Posts Tagged With: China

Impressions from Hong Kong

Nightly Laser Show in HKThere are no two ways about it: Brooke and I have really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong. We really dig it here. We’ve been in town just long enough to get a taste for this unique city. Three days has been enough time to allow us to get a sampling that left us with a quality impression of Hong Kong. This is a city that manages to be both part of China, but not much at all like the rest of China.

As with every destination so far, we had some miscues upon first arriving. After rolling into town, we were quickly misled by signs indicating a “subway.” Turns out that a Subway here refers to subterranean passageways underground cross walk and complicated network of pedestrian tunnels scattered throughout the city. These help with the flow of streets and are far more often seen than traditional cross walks. The subways also have an added bonus of being a fantastic way to dodge the summer heat. Of course, we had misinterpreted the “subway” signs for an subterrain train (which is in fact commonly called the MTR).

Food at the Night MarketSpeaking of the heat, we have been knee deep in it. The sights of Hong Kong during the day have been plagued by some tenacious haze, but I suppose that’s what you get for visiting Southeast Asia in the middle of August. As unlikely as it sounds, it somehow keeps getting hotter and hotter as the day progresses into night. We’re pretty sure that by 8:00 PM it was hotter than it was at 2:00 PM! Baffling. As we head even further south into Vietnam and Singapore, we’re thankful that (so far) we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay that have functional, soothing Air Conditioning.

View from the 55th Floor of the IFC Tower!

Brooke and the View from the free 55th Floor gallery of the IFC Tower!

Over the course of several bus tours and self guided tours, we’ve taken in a pretty good chunk of the city. One of the great things about this trip has been being able to make connections. We were surprised to see that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is apparently alive and well beneath the HSBC Bank building in central Hong Kong. There is a public space beneath the bank’s giant tower, reputed to be Hong Kong’s best architectural example of feng shui, that apparently has been bereft of campers and protestors since October. A movement is underway to kick them out, but it is kinda cool to see what was happening all over America also in play in the middle of Hong Kong.

Speaking of banking, we’ve also found that Hong Kong hasn’t been the most inexpensive city, but it hasn’t been as costly as we expected a giant metropolis to be either. We’ve stumbled across some meals that are full of flavor, quick, cheap and no frills just the way we like it. But the (large) beers continually run us about seven dollars a pop. The only exception is during evening Happy Hours and in the outdoor markets where there are an abundance of deals to be found. In this weather, it is hard to resist a nice, cold beer in the middle of sight seeing during a hot day. We’ll keep looking for the perfect dive bar!

The famed Peninsula Hotel!Cost is all relative, I suppose, and flashy businessmen can be seen everywhere.The central neighborhood on Hong Kong Island is a spectacular mesh of glass and steel buildings banking, commerce, company headquarters and high quality hotels. It’s remarkable. There appears to be no end to the number of five star hotels. NEXT time, we will book a room at The Peninsula or the Ritz Carlton…or the Intercontinental! But that’s just one section of town. The culture here is a brilliant blend of 150 years of British colonial rule mixed with with an old Chinese City. The result is a mixed ethnicity, langauge and amusing juxtaposition like a Baptist church next to a market with fresh duck hanging in the window. One of our favorite common sites is buildings under construction with workers climbing on scaffolding…made of bamboo!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Hong Kong as seen from central with the HK's tallest building in the backgroundBeyond Hong Kong, as we continue to expand our world view, it’s been good to see that some things are universal. A bride in Cincinnati looks pretty identical to a bride in Guangzhou, there are lines at the post office no matter where we go, drunk 19 year-olds at a Hotel bar in Hong Kong act a lot like drunk 19 year olds in the states. My personal favorite is that the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep on the subway in Tokyo reminded me a lot of the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep in NYC.

And there are some shops we’ve found that are ubiquitous in any city. No matter where we’ve gone so far, we can count on seeing plenty of 7-11s (which have come in quite handy), Starbucks and McDonalds. Our one regret? We might have bought our souvenir set of Chopsticks too soon. Every other shop is selling an interesting set of chopsticks. It’s funny because when you are in the states, you never see stores falling over themselves to sell forks. I can’t wait to see what new experiences Vietnam brings. Onward!

–Phil

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like Koala Bears climbing the building!

Brooke trying very hard to just get a dang spoon from the counter person at 7-11

Phil getting some food from the 7-11 – A surprisingly great place to get a quick bite

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Categories: China, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hong Kong

Cool Neon SignsDespite our many miscommunications and all efforts to the contrary, we managed to get on the right bus heading for Hong Kong!  Yay, off to experience a new part of China…technically.  It certainly does not feel like we are still in China.  Our first clue that Hong Kong would be different from Guangzhou was when we were required to go through customs and immigration.  No, Hong Kong is not under British control any longer.  It hasn’t been since 1997, however we had to wait in line for over an hour, fill out forms, get our passports inspected and then stamped in order to get in.  It was one of the most complex border crossings we have experienced yet, especially considering we didn’t really cross a border.

Hong Kong is a big place, but when discussing the city of Hong Kong, it really has two parts to it–the Hong Kong Island side and the Kowloon side.  We are staying on the Kowloon side, in the heart of it all.  This is as close to feeling like the middle of Times Square as I have felt on our trip thus far.  We are surrounded by stores, bars and a slew of restaurants.  When we walk down the street, we are approached every 15 seconds by a guy trying to sell us designer suits, watches and handbags.  It certainly isn’t a place I would want to live or even visit for too long, but it is really convenient being in the center of it all.  The Hong Kong Island side is the center for business and industry.  The skyline is filled with mammoth buildings, each one more impressive than the next, touting their company name in bold neon lights.  Every major bank and brand you can imagine has a spot on its waterfront, from HSBC to Hyundai.  It is a short ferry ride from Kowloon and it rivals New York City in its visual spectacle of high rises and well-dressed business people.

Bargains,, BargainsThese two sides of Hong Kong are part of what gives it a really awesome vibe.  It is urban and chic, with high-end shopping that overshadows 5th Avenue any day of the week.  But, at the same time it feels like an old city holding onto its traditions.  The Kowloon side is known for its markets, where vendors sell everything from knock-off handbags to high-end electronics.  As you might expect, nothing has a price marked and everything is negotiable.  While walking through the Night Market, Phil saw a set of bowls he liked and when he asked the price, the lady told him they were $165 Hong Kong Dollars (about $22 USD).  I immediately said that was too much and then the bargaining began.  She said she’d give them to us for $150.  When we walked away and said we had to think about it, she grabbed Phil, handed him a calculator and said, “How much?  How much you want?”  Phil punched in 100, figuring she’d say no.  It took her a minute, but she said yes.  I then began to dig through my wallet only to discover we only had $81 HKD.  We told her we didn’t have enough, so she asked if we had any American money.  We told her we didn’t and said we’d come back.  As we began to walk away, she shook her head, sighed heavily and said, “Okay.”  We were a little shocked.  We couldn’t believe that our lack of cash led to half-price bowls.  If only we had planned it that way we might be considered keen negotiators.  Oh well, we’ll take it!

As you might imagine, a city with so much to offer is packed with tourists.  In fact, this is probably the most touristy city we’ve visited thus far.  That suits us fine, and it is really interesting to see all kinds of people and hear a dozen different languages being spoken in the span of 20 minutes.  We are engaging in typical tourist activities, while also trying to involve ourselves with some locals.  The best way we’ve found to do this is by talking with the people at our hostel, Hop Inn.  They live and work in Hong Kong and have given us really excellent suggestions on local cuisine and places to get away from the tourists.  They led us to our two favorite meals we’ve had in a while, and we found ourselves smiling when we were in the equivalent to a New York City diner, curt manager and all.  It kind of felt like home.  As for the local fare, they love their instant noodles and bread.  My god, we have eaten so much bread we are turning into dough balls.  I never associated Chinese food with bread, but they love it here.  We had a hot buttered roll, drenched with sweetened condensed milk this morning.  Amazing.  I think  I’ll be bringing that idea back with me!

Hong Kong Big Bus tourWe ended our day with an hour-long bus tour of the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.  At 7pm it was only 90 degrees, much more tolerable than the heat of day.  It was easy to forget our sweaty thighs as we cruised through the city.  The streets, with neon signs hanging everywhere, are truly like something off a movie set.  It is exactly what you picture in your mind when you think of Hong Kong.  The tour ended with us on the waterfront, watching the nightly light display.  The skyscrapers on the shoreline dance with lights and beam lasers into the night sky set in time with music.  It was quite a vision–really spectacular.  Tomorrow we continue to discover Hong Kong Island by heading out to the countryside, going to Stanley Market and maybe even visiting a fishing village.  Phil also wants to head to Macau, but I’d hate for him to lose all of our money trying his hand at some Chinese table game he’s never played.  Well, maybe he’ll have beginners luck!

–Brooke

Ferry with Hong Kong's Tallest Building in the background

One of several ferries found in Victoria Harbor with Hong Kong’s Tallest Building in the background

Statue of Hong Kong's favorite son: Bruce Lee

Statue of Hong Kong’s favorite son: Bruce Lee

Spectacular Tokyo Skyline at Night

Spectacular Hong Kong Skyline at Night

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Discounts, Eating, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

36 Hours in Guangzhou

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

Out of Japan and into China! We landed last night, negotiated another new subway system to our hotel and checked into the lovely Guangdong Dasha Hotel near the heart of Guangzhou. We’re back to driving on the right hand side of the road, but it looks like we’re done with drinking water out of the tap for a while.

Our biggest impression after a day in Guangzhou? It’s hard here. We felt more like foreigners than we ever have in our lives. There is such little English spoken or written on any signs in Guangzhou. For the first time, the langauge barrier became a hinderance and a real issue. A huge chunk of our communication today, from directions to asking for a to-go box for food, was done in half-sentences and pantomime. Relatively simple questions such as trying to get a suggestion for dinner at the front desk of the hotel, turned into a painstaking process involving four employees. While everything was a bit different in Japan, we never had these kind of issues. There are far less Westeners here in Guangzhou, that’s for sure. We’ve been getting a lot of stares that come, we think, mostly out of curiosity. Still, we’d like to learn the phrase “What are ya lookin’ at?!” or “Do I have something in my teeth?” So many stares. It was really an eye opening day.

Brooke is confused

Looking at a boat schedule we were given…not understanding a word

Besides the staring, the general behavior of the people here has a much different feel. Unlike the polite, patient crowds we saw throughout Japan, Guangzhou has been full of Shovey McShoversons. People will not hesitate to shoulder past you to get on a train or to get in front of you in line. This same sense of urgency can be seen in the drivers, too. When it comes to street traffic, our primary goal quickly became to avoid getting flattened by a speeding taxi or bus. The drivers and pedestrians in this town seemed to be locked in an epic city-wide game of chicken. It seems cars definitely have the right-of-way and we were doing some serious heads-up walking when we crossed the street.

Our other immediate impression of Guangzhou is how friggin’ inexpensive everything was. A full dinner ran us about $15, taxi rides came to around $3 and a subway ride was about 75 cents…for two people! We took advantage by taking the morning to pursue stores (they love their malls in Asia) on the Beijing Road Shopping district. Endless deals complimented endless shops. After walking the downtown streets, seeing the colors and sites and a really, really difficult experience attempting to by boat tickets, we needed a break. So, we went to the one place where we knew everyone in the room would speak English – our comfy hotel room. We grabbed some beers and toasted to humility, to hubris and to travel in general.

Lunch!

Lunch! Somewhat tasty and really, really cheap

Although there have been some challenges today, Guangzhou itself has been very easy to navigate and a breeze to get around. The modern subway runs quickly and cheaply with a lot of innovative, high-tech features. Some of the stations look like they haven’t been open a month and new lines are being added each year. In fact, there was construction everywhere. Cranes on the horizon as far as they eye could see. There is a splattering of high-rise construction around every corner. For every recently constructed high-rise, there was another one half-built. We read that in 2007, 25% of the world’s construction cranes were in China and that seems to still hold true in Guangzhou.

After the best beef and broccoli I’ve ever had, our day ended on a particular high note with a stellar night cruise down the Pearl River. A popular activity, river boats cruise up and down the Pearl River through the center of town. The smooth hour-long ride allows you to see the illuminating, dazzling lights from just about every building – new and old. Every structure from stadium, to bridge, to apartment complex gets in on the act. Most spectacular is the Guangzhou tower. So, yeah, it’s about the 5th tower we’ve seen since arriving in Asia, but it really is the best one we’ve seen yet. It was the highlight of our day and showcased Guangzhou’s most signature feature.

The Pearl RiverIt was important that we ended our day with the river cruise, because our general feeling for today was frustration. We wish we spoke even a little Cantonese, but we barely know how to say hello. Even at our lovely hotel, miscommunication abounds. With that, we’re taking our 36 hours in Guangzhou and heading out of town. We are amazed when we think that we still have SO much trip left! We have lots to look forward to. Including a bus ride to Hong Kong tomorrow. At least, we think we’re heading on a bus to Hong Kong tomorrow. With all of the language challenges we’ve had today, we’re never 100% sure on what we’re doing next!

-Phil

Categories: China, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Hotels, Surprises, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Visiting China and Our Trip So Far


Neon Tokyo at Night
Greetings from China! By the time you read this, Brooke and I should have landed in Guangzhou and are likely out exploring the wonders of a brand necountry – our third on the trip after Japan and New Zealand. However, since the powers that be in China have decided to block internet access to WordPress (among other websites), we’ve written and scheduled this post in advance of arriving. We may be offline for a couple of days until we hit Vietnam, but that just gives us more time to get knee deep into unraveling the mysteries a new country.

On the way to the summit of FujiThis third leg, which we’ve dubbed our Southeast Asia section, is among the shortest portions of our Round The World trip. We landed on August 24th, so we’ll have about ten days to visit a small corner of China (which includes the Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Maccau), Vietnam and Singapore. For our Southeast Asia itinerary, we’re back to just playing it by ear with our stops and activities. We’re more than open to suggestions on anything that’s worth doing in the area. If you have any thoughts, please let us know in the comments section below!

That is one huge ass Japanese Lantern!We know, we know – ten days is nowhere near enough time to truly soak up the region, but we’re determined to make that time work for us. So far in both Japan and New Zealand, Brooke and I have had some long, full days where we’ve managed to pack in a ton. More often than not, we’re up and out of our hotel/hostel/guest house/yurt by early morning and then only returning late in the evening as a pair of spent but fulfilled travelers. Luckily, most of our beds and rooms so far have been uber-comfortable (notable exception – Reino Inn in Hiroshima. Blegh). We’ve been hitting the streets armed with city maps, transportation schedules and perhaps a travel guide to steer us to our next interesting discovery. Racking up the miles on our shoes, we’ve stumbled across wonders ranging from a magnificent a hot-spring geyser to the most stunning temple gate imaginable. And, yeah, sometimes a walk takes longer than anticipated or preferred, but that’s all part of the fun of not knowing precisely where you might be headed eighteen hours prior. At the end of the day, we tend to find ourselves exhausted but, if we’re lucky, just a pinch more worldly than we were that morning. The next day, we’re ready to get up and do it all again. To be fair, we’ve also had a handful of days where we’ve done relatively little. Thankfully, those are the days that help keep us sane and from burning out.

What is this strange yogurt?At this point, Brooke and I have been on this ole once-and-a-lifetime trip for a little under a month. In short, the trip has been going insanely well. This (temporary) lifestyle of being abroad and absorbing the culture, locations, landmarks, attractions and food has fit like a glove. The days are exciting, eye-opening and thought provoking. We’re constantly discovering locations that we didn’t even know existed a few days before – Miyajima in Japan is a great example. We’re learning a little bit more about how things work in parts of the world that are thousands of miles away from home. Which is incredibly important because that was one of our original primary goals in taking this voyage. Little things like learning that the Japanese tend to shun tattoos because most water parks and osens (spas) won’t let you in if you have one. Or the basic ins and outs of a Rugby game. Or even walking through the largest pedestrian cross walk in the world at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo! We’re chalking up more memories than we can conceivably cram into our blog posts.

This map will direct me to the old sailing ship! Where could it be?So, what’s next? Come early September, we’ll be on a flight from Singapore to Copenhagen for three days in frighteningly expesnive Denmark followed by our Baltic Capitols cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. We’re ecstatic for our cruise – in no small part because it will be nine whole nights in the same room and bed. A break from constantly searching for and checking into new hotel rooms. No need to schlep luggage around because our boat will be taking us from country to country! Also, we anticipate that it will be a nice change of pace from our time in Asia matched with a slice of easy cruise-ship living. But for now, let’s see what China has in store for us.

-Phil

Categories: China, Hotels, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

One day in Guangzhou

Note: Apologies for the delay in getting this post live, but it seems that China blocks access to the wordpress site. Interesting, no? We’ve landed in New Zealand and we’re catching up on a few posts now.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, we knew that we would run into our share of surprises along the way. All part of the travel experience. Still, we didn’t expect to fall into the very cool and astounding turn of events that we found ourselves in on our very first day overseas.

Where we waited for our roomWe had been debating and struggling with how to spend our 18 hour layover in Guangzhou (pronounced Guang-JO, not Guang-ZOW. It took me way too long to get this right). Lo and behold, it tuns out that a standard best practice among airlines (at least for China Southern) is that for flight itineraries that include layovers of 14+ hours, the airline will put passengers in a hotel room on their dime during the layover. In all the research we did and of all the people we talked to, this never came up. So, that came as incredibly pleasant shock at 6:30 AM this morning! particularly after arriving in steamy Guangzhou from a cross-Pacific flight when all we wanted was a shower and change of clothes. Turns out that instead of slogging around the international terminal, the day was filled with relaxation, a big lunch, naps and showers. Not exactly a back-breaking, rough layover.

Our first long-haul flight arrived with ease and triumph this morning. As Brooke wrote, riding in Business Class made for some sensational travel. The time on the plane qualifies as “super comfortable” and was even easier than anticipated. Sleeping soundly for seven hours doesn’t hurt. And the flight attendants were always brining you SOMETHING. A towel, a mint, coffee, etc. Now we have a solid base in which to compare our other long haul business class flights from other airlines. The bar has been set pretty high. Also made me realize that I would dig doing more/some/any! international business travel in my next job. We disembarked from this insane luxury and began our first of three visits over the next eight weeks to the Guangzhou (CAN) airport.

Pullman Guangzhou Hotel LobbyAfter walking to the China Southern Transfer Counter, the agent confirmed what we had been told in Los Angeles – since our next flight was so much later in the day, the airline would be happy to book a hotel for us. We asked them to confirm this like five times – partially because the langauge barrier made things a little murky and partially because we were incredulous and filled with glee-inspired amazement. We made a quick pass through immigration and customs where our near virgin passports received their first passport stamp of the trip. We swapped travel stories and made some affable new Australian and New Zealand travel friends as the airlines rounded up a few other business class travelers. Although the hotel option is available for all travelers, an agent eventually walked us across the street to the sensational Pullman airport hotel. The fine folks at Trip Advisor indicated that it is the 13th best rated hotel out of 1,800 in the city (!) and the rooms run about $125. It was one last, heretofore unknown perk of the business class ticket.

Our awesome free hotel room for 18 hoursSo, on day one in Asia, we stayed in what will likely be the nicest hotel that we’ll see for weeks. Brooke and I spent a fair amount of the day in awe. Walking around and checking out the giant lobby, oversized pool tables and snooker table (confession: I thought I knew what snooker is, but apparently I only have a vague notion), the self-playing piano and more. The hotel room was nice with a capital Niiiiiice. Complete with comfy robes, slippers, comfy beds with giant, head-melt-right-in pillows the size of Smart Cars. There was even a yoga mat in the closet. One of the nicer touches is that the bathroom opened up to the main room via a giant glass window that could be closed off by a giant mechanical shade. Handy for the two showers that we each took. Given the undeniably hot climate, Brooke was particularly appreciative of the ice-cold AC. The bottom line is that it this was a really nice hotel which we didn’t expect. We probably should mention that we almost blew every fuse in the hotel when Brooke plugged in her hair dryer, but that was an almost predictable debacle and it all worked out with electronics in tact.

Phil making great use of the free Yoga mat!We even managed to have a bit of an indulgent lunch at the Vegas-style hotel buffet between giant nap #1 and super-sized nap #2. We slept incredibly well on those lay-flat beds on the flight last night, but the jetlag is really starting to kick in. When dawn broke this morning, I had no idea what time is was back home and wasn’t even completely sure that it was (apparently, it was Wednesday). Time guru Brooke predicted and then confirmed that we were exactly 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. In fact, from this point forward for the rest of the trip, we’ll be anywhere between one and fourteen hours ahead of East Coast US Time – getting closer and closer in sync as we continue to travel east.

Have I mentioned that this is all amazing? This is amazing. It just keeps getting better. It really does. Only a couple of days in and I’m getting a kick out of being on this incredible journey spanning some significant distances.

-Phil

check out the closing curtain from the bathroom

Categories: China, China Southern, Flights, Hotels, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

China Southern Business Class

When we planned this trip, we knew we would be taking some very long flights. In fact, our very first flight from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, China was scheduled to be 14 and a half hours long. It is for this reason that we saved enough Delta Skymiles to book all our flights in the Business Class section of the aircraft when available. Even though it would require considerably more Skymiles, we knew things would be more comfortable for us, and now that we have completed our first flight across the ocean, we say that there is no other way to travel!

 

Brooke with her Golden TicketsWhen we checked into our flight using the SkyPriority line at the airport, we were greeted by the friendly China Southern desk agent who immediately started processing our tickets and filling out our VIP pass – an invitation to wait for our flight in the Skyteam Lounge. She also informed us that when we arrive in Guangzhou we should talk to the transfer agent and she will give us our boarding pass for the next flight as well as hotel accommodations. We were confused. Hotel accommodations? What was she talking about? She explained that we were leaving LA on July 30 and don’t leave Guangzhou until August 1 (yes, we have entirely lost the day July 31, 2012 from our lives because we crossed the international date line…how that happens, we have no idea). Because we have such a long layover and since they were unable to give us a more convenient connecting flight to Auckland, we are entitled to hotel accommodations for that time. We couldn’t believe it! What great news! But this was only the beginning!

So much room!After going through security, we arrived at the Skyteam lounge. I’ve never been to one of these lounges before and it was all I hoped it would be. There was a buffet of food–small snacks, but also some sandwiches and heartier items. There were sodas, water and freshly ground coffee. There was even a bar where you could make yourself a drink with liquor and mixers! And all for free? Now I know why some people head to the airport very early! Also in the lounge was a really nice bathroom with an area to freshen up. There are even showers available for those who need them and monitors with flight departure information so you can check on your plane. We took advantage of the free wi-fi to write a blog post and watched the American men compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. It was so great this far, could it possibly get better? Yes!

Nice!Once onboard the aircraft, it was a flurry of activity. There was a very plush pillow and heavy, large blanket waiting on our seat. In the seat back pocket in front of us were lots of goodies. First, we took off our shoes and placed them in the shoe bag provided complete with plastic shoe horn, and then we put on the cozy slippers they gave us. We couldn’t take the slippers out of their plastic covering before someone was whisking away the trash. At one point we counted how long it took for them to pick up trash we laid down–it was less than 10 seconds. There must have been 6 flight attendants solely dedicated to the 24 passengers traveling in business class. It was amazing.

Also in the seatback pocket was a pair of headphones and a goody bag. I just love goody bags. Whether it be at the hotel for a wedding or on an airplane, it is the little stuff that makes me so happy. The goody bag for the flight is a really nice little reusable zipper bag which holds an eye mask for sleeping, lotion, lip balm, a comb, toothbrush & toothpaste, and earplugs. What more could we need? Apparently more!

Our China Southern Alternative FootwearOnce we took off we were given a menu and asked to make dinner selections. We had already eaten, so we passed on dinner and ordered breakfast for later in the flight. They set up a lovely bar up in the front of the cabin with wine, alcohol, soda and juice. Phil ordered some white wine and it came with a little plate of mixed nuts. They even refilled the wine when he looked away for a brief minute. Amazing service.

At this point we were so tired, but didn’t want to close our eyes for fear we would miss something awesome. I’m so glad we stayed awake because the flight attendant came around offering personal entertainment systems–like a PSP which has games, movies, television, books–all kinds of things. This is in addition to the TV that is built into our seat, of course! We both took one and saw lots of great movies available (Phil finally got to watch Ides of March) and short informative videos about several destinations where China Southern flies.

A better breakfast than I get at homeAlas, we were exhausted. It was 12:30am LA time which means it felt more like 3:30am to us. So, we both pulled up our footrests, laid our chairs back and stretched out. Our chairs allow us to lay almost completely flat which was really great. It didn’t take long, cuddled under the warm blanket, head nestled into the pillow, to drift into a very comfortable sleep. We woke up to more snacks being placed out, a bottle of water by our side and even mouthwash in the lavatory. It’s an incredible way to travel – made a 14 hour flight fly right by- and we can’t believe that some people get to travel like this all the time.

Yeah, business class is definitely the way to go!

–Brooke

Categories: China, China Southern, Flights, LA, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The China and Russia Tourist Visas

The other day, I wrote about the process of securing tourist visas for all of the countries we’re visiting on our trip.  As I mentioned, there were only two visas that required a bit of effort: China and Russia.

We found that the process to secure a Chinese visa requires painstaking detail and precise planning. First off, it should be noted that the Chinese consulate might very well be the least convenient government type building in New York City. While most consulates and embassies are located in cozy brownstones on the Upper East Side or in nice offices adjacent to the United Nations, China has built an imposing fortress at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with Manhattan, that address is close to exactly nothing. And I made the trip out there three times.

Alas, that was just the first of a dozen small hassles that we encountered when applying for a China Tourist Visa. First, the hours of operation listed on the website are wrong. (That’s one wasted trip to the desolate west, west side). Second, it is not clear online exactly which form is needed. And the forms themselves are confusing. For the record, it is the four-page intense questionnaire called “V.2011A”. The forms are known to provide such perplexity that an enterprising team has set up a van just outside the consulate to assist/charge wayward potential visitors. Finally, building security will only let you enter after you show you have all the right documents in hand. We suggest you arrive early because the wait can be up to 90 minutes during busy times.

Once you wind your way to the DMV like window, the staff is curt but incredibly efficient. They expect all paperwork to be ready and they don’t seem to like questions. At one point, the official pointed out that I had not listed where I was staying in China. When I tried to explain that we haven’t scheduled a place to stay yet (“Figuring it out as we go! What fun! Right?”), I was told to come back when the form had an address where were staying. Thank Cupertino for the iPhone, because I was able to look up the address to the Guangzhou Hilton, make a reservation and keep my place in line (avoiding a fourth trip). After a five day processing period during which they kept our passports, our application was reviewed and accepted. Conveniently, you can drop off applications/pick up visas for several people if needed.

Each visa is good for 90 days and is valid for a year from the date of issue (so, in theory, we have till June 2013 to start our visit). Total cost? $140 per person. Ooof! It is all going to be worth it when we step off the plane in Guangzhou and into China! Again, living in New York worked to our advantage because we found if you can’t apply in person at a regional consulate, you must use a private service to secure the visa which comes with a significant additional charge.

The Russia visa was the one visa that just never ended up materializing. It turns out that, loosely translated, Visa means “Bureaucratic Red Tape” in Russian. We’ve learned that wrapping your fingers around a Russia Tourist Visa is trickier that a David Blaine illusion. You must have a sponsor in the form of an authorized hosting Russian traveling agency before you can even apply. And that’s apparently just the beginning of the needed paperwork.

If you’re booking a trip to Russia knowing where and when you’ll be staying (or if you’re part of a tour), this isn’t terribly overwhelming. But if you are flying by the ole seat of your pants, the visa process is enough to make you go cross-eyed. We’ve heard stories of corruption, bribes, and hassles. The more we learned about what we needed, the more complicated it seemed. Lucky for us, we’re visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Norwegian Cruise that offers a variety of Shore Excursions. We were a bit hesitant to book one since that’s not the preferred way we hope to explore new nations, but it appears to be our best and simplest bet for getting ashore.  The cruise line has a blanket visa that covers all passengers…but only for these tours. So, we’ll see a great chunk of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately we probably won’t have any adventurous exploring here.

Our one piece of advice based on our experience with the China, Russia or even Vietnam visa is to research, read and prepare well in advance of a trip to any country that you haven’t visited before. And don’t be afraid if the process seems a touch shady; every country seems to have their own way of doing things. A little knowledge and prep goes a long way to making sure you’re going to get into the countries you want to visit.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Destinations, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep, Visas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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