A lot of places around the Himalaya claim to be the true "Shangri-la" of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. The Chinese government has "officially" claimed Shangri-la for themselves in the Zhongdian/Diqing areas of Yunnan province. The area is ethnically and geographically Tibetian. Sitting beer in hand and contemplating the magical beauty and grandeur of Holy Meili Snow Mountain in a small village at over 3000m above sea level, perched on the side of a deep valley, with the road to Lhasa (36 hours drive on a good day) winding far below, I think I found my Shangri-la. Here's the story of how the boyf and I got there.
We had wanted to take this trip for quite some time after reading about this part of China and seeing some amazingly beautiful pictures. It also allows travellers to get a thorough tase of Tibet without having to jump through hoops to get a permit to enter the actual Tibet A.R. The main launching pad for trips to Shangri-la is the city of Kunming - thriving capital of Yunnan province. From Tokyo we had a few options on ways to get there. Boyf and i each had about 40K CX asiamiles to spend, so we looked at flying cheaply to HK (eg USD200 return on UA/NW) then using miles on KA to get to Kunming. I checked to see what other routes were available, including going via Shanghai and Guangzhou. On a whim I plugged KIX and KMG into the Asiamiles website and found that for 35000 miles we could go direct from Osaka to Kunming on China Eastern. I booked the flights for the first week of October, but had to change the booking to a week earlier because the hotel was full. Asiamiles people said it was no problem. When I asked if they would re-issue the paper tickets they had sent their reply was no, there's no need. They assured me that they had contacted MU with the new dates for award travel and all was in order. To put my mind at rest they emailed a new itinerary with the word confirmed in bold print next to the new dates. A call to MU in Tokyo to confirm received the reply "We don't know what date you're booked to fly. Please contact CX." As we were also booking Chinese domestic flights on MU, when boyf went into the office to pay for and pick up those domestic tickets he asked them to check again that our dates had been updated. At first they gave the same reply, but when told "we are flying on your airline and you mena to say you can't even check your computer to see what date our reservation is for.." she tapped a few more keys and said, "ah yes, leaving KIX on 25/9 and returning 2/10" "Thank you. Now that wasn't so difficult was it."
In order to get to KIX we booked JL birthday discount tickets (essentially ¥10000 one way to go anywhere in Japan). We upgraded to class J which is JL's domestic business class - nice big comfy seats 2-4-2 on a 747, 2-2-2 on a 767 - but economy service; ie just a cup of tea or coffee in flight. Beer for sale at ¥500. This has to be one of the greatest travel bargains around. The seats really are good, sound domestic/regional business class standard, and only USD10 more than the economy fare!! Have a look at their website for an idea of the seat. http://www.jal.co.jp/en/classj/
The original plan was to fly HND-KIX on the day of the flight to Kunming with about 3 hours wait at Kansai airport, however all the preceding week, a taiphoon was making its way closer and closer to Tokyo with landfall expected right over Tokyo on Sunday lunchtime - the exact time of our flight. JL were saying that flights probably wouldn't be cancelled, but there may be some delays. As there is only one flight a week from Osaka to Kunming (now discontinued I believe) it was quite risky to hope that we could get to Osaka that day, so we changed the flight to the night before and the destination to Osaka-Itami rather than KIX and booked a room in Osaka for the night, meaning we could just get the train out to KIX early in the afternoon.
Date: 24 Sep 05
Flight: JL1525 (HND-ITM)
Seat: Last row of lower deck class J - 80-something D.
ETD: 18:30 (more or less on time)
ETA: 19:40 (ditto)
It's a short, comfortable bus ride from Yokohama to Haneda. We arrived within 25 minutes. Haneda isn't one of my favourite airports - mind you, i haven't used ANA's new T2 at Haneda, but I imagine all of the annoying checkin procedures are there too. Initially we went to a regular checkin counter with the emailed coupon of our original and changed flights to Osaka. We were sent to ticketing instead because we had changed the flight date and destination. We had to pay a couple of hundred yen extra - no big deal. The agent printed economy class tickets at first, but realised just as she was handing them over that we were booked in class J. She fixed that and printed new tix and boarding passes. She also took our Asiamiles numbers.
One little gripe of mine is that airline staff in Japan always talk only to my Japanese boyf (I'm Australian) despite the fact that I always greet them in Japanese and speak passable Japanese after living here for 5 years. This particular agent didn't make eye contact with me once!
Tickets and boarding passes in hand, we then went to check our luggage in. I've never quite understood the Japanese domestic system. Assuming we hadn't had our detour to ticketing, we still would have had to queue twice to check in with luggage. Once to get a boarding pass (either from a machine or from a person). One then has to queue seperately to hand over checked luggage. Surely those without luggage can just go to the machines and print their boarding pass, while those with bags should be able to check in AND hand over luggage at the same time. I always see confused travellers - especially non-Japanese as there is no signposting or instructions in English - automatically line up in front of the x-ray machine, thinking that it's a general checkin line, only to be asked for their boarding pass at the head of the queue. Of course, they don't have a boarding pass yet, because they thought they were lining up to check-in and get a boarding pass. Pax then have to trudge up and down the terminal to find the right counter to check in at. The counters are divided into east and west Japan - again confusing to non-Japanese travellers who might not be familiar with Japanese geography, and I can't remember whether it's signposted thus in English (and other languages) or not. Anyway, we made the mistake of trying to check luggage in at the East Japan counter and had a VERY long walk to the West Japan bit. Not only would simplifying check-in procedures help travellers unfamiliar with the "system" (who thinks of these silly ideas??) it would also cut down on unnessary labour costs for an airline that is starting to struggle. This is a case in point.
Security lines were short. I was happy not to be randomly selected for an extra search, as most of my flights in the preceding months had been cheap UA hops down to Hong Kong and Singapore for the weekend. According to UA or the US government, I must be a terrorist, because 100% of those (frankly, bloody awful) flights I've had those nasty big bold SSSSs on my boarding pass. Is it possible that the FA on UA who was astoundingly rude to me - which led to me being not entirely polite back - could have "blacklisted" my name?
Anyway, my acrimonious relationship with UA is an entirely different topic.
Boarding for our full looking flight to ITM commenced just 12 mins before ETD. It's amazing how fast JL and NH can fill a 747!!! There are staff at the ticket readers at the gate to put your boarding pass in the machine and another person to take it out. Both smile and wish every pax a pleasant journey. Double jet-bridges are clearly marked by row number to get people down the back into their seats as quickly as possible. Just a couple of moments late, the pursor came on the PA and said the doors were closed and apologised for the delay (all of 5 mins max!!) she also went on to say that only cold drinks would be served on this flight because we were expecting a bumpy flight.
My seat was very comfortable. We had the centre four of the last row of class J to ourselves. The majority of pax in the clas J cabin were either elderly couples or businessmen. There was a young mother with a toddler in the window seat 2 or 3 rows in front.
(I've since mailed my boarding pass off to NW for a milage campaign they had on for domestic Japanese flights - so while I got miles on CX AND NW, I can't furnish a.netters with a seat number for this flight. I don't think even Jafa sinks so low in his (superlative) trip reports. If my a.net membership is to be revoked for this transgression, so be it).
A bumpy flight is what we got for the first half (about 20 mins). The seat belt sign stayed on. The crew had their "bing bong" to start drinks service, but a moment later were instructed to return to their seats. There were a couple of real jols as well as the usual bumping around. The kid in the window seat started screaming suddenly. A second later, as the putrid smell of her dinner started filling the cabin, it was obvious why she was crying. The mum (not the brightest looking woman - "kogaru" in Japanese, "bogon" or "westie" in Australian, "slapper" in English, no idea what americans would call her. She was clearly oblivious to the fact that her 2 year old was turning green and about to spray business class with vomit, so didn't get a sick-bag ready) was ringing the call button furiously. Obviously no one came to her aid, because we were still being jolted around by the leading edge of the taiphoon. Finally when the crew were allowed to get up and move around the cabin, the look on the pursor's face, when she saw the mess was priceless!! She was middle aged and just starting to look a bit jaded with the job. I could see her thinking whether to hand the dirty job of cleaning up to one of her junior underlings, but she bit the bullet and got paper towels and garbage bags herself. The poor man who was in the aisle seat next to the mess (I think he avoided getting splattered) was offered a seat in our row, but elected instead to go to the exit row in the front of economy, just behind, which was empty. There were much more profuse apologies from the crew than from Ms Peroxide and chunder-chan. (chan being a Japanese term of endeament).
The rest of the flight was thoroughly normal. Cold drinks were served, the pursor regained her composure and the kid fell asleep in her underwear. I wonder what grandma and grandpa said when they saw their offspring emerge from a plane on a cool autumn night in her undies!!!
After collecting luggage and lining up again while another unnecessary army staff members checked everyone's luggage tag number on their bag against the receipt stapled to their ticket (just think how much money JAL could save in staples alone!!) we got the monorail then subway into Osaka city. Nice hotel in their renovated rooms (Toyo Hotel - recommended for short stays in Osaka). Nice dinner. A couple of G&Ts in a club and off to bed.
Date: 25 Sep 05
Flight: MU 538 (KIX-KMG via PVG)
A/C: 737-700 (B-2639)
ETD: 16:30 (10 or 15 mins late)
Arrived at KIX about two and a half hours early - too early to check in, so just waited for a bit. Checkin for this flight wasn't too busy - even considering it was being operated by a 737. There was ever-so-slight confusion about the date on our ticket, but producing the re-confirmed itinerary soon sorted that out, and boarding passes were handed over. And we went and had some lunch.
Security and immigration were hassle free, and we were the first to arrive at the gate - about 40 mins before boarding time. I wondered around the terminal. A TG flight to LA was about an hour late and just starting to board. It looked very full of fat and very grumpy pax. I'm glad i wasn't taking that flight! There was an MU A340 pushing back on its way to Shanghai and a number of JL widebodies - including my last glimpse of a JL DC-10 just a week or two before they were all retired.
Our 737 pulled in just before four o' clock, so it was obvious we were going to be slightly delayed. It looked very small and rather forlorn surrounded by 747s. MU's livery is a bit dull and aged looking.
This was my first international flight on a narrowbody. My hometown of Sydney, and adopted home of the last 5 years of Tokyo are both widebody central.
By the boarding time, there were about 40 pax in the lounge waiting. It was going to be an empty flight. Eventually, we were invited to board. At the door of the aircraft we were greeted by a friendly, smiling crew member and other FAs were helping pax stow bags in the overhead lockers. The a/c was in all economy configuration. In 1A and 1F were a couple of pilots - possibly the ones who flew the plane to Osaka on their way back to China, but off duty. They had a lot of big bags at thier feet - not exactly correctly stowed.
The interior of the a/c was lovely and bright with nice purple seats. However, the seat cushion had absolutely no padding left where it met the backrest, so i asked for a pillow to sit on. I was handed a blanket instead, which did the job. (MU's crew did ok with English, a bit more practice maybe...)
Saftey demo was done live in Mandarin first, and again in English (with a crew member in the back galley giving visual cues during the English version for FAs who couldn't follow where they were up to.) As this was a JL codeshare flight, a Japanese FA came on the PA, introduced herself and briefly summarised the safety demo in Japanese. Estimated flight time to Shanghai was 1 hour and 50 mins.
Takeoff was scenic and we did a full 180 degree turn over the airport while still at fairly low altitude giving a good view of the sinking Island that is KIX. The place was almost deserted, both in the terminal and looking down on all the empty gates.
Our flight took us down to Kyushu then across the sea to Shanghai. There was no IFE except a mostly Chinese inflight magazine - which had a photo spread of the Shangri-la area we were headed towards. It whet my appetite for the amazing culture and scenery i was to experience for the next week.
Lunch and drinks were served by 2 trolleys at the same time. Lunch was typical Oriental airline food fish and rice - I really enjoyed it! The serving in a foil tray didn't show much thought or creativity, but it tasted great. I washed it down with a glass of "Great Wall Red", which wasn't as rough as one might expect - I doubt it would substitute for jet-fuel in an emergency anyway...
Descent into PVG was a bit grey and bumpy, but fortunately, everyone kept their lunch down on this flight. Upon landing we were giving instructions to the effect that everyone forward of row 13 were to deplane first as PVG was their final destination, while everyone aft of that row was continuing to Kunming and should wait on the plane for a second bus to come to take us to the transit area.
This transit was possibly one of the most sureal travel experiences I've ever had. Finally a bus arrived which took us to the terminal - we were at a VERY remote gate. There was some great spotting along the way - particularly of Russian built a/c in various Chinese airlines' colours. The bus pulled up at a door to the terminal in front of the nosewheel of a VS A340. We were barked at in broken Japanese to enter the terminal, form 2 lines and wait. a head count was done, and everyone was handed a little card with our flight no. and destination. We were then led upstairs by a young man who chatted away on his walkie talkie all the while, yet never took his eyes off his charge, lest one of us should escape. We waited in one or two other bare hallways with only half their lights switched on (something I saw a lot in China - great for the environment at least!!!) Finally after going upstairs, outside, inside again we were in a small immigration hall with now staff. Walkie talkie guy went behind one of the immigration desks and beckoned the first passesnger in line. Then out of nowhere, one or two re-enforcements arrived and a couple of other desks were opened to process the 30 or so pax on our flight. That done, we were led to an x-ray machine and metal detector which were being half-heartedly monitored. I guess there isn't much risk from transit pax. Finally we were ushered up one escalator into the main part of the terminal its self, then down another to a waiting gate for flights from remote stands. When boyf tried to go back up the escalator to look at the shops and grab some food, a petite MU girl turned into a butch, scary, medusa-like prison warden and barked something in Mandarin. Her meaning was unmistakable despite being unintelligable. We then tried the lift - no good - needed a pass swiped. Couldn't find any stairs. (On our return journey after the same adventure through the halls of PVG transit limbo, boyf mannaged to slip past the same woman who had been there a week earlier, only to find the shops were much more expensive than Japan, and the food looked unapetizing.
We were put back on a bus in due course, this time with a number of new pax joining the flight from PVG to KMG. Our scheduled 1 hour transit had turned into 90 mins, but no one looked bothered. I imagine it's always the same.
I slept most of the way down to Kunming as it was dark outside. I think a light snack was served, and another glass of great wall red burnt the back of my throat on the way down.
Kunming airport was pretty sleepy when we arrived at around 11pm. It was interesting to see that they did have immigration desks there, but it seems they are only used for direct flights from overseas - eg BKK-KMG whereas flights like ours which touch down somewhere else in China first have border formalities completed in that port.
After getting our luggage, the driver from the hotel was waiting. We said goodbye to the friendly biologist who had been sitting next to us on the flight and, grabbed some cash from the ATM and went to the Harbour Plaza Hotel, 15 mins drive just the other side of downtown. Very comforatable room with double points from Asiarooms.
Date: 26 Sep 05
Flight: MU 5917 (KMG to LJG - Lijiang)
A/C: 737-300 (B-2538)
ETD: 8:30 (on time)
Flight Time: 40 mins
After an early breakfast and a taxi ride through the lovely sight of a Chinese city waking up (think Tai-chi, motor scooters, push-bikes and men's elbows and heads leaning out of grimy bus windows) we arrived at KMG again. We were checked in by a girl who looked about 18 and wasn't wearing any kind of airline uniform. Still she gave us 3 seats to ourselves and put the right tag on our bag, so all was good.
Security was really strict - coins in my pocket set off the metal detector and lighters and matches were confiscated.
Didn't have long to wait for the bus to the plane. This one used to be in Yunnan air colours before they were taken over by MU. The interior was still in Yunnan air design. This a/c had a couple of rows of business class, and again there was a pilot with lots of luggage sat there.
Soon after take off drinks were served by a freindly crew. While they were doing that, the unmistakeable smell of cigarette smoke filled the cabin. There were no pax smoking, so I can only assume it was coming from the flight deck. This was to be repeated on every other flight on MU for the rest of the trip. Another thing I noticed was that the door to the cockpit was often open mid-flight as FAs went in and out. I thought it reminded me of flying in australia when I was a kid way before "post 9-11" paranoia took away the innocence of flying.
The view on this flight was great. We took off from about 1200m above sea level and landed in Lijiang at over 2200m. This is the edge of the Tibetian Plateau just starting to rise.
After landing at an airport that is hastily being modernised to deal with the surge in tourists coming this way, we met our driver who was a round, jolly Tibetian man in a cowboy hat who didn't speak a word of English or Japanese. We had a Mandarin phrasebook (Mandarin wasn't his frist language, but he could understande the phrases in the book) and we also communicated by writing - Japanese uses a lot of the same characters in one of its three alphabets. The drive up to Zhongdian took us all day, took us to 3330 metres and took us past some breathtaking scenery. The scenery was only a foretaste of what we would see over the next 4 or 5 days - culminating in Meili Snow mountain and aforementioned beer and Shangri-la moment.
Date: 1 Oct 05
Flight: MU 5940 (DIG - variously known as Shangri-la, Diqing, Deqing, Zhongdian and/or XeinLila - to KMG)
A/C: 737-700 (B-5096)
ETD: 9:05 (20 mins late)
Flight Time: 55 mins
Checkin was madness. Before I griped about the number of counters and staff at HND. This was the other extreme. One very frazzled member of staff apparently on a go slow campaign, tour guides rushing to the front of the line shouting in Mandarin and banging a fist full of tickets and passports on the counter, other people shouting at the tour guides. I was second in line for a good 15minutes, until i decided "when in Rome" and pushed past a gaggle of tour guides, made eye contact with the check in agent and got seen too immediatedly, and shouted at heartily by waiting tour guides who wanted to check their travellers in. There were big groups of Australians, Germans and Hong Kong Chinese as well as a fair smattering of other independent travellers like us. There were one or two scruffy and disapointed looking backpackers too. This used to be on the hippy trail - and still is, but like many places back packers "discover" first a couple of boutique hotels went up catering to soft-adventure travellers (I guess that's me) and then the non-descript 3 and 4 star properties and tour busses invade in no time.
At our hotel I'd discovered that Shangri-la Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling were both very drinkable so bought two bottles of the red and one white. 2 bottles were in our checked suitcases, and one in my carry on. At security I was asked to remove the bottle and through my limited understanding of Chinese and lots of body language, I understood that I either had to go and check it in or drink it then and there. As it was 8 in the morning, a corksrew wasn't to hand and my nerves were frayed from waiting in line for such a long time, plus the practicalities of extracting my suitcase and putting a bottle of wine in it that cost about $5 I decided it just wasn't worth it. So I handed it over to the grinning security man. Boyf saw things a little differently - as it was "his" bottle of wine I was carrying, caused a bit of a scene - fortunately in Japanese so no one else understood the names he called me - and went off in a huff to find the smoking area. He started speaking to me again after we landed in Kunming. Perhaps it was lack of oxygen at 3300m that upset him so much...
The take off roll on this flight was nice and long and the full plane (those Aussies had HUGE suitcases) gained altitude at a fairly gentle angle. There were mountains on both sides of us, but fortunately, nothing in front of us from what I could tell. The view on the way down to kunming was spectacular. The land was dropping away beneath us from high mountains and rolling plateau to the flatter plains that Kunming was on.
When we landed the air at 1200m was so rich in oxygen after being at high altitude (up to 4290m - over 12000 feet - at one stage) for a week.
Date: 2 Oct 05
Flight: MU 537 (KMG-KIX via PVG)
A/C: 737-300 (B-2956)
Seat: 13F (exit row)
ETD: around 10am - I don't have my ticket any more (on time)
ETA: 15:35 (20 mins late)
We had a day or two in Kunming before our flight back to Osaka. This time it was my turn to be a drama queen.
We eventually found the check in counter for international flights - after passing through outbound customs(!!) I guess they want to keep antiques inside the country. There wasn't a queue so we went up to the single counter open for our flight. I confidently put the paper ticket down (with the wrong date on it) and the MU agent looked at it and muttered something in Chinese to the JAL employee behind her - it was a codeshare flight. The JAL woman then said, quite simply and meekly in Japanese "umm this ticket is for next week". I must admit to losing my temper just a little. I told her that both CX who handled the booking and the MU office in Tokyo had confirmed that the date had been changed and i had an itinerary to prove it. She said "yes, but you aren't on our computer for today's flight." To which i replied "put us on the computer." There didn't seem to be many pax waiting so i highly doubted that the flight was full. She said they couldn't do it there at the checkin counter, and that we had to go to ticketing out in the main part of the terminal. I insisted that she or the MU girl come with us to explain the situation in Chinese after she answered my question about ticketing staffs English and/or Japanese proficiency in the negative. The MU girl took our tickets and passprts muttering under her breath about the annoying "gweilo" that she had to deal with. I caught her out being able to understand a few words of Mandarin. At ticketing there was the usual confusion, no queues and shouting. We got the much needed stamp on the ticket though which said we could fly to KIX that day, so Ms. Grumpy - by now smiling because we had thanked her profusely - took us back and checked us in - with an exit row to boot!
The flight back to PVG was only half full, but after the same treasure hunt through Shanghai transit-immigration-security-dragon lady not noticing boyf sneaking upstairs- lots of pax boarded for the hop over to KIX. So perhaps we were quite lucky to have been able to leave KMG that morning.
As all other flights on MU, service was efficient and generally friendly from an enthusiastic crew. The days of chickens and pigs in the aisles of domestic chinese flights are long gone. All flights were on clean, seemingly well maintained 737s. FAs were very strict in enforcing the seatbelt sign during even light bumps - so much so, one 8 year old kid burst into tears when she wasn't allowed to go to the toilet during very light chop.
The flight from KIX to HND isn't really interesting enough to report in detail. We were on class J standby and luckily were able to get seats, but not together. It was a very old and tired looking 767. JAL have got some seriously old and tatty interiors on their domestic a/c. J was OK but economy was very dowdy.
This trip was absolutely wonderful - both the flights and the destination. MU are a solid airline in terms of a/c hardware (except IFE), food and friendly service. Their ground operations in Kunming and other distant posts in SW China were awful by Western standards, but I'm bringing cultural bias into my expectations. I wouldn't hesitate to fly them again. JL's domestic product in clas J is very good - I would never consider flying Y when I know that it's only 1000 yen to upgrade.
I do hope you enjoyed reading.