Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Things don't always go as planned

Warning, fairly graphic photo below especially if you are a dog lover

We did not know exactly when we would get to Vietnam, and today we almost made it. So close we could see it and smell it, and almost touch it. Details to follow.

The trip has gone off very well so far. Hong Kong was easy to navigate and find the things we needed. The worst part was the crowdedness and noise.

The hardest part was finding someone who knew where we could buy train tickets to get into China. The locals most often seem to have very little sense of anything outside their own sphere (their "ken" as Robbie Burns might say), and either did not know or steered us wrong. For example one helpful guy sent us to the ferry terminal to buy train tickets, and a travel agent all of 2 blocks from the CITS (China International Travel Service), had no knowledge of it.

We eventually did get our tickets from CITS on the KCR (Kowloon China Railway) to Guangzhou, about 1.5 hours including customs. We then taxied to another station and bought tickets to Nanning, and spent about half what we expected to pay for Soft Sleeper, 550 Rmb for both of us (about 70 CAD).

We had a few hours to kill before the late afternoon train left, so found a place to check our bags and wandered. We soon came across an interesting collection of vendors. Instead of trying to sell one article at a time to tourists (we did not see anyone else who obviously were travelers), these stalls seemed to be wholesale watch and clothing sellers, actually promoting their factories in bulk.

Signs in official Communist red and yellow proclaimed that counterfeit products were a bad thing. I don't know if Calvin Klein had personally approved all the underwear vendors undercutting his drawers, but the regime had, so it must have been ok.

We saw one curious thing and one disturbing thing before getting lunch and Oolong tea and going back to the station.

The curious thing was how many black people, mostly men, we saw in this part of Guanghzhou. Dozens at least, if not hundreds. Some had slightly Muslim appearance, and we thought we heard a bit of French spoken and saw some tribal scarring. It looks like there is a west African connection here somehow.

The disturbing thing was the group of very mobile sellers of animal pelts. I say mobile, as their wares were on the fringes of this market district on hand carts probably so they could skedaddle very quickly if a clampdown was coming.

The disturbing part of course was not the how but the what. They looked like small tiger skins, and other pelts of I don't know what else. I might be looking this up when I get home but I don't think they were selling legal wares, and they knew it. They are the only people to object to me taking a picture so far so I just moved further away and zoomed in. There was obviously nothing we could do about illegal poaching of protected species, so we moved on.

A bit on train classes in China; there are 4 classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Prices rise with each one, but so does comfort considerably. Soft sleeper gives you a semi private 4 bunk room with lots of pillows, super warm comforters, LED lighting, slippers for everyone, frills on the mattress covers. We had a young Chinese couple for roommates, enjoyed some limited conversation with them and had a pretty good rest on the 13 hour train ride.

We were spat out about 5am, into a pretty clean and modern looking plaza, and soon had a noodle breakfast and then another train ticket to Pingzhiang. These were the hard seat type, where you really get to know your neighbours, but it was only 3 hours away.

On the way we made small talk with some locals who were friendly and curious. The older woman with the baby in the back sling sat next to the young girl taking cell phone photos of us and text messaging someone.

We also met a young couple from Canada. Their trip had begun in Japan and they also were heading for Hanoi. We agreed to try to share a taxi to the Vietnam side of the border, and once off the last train in China negotiated a cheap price of 20 Rmb via Tuk-Tuk for the 4 of us to go the frontier, 20km away.

The rattle-trap we crowded into could barely make it up the hills and the motor was shut off on some of the downhill parts to save gas I guess. I literally could have run faster in parts. If we had bounced any higher over some of the bumps I might have had to, after regaining consciousness of course.

Here is where plans went out the window. Our Visas for Vietnam would not allow us in for 2 more days!

Not knowing when Exactly we would be here, but having calculated something along the lines of Hong Kong for the 27-29, and the 30-31 to get here, meant going into Vietnam on November 1st, and when we planned this we requested the Visa entry to be from that date. However we left HK on the 29th and got here on the 30th, and did not even think about our Visa dates until on the train from Guangzhou.

They were nice enough about it, but the Chinese did not let us out, knowing the Viet side would not let us in. They even called the other side to ask, but no dice and the soldier guy at the border gave some info on hotels in Pingxiang.

So here we are Pingxiang, middle of nowhere, for 2 nights. Hotel (50¥ or $6) and everything else is cheap, and the topography is very neat, with karst mountains like Halong & Guilin. Not too hot or humid, and the air is cleaner than HK even with all the 2-strokers. There is a huge open air market with lots of interesting foodstuff. Bee wine, pig snouts and dog (!¿!) being some of the more unusual things. None of which we sampled, though had (guess what?) noodles!

We actually had great food there in the market and went back to the same stall twice. The woman running the stall was happy to see us come back and I don't think we tried even half the various pickles and other toppings for the noodles. Simple food but quite varied at the same time. Yummy!

Our friendly neighbourhood Tuk-Tuk driver and Money-Changer brought us here (we did say cheap),and will pick us up early on the 1st to take us back to the border.

And now that we have somewhat mastered this Chinese Language computer and back-doored our way into the internet (outernet to the Communist masters, I imagine), I can post this!!!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hong Kong Coffee Shop


Just had a coffee with our friend Cade who works for Air New Zealand. He just happened to be here on a layover, staying at the hotel across the street from here which is across the water from Kowloon where we are staying. On the Hong Kong side in Wan Chai, just a Star Ferry ride away.

So yes we have successfully made the first leg! We also have tickets for part 2, the KCR train to Quangzhzou, in mainland China. From there we are trying to get an overnight train to Nanning. Soft sleeper please! (more on train categories later). From there we get another train to the Viet border.

Jet lag is not too bad, did not have much sleep on the plane, arrived about 8pm after almost 14 hours. We are staying at Chinese hotel in the thick of things in Yau Ma Tei, on Saigon St. Just off Nathan Rd (the Yonge St in Toronto terms, Broadway in New York), bustling and loud.

Huge, busy brash place. The density of course is legendary, but still hard to comprehend until you experience it. Every available space is used. Alleys where all they do is cut hair, others that sell car batteries and license plates. There is even a street here known as Cat Street. I am not quite sure what they do to cats there and maybe I don't want to know.

I had someone offer me a massage last night, and it was not Linda. There is a hotel that rents by the hour around the corner from our hotel; I wonder if the two are related?

Wonderful street hawker food last night, fish still squealing, prawns still wiggling, the snails running away from the hot oil. After that we strolled the street vendors, just the usual crap, but potentially have some ideas for things we might pick up on the way back through HK on the return leg.

Today breakfast was Dim Sum style. I was the only Gwai Low in the 1000 seater restaurant, but was complimented on my stickhandling. Not hockey, the 2 stick kind that you eat with. 4 of us ate well for $15 Can.

Beer only to drink so far. Well not quite true, but the coffee here is not up to par even though the one I just had was called Seattle City blend. To quote Borat: ...NOT!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Last update before trip

2 Days before our hoped for departure day.

"Hoped for" as we hope it will all go well at the airport on Friday. We are flying standby with Linda's brother Joe as he works for Air Canada and will be flying with us to Hong Kong. That's how standby works with A/C these days, in that the employee must go with you but we have flown with him before and it has worked out ok so far.

The scary part is that we may not find room on the flight. It looks fine right now and we are prepared to walk over to Oasis and buy last minute tickets from them if not. They are as low as $299 one way last we checked, and fly from Vancouver about 3 hours or so after the A/C flight.

Of course we did set out for Hong Kong once before and ended up in New York, but that's another story. A couple of years ago it was Sydney Australia for 4 days, but we aimed for there and again its another story.

The China Visa pickup went well and Linda did not need reinforcements. In fact we parked at a meter with 14 minutes on it and were back to the car with one minute remaining. Not bad.

The camera batteries are charged, the memory cards are ready, the clothing and other stuff laid out. Still too much to do, but it will happen.

A 45 litre pack seems more than enough for each of us. I have almost never had to travel with checked luggage and that is especially good for standby flights and easy on-off airplane transitions. Since we are going to hot countries and are not tenting it should work out fine. We each have our sandals, a few shirts, shorts, a silk sheet liner, hats and a light jacket and not much else....well ok, there is the:
  • MIOX
  • the 2 digicams
  • 8 gigs of memory for the above
  • 6 sets of batteries for above
  • charger for above
  • Asia plug adapter for the above (x 2)
  • water bottles (x2)
  • a disposable novel for the flight & sleepless nights (x2)
  • headlamps (x 2, for above when suffering from jet lag and other sleep issues, and hopefully some caves!)
  • MP3 players (x2)...not so much that we want the music, it's to block out other noises on planes trains & noisy hotels
  • bug juice (mosquito bed nets we should find where we are going, cheap)
  • sunscreen
  • shaving, tooth & medicinal products
  • Lonely Planet Guide Book *South East Asia On A Showstring*
  • South East Asia Phrase Book
  • Passports, Visas, Cash ($Can, $US SHK, $China) Visa Cards and Debit cards
  • blah blah blaaaagh
Exchanging money should not be too big a deal. Bank machines are really common these days, will give a fair rate, and don't take your passport from you into some back room behind a guard with an automatic rifle as I have had them do in China and Central America. Changing money from a pocket, on a barrel head, outside the same rifle equipped bank was usually less stressful and often at a better rate but you could get busted that way.

Actually the leap in technology in Asia I have found quite fascinating. Cell phone technology is a good example, in that the infrastructure is much cheaper to install than poles and wires to every house. People there are much more likely to have a mobile phone than a land line as a result, and if you don't have a phone you walk out to the street and someone will often have a phone there that you pay a few pennies to use. They will also probably sell you some Lychee nuts or some kind of critter-on-a-stick, or Tommy HillFinger clothes.

As an aside, one of my favourite billboards in China was that of Arnie the Guvernator, before he was ordained, advertising cell phones on the road in from the airport at Beijing. Nothing like hero worship (who needs to understand the lingo in an Arnie movie?) to sell product!

I have heard there is only one bank machine in all of Laos and they charge a hefty user fee. We may get to Laos but it is not a certainty. US dollars go far over there, and with current rates, Canadian do also (further!). Canadian is not RECOGNIZED everywhere however so we will carry a number of small denomination US bills. However $1 US might equal about 30,ooo of some local currency, so you don't hand over $20 and expect the street vendor to have exact change.

Actually at today's rates it is about $1 Canadian to 8 Hong Kong dollars (7.7 Chinese RMB), 40 Thai Baht, 4000 Vietnam Dong, 16,500 Cambodian Khmer, or 10,000 Laos Kips.

Sheesh...I think I might need an extra 40 litres of pack to hold all the different bills!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

VISA Challenges Part 2

Well, Linda ran the China Visa Marathon today. She showed up before 7 Am for the office which opens at 9. After parking nearby she ended up waiting outside, 53rd in line!

Not bad I suppose if you were in line to buy tickets to see U2 in a small club, or maybe have an interview with the Pope.

She ended up with ticket # 87 when she got inside, and they began by serving # 435 or something. That must be the New Math, Chinese style. Anyway she got to the counter about 10 AM, not too bad she thought. Well, not quite.

The woman at the counter looked at our completely filled out forms and said to Linda that she had to staple the passport photos to the applications. Linda said "Can't you do that? It did not say anywhere that we had to staple it", "No, you have to go over there."

There was a stapler inches from the woman's arm, on her desk. She pointed across the large room at the Security Officer's desk, which also had a throng of people at it. She also had taken Linda's # 87 ticket.

Linda did not throttle her, but I know it was considered. 20 minutes later she had her staples and approached the same window, which of course was at the end of a line as long as when she came in.

Linda can be pretty charming when she needs to be. Or not. The kind folks already at the head of the line were happy to let her in. They also were amazed at how it went from there with the woman behind the desk.

For one thing she wanted to see Linda's ticket (which she had already turned in), for another she wanted Linda to write her middle name in Chinese!

Linda was born in Hong Kong, and originally had a Chinese name. When asked for a middle name on a document she enters the Chinese name in the appropriate field. In English. That's what she writes. That's what the rest of the form is filled out in, ENGLISH. Not CHINESE. She did not ask for Linda's family name in Chinese, just her middle name.

Linda stood her ground.

In fact she did more, and threatened the woman with having CTV camera people show up at the street out front tomorrow morning to show what kind of debacle the service was at this office. And she got her way, so we should be able to pick up the passports with our stamps this Friday. I think I'll go to get them; they may have reinforcements watching out for Linda.

Meanwhile the folks behind Linda told her that they had been here the day before and actually had gone out to buy their own stapler to take care of the photos on their applications. They were back today because after doing that they had not made it to the counter before the office closed. They now wanted Linda to stay with them to help them get through the Red Tape!

In the background as I write this is the CBC local TV news. Ironically one of the stories is about how bad the lineups are and service is at the Vancouver Consulate for China where they process Visa applications!

Hmmm, I thought Linda said she was going to get CTV on the case...

More Preparation (boring) Stuff

Health concerns are always one of the big things for many people when they travel. My own sense of mortality (immortality?) has not been strong enough to make me that cautious before. "Heck, I don't get sick!", has been my credo.

In fact that has been pretty good so far. Trips to Europe, China, and Guatemala (among other places) have not been worrisome enough to make me take any pre-trip health arrangements or injections, until now. It's not that I am worried now either, it's probably just that I now have better insurance coverage!

The trip to Central America was a bit of a change, and that was quite a few years ago now with Kathryn and I both being careful. She still ended up with Hepatitis and we both had GI "issues" (that is not a pet name for soldier), that were not diagnosable and lingered for a long time after the trip was over. We never did know where she got the Hep virus; as they say it could be from an ice cube. Moral being, drink warm cocktails!

In preparation for this trip we have done quite a bit more. Linda and I have both been to a Travel Medicine Clinic and had shots, picked up info sheets, and a couple of prescriptions. I had the usual Tetanus/Diphtheria/Polio shot (my Dad had Polio when he was very young), and a shot for Typhoid and Hep A. Linda also had Hep B shots, but then she works in Health care and should have already had it, but never did the booster that would cover her for life.

The prescriptions are for Azithromycin for the much beloved traveller's diarrhea ("tourista, in Central America"), and Malarone for Malaria. The first one I don't relish having to take but having traveled on Central American Chicken buses, I know how hard "holding it" can be!! In fact probably my most creative use of Spontaneous Spanish was "Donde esta los bano proximo?".

Anyway the second is not any better, but Malaria can really ruin a trip. The pills are EXPENSIVE at $5 per! Fortunately this particular drug apparently has the fewest side effects and they only need to be taken once per day only when in risky areas & for a short time on either side of the high risk time. We should only be in that kind of zone for a few days as coastal Vietnam and much of Cambodia is not high risk for Malaria. Angkor Wat is however on the edge of that risky zone, and that is most definitely on the itinerary.

We will likely pick up some mosquito bed nets once we get to Vietnam, as they will be cheap there, but I also expect the hotels to have them in the areas where the little buggers are more of a problem. DEET will be in our luggage as well.

For water we plan to drink beer.

Bottled water of course will be everywhere around, but I am not thrilled with the prospect of going through several bottles a day each in countries where recycling facilities are nonexistent. So I am planning on taking the MIOX from our loaner program at work (pictured above). That along with a bottle or 2 of our own to put the purified water in and hopefully we will be ok.

In case you are unfamiliar (most likely) with the MIOX, it is a gadget about the size of a large marker or mid-sized flashlight. It uses salt and electricity to create a MIx of OXidants (get it?) that essentially kill all the badies in the water. It's more or less like chlorination of urban water systems, and leaves virtually no taste after a few minutes or longer. I could take a filter, but few will take out particles as small as Viruses, and they are bulkier and take more effort to operate. Plus the MIOX appeals to the geek in me...

Actually this reminds me of Central America where they had tried to instigate a deposit system for glass and plastic bottles to reduce the waste. Good idea, but the locals engineered a hack for that system. The beverage vendors would not give you the bottle as they did not want to lose the deposit themselves and I guess they did not want to charge it and refund it later. Their answer was to pour the water or pop or whatever into a plastic bag and give you a straw with which to drink it! Of course this created huge amounts of plastic bag garbage strewn all over. We had to fight with them to allow us to take the bottles with us, even if we overpaid the deposit.

At least they boil the water for coffee (for me) and tea (for Linda)...one hopes.

And there is always beer.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Visa Craziness

I don't mean my credit card. I mean the China Visas.

We sent our passports off to Ottawa to get Vietnam Visas a few weeks ago. They came back pretty quickly; the China Visas might not be so easy, even though the Consulate is right here in Vancouver.

We have been to China twice before and the procedure, though typically bureaucratic was at least not too difficult. Now however, and I am not sure why, the office (new location on Broadway despite what the official consulate site says) has HUGE lineups. The other day Linda went to the office to submit our documents and could not even get in the room to lineup. Apparently some people are arriving at 7 AM for an office that opens at 9 and they are still not being seeing seen by 1 PM when the office closes!

You can send the application by mail, but only to a third party travel agent which of courses charges a fee for the service. So the Multiple Entry Visa we need will likely cost $130 now, plus potentially some courier charges. Yet another example of the pocket-lining "small c" capitalism of the Communists...

Map of Vietnam

The map below shows most of where we will travel, except the China & Hong Kong portion. Click on it to to go to Picasa where I have more photos (so far not from this trip, but soon), and you can see the map in more detail.

Two Weeks Until Vacation!

Hopefully in 2 weeks time we will be in Hong Kong!

I say hopefully, as when you fly standby with buddy passes you are not guaranteed on the flight. That is how we ended up in New York in December 2001 as the flights to HK where we intended to go where all booked sold. The airline rules for standby mean Linda's brother has to fly with us and he will be taking Linda's mum too. They will likely join a tour and go on to Malaysia, leaving us to go to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and maybe elsewhere.

Itinerary so far is very loose. We are going for about 4 weeks, and this about all we have so far
  • 2 days roughly in Hong Kong
  • 2 days travel through Shenzhen to Hanoi via Train and/or bus
  • 3 days in Hanoi (maybe 2 before Ha Long, one after) Possibly staying here as we have heard good things about them and have been in touch by email.
  • 3 day 2 night tour to Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba
  • several days to travel South to Ho Chi Minh...that's as specific as we have so far for this section!
  • 2 to 3 days in Ho Chi Minh
  • 3 days for Mekong Delta and on to Phnom Penh
  • 2 days Phnom Penh
  • Travel to Siem Reap, 2-3 days there and at Angkor Wat
  • Maybe fly from Siem Reap to Macua or Shenzhen if time is short, if less so travel to Battambang and Bangkok to get flight from there to close to Hong Kong. Shenzhen is just inside China from H/K and accessible by local transit. Macau has lots of fast ferry options to H/K