Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hutong Hotel

Two Weeks in China and Vietnam, Part 2

We arrive in Beijing

Our flight to Beijing, China via Hainan Airlines from Seattle in Business Class (see previous post) went off without a hitch but for a delay. After the door was closed and we pushed back from the gate, the Captain announced that due to strong headwinds en route we would arrive PEK 45 minutes behind schedule.

Twelve hours later we did indeed land at Beijing exactly 45 minutes late.

On the way Hainan treated us well. The Flight Attendants were, well, attentive from start to finish, and always cordial. The on-board staff was especially solicitous of our two kids' well-being.

It appeared that at least one of the male staff on board was not an FA but for security. He loitered about the front cabins and galleys throughout the entire flight keeping an eagle eye on passenger comings and goings. Thankfully, his skills were not needed on our flight.

The meals were good but not great. I had eel (Unagi kabayaki) for my entree, the only memorably good dish. The usual multiple courses of small dishes served before the main dish varied between recognizable and mysterious, but we nibbled on the lot out of curiosity. None was worth describing in detail.

The wines were tasty (I tried several whites and reds) but not anything to rave about. After sampling the wines on offer, I went back to the delicious Mumm Cordon Rouge NV Brut Champagne. After all, Champagne is always appropriate when traveling, and I never tire of it!

Disclosure of hard-wired bias: Any airline that doesn't serve a French Champagne (and is there any other kind?) in its premium classes loses me as a customer forever.

The two menus (one for the meals and one labeled "Bar Service") were a bit tattered, either a cost-saving sign or one of neglect. (On the return flight PEK/SEA two weeks later, Hainan had no Business Class menus at all to offer, saying they had not been catered with any.)

I found it odd that there was no ice on board to cool the Diet Coke I requested mid-flight.

The Business Class lavatories were always clean, and were in fact VERY clean, throughout the flight. FAs were seen tidying up and refilling paper in the toilets behind every passenger. We were happily impressed.

The hours dragged on, as they always do on these interminable trans-Pacific flights, even in the comfort of a lie-flat seat in a luxurious and spacious cabin. I slept, as always, intermittently, even though the seat in the bed position was parallel to the floor and wide enough not to feel cramped in.

On arrival at the gate in Beijing at 5:15 PM local time (45 minutes to the second behind schedule), my wife and I agreed that we had made an excellent choice in Hainan Airlines. We would definitely use them again in Business Class.

Incredibly, we were out of security and looking for our driver by 5:45 PM. It helped that we had only carry-on luggage; we hoofed the long distance between gate and the Customs/ Immigration portal at a brisk pace and had only a short wait to get our passports stamped.

Once out, we were perplexed to find that our driver, Joe, who is reliable and well-known to us, was not there to meet us as expected. We paced up and down looking for Joe.

Late afternoons are dark and cold in Beijing in December, and terminals at Chinese airports are not heated to American standards. The kids were tired, and so were we; the exhaustion, darkness, and chill made us irritable. I was on the verge of booking a taxi when Joe suddenly turned up, bright and cheerful as usual.

For Y220 (about $28.50) Joe had agreed by email to transport us to the center of Beijing to our hotel, the Days Inn Forbidden City. We piled into his Chevy (Chinese-made Chevrolets and Buicks are extremely popular) in the freezing parking lot and were soon en route on the toll road to the city.

I managed to stay awake somehow through the entire 60-minute ride, but my family fell into a deep, if short, sleep, waking only as we exited the 1st Ring Road (innermost Ring Road) and drove down the main drag by the fancy hotels, such as the Peninsula, as we neared the hutongs (the ancient residential neighborhoods that used to make up central Beijing) surrounding the Forbidden City.

Don't ask me to name the street because it changes names at least once or twice, and I could never decipher the English translations of either from our maps. But I know the central part of the city well enough now that I could take you there on foot or by car.

The area was dressed up fancier and more Christmassy than Times Square after Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations and lights festooned every building, street corner, and alleyway. We gawked as we made our way down the boulevard.

It's no secret to anyone who's visited China in December that they are mad for Christmas. A resident German scientist we later met confidently explained to me that the penchant for blue Christmas lights in China is due to the Chinese association of the color blue with nature.

As if that explained why the Chinese, who have no Christian tradition, have adopted the American Christmas culture with a vengeance. It's a bit unnerving to enter an elevator in China and hear Bing Croby crooning "White Christmas" through the overhead speakers. It seems more alien than seeing whole snakes roasted on a spit in the Beijing Night Market.

Joe soon pulled into a narrow alley along the wall of hutongs close to the Forbidden City, and there before us in the cold darkness loomed a squat gray building with a familiar Days Inn sign affixed to it. I recognized the boring rectangular box of a building at once. It could have been any modest Interstate-exit hotel in America, but here it was wholly enclosed by the centuries-old hutongs adjacent to Forbidden City.

Next to the property's residence building was a smaller building with a front entrance and small lobby. I headed that way to check in, and completed the formalities in ten minutes (credit card, passport, etc.).

Keys in hand, we traipsed over to the gray building to find our two rooms. Two rooms because our research indicated that five people could not comfortably occupy one room at this hotel. Each room ran about $63/night, so I didn't mind paying for two.

Three, or even four, rooms would not have been sufficient, however, to overcome the disappointment. Both rooms were tiny and utterly devoid of charm. There was no closet, and no place to hang clothes. The bathroom was uncomfortably close to the one bed, lacking in privacy. That and the low ceiling intensified the claustrophobia I felt just upon entering my room.

I knew at once that we needed to find another hotel for our return to Beijing in two weeks, but I resigned myself to making do with the situation for a couple of nights. It was, at least, clean, and the heat worked fine.

I discovered the shower dispensed plenty of hot water with good water pressure, also a plus, but there was no shower soap provided.

Oh well, only two nights, I thought. But I wouldn't recommend the property to anyone I liked. The Days Inn Forbidden City's guest rooms were at the far end of the spectrum from those of the Hilton Beijing where we'd stayed in a grand suite on our last visit to the Chinese capital.

Dazed from the trip, my wife and I unpacked a few essentials. Knowing we needed to adjust quickly to our new time zone, we mustered the kids back out into the cold and dark and walked out of the hutong area to the main street, looking for a restaurant.

Family-owned restaurants abound in Beijing, something first-time visitors discover on their first day, and most are good. We stuck our heads into one or two along the street until we found one we intuitively liked and ordered several dishes off the laminated plastic menu.

Menus in such restaurants rarely have English language translations of the food items, but most have pictures of each dish next to their descriptions in Chinese. We sometimes don't know whether the meat we are ordering is pig, chicken, beef, goat, or dog, but it all seems to taste good when it arrives. The important thing to get right is not the source of protein; it's the sauce and the amount of red pepper cooked into the dish.

My tolerance for and love of very spicy food is legendary. My kids, though, won't eat hot foods. We lucked out that first night; when the food arrived, the kids liked some of it. My wife and I liked all of it and drank two beers as well. The bill for five of us came to less than ten dollars.

With dinner warming our bellies, we retraced our steps to the Days Inn and our unlovely rooms and all fell into a much-needed deep sleep.

Next post will continue the tale of two weeks in China and Vietnam, covering one of the best meals we had on the entire trip, a breakfast for six (including our driver, Joe) for under $3 (Y19); a day trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where we enjoyed donkey meat for lunch; and the excutiating experience of a Chinese foot massage.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Who Knew Hainan?

Two Weeks in China and Vietnam

Getting to Beijing

Planning a 16-day trip to China and Vietnam over the Christmas holidays, My wife and I were determined to make all the arrangements ourselves, just as we always did B.C. (before children). Our kids, ages 7 and 12, are good travelers, but their tastes in vacation places gravitate to tropical environs with white sandy beaches and warm pools. They don't yet enjoy exploring new places unless those key features (beaches and pools) are among the rewards.

We placated them two years ago by going to Tahiti (beautiful and relaxing, but boring to the adventurous soul). So this year we aimed for a return to China, with a trip south to Vietnam built in, a much more interesting sojourn to us adults.

Beijing, we know from experience, can be brutally cold in December, but we wanted to give our daughter, adopted from China, a first opportunity to see the capital of her native land. Besides, the frigid weather of Beijing in winter puts downward pressure on hotel prices and, we hoped, air fares.

So I took the lead on finding a Business Class fare from Raleigh to Beijing that we could live with. I almost wrote "reasonable" Business Class fare, but those are as dead as the dodo.

The search began with a look through the usual portals (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.) as well as the direct airline sites. Contacts were made with discount travel agents, frequent flyer award brokers, and consolidators; I frankly expected to find a good deal with one.

But nothing worked with broker and consolidator deals within the dates we could live with going and returning. Maybe it was due to the time of year or starting from RDU.

I ended up back at Orbitz where an intriguing connection showed up between Raleigh and Biejing using American Airlines RDU/SEA and Hainan Airlines from Seattle to Beijing. The price was $3400 per ticket all-in round trip in First Class on AA to/from SEA and Business Class both ways SEA/PEK.

We cringed at the price (times four people), but decided we could live with it to avoid the torture of Sardine Class across the vast Pacific.

But Hainan Airlines? Who ever heard of Hainan Airlines?

I knew Hainan Province is an island in the far south between China and Vietnam and that it's considered to be the Hawaii of the People's Republic, but I didn't know the airline of the same name. After making some inquiries, however, I found that Hainan Airlines is one of those up-and-coming Chinese carriers that is growing by leaps and bounds and wants to carve out a niche for itself.

Thus we booked Hainan and American. Right away I was pleased with the choice when the airline's reservation folks cooperated in giving us good seats together in advance.

I'll save the description of the AA flights from Raleigh to Chicago to Seattle, our overnight at a Doubletree near the airport, and our morning of fun walking around the Seattle waterfront (Pike Place Fish Market, etc.) for another post and skip right to our initial impressions of Hainan from Seattle to Beijing:

It was altogether a fine experience in every way, superlative in some ways and average in others, but nothing at all occurred that marred the flight for any of us. These days that's a remarkable commendation for any airline's overseas service.

For our 1:20 PM departure we arrived extra early at Sea-Tac at 11:00 AM, partly out of curiosity to see what Hainan would do. The usual dedicated Business Class check-in counter took care of us promptly, including invitations to the lounge near our gate, and they didn't give us any grief about our carryon luggage.

You see, we never check our bags unless forced to, not even for a weeks-long international trip like this one. But we pack smartly, and our luggage will fit into any airline overhead. We also carry only one piece per person except for me (I take a small second bag with essential documents and electronics). Hainan gave us carryon tags for each piece of luggage.

The General Manager-North America for Hainan Airlines, Mr. Joel Chusid, cruised the check-in counters, and he courteously introduced himself to us. Mr. Chusid was solititous of our experience and gave me his card, encouraging me to contact him if there was anything we needed, even from China.

He also informed me that Hainan Airlines provides courtesy limousine service for Business Class customers from the Beijing Capital Airport to their hotel, and again from the hotel back to airport when returning. Mr. Chusid said that the service requires 24 hours notice, so it was already too late to enjoy the free ride upon arrival to PEK, but he admonished me to contact the Hainan Airlines office in Beijing to line up the limo back to the airport when we returned on January 1.

We'd already lined up a driver to pick us up (a trusted friend we had used before, Joe, and who drives for many people we know), and we couldn't have canceled quickly, so it made little difference at that point, though it would have saved us about $30. Still, I was impressed that Hainan offers the complimentary service.

Boarding and lounge passes in hand, we survived the security screen with no trouble and took the underground train to the S concourse, arriving at 11:35 AM. Because of the circuitous underground journey, I had no idea where the S concourse was relative to the main terminal.

There we cooled our jets and enjoyed the pleasures of the BA Terraces Lounge. I took the opportunity to imbibe the excellent nonvintage brut Piper-Heidsieck Champagne on offer and toured the BA facilities. I was delighted to find them clean, quiet, and spacious. Showers were available, too.

Hainan provided fancy, high gloss brochures on its airline and its services, all the better to project and establish its rising image. The international route map inside indicates Hainan flies to two North American destinations (Seattle and Toronto), while it flies to five Russian cities, three in Western Europe, one in the Middle East, two in Africa, and three in Southeast Asia. Thirteen destinations outside China is a bit thin perhaps, but a good start.

Boarding began with Business Class at 12:40 PM, forty minutes before scheduled departure. The A330-200 aircraft is configured with two classes, business and coach. Two Business Class cabins are divided by a door and galley area; the front cabin houses rows 1-3, and the back cabin rows 4-7. The Business seats themselves are identical in both cabins.

Since 1973 I've flown in so many business and first classes on so many airlines that I have to consult my records to be sure of them all, and I tend to be rudely critical right away of the seats if I don't like them.

For instance, I don't care for the current American Airlines international Business Class seats. They look and feel crowded and claustrophobic because they are. AA's seats also extend out to a weird angle that is "flat" but not parallel to the floor, and in that position one feels pinned in. To make matters worse, it's difficult to get in and out of the AA seat if it's not on an aisle without stepping all over your neighbor.

By contrast, the Hainan Business Class seats are extremely roomy in every way. There is an abundance of room to move in and out of the seats, and they are comfortable in every position. They extend out to a true lie-flat position that is parallel to the floor and are wider than most Business Class seats I've experienced.

The entire Hainan Business Class cabin is spacious and inviting as well. We liked the look and feel of our surroundings as soon as we boarded and took our seats (4AB and 5AB). I was both relieved and delighted that the next 12 hours on board was going to be a pleasant experience even if the meal and beverage service turned out to be mediocre (which it wasn't).

After all, the difference between Sardine Class and Business Class is really the seat and the cabin. That's what you are paying all that extra money for: relief from pain. A modicum of good service helps, but if the seat and cabin are stressful, nothing can rescue the experience.

The Hainan Airlines folks did a superb job of designing a cabin and seats for their premium customers that is comfortable, relaxing, and open. I never felt close to our fellow travelers, though every Business seat was taken.

Our coats were taken and water or juice offered within minutes of boarding. Champagne and other alcohol is not allowed on the ground in Seattle, they said, but I still had the the taste of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne in my mouth from the BA lounge, so was not troubled by the wait.

OK, a few nits:

The very spacious overhead compartments over our seats were partially filled with flight attendant luggage. As we were traveling realtively light, I was able to make room for all our pieces, but it was irksome just the same. I suppose the habit of using the overhead space arose because most Business Class passengers check their big bags. Indeed, few seated in our cabin brought aboard luggage in number and size of ours.

The movie screens, though sizable, were not as crisp and clear as those I have become used to on other airlines. And the headphones were neither noise-canceling nor particularly high fidelity models. (These drawbacks were not noticed by our children, I might add.)

Because our section of Business Class was behind the main entry door (rows 4-7), coach passengers streamed past to find their seats in Sardine Class in the rear of the plane. This procedure was egalitarian but not particularly elegant, and I had to remind myself that China is a classless society.
There is much more to tell about this very good experience on Hainan Airlines, and a GREAT DEAL MORE about the places we visited over the remaining 15 days, including: Beijing (getting bamboozled by fake students in the hutongs); the Great Wall at Mutianyu; chaotic but intriguing Hanoi (visiting Ho Chi Minh's mummified remains and the bustling dog market on the same day) and HaLong Bay (a World Heritage site) in Vietnam; a cross-border, overnight train ride reminiscent of a spy novel in a Chinese "soft sleeper" from Hanoi to Nanning (China); visiting a restaurant that serves Chairman Mao's favorite foods in Yulin and drinking corn juice; another journey by Chinese train, albeit in daylight, Nanning to Guilin, during which we were regaled by hucksters; gorgeous Yangshuo (also a World Heritage site) and the Yangshuo Mountain Resort (spectacular!); Xingping and the trained fishing cormorants; and finally frigid Beijing again (10 degrees fahrenheit didn't stop the Night Market from flouishing with weird foods) before flying home on Hainan Airlines, retracing our steps through Seattle back to Raleigh. It will take many more posts to tell these tales.