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, March 17, 2011

Haunting Hutongs, Hunting Hotels, and Haggard in Hanoi

Breakfast on our third day in Beijing was taken at the Days Inn Forbidden City's buffet. This was to placate our 12 year old son, since his entire repertoire of foods can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The brightly-lit, spotlessly-clean atmosphere and western breakfast offerings provided an embarrassing contrast to the authentic, humble Chinese breakfast of delicious soup and scrumptious dumplings of the previous morning.

To my unhappy surprise, our seven year old daughter and 17 year old Italian exchange student also tucked into the expensive fare of mediocre replications of a typical American morning meal. Nothing tasted particularly good, but the bland flavors tickled the kids' taste buds.

Whereas the previous day's breakfast cost $3 for 6 people, or fifty cents each, this morning's meal cost 21 times as much at $10.35 per person. My wife was appalled and went down the street to find another local place. I wanted to go with her but had to stay with the kids.

After eating, we ventured on foot into the immediately adjacent hutongs, the ancient local neighborhoods of one and two-story residences that used to predominate in central Beijing, ringing the Forbidden City palace. Some of the hutong areas, those closest to the main drag leading to Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, have been rebuilt and spruced up with artifical streams and pocket parks and cutesy pastel colors, making them look rather beautiful.

I smelled a big rat, like the completely false perfection at a Disney park, where everything has been sanitized to the point of unreality. I checked the hutong streambed and found it was poured concrete with water pumped in at one end like a backyard waterfall.

So I did a little research. Truth is, the hutongs were not, and are not, the pretty places now being given a makeover for tourists. They were hardscrabble neighborhoods where people lived in squalor and in very close quarters.

This experience wasn't in the distant past, either. Our driver Joe, in his thirties, described living in a Beijing hutong until his late twenties because he could not afford better. Conditions were brutal, he said, in every season: bitter cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. Outside latrines meant having to bundle up to go to the toilet; cleansing one's body was done via a spit bath in a sink. Joe said the charcoal stoves used to provide heat were not drafted, so you either had to keep a window open to let oxygen in (and cold air with it) or risk being asphyxiated.

Once we left the big boulevard that leads to the Square and Forbidden City, however, the street face of the hutongs opposite the palace walls reverted to the usual drab gray concrete, complete with rusty doors and hinges. As far as we could observe, the real hutong life is much as Joe told us: basic, bordering on primitive.

But vibrant. There are lots of shops of all sorts on the edges of the hutongs, especially small convenience stores where bottled water sells for half the price of stores on nicer streets. We even fell victim to one of the oldest scams in overseas tourist cities: the art-student-taking-lessons ploy.

A young squeaky-clean, well-dressed Chinese fellow who spoke good English passed us on the street and asked us where we were from. (We should have known right then that it was a set-up.) After listening to his spiel about being a graduate art student from Shanghai studying at Beijing University, we followed him to a nearby small gallery selling all sorts of Chinese artworks. Prices were low and quality was high, so we bought a few items, and we are still happy with them. But we discovered that there are scores of such modest stores in Beijing, and all employ such "art students" to steer foreigners to them.

Wandering in and out of the hutong streets, we eventually made a three-quarter circuit around a huge block from the Days Inn Forbidden City. On one of the main streets leading to downtown Beijing and away from the Forbidden City, we suddenly realized that we were standing in front of the Kapok Hotel. The Kapok, my wife's guidebook has said, was a superior property with large rooms and modest prices. We stepped inside out of the bitter cold to have a look and check out their ratecard.

The staff was extremely helpful and even took us for a tour of their two basic room types, one a very large regular room with a fancy bath, and the second one a huge room with a single king bed but with an L-shaped sitting area that could be made up into two single beds (called a "suite" but really more like 50% larger open space than a regular room). The bathroom in the bigger one was not much smaller than our individual rooms at the Days Inn.

Best of all, the rate for the "suite" came to just over $100/night all in, which was cheaper than the two rooms at the Days Inn. We counted our blessing on finding this gem of a hotel and booked one room for our final two nights in China. Later I cancelled our reservations for the Days Inn for the same two nights, and we breathed a sigh of relief that we would not have to spend another night there.

In the early afternoon we checked out of the Day Inn Forbidden City, and I reflected on what we liked about the place: the very kind and helpful staff. Day or night, they aimed to please and would go beyond the call of duty to make us happy. Our bill was exactly what we had calculated, too.

Joe picked us up and drove us to the airport, stopping at a McDonald's (again) for our kids en route. We reached the airport terminal just 25 minutes (at 2:40 PM) from the CBD, and Joe never broke the speed limit. It's a lot closer than it seems, but Beijing traffic makes the ride seem interminable during rush hours.

This is a good place to mention that my mobile phone, a Blackberry Torch with AT&T service, worked perfectly in China from the moment we landed. Before we left the States, I purchased (for one month) a special AT&T Wireless overseas package that included substantial email and text time for China and Vietnam, but not voice. I was mainly interested in keeping up with email while away and opted not to buy the expensive voice plan for China. I never missed it, either, but processed hundreds of emails while there for 16 days. It's popular to diss Blackberry these days, but I stand by mine, and though I am no big fan of AT&T mobile service, their overseas plan worked perfectly for me, and I'd do it again.

Our internal Asian flights had been arranged through a Chinese agency by us in the USA. Our options from Beijing to Hanoi were surprisingly limited. We decided on China Southern because it was much cheaper, but it involved a stop in Guangzhou.

And of course there were no business class deals on these flights, either, so we were all in coach.

Checking in at China Southern I asked about the possibility of an upgrade and was politely informed that for an extra $700 per person (one way), we could ride in Business Class.

What about the possibility of a complimentary upgrade? I asked.

Not in this lifetime, I was told politely.

I guess one's chances for an upgrade when competing among 1.3 billion souls are slim (compared to having to compete with a mere 300 million in the USA for one). After all, even if you were identified by your favorite airline in China as a one-in-a-million super-duper-elite frequent flyer, there would be another 1.3 million elite frequent flyers just like you. Be hard to get a standby upgrade with those odds.

China Southern got tough with our carry-on, too, even though we had one legal carry-on per person (five of us) plus two small backpacks. We arrived extra early, so I took my time trying to reason with them to let us carry on everything, but in the end, China Southern would not let us check in unless we checked at least two bags. My only consolation was to get Business Class "Priority" baggage tags added to each of them which, I was told, would assure they came out first.

We let them go, much to my chagrin. Our 17 year old Italian exchange student asked why it was so important to me, and I explained that, aside from the risk of damage or loss, the bags would take forever to arrive at Hanoi, and we were already arriving close to midnight. She opined that with the Priority tags we would have them in no time.

I take no pleasure in reporting that she was wrong, and I was right. When we finally arrived in Hanoi at 11:45 PM, we waited until 12:51 AM for our bags to arrive on the belt, costing us an extra hour when we were already spent and totally exhausted from the flights. More on that later.

After checking in, we looked for a Chinese restaurant for the adults, having decided to skip eating at McDonald's when we stopped for the kids. Astonishingly, however, Terminal 2 at Beijing lacks a restaurant serving home country victuals. Our growling bellies had to settle for the completely inauthentic fare at a so-called Irish pub which was as boring as it was mediocre.

Making our way to Gate 50 for China Southern 371 to Guangzhou and Hanoi, we passed through a security screen boasting an unpleasant and rude Chinese official, the first instance of such behavior we experienced in the country. The officious lady ascribed to the hurry-up-and-wait military school of queuing, and she was insensitive to the need for us to stay with our seven year old daughter. Despite the security lady’s tough approach, our daughter got a Coke through the security screen unnoticed.

The flight was due to depart at 5:30 PM. After waiting by the gate a long while, passengers were herded onto a bus at 5:10 PM. This was December, and the air was frigid. The bus was devoid of any heat or light. After a long period of uncertainty by the gate, the bus lurched across the tarmac to our plane, where mass confusion ensued up the shaky old boarding stairs.

Once inside the cabin I realized that Business Class and frequent flyers had been sequestered and transported to the plane by a separate bus, for they were comfortably seated and receiving complimentary beverages as we lowly coach passengers lumbered past to our seats in the back.

Ours were 39ABC and 39HK, fours rows back from the frequent flyer coach cabin and quite a distance from the front of the plane. There were no windows in row 39, which made us all feel claustrophobic. The feeling was magnified by the hordes: Every seat was taken. Never have I felt more like a sardine than on that plane.

Airborne at 5:41 PM, my kids pulled out the ancient stethoscope-style headphones from the seat pocket and marveled that the passage of air through the flimsy antiques brought an echo of sound to their ears. Not enough, though, to really understand what was being said, and they quickly abandoned that particular diversion.

A Chinese meal was served, along with two beverage services, and though the food wasn’t much above that one might expect in a prison cafeteria, I was impressed and happy to get it. For starters, it distracted all of us from the nagging claustrophobia (vivid memories danced in my head of the hundreds of flights in coach I endured early in my career as a consultant before realizing that I could not tolerate cattle class any longer).

Three agonizing hours later we landed in Guangzhou, where we were ordered into the terminal with all our belongings. Stupid though it sounds, we were forced to go through Immigration and Customs there rather than in Hanoi. It was 8:40 PM.

Disembarking was chaotic on another rickety old set of stairs, at the bottom of which we all loitered around waiting for a bus. One Chinese man waiting with us on the ramp started to light up a fag (many Chinese still smoke) before I stopped him, pointing to the nearby fuel truck pumping jet fuel into the wing. He got the message and put away his lighter.

Passengers were separated into those destined for Guangzhou and those going on to Hanoi. Once inside the building we had to endure another security screen and Immigration check before being allowed into the gate area. At 9:30 PM we boarded the same plane, and once again, it was full. We were assigned the same windowless seats in row 39, and I buried my head in a book to reduce my stress. After all, this was a vacation.

The plane took off at 10:04 PM for its two hour flight to Hanoi. A second meal was served en route, identical to the first one, but I ate some of it anyway. Again there were two beverage services before finally touching down 30 minutes late (with no explanation why) at 11:45 PM Vietnam time (one hour earlier than Guangzhou time).

Hanoi airport at midnight was bedlam: crawling with people, poorly lit, badly organized, under-staffed, trashy, and ramshackle. What a poor first impression, we all thought.

Immigration desks were slow but the staff was friendly when our turn finally came. Thence to the baggage carousel to claim our luggage. Where we waited. And waited. And waited.

I would have worried except that I recognized many of our fellow travelers (after spending the past nine hours with them from Beijing), and they were waiting morosely for their bags to appear as well. I was more concerned about our kids than about my wife and me. The kids had endured a very long afternoon and evening of flying with very little food they enjoyed, and it was now 1:00 AM their time.

Our luggage, complete with China Southern “Priority” tags intact and hard to miss, finally showed up at 12:51 AM, over an hour after arrival, with no explanation or apology. I feel sorry for the folks whose bags lacked the special privilege ours enjoyed as “Priority.” They are probably yet waiting at the Hanoi Airport to be reunited with their belongings.

To my relief our driver was waiting patiently for us just outside Customs, and we followed him to his van for our one-hour ride into Hanoi. The driver had the annoying habit of alternating up and down on the accelerator pedal in a rhythmic tick-tock fashion at intervals of a few seconds. Thus did he irritate me for the entire ride through the dark countryside on the beat-up highway in the middle of the night. Zoom ahead; slow down; zoom ahead; slow down. Over and over and over. At one point his bizarre driving pattern struck me as so nutty that I burst out laughing. I always get the weird ones, I thought.

We reached our hotel at 1:45 AM, utterly exhausted.

Next installment: Hanoi!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Beijing Blahs

There are moments in every adventure that are dull and boring, and driving back to Beijing again from the Great Wall at Mutianyu was one such time. Our kids nodded off in the back seat, and I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Closing in on the city and pointing in the general direction of the old emperors' Summer Palace, traffic thickened as always in the capital, slowing our progress. Nearing the city center, our driver, Joe, pressed us to visit the Bird's Nest stadium, the principal site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"It's on the way!" he exclaimed urgently. "We're almost there! We could stop!"

Why, we asked, would we want to see another boring stadium? Wasn't the world just chock-a-block full of big, boring stadia, each one more bloated and outrageous than its predecessors?

Joe was crestfallen that we didn't want to kneel before the most holy symbol of China's success in the modern world, so we agreed to compromise and drive past the edifice.

Frankly, I found the odd-shaped buildings nearby more interesting, but maybe that's my hard-wired bias against sports pleasure domes.

With Joe's national pride expiated, we drove on to the Summer Palace where I took this photo of Joe and his Chevy. Amazing to look at it and see that the picture might have been taken anywhere in the world:

It had warmed considerably, thanks to the sun, a rare treat on a Beijing winter day, and we enjoyed a relaxing stroll through the extensive lakeside Summer Palace grounds.
For those who have never been, it's worth it, but don't expect anything as dramatic as the grandness of Forbidden City. The Summer Palace is a place to enjoy natural beauty and achieve tranquility, possible even amongst the throngs walking the grounds. Visitors are usually respectful and relatively quiet, quite unlike, say, an experience visiting Sea World at San Diego.

I enjoyed watching the many Beijing cityfolk taking in the afternoon and old men deftly creating beautiful but ephemeral traditional Chinese characters in water on the walkways using huge handheld brushes:

In a more frivolous vein, I was delighted to purchase (for $5 each) several watches from the inevitable hawkers that featured a Chinese red background with the face of Mao Zedong and a waving hand:

Those of us who grew up watching the old communist-to-the-bone Mao's horrendous Cultural Revolution decimate the quality of life on an entire generation of Chinese appreciate the bittersweet irony of oh-so-modern China now using his once-revered image in an overtly mocking, commercial way. Mao must be turning in his grave. I bought four of the watches to take home as gifts; predictably they began to fall apart before we returned to the hotel.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we left the natural beauty of the Summer Palace for the office of a Chinese foot massage doctor. Joe had enthusiastically endorsed the experience of foot massage as relaxing and healing, and he cited several of our friends who had enjoyed this particular place. Ignorant and curious (a dangerous combination anywhere), we caved into his entreaties, but not before stopping at a McDonald's for our son to take in some calories.

Thank goodness that McDonald's has stores throughout China. Otherwise our son, 12 and a picky eater, would have withered away. Most Mickey Ds there are built into the urban fabric of the city, that is, they are not stand-along stores as we are used to here in the States. The stores then become less obvious; they blend in as just another restaurant rather than standing out. This is a practice I'd like to see with all fast food restaurants in the USA. The menu is nearly identical to here, as evidenced by our son's super-sensitive taste buds that reject the slightest differential to the bland tastes of McDonald's American fare. In China, he ate every bite.

On to the foot massage therapy we went. Parking the kids in front of a TV, the adults were taken into a room with lounge beds and huge buckets of steaming hot water laced with foul-smelling herbs. We stripped our shoes and socks off and were forced to endure the painful heat of the water to cleanse and prepare our lower extremities for the ordeal to come.

Foolishly, I realized later, I was looking forward to the appearance of the massage doctors so that I could stop pretending to enjoy the boiling water bath. The strong-armed massage experts did troop in soon enough and removed our feet from the buckets and dried them thoroughly.

Thence began a grueling series of deep massages to my feet and legs which unexpectedly brought back bad memories from high school wrestling days. Those of us who participated in that ancient sport can never forget what it was like to have one's flesh burn as it rubs hard against the mat while being overpowered by a strong opponent. That's the best analogy I can offer for the experience of a Chinese foot massage.
Suffice it to say I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy. For the privilege of suffering this pain we paid about $16 each, not including tips.

My wife on the companion bed didn't seem to be emitting the grunts and groans I found spontaneously emanating from my body, so I opted to continue with the torture and make the best of it. Later she admitted she didn't enjoy it, either. Had I known that in the moment, I'd have terminated the session and simply paid them off. I can still feel the pain of the small bones in my feet crunching in the massively-muscled hands of the so-called doctor. Only a masochist would willingly return.

Afternoon light was waning fast as we departed the foot massage office, and Joe suggested an early evening experience unique to Beijing: the kungfu show at the Red Theatre. Still not quite rational from the foot massage, we agreed too readily, and Joe made calls to get us tickets.

Truth be told, we were not anxious to return to the depressing confines of our tiny rooms at the Days Inn Forbidden City. We wanted to take in as much of the city as we could, knowing that we'd have only a half day more tomorrow before leaving for the airport to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. So we headed in the car to the Red Theatre.

Late afternoon drive-time gridlock in Beijing is notorious, and we hit the traffic at the height of rush hour. It was agony for the kids and the adults to be stuck in traffic that inched along and was frequently at a dead stop. Joe managed to get us off the second ring road and onto city streets, which were also horribly congested. But we kept moving, albeit slowly, and a trip that might have taken 15 minutes at 1:00 PM took well over an hour.

The Red Theatre's architecture has nothing special to recommend itself aside from the lighting that makes it red, yet it is well-known. The night we attended the kungfu show many Chinese and foreign officials and dignitaries were among us, and their limousines littered the parking lot.

As with many public spaces in China, the theatre was not heated. Despite the crowd of bodies filling most every seat, it was cold, and we kept on our heavy coats, scarves, hats, and gloves throughout the performance.

The show was interesting and quite well done, but by then I was so tired from the long day (and still mildly jet-lagged) that I drifted off to sleep several times during the performance. I missed one entire scene. Turned out our kids also slept through most of it, as did my wife.

Aside from delaying our arrival back at the dismal hotel, it was a waste of time and a lot of money (tickets for so-so seats were an astronomical $30 each). We don't recommend it unless you are very interested in kungfu theatre or have no other options.

Traffic was not bad at 9:00 PM when we started for the hotel, and it took no time to arrive. We were asleep within a half hour. As I drifted off, I contemplated what we would do the following day, including visiting nearby Forbidden City and finding a better hotel for our return visit to Beijing.

Next time: a walk through the hutongs, seeing Forbidden City, locating a fantastic hotel, and the long ordeal of flying to Hanoi.