In planning our adventure, rather than finish in Beijing, we had decided to go on to Japan. It was a five hour trip south by Chinese bullet train to the ferry port of Qingdao on the East China Sea. It felt more like low-level flying than rail travel with speeds of over 300kph (190mph)
Qingdao is the Weymouth of China in that it was the sailing centre for the 2008 Olympic Games. With hundreds of high-rise buildings and further expansion going on apace, there any similarities ended.
Along the sea-side promenade, another popular Chinese sport was taking place - kiting."Which one's mine?"
After a night's stay, we got a taxi to the port. Although he couldn't speak any English, our friendly taxi driver entertained us by singing a traditional Chinese folk song. In return, we sang him the only English folk song we could remember at the time, "Men of Harlech"!
For some unknown reason, we had to check in at the ferry terminal five hours before it was due to depart. Our vessel was the optimistically-named "Utopia". We had booked a double cabin and were surprised when we presented ourselves at Reception to be given the key without having said who we were. It soon became obvious that we were the only Europeans on board! The majority of passengers were a large group of young Chinese going to work for a year in Japan.
Although getting on in years, the Utopia was very comfortable. The entertainments hall showed films and on Friday night there was karaoke. Not wanting to be party-poopers, we put our names down. We decided to go for Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise". When our turn came, we went up to the front and were immediately greeted by enthusiastic applause from the Chinese youngsters who obviously thought we were being good sports. We gave a reasonable performance and, for the rest of the evening, were inundated with requests to have our photograph taken. We had finally made it to the big time!Japanese Quarantine Officer checks all passengers' temperatures before disembarkation
After 38 hours at sea, having rounded South Korea, we arrived at the southern Japanese port of Shiminoseki. From here, we got the Japanese bullet train to Nagoya, 400 miles away.
At Nagoya Station, we were met by Yugo, a neurologist from Japan who I have known for 7 years. I first met him in Yokohama at a motor neurone disease conference and we have stayed in touch ever since. He took us to stay at the house of his daughter, Yoko, who lives nearby with her husband, Susumu, and their delightful 13 month old son, Ryo.
After a wonderful Japanese meal including raw fish and octopus, we slept in a traditional Japanese guest room with sliding screens made of paper, no beds but futons on the floor - extremely comfortable!
For the next two days, we were hosted by Yugo, his wife, Nobuko and Yugo's mother at their house in Ise, 3 hours away close to the Pacific Ocean. While Yugo and I went to a local motor neurone disease meeting, Pete was shown around Ise by Nobuko, several retired dentists and representatives of the local Tourist Information Service keen to improve their English. He must have felt like royalty!
Yugo, Nobuko and Yugo's mother
Our hosts were overwhelmingly hospitable - more wonderful traditional meals finished off with green tea made from powder, mixed in a bowl with an exquisite whisk fashioned from a single section of bamboo. Being able to stay in the house of friends in a foreign country and learn about their culture and way of life is a real privilege.
All too soon, it was time to leave, but not before Pete & I were taken by Yugo to a traditional Japanese sento, or bath house. With just a small towel to cover our modesty, we sampled several communal pools of various temperatures and mineral content before going outside to lounge in a warm rock pool, watching breaking news on a wide-screen TV placed on an island in the middle - typical Japanese mixing of traditional with modern.
We headed on to Tokyo on the final leg of our joint venture. After a few hours looking round, Pete and I bade each other a fond farewell at Tokyo Station. Pete was flying across the Pacific then driving across the States and I was heading home the next day. It had been an amazing journey which had exceeded all expectations.