Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Trip to China - Day 1 - And so it begins.


Flying Qantas, Brisbane to Sydney, in a Boeing 737-800

Like any trip by plane, there is this need to make sure you arrive at the airport several hours earlier than the advertised departure time.
For an 8:00 departure, this means getting to the airport at 6:00 or thereabouts.  Then there's the pre-flight effect, getting up at the crack of dawn, or in darkness, and leaving adequate time to get from home to the airport.
It is astonishing just how many things can go wrong on any road that leads to an airport with the probability increasing exponentially when you are running late.
This morning, everything goes according to plan.
At the airport, we have to leave everything to do with our air travel to chance, as it is a group booking and tackle the service line.  Our early arrival ma knew this less of a queuing nightmare.
Are we sitting together, yes.  The check-in staff are familiar with the Trip a deal modus operandi, and our baggage is seamlessly checked through to Beijing.
The only disappointment, that we are in the middle group of four seats on the A330-200 to Beijing, on a plane that is a 2-4-2 configuration.  We seem destined never to get those elusive two seats.
Oh, well, back to being a sardine again, only for the ten-hour flight, it's going to be a new sort of hell.  It just depends on how old the plane is.
The flight to Sydney is due to depart at 8:10.  Loading started five minutes early.  Everyone is on board and the door closed at 7:58.  It looks like an early departure, maybe.
Pushing back at 8:00.  Take off: 8:08.  At 8:28 it is estimated that we will be landing in Sydney at 9:17
Before that breakfast will no doubt be served in a hurry.  Breakfast cereal, just right and a muesli bar, who said Qantas wasn't trying to keep it's passengers healthy.
Start descent at 8:56, not far from Newcastle.


On the ground at 9:18, at the gate at 9:30.  This means we have just over two and a half hours before the next plane departs.
Travelling from domestic to international at Sydney requires a bus transfer from a station near gate 15.  All you need is an international boarding pass and the wherewithal to stand if the bus is full.
It might only be a short journey but very stop-start and jerky.  It's much better if you can get a seat, but...
The seats are so small they are not designed to sit you and your cabin bag without being thoroughly squashed.  And it's sitting on the max 7 kg, ten minutes might be just long enough for your circulation in your legs to shut down
Mine nearly did, and that last step off the bus could be your undoing, before your holiday starts.  Someone needs to rethink the means of transport between terminals.

Once inside the international departures area, you can be overwhelmed by the vast duty-free store, swamping the other stores, and then on a mission to find a bargain, don't bother.  Some stuff is cheaper than outside retail, but not by much.  I suspect its more tax-free rather than duty-free ever since we moved to having a GST.
Probably what is different is the range of different products you might not necessarily get outside, but you will be paying a premium for them.
And, just to underline the great duty-free myth being just that, the bookshop inside the duty-free zone sells their books duty and tax included.  Make sure you buy any reading material, particularly books, at your nearest Big W store.  There they are half the price of what they are at the airport.
Soon, we'll be moving to the gate lounge in preparation for boarding.  It's not something I'm looking forward to because it's another middle seat, but this time for ten hours, not one and a half.
I wonder what it's like in a Chinese asylum.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Trip to China - Will this be a case of you get what you pay for?


I've been doing some reading on travelling to China, and every now and then there are emails from travel agents and hotel chains that indicate prices were not as exorbitant as they are if you were to travel to the USA or Europe.
Then there are recommendations from friends who tell you that it’s worthwhile making the trip.  And the tipping point, for everyone, seems to be the price.
China.  10 days.  Around $2,000.  The company offering this deal, Trip-a-deal.  Heard of them?  No.
A visit to the web page goes through the tour and the added bonus of another two days, a visit to the terra cotta soldiers, a trip in a high-speed train, for another $500.
This is the itinerary, in short:

DAY 1 - AUSTRALIA - BEIJING, CHINA
Upon arrival, a tour representative will meet you at the airport and then transfer you to check-in to the Beijing Friendship Hotel
DAY 2 - TIANANMEN SQUARE & FORBIDDEN CITY
DAY 3 - GREAT WALL OF CHINA
On the way to the Great Wall, stop at a Jade Museum
Day 4 - BEIJING - XIAN (HIGH-SPEED TRAIN EXPERIENCE)
But before the train, Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas and Traditional Chinese Medicine
DAY 5 - TERRACOTTA WARRIORS & HORSES - ZHENGZHOU (HIGH-SPEED TRAIN EXPERIENCE)
DAY 6 - ZHENGZHOU FREE DAY
Except you can go to the Shaolin Temple and Kung Fu experience (extra cost)
DAY 7 - ZHENGZHOU - SUZHOU (HIGH-SPEED TRAIN EXPERIENCE)
Hangout in Zhengzhou for the morning at a museum and a memorial tower
DAY 8 - SUZHOU – HANGZHOU
Venice of the east, Canal tour (Extra Cost)
DAY 9 - HANGZHOU – SHANGHAI
Gardens and West Lake cruise (Extra cost), Tea Plantation
DAY 10 – SHANGHAI
Night cruise (extra cost)
DAY 11 - SHANGHAI, CHINA – AUSTRALIA
Shanghai Museum, the Bund, the Yu Gardens and Old Shanghai (extra cost)
DAY 12 - ARRIVE IN AUSTRALIA

Why not.  We book it.

There's a few extra costs involved in the lead up to the departure, most of which could not be sorted out until we received the tour documents from the travel agent.
The most important, the visas required.  6 weeks before we leave, it costs about $200 and a few days of my time to fill out the documentation, and the Chinese government wants a lot of personal information, more than you would normally expect.  If you want to go, you give it up.
We also now have a copy of the itinerary and the hotels we're staying at.  Looking at the hotels, they are not expensive.  It’s not hard to see why.  They are not any of the chain brands, and they seem to be some distance from the city centres.  It will be interesting to see what the standard of the rooms will be.
But their web presence shows they are at least interested in generating interest.  And most of the hotel consolidation sites like Trivago have them listed and critiqued.
Closer to the day of departure, I try to log into the Qantas site and check the seating arrangements and attach our frequent flyer numbers.  It does not accept the booking reference.  I call the helpline and they tell me it is a group booking.
Yes, we'd been told that and that as such we could be anywhere on the plane.  It was a matter of trying to get seats together on the day of departure.  It raises the spectre that the tour company has done a deal to take up all the SeatGuru red seats for a favourable price. 
Just how else can they keep the prices so low?
We are going in blind, and it will be interesting to see what happens.  I can't remember what happened to our friends in their quest to sit together.  To them, it was not as important to them as the price.
We have a trip from Brisbane to Sydney.  Then we have a trip from Sydney to Beijing.  The only certainty is that our baggage will be checked through from Brisbane to Beijing.  At least the transfer from domestic to international will not be hampered having to also handle baggage.
We’ll soon see if reality matches the hype.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Away for an extended weekend - Melbourne to Brisbane by plane

Every flight is different

I’m sure I wasn’t expecting this to be so, but it’s always good to be surprised.  Particularly when an airline is involved.

The thing is, running on time with airlines in this country, particularly when there is no real competition between them, is not one of their priorities.  Most of the flights I’ve been on recently have either been delayed or just plain late.

But, for us, other than being out late, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s not as if we have to be somewhere at a particular time.  And it’s the reason why we select the flights with the cheapest seats.  They are the flights late in the day and the last to fill, and it’s probably because everyone knows they never leave on time, or arrive on time.

So, having said that, this flight is going to prove me wrong and be the exception to the rule.
6:02 the doors are closed and we're ready to go.

As the stated departure time is slated for 6:10, I seriously doubt we'll be pushing back before the advertised time.  Maybe not, 6:05 and we're pushing back from the gate.  This might be the first time...

But, sometimes being early doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the aviation industry.  It certainly doesn’t mean we are getting into Brisbane any earlier.

This I know for a fact because there always seems to be a problem getting into Brisbane because it only has one runway and nearly every flight has had to  slow down and lose a few minutes because of the number of available landing slots.

I think there's only been one occasion we got in early; that was an international flight and we had favourable tailwinds.

So let's see what happens...

At 6:14 the plane is at the top of the runway, and then at full power, we are scooting down the runway.  The pilot is making use of very metre and it feels like it's taking an eternity to get into the air.  Eventually, the plane lifts off and we are in the air.  

Unlike the tired old plane we came down in, there is no sound of the flaps retracting or the wheels going up.  It's all very smooth, so far.


Back in my favourite middle seat, it’s back to eating like a sardine.  The menu gives us two choices, and I take a lamb tortilla with wild rice, and it proves very difficult to eat when restricted in movements.  In the end, you basically have to eat like a pig at a trough, which can be disconcerting to those sitting beside you.  Unfortunately, you have very little choice, other than not eating at all.

At 7:30, we start the descent into Brisbane. It usually takes about 30 minutes for the plane to land. which means if we're lucky and we do not get sent into a large circular holding pattern, we might just land 20 minutes early. 

Ten minutes later, the flight path display is saying we will arrive in Brisbane, whether this is on the ground or at the gate, at 8:06.  At 7:47 the flight path guide is still telling us we will be arriving in Brisbane at 8:06.  At least now it is showing the icon for the plane heading towards Brisbane instead of out to sea.  It means our flight path to the runway will take us over the city.

Since I am near enough to a window, I will be able to see us pass over the gateway bridges rather than coming in from over the bay, nominally at the sea end of the Brisbane river.  During the day the view below is usually quite spectacular, at night, you get to see the lights, and at times pick out the main roads by the continuous street lighting.  You might also get to see a brightly lit stadium if there is a football or rugby game being played.

At various times I have been able to pick out the M1 freeway, the gateway motorway, and a large city that is reasonably distinguishable from the air, Springwood, near where we live, and once I was able to see our neighbourhood in Daisy Hill.  I have not yet actually seen our house from the air, the plane is too high up to clearly identify any specific landmark that small.

Maybe one day, in the right conditions.  I know it’s possible because planes are always passing over our house during the day and sometimes at night.

We’re still on time for an 8:06 landing and a quick glance out the window just saw us going over the gateway bridges at 8:04.  From there it is a slightly bumpy ride until we touchdown, quite sedately, at 8:07.

The late plane myth has been dispelled.  We arrive at the gate at 8:11, 19 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time. 

One suspects the plane crew had a party to get to, and it was the reason why we arrive ahead of time.  Or, maybe not.  Everyone is up the front of the plane, from the Captain down, thanking the passenger,. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

It’s always good to actually land safely in one piece, in America they applaud.  Here, we’re a little more sedate and simply mutter a quiet thank you as we leave the plane.

By the time we’re off the plane, it’s clear we are one of the last few planes to arrive for the day, and the usually busy airport is starting to close down.  The only place that is a hive of activity is the baggage belt, and it’s usually here where any made up time is completely lost.  Much like the carts with our baggage from the plane.  Sometimes you can wait an eternity.

Today, thankfully, it’s only half an eternity.

Maybe we’ll get home at a respectable hour, if, that is, there are no road works on the main arterial road between our place and the airport.

Oops, looks like I spoke too soon.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Smith Street, Fitzroy (Once part of what was known as Marvellous Melbourne)

Of course, it could easily be Collingwood depending on who you barrack for in the local football competition, as it is Fitzroy, but the map and my GPS tells me the street is, for all intents and purposes, in Fitzroy.

Not that there is a football team for Fitzroy any more, that moved north to Queensland a long, long time ago.

But...

Going for a wander up and down the street shows two or three very different sides to inner suburban living, and the effect that comes from a diverse range of cultures, the city has acquired over the past few decades.

Once viewed as almost the slums of Melbourne, these inner suburban areas have moved upscale to become havens for the more wealthy middle classes and a home for many diverse outlets, not the least of which are eateries.

And. In just this small section of Smith Street, there are a lot of eating establishments, from the Old Kingdom Peking duck restaurant to a small place selling Falafel, and then everything in between.
It says a lot about how Australian eating habits have changed in a single generation, where back in those infamous old days you would be lucky to have a fish and chips/ hamburger shop and one or two Chinese restaurants.

Now, intermingled with gourmet bakeries and cozy coffee shops, there are a plethora of other eating establishments that cater to any cuisine you can imagine.  In fact, it's possible to dine out on a different cuisine every night for a fortnight and only traverse about half a kilometre up and down the street.  It could be ideal if you lived in one of the small fronted houses just off the main carriageway in a leafy narrow side street or laneway.

And, as you would expect in an inner-city suburb,  the streets are narrow and made more hazardous for traffic because of the trams, a familiar sight in many of the streets in this area, and a much-used form of transport for workers making the short trip into the city.  It's almost possible to take the extra half hour, and walk.


The street is lined with old buildings, some dating back to about 1868, there's around the turn of the century, but most are not inhabited except for the street level where there is an eclectic mixture of furniture, haberdashery, and clothing stores catering to a particular group of people, what some call yuppies or upwardly mobile men and women who are between 25-35, with high paying jobs, and preferably no children.



Then there a subgroup walking there streets, homosexual men, some wheeling adopted children in pushers, others walking hand in hand out for a Saturday afternoon stroll where they can feel safe among many others.  It's very different from other places I've been, but one can imagine there are places like this in every city all over the world.

But as a backdrop to the appearance of wealth, the shopfronts that cater to those upwardly mobile upper middle classes, there's that exact opposite in full view, the homeless, and beggars, sitting on the ground outside the more run down shops soliciting alms, asking for a spare dollar, and even one asking for a cigarette.

Everyone walks past them, imagining no doubt there are not there, or that if they ignore them, they will go away.  I think not.  And, I suspect, more will come out of their daytime hiding places and take up residence in Smith Street itself.

The only surprise is that the local council has not asked the police to move them on.
It's an interesting juxtaposition of inhabitants in an area that no doubt can only attract the upper middle classes, as anything and everything is relatively expensive, particularly real estate, and permit driven parking spaces.

Would I live here?  No.

Would I come here to wine and dine?

Maybe, if I could get parking, which there appear to be very few spots or any other form of parking such as under the local supermarket which can be very expensive.  And if you are lucky enough to find a spot, who has the time or the memory if continually feeding a parking meter every two hours, particularly if you're having a good time.

Equally, it's a place I would not feel comfortable, even if it was once a safe haven, which up to a few years ago, I'd probably think it not.  In fact, at times I was not sure what to make of some of the people on the street, but I guess if I lived here, it would no doubt be the norm.

Would I recommend people to come here?

Of course.  One of the more interesting places in Melbourne to experience grassroots cuisine that is incredibly diverse in it range and price, and even from a place with tables and chairs that may have seen better days, but you haven't come to see the furniture.

And to my mind, the dining is definitely better, here than perhaps Carlton, which in itself is Mecca to a plethora of university types, both teachers and students alike, and the coffee culture that pervade that area of Melbourne.

I have no doubt you will come and leave with a very good opinion of the place.

As for me, I came here for an engagement party held at the Hotelito de Jesus, a Mexican restaurant, serving a variety of Mexican dishes.  As I'm no expert of that particular cuisine, everything was going to be new.

It was.  It's spicy but not too spicy, the pork belly excellent, the canap├ęs delicious, and both the mushroom-based and shredded beef based mini tacos were equally scrumptious.

All of this was washed down with two particular Mexican beers, two of several available in bottles, cans, or by the glass.

Oh, and you can get sangria by the jug too if you like.  I would have, but my passion for trying different beers won out.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Away for an extended weekend - Brisbane to Melbourne by plane

Every flight is different...

Except if you are flying in the dreaded middle seat, which, unfortunately for me, is the best I can hope for when flying on a plane that has a three by three configuration.

Today we're flying in a Qantas Boeing 737, but I can't tell which type it is because as a 30-row plane it could be either any one of three different types.  I didn't think Qantas had anything other than 800s but I've been known to be wrong before.

I'll check the 'in the unlikely event of an emergency' card but sometimes airlines are cagey and don't have the type or the build year which is usually on the card.

Ok, so I'm wrong and not for the first time.  It's an 800 but it's a really old one, we just heard the flaps go down, and it sounded like they'd just been freed up after have been rusted up for a year or two.  

Oops, maybe they pulled this plane out of the air museum in Longreach just for us.

Creaky old plane for creaky old passengers.

Departure time is supposed to be 8:40 pm and we're pushing back at 8:39.  It's pointed out to me that the plane is not full, so an early departure is possible.  A full plane, and quite often we're still trying to find passengers 15 minutes after the advertised departure time.

Blame the airline lounges for that, or the people who don't speak the local language.

Of course, it also means that there have been no ongoing delays to the incoming plane throughout the day, and it helps immensely to get an on-time departure if the plane arrives on time, so it can be cleaned, restocked, fuelled, and have a crew waiting.

There have been times when our crew have been lost on another flight that has suffered from endless delays.  Not today Josephine.

But back to the middle seat.  No one ever picks a middle seat by choice, especially if flying along.  That seems to be the case tonight as most of the empty seats are middle seats and those that are occupied are by people travelling in pairs.

I particularly dislike it because there is no room to move, much of less eat or drink, and if the passengers either side are larger than the specified airline median of 85 kg, which is the size the seat is meant to be comfortable, any larger and you will have discomfort in spades. Then be prepared to be a sardine for however long the flight is, and this is meant to be 1 hour 50 minutes.

And there's something else I take issue with, that might, and I use that word with a lot of caution, take that long, but it's not usually the case.

We'll see.


Perhaps next time I should book a window and an aisle seat.  Knowing our luck though we'll probably get an obnoxious person sitting between us.

Yes, it does happen. A plane full and the airline is looking to fill seats with standby people.

But...

The time now is 8:25 -and we are still on the ground taxing towards the runway.  In the blink of an eye, we turn the corner, literally, and we are on the runway powering up the engines for take-off.

8:26 And we're hurtling down the runway gaining speed but also highlighting the fact this plane has a lot of loose parts, and, after that moment we get into the air, yes, the pilot used all of the runway before getting off the ground, there are endless shudders and sickening vibration through the whole airframe until the wheels are retracted.

After that blessed silence, or for this old plane what passes for silence, and except for the grinding noise of the flaps being retracted, we can look forward to that the wonderful whooshing sound of flying through the air with the greatest of ease.

Or perhaps I'm mistaken that refers to trapeze artists at the circus.

Let's hope this flight doesn't turn into one, oh, a circus, I mean, not a trapeze artist.


Dinner is served which we were not expecting, Heineken beer and chicken sausage pasta in a creamy sauce.  

It's not the sort of food I would create for my granddaughters, but at that late hour of the night, it hardly matters.  I wasn't hungry, but I'm always curious about pasta in white sauce.

The beer was fine, in a slim 330 ml can, and despite everything that plagues airline food, the food is great.

Began descent at 22:01, but to the news that we had encountered headwinds and having to slow down our arrival into Melbourne by a few minutes meaning that instead of being on the ground at 22:20 it will be now 22:30.

It was also said that it would take three to four minutes to get to the gate, which I maintain is impossible, but I'm prepared to be wrong again if it gets us out of this plane earlier.

The lack of more space is getting to me and I can feel the aches and pains in my lower back, which may cause problems when I have to stand up and walk.

So...

We get on the ground at 20:28 and get to the terminal gate at 20:34  by which is almost on time.  I hesitate to say the pilots had planned this ahead of time.

Last flight in for the aircrew, I'm not surprised they wanted to get their passengers out of their seats and off the plane so they, too, can get away.  Ah. Those last few minutes of after arrival, telling us we are welcome.

I'd prefer to be off the plane as soon as possible, but as you know with 18 rows in front of you and the fact it takes a while to open the planes front door, this takes time.

And, so, you wait, in an orderly fashion, after being threatened by falling bags out of the bins above you. Then magically the throng before you slowly thins out, and suddenly takes no time to get off the plane.

But of course, the night is not over yet.

We have to pick up a hire car. And we are getting it from a new company so will be interesting to see how it goes.