I've been really busy lately which is why I have taken so long to post the second half of my trip. I put the photos on photobucket:
You have to start at the end for them to make sense - sorry! And please write a comment if you make it to the end
Part 1 is here: Pt1, Asian Trip, Biz/Econ, SK/LH/NH/CA/CS/MU/7C (by Gabrielchew Oct 28 2006 in Trip Reports)
After a night in Urumqi, it was time to fly to Hotan (or Hetian in Chinese), which is on the southern rim of the Talamakan desert, just north of Tibet. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to go there, as there wasn’t much in the guide book. It was a bit random. Try and find it on a map to see how random it was.
Urumqi airport was pretty nice and modern, and it even had its own version of McDonalds (which wasn’t very good). There was an impressive scrum of people at check in. After pushing for a bit, it emerged half of them weren’t actually flying, and the other half were a group so weren’t doing anything at the desk either, so there wasn’t actually much of a queue in the end.
Aug 6 2006
CZ6819 (China Southern)
Hotan only has two flights a day, both from Urumqi on China Southern Airlines on a B757. The flight was full, and was pretty boring. A very plain meal was served, where it looked that the ingredients had to be yellow to be allowed in. Pretty minging. We landed on time, and disembarked via stairs and walked to the tiny airport building. Given that there was just one flight, the bags took a terrible 20 minutes to be dragged from the plane, and the 100 metres across the tarmac to the terminal. Useless.
After a few days in Hotan, I took an overnight bus to Kashgar (Kashi), which is in the very far West of China, and junction of the Silk Road. It lies not far from the Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan borders, and Kazakhstan lies just up the road. I had to wait a few days for the bi-weekly bus to Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan to leave. It was a 24 hour journey over the Irkeshtam Pass, which was pretty spectacular. At dawn we broke down and as the only Westerner, I was guest of honour at an impromptu Kyrgyz farmers’ yurt breakfast. I was force fed some pretty revolting stuff, but it was worth it. Quite surreal watching the sun rise from a yurt surround by farmers and traders.
I stayed in Osh, which is Kyrygzstans second city, before flying up to Bishkek, the capital in the North. I had a choice of a few flights including a B733 and a Turpolev 154, but the gem of the choices was an Antonov 24. It was a bit more expensive than the others, but it had to be done.
From the centre of Osh I found a taxi and drove the few kilometres out to the very decrepit looking airport. Allegedly there are flights to Urumqi in China and even Moscow, but on this Sunday afternoon there was very little going on. As normal, I arrived two hours before the flight and there was a handful of people waiting to be let into the check in area. An hour and a half later we were still there. Finally ten minutes before the scheduled departure we were let in (one by one) to the check in area. After a security check I went to queue at the check in counter. There was a Russian man in front of me arguing over the weight of his luggage, which was being weighed on an enormous set of ancient scales. Once he had admitted defeat and paid his baggage surcharge it was my go. No one spoke any English, so nothing much was said. I had looked up ‘window’ in Russian before hand but when I looked at my boarding pass it said 5B. I went back to ask for a window, but they said no. After that I walked five metres to the desk where a lady was checking the boarding passes (just looking at them, so not entirely sure why she was there as you had to have come from the check in desk) and was then directed outside to sit on a bench in a courtyard. There weren’t any planes on the tarmac. It was lucky that it was sunny as it can’t imagine it would have been fun sitting outside had it been raining or cold.
An hour after the scheduled departure time, the plane appeared from nowhere in a big cloud of smoke. Everyone rushed from their seats to the metal gate leading to the airfield. Twenty minutes later the crew were ready for us.
Aug 13 2006
TF 178 (ARP 410 Airlines) – operated by someone else??
Outside the plane the pilot and co-pilot were chatting with the ground staff. I climbed up the rather shaky steps into the tiny cabin. In the rear of the plane it looked like there was some sort of lounge, but I think in retrospect it was just a collection of rather large chairs for the cabin crew to chill out on.
I was shown to my seat, 5B, but luckily the person behind me in the queue had 5A, and she agreed to swap, so I ended up with a window seat anyway. It was my flight ever flight to have curtains and fabric walls which was quite cool. I was quite surprised that there were quite a few Westerners aboard including what I think was a BBC film crew of some sort.
Take off was very bumpy, due in part to the pot holed runway. We did three bunny hops before finally taking off for real. The scenery was really spectacular (which was one of the reasons I decided to fly as apposed to take the 15 hour public bus) – lots of glaciers and mountains.
20 minutes into the flight the 2 cabin crew came round with drinks and biscuits. Roughly an hour after take off, we approached Bishkek. After a loop of the airport we lined up and landed with a bit more decorum than taking off. There were a lot of American military planes on the ground, and as far as I could see, no other civilian aircraft. Manas Airport has two air bridges, but needless to say, we weren’t given one. After a quick tour of the tarmac, we were plonked at the arrivals door, the other side of which was full of meeters and greeters. Passengers were directed into a dimly lit baggage claim, then into a further room which had one dull light on (no windows), so it was pretty much pitch black. Everyone got out their phones to try and identify their luggage – completely ridiculous. Welcome to the capital of Kyrgyzstan!
Outside I tried to find the airport bus was on my way to the bus stand was stopped by a group of taxi drivers. After a big to bargaining, I was in a brand new VW Golf (complete with German number plates) on my way to Bishkek.
After a few days in Bishkek and a few days on the beach on Issyk-kul Lake, I took a taxi over the border to Kazakhstan, to the old capital, Almaty. Almaty is a really beautiful city, though everything seemed very expensive – Western prices, not Asian, so it was a bit of a shock. There were three ways to get back to China from Almaty; 1) fly, at extortionate cost, 2) take the +40 hour train, or 3) take a bus to the border, walk over the border, then get another bus (+24 hours). Obviously the bus was the cheapest option but as I speak no Russian or Kazakh, it proved too complicated to try and organise. I had also heard lots of bad things about the land border. The train was the next best thing, but I couldn’t find my way to the train station (I know that sounds pathetic, but when you can’t communicate with anyone, getting around an enormous city and buying tickets is a nightmare). In the end I decided to fly, even though it was far more expensive than I was willing to pay for. It was also nearly as complicated as the first two options. I spent hours walking around trying to find the China Southern Airlines office. When I finally got there, I thought it was closed. After a lot of banging on the door, I was finally let in to find a full complement of staff doing nothing. At least here people spoke Chinese so I was able to book a ticket. Sods law, however, they didn’t take credit card, so I had to go looking for an ATM. When I finally did find one, it appeared that the system was down in the entire city. By this time I was so stressed that I wouldn’t make it back to the office before it closed, and I would be stuck in this really expensive city for another 2 days, that I was close to tears. I then remembered that I had 135GBP in cash in my wallet and there just happened to be a money changer to hand, so all was well in the end. Phew! What a nightmare. I got my ticket and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the sun before heading to the airport.
Three hours before my flight I got a local bus out to the airport. Almaty airport was only rebuilt a few years ago and is very modern, even if the attitudes of the staff aren’t. At the security check point, I was relieved of my bottle of Vodka. I bought in China for $1, and I had drunk most of it, but it was still annoying as afterwards I realised it was just because they wanted it (they sold vodka in the departure lounge). Grrr. At the check in desk, I asked for a window near the front. I was told that row 15 was as far forward as I could go as “there are emergency seats in front”. Right. Never mind. The duty free shops were full to bursting with various alcohols and so I bought some including some black vodka which according to the label was actually bottled in the UK.
After the Air Astana flight to Moscow left it was out turn. The very glamorous ladies working in the departure lounge all grouped together for a chat before they started shouting (very loudly) for passengers for Urumqi (we were the only flight departing for the next 4 hours). Everyone rushed to the gate side x-ray machines. I managed to get on before most others so was able to sit down without too much hassle.
Aug 19 2006
B757-200 (International Version)
The cabin crew could not speak any Russian or Kazakh, so were unable to communicate with the majority of the passengers. There was, I think, one brief pre-recorded, unintelligible announcement made in Russian, but other than that, there wasn’t much help extended to these people.
We took off into a spectacular sunset (which I saw once on the ground, and once again in the air), and had great views of the snow capped mountains all the way back to China. A drink was served, along with a pathetic snack.
We landed on time into Urumqi (the only arrival). As I was near the front, I was able to get near the front of the immigration line. I took thirty minutes to be seen too, but I imagine the passengers at the back would have been waiting for over two hours. The immigration guards were far slower than their counterparts working in Beijing and Shanghai. After some intense negotiation with the local taxi mafia, I eventually got a lift into town.
My plan from there was to take a train to Lanzhou (25 hours), then go across country to Nanjing, but when I arrived at the station to buy my ticket, I was told that there were no seats (no standing spaces either) to ANY destination in the next week. That took me a bit by surprise. I went to an internet café to see what I could do and found some flights to Kunming in Yunnan down near the Myanmar/Laos border. Relatively they didn’t seem so expensive, so I booked them. Unfortunately, it is very hard to get a discounted ticket in the days before the flight so I ended up paying full fare Y ;(
After three days in the desert in Turpan, I returned to Urumqi for my flight down to Kunming. For the first time ever, I was charged for the extra 2kg luggage I was carrying. That was very annoying a) I could have just put more stuff into my hand luggage, and b) everyone else seemed to have far more than me. At least it wasn’t too expensive, and I have one more piece of paper from China Eastern.
Aug 23 2006
MU5728 (China Eastern Airlines)
We bordered via bus from the roasting tarmac (45C in the summer). One interesting thing about this plane was that it had a row 0, which I think were reserved for crew. Cool! On the first two hour sector across the desert there was a drinks run then a small snack. I was expecting a meal, but there wasn’t. We landed in Lanzhou, and were shown into the main departures area, which was packed. Ten minutes later we were told to get back on. I don’t think anyone got off. On this sector we got a full meal – one of the best I’ve on a domestic flight – rice and meatballs. It was as good as an Air China B777 meal last summer of a tuna melt on the final leg of a Sydney – Melbourne – Guangzhou – Beijing flight. They even had Fosters on board. Great!
Kunming airport was ok – nothing to write home about. It looked like there had just been a massive downpour, but it was now clear.
After a few days in Kunming and trips to beautiful Lijiang and Dali, I returned to Kunming to fly down to Xishuangbanna.
Aug 28 2006
Kunming-Jinhong (Xishuangbanna) (KMG-JHG)
8L 5061 (Lucky Air)
As I had just arrived on the overnight train from Dali, I arrived at the airport at 0730, too early to check in so just roamed around the airport for a bit. At 0805 on the dot I went to check in, and was given 3F. Lucky Air, as far as I could work out, was a part of Hainan Airlines, operating budget leisure routes around the South of China.
After looking around the fairly boring shops, I went to find the gate, which when I got there was still boarding the previous flight. On the only monitor around was a list of arriving international flights which was a bit perverse for a domestic departure lounge. I waited a bit longer until finally the flight was called from another gate.
The flight itself was pretty boring – no in-flight service. Good views on landing though. As I was walking from the plane to the terminal, a Shandong Airlines 737 landed.
After a few days in the sun, during which I went to see an Elephant park among others, it was time to head to Hainan Island to go to the beach. When I arrived at the airport, I was told that I couldn’t check my bags all the way as all the tags were preprinted, and so I would have to re-checkin in Kunming.
Sept 1 2006
Like the last flight, nothing much happened. Upon arrival in Kunming I had nearly four hours between flights so I was going to go into town to use the internet but didn’t want to pay for the left-luggage office so went to try and check-in. As predicted, I was told that I couldn’t check in then. Not wanting to waste a trip to the desk, asked if she could tell me how busy the flight was and if I could reserve a window. She reluctantly typed something, then went to find a supervisor. Oh dear – never a good sign. The flight had been cancelled. I spent the next hour fighting with the supervisor for my rights, and eventually they caved in and gave me a hotel room and meals. I was rebooked on the flight 24 hours later.
After an extra day in Kunming, I was back at the airport, and thankfully the next flight was running as scheduled. I was checked-in and off though security before they could change their mind and cancel it.
Sept 2 2006
B737-700 (with winglets)
This was my first flight on a 737 with winglets. The plane seemed very new, with leather seats and radio things in the arm rests – very nice. Unfortunately there was no food served on the flight which was surprising seeing as it was a 2 hour evening flight. We landed in Sanya in darkness, and were ferried across the tarmac to the terminal where I was picked up by a driver from the hostel. Sanya airport also had the worst airport toilet in China.
I had four amazing days in Sanya, which is Chinas best known best resort. The beaches were fantastic, and were very empty – brilliant! For the onward flight to Nanjing, I either had the choice of flying from Sanya to Shanghai, then having to get a three hour train over to Nanjing, or take a three hour bus to Haikou on the north of Hainan Island and fly direct from there. There were more flights to Shanghai, but the Haikou-Nanjing flight was really cheap (60% off, the maximum discount), which was pretty good, even considering the crap flight times.
I took a very plush bus up the cost of Hainan, arriving into Haikou four hours before my flight, so I went to have dinner in a nice restaurant – friendly staff. If you are a westerner in China you get a lot of attention, but if you also speak Chinese, they LOVE you. So I got some pretty good service, and a free desert
Sept 6 2006
Haikou airport was quite empty when I arrived to check-in. I asked for and received a window seat near the front, and then went to look around. I found a Hainan Airlines desk where they were processing applications for their Frequent Flyer club – ten minutes later I was a member. They even had a machine printing cards there at the desk!
Probably the highlight of Haikou airport is this big open air area which leads to one part of the gate areas. Unfortunately it was dark, and there weren’t many planes around, but it was still really cool. Our flight was the last of the night, and I was one of the last passengers on – was a bit eerie in an empty dark airport!
I made the mistake of saying hello to my neighbour who continued to speak at me for the next hour even though I was hinting at her big time that I didn’t want to really chat. After dinner I fell asleep though and she had the sense to be quiet.
We landed at the dark airport and our bags were out in no time. I was thinking of either sleeping on a bench in the airport until the first buses started to run as taxis were too expensive, or else to see if there was a bus and take it and see where I ended up. Amazingly, there was a bus – proof either of Chinese capitalist tendencies to make money even though it was 2am, or else the very kind bus people were simply trying to help. I was too tired to work out where the bus was going so just got off when the bus was half empty, then got a taxi the rest of the way to the hotel, which luckily wasn’t too far.
Unsurprisingly, I was told that I couldn’t check in at 0330 as the rooms were all full, so I went to have a look around the city that I spent a year studying in, then fell asleep in a 24 hour coffee shop.
After a few days of partying and having fun, it was time to head onwards. I tried to book a train to Beijing, but they were all sold out too. I think that it is high time China Railways buys a few more trains. In just a year, it has gone from the point of being able to buy a ticket for next day travel to todays state of affairs of never being able to buy anything.
When I looked on elong.net there was an Air China flight at noon, which not only was cheap, but also operated by a 767, the last aircraft in the wide-bodied Air China fleet that I had yet to travel on, having already been on their 747, 777 and 340. It was also handy as my two friends who were flying to Shenzhen and Hong Kong respectively were departing at similar times so we shared a taxi to the airport.
Thanks to my Lufthansa Silver card I checked in at the Business class desk so I beat the queues, but unfortunately didn’t get an upgrade.
Sept 11 2006
CA1818 (Air China)
Even though the flight was pretty full, I still managed to get an empty seat next to me in the second row of economy, which was also a crew rest seat so had a bit extra legroom. Maybe it was economy plus!
A non-descript meal was served along with lots of Chinese tea. We landed in Beijing and taxied to a remote gate, which was about as remote as you can get in Beijing. On the plus side, it meant that we got a good ramp tour.
I spent a few pretty dreary days in Beijing. I planned a day trip to the beach, but guess what? No train seats. Damn it! So after four days on boredom, it was time to fly on to Japan, the highlight of the trip. I spent my formative years in Tokyo, and I had only been back once, briefly in 2003, to Tokyo, so I was just dying to get back there. I was also really excited about flying on ANA as obviously the only chance I ever get to fly it is when I go to Japan, which is very seldom, and never in Business Class.
As the flight was so early, I had to get up at 0430 to get the 0515 bus to the airport, which arrived at 0600. I was checked-in in a couple of minutes then was on my way to the lounge, which was a Beijing airport contract lounge, and accordingly busy and lacklustre. I think that Star Alliance should share a lounge together; maybe they will in the new terminal. Star Alliance has 4 daily European flights, 4 North American, 3 each to Japan, Korea and Singapore and one to Thailand. That is 18 daily flights, enough to justify a decent lounge.
Sept 15 2006
Beijing-Tokyo, Narita (PEK-NRT)
NH956 (All Nippon Airlines/ANA)
I did a quick circuit of the terminal before boarding – BA, NW, KL, JL, PK, AY and lots of CA (lots of red, white and blue). I also got a photo of my NRT bound plane. I realised with horror that there was an ANK/Air Nippon sticker below the cockpit windows, which meant only one thing – a 767 with the old interiors (i.e. 2x2x2 in Business, and no TVs etc). I thought that those 767s only operated out of Osaka, but here it was at the gate. I was a bit disappointed after that, especially as I had been onto the ANA website the day before to check the ‘realtime’ seat map. I joined the business class line, and was boarded shortly after. I was hoping all the time that it would be the new interior, but as I got to the door, I saw a sign saying ABC to the left aisle, and DFG to the right, meaning business had six seats across. As I had 5G, I crossed though the galley then saw, to my relief, the new Club ANA seats! Phew! I settled into the very comfortable seat, which was equipped with everything you could want on a three hour flight. There were even slippers! Heaven! The last time I flew ANA was Tokyo-Beijing in 2003 in economy, which was a brilliant flight as well, so I concluded that business would be even better. They showed a quick ‘etiquette’ film on the TVs which was complemented with a little cartoon cross beeping loudly at people doing bad stuff (e.g. harassing the FAs and trying to open the doors enroute). Was very amusing! The Western version wasn’t as funny as the Japanese one.
After takeoff, drink and meal orders were taken. I opted for champagne and shrimp ravioli, which was a bit of a bizarre breakfast choice. I would rather have had a bowl of cereal and hot chocolate, but there wasn’t any. The champagne was very nice though! I drank half the bottle (I was the only one drinking it) by the time we landed! The AVOD choice was a bit limited, so I watched X Men 3, which I had already seen, but was the best choice.
We landed just ahead of a PIA A310 which had followed us from Beijing, and is apparently the only good(ish) value flight between the two cities although I just found out that once a week Iran Air fly a 747SP between the two – not sure how much it is though. Normal discounted economy fares are around $600, which is ridiculous considering the distances. I don’t even want to know how much a Business class ticket would have cost.
I was among the first off, and but then my time advantage was lost when I found the queue for immigration – I waited 55 minutes in line. Very annoying. All the staff were polite, but there just weren’t enough desks open. On the highlight list, though, was the fact that instead of stamping my passport, they printed out a sticker and stuck that in – quite cool!
I spent the next few days wandering around Tokyo, shopping and sightseeing. One day I went to Haneda airport, the domestic airport of Tokyo to go spotting which was fantastic. The viewing areas are enormous and free – a far cry from Europe. The only international flights, as far as I knew, were to Korea, but there was an Icelandair 757 there, which was interesting, especially as they don’t fly to Japan.
Finally it was the last day of my holiday, with just one flight ahead of me, ANA B747 back to London. I had pre-booked 72A which is a bulkhead seat on the Upper deck, which turned out to be a pretty good seat.
From my hotel in Minowa, I got a metro to Ueno, then an airport express train out to Narita. Even though they have just finished a refurbishment of the terminal, to get from the train station to the departure level, you have to go up 5 escalators, which was a pain with luggage. I’m sure they could have arranged it a bit better.
Once at check-in, I found a special queue for USA and UK departures which had no queue unlike the normal Club ANA desks which had substantial ones. My bags were tagged, and I was given a boarding pass and a map to the lounge. After another long wait at immigration (though not as long as upon arrival), I was though to airside, and headed for the lounge. The lounge was busy, but quite large. I had some Fauchon ice cream, then used the internet. At 1100 the flight was called, so I left the comfort of the lounge and headed for the gate. I stopped at a gift shop to use the last of my yen, and bought a notebook that looked exactly like a Japanese passport – cool!
There were loads of people swarming around the gate, but there was a separate Business and First line, so I was on my way very quickly. From my quick glance at First Class, I must say that it looked VERY nice. Just ten very large seats.
Sept 20 2006
Finally it was time for me to find my seat, via the stairs, which was a novel experience – pity its not often that I get the chance to do that. I was shown to my seat my a friendly FA, and she took a post take off drink order. The first thing I noticed was that on the upper deck the windows are much thicker than on the bottom due to the curvature of the plane, which made looking out really hard – I couldn’t even see the wing. Never mind.
Once again they showed the funny Japanese etiquette video, then the more sombre Western one. ANAs three European 747s (Paris and Frankfurt as well) all leave at roughly the same time, so there was a bit of a scramble for the runway, but we made it last.
After take off, my drinks arrived along with amuse gueules, which were very tasty. At the same time, my neighbour was reseated downstairs (I think) – an upgrade? Or maybe there were lots of spare double seats downstairs. Whatever the reason, it meant a lot more space for me. Hurray!
After more drinks offering, dinner orders were taken. I was advised to take the citron salmon thing, which did sound very nice, although in reality it was so lemony it was almost uneatable. The main course was a lot better – very tender beef and delicious vegetables. Desert was even better – profiteroles and vanilla Haagen Dazs! Brilliant. Talk about a nice desert. Chocolates and fruit followed. I had a glass of Bordeaux, which was served in a full glass and nearly to the brim – I couldn’t finish it. Later in the flight when I ordered a vodka and coke, I got about five shots of vodka – certainly alcohol isn’t restricted onboard!
After gorging myself, the lights were turned off and all the window shades were shut. I find this practise really annoying as it encourages jet lag, and I like to see the ground as well, especially if it is a day flight. From what I could see, most of the passengers were awake too, making the action even more peverse. On my last few flights from Asia to Europe (PVG-VIE on Austrian and PEK-CPH on SAS, both in Economy), they didn’t shut the shades, but on PVG-CPH with SAS in Business they did. Strange.
Halfway though the flight the FA came round offering a snack, so I got some noodles and onigiri, both of which were top notch. I tried to sleep for a bit to try out the bed compared to Lufthansa, but only managed about five minutes – I can never sleep on planes. The same films were on on this flight so I ended up watching Pingu for an hour, which turned out to be pretty funny. Who says you need words to make a plasticine animal funny?
Two hours before landing the second meal was served. I went for the Japanese choice this time, which was served in a traditional Japanese wooden lunchbox. I could only identify about a quarter of the ingredients, but it was all very nice.
The twelve hour flight was almost over. We flew in from the East, over London City airport and the Dome, before landing and taxiing over to terminal 3, where we had to wait twenty minutes for a gate. Unlike all of my experiences in China, it seemed not a single person unbuckled until the seat belt sign had been turned off, which was quite interesting.
There was a five minute wait before people began filing off, during which I chatted to the FA, who said that London was her favourite stopover, though they were only there for two nights before heading back to Tokyo. At end of the air bridge there were people checking passports, before letting people into the immigration area. Maybe to appease my dismay at the queues in Tokyo, I was sort of pleased to see the most enormous queue possible for people not holding EU passports, and not a single other person in the EU passport line. Brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in Heathrow before. It certainly beats Terminal One back in January when I had to wait fifteen minutes (which in my experience in a long time for the UK). For those of you who don’t know, EU passport holders only have to show their passport photo page to immigration people as they file past when in the EU. Often (well in the past), they barely glance at the photo, and just checked that it was a red passport before waving you through. The two staff waiting in the EU queue didn’t, however, even stop their conversation while looking at my passport. No hello or thank you, which I though was rather rude. No verbal acknowledgement at all. And they weren’t wearing uniforms either – very scruffy. By the time I had walked to the belt, my bags were going around – well done BAA – express bag delivery IS possible.
And that’s it. The end of my first trip report. Hope you enjoyed it. My next trip is to Armenia in December, so if there is sufficient (good) feedback, I might write one for that. Hope it wasn’t too long or boring!