Sunday, November 27, 2011

Getting to Know China Without Actually Speaking Chinese

[Editorial Note: As we thought might happen, our blog was blocked in China. There is blogging in China, on Chinese websites like Weibo. But the government can't edit out things it doesnt like on or other western sites, so they disappear. Try to go there, and you get a message that looks like the one that pops up when your computer has gone offline. So we're now back in the U.S., trip all done. This and subsequent posts are not as contemporaneous as we like to be, but perhaps will gain something from hindsight.]

Traveling generally requires a good bit of reading and speaking: road signs and maps, menus and train schedules, labels in museums and signs over exit doors, and questions galore for others or questions posed to you. Seeing and understanding a country is a tad challenging when you don't read or speak the language. Which we don't when it comes to Chinese. So how did we do it? And how successful were our efforts?

A lot of our stories will be in the blog posts to follow, but we thought we'd start our exploration of China with a few words on how we prepared for this challenge, and how it worked in practice.

First off, we actually prepared a lot. We were very lucky to get into Professor Madeleine Dong's History of Modern China class during the Spring Quarter at the University of Washington, where we audit classes through the Access Program for senior citizens when we are not on the road -- we get to enjoy the readings and lectures without all those annoying term papers, midterms and finals! We constantly found references in places visited to topics from that class, from the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions to the foreign concessions imposed by western countries on the Chinese to the Cultural Revolution, and to people studied, from the Qing emperors to Sun Yat-sen to Mao and Deng Xiaopeng.

Besides the books for Dr. Dong's class, we also read much more. Jeff focused on travel guides, Louise on personal narratives and novels. Before our prior visit to China we had both read Jan Wong's Red China Blues, an amazingly perceptive and sometimes painful view of life in China from the tumultuous late '60s to the '80s by one of the few westerners present in those xenophobic times. This time around we both read A Traveller's History of China for an overview of the full span of Chinese history. We like this series, and have used other books from it for New Zealand, Southeast Asia and Japan. In addition to 4 or 5 books about China read in the prior two years, Louise read over a dozen more just before or during the trip, the best of which were Peter Hessler's three memoirs of his Peace Corps experiences in China and subsequent adventures around the country, Jonathan Watts' ecological view of China in When A Billion Chinese Jump, and Lisa See's novel Dreams of Joy. There are many more good ones, just ask Louise and she'll give you a list with a month's worth of great reading.

We drew up a tentative itinerary, and for each city on it Jeff found and printed maps, guidebook selections and info from the web, especially from, where travelers have provided commentary and prices about sightseeing destinations. For 12 of the 15 cities we ended up visiting, this gave us a decent starting point of information and orientation. For the other 3 cities that were added to the itinerary as we went, it was trickier, particularly with no printed map. In Taiyuan, where we found a rudimentary map posted at the train station, we used the trick of taking a photo of it. For Luyuan and Hangzhou, we found maps on the Internet before arrival using wifi with the iPad at our hotels. The problem, never fully solved, was that they usually wouldn't appear unless we were actually on wifi, which we almost never found mid-day, but we managed to navigate to our hotels in both cases and find a free printed map there with sufficient details to suffice. In fact, we always asked for a map at each hotel, and more often than not these maps provided additional info beyond the ones we had found on the Internet.

We both read two additional books of advice for travelers to China. We found we had gleaned most of the advice already from our other wide reading and from our own experience of four days in China during our repositioning cruise from NZ to the West Coast in 2009, though we picked up a few new kernels of wisdom.

The one most important piece of advice we can give to anyone trying our sort of adventure is to do whatever you can to print out, in Chinese, the name and address of your hotel before arriving in a new city. The reason is simple: taxis are amazingly affordable in China (we'll say more about prices further on), but we never met a single taxi driver who could speak, let alone read, a single word of English. But show the driver your little piece of paper, wait for a nod of the head signifying recognition of the place or at least some idea of where it is, and you're as good as there.

Finding lodging was of course a big challenge, but made quite manageable by the wonders of the world wide web. We chose three hotels based on recommendations in guidebooks supplemented by checking out their own web pages and Expedia. We selected 2 or 3 more through Expedia, always looking not only at prices but also at other travelers' reviews. But over half we selected through, a Chinese equivalent to Expedia, which links very smoothly to reviews on plus also had more listings and sometimes better prices than Expedia. Elong's biggest plus, however, was the email confirmation they send you with your hotel's name and address both in English and in Chinese. Chinese characters are often identical to Japanese kanji characters Louise was familiar with, so she became our amanuensis, transcribing these to paper since we never had access to a printer when we were on the web. Finally, once at a hotel we always picked up its business card, a standard traveler's trick in China, as it always had the precious name and address in Chinese, and almost as often a map to help you or a taxi driver navigate back there.

In 5 of the 15 cities we used their subways, so often we became quite proficient at it since each system was largely similar to every other one. You found the ticket dispensing machine, you pressed the button for English, you pressed the button for the line your destination was on, found the destination and pressed it on the screen, and it told you the price and asked you how many tickets. Feed the coins or bills and out came your tickets and any change you were due.

What came next was odd. Every subway system but one had an airport-like x-ray machine at every station where we had to put our backpack or any loose bag on for screening. The standards were so loose you'd have to be hauling in a WWII-sized bomb to trigger any reaction, it seemed, but we guess they figure it's somehow worth the manpower to staff these, two people per checkpoint, generally two checkpoints per station.

In any event, subways were easy to figure out, incredibly cheap, and like any subway, the fastest way to get around any large city. Probably more so in China, where street traffic is tremendously congested.

To get from city to city, we used trains for all but one long hop done by air. Trains are fast and relatively inexpensive, but the system for getting tickets takes "quirky" to a whole new universe. Except for the Beijing-Tianjin run and for trains in the Nanjing-Suzhou-Shanghai-Hangzhou triangle, where there are multiple trains per hour and we could go to the station and get a ticket for a train leaving shortly, we used travel agents. In order to visit Pingyao, our travel agent had to use the sort of creativity that among writers wins awards with names you've heard of. Suffice it to say that, except for some angst about getting the tickets, we were very pleased with the train system and the benefits of using it to get around the country. We'll save all the wonderful stories for subsequent blog posts, they'll read better in context.

We did a lot of walking. In almost every city there were moments of disorientation, but we mostly got where we wanted to get, more or less directly. If there was a street sign, it was always in Chinese and in pinyin, the system of writing out Chinese phonetically using the Roman alphabet. Finding those signs was the bigger challenge as they're not at street corners, but usually set back 5-10 meters from the corner. The street names -- in fact many, many place names -- were easy to understand, once you became familiar with some recurring words.

The Chinese are big on directions, and once you learn them, things fall into place. "Bei" is north, as in Beijing, northern capital. Nanjing means "southern capital." The provinces of Hebei and Henan are on either side of the Huang He, which we call the Yellow River in English, while Hubei and Hunan Provinces flank a large lake in central China. Shandong is east of a certain mountain range, Shanxi west of it, so now you know the words for "east," "west" and "mountain." Tiananmen (which can also be written as Tian An Men or as TianAnMen) Square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and many cities will have a Nanmen or Dongmen Street, where there is or once was a southern gate or an east gate through the city walls. All streets we encountered were either a "Lu" (road), "Jie" (street) or "Dajie" (big street, i.e. avenue). What gets tricky is that streets change names often, so you might be on Dongmen Nanlu, then a few blocks later on Dongmen Zhonglu, and in another kilometer on Dongmen Beilu, as you've walked down what has gone from South Dongmen Street to Middle Dongmen Street to North Dongmen Street. So, not really all that complicated, once you see the pattern.

Finding toilets was surprisingly easy, they were well marked and never once did Jeff have to recall which of those characters meant "men" and which "women," as they were always marked in English or with the universal symbols. What you found in the restrooms, once you found them, was another matter. For guys, it's not a problem most of the time as there were always urinals. But for those special moments, or for any visit by a western woman, there's always the question of "throne" or "squatter." On rare occasions you were given a choice, but only once, in S. Korea actually, did we find it marked. If it mattered to you, you pushed on doors and checked each stall.

Not counting hotels, where there was always a western-style toilet, Louise found herself using a squat toilet about 3/4 of the time. Having used them often in her years in Japan, she wasn't as taken aback as most Westerners are by them, and she actually prefers one to a wet toilet seat 10 times out of 10. We found that public toilets provide toilet paper maybe 1 time in 10, so never left the hotel without packages of Kleenex. There was almost always a sink, but rarely soap, so we carried along a little bottle of "body wash" liquid soap picked up at a hotel, which lasted the whole trip. Paper towels are virtually unheard of, but some places had hand blowers, and Louise carried her owncloth towel for convenience. Last but not least is the smell. It's a familiar one to be sure, but truly rank public restrooms were several times more common than we've found in our travels in the U.S., and Jeff found that about a quarter of the ones he visited were also fairly thick with the smell of cigarettes.

Finding restaurants was no harder than in the U.S., but finding ones with English on the menu was trickier, and with appealing choices harder yet. In Seattle and even more so in Vancouver, we can get really good Chinese food. Ironically, in China it was challenging. So much was fairly oily, and we never mastered the art of getting things lightly spiced. We quickly learned to say "bu la" for "no spice," but then Jeff sometimes had to ask for chili peppers (in oil, of course) it would be so bland.

It also didn't help that many of the menu choices were . . . uh . . . strange. A few were just bad translations, such as the buffet we went to one morning at our hotel which had an item called "breakfast bowel." Louise persuaded the manager to change the spelling, on the spot. Some were ambiguous, even with a photo. Other items were, shall we say, an acquired taste we didn't care to acquire, such as chicken feet. Then there were the ones that just puzzled, such as "Pork colon in oyster sauce." "That's just a bad translation, right? They don't really eat . . . Well, let's see what's on the next page of the menu." With the help of guidebooks we did find a handful of very good places, but frankly we found ourselves in McDonalds, Subway and KFC more often than we like to admit, so tired did we get with the effort of finding enticing meals in the local cuisine. But the more gastronomic among you are invited to drool over a few of Pingyao's local specialties in the next photo. We actually ate at this place, but skipped the "Cosmetic Meat" and the "Fries Pulls Out the Rotten Child." Don't know, guess we just weren't in the right mood for those particular local treats that day.

Thanks to guidebooks and our background reading, we did not need local guides either to find interesting places or to put them in their historical and cultural perspective. At most museums and historic sites we found that many signs were labeled both in Chinese and in English, but individual artifacts less commonly so, particularly in the cities less visited by Westerners. If we needed a taxi to get to a more remote attraction, the hotel always had a checklist of place names on the back of their name card to point to, or someone at the desk would write it out for us to hand to the driver. But most places we walked to, using our maps, or got there by subway.

As mentioned earlier, Louise does know quite a few words of written Chinese thanks to her knowledge of Japanese kanji. Numbers are identical, for example. But her kanji vocabulary was never enormous and is slipping through nonuse -- it's been 17 years since she left -- and there are two huge caveats. One is that the Communist Party of China decided in the early '50s to simplify a number of characters, e.g. taking one with 9 strokes and making it over with 6. We both eventually got to know the character for gate, but it was a stranger the first time Louise saw it. They took out the doors in the kanji version, leaving only the frame and a new short stroke. The second and far, far bigger limitation on Louise's knowledge was that the Japanese had borrowed the characters and (usually) the meaning, but not the pronunciation. So she could sometimes tell what something was, but had no clue how to say it.

So we worked on our written language skills, Jeff learning his first two dozen characters, Louise learning a few dozen new ones. We both tried to speak Chinese, usually places or streets we were looking for, but mostly got blank stares, like a visitor to Seattle asking for the spice noodle rather than the Space Needle. But the language skill we got best at was sign language. We're sure we left more than one person muttering "strange foreigners" in our wake, but we survived.

In our travels we saw relatively few Westerners, and in fact extremely few Americans. From our few encounters, we think the reason is that very few venture off on their own as we did. When we did meet them, they almost always had a private guide nearby, taking them from place to place, finding them restaurants and getting them to hotels that cater to such arrangements, and giving them commentary on what they were seeing.

Our system was no better or worse than theirs (though vastly less expensive), just different. For someone who doesn't want to take courses in Chinese history or to read a shelffull of books, a guide is invaluable, and there are certainly many insights we missed as we visited historic places without one. We did do one full day guided tour to the famous Terra Cotta Warriors near Xi'an, and we're very glad we did.

What we gained, of course, was flexibility to see what we wanted, for as short or as long as we chose. We saw far fewer temples per day than almost any guided tourist would experience. Been there, done that, let's just visit these three or four outstanding ones during our six week visit. Other places saw us look at every item, read every sign, we couldn't get enough of this amazing history or art or culture. And of course we had spontaneity galore.

What we lost, besides the guides' knowledge of the places they knew well, was the chance to actually talk to our Chinese hosts. Regrettably, we encountered very few who had the time and the English language skills to chat with us about what their lives were like, or how they perceived the changes taking place in their cities and in their country, or what they would like to know about our lives and our country. Perhaps that's why Louise read so many books about China, particularly memoirs, to have those conversations vicariously through her authors. In some ways we were like archaeologists studying the culture through its artifacts. Like them we indeed learned a lot, even without actually talking to the folks living amidst all that we were taking note of. But our trip lacked a fullness that we missed at times.

One final word about prices in China, and we'll sign off and start working on the blogs to come, the ones with the stories and photos you really come here to read. Not counting our cruise to get here or our air fare to get home, our daily expenses were about $175/day combined, for the two of us. Had we not taken a three day boat cruise down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, which was quite pricey, the average would have been more like $160/day, comparable to what we often spend on our bike trips in the U.S.

We mostly stayed at 4 star hotels, which in America would be considered 2 star places, though we did splurge it Tianjin and got triple our money's worth in historical payback, as we'll tell you in an upcoming blog. Our average night cost under $90, and we were as comfortable as we needed to be, or could be with China's notoriously hard beds under our tired bodies. Meals were far cheaper than in the U.S., by 30-40%. The biggest exception was Starbucks, which Jeff patronized twice, paying just over $4 for a grande mocha, about the same as in Seattle. At the other end of the scale, there was the baozi stand in Suzhou (here's a photo of a similar though smaller one in Pingyao) where awoman had two tall stacks of wooden trays with a different kind of steamed dumpling on each tray, some meat- and others vegetable-filled, and each one going for 5 cents apiece! We were stuffed long before we could get even close to $1.

Many but not all museums and historic sites charged a fee, but even the most outstanding rarely exceeded $10/person. In six weeks, we spent only $250 combined, plus $125 for two for an all-day excursion to the Terra Cotta Warriors and another historic site en route. In short, we got 6,000 years of Chinese history over a six week period for much less than a pair of 3-day passes to Disneyland.

Transportation was also very cheap. Most subway rides were 32 or 48 cents, a handfull 64 cents, and only one more than that, a 90-minute ride from Shangai to Pudong Airport 46 km away, which cost $1.12. In every city the drop fee for a taxi was $1.45 to $1.90 for the first 3 km, then 9-12 cents per km. Most taxi rides were $3 to $5 for the two of us, a few were just the drop fee.

Intercity travel by train was fast, comfortable and reasonable, about $35 for two for one trip we did that was about the same distance as from Seattle to Portland or NYC to Washington DC. Had we taken the slow train, it would have been about half that cost. How fast are the fast trains? As fast as Japan's famous Shinkansen, or "bullet trains." We'll say much more as we describe the rides in later posts. In all, we took 14 different train rides for a total of almost 3,000 miles.

We can't say much about airplane travel since we only took one flight, but we can say that it was shorter than Seatle to San Francisco but cost 10-20% more than a quick check of Expedia gave us for the latter, but either of those figures could be an anomaly.

If any of our readers would like more info or specific recommendations of hotels we used, just give us an electronic jingle at Otherwise, we think you've gotten enough of the nuts and bolts of how we did it, let's get on with telling you about how it went. We'll post a new episode every few days 'til we get them written, so stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hiking High Above Pusan

As we prepared for this trip last Spring, Jeff scoured the Seattle and King County library systems for reasonably current guidebooks. Researching Pusan (also sometimes spelled Busan), our one stop in S. Korea, one book said exciting things about an ancient Korean temple, Beomeo-sa, calling it "perhaps Busan's best sight . . . a world away from the urban jungle, with beautiful architecture neatly set against an extraordinary mountain setting." Sounded pretty good, but there was more -- it was right next to Geumjeong Fortress, not a fort but rather a wall built in 1703, behind which the city hoped to protect its people if the Japanese or Chinese invaded again, as the former did in 1592 and the latter in 1636. Can't tell you why the delay in building the thing, but we can advise you that the guidebook's statements that we would find some of the city's best hiking, and that it would be "a comfortable hike with a few steep stretches" were both serious understatements.

Before arriving we had roped another game couple into joining us, David and Katherine. At dawn we stood on deck and watched Pusan come into focus as the Diamond Princess made its way to our dock. Through the morning mist we saw a group of skyscrapers come into view, the newly-risen sun glinting off the tops of the tallest ones, and thought it was the city, only to discover it was merely a distant suburb. Then we passed a starkly beautiful apartment or condo development looking out over the rocky shoreline, also miles from downtown.

At last we entered the main part of the port and saw some of the cranes for handling containers that make Pusan Korea's busiest port city (and 5th busiest container port in the world, roughly equal to the entire U.S. West Coast combined). Our berth was across from those cranes, both us and the cranes about a dozen miles from anything that could be called "downtown." As we disembarked, a local bank had parked a bus at the dock that had been converted into a mobile bank. With swift efficiency we exchanged a few dozen dollars for a few thousand "won," the local currency, and headed with David and Katherine for the taxi stand. For about $30 split between us we were whisked on surprisingly unjammed expressways through downtwn and at least a dozen miles beyond into the hills, and deposited at the doorstep of Beomeo-sa. We had come 25-30 miles and a world away, halfway up a mountain and deep into the forest. Quiet enveloped us, broken by an occasional bird chirping.

Beomeo-sa indeed had beautiful architecture, some of it recently repainted in exuberant Korean designs. But the memory that will remain long after the architectural details have merged with those of many other temples, is the chanting. As we approached the first building, we began to hear a monk intersperse minute-long verses chanted with his congregants with pauses of a similar length, when he would sound out a haunting and irregular beat using a baton on a hollow piece of wood, ending with a single high-pitched "ting" on a small brass bell. And then another verse came floating, ethereally, out the temple doors.

A second building looked quiet, a place of worship no longer needed in this busy world of ours, a quaint relic of history. But as we walked up the stone steps to the veranda we discovered that it was broken up into three separate rooms, and each one was filled with 1-2 dozen folks quietly murmuring prayers. So too a third building! Between us we have seen many, many temples in the Far East, and never one so active as a religious site, not just a tourist one.

After taking a photo of one of a series of paintings that told religious stories in ways that are remarkably similar to what one would find in a medieval European church, we headed out to explore Geumjeong Fortress. Lucky for us, we came upon a map that was far better than the minimalist one Jeff had copied from that guidebook. Taking photos of maps encountered on hikes is a trick we learned a ways back. Yes, they're teeny-tiny on a digital camera screen, but you can enlarge a portion of almost any map enough to read a relevant portion of it. Well, yes, this one was in Korean, but at least we could see where the trails were and where they went to.

Having a map was one thing, doing the hike another. This was a steep bugger! At least the temperature was comfortable, the air clean, the forest attractive. But boy, was it vertical! After 45 minutes of heavy going we reached the North Gate, one of only 4 in the 17 km-long wall. The wall itself wasn't at all tall, generally only 5 to 9 feet. Like so many grandiose defensive works, such as the forts that ring Seattle or the Maginot Line in France, it was irrelevant in the next war, the invasion and subjugation of Korea by Japan in 1910.

The trail now turned and followed the wall. The wall went up and down hills, so we did too! Big time! But check out those views -- we were now about 1200' to 1600' feet above Pusan as we climbed and descended, climbed and descended.

At about mile 7.5 David established with sign language, goodness knows how, that a short walk through one of those four gates that we had now reached would bring us to a road with bus service. In 150 yards, there was the road. In 5 more minutes, there was the bus! It was a memorable schuss off the mountain through enough hairpin turns to qualify it for a Tour de France stage. With help from a college student on the bus who spoke some English, we found out where to get off the bus to catch the subway, and there we were, soon after, riding it to downtown where there was a pickup stop at a certain hotel for a shuttle bus out to our boat. An odd thing happened on the subway. A fellow got on one stop after us and, the moment the train got moving again, started a sales pitch for a sock-like shoe, or perhaps it was a shoe-like sock. Whatever it was, he made two sales and had his apparatus all folded up again by the time we reached the next stop!

We can't say much about Pusan as a city, but what we did see from our taxi and buses was very reminiscent of Japan. Fairly modern, quite densely packed. We had a half hour before the last shuttle bus to wander up and down a shopping street, and if you didn't notice the Korean lettering on signs or hear the shopkeepers and customers speaking Korean, you'd swear you were on a similar street in Japan.

We have one more day at sea and then we are in China, with three port calls in a row: Qingdao, Dalian and Tianjin. We'll start the China portion of our journey in our next blog entry.

A Brief Visit to Vladivostok

It's surprisingly far from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, to Vladivostok, even though it's just a matter of crossing the Sea of Japan. It took us about 36 hours to cover the 570 miles, but oh, what a berth they found for our ship, right next to the iconic sign on the maritime terminal saying "VLADIVOSTOK" in Cyrilic, with the railroad terminal right next door where the legendary Trans-Siberian train ends each trip from Moscow. Later in the day, in fact, we watched the Trans-Siberian head off on its voyage to Moscow, 9,289 km and 6 travel days away -- it's the middle one of the three trains at the station.

A little early morning fog added drama and mystery to a portion of Russia's Far Eastern Fleet that was berthed next to us, and to the two ends of a suspension bridge that will soon span the harbor. So long as we stayed in town, we were not required to have a visa, so as soon as the ship was cleared by the authorities to disembark, we were in that first wave off the boat. Before we had gone two blocks, we also saw that we were not in the Russia of Joe Stalin or even of Nikita Krushchev, as we were implored to buy a "hot dogi" and Coke for 70 rubles, about $2.25. Nearby another sign offered "piroshki, burgeri, hot dogi" and two other dishes we didn't recognize, the first of dozens of identical signs offering these standard items at fast food carts all around town.

 In that first photo, you can see a high-rise under construction at the top of a nearby hill. We often head for a hill in a new town to get a feel for the layout, and as a way of having a definable destination. In this case we never got the views we hoped for, then got a second surprise -- the building was abandoned, no sign of construction in perhaps a year or more. We had no way of finding out why, or whether it will any time soon get completed.

As we headed to yet another prominent hill we passed two Orthodox churches, one a little jewel-box of a church with a glorious though tiny interior, the other a larger church undergoing serious beautification. Inside we were admiring some of the icons, holy pictures, when an elderly woman walked up to each one and kissed it. Our first reaction was revulsion at the public health implications, then wonder at the intensity of her religious feelings. It was what some professors call "a teaching moment."

As we continued up the hill we found another lesson, that in Vladivostok it is the poor people, not the rich, who live at or close to the tops of hills. Perhaps it has something to do with steep hills covered with snow for a few months of winter, we don't know, but the apartments we saw were fairly sad-looking. We felt bad about even taking this one photo of a typical apartment flat, and skipped documenting the abysmal condition of the roads and staircases we took to climb the hill. Near the top we were stopped by a menacing dog, so never made it all the way but we did salvage one photo from on high of hilly Vladivostok and of our ship, then descended into town for an even more dramatic view of the Diamond Princess down Okeanskii Avenue, past one of the bronze Heroes of the Soviet Far East there on Svetlanskaya Street.

We were determined to have borsht while we were in Russia, and succeeded splendidly when we located a deli with a steam table and a few cauldrons of soup. With a lot of finger pointing we got our borsht and a few other delicacies: a dark stew of eggplant and beef, a quiche-like patty, and a whole bunch of potatoes that appeared to have been rolled around in butter. Maybe not the healthiest meal, but authentic! In the pursuit of more info on the Russian diet -- well, actually in pursuit of some good Russian chocolate -- we perused a supermarket and found this collection of exotic Russian condiments, including curry sauce, "barbekyu" sauce, "italyanskii" sauce, and Heinz 57 "steik" sauce. Oh, and that chocolate was scrumptious.

It was our first foray of this trip into a country where neither of us knew the language. Jeff knows no Russian but at least knew how to read the Cyrillic text, and occasionally could puzzle out what a sign said if the words were similar to English, Geman or French. "Oh, that sign we just passed in a restaurant said it served 'authentic Japanese food'," or "look, that dive is a lawyer's office!" We passed a kitchen store with nice German-made products, and went in and purchased a few of the cleverer ones. Then Louise decided she needed a sink plug in case we found ourselves in a hotel with no plug for the sink, a serious problem when you have only two sets of undies and one of them has to be washed each night. Think this through -- how do you ask a clerk for a sink plug using charades? Within 20 seconds, Louise had done it and the clerk had plucked one from the collection of gadgets!

We finished the visit with a quick trot past some beautiful buildings from the late 19th or early 20th century, including the GUM department store, at the corner in the first photo below.  We walked in and out 5 minutes later, looked like a Sears store but with a fur department. An old revolutionary faced our boat and seemed to be waving goodbye to us. His machine gunner sidekick wasn't nearly so friendly, perhaps because he hasn't turned around in a few years since a Cinnabon store opened on the street right behind him.

At 6 pm it really was goodbye, and quite a crowd lined the maritime terminal building to see us sail off. Twenty minutes later we sailed by yet another massive bridge nearing completion, one we're not sure our boat will fit under when it's done. It's about to link growing Vladivostok to a large island that, for the moment, has only a small army base and about a million spruce and birch trees.

As the sun lay just below the horizon, we said farewell to Russia's so-called Window on the Pacific and set our sights for Pusan, another 36-hour sail away.