Trains, planes and automobiles indeed!

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To get from Victoria to Kingston is a test of stamina. Up at 3:30 to get to the airport, there by 5:00 and so was everyone else escaping the cold weather! I did make my flight, even managed to buy a banana and fill my water bottle. However, next time I plan to leave earlier if flying out of YVR. In the air, zip across, point the nose down, land in YVR 15 mins later.

Not many choices for buying food at gate C50 so I trekked back to near the gate where we had landed from Victoria, bought a sandwich and coffee, then did a balancing act back to my gate. No spills. I worked on making my two bags easier to carry and stow. Too bad I had not done so before checking in at YVR – my carry-on had to be checked in as technically I had too many bags. I was grateful to be told the fee would be waived, this after I was trying to figure out which boots to take – severe weather or the ‘let’s pray it stays mild’ pair. Once in YVR, I realized it was just as well I was not carrying everything, what I did have was heavy. Decision to leave my winter boots and heavy sweater in Kingston when it is time to go home. I am tempted to leave my winter coat too.

Smaller gifts too. I had two containers filled with macarons my daughter made for her sisters and their families. Security guards do not listen when told to keep bags upright. I would not know how the cookies fared until late evening.

It is very easy to get from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to Union Station. From Terminal 1 take the UP Train, it stops at Union Station. However, arrival can be more than a little confusing as the station remains in the throes of “extensive renovations through multiple phases as part of the City of Toronto Revitalization Project.” This was slated to for completion in 2016. Unless they have magic wands it is not about to happen. There appears to be no end in sight. Most recent information indicates 2017 to finish, an approximate one trillion-dollar (boggles the mind) budget and now over budget!

Unlike at airports, with pockets of places to grab a bite to eat or a coffee, (unless it is me wanting something – I seem to always have gates out in the ether) the pocketful at the train station are not easy to access, have no seating, and are a pitiful choice. Once a purchase is made ‘guests’, as Via now calls passengers, provide entertainment for all by juggling meal, drink and baggage all in an effort to find a seat back in the central area five minutes away. With Via, UP, GO and access to the metro all using Union Station I can only hope there will eventually be more than just five vendors. After all, “If you build it they will come.” I can only hope someone has actually looked at the plans.

Money – I am always amazed at how much more expensive it is to travel by air in Canada. With travel insurance, Victoria to Toronto was $560 return. Plus my UP train and Via train at $165 return. Fortunately I will not be spending anything on accommodation, meals and transportation while here unless I visit Quebec City, or Ottawa with my eldest daughter.

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The train was comfortable, nobody sat next to me, it was relatively quiet as we hurtled along the track in the dark. It is a shame Via is so expensive, more people would be inclined to take the train just as is done in so many countries. Leave the car at home, relax, get some paperwork done, even use the internet on these short routes.

I made it, the cookies made it. A hug from my SIL, not expected. A long trip but relatively easy.

Expenses for day:

  • a turkey and lettuce sandwich and coffee from Starbucks at the Vancouver terminal for nearly $15
  • a pumpernickel bagel with roasted red pepper cream cheese, $5
  • an inflated $6 flat white at Starbucks bought at Union Station in Toronto
  • water, tea and a Kit Kat on the train $6
  • taxi $13

If I spend that kind of money, $45.00, everyday I will be flat broke.

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Final Notes: transportation, communication, budget and…

These days travelling to the other side of the world is relatively simple to arrange, then take off. A quick look online to find the least expensive flight, book with a debit or credit card and hit send. Alright, that is how it is supposed to happen. It usually is that simple, until it is not. This post is about the airlines I liked and did not, baggage, (yes, even the emotional kind) bus and train travel, where to stay, or not, and how I reached across the waters for help, or I was reached. All of my bookings were started with expedia.ca, just not necessarily completed through them.

I love taking the ferry from Swartz Bay (outside Victoria, BC) to Twassassen, a fabulous way to relax, enjoy the best, natural views in the world, and enter the madness of the rest of humankind. Then onward by bus and Skylink (the only way to travel any cheaper would be to walk or bike – still have to pay for the ferry) to the YVR Airport – which, by the way, was named the best international airport in the world by CAPA Centre for Aviation! I liked that this announcement was in the news the day I returned home.

Xiamen Air has only been flying out of Vancouver to China for maybe a year, which means it is not yet a popular choice, and that means the flights are not full. I had two seats to myself all the way to Xiamen. Another weather delay in Xiamen, then on our way to Shanghai. My only complaint was how disorganized staff were when it came to letting passengers know about the weather delay.

The return flight was a dream once I was aboard a plane. Checking in was not. I had to wait until four hours before departure, I was an agonizing 40 minutes early. The gate was in a separate room from all the others with no washroom. That meant handing over the boarding pass, leaving and trekking down the hall. There was also a storm brewing. Everyone was on tenterhooks worrying if we would leave on time. We did not. Fortunately, once on the plane the crew were great and kept everyone comfortable. I promptly fell asleep.

Once in Xiamen, my one bag already checked through to Vancouver, I joined the massive crush of people at security, Immigration, and Customs. A lengthy layover despite having been delayed in Shanghai, but through to the gate fairly quickly. One stupid couple thought they were being clever by having ‘her’ go through first, pull out her phone then take a photo of ‘him’ at the Immigration (or maybe it was Customs) counter. She was caught, chastised, and lucky to be told to go on her way. I was behind them. Never mess around at security, Customs or Immigration.

I roamed around the departure area, narrowly missing the gate change, then happily (me, happy on a plane and not yet drugged – go figure) boarded. My happiness became nearly giddy when the pilot affirmed all aboard and there was not anyone sitting in my row! Three seats to myself – I have never had that on a plane. A meal was served, water made readily available (read on dear passengers), I had blankets galore, three pillows and comfortable seats. An uneventful flight, I actually slept three to four hours without being disturbed. Breakfast was the only disappointment, very Chinese. Thank goodness congee was not included. Xiamen Air is on my radar for future travel.

China Eastern Airlines: a sudden change of plans meant I had to book a flight from Kunming, China to Chiang Mai, Thailand. My debit visa would not work despite making the reservation through expedia.ca. Fortunately my daughter, already in Thailand, has a credit card and offered to pay for my flight as a gift. Kunming has a beautiful airport. The photos I found do not do it justice. Inside and out, the architecture makes you want to soar. Watch out Vancouver. Checking in was easy, the flight did have some turbulence that freaked me out, the crew were great.

Thai Airlines: Chiang Rai to Phuket. Another problem with booking online, this time not even the credit card worked. Something to do with too close to departure. We did manage to retain the booking, called the airline office in Chiang Rai, provided all the pertinent information and were booked. Old style sometimes works best. All we had to do was be ready to provide proof of credit card with passport – ended up being not necessary. I did wonder if that means there is more credit card scamming than cardholders are aware of.

We arrived with lots of time to spare, I tend to worry about travel even if it is domestic. Very easy check-in, and, oh so lovely, we were offered goodies, coffee and tea! This was solely for Thai Air passengers. I have very little recollection of the rest of the flight, my daughter and I had an empty seat between us, then she changed to a row that was completely empty. A comfortable trip.

Thai Smile: Phuket to Bangkok. A less expensive offshoot of Thai Air, no tea and coffee. I had to wait an hour to check in whereas my daughter, on a different airline, was able to check in immediately despite her flight leaving after mine. I mentioned earlier how much I love taking the ferry from Vancouver Island, I was far from enamoured with the boat from Phi Phi Don to Phuket, then a mini-van to the airport.

We were both unwell, I thought it was seasickness for me, but no, we had the nasty bug someone brought to Phi Phi. I still do not know how my daughter managed other than through my plying her with Gravol and cajoling her to just get through security. By the time I arrived in Phuket I was not smiling. At the airport we found a place to hide and nap for a couple of hours. Some lovely cleaning ladies helped me out when I was at my worse – throwing up into a bag of rubbish seemed better than all over the floor. One woman rubbed my back, another gave me paper towels, another walked me back to my daughter and even checked up on us a couple of times.

The crew on Thai Smile had left me a nice little paper carry bag with a bottle of water, wet wipe and sandwich while I slept. I liked that. Ate the sandwich the next day.

Air Asia: Bangkok to Shanghai. Never, ever again. Granted their fares are low, so much so that everything else is extra. Including booking with a credit card; which, by the way, is about the only way to book with them! When I had booked this flight a couple of weeks earlier my daughter, who had flown with them before, asked me if I had pre-booked my baggage. Of course I had no idea what she meant. No attempt to make a change was possible, not from China, Thailand, or Canada. I finally said I would deal with it at the airport and set aside about the equivalent of 30CAD to cover any possible possible charge for my backpack. All other THB was exchanged for RMB.

The following is why I arrive early at airports. Security check to enter the airport, more security before being allowed to go to the check-in counter. Second in line for checking in, after being informed we were in the wrong place. More lines opened up, no longer second in line -I was beginning to growl. Finally my turn, still second in my line, the person ahead of me took about 15 minutes – he was, at the time, the only other foreigner in any of the lines.

My turn, my passport checked, long pause, it was peered at, another agent spoken to, they both peered at me, then the computer started spitting out the boarding and baggage passes. My backpack weighed in between 8 – 9kg. Papers were placed on the counter along with my passport, I was home free…..Nope.

After everything was processed I was informed I had to pay over 1800THB, about 70CAD, for my bag. I was horrified. I explained the problem with my attempts over the past two weeks, and I did not have that much in THB. Of course they suggested a credit card. They would not accept my daughter giving her card information over the phone, although they would have accepted it if she caught a taxi to come in person. An hour away. Then I was told I could shift stuff from my backpack to my carry on despite all the signs saying ONE CARRY ON ONLY! Except I had a Swiss Army knife wrapped up inside one of my shoes, inside a shoe bag. Their suggestion was to “throw it”. Yelling at people in Thailand goes nowhere, so I burst into tears. The knife was my mother’s and always travels with me. They lowered the amount to 815THB – despite my saying I only had just over 500. Which was true, because they could not take CNY. Exchange that they said. Which meant leaving the secure area. The knife will stay at home from now on.

By this time I was furious and worried I would miss my flight. I left, tried one bank card, not successful, then the other – thank goodness it worked. I stashed my unwanted THB except for the 800, went through security again, had all my passes redone, went to another desk to pay my pound of flesh, collected my passes and stomped off for security, immigration and customs. I was in foul mood.

When I discovered the gate was a large holding room without a washroom I was not surprised. Yet another sign Air Asia will do anything to save a dollar. The flight was delayed due to stormy weather – this time thunder and lightening. Everyone was wound up.

By the time we boarded it was past bedtime for everyone. This time I had to share a row with two other passengers until one of them moved. I slept most of the trip. Until I was thirsty. I had not filled my water bottle after security as there not any places near to the gate. Final disgusting insult to passengers. An 8oz, bottle of water was 50THB! (It might have been 80THB) I paid it, not happily, the airline is basically hijacking passengers. I will never travel on Air Asia again. There is no saving after the extortion for baggage, food and water. I am only grateful we were not stuck on the plane waiting to take off – they probably charge for airsickness bags.
Trains and buses. I found both of these modes of transportation easy to buy tickets for in both countries, despite my worry for my first train trip on National Day. Do not let lack of language skills deter travel plans. Instructions can be written down or use a mobile device to take a photo of a map and route. There is usually someone willing to help, or assistants at many stations. In Chiang Mai there are Tourist Police at the bus stations, and I assume, train stations who can provide help. Make it an adventure.
Accommodation varied from not so great to wonderful, with prices, other than the one upscale place in Chiang Mai, roughly the same. Once averaged out I paid 37CAD per night. Sharing of course cuts the price down, as does staying in dorms – which I do not ever plan to do. Only once did I want to cancel after arriving, People’s Square Youth Hostel was smelly and mouldy, but that was the end of my trip and in the area I am familiar with as well as being close to the metro and everywhere else I wanted to visit.
Communication. In China be prepared for far less access to the internet than usual. Even with VPN. In Thailand access at airports was frustrating, your phone number is necessary for access information to be sent as a text – the catch is that it seems only a Thai number works. On Phi Phi Don everywhere has wifi, many of they cafes have the codes on their receipt. Or, take a photo – I learned this in Kunming, beats running back and forth when memory fails.

I finally decided I did not need Facebook as I had What’sApp and eventually paid for a package for international calls and texts on my mobile phone. Unfortunately actual internet service can be extremely spotty depending where you are, just like at home. I always tell family I will let someone know where I am, and they usually know which city I am in as well as my accommodation. Let family know these things when possible. With modern technology there is no excuse not to. Also less worry. Even if you are running away.

Home….time to plan my next adventure.

After a week jet lag was finally gone, my cat loved me again and I started to think what to pack for another adventure. For now, winter clothes for a one month stay in Ontario. Perhaps a few days in Quebec Ciry or New York. Very different weather wise – winter; culture – Canadian, eh; visiting family – Christmas. Then who knows? Tibet, North Korea, more of China, are all on my list. Australia has been added now that my youngest is there. The latter will be only if we can come to an agreement about travelling and staying together.

Show Me the Money

Did I go over my budget? Yes. Even with my youngest paying for my flight from Kunming to Chiang Mai. There were extra flights, and other modes of transportation while I was in Thailand. The south of Thailand is expensive, paying an astronomical fee for my very light bag added to going over, as did leaving Jiuzhaigou a day early. I could have told my daughter I would take her up on her offer to pay for half of my ‘booze cruise’, but I had so much fun and I did have two monetary gifts from two of her sisters to do something special – I do not think any of us considered jumping into the ocean from the back of a speedboat would be my choice.

I believe I balanced out at 100CAD per day in Kunming, well worth every fen (1/6th of a penny)

The strangest cost was 2CNY for using a squat toilet in a private home. Better than a 1CNY facility any day.

It was difficult trying to keep track of money in Thailand because my daughter and I kept taking turns to pay for things. My first day I probably spent 1000THB, under 40CAD. I did not have to pay for the room. I paid for our cooking lesson and she paid for our nice hotel. However, by the time we made it to Koh Phi Phi, and were there our second night, I had difficulty getting a handle on this island of wanton spending. I did manage to snag a breakfast of fish congee and teepee fried, churro style, bread for 60THB, then spent far too much for coffee. Shame on me as I still had coffee in my room. I made up for that by eating most of my daughter’s breakfast (my lunchtime), we did not know she was getting sick other than feeling worn out.

Two more mornings and I had found sticky rice with chicken very near us, for the cheap price of 30THB. I always say eat where the locals eat, preferably where it is busy. I had a beachside view, watched local children playing in the water, boats being readied for the tourists and even had a young cat try to steal my breakfast. He did not get anywhere near it.

I did have to take money out of my bank account while in Bangkok; after being sick we were not up to going far so ate at the hostel. I did not see much of Bangkok, favouring photos from the rooftop restaurant. Perhaps another trip.

Final tally, perhaps 200-300CAD over my budget. That is satisfactory, not even surprising. All I have to do now is decide if I should budget differently for future trips or try to keep within my 3000CAD for a month of travel – including airfare. I am even thinking I might have to stay in dorms. Ah, the lengths we go to for travel.

Descend, Descend!

photo-1-3Heading back to Chengdu in dubious style: a car with the driver and me in front, three adults and one baby in the back seat. A sign for Huanglong – I wonder if I will ever make it there.

Random glimpses: Prayer cloths, prayer flags, snow, Moslems, Tibetans, yurts and sad, roadside makeshift tents. Massive elevated road or train track construction, the engineering feats in China are astounding. Goats clinging to hillsides, sad yaks waiting to give tourists rides, and happy yaks grazing in fields. Horses with riders, pulling carts, grazing. Islamic places of worship with the classical ball spires topped with crescent moon, (in China that is what they all seem to have regardless what the actual buildings look like) one pagoda, mountainside dwellings.

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Racks and racks of dried yak meat in Songpan outside nearly every shop, and in the hole in the wall place we stopped at to eat, rampant tourism gimmickry, Chinese flags prevalent again, ancient lookout towers -or so I assume. We were halted to. Bare crawl in a 4000+ metre tunnel, sirens blaring and flashing, along with impatient drivers who seem to think honking horns will make things go faster – it does not. I never did figure out why we were down to one lane.

The whole trip back was relatively quiet, I was not feeling too friendly due to the headache and having to make the decision to leave early.

Final assault on my nerves was being informed the the driver could not take me to my hostel because his license did not allow him to enter city limits. A bit of an argument ensued, a taxi was flagged down, my original driver thrust 100RMB to the taxi driver out of what I had paid to take me to the hostel. I my sweater behind in one of the vehicles. Good thing I was heading south. My headache was gone. Amazing.

I Think I Can: taking the train in China

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THIS IS A REBOOT, OR I THINK IT IS. FOUND IT IN MY DRAFTS. TIMELY CONSIDERING I AM ONCE AGAIN IN THE THROES OF BOOKING TRAINS – IN CANADA AND CHINA.

I first had to get to the station. Everyday before I headed to my room I asked about arranging for a taxi to catch my 6:38AM train. I was assured, more than once, that a taxi could be flagged down. I requested one be ordered. The evening before departure  I made the same request.

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Morning, I heard people departing. I did wonder if they too were heading to the railway station. Nope, they were going to the airport, on the way to the station. Too bad the person at reception decided to write down that I was going to the airport in the opposite direction – for which a car had been ordered! This is why I ask, also why I leave early for anywhere. Fortunately everything worked out but I was not happy. I had to pay 100CNY (20CAD) for what could have been a shared ride at no more than 50, most likely less. There went my hostel deposit. I will unlikely return to Phoenix Hostel in the future.

The station was, as expected, nuts. I would estimate tens of thousands of people were leaving just that morning. I kid you not! Chaos was prevented by providing enough staff and efficient security. The lines looked horrific yet the swarms of people moved through quickly then dispersed to which ever gates to their destinations. Sort of like masses of ants that scatter as they leave the anthill, all with one thing in mind. Get there. I am grateful I have been cycling and walking more, as well as walking up and down my 68 stairs at home – my backpack, daypack and small purse/pack were not easy to carry in the line and then down about 50 stairs!

First class only means your seat. The hoi poloi with standing tickets stand in the aisles, or nab an empty seat until someone with a seat ticket boards, including first class. It makes for crowded conditions, lots of noise and, rather to my embarrassment – I really did not want to appear like the fearful foreigner, but I do know about thievery on trains in China – more carefully watching my bags. My backpack was overhead but the other bags stayed with me. A little squished, my seat mate did not seem to mind.

I kept falling asleep, some yappy dog had kept waking me up all night and I had to be up at 4:00 to make it to the station. So I did not really think about eating, had no coffee and discovered that two bananas, a dragon fruit and some cookies would not be sufficient for a 15 hour train trip. I did what everyone says not to, I bought food on the train. Overpriced, rehydrated something. I did manage to have enough left to cover lunch and dinner, at a hefty price of 45CNY. That hit the budget very hard. (I never did eat the rest nor did I have the dragonfruit while onboard)

image-3The first 3 hours were shrouded in fog, smog and rain. These past three hours only had some glimpses of lushness, everywhere else has unfinished buildings, dirty tenement style shacks – it is the tracks after all – worn out looking apartment buildings with barred windows, glimpses of vast roadways, green swathes and razed grounds in readiness for who knows what. So far there seems to be no old China left. The mix of drizzle, coal dust and construction leaves everything looking dismal.

The grey shroud melted away and behold forest, valleys and hills galore! The Yiwan Line is constructed through the Karst area, brief glimpses of absolute beauty, blink and be swallowed by yet another tunnel. Its total length is 377 km (about 234 mi). of which 278 km (about 173 mi) is tunnels and bridges. This continued for several hours. I was pining for daylight after maybe the tenth tunnel – dark, claustrophobic, no end in sight – China has some of the longest tunnels in the world and I am sure we went through some of them. The whole trip from Shanghai to Chengdu is a mind numbing 2078 km, about 15 hours of sitting, jostling, spoiled children, and the general noise of one hundred or so people boarding, de-boarding, eating, wrapped in the joviality of a holiday. Nothing like flying.image-1

I was quite proud of myself to be one of the several pushing my way through the crowds, head to the taxi stand and be one of the first hundred in line. Until my driver could not understand where I was going. Out of the car, train police officer joined the conversation, a lot of ‘wait a moment’, in Chinese of course, then eventually seven police (I can only hope they were only attached to the train station) helping, well, one mainly, with the others offering various bits of advice. The problem was that the phone number to the hostel appeared to be incorrect. It was not, just not a very bright taxi driver – I am of the opinion they do this on purpose – who could have easily seen that one of the digits was the provincial code. Photo of my passport taken, they needed to make their help appear official I guess, my signature on a blank page – God forbid! I was off with written instructions and a new driver. I have to stop arriving at hostels at midnight.

  • Tips: keep your cool when lost in translation – I did, thank goodness. Until I arrived at the hostel
  • Taxi – 28
  • Tea – 15 (revived by just the scent – I also know how to order it in Chinese)
  • Dumplings – 15 (midnight dinner)
  • Room – 780 (three nights – I think the young officer with the best English helping me was horrified until he saw it was for three nights. Still probably out of his range – it was on my confirmation with the difficult phone number)

Still within budget. I had to check before bed. Which was very comfortable, a rarity even ar five star hotels in China.

Escaped Typhoon Megi

So, flights delayed and cancelled the day I left and the next. All due to a little weather system called Typhoon Megi. A quick rundown of what happened, seeing as I am now in Chengdu and have had other exciting times.
Vancouver flight delayed nine hours. No reason provided.
Xiamen flight cancelled. No reason provided.
Eventually slept in the nursery.

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My first place to slumber while waiting for word about my flight.

New flight out of Xiamen delayed – seeing the rain slashing across the windows I wondered how we managed to land from Vancouver!
Exhaustion set in and I was asleep before we took off, only a little concerned by the buffeting the plane was receiving as we slid side to side on the Tarmac.
Arrived Shanghai just shy of midnight. Up at 6:00am and ready for the day. Who needs sleep.

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Typhoon Megi 2016. My plane was suppose to land in Xiamen.