him.” So in the Yu garden the enormous dragon has only three toes; otherwise it looks just like the dragon at the Forbidden City, only bigger!

Another architectural detail from the garden, but also from all over China, are the two lions guarding the entrance to many buildings. They look very similar, and we can see them all over the U.S. as well as you enter a Chinese restaurant, for example. But have you ever noticed they are different? One is female (on the left) and one is male (on the right). The female holds in one of her paws a baby lion (in various shapes and sizes, depending on the statue), representing fertility. The male holds a ball, which represents power. They both represent, more generally, “good fortune,” or in a broader sense, “peace, happiness, and well-being.” It’s nice that it is being wished to one and all anywhere you walk in China!

The final architectural detail that is almost 100% pervasive in old buildings of all kinds including temples and houses is the raised wooden “step” at the entrance to most rooms. However, you must never “step” on that “step” (bad luck). Women should go over it raising their right foot (“women are always right”) and men with their left, although this is not strictly observed. The purpose of this is to “keep good spirits in and bad spirits out.” This is yet again one of the many Feng Shui Daoist customs that pervade Chinese architecture. (Others include: (1) never put a mirror in front of the bed; you might mistake yourself for a spirit when you get up in the night; and (2) never have the bathroom door open into the entrance hall, because the bad spirits in your bathroom might greet your guests!)

The next day I went alone by subway to the Shanghai Museum, which is a lovely mid-size (and therefore very accessible) museum that shows only ancient Chinese art. It has wonderful well-lit displays and signage (in Mandarin and English). The amazing thing is that for the scrolls and manuscripts, the lights only come on when you are near the display. This protects the ancient manuscripts from deterioration. I concentrated on the paintings and ceramics. (I brought along my class notes from my Chinese art class to refresh my memory of each era/dynasty.)

Yesterday we were happy to have a “down day,” spent mostly reading and writing, hence Joe’s great blog post wrapping up our trip. I am reading a great book, Frog, by China’s Nobel Prize winner of whom they are very proud, Mo Yan. I am surprised that he is “officially accepted” and not locked up as is their Peace Prize winner. The book, a novel, is very critical of some of the events in 20th century China, and is beautifully written.

We did have two final adventures. The first involved exchanging yuan into dollars, since we need some for our expenditures on the boat. It was a long process involving a long wait at the bank and various forms to fill out. We concluded that not many people do this transaction (no other Europeans or Americans were in the bank).


The final errand was to a jewelry store to purchase a ring for me to commemorate our trip and our 50th anniversary. I had noticed a large jewelry store on the big boulevard near the hotel and thought it would offer lots of choices. When we walked in, the atmosphere was a bit weird. We were the only customers in the large store, and there were about 12 salespeople so we expected someone to come right up to help us. Not so. They continued to chat with each other and ignore us. We walked around and looked at the merchandise, which was beautiful—all 18K gold (and up) jewelry of a variety of kinds. We were able (without help) to find the ring section and began pointing to a few. Finally, tentatively, one of the sales ladies (they all wore white uniforms) came up and opened the glass case with a key. Joe had his calculator, and they pointed to the prices, which were in numbers we could recognize. (All the signs were in Chinese.) I chose a pretty gold ring with six red stones. But what were the stones? No one in the store spoke a word of English, but by now all of them were gathered around talking loudly to each other exchanging ideas about what my question might be. Finally one got out her cell phone, which had a translator on it, and the word popped up “ruby.” I tried on the ring and it fit. Bingo! Joe gave them his credit card and a few minutes later I had my new wedding ring. Before we left, I gestured “50 years,” as best I could, and they got the message. There were a lot of smiles and thumbs up as we walked out the door.

That’s it for my final China blog post! Hope to see everyone soon on the other side of the Pacific.

Day 94

June 16


Last post before we board the container ship, the Hanjin Copenhagen, to cross the Pacific Ocean, arriving in Seattle (hopefully) on July 3. Time for a few more concluding thoughts about China:


One could thoughtfully ask how I can be so generally positive about a country that is basically a totalitarian-lite state and a potential adversary of the U.S.? You might even suggest that I may have been duped by these nice guides who are actually Communist agents in disguise, feeding us gullible tourists a bill of goods, to which I have but one answer: come to China and see for yourself.

Do the extraordinary gains made by this country in the last 30 years mean that they are out of the woods? Far from it. China faces enormous challenges, and here are the top six in my view, in order of importance:

The environmental challenge. When you can’t breathe in your nation’s capital, it is not a good thing. Most of the big cities in north China are affected by extremely poor air quality because it is arid with not enough rain to wash out the pollution. There are two main culprits—low grade coal used as the main energy source and lower automobile emission control standards than we have in the U.S. The Chinese seem to understand they have to address environmental issues and are doing some important things like high speed rail, wind farms, and dams, but will that be enough? The consensus seems to be that until they radically reduce fossil fuel emissions, it is a stretch. Alternative energy sources are an essential piece of the puzzle. How successful they are affects the entire planet, not just China.

The demographic challenge. The one child policy is a two-sided coin. It has drastically reduced China’s population growth and that is a good thing, but it has been ruthlessly implemented by forcing abortions and has also produced a population where boys outnumber girls, 120 boys for every 100 girls. That one spells trouble for sure. It is also producing a demographic imbalance with not enough adult children to take care of aging parents and an adverse dependency ratio like you see in Japan and parts of Europe and even in the U.S.: too many seniors on social security and not enough wage earners to support them. The policy is now being relaxed but will need to be tweaked and monitored.

The one percent challenge. You have got to admit that when they do things in China, they do things in a big way—the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, Communism, Land Reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Three Gorges Dam. So when they decided in the 1980s to go “free market,” they pretty much opened the flood gates. The result has been capitalism on steroids with a relatively few people making a whole lot of money. The rising tide has lifted a lot of boats—literally hundreds of millions of people—but some boats have been lifted a lot higher than others. My guess is that their one percent problem is similar to ours, and we occasionally saw signs of resentment among average Chinese people with words like “justice” and “fairness” and “cronyism” popping up every now and then. If they are not careful, China may find itself going back to a kind of neo class system not all that dissimilar to what existed before the Communist Revolution. We heard lots of complaints about how rich people were able to pay for tutors for their kids and even send them to U.S. prep schools so they could get the high test scores and get into the prestigious colleges, in another words a meritocracy with strings. How familiar is this to us Americans?

The over building challenge. This one is related to the one percent challenge. I read somewhere that China has invested the highest percentage of its GDP in real estate and infrastructure development of any country, any time in history. The results are spellbinding—sparkling, dramatic skylines, high speed trains, vast subway systems, superhighways and no visible signs of poverty like deteriorating neighborhoods or informal settlements like you see in India, Latin America or Africa. They have nothing equivalent to an “American slum,” and believe me, I have looked for it.

There are also a lot of vacant, brand new (and not so new) buildings—a huge number—and yet tower cranes continue to dot the landscape everywhere. You don’t build a 50-story, 400-unit, high rise and watch it sit empty for a few years and put a lot of profits in the bank. In fact you lose your shirt, and somebody—no one has been able to tell me exactly who—has got to be absorbing massive losses. Many of these deals are supposedly joint ventures, with the government being not just the land owner but also co-developer, (Yes, the government still owns all the land in China and leases it back, long term, to private owners, developers, and farmers, really the only vestige of Communism left as far as I can tell.), so maybe the tax payer is the fall guy. One thing is for sure: somebody is taking a hit, and this can’t go on forever. Given the size of the population and the growth of cities, people tell us that there are plenty of people to buy or rent these units, it is a matter of affordability. Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed. The problem is that curtailing construction will mean substantial job losses impacting the entire economy.


The social safety net challenge. When you get down to it, it is amazing how many of the problems China is dealing with are similar to ours. We heard lots of complaining about mediocre health care and how it is paid for, inadequate social security and a safety net that is too thin. Sound familiar? Compared to European countries, China has a long way to go, a bit ironic when you think of China as a Communist Country, which of course it is not. They need to fix this issue too and hopefully will have better luck than we have had.

The governance challenge. Yes, there is a big governance issue. But I placed it last on the list. Why? Because for the average Chinese person this is simply not an issue. We have been told this again and again. Keep in mind that during their 2,500 plus year history, the Chinese people have never had a true democracy. They have no idea what they are missing or really how a true democracy works. What they do know, however, is that compared to what life was like before Deng’s reforms in the 1980s, they are far better off now. They have jobs, social and economic stability, good housing, freedom to travel, and yes, even freedom to express their opinion on virtually any subject provided it does not rise too far above the surface. So what if they don’t get to elect their leaders? As long as their leaders are doing a good job, isn’t that what counts? You could say that right now China is a “benign despotism,” the most efficient kind of “good governance.” Confucius would be proud.

But, alas, how do you assure that leaders will be enlightened forever, and how do you get rid of them when they aren’t? How do you assure an orderly and fair transition from one leader to the next.? How do you fight inevitable corruption, make necessary midcourse corrections and reforms? The Chinese leaders are struggling with this one. They look at the political system we have and what most of the developed countries have and conclude that it is pretty messy and disorderly and does not always produce good results. In fact, they may even conclude that democracy is the worst system ever created for governing. Except, of course, in the words of Winston Churchill (I think), when compared to every other kind of system we humans have come up with. Notwithstanding, they have to fix this one too. It surely will bite them if they don’t and could keep them from accomplishing all the other items on their ambitious agenda.

But you know what? The Chinese are smart. They are hard working and industrious. They have been around for a long time. They have had their ups and downs, the last two centuries being down periods. It is time for one of their up periods. They believe they can do it, and after spending a month here (I know, that is not very long.), I believe they can too. I am bullish on China. And let’s hope I am right because if I am not, we are all in trouble.


Now, off to the Hanjin Copenhagen for the penultimate leg! No internet  connections on board so the next post you get will not be until we reach Seattle around July 3 or 4. We have booked the train from Seattle to Chicago to DC, leaving on July 6 and arriving in DC around the 9th of July, if, as we say in Tennessee, God is willing and the creek don’t rise. Thank all of you who have followed us on the blog. As you probably can tell, I have loved doing it, as has Embry, and  knowing there are people out there reading it from time to time makes it a lot easier to keep going. But while our journey is nearing its end, I will have a lot of time on the container ship to try to pull some final thoughts together, so it ain’t over yet. Stay tuned…

Day 93

June 15


Photos to be posted when internet service permits.

I am sitting on the enclosed front porch of “Boutique Mansion Hotel,” a 35 room former residence around 150 years old, converted recently into a hotel, located in the old “French Concession ” district of Shanghai. It is an oasis of peace and quiet in what has got to be the world’s busiest city. A wall and small garden with a pond, fountain and gold fish, shaded by “plane trees” (look like sycamores) protect the hotel from the bustling streets on both sides. Above the trees are towering skyscrapers, which light up with blue and white lights after dark. A light rain is cooling the 90 degree temperature a bit, but the humidity is oppressive.

This is my first post in several days due to a bout with dehydration/stomach flu (from which I now have thankfully recovered) and will in all likelihood be the last post for some time if our container ship departs on time tomorrow afternoon as scheduled. We understand that no internet connection will be available the 17 days we are at sea. So here is a catch-up piece:

Today is Monday, June 15. The last time you heard from me was Thursday, June 11. Embry’s recent two posts have been topical rather than chronological so there is lots to describe:

Our next stop after the Huangshan Mountain adventure was Hangszhou (pronounced Hang-Joe) about a three hour drive through the mountains from the Westin Hotel where we spent the night. We said goodbye to Ellen, and our driver drove us through luxuriant valleys surrounded by tall, green mountains much like the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. By noon we had arrived at a small hotel where we were met by our new guide, “Tom,” and his driver. In fact the entire China leg has been one extended hand-off routine where we are gently passed from one guide (actually “handler” might be a more apt term) to another. Not once, however, has there ever been a fumble, which is pretty impressive.

Tom was different from the last several guides because he was a man and a bit older, late 40s. He has been a tour guide his entire adult life, speaks excellent English and picked up immediately on my various (lame) jokes and asides (not easy for most of the guides) though he is perhaps a bit battle-weary due to his many years on the job. He was also the most outspoken and candid of all the guides we have had.

After lunch at the hotel, we drove through downtown Hangzhou (population 10 million), which most Americans have never heard of, including me, until I suddenly realized that this was one of the cities I visited in 1986 when I was advising the Chinese that they should build more houses. It did not hit me until we were on a beautiful lake cruising on a tourist boat when Tom pointed out that the structure across the lake was the favorite hotel of Mao, who stayed there more than 60 times. Wait a minute! I had stayed in a hotel in 1986 where Mao had stayed 60-plus times, and it was on a lake, and that the lake looked like this one. Hangzhou! Yes, of course I have been here. Great to be back!

To be honest, at this stage of the trip I am stumbling to the finish line and am more or less so worn out that I am not fully able to appreciate all–or in some instances, any– of the terrific things we are seeing. During our two days in the city, we saw a thriving market, a huge restored mansion of a rich banker who eventually lost all his money and all but one of his dozen concubines, and probably a lot more stuff that I can’t remember. What I do remember, however, are some of the things Tom said as we drove around what by American standards was yet another huge city, just a ho-hum one for China. We discussed the one child policy and the easing of restrictions to permit two children in many instances, the importance of getting into a good university if you want to get ahead and the stress that causes (his daughter is in high school and the whole family really feels the pressure), and all the new apartment houses that have been built, for which I modestly took full credit because in 1986 I told them to build them. We also talked about the easing of restrictions regarding speech, and he insisted that if you were not famous or a member of the Communist Party and did not put anything in writing, you could say anything you wanted to about anyone or anything. There is no Big Brother looking over your shoulder in the New China and that as far as he was concerned, the average Chinese person feels free. Yes, there is censorship of the press. Yes, there is only one party and China does not have a Western-style Democracy, but he went on to remind us that over its 4,000 plus years of history (2,500 years as more or less the single country it is now), China has never been a Democracy. China, he admitted, is far from perfect and still faces many challenges, but what really bothers him is being bullied by the U.S. and Western Europe to do things their way rather than let China be China.

“What you need to understand,” he said, “is that we love the American people. It is your leaders we don’t like.”

The two days with Tom were a whirlwind. The second day we visited a tea plantation in the morning where an excellent sales woman inspired me to buy lots of green tea, which she convinced me cures all that ails you—and God knows I can use it. Then we spent the afternoon visiting one of the famous Chinese “water towns,” an ancient village built around canals and another World Heritage site, but very crowded with tourists, naturally all Chinese. The night separating the two days with Tom we stayed in Landison Lodging Resort, another one of the quaint boutique hotels with 30 or 40 rooms and located in the middle of tea plantations just outside of town. (And like most of these wonderful, small jewels, not many guests besides us. Not sure what that means.) All this was terrific except for the 90 degree heat, very high humidity and the exhaustion that was beginning to raise its ugly head again after three plus weeks of no letup.

The drive from the water town to our hotel in Shanghai where we are now took almost three hours. The surprise here was that about an hour before we got to the Shanghai city limits, we passed many new, single family housing subdivisions, the first and only we have seen in China—large, attractive new homes on small lots, very much like an upscale U.S. subdivision. Where did these come from?

The handoff in Shanghai was from Tom to “Vivian.” Vivian cheerfully showed up right on time to greet us the next morning as we were finishing our breakfast in the secluded garden. I was immediately relieved. She looked young. I have now given up all the formalities and go right to heart of the matter. The very first question I ask is whether you have a grandmother who is alive and how old she is. Bulls eye: still alive, age 72. Open for negotiations regarding adjustments to schedule.

I am not sure what the original schedule was supposed to be, but we ended up  visiting two extraordinary places in the morning. The first was Fuxing (pronounced Fuse-ing) Park, and the second was strolling along the waterfront of the river separating east Shanghai from west Shanghai. You will note that I have not tried to describe this city of 25 million.  Picture Manhattan, all constructed in the last 20 or 25 years, with stunning modern architecture, all kinds of colored lights on the buildings which at night give the appearance of a fairyland, crowded streets below which make New York City streets feel like Montana, and an energy level that is off the charts. The tallest building now stands at 117 stories and plans for bigger ones are in the works. I know this is sounding like a broken record: in 1986 there was no building over eight stories, no cars to speak of, only a handful of hotels.

The Fuxing Park experience was special. Vivian said that if we really wanted to understand Shanghai and could only visit one spot, this was the place to be. Our driver stopped in the heart of the city. We were surrounded by skyscrapers on one side and trees on the other. We got out and headed for the trees. After we had strolled through the park for about 15 minutes, Embry commented, “This is Central Park on steroids.”


In the first 15 or 20 minutes this is what we saw: dozens of couples—almost always a man and a woman—playing badminton with no nets and all very good; small groups of seniors doing Tai Chi; large groups of mainly seniors doing ballroom dancing, American style but to modern Chinese music; dozens of small groups singing with the live accompaniment of drums, stringed instruments, and horns—some sounding like church hymns, others like traditional Chinese music; scores of groups of men, many ages, sitting or standing around park benches with glasses of green tea stacked on tables, discussing the affairs of the day; artists sketching; mothers with small children; fathers with small children; grandparents with small children; kite flying; bubble blowing; families picnicking; Frisbee playing; jazz horn players playing along to dispirit tunes on boom boxes; card playing; chess playing; drum beating; juggling; more singing; more dancing; and then you turn a curve and it all repeats itself, the different kinds of music all blending together in what could be described either as cacophony or some brilliant modern masterpiece, a symphony titled “The New China.” Central Park on steroids.


We spent about an hour strolling through the park and then followed Vivian out of the park to the busy street, and, presto, our driver pulled up, as if by magic. You could never have pulled off a tour like the ones we have been having before the era of cell phones.

The next stop was the waterfront, which I actually recalled from my 1986 trip. As you may have guessed, it was now completely transformed. Where there were rundown houses, now there are 70-floor office buildings. Where there was a narrow sidewalk, now there is a wide promenade. We walked along this for awhile, gawking, with several thousand other tourists including a good number of Westerners, before heading to one of Vivian’s favorite lunch spots. By this time, however, I was wasted. The 90 degree heat, high humidity, and lack of enough water had pretty much finished me off, sending me into a tail spin with chills, no appetite (according to Embry, a sign I am in real trouble), followed by stomach flu symptoms, which knocked me out of commission for the next two days.


Always the trooper, Embry forged ahead. With Vivian as her guide, she attended an acrobat show that evening, then visited a silk museum the next day, toured a special classical Chinese garden of some sort, did some last minute souvenir shopping, and the following day toured on her own via subway (much newer and nicer than our Metro) the Shanghai Museum. I will leave it to her to describe all of that.

I was sorry not to be able to spend more time with Vivian, who wins the award for the “sweetest” guide and probably the most curious and inquisitive. When she could not answer a question that we asked, she was on the internet (not Google, thank you, since it is banned) to find the answer, which she usually was able to do. While our guides we have had have not always gotten the history or facts right (Embry read a couple of books on Chinese history before we came and knows more than they do in some areas.), they have all been highly professional and always got us where we were supposed to go. Even more important, because we were with them one-on-one for long drives, we got to know a lot about their personal lives and what it is like to grow up in the New China. And to have a living grandmother who is 70 years old!

So the final land leg before the Pacific Crossing is coming to an end. We are surely going to miss China, but frankly another few days at the pace we have been going and the horrid heat and humidity might just do us both in. In fact Embry had just come down with dreaded bronchitis. As my mother used to say, I think we may be getting a bit too old for this.

We just learned moments ago that the container ship is delayed indefinitely in Korea. First big glitch. More on that tomorrow. And there will be a few wrap-up China posts. Stay tuned…

Day 92 (Embry)

June 16


(Apologies: internet too weak for photos)

We are in Shanghai, our last city in China before we depart on the container ship day-after-tomorrow. Joe is under the weather and “wiped out,” so I am the one at the computer. Today I am going to write about a couple of very interesting topics and teach you some Chinese at the same time. The two topics are actually related in an indirect way.

The first topic is the hukuo, a person’s official place of residency. Your hukuo is stated on the “identity card” which each Chinese person carries. The interesting thing is that very often (for city-dwellers) this is not where you actually reside. Thus, because of the massive movement to cities in recent years, the official statistics on how many residents there are in certain urban places is incorrect (in Beijing and Shanghai understated by millions of people), and the population of rural areas is greatly overstated. Consequently planning for municipal services, especially schools, has lagged.

What is particularly puzzling for an American is the way that a person’s hukuo is determined. The system dates back to imperial times when the emperors wanted to count people for tax collection. Your hukuo is determined by your parents’ hukuo, not where you yourself are born. For example, both my parents were born in Georgia, so I am officially a resident of Georgia according to the Chinese system (for life, without very complicated paperwork to change it). You can change your hukuo to the place where you live, but only if you own property there and have a job there. (I believe you may also have to be married; I am not sure about that one.) Many (most) young people in their 20s and 30s cannot meet these requirements, because apartments are incredibly expensive in the cities, so they usually rent a place and double up just like they do at home.

Not having a correct hukuo is not very important when you are young and unmarried, but it becomes very important after you marry and have a kid. That is because (as I indicated) your child’s hukuo is determined by yours. (If parents have different hukuos then they can choose which to assign to their child; until about 15 years ago the hukuo was always assigned according to the mother’s hukuo (kind of like Judaism where the officials can never be sure of the paternity but they know the maternity for sure!)

If you live in a city, schools are in short supply and especially what are considered “good” schools.   (This is where the two topics of the day relate, which will become evident in a minute.) When you register your child for school, they can only go to the local public school if they have the hukuo for that municipality. If you are a low income migrant from a rural area, and cannot afford to buy property, you likely will have to send your child back to your home village to live with your parents or relatives so that they can go to school. Wealthier parents can pay very high fees to send their child to a good primary school (either public or private), or can afford to buy an apartment and change the hukuo.

Until the big changes about 30 years ago, people were not allowed to travel outside their place of residency, even within China. The changes were made to allow workers to travel for jobs, but the other consequence has been there are millions of Chinese now traveling for pleasure. It has taken this long for it to build up into a huge internal tourist enterprise, since people now have more vacation time (three mandatory weeks off) and they have more money to travel.

There are reasons why you might not want to give up your rural hukuo. When land reform happened under the Communists, village farmland, which had previously been owned by large landowners, was divided up into small plots and given to the village families. Later, all land was collectivized into large state-owned farms. After the Great Leap Forward and the associated famine, the land was again re-allocated back to the smaller plots.

While farmland is still owned by the state (as is all the land in China), families have the right to farm their land as long as their lease exists. (The leases are usually for 50 years, but we have heard different amounts of time, and we hare told “nobody knows what will happen with these leases run out; they haven’t told us.”) When families were large, two generations ago, these plots were divided into sub-plots, often very small. The rights to farm are passed down in the family.

You can only keep the right to your farmland if you have a rural hukuo for the village where it is located. The land can be valuable, sometimes very valuable. If the government decides to use that land for building, they will buy out your lease. There are many “rich farmers” on the outskirts of cities. If you do not want to farm your land you can lease it out to another farmer. There are now private companies that are putting together larger plots of agricultural land (which makes sense because farming such small plots can be inefficient) through multiple sub-leases. So keeping your plot can give you extra income. For this reason, a “mixed” couple might leave one parent’s hukuo in the village and give the child an urban hukuo through the other parent.

Health benefits are better for rural residents, in that it is cheaper to buy government-sponsored health insurance if you have a rural hukuo. This is another incentive to keep your rural residency, although you would have to return home to get health services (which are not considered to be as good). This resembles the Indian Health Service benefits and other aspects of tribal citizenship in the U.S.

The One Child Policy is tied up with the hukuo system. It has always been the case that a rural couple can legally have a second child if their first child is a girl. Of course the child would have a rural hukuo for sure! If you have a child illegally (outside the One Child Policy) that child does not get a hukuo at all until you pay a fine, which can be three times your annual salary. This is particularly hard to do for an unmarried mother. (Children of unmarried mothers are illegal.) So there are millions of “undocumented” children without an identity card, who cannot register for school or get any other benefits without it.

Are you confused or dismayed yet?

The next word I will teach you is gaokao, but only briefly because I am over my word budget for this blog post.

The gaokao is the annual college entrance exam, which occurs each June (it was last week) and ties Chinese families up in knots. These exams are the modern version of the Confucian exam system going back a thousand years. In those annual exams highly educated people were selected to work as officials in the imperial court on a merit basis. The gaokao has many similarities in that it is highly selective and is regularly corrupted.

Chinese primary and junior high schools are free (if you have the right hukuo), and are widely thought to be good quality, especially for literacy and numeracy. Then at about age 14 there is a first round of exams that determine which high school you can go to. This is where the intense selectivity comes into the system. There are “good high schools” and “not-so-good high schools.” If you do not get into a good high school your chances of going to a top university are close to nil. You can only apply to a high school that matches your hukuo, and the good high schools are in the cities, cutting out rural students from the best education after junior high. In Hangzhou, a medium sized Chinese city of 10 million, there are only 12 “good high schools” that admit only 45 people each per class per year, so a small fraction of those who want to attend.

Life for a highly motivated Chinese young person is very hard. There is lots of pressure. You are usually an only child, and so you must fulfill all the dreams of your parents and grandparents. You might not get into a high school near your home, so the commute can be up to 2 hours each way (or you stay in a dorm during the week). You might begin studying (“prep classes”) by 7 am, and then after school—which ends at 4 or 5—you have more studying, often ending at 11 pm. The lives of these young people are nothing like those of the typical U.S. high school student, who spends some time each day “hanging out” and “having fun.”

At about age 17 you take the gaokao, a three day exam of multiple subjects including (for everyone who aspires to go to college): Chinese, English (everyone!), math, geography, and history. There are three more subjects according to your expected major. The scores on these exams are the single factor determining which university you will be admitted to. We were told there are only 20 “good universities” in the country, many fewer than in the U.S., although our population is a third of China’s. If you do not get into one of those top schools, your chance at a good job, especially a job in government or a top private industry, is slim, and your parents and grandparents will be extremely disappointed. Hence the pressure. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with this system, since it cuts out a lot of talent early in life, but no serious reforms as yet.

I’m stopping here because I’m way over my “word budget.” Now you have expanded your Chinese vocabulary by two words!

Day 89 (Embry)

June 13


Last time I wrote about food. This time I will write about toilets. What goes in must come out. If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

Thus, when you travel one of the most important challenges is finding a toilet. One lucky fact is that, next to “OK,” probably the most recognizable word in the world is “toilet” (or some similar version of that word or the word “WC”). Adding a question mark or gesture creates, luckily, an understandable question: “Toilet?”

As we travel around the globe, we have confronted a variety of interesting situations toilet-wise. We eased into the “world of toilets” with the Holland-American Cruise line which was just like home. In Western Europe, the biggest question was how to find one. We soon learned in Spain, for example, that it was best to rely on buying an espresso. With that decision you had three benefits in one: a delicious espresso, some nice people-watching, and free access to the toilet. In the other European cities we visited there were actually some public toilets scattered around, but you had to know where they were, so cafes were the best bet there too.

We noticed a good technological innovation in Europe that has not reached home yet, the two-button flusher on the back of the toilet,: press one button to flush “number one” and two buttons (with more water) to flush “number two.” This saves water. Why don’t we have this?

There is also that extra bowl you find in many European bathrooms, especially in France. There is the sink, the toilet, and “that other thing” (called a bidet). Americans get perpetually confused with what to do with this item: pee, wash feet, wash clothes, or what? (I won’t go into it here…)


Toilets got more interesting as we crossed Asia and got into Siberia. There we confronted new toilet challenges, beyond where to find one, in particular the squatting toilet. With this toilet, you place your feet beside the bowl and squat down. This is probably the most prevalent form of toilet world-wide, and I have read that it is healthy. It certainly keeps you limber!

Tour guides must be constantly aware of how to plan for toilet availability. Not paying attention to this issue probably can lead to lots of complaints and fewer tips. (They must teach a course on getting clients to the toilet at the right time in “tour guide school.”) Our first Chinese tour guide gave a fifteen minute “toilet lecture” on our first day in the country. The Chinese do not seem to be a prudish people; she was very comfortable discussing toilets at length in front of a large mixed group of males and females. She said that she had a four level classification system for toilets, with those ranked “1” as the worst and those ranked “4” as the best. Grade 1 toilets are co-ed, squat toilets with no doors and no toilet paper. (“We don’t take our customers to those.”) Grade 2 toilets are co-ed, squat, and there are doors but no paper. (“We only take our customers there when someone is really desperate.”) Grade 3 toilets are single sex with doors,  but no paper.   (“This is what we usually have available for our customers.”) Grade 4 toilets are single sex,  and with paper. (“These are really great toilets!”)


We listened to her talk, and someone (a female) shyly raised her hand to ask this question. “What about sit toilets vs. squat toilets? Does that affect your grade?” Our guide laughed at that question and answered, “In China those sit toilets are for handicapped people or Westerners. They usually have those in big hotels, and you will find one or two in each big tourist bathroom. You can use it if you want to.”

It is amusing to me to see the American and Western European ladies lined up to use the “handicapped” toilet while there are empty stalls for the squat toilets. Perhaps because of my time in Africa and other less developed countries, I am usually happy for any kind of toilet. “When you got to go, you got to go.” Call it a free yoga class. (And I always carry a wad of tissues in my pocket.)

Day 88

June 10


Our river cruise boat made it through the five locks in the Three Gorges Dam in about five hours beginning around 10:00 pm, at which time, of course, we were asleep. The next morning we toured the dam along with everyone else on the boat. Big dam. Then we headed down stream for the last of the Three Gorges, the “most treacherous,” due to its fast current, completing the river journey in the “small town” of Yichang, population 1.5 million, and the place where most of the Yamaha pianos in the world are made. A transportation service met us and deposited us at the huge new, very crowded high speed rail station in time for the usual on-the-second departure, this time 2:30 pm. A good Samaritan helped getting the bags on the overhead rack.

We were off to Hefei. (or “He Fei,” you see it both ways.) What did I know about this city before hand or why we were going there? Nothing. You could ask how two elderly travelers could stumble through China with no idea where or why they were going to the next destination. In our weary defense all I can say is it is a pretty long trip, it is hard to keep up with all the moving parts, and we like surprises.

A bunch of surprises were ahead of us. We were met at 7:17 pm at another behemoth station by our new guide, “Ellen,” who was actually standing on the platform, a no-no in these stations, only passengers allowed. If you want to get an idea of how big the new, high speed rail stations are, think Dulles Airport terminal. She explained she “had connections,” and charged toward the exit with Embry’s bag in tow with Embry at her heals. I staggered not far behind. Hefei was only an overnight stop to allow us to go to the main attraction the next day, Huangshan, or the Yellow Mountains, said to be the most beautiful mountain range in China, which we learned from Ellen. She is in her early thirties, married with a three-year-old son, and does not have a seventy-year-old grandmother. In fact her grandmother died a few years ago in her early eighties. Could spell trouble, I thought, since we no longer had a compelling, anti-forced-march tactic. It turned out that of all the terrific guides we have had, Ellen was the most knowledgeable and the most honest; and since we traveled with her in the car for several hours, we learned a great deal about her personal life and about modern China, most of which I will have to save for a subsequent blog post.

That evening we collapsed after a good Chinese meal at our luxury Westin Hotel and were sort of rested and ready to go at 9:30 am the next day (negotiated down from an 8:00 am departure).

In checking out I heard an American voice at the spot next to me and commented to him, “Another American!”

“Not many of us here,” he said smiling. “In fact you are the first I have seen in the week I have been here.”

We briefly told each other what we were doing here, and it turns out he is a Harvard Business School professor (late 30s) on a Sabbatical and also going around the world, studying various economies, having spent the last several months in China.

To my question as to what he thought about the New China, he said, “This is frankly the most extraordinary thing that I have ever experienced. I still cannot believe it. Here we are in Hefei. Who ever heard of Hefei? Hell, there are over 7 million people who live here. It barely qualifies as a ‘medium sized’ city by Chinese standards. There has been nothing like the capital investment in housing and infrastructure in such a short period of time in all of world history.”

I asked,“Do you think this is going to bite them, all the overbuilding and whatnot?”

“You bet.”

But, sadly, there was no time to go into depth because Ellen and the driver were waiting, rested and raring to go. We wished each other good luck and off we went , headed to Huangshan.

Did we know anything about Huangshan? Of course not. But we learned from Ellen that it is a very beautiful mountain except that a good portion of the year it is shrouded in clouds, often with zero visibility. With rain two out of every three days and over 80 inches of annual rainfall, she could not promise anything.

Off we went. Three hours later we were at the tiny village at the base of the mountain, which naturally was invisible due to the clouds and rain. We took a bus going pretty much straight up for a half hour, then a cable car for 15 or 20 minutes up to where the mountain peak—1,700 meters or 5,500 feet–was supposed to be though nothing was visible. At the top we donned our rain outfits and started out in the fog and midst. (We had left our bags behind and carried only a small backpack with essentials.)  Our hotel was about a mile and a half away and accessible only on foot. Ellen said it was “a bit up and down” and usually took two hours. For seasoned walkers like us, a mile and a half in two hours seemed awfully long. We should be able to do this in maybe 40 or 50 minutes max.

Two hours later we finally reached the hotel, totally exhausted and in my case thankful I had not broken a leg or worse.


Shortly after we started the walk the magic began. If you looked closely, actually you could make out steep cliffs and high peeks, which at times became more visible. The whole experience had a fairyland feel to it. It rained on and off and toward the end of our walk was raining steadily. There were few people on the mountain besides us, and we were engulfed by a strange, eerie silence with the only sounds from an occasional bird or the wind sweeping clouds and mist past us. The name Huangshan means “yellow mountains,” but that has nothing to do with color but rather the association (somehow, I never fully understood it) with heaven. We were on a mountain considered by some to be heaven.

We tediously made our way up and down steps toward our destination. That for me was the problem. Before we finally reached our hotel, according to the iPhone 6 health app, we had climbed the equivalent of 15 flights of stairs and descended 25 flights. These steps were not typical of what we have in the U.S. They were narrower and steeper and very wet and slippery. In one instance looking down on what had to be at least 500, very steep steps with no hand rail on either side and cliffs below, I came very close to panicking. One false step and you were history. The solution to steady my shaky knees–and nerves– was to place one hand on Embry’s shoulder and one hand on Ellen’s and to inch down. A bit embarrassing, but that is the stage of life I am in. For the record for the two days we were on the mountain, I did not see a whole lot of people who looked like they were in their seventies.


We finally made it to a surprisingly elegant hotel (incredibly, one of six on the peak) and celebrated our victory at the fancy hotel lobby bar (like all hotel bars, never any Chinese customers and few customers of any nationality) with a triple Chevas Regal on the rocks for me, white wine for Embry. I had to explain how to fix the triple-on-the-rocks several times to the bartender (and so you won’t be alarmed, one shot of whisky in China is one-half ounce max.) That night I had trouble sleeping because of the fear of getting back the next day. Going up the steps was do-able, going down a nightmare.

As luck would have it, we awoke the next morning to blue skies overhead–the first blue sky we had seen the entire time we have been in China–and clouds beneath the mountains. Jackpot! You get this kind of weather only a handful of times each season. The scenery was beautiful the day before in the rain and mist, but on a day like this it was incomparable. The word must have gotten out because the mountain was packed with people. Where did they all come from?


All I can say is that Shangri La does exist, and it is here on Huangshan Mountain. Another one of these Chinese sleepers. Maybe most of the world knows about this place, but of course we didn’t. This was one of the most delightful surprises yet.

There are two perplexing questions about this magical place: how did they build six luxury hotels in the first place? They are on a mountain over 5,000 feet tall and 3,000 feet above the nearest road. Second, how do they get food up and trash down the mountain? There are over 2,000 hotel rooms up here. Can you imagine the food, beverage, and trash requirements? I never really got an answer to the first question, but as to the second, over 150 porters hike up the steep trails every day carrying up supplies and carrying down trash, a perilous hike of three hours each way.


After the hike back, which turned out to be much easier than the day before because the steps were not slippery and there were more steps up (25 flights) than down, we took the cable car down, then the local bus, which let us off near the restaurant where we had lunch the day before and had left our luggage. As always, our driver was patiently waiting.

That afternoon we took the back roads through lush valleys and tiny villages with white houses, mainly following a roaring stream. We made a stop at famous World Heritage site that afternoon (quaint and picturesque) and eventually arrived at our Crown Plaza Hotel alongside a wide river in Huangshan, a “small” town of about 200,000. This is also Ellen’s home town and she was proud to give us a quick tour of the gated community she lives in. This is a typical new development with many high rises and lots of stores, a kindergarten, a supermarket, and various community amenities. Her family of four (her mother is the live-in baby sitter for her three year old, and commutes every week from the farm where she and her husband live ) has lived here in their three bedroom, 1,200 square condominium for four years (original cost $50,000 plus around $15,000 for interior finishes, things we take for granted in the U.S. but not provided by builders in China.) She loves it.


“This is a dream come true. Just think, I grew up on a tiny farm in a tiny village and never dreamed I would ever leave. Then I got in a good university [in Shanghai], got a good education and have a career. Unlike my grandmother who did not meet her husband until the day of the marriage or even my parents who had sort of an arranged marriage, I married whom I wanted to. I am a professional. I live where I want to and can say and do what I want to. Tourists often ask me about the New China. The New China is great!”

We settled in early after a buffet dinner in order to be ready to head out early to Hangzhou the next morning. Every day is a new adventure in this county of infinite surprises.