10,288 miles nonstop on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy

FEBRUARY 7. 2019 — For a three-day trip to Singapore this past week (just arrived home yesterday, February 6), I booked the Singapore Airlines nonstop flight from Newark. It is, at the moment, the longest flight on earth at between 17 and 19 hours, depending. Singapore Airlines in Premium Econmy makes flying nonstop 10,288 miles better than merely bearable.

Although it saves substantial time over alternate ways to get to Singapore from the U.S. East Coast, and even with 30 years of experience flying ultra-long legs, I wondered if I could endure it, especially since I opted for Premium Economy, not Business Class. The A350-900ULR aircraft used on the nonstop is fitted out with only Business Class and Premium Economy seats—no economy class at all.  PE fares were far cheaper than Business, so…

Bottom line: No sweat.  I flew over, arriving Sunday night, and flew home late Tuesday night.  Kudos to Singapore Airlines for making Premium Economy service as painless as possible.  It was better than just okay; I would do it again.

NEWARK TO SINGAPORE

SQ21 was scheduled to depart Newark Sat, Feb 02 at 9:45 AM and to arrive Singapore Sun, Feb 03 at 5:15 PM. I checked in at the Terminal B Singapore counter, a 30-second process and headed through security.

There is no TSA Pre line at Terminal B reportedly because El Al flies out of there, too. I was given an “Expedited Passenger” card that allowed me to keep on my belt and shoes, but still had to empty all pockets and put liquids in a separate bin.

Entire TSA process took 16 minutes. On the face of it, not terrible. But for TSA Pre and Premium customers at 7:30 AM on a Saturday morning, I thought it was too long.  I wondered what Business Class flyers thought after spending all that money on their fare to get stuck in a slow-moving security queue.

But of course security sucks everywhere.

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Business Class on SQ21 EWR/SIN – I was NOT seated here!

We began boarding at 9:10 AM and completed quickly at 9:25 AM. Doors immediately closed, and the aircraft pushed back early at 9:30 AM. We were airborne by 9:45 AM. Extremely efficient boarding and takeoff process. Boarding was so quick that I could not get several text and email messages sent that I had planned to complete.

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Premium Economy on SQ 21 EWR/SIN showing the 2-4-2 seat configuration.

Both Business Class and Premium Economy were nearly full. I was in 33C, an aisle seat in the 3rd row of Premium Economy.

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My seat, 33C, on SQ21 to Singapore from Newark.

There are only 13 rows of PE, 31 to 43.  Business Class makes up the majority of the interior of the airplane.

Seat comfort was comparable, in my opinion, to Cathay Pacific PE, but inferior to the American Airlines PE chairs that I experienced RDU/LHR/RDU the previous week. The Singapore seats are comfortable, but feel narrower than those on the AA 777. This is especially telling at the arm rests where I was constantly competing with my seat mate for elbow room.

I was surprised to later learn that the seats are comparable in width dimension, so my impression was wrong.  Unfortunately, knowing the facts didn’t make it feel any roomier.  Sometimes perception trumps data.

This A350 PE cabin is set up 2-4-2, which seems a bit cramped for the airplane. The SQ cabin crew opined that the A350 PE seats are indeed narrower than on other types of aircraft, but I did not check that facts on that.

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SQ21 EWR/SIN on 02-Feb was nearly full in Premium Economy.

I am picking nits here.  The Singapore seats in Premium Economy are still far better than regular coach. FAR better!

Front to back (seat pitch) it is harder to tell. Distances are comfortable, but I am pretty short. If I was six feet or taller, I don’t know.

Near the back of the plane, the fuselage narrows, forcing Singapore to remove one seat on both sides of the last two rows. I sat in that last row on the port side, 42C, going home. Those seats have singular privacy (literally) and a good-sized table and storage bin between the seat and the window. More on that below.

There are three lavatories in the Premium Economy cabin, two on the starboard side, one of which is adjacent to the rear galley, and one on the port side also by the rear galley. I checked them all out. The two by the galley are the narrowest toilets I’ve ever seen on an airplane (excluding RJs). Hard even to turn around and feel more claustrophobic than usual on planes. The third lav is on the starboard side and has normal interior dimensions.

I enjoyed the pleasure of the friendly, well-trained Singapore flight crew, mostly young and every one cheerful. More male flight attendants than I remember from flying Singapore in the 80s and 90s; almost half are guys.

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Looking forward from near the rear galley – note 3 single seats in last 3 rows.

The usual tiny ditty bag of socks, tooth brush, and eyeshades, but no ear plugs. However, unlike American Airlines, the bag was noticeably cheap and made of an ugly plastic. If I wasn’t flying on super-proud Singapore Air, I would not make mention of it, but it is not what Singapore of the past would have provided based on past experience.

Every PE seat came with a big, real blanket and a very good pillow.

I was also provided with over-the-ear headphones labeled as noise-canceling, but in fact didn’t cancel out a single decibel. I returned my set to the crew and retrieved my Bose noise-canceling phones from my backpack. Soon I was enjoying a movie, the first of many on that long flight.

Well, not so long. It was a very fast flight at under 18 hours, scheduled to arrive Singapore an hour early at 4:15 PM Sunday afternoon, which was early Sunday morning back on the East Coast.

Kinda spoils the fun of bragging rights to having survived the world’s longest flight when it isn’t so long, I thought, fleetingly.  Then came to my senses and thanked the heavens that it was no longer.

Tattered and torn duty free catalogs and Singapore in-flight magazines in seat backs (I checked several) told me that the airline isn’t keeping up its past superior standards of perfection. In earlier years Singapore would have replaced all paper materials with the slightest signs of wear between flights.

Same with the menu for Premium Economy: Mine was dog-eared from reuse and contained menus for both Newark-Singapore and Singapore-Newark. That told me the menu selections never change in either direction. Again, I was surprised that Singapore’s standards have slipped a bit.

Drink carts came around at once after leveling off. Unlike American Airlines, Singapore served a tasty Blanc de Blanc Champagne from Reims, which is to say, real Champagne! I enjoyed two nicely chilled glasses.

Lunch was a choice of Asian fish and Asian veggies, BBQ chicken, or a lamb dish of some kind. All came with the identical stale bread and tiny slab of orange cheddar cheese and a couple of crackers. Also a wilted salad.

A mediocre coach meal I was once served in the early 2000s on a Northwest DC-10 from Minneapolis to Paris popped into my brain as the analog to what I was looking at.

I looked back at the menu description, which said it was a “Prawn Waldorf Salad.” Wow, sounds fancy! Someone must have switched out mine for the pale green stuff in the little plastic bowl on my tray.

I had the fish with rice and Asian vegetables. The entire complement of food was, to me, pathetic in flavor and quality.

Again, I am probably being too harsh on Singapore Airlines because I flew SQ in real First Class on magnificent 747s in the 80s and 90s. My memory of bottomless bottles of vintage Krug Champagne served in crystal flutes and numerous tins of Beluga caviar served on sterling silver is indelible, and I can’t help but compare to the fare before me in Premium Economy.

It was a cruel memory from a bygone era that kept me from giving the meal service higher marks. Truth is, PE is not Business Class, and certainly not International First Class.  With that reality in mind, the meal was on par with expectations for Premium Economy.

The cabin crew was outstanding.

Ah, youth! It’s always smart to hire young men and women to do a tough job like that because they are so persistently cheerful. The under-30 flight attendants on board that flight were funny, upbeat and happy, lightening the mood of every flyer. I kept going back to talk to them in the rear galley because they were so much fun to be around.

I checked out the menu for later meals, and I prayed for improvement. At least the people who brought it love their job.

Singapore Airlines charges $75 extra (each way) for a bulkhead seat in Premium Economy by an exit door with no windows. I guess if I was real tall that unlimited legroom would be worth paying for.

On American Airlines, I didn’t have to pay extra for the legroom on my Premium Economy bulkhead seats, and on AA, I had two windows rather than no window and no drafty exit door beside me.

I watched a movie, or maybe two. Time has a way of resisting normal rhythm on such long flights. Pretty soon we were over the Black Sea and headed for Iraq, Afghanistan and then India. We were nearing the halfway point of the flight. I could not believe we had already come so far.

I did a lot of stretching at frequent intervals (at least once an hour) in the rear galley area. There was no place to walk on that plane except to the back because the two aisles are isolated by the large Business Class cabin in the front.

Also drank plenty of water to stay hydrated. I started a third movie. I wasn’t yet sleepy.

Singapore has installed big seatback HD screens that make watching movies appealing. For reading, there is a light on a gooseneck with 3 brightness levels–very handy.

Not impressed with the fold-down foot rest. It’s useless if you are over about five feet.

Nor the recline. It is a cradle seat design, meaning the bottom and back rigidly tilt together rather than the bottom remaining stable when the seatback is reclined. I have never found cradle seats comfortable.

The leg rest is the third element of seat manipulation. It hardly came up at all and left my legs dangling oddly.

I eventually found, after trying all combinations of adjustment, that the seat was comfortable only when in the fully upright position with no leg rest or foot rest. I couldn’t sleep well in it, but I dozed a lot.

Maybe it was only my body’s idiosyncratic unfitness to the seat. Certainly many other passengers seemed to like the seats, as most appeared to be sleeping. I envied their slumbers.

Cabin crew remained bright and cheerful and came through every 30 minutes or so offering water, juice, and snacks. These and any desired beverage, including Champagne, were also available to grab and go from the rear galley.

Except for the poor seat design, the flight couldn’t have been much easier or pleasant to bear the long hours cooped up in a carbon fiber tube.

Lavs on the plane were kept spotless, clean, and neat. I wish the cabin crew on American Airlines from Heathrow to Raleigh two days prior had done as well.

After a third movie, more snacks, and a light meal, the flight was nearly over. Looking at the moving map, I saw that we were overhead George Town and Butterworth (Malaysia), my family’s jumping-off place to the Thai islands several years ago when we visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand over that year’s Christmas break.

We were, at that time, due to land at 4:30 PM, 45 minutes early. I had watched four movies, including Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman (recommended).

Recapping the outbound (EWR/SIN) flight:

The PE seats seemed narrow. This nagged at me near the end of the flight. If the actual dimensions are the same as other Premium Economy seats, then there is some quirk in design that makes the SQ Premium Economy seats feel cramped compared to the American Airline PE seats I just flew on two days previous.

I don’t like the cradle seat tilt-recline design.  Other customers seemed happy sleeping in them.

The Singapore Airlines cabin crew was spectacular start to finish, efficient and cheerful.

The airplane was clean and functional. That is, everything worked. On flights that long, every screen, light, and seat function must work to keep passengers pacified. SQ did a great job on that.

Ditto for the lavatories. All worked and were kept clean throughout 18 hours despite nonstop use.

Seat pocket materials needed to be refreshed.

The IFE (in-flight entertainment) system had lots of great movie selections and other content.

Singapore Air did an exemplary job planning and managing the flight. The airline staff’s ultra-long-haul expertise was on show on the flight.  Bravo!

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Singapore stern warning not to bring drugs into the country.

SINGAPORE TO NEWARK

Changi’s Terminal 3 is home to Singapore Airlines, and of course hometown pride requires that you keep up appearances. It’s been given an extensive updating, and it looks beautiful.

Truth be told, all of Changi gleams because, well, because that is the way Singapore does things:  Everything gleams in Singapore!

And that’s the truth.

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Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 3 on the late afternoon of Feb 5

Check-in to SQ22 at Singapore Air’s dedicated Premium Economy counters—a whole long line of counters, all staffed—took less than one minute. Again, that’s so Singapore.

A surprise at immigration: To leave Singapore, I had only to scan my passport and provide an electronic thumb print. No human interaction, no queue, no delay, took all of 30 seconds, and I was inside security. Of course there was a TSA-style security screen at the gate later.

I found one of four Priority Pass lounges at Terminal 3 and enjoyed the view from the lounge deck while sipping a Tiger beer, a tasty lager and Singapore’s staple brew. Later I found my way to the gate early to account for security screening.

The flight was due to leave at 12:40 AM, and boarding began just before midnight.  The flight back to Newark was very light. Maybe a quarter full in PE, and Business looked nearly empty.

The single Premium Economy seats at the back of the plane, including mine (42C), were wonderfully private and had a locker between my seat and the window. It was plenty big enough to hold my backpack, making it easily accessible.  I admit that I loved it. It felt like Business Class roominess and luxury—but for the reasonable fare of Premium Economy!

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Seat 42C, a single seat near the real of the Singapore Airlines A350.

The lead flight attendant, Ken, introduced himself and gave me an early glass of Champagne even though it’s not policy to offer it in PE when boarding.

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Another view of my single seat, 42C – note roomy locker.

Ken later brought up from Business Class a bottle of vintage Charles Heidsieck Champagne. I realized at once that I must have been flagged in their system for special treatment on that flight.  Be that as it may, I didn’t complain and appreciated the little extras. The special Champagne and personal touches did not improve the meals, however.

The captain announced that it would be a short 17 hours and a few minutes to Newark.

The route of flight moved north and east after takeoff. Originally, we were routed over Mongolia, northern Russia, and far north Norway, approaching North America well north of Greenland from the east.

With 11 hours to go, however, we were flying just east of the Japanese archipelago with a 155 mph tailwind, which gave us an astonishing ground speed of 739 mph. We were due to arrive Newark early at 4:45 AM, 45 minutes early.

The route skirted the Aleutians, crossed central Alaska, and approached Newark from the west across Canada between Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes. The moving map said we would cover a total of 10,288 miles on the flight.

Recapping the return (SIN/EWR) flight:

Service was again spectacular on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy, thanks to the cabin crew. They were killing me with kindness, regularly bringing food and drink (lots of orange juice and apple juice), as well as asking about my well-being and contentment. They were once again fun to be with. Just as on the outbound flight, I had interesting chats with several flight attendants in the rear galley during my routine stretching exercises.

I remained unimpressed with Singapore’s PE cradle seat design.

The meals were again mediocre, I thought, and the mid-flight “pizza box” was scarcely larger than two packs of cards and unappetizing. Good thing I wasn’t flying for the food.

Seat 42C was marvelously private and boasted the large cabinet between it and the two windows in which to stow my backpack.

One downside to sitting in the last row on this A350-900ULR aircraft is that the back of the plane was ice cold from beginning to end. To stay warm, I wrapped myself in 3 blankets and kept my shoes on over two pairs of socks.

On the whole, however, my complaints are few. Singapore Airlines is a great way to fly, and I would definitely book this nonstop again. The incurably cheerful attitude of the flight attendants makes the nearly long flight almost fun to endure.

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Lesser-known Hong Kong: Stanley and Aberdeen by public transit

JULY 12, 2018 — During a recent trip to Hong Kong to research public transit, my wife and I spent a day on Hong Kong Island exploring much more than Central (the HK CBD).  Instead of the usual tourist places, I wanted to test out the public bus services to less well-known parts of the island where regular folks abide, including Aberdeen (west side of the island) and Stanley (south side).

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View from the top front seats of the 970X bus in Kowloon headed toward the Kong Kong Island tunnel.

It didn’t take long to figure out that we could take the 970X transit bus, a 45-minute trip directly from Kowloon to Aberdeen (runs every 12 minutes, like most of the hundreds of double-decker transit bus routes in Hong Kong). The bus cost me HK$2 as a senior (about 30 U.S. cents) and HK$11 for my wife (about US$1.50).

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Many of the older Kowloon buildings are cooled by window units. This 15 story residence is modest by today’s high rises.  Note men and women alike in Hong Kong employ umbrellas as sun shades.

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Photo above is of the tunnel approach from the Kowloon side, with Hong Kong Island visible across Victoria Bay in the distance.  Note modern high rise residential building on the left.

We paid the bus fares by swiping our rechargeable Octopus Cards, transit cards universally accepted in Hong Kong on subway trains, buses, ferries (even the quaint Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong Central), and increasingly in retail stores like 7-Eleven.

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Above are three photos taken on Hong Kong island while on the 970X transit bus ride Kowloon to Aberdeen from the perspective of the upper deck in the front seats, amply demonstrating the dense urban nature of residential Hong Kong, an area seldom seen except by residents..

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The above photo is of Aberdeen looking across the narrow bay to Ap Lei Chau Island.  Before continuing on our circular journey around Hong Kong Island, we stopped at the local Aberdeen market.  And “local” it is, with nary a tourist to be seen.

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The Aberdeen market includes meat and veggies of all sorts, but I was especially interested in the wide range of fresh seafood. Above photos are of the live crabs, fish, weird crustaceans that look like the Balmain Bugs I used to savor in Australia’s Queeensland, and all kinds of live shellfish.

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For lunch we took a tiny ferry (also public transport) across from Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau Island to find the “Cooked Food Centre” in the island’s market building (an entirely different market from the one in Aberdeen). Note in the first (top) photo that the Octopus Card is even accepted on the little ferry boat (the sensor to the right of the pilot next to the fare box).

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Cooked Seafood Centre on Ap Lei Chau Island.

At the Cooked Seafood Centre, we mastered the technique required, which is to first buy food (usually live seafood) downstairs from the fresh seafood vendors in the vast hall that is the market, and then take the purchases upstairs to be prepared by the cooks in the many small food stalls (see above photo).

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Live crabs I selected from a vendor downstairs.
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Same crabs as barbecued by the vendor upstairs.

I chose two large rust-colored, mottled crabs after counseling with one of the chefs upstairs as to which of the many crab varieties has the best flavor (see two above photos). Our chef prepared the crabs with barbecue sauces, garlic, ginger, and spring onions. The crabs were sensational (bottom pic)! I needed my lifetime of eastern North Carolina Blue Crab-picking experience to extract every morsel to do them justice!

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Weird saltwater crustacean as I selected it (and its pal) from a seafood vendor downstairs.
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Same crustaceans after cooking upstairs.

I also chose two very large crustaceans that look like a hybrid between Atlantic Caribbean lobsters and Gulf shrimp (see two above photos). They reminded me in appearance of Balmain Bugs, a crustacean I used to eat in Queensland on the NE coast of Australia. These were prepared with garlic and hot red chili sauce and were scrumptious (picture immediately above).

It was not cheap! Together the crabs and weird crustaceans were HK $450 (US$60), and the food stall charged another US$15 to prepare them, but you only live once!

Leaving Aberdeen after lunch on the 973/73 bus Aberdeen to Stanley and then the 6/6X bus from Stanley to HK Central, we were treated to more dense residential development.

Any first-time visitor to Hong Kong should take the 6 or 6X bus from HK Central to Stanley and back. But not to see Stanley, though you might enjoy a quick glimpse at its unremarkable bay. While humble Aberdeen retains some of the grit of its fishing village roots, Stanley has gentrified into a cutsie, inauthentic, Mediterranean-inspired tourist trap that isn’t worth spending much time in; well, unless you like overpaying for iced coffee and imported beer.

That said, the 6 and 6X transit bus rides to Stanley and return offer spectacular views, made even more so if you snag one of the four upper deck front seats (they are often vacant because locals prefer a shadier seat). And the round trip by transit bus is far cheaper than a taxi or tour bus.

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Above photos are of gorgeous Repulse Bay, which lies between Central and Stanley. The enormous residential tower depicted immediately above has a square hole in the middle.  That hole was constructed into the building because, according to feng shui principles, it’s unlucky to block the dragon who lives in the mountains from accessing the sea. If the dragon can’t get through, he might knock down the building.

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Above pic is of one of the many small, but highly effective roundabouts that are not more than a painted circle in the center of the intersection. They work well.

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Just above photo is of the Wan Chai-Admiralty area of Hong Kong as the 6/6X bus comes over the mountains into the northeastern side of the city.

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The three pictures above are of the view coming into Central. The pictures are a bit washed out due to over-exposure (the sun was above and in front), but still illustrate that Hong Kong is a big, beautiful city.

After a full day of exploring parts of Hong Kong island, all by public transit, we closed the circuit back to our Kowloon hotel by taking the Star Ferry to Kowloon and then the 1/1A bus from the Kowloon ferry terminal to Nathan Road at Jordan Road. Every mode, including the Star Ferry, accepted the Octopus Card (universal transit card) for fare payment, even the itty-bitty ferry at Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau island.

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Above photo is of the Star Ferry upper deck interior.

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Central’s famed “Central” skyline from the pedestrian bridge leading to the Star Ferry.

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Enjoying the skyline view from the Star Ferry as we cross to Kowloon.

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Last photo is a Star Ferry heading back to Central as our Kowloon-bound ferry passes in Victoria Harbour.

I admit to being a public transit geek who enjoys learning best practices from good transit systems worldwide by testing their network services, but, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun doing it as in Hong Kong!

In Hong Kong, no one needs to own a car except for vanity

JUNE 28, 2018 — I’m no stranger to the transit system in Hong Kong, having used it on trips to the city since the 1980s. However, on a recent six-day visit there, the purpose of which was to focus on the Hong Kong public transit network and operation, I was astonished at how well it works.

I’ve never used Hong Kong public transit exclusively until this trip, and I did it without even trying hard.  Public transit in Hong Kong is so good, I now realize, there is no need to drive or to take a private car or taxi.

During our six days in town, my wife and I made our way around 100% via transit, plus the use of our own feet. Our Hong Kong transit modes on that trip included ferries, double-decker buses, light rail trains, and subway trains (also called Rapid Transit trains).

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Hong Kong Airport train station at Kowloon

We got off to a good start by using the Airport Express train to get into the city when we arrived, which connected at the Kowloon station to free buses that drop passengers at hotels or workplaces.

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K1 free shuttle bus at Kowloon Airport train station to get to hotels

We stayed with public transit through to our return to the airport, too, never once using a taxi or private car. What a joy it was to be able to do that.

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Bus from Kowloon to Hong Kong Airport

MTR (Metropolitan Transit Railway) runs it all in Hong Kong, including most of the big buses (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/MTR), and MTR’s “Octopus Card,” which can be recharged like a prepaid credit card, is the universal fare payment option for all MTR services and most other public transit modes. The Octopus Card is indispensable, thanks to the dense Hong Kong transit network on which it can be used. The card, combined with the frequent and dense transit network, freed us from ever having to seek out private conveyance.

The stats for the MTR system are astonishing, as Wikipedia notes:

“The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a major public transport network serving Hong Kong. Operated by the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL), it consists of heavy rail, light rail, and feeder bus service centred on an 11-line rapid transit network serving the urbanised areas of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories.

“The system currently includes 135.6 miles of rail with 159 stations, including 91 heavy rail stations and 68 light rail stops.

“The MTR is one of the most profitable metro systems in the world. It had a farebox recovery ratio of 187% in 2015, the world’s highest.”

Transit types (modes):

  Heavy rail

  High-speed rail

  Light rail

  Airport Express

  Inter-city rail

  MTR Bus

Number of lines:

  Heavy rail: 11

  Light rail: 12

Number of stations:

  Heavy rail: 93

  Light rail: 68

Daily ridership:

  Rapid transit (subway and above ground): 4.815 million

  Others: 0.628 million (April 2018)

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MTR Rapid Transit trains run above ground in New Territories, below ground in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

5.4 million daily transit riders out of a total Hong Kong population of 7.4 million is mind-boggling.

Trains run every few minutes all day, yet so many riders choose transit that the trains can be at capacity even during off-peak hours.

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MTR transit “Bumblebee Lady” uses a “stop” paddle to regulate riders entering subway trains during busy periods.

At peak times MTR dispatches hundreds of “Bumblebee Ladies” (my name for them, as they are dressed in yellow and black tunics) to act as traffic cops at subway and light rail stations. They keep queues orderly and patrons civil as they wait to be stuffed into completely full trains. I am pretty certain MTR borrowed the technique from Tokyo Transit, and it works well. MTR must hire for cheerfulness, because every such lady we encountered was upbeat, happy, and eager to help. Very knowledgeable as well.

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“Bumblebee Ladies” patrol the MTR subway/rapid transit platforms and are happy to help riders!

Having ridden extensively over all three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) below and above ground by bus and rail for six days, I can attest my awe at the robust infrastructure, especially of the rail networks. Everything works, and it’s all so clean and new-looking. The reach and scope of the entirely electrified rail network alone makes me jealous; we in the United States are so very far behind.

Fellow blogger and New Yorker Ralph Raffio (Mr. Meatball) visited Hong Kong for the first time not long ago and came away with the same feeling.  Here’s what Ralph said to me about Hong Kong transit:

“Nobody (except for Disney maybe) moves people from one place to another as efficiently as they do in Hong Kong. Every major U.S. city ought to have the equivalent of Hong Kong’s transit system, including  the Octopus card. If I was the mayor of New York, I’d get myself to Hong Kong pronto, and bring back a few of their mass transit officials with me.”

Hong Kong transit is all easy to use, too. My wife and I quickly mastered the Airport Express train, as well as the buses, light rail, and subway lines throughout Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories.

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Indicators on board each subway/rapid transit car tell riders which stop to take for connections to other rapid transit lines (above).

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Subway/rapid transit platform signs (above) announce train arrivals. Signage isn’t necessary on some lines because trains run more or less continuously every few minutes all day.

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Station signs like the one above direct riders to the correct exits to their destinations. This feature quickly becomes addictive, especially at underground stations with multiple exits.

As already mentioned, Bumblebee Ladies manage queues at peak periods when trains exceed capacity (even when trains are coming every 3 minutes).

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During off-peak times, trains are not so crowded, but seats are still at a premium (above). Note everyone doing what we all do, utterly engrossed in our Smartphones. My observation was that transit riders are of all ages, but skewed to a younger demographic, as seen in this photo.  Note how clean the train looks. That’s amazing considering 4.8 million subway riders per day.

If the Research Triangle in our area had a public transit network this broad and deep, I could leave my car at home for most trips.

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The bus system is as good as the rail system, too. See above photos of the MTR buses. Double-decker buses in Hong Kong are standard, not something for tourists (there are very few single level buses). Note all the routes shown at this one stop listed on the sign (above photo). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Also note the high density residential building of the type that’s common in Hong Kong (above photo). A lot higher than we are used to in the Research Triangle, yet this is one of hundreds like it there.  All that residential density feeds public transit ridership.

In fact, MTR (the Hong Kong transit agency) maintains a mind-boggling network of ultra-frequent bus services, and all the buses are roomy, fast, and those nimble double-decker jobs, as I said above. The buses run everywhere to connect to the rapid transit and light rail lines. The rail lines, combined with the spider-web of frequent bus services, plus the convenience of swiping the Octopus Card for fare payment, are what make driving unnecessary.

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Nearly every bus route in the three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) runs at frequent intervals of 3 minutes to 15 minutes. The bilevel buses increase capacity (note capacity of bus in the above photo), which is usually 90 seated and 47 standing, for a total of 137 per bus.

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I couldn’t much tell the difference between peak and off-peak frequencies. Buses run all the time and are masters of Hong Kong roadways (above photo was taken shortly after 1:00 PM, hardly rush hour). Buses rule!

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MTR sells advertisements wrapped on buses (above photo), which no doubt boosts its revenues.

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Though Hong Kong streets do not have dedicated bus lanes, long lanes on each block are for buses only (above photo), often stretching the entire block from corner to corner. These areas are dedicated bus stops, and other vehicles are prohibited. This has the effect of expediting the stops. It’s a pleasure to watch it in action, as bus after bus efficiently enters, stops, and returns to traffic lanes. Other vehicles routinely give way to the many hundreds of buses on every street.

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Adjacent to the stops are painted queue-up areas for specific bus routes (above photo). Also note the bus-only lane striping in the street I was describing in the previous paragraph.

The big impediment to driving in Hong Kong is 24/7 roadway congestion. Buses get preference lanes, though not in BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) dedicated lanes. Public transit is so pervasive and convenient and comfortable that no one needs to own a car except for vanity.

On board all buses are digital signs announcing the next stop in Cantonese and English. Automated recorded verbal announcements are made in both languages of the next stop, too.

MTR trains have lots of realtime information signs at stations and on trains to direct passengers; however, MTR has not yet found it necessary to utilize such electronic signs for bus stops. Every stop is sheltered, well-marked and signed, identifying which routes stop there and directing patrons to the correct sidewalk queue-up lanes. Bus schedules are printed in two languages at each stop.

I found these inexpensive, passive bus information devices extremely easy to use. They were always accurate in my experience and met my needs without requiring any other means, such as a system map. As someone who has always pitched for electronic signage at bus stops, I am now convinced such expensive measures are not warranted everywhere.

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Photo above is of the incredible Octopus Card, which is the universal fare payment means for all Hong Kong transit, including ferries. Just tap the card as you board a bus, ferry, trolley, rapid transit train, or light rail train; the card reader on the vehicle beeps and shows the amount remaining on the card. The Octopus Card is essentially a rechargeable debit card for transit. It can be replenished at MTR stations at ATM-like machines in 30 seconds or less.

Note my card is marked “Elder” which cost just HK$2 per ride (about 30 U.S. cents) on most transit modes. Sometimes age has its benefits.

I guess I never realized how much mobility freedom such a card provides: Just get on any transit mode and tap it to ride. An Octopus Card equivalent perfectly complements a frequent transit network. When we have such a universal fare payment system in the Research Triangle that works everywhere and on every mode, I believe we will begin to see big increases in ridership based on the convenience of using one card.

My wife and I became ardent MTR bus riders. Trains, too, but the bus network is essential to connect us to the rail stations, and often the bus alone met our needs in Hong Kong. I am still amazed that we spent almost a week there using 100% public transit, never once getting into a taxi or private car. That wasn’t our plan when we arrived, but the convenience of the Octopus Card and the incredible MTR bus and rail network got us to the literal far reaches of Hong Kong.

And it was all fun and easy to use. Otherwise, we would have taken taxis.

Madera Hong Kong: hotel value with no loss of comfort, space, or convenience

JUNE 19, 2018 — Prepping for a recent six-day trip to Hong Kong to get smart on the city’s marvelous public transit system, I decided to go for broke on a nice hotel. After studying one of the finest properties Hong Kong has to offer and a near-best place not far away, I opted for a hotel I’d never heard of.  It proved to be an ideal property that met all my needs well, including the odd circumstances of my arrival and departure.

I wanted a luxe hotel in Kowloon conveniently located for walking and accessing the bus and train network.  It’s been many years since I stayed in one of the famous Hong Kong palaces, and so why not? Too, my wife accompanied me, and I wanted to do something special for her.

Complicating the choice were the hours of our inbound and outbound flights.  Our Cathay Pacific bird from JFK arrived before 6:00 AM, so we wanted a very early check-in in order to unpack, shower, and change clothes before spending all day in transit research.

Going home was even trickier: Our Cathay flight departed at 12:30 AM for New York, so we would need a very late check-out before leaving for the airport around 9:00 PM.

Therefore, I had to find a hotel willing to let us check in extremely early on the day of arrival and check out really late on our last day. Essentially, that meant reserving six nights, counting the first early arrival day and the last late check-out day. I was willing to pay for all six nights to assure that we would have a room on the first and last days, but I hoped to arrange for partial rates on the bookend days necessitated by our peculiar airline itinerary.

Langham Hong Kong lobby

My top choice was the incomparable Langham in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon.  I’ve always wanted to stay at the Langham, which has a fine reputation and is conveniently located for walking to the Star Ferry and taking Hong Kong transit buses and trains everywhere.

When I inquired directly to the hotel, I was politely advised that they could not promise the early check-in or late check-out, this despite my promise to pay for the first and last nights to assure we’d have a room.  Perhaps something got lost in translation both ways, but their communications in English were, though polite, vague and not reassuring.

Too, the Langham rates, even after discounts, were steep at $536.25/night including taxes and service charges. No surprise there. Assuming full rates for the two days at the beginning and end would have set me back a total of $3218, enough to induce me to keep looking.

The stunning view from the Intercontinental Hong Kong across Victoria Harbour

Next I looked at the Intercontinental Hong Kong. Located directly on Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, this property is also convenient for walking to public transit, though I doubt many of its patrons walk any more distant than the steps required to reach a limousine or taxi.  My emails to the hotel were politely answered, and with a clarity I wish I had received from the Langham about the first and last days of the six I needed to book.

The Intercontinental offered a 50% rate for very early check-in the morning of our arrival and a nearly full rate for checking out at 9:00 PM on our departure day.  Altogether, it averaged out to just $303.50/night including service fees and taxes, an excellent rate for six nights.  The hotel didn’t promise a harbor-facing, high floor room unless I was willing to pay a lot more, but still, $303 (average) is a great rate.  I was pretty sure that would be our choice.

A friend had suggested looking at the Madera Hong Kong, a brand and Hong Kong property unknown to me. Though I was leaning toward the Intercontinental, I did my research on the Madera just for good measure.  What I found surprised me: a large double (by HK standards) on a high floor with an impressive city view of Kowloon, a massive and luxurious bathroom and shower with Jacuzzi, Continental breakfast, fridge stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks, and the hotel would let me book six nights, no questions asked.

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Madera Hotel Hong Kong

This intrigued me, so I dug more and discovered the Madera is a Spanish outfit projecting a youthful, modernist vibe at its properties. Their Kowloon hotel is very conveniently located just off Nathan Road, the busiest north-south corridor in central Kowloon. And only a block or two from the MTR Jordan Road subway station, perfect for my transit system research and study.

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Magera Hotel Hong Kong lobby

The cherry on top was the price, less than $200 per night, even after taxes and service charges.

I booked it, and we had a near-perfect experience at the Madera.  After all food and drink charges, taxes, and service, the Madera cost an average of $214/night.  That’s an astonishing bargain in Hong Kong.

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Room 1801 at the Madera Hong Kong

The Madera was a good choice. It was modern and friendly, the beds were comfy to sleep on, the A/C worked very well (important since daytime temps were in the nineties), and the location was perfect on Nathan Road. Upon arrival, hotel staff correctly had our room (1801) ready.

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Room 1801 at the Madera Hong Kong

We found the young Madera staff to be universally competent and nice throughout our six-day stay.  The building and our room were quiet, too.

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The Madera boasts a rooftop bar with breaktaking views of Kowloon and Victoria Harbour. The bar itself is small, but classy, with adjacent stairs leading to the outside rooftop sitting area.

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One view of Victoria Harbour looking west from the rooftop bar at the Madera Hong Kong
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Here’s the view from the rooftop bar with the New Territories in the background.

Here’s the view from the edge of the rooftop bar.

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Reflecting on my choice of the little-known Madera for six nights at $1284 versus the “big deal” Langham ($3217) or Intercontinental ($1815), the Madera was a steal—and that price included all our extra food and drinks.  We sacrificed no comfort, space, or convenience choosing the Madera over the posh brands and saved hundreds of dollars.  It made paying for the two extra days at the beginning and end of our trip painless.

Cathay Premium Economy loses some luster

JUNE 7, 2018 — Cathay Pacific Airways was an early adopter of real Premium Economy. And even if they didn’t invent it, Cathay gained a rep—well-deserved, in my opinion—for perfecting the cabin and the experience, establishing a standard of comfort and excellence for all other airlines to emulate. I loved Cathay’s PE when I first flew it in 2015.

However, a recent round trip JFK to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy cabin did not live up to that lofty first flying delight. Compared to those initial PE flights on Cathay, service has declined, and the seats and other cabin elements are feeling a bit weary and worn.

On the plus side, we had the pleasure of getting to know four different cabin crews, since Cathay 889/888 crews change at Vancouver in both directions.  Flight attendants on all four legs were universally warm, happy, and cheerful in PE and in coach. They served excellent Deutz California Champagne as we boarded—much appreciated!

But overall they were noticeably less attentive than on my first PE flights on Cathay.  After efficient meal and beverage services, flight attendants disappeared for long stretches, coming by only occasionally with water and snacks. I went back to the mid-plane galley in coach behind the PE cabin many times looking for FAs to provide water, bananas, and so on.  They were always there, very friendly and tending to economy passengers’ needs.

This happened consistently on all four flight legs.  It made flying in Premium Economy feel a great deal less classy and differentiated than in 2015, again as if Cathay no longer was committed to it.

Other small but noticeable issues accumulated:

  • On the plane to Hong Kong from New York, the port side lav in economy was broken and out of service. The simple door locking mechanism was not repaired in Vancouver despite a 2.5 hour layover.
  • Food on all four flights was predictably mediocre, but I didn’t expect much, so I was not that disappointed. Still, my memory of the first flights in Cathay’s PE cabin was enjoying better cuisine than on the recent flights.
  • For instance, the chili prawns for dinner were tasteless, like cardboard. I remember eating the bread roll and butter so that my stomach would stop growling.
  • Another example: Breakfast of dim sum was boring but edible on the return flight. I had the omelet going to Hong Kong and wouldn’t do that again. It was greasy and too cheesy. (The existential question: Why are airline meals always so awful?)
  • The entire IFE was tired and felt out of date. Limited number of movies, too. Complaining about both the small number of movies and the poor quality of the IFE feels like the joke Woody Allen told at the beginning of the opening monologue in his movie, Annie Hall.
  • Touch screens on the IFEs on all flights were worn out and resisted reaction no matter how hard they were pressed.
  • No soap dispenser in PE lavatory on the HKG/JFK flight legs, not even after I pointed that out to the cabin crew. Jeez, they had 19 hours to replace it!
  • Poor sound clarity (muddy) on CX-provided headphones, especially compared to my Bose headphones. Again, felt old and decrepit.
  • PE cabin was too hot there and back. This persisted despite my twice asking crew to cool it down on both the outbound and return flights.  Perhaps cocooning the small PE cabin between the tightly-cordoned, huge Business Class compartment and the tightly-curtained, large Economy Class section challenges temperature equalization.  If so, I don’t recall Premium Economy feeling like a sauna in 2015.
  • PE seats going over had leg rests and two buttons on arm rest to operate. But returning, the 777 had old single button type with no leg rests, thus nothing to support our legs for 19 hours. Cabin crew explained that Cathay was slowly installing the leg rests in PE cabins.

Leaving the aircraft (“deplaning”), the Cathay cabin crews at both ends engaged in the stylized Kabuki ritual of thanking us for our business and hoping to see us again. And the crews were swell, all right: all cheer and bright young smiles.

In summary, however, Premium Economy service wasn’t what it was in 2015 going to Hong Kong and flying back from Bangkok. They were all over us on those flights, and the mood in PE was elegant.  Somehow they made is feel special.

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Nearly empty Business Class on CX888 YVR/JFK, yet we never saw any of the 14 cabin crew after supper.
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Nearly empty Premium Economy on CX888 YVR/JFK, yet we never saw any of the 14 flight attendants again after a quick supper service.

By contrast, I keep thinking back to the shortest of our recent four Cathay flight legs, which was five hours between Vancouver and JFK, a leg that was almost empty in Business and very thin in both Premium Economy and Coach (see photos of business and premium economy above). Fourteen flight attendants boarded in Vancouver for that handful of passengers.

Fourteen!  That’s a lot of in-flight folks. That big cabin crew was eager, energetic, and attentive right through the supper right after takeoff and then disappeared entirely for the rest of the five hours to JFK.  It was like a graveyard in the PE cabin after the meal.

Overall, based on these recent flights, Cathay Pacific service in Premium Economy feels substandard compared to its previous level of excellence..

In Yunnan, chill in Shaxi; dodge Old Dali

MAY 22, 2018 — Over Spring Break with my family to Yunnan (China), I experienced the yin and yang of travel when, in the space of a few days, we relaxed in the serenity of authentic Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) and then endured the jarring fakery of Old Dali. It was an ugly transition from chilling out in easygoing Shaxi, a village that doesn’t try hard to be what it is—an ancient and beautiful hamlet steeped in history—to the hectic, least common denominator tourist ethos of Old Dali, a place determined that you will take it seriously and by-God be impressed.

Here are my real-time notes, which chronicle the sheer delights of Shaxi and then the crushing bore that is Old Dali:

CHARMING SHAXI

We are in old Shaxi, an long-time oasis on the Tea Horse Trail that for millennia saw caravans of tea from southern Yunnan being transported by yak, oxen, and horse to Tibet and India. I can’t imagine the drama and adventures Shaxi has seen. It’s thrilling to contemplate.

The Old Town here yet has but the slightest whiff of tourism; unlike Lijiang Old Town, Shaxi has more than a patina of authenticity about it. That’s due, no doubt, to the thousands of years of travelers who passed through on the old trade route, stopping here for rest, sustenance, and resupply. You can almost feel the ghosts of traders from the distant past.

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Above pic is of our hostel, Horsepen46, which is itself old and converted from a livery. It sits immediately adjacent to the relatively new (a mere 600 years old) theater (below picture) and is utterly charming. The handsome dog is the resident Tibetan Mastiff, as lazy a mutt as I’ve ever seen. Can’t pronounce his Chinese name, so I just call him “Hey, dog!” He responds with a wagging tail every time, so I assume he’s learned some English.

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600 year old theater in the Shaxi town square.

And Horsepen46 is quiet, too. We slept soundly with no noise! The cool weather (45° F.) and heavy blankets helped.

Last night we enjoyed an all-veggie communal meal with the two Chinese women who run the place, plus a young Chinese couple from Xi’an and Hong Kong, and an American man teaching English near Chiang Mai, Thailand. All washed down with strong Shangri-La beer and Loation lager. We laughed until late (everybody spoke English).

 

Our room (above) sleeps 3 and has a private toilet, shower, and wash basin. Free use of the electric washing machine and ample room to air-dry clothes from the rafters. And did I mention, quiet? All for $20.50 per night. I could hang here for a week just relaxing, exploring, and sampling the wonderful cuisine.

Breakfast this morning on the street at another nondescript place was a huge bowl of steaming hot noodles with pork and all kinds of spices and vegetables. Every meal is a great treat, each unlike the last one, an adventure for the palate. Three big bowls of noodles cost $3. Hard to beat a buck for a hearty breakfast.

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Above is the ancient bridge over which all those tea caravans once passed.

Below is of the Old Town main street leading to the old square where the theater and a much older Buddhist Temple are located.

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Street life in China always fascinates me. In the next photo, note the men enjoying each other’s company over green tea and with their caged birds singing gloriously above them.

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Appeals to me!  Wish I could meet friends in such a morning setting instead of in Raleigh’s Cameron Village Shopping Center.

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Above baby on the back is pure China.

And below, two Shaxi women enjoy breakfast together in the frosty morning air.

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Water channels engineered eons ago through streets in many small Chinese towns still flow through Shaxi. The rushing water, diverted from streams and rivers, is a constant source for cleaning pots and pans, for washing clothes, and to boil for noodles and tea. Everyone has buckets and are constantly dipping water from the open channels.

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There are endless opportunities for bikers and hikers around Shaxi in the countryside.  Below pix is of rice fields being prepped for planting later in the season. Note the steep drop-off and lack of guardrails. Care is taken by all driving past.

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No OSHA to worry about in China: It’s a steep drop with no guardrails into the rice field.

Mustard grows in profusion in the Shaxi countryside.

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Mustard fields and mountains make for a beautiful tableau.

The below picture demonstrates the growing affluence here (The Benz) juxtaposed with the elderly Chinese fellow walking by. That’s a school behind the wall where the M-B is parked. Perhaps the Mercedes belongs to the headmaster.

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Yunnan (here just south of Shaxi) contrasts the old and the new and showcases growing prosperity: That ML is said to top a hundred grand in US dollars in China.

Bicycles rent for $3/day. All are sturdy 6-speed bikes which pedaled, shifted, and braked well, but featured truly murderous seats. Electric motorcycles were also for rent, but we didn’t check the price for those.

The below photo is another perspective of the old Tea Horse Trail bridge into Shaxi. Lucked out with the light for a postcard-worthy shot.

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The ancient Tea Horse Trail bridge just south of ancient Shaxi.

In the square opposite the old theater sits a centuries-old Buddhist temple with carvings of fierce Bai gods (the Bai are the predominant Jianshuan regional ethnic group; Yunnan has a myriad of ethnic groups, more than any other Chinese province). The temple and the 1415 theater both sit on the ancient square here in Shaxi. Horsepen46 hostel, our residence, is also directly on the square, its entrance just to the right of the theater.

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The Horsepen46 hostel entrance can be seen immediately behind the man standing.

We spotted a drone hovering directly over the square early this morning. Someone is always watching in China, I thought.

The old square’s careful restoration is detailed in this great New York Times piece from 2016 called “An Ancient Caravan Town in China Is Reborn.”

Today was gorgeous, with sun and temps in the mid-70s. Tonight it’s cooling off fast. Tomorrow we brave another bus ride, this one Shaxi to Old Dali, said to be another beautiful and very old Chinese town.

Here below is another look at the 600 year old theater in the Shaxi town square as lit at night. The New York Times article I referenced above mentions that this square is the most beautiful ancient town square in all China.

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Also a nighttime shot of the Buddhist temple, highlighting the angry Bai gods guarding the entrance. The NYT article described the temple as an example of “esoteric Buddhism” worshipped by the Bai people.

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Can’t go a day without bragging on the food! Below is of our scrumptious light meal tonight at the tiny Bai restaurant preferred by the staff of Horsepen46 hostel as most authentic Bai cuisine in Shaxi. The greens were reportedly peony stems stir-fried with mushrooms and possibly other ingredients. The flavors were unique and delicious.

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Our mouth-watering meal sits on a traditional Bai batik blue tablecloth.

The other dish above was described as “heart of potatoes.” Thin potato slices stir-fried in oil with spring onions and hot red peppers and salt. Spuds are almost always good, but these babies were outstanding. I’m going to try to replicate them at home.

Note the plates rest upon one of the distinctive Indigo batik tablecloths famously made in this region of Yunnan by the Bai people.

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The ubiquitous 3-wheel Chinese motorbike.  Who knew wisteria grew in Yunnan?

The red three-wheel motorcycle pictured beneath the wisteria is typical of the most utilitarian vehicle in China. They are common everywhere and take hundreds of adaptive forms, from garbage scow to taxi. They are the pickup trucks of China. So far we haven’t seen any electric versions.

ON THE ELECTRIC MINIBUS SHAXI TO OLD DALI

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East your heart out, McDonalds! A healthy bowl of hot noodles with all the fixings for $1.

It was 38° F. on this, our last morning in Shaxi, but so dry that it didn’t feel cold. Before going to the bus, we sat outside like all good Chinese to have breakfast noodles. Each big bowl of noodles was one dollar. Not even McDonald’s can beat that price.

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Traditional Chinese funeral procession in Shaxi featured white hats and fireworks.

As we ate, a funeral procession filed past, with fireworks in the Chinese tradition. Many mourners wore white caps, as white represents death in China.  They moved fast, too, unlike the slow funeral marches to a graveyard typical in America.

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Recharging the all-electric minibus.

At the moment we are en route by all-electric minibus that carries 16 plus the driver. Increasingly, the Chinese are ahead of us in EVs. 99.99% of the motorbikes in China are now electric, so quiet that drivers have to beep at you to avoid pedestrian collisions.

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Electric connection to recharge the minibus resembles a gas pump.

This electric minibus is dead quiet except for wind noise. I could clearly overhear a young French traveler behind me on his phone trying to make a hotel or hostel reservation for tonight in Dali, where we are all headed. He was speaking in heavily-accented English, not his native language, and struggling to make himself understood to the Chinese person on the other end of the line, also not a native English speaker, of course.

The tortured conversation between two people speaking in a language not their own was comedic. The man repeated each letter of his name many times trying to make himself understood, and then had to say again and again that he needed a room. It sounded like a Bob Newhart telephone sketch. Finally he hung up, mumbling, “Merde, merde, merde!”

The mountains surrounding us in this northwest quadrant of Yunnan from Lijiang to Shaxi to Dali are Himalayan foothills. Many of the tall hills are dotted with electric windmills. We are told that China is moving fast to lessen its reliance on hydrocarbon energy.

Conversations in the quiet electric minibus are easily understood even from the back seat to the front. It’s a joy not to endure normal internal combustion engine noise.

PHONY OLD DALI

Earlier this trip I disparaged Old Town in Lijiang as Disney-fakery of the first order. Expertly antiquified, I grudgingly admitted, but inauthentic as hell. It gave me heartburn to learn that eight million tourists visit Lijiang Old Town annually, most of them the rising affluent Chinese middle class. How could the brilliant Chinese fall for something so obviously unreal? Surely, I thought, no place in China could be more a memorial to the genius of P. T. Barnum than Lijiang Old Town. I was disgusted by its obvious deceptions.

Today, however, in Dali Old Town I discovered a place in China more foul and disturbing in dissimulation and appealing to a lower order of humanity in the bargain. If Lijiang Old Town’s unabashedly manufactured charm calls to China’s ever-growing white collar middle class, then Dali Old Town’s target market must be the blue collar workers of China grasping for the bottom rung of the middle class ladder.  This place is the Myrtle Beach of China, its redneck, state fair vibe so vile that I literally ran from it this afternoon.

I will give it this, though: Dali Old Town makes no pretenses that it’s all about kitsch and a lowbrow experience for the masses. Walking through its endless streets, all manner of junk is on offer to take home or to consume on the spot. McDonald’s is there, which should tell you everything you need to know, and every snake charmer, bottle throw hawker, and cotton candy purveyor you’ve ever seen at a carnival.

If you’re still not convinced, below is depicted an Old Dali food stand from among the hundreds of such vendors, this one proudly selling “Sizzling Duck Intestines.” Note the varieties of sizzling duck intestines on offer.

Hmmm, hmmm, decisions, decisions! Thinking back to Lijiang Old Town, I cannot recall an analog food seller quite as unappealing.  Yet I saw a number of folks gobbling these morsels from a stick. Yum!

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To each his own: sizzling duck intestines, served on sticks.

Accentuating the horror of Old Dali is its prime location sandwiched between the stunning and notable 50 km long Cangshan Mountain and the beautiful Erhai Lake, the seventh largest in China. Suckers flock to this place because they’ve heard of its extraordinary natural environmental wonders, and what they get is a jumble of very ugly buildings, congested streets, and fraud. Yet it is enough of a draw for millions in a land of billions, proving once again that Barnum was right.

It’s tough to stomach Old Dali’s cheap shills after experiencing modest and genuine Shaxi, where the annual per capita income is reportedly $120.

Despite my disgust, I did find in Old Dali a fine example of tasteless junk not available for sale in Shaxi: a solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheel designed to be dashboard-mounted. And then I shamelessly negotiated hard to buy three for twenty dollars.

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A solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheel doing its thing on my dash back in Raleigh.  Say what you want, but it makes my Toyota Sienna easy to find in a parking lot.

 

By Train to Kunming

 

MAY 17, 2018 — Over our daughter’s Spring Break, my family spent a memorable week in Yunnan Province, China, about which I have already posted several stories, including going with the flow, everyday provincial life, and roughing it in Yunnan.  After flying into Kunming using Delta’s new premium economy service as far as Beijing, we booked Chinese internal flights, first China Eastern Beijing to Kunming and then Shenzhen Air from Kunming to reach Lijiang in northwest Yunnan.

Aiming to see Yunnan up close thereafter, we eschewed airlines and made our way by bus from Lijiang to fabulous Shaxi, and, a few days later, by an all-electric bus from Shaxi to Dali.  We budgeted our time mainly to see those parts of Yunnan, but had to return to Kunming for our flights home on China Eastern to Beijing and Delta again back to the States. To make the trip more interesting, we booked a train from New Dali to Kunming, and then overnighted prior to our early morning flight KMG/PEK.

Here I pick up my real-time notes which begin at the wonderful Jim’s Tibetan Hotel in Old Dali, which I bragged about, along with Jim himself, in my earlier everyday life post:

LEAVING DALI

Before leaving for the train station for our journey by train to Kunming, we enjoyed the Jim’s Tibetan Hotel version of a Western breakfast identical to yesterday, which was green tea, a delicious banana crepe that Jim called a pancake, and a bowl of muesli, sliced apples and pears, yogurt, raisins, and cinnamon. It was all good, but especially the fruit and yogurt, which I will be duplicating at home. I had paid Jim in cash last night, so we departed quickly right after eating.

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We took a private car to the train station in New Dali from Jim’s Tibetan Hotel, which is in Old Dali, a long distance. We splurged on that and paid 100 Yuan ($16), about twice the cost of a taxi. It was a 40 minute drive in light traffic.

The New Dali train station is an imposing edifice, like most in China. Bombastic, like the airports. Long and wide sets of imposing stairs lead up, up, up like one might expect entering an emperor’s palace rather than a mere railroad station.

It’s all hat, no cattle, however. Once inside, it looks like a big city Greyhound station: sterile concrete with some granite veneers and airport style seating. An institutional, dingy feel redolent of the old Mao era. It could easily be converted to an abattoir should the need arise, and none would think it odd.

Getting in was a two-step process. First, collect tickets from the bottom floor. We didn’t know to do that and traipsed up the Lincoln Memorial-like staircases with our heavy luggage, only to be directed back down below to the ticket office. Back down we went. I was already sweating, and it was only 10:15 AM.

We passed through a perfunctory security screen to enter the ticket office. Standing at the bottom floor ticket window, my wife noticed the Chenglish on the yellow line at our feet: “Please wait outside a noodle.”

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We obeyed, I guess, because the agent smiled and issued our ticket without delay after inspecting our passports carefully. Ruth had smartly found a “VIP” compartment on this ordinary train (no high speed trains yet running Dali-Kunming), so I guess we are all set.

Back up the damnably high and long staircase with the concrete blocks someone must have put in my bag, we presented our passports and ticket and were allowed to enter. Another light security screen staffed by 20-somethings in government uniforms, all smiles and waving us welcome.

The station floor was not especially clean, again reminding me of a bus station back home, but the place boasted a very well-stocked and modern convenience store with every product known to man.

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We stocked up for the trip, since the Chinese are notoriously stingy travelers when it comes to buying food. They always bring their own on buses and trains, and thus many Chinese ordinary trains have little or no dining car offerings. Two new-looking fast food establishments were also open and doing a good business in the station.

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We soon discovered that our train departed from yet a higher level waiting room, requiring another drag of bags up steep stairs.

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Steep stairs, but with a concrete ramp thoughtfully added in the center to accommodate roller bags and strollers.

Here we sit, finally, waiting for our 12:36 PM train, and surrounded by prosperous-looking Chinese travelers. Not another Westerner in sight.  More later en route.

BOARDING THE TRAIN

Our train arrived four minutes late, but why worry? Not us. All an adventure.

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With the upper waiting room packed, it was a mad rush when the station gate doors were opened, small children and elderly in danger of being trampled. The Chinese, like the Italians (and like me), abhor honoring queues and squack indignantly as they break the line as if you are the one in the wrong. It felt like the fevered crowds trying to be first into Best Buy on Black Friday morning at 5:00 AM.

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Boarding our train New Dali to Kunming. Note bilevel sleeper (our car) to the right of the stairwell, one of many in the train’s consist. New Dali in the distance.

Our VIP compartment is in the second level of the doubledecker car to the right in the above picture. The lower level compartments are all what the Chinese call “soft sleepers” which are similar to old Pullman compartments. Each “VIP” room is fitted with a single upper bed and a lower almost-double. Very large and comfortable. Also equipped with two tables, electric plug, table lamp, water pitcher for making hot tea, and fake plastic fresh cut flower in a vase. Classy. Puts Amtrak to shame.

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“VIP” compartment on the upper deck of the bilevel passenger car has a double and a single.

To my surprise this train carries a full-service diner (below photo).

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The Chinese Railway crew tend to be quite young. I am impressed with their good humor and sense of enjoying their jobs.

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As seen in the above photo, there is ugly marred paint on the diner ahead of our car, yet inside it is spotless and inviting. This section of the rail network is electrified.

In a tip of the hat to the world outside Asia, one of the two lavatories at the end of each bilevel car has a Western sit-down toilet. The other one has the usual squat toilet arrangement.

This train isn’t going to win any speed awards. I estimate around 100 KPH (about 60 MPH). But it’s great fun, and we are in no hurry.

Our bilevel car has what the Chinese call “soft sleeper” compartments on the lower level that sleep or sit four. The term differentiates that class of rail service from “hard sleepers” which have six berths per compartment.

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“Soft Sleeper” compartment sleeps four.

Our “VIP” compartment, like the rest on this car’s upper level, sleeps three, a double bed below and a single above.

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Looking out at the passing Yunnan landscape from the upper (single) bunk on the train.

Only trouble is, unlike the soft sleepers below us, the VIP berths don’t fold up, so there’s no way to sit comfortably. VIP passengers are forced to lie down or sit awkwardly on the bottom berth facing the compartment door.

It’s a weird arrangement, but we only paid $69 total for three fares, so we don’t much care. I’m propped up on several pillows in a prone position enjoying the view.

The engineering of this line is impressive. Nearly zero at-grade crossings and many long viaducts and bridges over towns and cities. Long viaducts, some several miles-long, are the rule, too, through the countryside so that farmers can work back and forth under the railroad without being cut off. Lots of long tunnel bores, too, some 10 minutes or longer to pass through. All this for a secondary rail line. It’s hard not to compare this to America’s lack of commitment to passenger rail.

On the train we noticed another Chenglish mystery sign, We could not decipher the context of “drinkingwatef roher room”.

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ARRIVING KUNMING

It’s ridiculous to be staying tonight at the luxurious Crowne Plaza in central Kunming after the modest and wonderful places where we’ve rested our heads the past week. My IHG status earned us a primo 16th floor room overlooking the heart of the city. I got a good rate through Travelocity months ago and grabbed it, so here we are.

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Kunming CBD at night from the Crowne Plaza

It was drizzling and 46° F. when we stepped off the train (25 minutes late). Inexplicably, no taxi would take us to the hotel, not far away (but too far to walk) from the central railway station. Getting soaked, I finally hired a tout for 40 Yuan ($6.35) to take us to the Crowne Plaza. Seemed outrageous at the moment, but of course was a bargain in the cold rain.

Kunming is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres (6,234 feet) above sea level and at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer.  In 2014 Kunming had a population of 6,626,000. More about the city here. It has an interesting history. I wish that we had had time to explore it a bit.

As we prepare to leave Yunnan, a lasting impression is how nice and good-humored most Chinese continue to be to each other and to us, strangers in their land. And how prosperous and well-informed the average citizen appears to be. Cultural differences linger, but are shrinking rapidly.

In ignorance, I didn’t expect much from Yunnan. Now at the end, I can say it was a gratifying, even stunning, experience. It is humbling to reflect that we didn’t see much of Yunnan, and Yunnan is just one province in China. It would take a lifetime to know—to really know— just this one area.

Just when I think the world is getting smaller, I realize again how enormous and diverse it is. That’s part of the reward of travel and why I keep going places.