Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Modern twist on ancient city

Beijing spans old and new worlds

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BEIJING -- After all the build-up, the grilled snake on a stick tastes rubbery. Not succulent at all, not like chicken, and much too salty.

Sampling snake meat is one of things a colleague in the Free Press newsroom insisted I do before my wife and I headed off to the South China Sea as hosts of travel agent Carlson Wagonlit's fourth annual Book Lovers Cruise.

Turns out we have no problem locating the delicacy. It is being sold from a snack-food cart, one of dozens lining a busy downtown street a few blocks from our hotel in the bustling capital of the People's Republic of China.

Greasy and chewy serpent aside, our three days in Beijing are, for us, the hands'-down highlight of a three-week holiday that sees our group of Canadians, mostly Winnipeggers, start in Singapore and cruise northward 4,700 kilometres in 16 days.

Aboard the 2,600-passenger liner Diamond Princess, we drop anchor in six other ports: Bangkok in Thailand, Ho Chi Min City and Nha Trang in South Vietnam, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Nagasaki in Japan, and Busan in South Korea.

We see so much it is tough to keep it all straight: temples, palaces, beaches, shopping markets, skyscrapers and... people.

People, people, people.

There is one thing any Manitoban, or Canadian for that matter, can't help but realize when they visit the populous nations of Southeast Asia, with their ancient cultures and burgeoning economies.

We're the backward ones, not them. We're the ones living in an empty place in the middle of nowhere, not them. We're the ones hidebound by tradition, not them.

Our guide in Beijing, a personable 38-year-old named Taoxiong (or Richard for us), tells us how 30-storey apartments routinely get built in two weeks.

One estimate, he says, has 50 per cent of the world's construction cranes currently in operation in China.

"Think of us like a computer," he says. "We're catching up to the west with our hardware. But with our software, it's still going to take us another 100 years."

For instance, on our way to the city's main gathering place, Tiananmen Square, Richard requests we refrain from asking him questions about the 1989 protests -- at least while we're in the square itself.

"They have a lot of cameras set up," he says. "It makes me nervous."

Tiananmen Square turns out to be spectacular -- immense and awesome, not unlike Red Square in Moscow. The lineup to see Mao's tomb stretches out for hours.

Our arrival in Beijing at the end of March coincides with the country's political class trying to keep the lid on the Bo Xilai scandal.

We tourists, of course, know nothing about it. The city is too big, the language gulf to great to cross.

Instead, we take in all the main sights. We visit the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. We walk on the Great Wall.

We dine on Peking duck. We shop for souvenirs. We drive by the Bird's Nest stadium and the Water Cube pool, both built for the 2008 Olympics.

Beijing's broad streets and avenues are choked with automobile traffic. Maybe it's the time of year, or the direction the wind is blowing, but the air quality is excellent.

Everything is surprisingly clean. Street signage is bilingual, English being the second language, a legacy of the Olympics.

Overall, the city gives the impression, at least the superficial one attained by tourists, of being a modern world capital, such as Manhattan, London or Paris.

Prior to reaching Beijing, our final port, a group of us on the ship get together for book club sessions, discussing three Asian-themed novels we've selected beforehand.

Overall, it is a once-in-a-lifetime excursion. Next year, on Jan. 28, the fifth annual Book Lovers Cruise visits South America, departing Buenos Aires in Argentina, rounding Cape Horn and ending in Valparaiso, Chile, two weeks later.

For details, phone Carlson Wagonlit in Winnipeg at 336-7227.

We've heard the llama burgers are excellent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 D9

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