Suzhou, China, Sept. 2015

The day had come. The decadent, pampered days of the transpacific cruise were over. Goodbye cabin stewards cleaning our rooms, goodbye Donut of the Day, goodbye drinkable water from the faucet, goodbye a/c, familiar food, knowing where we are sleeping each night. Sigh. But, also, hello, China! Or should I say ni hao? 

Getting ready to leave the cruise – the Fantastic twin scouts and Cleverly!

Debarkation was a bit chaotic. We were organized into groups by the cruise line, but then it all devolved into a crowd moving towards a very few immigration kiosks. After all that work to get Chinese visas, the immigration officer barely glanced at them. I kept thinking there was another step in the process, but there was only an exit sign and out the door we went. Next was taxi chaos where a man yelled in Chinese and my family got divided into two taxis, which we hoped were bound for the train station. The taxi ride was long enough to make me seriously concerned that we might not reunite at the station. Also, I had no Chinese currency- no yuan. All I could do was sit back in the bustling Sunday morning Shanghai traffic and hope for the best! We got there eventually and as I turned to ask the driver about my husband and two other children, he gestured towards the taxi right behind us and there we were- The Fantastic Six again! It was a big relief! 

But we were a hot mess! We had a large backpack each, plus a couple of other bags, the train station was massive and confusing with most signage only in Chinese characters, it was hot and muggy, the kids’ feet hurt, their backpacks were uncomfortable, and Truly had mysteriously sprouted a facial rash overnight. For all the disdain I had felt thinking about other cruise-goers with their detailed itinerary, limos, planned excursions, etc., I envied them now. They were probably in air conditioning in clean, ironed, color-coordinated outfits sipping a cold beverage while someone else schlepped their luggage around and asked what they’d like for lunch.

Back to our reality. We asked a bunch of people (trying English and a Chinese phrase book) and walked up and down staircases and followed directions from other people and eventually found a train to Suzhou, the location of our pre-planned hotel, which we had to arrange a few months ago in order to get the Chinese visas (a harrowing process). We took an excellent bullet train in under 1/2 hour to Suzhou. It was so awesome- clean and fast and cheaper than the taxi ride we had just taken!  

   Above: the sign tells you the speed of the train, which got up to about 300km/hr!

We found a taxi driver with a minivan who happily loaded ourselves and our luggage and found our hotel. It seemed fine until we realized we had booked the same hotel but a different location. We were able to get the same driver to return and take us to the correct location, but we quickly saw it was far from the historic district we were interested in, so we cancelled the reservation and reversed course again. The taxi driver suggested another hotel, which was wonderful and had elaborate fancy breakfast included and where we stayed for 2 nights until they raised their prices.


We walked around the canals with their lovely bridges and cozy alleyways, as well as the Temple of Mystery!  There were electric scooters everywhere! They are silent and they do not necessarily stop for red lights, so we had to cross streets carefully. There are beautiful pebble patterned walkways.



 The next day, we went walking around with someone we met on He is an American there for 4 months with his wife and young daughter while his wife teaches at a kindergarten. He had been there 3 weeks and we walked around the canal area some more, went to a pagoda building, and also a market where we had Indian food for lunch.  We saw Buddha gourds which are grown in special molds. 

There are canal streets and canal alleys and even smaller canal back alleys. We saw people fishing, hanging laundry, bride and groom photo shoots, and wonderful historic architecture. The weather was perfect.


We ate amazing street food! Noodle soups, and these crepe-like egg&vegetable things in a bag. And dumplings. And roasted chestnuts. And more noodle soup!

Stranded in Suzhou!

It seems we landed at a challenging season for travelers. It is the time of the mid-autumn festival, the second biggest holiday in China and a time when almost a billion people travel to be with family. That’s right, almost a billion. We were unable to get tickets to our next destination for 6 days! While our first hotel- Yitel in the Gusu district- was wonderful and only $40/ night, we had to get 2 rooms due to having 6 of us. Then their prices doubled the 2 nights after that, and they had no vacancies for 2 nights after that. 

So, to keep it real, I must report that in our first 24 hours traveling for real, we had to deal with: unavailable train tickets, price-gouging hotels, severe bouts of homesickness from more than one child, our helplessness that we cannot speak or read mandarin, a facial rash that appeared out of nowhere on one of the twins (looks like poison ivy but we had been on a boat for 2 weeks!!), and head lice. Gah!

What to do? The rash and homesickness eventually faded, I treated the lice with diatomaceous earth powder I happened to have, to communicate we drew pictures and used the phrases we had in the back of a 2007 China guide book I got at a thrift store, and I just stayed giddy that we were actually RTWing and nothing could really get me down. Mr. Fantastic found a motel two blocks away with better prices, but even theirs doubled our last two nights as well. We turned to couchsurfing and found a budget hotel room in Shanghai for the last two nights. The catch was, we had to get to Shanghai to meet the host before 9am. We barely made it, but we made it and we are forever grateful to Rasa the couchsurfing host who connected us with that room!

In Suzhou, we kept exploring the town, eating and walking around. It rained heavily one day and we enjoyed the specialized scooter umbrellas and rain jackets we saw. 


We spent a day with Liu, a local we met on couchsurfing. We walked around a different historic area and he also generously helped us translate a few things and plan how to get to Shanghai. 

 That’s Liu (with backpack) in front of Cleverly as we walked under a bridge with a lovely vertical garden. I wish I had a better picture! He took a few of Cleverly and me.


And so we passed a few days in Suzhou. It was a nice place to start our adventures, and I would definitely return. The people were so friendly and sweet despite the massive language barrier, and it felt so safe. It was clean and quiet, too, despite having a population of over five million people. There were quiet places and historic homes with people living in them. The subway system was sparkling new, clean, and reliable. Getting out was a bit chaotic, but that is for another post. Until then, zhao tien!

Short update 10/3/2015

We made it through our first week post-cruise! Wifi is sketchy so uploading pics is slow, no posts ready at the moment. Also, it is true that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are blocked here so I can’t access my gmail.  

We spent 4 nights in Suzhou, then 2 nights in Shanghai. In a few hours, we get on a 40-hr (!!)train ride from Shanghai to Kunming in south central China. From there, we will get ready to go to Laos and hopefully we will have better wifi. 

Repositioning Cruise part 4: Japan, Sept. 2015

Miyazaki, Japan 

 Miyazaki rocky islands, marching band playing for us at the pier, pilot boat guiding cruise ship to port

This was another first for the cruise line, along with Dutch Harbor. I liked checking out this little port town. We basically walked around, looking at regular people living their lives. It was refreshing and more real than life on the ship or the bigger cities with the high fashion and ridiculous dogs.  There was a run-down little mall, a sort of rusted, worn version of the mall at Kobe. The narrow streets were beautiful, full of children and laundry and elderly neighbors passing the time. There were shrines tucked into little spaces here and there.  


Above: Flower store at the mall, Below: historic bridge and canal houses   



This was my favorite shrine. It was in the middle of an alley neighborhood, tucked under a large rock in a hill. 


 The neighborhood was so quiet despite the massive cruise ship in town for the day. 



The alleys got very narrow and we could peek into the houses. Shoes were neatly set out in small entryways, people were cooking, a couple of kids played in the alleys. We got some smiles and “hello”s in English and Japanese “kanichiwa”. People bowed a lot and we bowed back, which was so endearing. Maybe I’m stereotyping or I’ve been on the East Coast US too long, but the place seemed so safe and quiet, and everyone seemed so genuinely nice! After walking around for a few hours, we walked back to the ship for our last night onboard.

Japanese toilets

It would be remiss not to say something on this subject. Two words: control panels. Yes, these toilets have so many options you’d never imagine you’d need in a toileting situation. The very few we figured out are: heated seat controls, recorded flush noises (to mask the embarrassing noises of actually using the toilet, we think), and bidet services. What else could you possibly use while you’re on the john?? Like learning other things about life in Japan, alas, we had so little time and could only ponder the possibilities. Apologies, some pics are fuzzy, I blame being rushed, uneven lighting, and generally feeling weird about taking pics in a public bathroom!

  Below: looks like your basic urinal, but why were they in every women’s room in Japan?? For moms with little boys? We never saw them used, so we are left wondering.

Below: squattie or potty? The choice is yours! I felt as proud as a potty-trained toddler after my first successful use of the squattie!  
For the uninitiated, there is a lot of info out there on squat toilets. The most interesting thing to me is that they are supposed to be better for the mechanics of the human GI tract than western-style seat toilets.

That’s all for Japan. Next stop, China! And- terrifying but true-the Fantastics have to fend for themselves without the cruise ship staff!! What will happen?? Stay tuned!

Repositioning Cruise part 3: Japan, Sept. 2015

  Kobe, Japan. We arrived in this port late in the afternoon,but were staying until the next day at 5. Incidentally, our Flash Mob Thriller Dance group performed this morning at a well-attended event, and it was a lot of fun.    

  At the pier again, we were serenaded with music, this time by a traditional drumming group, which was really excellent.  We got off the ship and took the shuttle to Chinatown, where we walked around the bright streets and little alleys. There was also a covered shopping center, not quite a mall because cars could pass by where roads intersected.



 It was nice to roam without concern for missing the boat, since we were there until the next day.  We meandered for a while then went back to our floating hotel. The next day, we had plans with the kids’ friends and family.  We headed out on a complicated trip via bus and taxi and cable car to an area with natural hot springs.  Sadly, however, the weather did not cooperate and the second cable car- the one that is suspended between two mountains andwould take us to the hot springs – was shut down due to high winds.  This necessitated a change in plans since the other way to the hot springs would take us almost back to the port.  We decided to stay near the first cable car area, which was in a national park.    

We took the cable car up a steep hill to a shuttle bus that brings tourists to a number of sights.  We were all excited about a particular museum on the route – The Music Box Museum.  We found the place and went inside – what a find!  The building looked like a Swiss chalet, complete with staff in traditional European. The museum housed a number of historic music boxes, broadly defined.  There were automated figures that played music, classic wind-up boxes, player pianos, a polka playing contraption complete with accordions that took up an entire wall, one that incorporated violins, and primitive phonographs. 





 Every half-hour was a concert in which several of these were wound up for us to experience.  We were enthralled,though we could not understand the elaborate descriptions in Japanese.  At one point, there was a hauntingly beautiful presentation of Alice in Wonderland done in paper cut outs (some originals were on display near the entrance) with the music boxes for musical accompaniment.   

   Alice in wonderland cut-outs, and below is an embroidered musical score “Death Song”. Why someone embroidered a musical score and why they chose “Death Song” I have no idea.

 We were all blown away by the strange, unexpected place. Our admission also got us into the botanical gardens next door.  


We made our way back to the ship and headed to the next stop.

Repositioning Cruise part 1: Vancouver to Alaska, Sept. 2015

   I never expected to find myself learning the “thriller dance” for a flash mob performance somewhere in the Pacific Ocean with a crowd of retirees and Chinese nationals, yet there I was.  It was Day 3 of the 15-night cruise we had been planning for months, years even, to get to Asia. And Taylor the Activities Host was teaching Fiercely and me how to dance like a zombie.  


 Above: the ship docked at Dutch harbor and the kids checking out the pool

How to explain the cruise?  It was everything we had expected – a floating hotel, karaoke, silver-haired couples in formal wear, endless buffets.  It was a massive boat with 11 floors, many elevators, a 1200-seat theater, bars and restaurants, a spa, pools, a gym.  We were an oddity on board with our backpacks and four homeschooled children catching a ride West from Vancouver on our Trip Around the World. Incidentally, our children made up 1/3 of the total number of children on the ship, with its population of approximately 3,000 people.  Folks onboard were friendly and curious, but also absorbed with excursion itineraries, drink specials and an onboard art auction, where, by the way, Cleverly saw a painting being sold for an amount equal to roughly six months of our travel budget.  We figured we were on the low end of the financial picture of most passengers, and we had the wardrobe to match.  I tried not to dwell on our relative shabbiness and just enjoy the ride.  We were pleased that no one would try to steal our stuff, theirs being better stuff than ours, and to relax knowing that our room and board were covered for a fortnight. 


Above: A lady, possibly German, who didn’t speak English posed us and took the above pic after we’d asked for her to take one with the hills in the background as we left Vancouver. She preferred this angle LOL!

Vancouver was gorgeous, clear and lovely as we pulled out of the port on a Friday.  Then we were at sea about four days until we reached Dutch Harbor on Alaska’s Aleutian islands.  During those days, we settled in and the kids became adept at getting to and from our rooms, the restaurants, and the kid’s area where they spent most of their time.  The kid’s area was staffed by various crew members, the first of whom assured me that there were no educational activities because “we just want the kids to have fun”. My kids argued a little about that, pointing out that they liked learning cooking, for example, but I just let it go.  I’m not sure exactly what they did there but they did get a tour of the ship, watch movies, play video games, and do some crafts. About once a day, they joined us at a talk in the ship’s theater, which we encouraged because a lot of the topics were interesting and we wanted to take advantage of the presentations.  

 Above: one of our 2 rooms. The chair in R foreground folded out to a bed. It was small but comfortable and stewards cleaned twice a day! We never could get it to our usual level of squalor LOL

 eating by the pool as we docked somewhere

One of the first days, we learned that Dutch Harbor, on Amaknak Island in Unalaska, AK is the site of a reality show about fishing, The Deadliest Catch.  A speaker on board gave several talks about his experiences fishing there, in the very deep, productive waters of the Bering Sea. The day we spent at Dutch Harbor was really beautiful.  We had a lot of cold, damp weather on the ocean, which is what I expected, given our route in the North Pacific and the time of year. The sun shone through some clouds that day, and we took the free shuttle to the town center to look around.  We spent a little time on a rocky beach and found jellyfish and some flowers.    



  We did some errands and I went alone to the Aleutian History Museum, since no one wanted to go with me.  Maybe I should have made them come, but I didn’t insist, and I really did enjoy checking it out on my own.   The original inhabitants of the island were astute when it came to fishing and protecting themselves against the harsh weather.   


 Analaska island is also known for its part in World War II and in the 1980’s for lucrative King Crab hauls.  And then, more recently, The Deadliest Catch I suppose.  I liked the museum and the views were jaw-dropping. The town was not accustomed to large cruise ships like ours; there was a craft fair of sorts, also locals volunteered to help us to the tourist attractions.   

 Above: giant lines of “crab pots” we’re all over the island

At the appointed time, we got back on the ship and moved slowly out of the port.  As we did, I could hardly believe my cynical, East Coast eyes but we saw whales spouting and even breaching in the sea!  That was a major highlight. Fiercely got this photo of the whale tale:

    above is an eagle- we saw eagles!  


Vancouver, Sept 2015

We switched cars in Bellingham, WA as requested by the car rental company. By the way, when I originally looked into rentals, it did not look like we could return a car in Canada, so we scheduled to return it to Bellingham. But always ask! When we asked in San Francisco, the office suggested we ask Bellingham directly, so we did and it worked out well. This saved us from one parent having to drop off five of us in Vancouver, return the car in WA, and take a bus to meet the rest of us, crossing the border three times on the process.  Also, we ended up with a giant minivan…for the last 70 miles of the 4500 mile trip!  

   We passed massive, snow-covered Mt. Rainier.   

 We crossed the border into a lovely Canadian sunset. We were kind of bummed that they don’t stamp US passports when you enter Canada. We were leaving the country! If you have to show your passport, you should get a stamp! We asked but no dice. Ah well.

We drove through the glittering city to the Strathcone neighborhood and our hotel. Budget, historic but not hip, with a pub attached and a homeless encampment a block away, the Patricia Hotel suited us fine. It was built 100 years ago and is known for jazz music, notably Jelly Roll Norton who performed and stayed at the hotel around 1919-1921, as well as for a boxing ring it once housed in the basement. The neighborhood was just what I love- within a few blocks we could check out Chinatown, downtown, the homeless scene which seemed to involve streetside vending of used items (we donated some things we were getting rid of from our luggage), a few parks, old hotels, and neat-as-a-pin middle class neighborhoods. We even walked back from the port where our ship leaves tomorrow! We dropped off the rental car there and hoped to catch a glimpse of our cruise ship, but a porter told us it doesn’t come until later. First, the port:

Then downtown: 


 Above is Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese classical garden

 By the way, that insurance building is in the Guiness book for being the narrowest building in the world! It ends where the color changes to a bluish color to the left.

We went to 2 playgrounds: 

   Nice houses! 

 And Hastings St.area. Our room was near the ‘T’ in Patricia.

 Views from our room:

   Candy bars from Canada! Apparently we have a special interest in local candy bars.

I liked the electric buses and the alleys full of wires 



I would love to bike this city! It is not too hilly, there are bike lanes, and walking is just so darn slow. But this day was not for biking for us; we still had errands and winnowing down our luggage and such. 

And that’s it for a while! We’re about to board the ship!