Trains booked!

Travelling in China is a challenge even if you are from there – unless you have a private driver or someone to do all the legwork for you. Factor in a major holiday when millions (that is plural) will be trying to get to, or away from cities at the same time and it is amazing the train, bus, and airline systems do not crash.

Booking trains is a test of patience, tickets are generally only available 30 days before your proposed departure date. Even if you manage to find tickets they are often not what you want. For instance, an overnight sleeper is so much more comfortable than a hard sleeper. If however, you end up having to book a hard sleeper because you were asleep in your comfy bed in your home country when everyone in China was madly booking the soft sleepers, do try to snag a lower berth. Keep in mind though that you might be fending off what may seem like rude strangers trying to take over your space if you are not actually occupying the bed. It is not uncommon for people in the middle or top berth to hang out on the bottom berth. So make friends, have a picnic, laugh with newfound friends. (If on a strictly overnight train then everyone will most likely go straight to sleep)

Back to booking when Chinese citizens have the advantage of a time zone ahead of yours. I know there are intrepid souls who want to go it alone – “he who thinks himself…is a great fool” – so I give this warning, be prepared to be infinitely patient when attempting to book in the month before a holiday! With that in mind, and having a fairly good understanding of how the rails system works, I chose to once more book through an agency. Let them deal with finding the seats and sleepers for my dates, or come up with alternatives for me to choose from. All I had to do was send my itinerary along with the type of train, and seats, I wanted. They sent back a quote, including their fees, payment options and extra information – I only had to send the money! I used China Highlights because I already knew they come through. Heck, they even pick up errors in dates – mine. 

As for the third leg of my trip, Hanoi to Nanning; Nanning to Sanjiang, and beyond…..I am hoping with the holiday over I will not be “a great fool” by doing my own bookings. Besides, I have been down that track before.

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The Final Countdown

I have noticed I often take snippets of song titles or snippets from lyrics when I am working on a Blog title. They just seem to pop into my mind with the result of having a catchy start and an ear bug for much of the day. I think this is one reason I do not listen to music when I travel. Also the fact I have no idea how to download music and my earbuds (which I hate using) and earphones plug do not seem to fit into my iPhone. I guess that is what one should expect when trying to save money by purchasing a ‘slightly’ used product. Which is why I am at a countdown of sorts.

My previous Blog discussed packing; I have not yet attempted to make everything fit although I remain confident it will. I am counting down the days – fewer than 30. I am counting on Mozzy – my cat – to be well. I am counting on not going crazy when my youngest daughter arrives from Honduras – recently a hurricane went by there and she is much like that force. To my knowledge she is still planning to join me on my Vietnam leg which will certainly help cut costs other than the actual motorcycle tour – we will have our own guides and probably not share rooms until we reach Hoi An. 

Family here are planning a celebration for my birthday – I am not looking forward to counting candles! Last time we had a cake with many, many candles (50, for my sister) the smoke alarm went off. Perhaps I will request six sparklers. There is not really anything I want – or rather, what I want will not happen. I do not need anything – besides money or free accommodation of course. I am also counting virtual money –  CNY, USD & VND – to work out the various exchange rates into CAD that go along with accommodation and transportation I know I will be using. (My whole budget is based on CAD – readers can now feel sorry for me)

Despite promising myself I would try to not rush about from place to place I have so far booked thirteen hostels and hotels, and that does not include the nine I will stay at during my Vietnam tour! I also have to figure out where I will go for the last six day of my trip. I will also take 8 – 10 trains, one motorcycle, a few subways, some short distance buses and who knows what else. However, even after factoring in three transit days and adding in Hoi An and Hanoi (I love saying those together) plus the six days I need to figure out, I believe my final countdown will still remain at 100CAD (80USD for anyone who does not think in Canadian dollars) per day. I could make it less if I were not springing for three nights close to two sections of the Great Wall at a boutique hotel. My birthday present to myself – they even offered to bake a cake.

One Month: Shanghai!

I have usually packed, and unpacked, at least once when I am at one month before departure, and this is one month before arrival! It seems that a sick kitty, (no real improvement and now he is eating the coffee plant again) an attempt to work to save money for said kitty, plus various appointments have taken up precious time. Having that extra ten hours back that I was putting in for a low salary – I quit – (and excruciatingly sore knees) means more time with my kitty and finalizing plans.  Not that I had not been preparing. That started even before my trip to Ontario in the summer! As previously mentioned I just had not had the same drive to work on my itinerary let alone pack. After shaking off the cobwebs from my brain and the dust from my passport (not really, I keep it in a bag) I finally started working on the  Vietnam leg for after my motorcycle tour and the second part of my time in China as well as packing.

My empty Sirius 36L. Also Mozzy, relaxing in style.
A better view for size? My plan is to take only these to carry everything.
 Vietnam: I had not highlighted the main on the map posted where I will be stopping at when on the ten day tour. Ho Chih Min, (Saigon); Long Hai; Miu Ne; Bao Loc; Da Lat; Lak; Dray Sap Falls; Chu Se; Kon Tum; Kham Duc; Hoi An. I hope I can still stand upright after such a rigourous journey! All for the grand sum of about 1000CAD so long as our dollar does not drastically fall. (750USD) Food is not included but is very cheap. Although not cheap by any means it is better than attempting to learn how to ride a motor scooter, navigate the roads and deal with signs written in Vietnamese! I keep reading about how wonderfully relaxed Hoi An is. As my daughter will be travelling with me in Vietnam and plans to go diving in Hoi An I decided it would be nice to stay there four nights before heading to Hue for two nights – so far the only place I booked the accommodation. Everywhere else is taken care of. My final destination will be Hanoi where I will buy a train ticket to Nanning, China (where my cat Mozzy is from) to complete my final 22 days. I hope I can write a little about each place once there. 
I cannot decide if I will take my journal from my daughter with me. I would hate to lose it.
 Packing: I am often asked, mainly by family, why I prepare so far in advance.  I like to be organized so as to ensure I have everything I need and, even more important when trying to fit everything into a 36L backpack and one smallish daypack, what I do NOT need for a 58 day trip. My trip to Ontario and Winnipeg helped me weed out some clothing items as just impractical. I will not need a long dress (if I do I can buy one) and some of my cool, pretty tops are not so cool when it is hot and humid. I also have to rethink legwear to prevent mosquitoes from eating me. Which seems a great possibility.

Being fairly confident I am familiar with various weather patterns in China – although never psychologically prepared for the heat and humidity – I have a fairly decent selection of clothing to meet the ups and downs of my first ten days in late September. As I remain undecided about heading north my focus is on late October into the first half of  November when I will be travelling to some of the southern interior provinces where it can begin to be chilly by November. I have clear recollections of needing light fleeces for my daughters when in Yangshuo many years ago as well as summer wear. Sturdy footwear is another necessity – just because the locals might be wearing plastic sandals or flip flops does not mean it is a good idea. 

Two of my daughters – Yangshuo/Guilin, 1997. Hot and cool clime. My youngest had shed her fleece.

Weather research shows to expect monsoons (one site said typhoons for Suzhou) and rain in general along with daytime highs of 29c (Shanghai) and lows at night of 20c. When I do these searches I begin to ask the question others put to me – why? Particularly when nothing has really changed since my first, truncated trip in 1996. Then there is Vietnam, basically expect rain with heat and humidity although the rainy season might have slowed down when I get there. There is s good chance of flooding in Hoi An. With all of this in mind am I prepared? Probably. I have encountered monsoons – rule of thumb, try to find higher ground, preferably under the eaves of a building rather than indoors where it will most likely be hit, humid, crowded and often no electricity. The latter is based on experience, I still have no idea why the electricity seems to be shut off although common sense says it is a safety precaution.

Circa 2002, near Yangshuo. My daughter holding her hair out of her face, looking down. It was bloody freezing. Note umbrellas as well as crossing flooded road.
Unlike meteorologists I am unable to predict the future.

So, after all of that what am I packing? This is why I plan ahead! As I was laying everything out I was removing adding items. If I add everything up I will be carrying sixty items with me – including the two packs. Some items I can do without but do not want to: a small bottle of maple syrup to share and remind me of home; finger puppets other than my travel companions – who kept jumping into the shots to remind me they are going; 3 packages of Canada pencils for gifts. The puppets and pencils are my nod to being a preschool teacher. Nearly everything is included in the photos.
These items fit into the large pocket above the main body of my backpack. Not shown is my travel French Press
I plan to actually use the camera this time! Small moose pouch needs another pocket added that will close to serve as a very light bag when I need nothing else.
I switched out the hard eyeglass case for a cloth one.
I will be wearing one outfit! Not sure if I can cut back on anything.
What works to keep the bulk down? Besides just a shoulder bag and buying items as needed (I met one traveller who was doing that) I try to have items I can mix/match/layer. With two distinct seasons and various climates I know I can use leggings under a light pant, a skort or on their own. A long sleeve top can be layered under a short or 3/4 one. A fleece can go over anything. My cover up was free and can be worn in many styles – it also scrunches up into a fairly compact ball. Footwear, yes I am packing slippers; I might pack flip flops (I just do not like them but for showers, beaches and pools they will be handy). One pair of sturdy walking sandals and runners. My floppy hat disappeared on my most recent trip which means I will most likely buy a new one once I am in China. All I have to buy is a travel emergency kit. I am confident will fit – we shall see.