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The Far East Segment. From Singapore to Muscat, Oman

Click for larger image We flew from New Zealand, had a 3-day stopover in Singapore, then joined our QE2 cruise home on 15 March. As we walked up the gangway we were recognised by the Staff Captain, Ian McNaught, who was Staff Captain on our previous cruise, and by Thomas Quinones of the Cruise Director's team who knew us from Cunard Countess and previous trips on QE2.

Having booked the same cabin as on our previous cruise, we were surprised when we were told that we had been moved towards the middle of the ship. But to our delight this was a euphemism for a free upgrade to a nicer, larger cabin. Another pleasant surprise awaited us when we got to the restaurant for dinner. Our waiter was Jose, who had been our waiter on our previous cruise.   Click for larger image

Friday 16 March, our the first day at sea, gave the chance to explore familiar corners of the ship. The day started hot and sunny, so we just lay out on the sun deck and relaxed. The sea was flat calm.

This evening was the first of many formal dinners, followed by Champagne in the Queens Room for all newly embarked passengers. We met Ron and Mavis, who had previously cruised with Caronia, but were on QE2 for the first time. They had also been upgraded, and were on 2 deck, in one of the best cabins.

On previous cruises the entertainment had been variable, sometimes excellent and world class, other times not to our taste at all. So we were pleased to find that there was a concert pianist, Yitkin Seow, playing tonight. His concert was a medley of Beethoven, Debussy, Liszt (the Liebestraume) and Chopin. All delightful, melodious pieces, yet with some technical challenges.  Click for larger image

We arrived at Phuket, Thailand on Saturday 17 March. We chose to be organised today, with the "Phuket Overview" tour. Phuket is a narrow island, being 48kms long but only 21kms at its widest point. Click for larger image The ship was at anchor just off Patong Beach and it was necessary to board a tender to get ashore. As you can imagine, it could be chaos if everyone tried to get ashore at the same time. Fortunately the organised trips had priority, and our trip was the first to depart. Patong Beach is a glorious stretch of yellow sand, full of local fishing boats and water taxis, and edged by tourist shops and hotels.

The journey south from Patong Beach to Phrom Thep Cape gave a good opportunity to see the local housing, the rubber plantations, look down on Karon beach, and to climb slowly over the hills which run down the middle of the island. We had time to visit the lighthouse at Phrom Thep Cape, and admire the views.

Click for larger image Click for larger image Having been to the southern tip, we headed north to Wat Chalong. This important Buddhist temple contains the bronze statues of three revered monks, and worshippers purchase small pieces of gold paper to stick on the statues.

Click for larger image Our journey continued north, through Phuket town and past the Phuket Orchid Garden, to the cultural show at Thai Village. The dancing, exotic music, Thai boxing and martial arts were very well done, and the programme was very enjoyable once it got started. There was also an elephant show in the outdoor arena, and the inevitable local handicraft stalls.   Click for larger image

Sunday 18 March was spent at sea, and was another beautiful sunny day. We were surprised that the seas were so calm. There was not a ripple on the surface, just the occasional pieces of floating rubbish. In the distance we saw movement, and others reported seeing dolphins. There were groups of small fish being herded together, and lots of flying fish leaping out of the water and skimming the surface.  Click for larger image

Monday 19 March was also at sea. Just before lunch there was the cocktail party for newly embarked members of the Cunard World Club - those passengers who had previously sailed with Cunard. We had now done over 100 days, and were given our 100 day pins to wear.

This evening was again formal, and after an early dinner we stood on deck watching the sun set, and then a group of dolphins swam by. They are special and we were delighted to see some after missing them the previous day. Again we enjoyed another piano concert - this time it was Rachmaninov and Chopin.   Click for larger image

We arrived at Colombo, Sri Lanka on Tuesday 20 March. We had decided to be independent tourists today. Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. The island is much bigger than Phuket, measuring 435 kms long and 225 kms at its widest point. Famous for tea, rubber, coconut, spices, gems (particularly sapphires) and cricket, the island has developed as a tourist resort, exploiting almost one thousand miles of beautiful pale gold beaches. From the ship we could see the centre of town, so we walked.

The last visit of QE2 had been five years previously, since which there had been problems. The conflict between the Government and the Tamil Tigers makes certain parts of the island, mainly the north and east, not safe for foreign tourists. Also, because of occasional bombings, commercial areas such as Fort, are high risk. There was a strong military and police presence, and a number of roads were closed off.

Click for larger image Leaving the dock gates the first landmark was a clocktower in the middle of the traffic roundabout. To the left was the start of Pettah, a colourful bazaar area. We walked along Main Street, past lots of little pavement shops selling all manner of goods : luggage, materials, clothes, DIY tools and plastic toys. This noisy area is best for fabrics, and was mainly for locals not tourists. Crossing the bridge, we headed towards the centre, along Sir Baron Jayatilaka Maw towards Cargills shop.

This pretty red-brick building might originally have been modelled on Harrods but is no longer a Department store, and is run-down and subdivided. We walked past the Grand Oriental Hotel , a white building which was a luxury hotel but now exhibits some of the same faded grandeur. We were aiming to reach the waterfront, but were turned back. Two roads leading to the gardens and the Presidents House were also barred. We retraced our steps. The Sri Lanka Handicraft Centre looked welcoming: it was a large cool shop, with ceiling fans. We didn't buy anything but it was nice to have shade for a few minutes.

Click for larger image We turned down Lower Chatham Street towards the lighthouse clocktower. This Victorian landmark was designed by a British Governor's wife. Ten years later the light was added to the tower and it functioned as the city's lighthouse until the 1950s. Postcards show it as the centre of a busy road intersection, but now the street is barred and the tower is surrounded by barbed wire. In the distance we saw the Hilton hotel. This was the end of our walk, and we went into the hotel before turning back for the ship.

Taxis in the dock area had been mainly 8 seater minibuses but in town there were lots of elderly 3-wheelers with seats for 2 passengers. These are trishaws, motorised descendents of the man-drawn rickshaws. We wondered about hailing one, but it was not far to the dock gates and we weren't sure they were allowed in. We had certainly seen none inside.

On return to the ship we browsed along the handicraft, souvenir and jewellery stalls set up alongside. The traders were interested in the current cricket match between Sri Lanka and England, and there were also enquiries about bartering QE2 souvenirs, postcards of the ship and even my QE2 T-shirt ! We bought postcards and two little jigsaws for presents. Other local bargains included cheap sari material, and leather bags and chairs.  Click for larger image

Wednesday 21 March, another day at sea, was a beautiful sunny day, followed by excellent piano playing in the evening - Beethoven and Chopin.

We anchored off Mumbai (Bombay), India on Thursday 22 March. Processing of the ship's paperwork took hours, and after clearance we had to wait 40 minutes for a tender because of further problems with disembarking at the Pier. We eventually joined the 13th out of 15 buses on the "Mumbai, Gateway to India Overview" tour. Thankfully the bus was air-conditioned, although old. The area was originally home to the Koli fisherfolk whose shanties still occupy parts of the shoreline. The population of modern Mumbai is estimated to be around 15 million. It is India's finance centre, the capital of the Hindi film industry ("Bollywood") and the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals.

Click for larger image The tour began by driving to the Gateway of India archway, built Click for larger imagein 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. The Gateway of India is on the waterfront, and we had a good view of QE2 at anchor in the distance. Just across the road is the Taj Mahal Hotel, said to be the most expensive hotel in India. Our waiters Jose and Francis had both worked there before joining QE2.

We drove along Marine Drive and Chowpatty beach to the ornate Jain Temple on Malabar Hill. The Jain religion bears many similarities to Buddhism and Hinduism.

Click for larger image Click for larger image We continued to Dhobi Ghat, a vast outdoor laundry by the railway line where men washed clothes by hand, laid them to dry on corrugated roofs, and then ironed them with old fashioned coal-heated flat irons. There are no labour saving devices, and no electricity at the laundry, although the water used is now fresh water, rather sea water. We saw families pushing carts around the busy streets, overflowing with mounds of clean washing on its way back to their owners. Others, mainly women, carried heavy bundles on their backs.

We retraced our steps, aiming for Mani Bhawan, a large detached residence in an affluent area equivalent to Harley Street in London. This house was once Gandhi's home and is now a museum dedicated to his memory. On the ground floor was a library overflowing with reference material, and upstairs there were a number of pictures and information about his life. On our way from the bus to the museum we noticed a street vendor selling a large round white crochet tablecloth in a pretty pineapple design. After bargaining, we bought it for just US$7.

Our final stop was the Prince of Wales Museum, which was built to commemorate King George V's first visit to India in 1905 while he was still Prince of Wales. The museum was completed in 1923, and houses a fine collection of treasures from ancient archeological finds to precious Mughla miniatures, as well as more ordinary examples of English and European china. The swords and other fighting equipment were familiar from visiting English armories, but some of the ancient finds were more fascinating. In addition there was a large collection of fine paintings.   Click for larger image

We spent Friday 23 March at sea. Click for larger imageOne of our favourite events on Cunard Countess in the Caribbean had been the demonstration of ice carving. On previous QE2 cruises we had suggested that a similar demonstration would be fun, but were told that it only happened rarely and then only on World Cruises. By good luck, today was the day on World Cruise 2001. Two pieces of white ice arrived on deck, together with a chain saw and a bag containing various chisels and chopping tools. The design and first stage carving was done by Sous Chef Ajid Kadir, with assistance by Demi Chef de Partie William Curling. There were many guesses as to the final design, which were swans, and on completion they were left on the deck to melt. The weather was really too hot to rescue them, and new ones, two marlin fish, were carved for the evening.

Tonight was the final and fourth piano concert by Yitkin Seow - this time Schumann and Brahms. Yitkin Seow didn't say very much during his concerts but this time he made a comment about the appropriateness of his first piece of music - Schumann Finderszehen Opus 15 von fremden Landern und Menschen. The English translation is "Of Foreign Lands and People" - most appropriate for a Singaporean Chinese piano player, who lives in London, playing on QE2 with such a multinational audience in the middle of the Arabian Sea. And the Brahms Paganini Variations was the piece which Yitkin Seow had played to win the 1977 Rubinstein Competition.

Click for larger image Then the challenge was to stay awake until the Dessert Fantasia, the gala midnight dessert buffet. We took cameras down early. Certainly the new ice carvings looked good, and there was a special cake with dark chocolate heads each a characature of one of the contributing chefs. We decided to concentrate on eating strawberries. We started with a bowl of fresh strawberries, then a little strawberry custard tart, a whole strawberry dipped in white chocolate, poached strawberries in brandy (really superb), strawberry crepes and finally a slice off the strawberry puff.   Click for larger image

Saturday 24 March was yet another beautiful sunny day at sea. Click for larger image Click for larger image The crew of the QE2 have traditionally held a number of World Cruise Charity Events, including the Tug-of-War which was held this afternoon. It was held on the Sun Deck, and we were surprised to find 20 teams each of 8 (occasionally 9) people competing. The Master, Captain Warwick was there to cheer people and award prizes. It is one of the few times when staff who usually work in the lower decks are able to be in the passenger areas.   Click for larger image

We arrived at Dubai, the second largest state of the United Arab Emirates, on Sunday 25 March. We moored in the early morning alongside the brand new cruise terminal, due to be formally opened the following morning. We were welcomed by local men with swords and guns, followed by a band playing bagpipes.

Click for larger imageLooking beyond the tall security fencing we could see most tourist sights were within walking distance. From the cruise terminal, Al Ghubaiba Road leads directly to the waterfront and Bur Dubai. The whole area is very clean, perhaps due to the fines imposed on people who drop litter. The Creek was busy yet still picturesque. There were rows of water-taxis (abra) waiting to cross to the spice and gold souks which were in the Deira area of Dubai, on the other side of the Creek. We continued into the Bur Dubai souk which was filled mainly with material shops, but also shoe shops, and a few jewelry shops.

Leaving the souk we passed the Grand Mosque and then came upon the Dubai Museum. It is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which was built in 1799 and restored. There were excellent displays which recalled the changing fortunes of the area, showing the early beginnings from fishing and pearl diving, then trading in gold became more important. Most recently the discovery of oil has brought a new wealth. The museum re-created much of this, including dhow-building, fishing, pearl diving and trade. The museum has also tried to reconstruct the atmosphere, for example of the souks in the 1950s, of the Bedouin lifestyle, and of traditional Dubai houses with mannequins wearing costumes of the day.

Click for larger image Just a few minutes walk from the museum is the Al Bastakiya area. It is the city's oldest quarter and the narrow streets feature typical Dubai houses with a large walled courtyard and a wind tower to divert wind from every direction to create a cool down draught into the interior of the house. There was a lot of reconstruction work being carried out, and the historic buildings were closed to visitors.

Beyond Al Bastakiya we reached the Creek again, and could see the dhows moored on the opposite side. Walking along the creek we passed the Hassim Palace surrounded by sentries and security fences, and then continued past Bur Dubai souk towards Shindagha. This area, at the mouth of the Creek, is the original site from which Dubai grew. Sheik Saeed's house, the former home of the ruling Maktoum family, is here and has been carefully restored. We continued along the waterfront to the Heritage and Diving Village, which provide a glimpse for tourists of Dubai's traditional culture and lifestyle.   Click for larger image

Click for larger image After staying overnight atClick for larger image our mooring, the following morning we walked through the beautiful new cruise terminal. It is spacious inside with a cafe, shops, internet and facilities. But the most striking part is its design. It has been built to look just like a ship, even with a wavy blue canopy to represent the sea.

Click for larger image Outside there was a lot of activity. There was a dhow, propelled by oars, anchored just in front of QE2. We had been given a name badge, a flag to wave and a bag of paper streamers to throw, so we were all prepared to take part in the opening ceremony.

On the quayside there sprouted a sample Click for larger imageof the Heritage and Diving Village, with a group of huts built from palm trees. There were weaving and metal working displays as well as local bands, ranging from small boys singing, to older men with swords and guns. There were arrogant camels and a very sharp-eyed falcon.

We thought the ceremony would begin at 11.30, and Captain Warwick was outside the terminal building at that time waiting. Meanwhile those inside were plied with fruit juices, sweetmeats and spicey nibbles. Just before 12.30 we were all still waiting for something to happen, and the QE2 loudspeakers were becoming more insistent that passengers should get back on board. We were scheduled to sail at 13.00. Then a police motorcycle and a white Jeep arrived with Crown Prince Mohammed Al Maktoum.

Click for larger image The terminal was quickly declared open and the Crown Prince strode along the red carpet alongside Captain Warwick towards QE2, surrounded by Press all trying to get the best pictures amid shouts of "Be careful about the passengers". We had been allowed to line the narrow red carpet, and were much closer to the procession than would normally be allowed. The Crown Prince had a truly whirlwind tour of QE2; there wasn't even time to use the lifts to get back to the gangway on 5 Deck so he had to use the stairs. Captain Warwick had the gangway up just after 13.00, and we departed as scheduled.   Click for larger image

We moored at Muscat, Oman on Tuesday 27 March, but we had already decided to stay on board. We had just had two tiring days in Dubai, and saw no special reason to pay US$70 each for a visa to set foot on shore.

Click for larger image We were close to the town and it was possible to get a few photographs without disembarking. The harbour is at the foot of a range of sharp toothed rocky hills, and had been thoroughly fortified. The word "masquat" means "place of the falling" and refers to these precipitous rocks. There were forts and towers everywhere, including the 16th century Forts of Jalali and Mirani on either side of the bay which guard the blue and gold Al Alam Palace. This was built in the 1970s as Sultan Qaboos' official residence.

The rest of the day was spent in a restful mix of lying in the sunshine and eating and drinking. We noticed that the New Zealand film "The Piano" was being shown in the theatre in the evening. Pauline had seen the film some years ago on the television in England, and it was interesting to see it again and be reminded of the violence and difficulties overcome by early immigrants.

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Most recent significant revision: 12th July 2001
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