Antarctic Dream, Days 1-3: Getting to know the Ship and the Menacing Drake

From the night before embarkation we could see our ship, the Antarctic Dream (it was smaller than I expected), waiting for us in the harbor and its presence was reassuring after the sinking of the Explorer.

The initial interaction with the ship and its organization was a bit mixed. They picked up our luggage and brought it to the ship just as arranged. However, we were told two different places to wait to be picked up. We waited at one of them, however we weren’t on that pick-up list–a little bit nerve-racking–nonetheless, they said come along on the bus and we’ll take you to the pier. At the pier everyone just ran off the bus and through the terminal with no indication of where to go to check in or what the procedure was. We found our own way to the ship and then stood in line waiting to check-in. When we got to the front of the line the receptionist looked under our cabin number for us and we weren’t there. Then she scanned the whole list and couldn’t find our names. Alright, getting even more nerve-racking now, not on the pickup list, not on the rooming list. Then she goes, ‘ahh I have another sheet. Oh and this means you’ve been upgraded.’ Wow! Bonus!! In fact the upgrade to a much bigger stateroom (normally priced at $9100/person) seriously magnified our value.

However, arriving at the room was a bit disappointing, the bathroom had not been cleaned (there was no toilet paper), there was still trash on the floor, the beds had no sheets on them, and our luggage had not arrived either. So I went looking for our luggage and fortunately found it in our original stateroom, while Mom went looking for someone to finish cleaning our room. All-in-all, not a good start and a bit disconcerting with regards to the overall organization. The upgrade was great though!

Later we speculated why we were given an upgrade and decided it had to do with the fact that we booked early (though mid-October is actually not that early). Well, we booked early enough to pay full price compared to well over half the ship that booked less than 10days before departure and so got last minute deals. The ship put the people that got last minute deals in the lower, cheaper cabins while upgrading those who booked earlier and paid full price, even though it was full price for the lower grade cabin. In truth we’ve found less than a handful of other English-speaking pairs who booked early and paid full price. This is a bit curious because the travel agent was rushing us to book claiming the ship was nearly full. In fact, the majority of the ship’s passengers seem to be last-minute bookings after the sinking of the M/S Explorer. Word to the wise: if you have flexibility in your travel schedule or don’t have your heart set on going to Antarctica, hold out for last minute deals; they do exist at discounts of 20%, i.e. the week before the sailing. Then contact (not necessarily in person) travel agents in Chilean or Argentine Patagonia for specials.

Afternoon tea was offered immediately upon boarding and the brownies were sooooo good. I knew from then on that at least one aspect of the ship would be rewarding, the food, and in fact, so far the food has been excellent. Lunch and dinner are both four-course sit-down meals, which are at set times but open seating. Breakfast is buffet and again open seating. Free glasses of red and white wine or beer and water are offered with every dinner. The ship also has a Chilean doctor on board whom we met the first day, just by coincidence, not by necessity. The ship also has a gym, a shop, a conference room, and a couple of lounge rooms. Compared to the Russian Icebreaker ships, this is a very well-equipped ship, much more along the lines of a cruise ship rather than a research vessel.

Embarkation night we cruised out through the Beagle Channel which was a calm experience with lovely scenery. However, we had been pre-warned of the crossing the Drake Passage and so we prepared our sea sickness pills and patch and bags. The Drake Passage is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean and also where the northern warmer oceans meet the cooler Antarctic waters causing a lot of fierce winds and waves as the different densities of the oceans try to assert themselves. Drake has caused the crashing of many ships, the wrecks of which now litter the the Patagonia coast or caused many sailors to turn back. And had my drawer falling off hinges, my water bottle lost under my bed, silverware sliding off the plates at meals, it has also caused many passengers to become very seasick…

Besides being told this is one of the smoother, easier passages across to Antarctica and wearing a prescription strength seasickness patch, these were not enough for me to keep my breakfast or my lunch in the first day at sea. Plus with the drowsiness effect of the patch, I ended sleeping most of Day 2. I did manage to make it to the informational lecture on Antarctica’s history.

The same day they introduced 2 contests, the prize being a bottle of champagne. The first contest involved guessing the time at which the ship would cross the Antarctic Convergence, the place where the warm water sinks below the cooler Antarctic waters, and as a result of this mixing fish and bird life are abundant. Mom guessed 9:30am on Day 3 while I guess 11:54pm on Day 2 and the actual time was 9:45pm on Day 2. We were ahead of schedule due to favorable conditions in the Drake Passage and were promised the lurching motion of the ship would be finished by 5pm on Day 3 when we reached the South Shetland Islands. The second contest was to see who could spot the first iceberg.

On Day 3, still in the Drake Passge, two more lectures were held, one about penguins, and the other about the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) as well as proper behavior for shore excursions. By dinner time, 7:30pm, the seas had definitely calmed as we had reached the South Shetland Islands; we could see a research base, very large icebergs, and even a few penguins.

Tonight we have stopped at Anchor. Tomorrow morning at 9am we will make our first landing in the Zodiacs, a special term for motorized rafts used in Antarctica. The Zodiac groups were created using sign up sheets, in which passengers got to choose which group and with whom they wanted to go ashore with. Since the ship has less than 100 passengers everyone is allowed on shore at the same time (max 100). The timing of the landings are set far in advance and are very strict so that not more than one boat is at the same place at the same time and number of people on land is strictly controlled, all as a means of protecting the pristine natural environment.

Tomorrow the prospect of seeing Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins lurks for our first landing!

(All of the Antarctic pictures will be posted at one time…a later time ūüėČ )

Patagonia, Part 1: Punta Arenas and Ushuaia

Though Chile may look small on a map, this is very misleading. In fact the flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, southern Chilean Patagonia, was more than 3hours. Getting off the plane we noted there was a definite chill in the air.

While still at the airport, we explored options on how to get back and forth between Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina. The answer is: not many. One airline, LAN Chile flies 3 times per week (Sunday, Wednesday, Friday) each way. And various bus companies combined make the the 10-12 hour journey (either direct or changing buses) every day of the week. Aerovias DAP no longer flies between these two destinations. The limited options make the connection quite expensive. The flight on LAN Chile is $211 for one way or $274 round trip. The bus is approximately $50 one way. We arrived in Punta Arenas on Tuesday and had to get to Ushuaia by at least Thursday morning, therefore both options were available to us. Our decision came down to, its much cheaper to take the bus and we’d heard the scenery on the bus journey was spectacular.

A 15-minute, $10 taxi ride from the airport brought us into town and dropped us off at our B&B, Hostal Maipu Street. The B&B was set up in a local home which had extra rooms after the kids went to college. The proprietress was very friendly and helpful, including preparing breakfast extra early in the morning before our bus ride and calling us a taxi to take us to the bus terminal in the morning.Palacio Sara Braun

After we settled in, we headed off to the bus station to buy the following morning’s bus tickets and have a wander around town. There are a handful of museums in Punta Arenas, however, like so many things in Chile they close quite early, about 5 or 6 pm. Therefore despite my efforts to see all the museums, we only saw 1: Palacio Sara Braun. This house was the home of a prominent local family who imported the marble, fabrics, furniture, and architectural styles from Europe. Part of the house is maintained as a museum and the other part has been converted into a hotel. We also wandered around to Plaza de Armas which had numerous crafts booths set up selling everything from hats and scarves to lapis penguin pendants. (I later regretted very much not buying one)

At dinner we drank pisco sour, the typical Chilean appertif, except this time is was made with Calafate berries. The legend goes, whoever consumes Calafate berries will one day return to Patagoina. After dinner we headed back to the B&B to get an early night’s sleep since we had to be at the bus station at 7:45 in the morning.

The next morning we ate a quick breakfast mostly consisting of bread provided at the B&B before jumping in a taxi to get to the bus station by 7:45 for an 8am departure. The first 7-8hours of the bus journey was characterized by seas on one side and large open plains with sheep, cows, horses, and guanacos (a llama or alpaca-type animal) grazing on the new spring grass. Early in the ride the bus pulled onto a car ferry where we crossed from one island to the next. We had 4 stops including lunch, exit border control, inbound border control, and gas/snack After the gas stop, the scenery changed to be wooded with stunning snow-capped mountains. We arrived at the Ushuaia bus station at about 7pm then caught a taxi to the B&B.

Sunset in UshuaiaThis B&B, Alba’s House, also had very friendly, helpful owners who really wanted to ensure we maximized the short time we had in Ushuaia. But by that evening everything had already closed so we just went to dinner and had a little wander around town, including catching a gorgeous sunset.

The next morning had us researching post-Antarctica options including transportation connections and accommodation. The problem we faced was this: the ship arrived back in Ushuaia on a Sunday and Mom flew out of Punta Arenas on Tueday, therefore if she wanted to skip the long bus ride she’d have to fly out the day we arrived and spend nearly 2 full days in PA by herself, as I was not going back to Chile, but rather planning to go north in Argentina. After doing a lot of research and mulling over the options, Mom decided to take the bus on Monday therefore allowing us to spend the rest of arrival day in and around Ushuaia. To maximize our use of this 1 day we signed up to rent a car for our return Sunday. I also went to the Aerolinas Argentina office to book my flight from Ushuaia to El Calafate for the Monday Mom leaves and from there continue on to Buenos Aires.Presidio-Prison Museum

After finishing all that, we went to the famous Prison and Naval Museum which was very extensive and entirely contained within the old prison. Exhibits included information on prison life, the natives of the area, expeditionary missions by European colonial powers to this part of the world, an art gallery, Antarctica and penguins. The museum was not cheap, about $11 per person (35Arg Pesos).

In fact we found Ushuaia to be not very cheap at all: no private ensuite rooms available for under $40 (although, granted, cheaper than PA) and meals for no less than $15-20/person.

The main street in town, San Martin, is cute but touristy. Nonetheless, its very useful in that all the travel agents were located along this street, or within 1 block, as were shops, and many restaurants.

After lunch we headed down to the pier for embarkation and the trip to ANTARCTICA!!!!

Photos from Punta Arenas & Ushuaia

Round the World: 1st week a blur around Santiago, Chile

After a long flight, followed by a brief 20 hours in Los Angeles where I shared a couple of meals with a few dear friends (it was great seeing you!), followed by another long flight, finally I arrived at my first stop of trip: Chile.  In LA, I picked up my Dad, step-brother Allen, and step-mother Leticia, who would be joining me for the first week in Chile as it was Thanksgiving vacation back in the States.

You’ll notice that the first week was characterized by a lot of driving, hence the use of ‘blur’ in the title.¬† I guess my dad likes to drive.

The first two days in Chile we spent out on the Pacific coast enjoying the great view of the ocean and driving through the picturesque coastal towns of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso.  One of the best meals I had the first week was the very first lunch which came after a lot of lost driving around the hillside town of Valparaiso.  At Cafe Turri we were blessed with gorgeous views of the ocean and the coastal towns.  We were also introduced to the native drink, Pisco sour, an aperitif similar to a margarita but with more bite at the end, and to the staples of Chilean cuisine: lots of bread, usually served with salsa or butter, beef, seafood, avocados, and to a lesser extent, potatoes (fried, roasted, you name it), cheese, and cooked veggies served cold.  While the meat, bread, and potatoes were a welcome change from Chinese food, this combination became a bit repetitive and therefore I will probably always equate my first meal at Cafe Turri as the best in that first week.

When we parked in Valparaiso for lunch, we had to tip the guy who moved his car so we could park.  Then when we left lunch we had to tip the guy who was guarding the cars in the parking area.  Even as an American where tipping is common, this seemed a bit bizarre.  I soon came to learn that Chile is a country whose people are basically dependent on tipping.  You tip the housekeeper, both at the hotel and the one at your apartment; you tip the parking attendant, the breakfast table busser (most hotels include breakfast), the vineyard tour guide, the guy who fills your tank at the gas station (always full service), the waiter, and the bagger at the supermarket; you tip just about everyone who does something for you except the taxi driver.  Go figure.

Upon leaving the coast we drove four hours east and then south (2.5 hours drive south of Santiago) to the Colchagua valley, one of the main wine producing areas within Chile.¬† Some of Chile’s finest and most expensive wines come from wineries in the region.¬† We toured four wineries over two days starting with the lowest standard and increasing in quality and price of wine with each successive tour; each tour was approximately 1.5hours including wine tasting, which was usually a sampling of 3 wines.¬† An interesting note on wine production in Chile: Chile has a very unique grape called the Carmenere, which went extinct in France some years ago.¬† The Chileans were attempting to produce Merlot with the Carmenere grape but because they were unfamiliar with the grape they were harvesting it at the wrong time and were producing poor wine.¬† Then a Frenchman who was touring vineyards in Chile discovered the Carmenere in Chile.

The first day we had a late afternoon visit to Casa Silva which Silva which only in the last 15years has switched from producing bulk wines sold to other wineries for bottling to producing their own label of wines.  The next day we went to Viu Manent where we had a nice lunch and were driven in a horse pulled buggy for the tour.  But perhaps the highlight of the tour was tasting the red wine directly from the steel barrel during its fermentation process.  Let me just say I prefer red wine after its a little far along in the production process.  Later that afternoon we  went to Montes, known by the angel on its bottle and famous for its premium wines including Purple Angel and Montes Folly.  An interesting characteristic of the Montes winery is that its finest and most expensive wines come from grapes that are grown on a steep hillside.  Grapes vines grown on a hillside have to work harder to push the roots down to fine adequate water and nutrients, in doing so they become slightly stressed which causes the plants to grow stronger and grow grapes that are capable of producing finer, more complex wines.  The next morning we went to Casa Lapostolle , famous for the brand Clos Apalta.  This winer has one of the newest and most expensive facilities for producing wine in Chile.  The building is 6 stories therefore when moving the wine from one stage of the process to the next everything is done using gravity, as opposed to pumping which is said to damage the wine:  At the conclusion of that tour, we headed back north to Santiago.

Saturday night found us less two people who had to get back to the States by the start of the work week and with an invitation for the remaining two to a going-away party in Santiago.¬† So we put on our best, though later realized we were rather overdressed and headed out to a live music venue which doubled as restaurant and dance hall.¬† (Apparently Latin time (ie flexible time where everyone is at least 15-20minutes late) doesn’t hold true when attending a foreigner’s party.)¬† A night out with Santiaguenos (and some expats) was fun as they get into the music and can really dance!¬† I got to dance to my favorite salsa song, La Vida es un Carnaval.¬† I decided bars and restaurants are the only thing open on weekends in Chile and even those are frequently closed on Sunday night.¬† This was frustrating as I wanted to run a few errands in Santiago, such as buying a book on Buenos Aires, but alas, everything is closed!

Perhaps because everything is closed on weekends, many Santiaguenos head out-of-town, sometimes east toward the Andes, which is what we did Sunday morning.¬† By Sunday noon time we’d checked into a ranch called Cascada de las Animas in the Maipo valley and were getting ready to go rafting down the Maipo River.¬† After a safety talk entirely en espanol (ohhh, Spanish, don’t fail me now), we were outfitted in full wet-suits, splash jackets, booties, life jackets, helmets, and provided with paddles.¬† Oh dear, I knew the water was going to be cold when they started handing out the wetsuits; in fact, the water is mostly glacier melt, which makes the river swell to become Class IV rapids during the summer.¬† At times floating, at time paddling furiously, at times be pounded down the river, rafting was great fun, with the cactus-studded canyon extending up on both sides.¬† Dad sat in the front and had the luck to be drenched numerous times by the icy cold water.¬† I, on the other hand, had the smarts to sit in the back and get splashed only up to my waist and down my left arm.¬† The one-hour trip down the river was probably for me the highlight of the week in Santiago-area Chile.¬† The following day we had a 2 hour horseback ride in which Dad and I had a bit of a canter on the horses to see who’d get to lead.¬† Unfortunately, Dad got to keep his lead.¬† The ride took us up to a mesa where we had great all around views of the snow-tipped Andes.¬† Those mountains were stunning with the snow on them, but I hardly realized how little snow it actually was compared to, say, mountains in the Patagonia region of Chile.

Another driver took us back through Santiago to buy my book, the store was finally open on Monday and then on to the final winery with Dad: Concha y Torro.¬† CyT is probably the most well-known Chilean winery and also the most accessible from Santiago-just ride the metro south.¬† Concha y Torro’s most premium wine, and one that some consider to be the best to come out of Chile, Almaviva is actually partnership with the French winery Barron de Rothschild.¬† After sampling the Almaviva at CyT wine bar (it was really good), we drove back to our rather rustic cabin on the ranch, had our final dinner together, and prepared to part ways the following morning.¬† A surprisingly quick 1 hour drive Tuesday morning found me back at the airport ready to meet my mother and fly south to Patagonia…

Departing on a Round the World Trip

Tomorrow is the day I start my 3 month around the world trip! It feels like its been ages in coming, but actually I’ve been planning for a very short time compared to many people who spend minimum 1 year up to many years planning their RTW trips.

In fact, it seems like I did it on very short notice. We were the last 2 people for our January Intrepid Egypt-Jordan trip and we booked in the first week of October, more than 3 months in advance. When we booked our Antarctic cruise (Antarctic Dream Nov 29th departure) in mid-October, most of our first choices for Antarctic cruises were already full. Good thing I decided to book Antarctica and not just show up and hope to get a discounted last minute place on a cruise. By contrast, we were the first and only people booked on our February Intrepid Kenya safari for a long time such that we thought they might cancel it because of not meeting the minimum number of people.

Last week I saw the travel doctor in Hong Kong and got the vaccinations I needed, including Typhoid, Polio, and Yellow Fever; my arm did hurt! Apparently there is no effective vaccine for cholera and it you get cholera, its not that serious. The doctor recommend Malarone as an anti-malarial for Tanzania and Kenya. Malarone is a very expensive anti-malaria drug because it is the newest, most effective, and has the least side effects. The price offered to me by the clinic in HK was about US$6/tablet, compared with about US$5 in the UK, and US$2.5 in the US. Note, the price is per tablet because its so expensive!! and because it only has to be taken from 1-2 days before entry, during the trip, and the continued for 1 week after. Because of the price differential, I opted not to buy the Malarone in HK.

Further investigation into visas, namely a call to the Tanzanian Embassy in the US, showed that I can obtain a double-entry visa to Tanzania on arrival at the airport and its the same price as a single-entry. Excellent!

Tomorrow I will leave Shanghai at about 4:30pm and even with a brief plane change in Beijing (erghh, Air China is so annoying), will arrive in Los Angeles only a half hour after I left Shanghai, despite 15+ hours in transit! That means by tomorrow night, I will be in LA having dinner with friends. After a very brief night in a hotel, the next morning I will be having breakfast with friends before I go and get on a plane for another 11+ hours of flying, finally arriving in Santiago, Chile. This will be followed by another couple of hours car ride to my ‘home’ for the week. (Home is where your backpack is and where you lay your head, right?) Therefore, I will arrive at my destination 53.5hours (2days+5.5hours) after I left. Thank god for the stopover in LA!! I don’t know how people who do business between Asia and S. America (Japan-Brazil trade is big) manage those time changes, time loss, and connections.

Here I go around the world, weeeeeeee!

My new Favorite Chinese Airline is China Southern!

In my air travels both domestically within China and internationally on Chinese airlines, I have been incredibly disappointed.¬† After yesterday’s flight on China Southern, I realized I didn’t need to be disappointed with all Chinese airlines, just China Eastern and Air China, because China Southern does a great job and does things ‘right’ where the other two don’t.¬† For example:

  • China Southern did NOT make me walk on the tarmac in Beijing in 40degree F weather
    • CE & AC always let you freeze (or roast as the season may be) and waste your time by making you walk on the tarmac and then take a bus for miles to the terminal because they are too cheap to pay for a gate & a jetway
  • China Southern’s PA announcer spoke English well enough and clear enough I could actually understand what she was saying
  • China Southern’s plane was the newest plane I’d been on in a very long time
  • China Southern gave me a comfortable amount of leg room such that I wasn’t squashed into the seat in front of me
    • My last flight on AC was so crammed that I couldn’t open my laptop fully even when the seat in front of me was upright
  • My bag arrived on the carousel before I’d even gotten there!¬† Perhaps this is only a compliment to the fact that China Southern actually had a gate, but still it’s great service compared to the normal 15-20min wait I have with CE & AC.

China Southern certainly deserves praise.¬† My only 2 complaints were, the food was not very tasty (which I think is because of the airport catering company, not the airline catering company) and the flight was late (only 20min though).¬† All-in-all, I’m very pleased with China Southern and I’m glad to know that some airline in the Chinese airline industry differentiates itself positively.

Planning a Round the World Trip

My apologies for my absence from blogging recently. Any spare moment I’ve had on the internet has been devoted to planning my trip around the world, which will commence when I leave Shanghai on November 18th and end when I return to Shanghai on February 18th. Planning a RTW trip has proved far more difficult than I ever imagined, and I’m rather well-traveled, not to mention, have been traveling independently for years, and am a tour leader!

Flights–Flights were definitely one of the biggest challenges, compounded by the fact that few agencies who do RTW tickets are willing to start these trips from Asia. Most prefer to start from USA or Western Europe (namely UK). Eventually, the only agency I found willing to do my tickets was based out of San Francisco but willing to book tickets from any origination point and ship to any location. They have a very useful feature on their site (requires flash) that allows you to enter your flight itinerary (including over land transfers) and it will approximate the total price for you in seconds! It will also suggest stopovers, both free and ones at additional cost. The only drawback is, because its an approximation not based on season, your flights, like mine, may end up being far more expensive than the low-end of the estimate. They were able to get very close to the dates I wanted, particularly given that I was traveling on some popular routes during the holiday season. The total package was also cheaper than trying to book even 2-3 of my major segments by myself. 3 cheers for Deborah at Airtreks!

Visas–Even with the ease of google searching and the internet, it can still be a hunt to find enough accurate info on the internet with regard to visa requirements.

  • Egypt-An easy one, all my searches turned up consistent results, Americans can obtain Egyptian tourist visas on arrival at the airport.
  • Jordan-My first search found that arrivals at the airport and only some land border crossings would be granted visas on arrival; our sea border crossing at the Red Sea was not one of those entry points. After talking to the sales agent at Intrepid Travel, a former tour leader for the Middle East, he said of course you can get visa on arrival there as I did it for years while a leader. Not that I intentionally doubted him, but things can change or be different whether you’re Australian or American. So I did some more research and found out that indeed, he was correct. At all overland crossings into Jordan, except 1 bridge coming from Israel, visas can be obtained on arrival.
  • Kenya-Even now I’m only 98% sure on this one. I will be flying into Nairobi going on a safari into Tanzania and then returning to Kenya, which would theoretically amount to a double-entry to Kenya. However, because of border agreements with Tanzania, it seems Kenya doesn’t recognize the crossover into Tanzania and therefore a single-entry visa is all that’s needed. Kenyan visas are issued on arrival at the airport and whether I need single- or double-enty can be discussed with the visas processor on arrival.
  • Tanzania-This one is proving most difficult and confusing. I’m flying into Dar Es Saalam, then taking the ferry to Zanzibar (which apparently requires a passport), then returning to Dar to fly to Kenya and from there taking a safari back into Tanzania. Again, this seems to indicate a need for a double-entry tourist visa. Online research has told me everything from, visas on arrival are possible though not a safe bet and a Yellow Fever inoculation certificate is required, to don’t bother getting a visa ahead of time, it’s easy to get on arrival. The fact that I need a double-entry visa is more what concerns me, particularly given that my second entry won’t be at an airport. The Tanzanian Embassy in Beijing proved no more helpful and perhaps even more confused and unsure than I am. He said I need a multiple, which has to be referred to Dar Es Saalam and is only valid for 3 months. (Right now, I’m more than 3 months away from my arrival in Tanzania.) However, if the border policy of Tanzania is the same as Kenya, then its really only single entry. (This is because of the East Africa Community, which in the future will have a common visa, allowing travel freely through all member states on 1 visa, however this will not enacted until 2010.) Furthermore, discussion boards on said, there is no need to get a visa ahead of time. If anyone can clarify the visa situation for me for Tanzania, I’d greatly appreciate it. There is no longer a requirement for proof of Yellow Fever inoculation, but its still recommended.

Inoculations–I got countless shots and prescriptions before I went to Asia the first time; however, to go to Africa it seems I need countless more. Research suggests I should get Typhoid, Cholera, Yellow Fever, Poliomyelitis vaccinations as well as Malaria tablets. Given that I live in China and many countries won’t recognize these inoculations if done in China, this proves to be a bit of a problem. Can anyone suggest a good travel doctor that can prescribe or administer all of these things in either Hong Kong or Miami? Am I being overcautious or missing any other preventative measures?

Here’s my schedule:

November Shanghai to Los Angeles to Chile to Argentina to Antarctica
December Antarctica to Argentina to Mexico to Panama Canal cruise
January Panama Canal cruise to Miami to Egypt to Jordan to Qatar to Tanzania (Zanzibar)
February Tanzania to Kenya to Doha to Shanghai

More updates on my trip to come (as well as more on China)…

Surviving China’s Scams

As this 2008 Beijing Olympics are now less than 1 year away, its scary to think the number and types of scams perpetrated by Chinese on foreigners is only increasing.  Most of the following examples have actually happened to my guests when in Beijing or other parts of China, and a few are commonly reported elsewhere around China.

  • At the capital airport, a guy claiming to drive a taxi says he’ll take you to town for 700RMB! And he makes you¬†walk a long way to his taxi.
    • –> Go outside to the taxi queue and insist that the driver use the meter.¬† Most rides to downtown Beijing are less than 200RMB.
  • Exiting the Summe Palace, a guy claiming to drive a taxi offers to take you back to downtown Beijing.¬† You see that his car has a ‘taxi’ sign on top so you think it must me legit and you agree.¬† However, after the taxi starts, you realize¬†the meter is¬†clicking over 2-2.5times as fast as it should be.¬† When you arrive at your destination the meter reads RMB400.¬†¬† The meter is rigged. You protest but the driver pretends not to understand you and so you give in and pay.
    • –> Instead of taking a taxi whose driver seeks you out, go and find your own taxi, maybe even walk a block away from the attraction.¬† Also, choose standard taxis–(in Beijing) red, green/yellow, blue/yellow, red/yellow.¬† If you do find yourself in a taxi where the meter¬†is rigged (and you don’t have any luggage),¬†get out immediately, without paying.¬† If you’ve reached your destination and find its too late to get yourself out of this situation, take the driver’s license (visibly located about the glove box), then report it to the police to try to get your money back.¬† In another case,¬†if the driver refuses to start¬†the meter, get out immediately without paying.
  • You’ve just paid the driver of the previous taxi his exorbitant¬†rate of¬†RMB400, then he tells you 3 of your RMB100 notes are¬†fake. You tell him that can’t possibly be¬†because you got them at the bank in your home country.¬† And you know he had plenty of time to switch them while you were getting out of the taxi.¬† But he again pretends not to understand.¬† You refuse to give him new notes, he gets angry and makes for a nearby policeman.¬† You guess involving the police probably won’t help the situation given your inability to speak Chinese and a system know as guanxi. Again, you give in and give the driver RMB300¬†more just to have it¬†done with.¬† All-in-all, you paid RMB700¬†for a taxi ride which should have cost less than RMB200.
    • –> If paying with large bills, sit in the front of the taxi, then watch the driver as he checks the bills.¬† Don’t give him the opportunity to switch them and don’t get out until he’s satisfied with them.¬† If its too late,¬†take the driver’s license (visibly located about the glove box), then report it to the police to try to get your money back.
  • You’re wandering through the hutong watching and learning about local life and a Chinese person starts to chat with you¬†in excellent English. You think, wow, great. This person is so friendly and helpful and I’ll learn so much more about the local culture by having a native to talk to.¬† He shows you around, then brings you to a teahouse.¬† There you sample tea and the beneficial properties of each type of tea are explained to you.¬† At the end you’re told you owe RMB2400(!!) because each tea you tried was between RMB80-500.¬† ‘What,’ you balk, ‘I can’t pay that much.¬† I don’t have that much money.¬† I didn’t drink that much tea.’ ‘That’s ok,’ they explain, ‘they accept credit cards.’ (Note: Credit cards are rarely accepted in China, therefore this is also likely credit card fraud as well.)¬† Reluctantly, you give them your credit card.
    • –> Before drinking tea, whether in Chengdu, Beijing, or elsewhere, always check the pricelist/menu and ascertain the price of the tea you will be drinking beforehand.¬† There are some very expensive teas in China and for the most part, you won’t know the difference so stick with teas in the range of RMB30-40.
  • You’re wandering down Nanjing Road in Shanghai and someone with decent, but not great English approaches you and asks if you will practice English with them. You think, wow a great opportunity to interact with locals, learn more about local life, and do someone a favor.¬† So you follow them and then take you to a top floor of a building and together you drink tea and chat in English.¬† After a while you say you have to go and get up and leave but they say, ‘wait, you need to pay¬†RMB1500 for the tea.’
    • –> This is also a tea scam and possibly credit card fraud as well.¬† See above for how to deal.
  • You’re walking toward Forbidden City or maybe down Nanjing Road and a young person speaking exellent English approaches you and says ‘I’m¬†an art student and we’re having an exhibition, please come look.’
    • –> This is a scam, usually also involving tea or an¬†art viewing fee.¬† Say no and continue on your way.
  • You’re wandering through Tiananmen marveling at its size, then a tout asks¬†you if you want to buy a Mao watch, or other souvenir.¬† You decide you like that Mao watch then you haggle over price.¬† You agree on¬†20RMB.¬† When you go to pay, you realize you only have a RMB100 note.¬†¬† You give it to the seller¬†and he gives you a RMB50 and 3 RMB10s in change.¬† You think wow, what a deal, until later you try to use that RMB50 to buy lunch but they tell you, ‘no, that’s fake.’¬†¬† You realize¬†you just paid RMB70 for that watch, not such a great price after all.¬†
    • –> Always keep small change on you to pay for little things.¬† Learn the security features of the RMB50 and RMB100 notes.¬† Then check for them everytime you’re handed one of those bills.
  • You go to rent a coat, or a bike, or whatever and you’re required to pay a deposit of RMB100-200.¬† When returning the item, and receiving your deposit back, the bills don’t seem to hae the right texture and feel.
    • –> Learn the security features of the bills and always remember to check them. If the notes seem fake, insist on different¬†ones or smaller denominations.¬† Consider telling the local police bureau.

These scams may change as they become more well-known to the foreigners visiting China so always be aware.¬† Please pass this along to anyone you know visiting China to help protect them and teach China that they can’t treat foreigners this way.

Quick Recommendations–Bangkok


  • Marvel at the view & enjoy cuisine from some of Bangkok’s best chefs at Central Chidlom Food Loft.
  • Live the high life (literally) and splurge on drinks at the Rooftop Bar of the Banyan Tree Hotel.


  • Dress very conservatively while admiring the splendor of the Grand Palace.
  • Feel the wind in your hair and the pollution in your eyes as you motor down the Chao Praya River.
  • Enjoy one of Asia’s favorite pastimes as you shop-till-you-drop at MBK, Khao San Road¬†or one of Bangkok’s many glitzy, air-conditioned shopping malls.


  • Pretend you’re living down one of Bangkok’s old alleyways and enjoy complimentary breakfast at Suk 11 (Sukhimvit, Soi 11)

Fasting at the the Wellness Center, The Sanctuary, Koh Phangan, Thailand

The Sanctuary is a beautiful resort at Haad Tien beach on Koh Phangan. Beach at Haad TienThe design is amazing, integrating the natural habitat into every aspect of the main buildings. The setting is gorgeous, right on a palm tree-studded beach. The restaurant also had a great menu. They have many daily activities of yoga and other eccentric interests. However, that’s about the extent of the compliments I can give to the Sanctuary. Everything was overpriced for Thai standards, especially the food. The Thai food was rather bland. They frequently screwed up our order or forgot it completely. The system for totaling a guest’s expenditures, a cashless credit system that requires a deposit at the beginning and then full payment at the end, was a total nightmare. They claimed I didn’t give them a deposit, despite the fact I had a receipt showing the deposit. They also tried to charge me for services I never used. The system is a huge mess. While we met some interesting people, overall the crowd was, in my friend’s words, “too granola.” Perhaps the worst part of the Sanctuary was the staff & the service. The local staff were at times hard to communicate with and unresponsive. The foreign staff, including the property’s general manager, were unfriendly, unwelcoming, curt, and demanding. To say we felt no hospitality is an understatement. It got to such a point where we did everything possible to avoid talking to the foreign staff/management. Irony: Welcome to the Sanctuary

The Wellness Center, on the other hand, was a very friendly, enjoyable, relaxing part of the Sanctuary. At first, the manager of the Wellness Center may intimidate inexperienced or unprepared would-be fasters; however this is for the best interests of fasters as fasting can be overwhelming for the the uninitiated or unprepared. After starting a fast though, the staff learns your name immediately, are very supportive, thoughtful, and accommodating. Everything goes as smoothly as possible. A great community atmosphere also develops among the fasters. Fasting here is about USD2000 per week less than comparative programs in California or Arizona with the same results but with the added of advantage of a beautiful beach. The Sanctuary

The fasting program is very structured with fasters required to take tablets or shakes every 90minutes, starting at 7am, which I found to be very inconvenient. Each day depending on the length of the fast, fasters also have 1-2 colonic sessions. Each person has different experiences while fasting, some very uplifting and some very weakening. On my 3.5day fast, the second day was challenging as I felt very tired and weak. I did have many benefits as a result of fasting. During my fast, my dark, under-eye circles nearly entirely cleared. While fasting, at first my skin got worse but then cleared and became smoother and clearer than its been in a long time. Surprisingly, I didn’t lose weight during my fast, but actually gained 3.5kilos. Perhaps the most pleasing results of my fast came in the days after my fast when I was slowly adding foods back into my diet. Day 1: Raw fruits, Day 2: Raw veggies, Day 3: Lightly cooked veggies, Day 4: Carbs, Day 5: Proteins. During this time my hunger was greatly reduced; I actually craved and looked forward to eating fresh fruits and veggies. Fresh fruits and veggies were far more appealing to me than cooked foods and proteins. Even now, whenever I have the chance I want to order salad. Many people have told me I look healthier than they’ve ever seen me. All of this after only a 3.5day fast! The fast, along with the vacation, also renewed my energy, excitement, and attitude. As you maybe can guess, I’m definitely a believer and will be back as soon as I can.

All in all, though, I’ll go back to the Sanctuary only to go to the Wellness Center and do another fast. In my opinion there’s no reason for non-fasters to go to the Sanctuary when there are other places on Koh Phangan with just as spectacular location but far better value and a much more welcoming environment.

Sanctuary website with internal links the Wellness Center and its fasting programs: WWW.THESANCTUARY-KPG.COM

Pictures from Koh Phangan and Bangkok, click here


View over Yangtze in Wuhan, thick with pollution

This past trip took me through Wuhan (Hubei Province) for the first time and I’d like to share a few observations. Wuhan was one of the dirtiest, soot-covered towns I’ve ever seen. The silt had settled on every flat surface and some was as much as 2 inches thick. There was so much pollution in the air everything was in a neutral color. The densely particulated air had toned down the otherwise bright colors.On getting an aerial view of the city, I saw there is some very thoughtful planning at work as much of the land is green with vibrant trees, shrubs, gardens, and roadside plants. I don’t know that the plants will remedy all the industrial pollution but it helps and adds a little appeal to the city.Green countryside of Hubei

Wuhan also has some of the nicest, most modern and appealing housing complexes I’ve seen anywhere in China outside of Shanghai.

Condé Nast’s Dream Trip Contest

Part 2 of my entries to CN photo contest of memorable moments in travel. Here are my next entries.  Take a look at them and then vote 5* for them! Thanks! More photos to come

An Angel Above

Luminous Laos

The tourists’ break

My Venetian Art

Portrait of a Butterfly

Watching, waiting, readying

What I realized when looking at these photos is that my composition and use of subject matter is quite good.¬† I fill the lens fairly well and I include a lot of color (which I love).¬† However the lighting is terrible.¬† Any other feedback on my photos is much appreciated, as I’m always looking to improve.

Booking hotels/air tickets online

People ask me where should we stay in Shanghai or elsewhere in China. While I’m partial to my hotel in Shanghai, if our hotel is full or for other locations in China, is a great site for reading traveler reviews to help you pick the best hotel. Once you’ve selected your hotel, check out Hotel Reservations for availability and very competitive rates. They have a good selection of Mainland China and Hong Kong hotels. Online distribution of hotel rooms in Mainland China is not as developed as elsewhere, but yet this site does have a solid selection of both local and international hotels in cities as far apart as Chengdu, Sanya, and Dalian. If China’s not your destination, sad for me, but no worries, they have hotels in other countries as well. ūüėČ

If you’re not even ready to book hotels and are still trying to figure out flights or choose a vacation package, Hotel Reservations has online booking for those as well–both inbound and outbound China flights, so you can still come visit me in Shanghai. Cars and vacation rentals are also available on this site. Now, if only they had cruises…

But perhaps the 2 best features of site: 1) If you’re averse to booking online, you can call their hotel experts toll free in Europe, USA, Canada, or globally for additional information and help booking. What great news for people not exactly adept at using the internet, or too impatient to enter all their information online, or just afraid to enter their credit card number online. 2) They have a price guarantee for their “Special Internet Rate.” That means if you find some place else online after you’ve booked your room, they’ll refund you the difference. What a novel concept, its like price matching or accepting a competitors coupons–you generate more business because people don’t have to shop around, they are guaranteed the best price at your location.

Hey! Works for me, now let’s see, where can I imagine going…

Cond√© Nast Traveler’s Dream Trip Contest

A new photo contest from CN encourages people to upload photos of memorable moments in travel. Here are the details

Enter the contest to become the Next Great Condé Nast Traveler

Upload a “memorable travel moment” ‚Äď a photograph that you took, along with a brief explanation of what you‚Äôre sharing and what makes it special. You‚Äôll be one step closer to winning a $20,000 dream trip to ANYWHERE in the world.

So far I’ve uploaded 5 photos with captions. Take a look at them and then vote for them! Thanks! More photos to come
Statue of Liberty

In Discussion – Singapore

Stairs to the Heavens

Marching On

Women Dancing in Paradise

Interview about Chinese tourism by another China blogger

This interview by a China blogger with an‚ÄĒdare I say‚ÄĒexpert on Chinese outbound tourism is quite interesting and very informative. Roy Graff’s business concept is brilliant, just wish I‚Äôd thought of that. Tourism is fundamentally a good thing and Chinese outbound tourism helps to reduce China‚Äôs astronomical trade surplus. And I‚Äôm all for speeding up the ADS (Approved Destination Status) procedure, especially so that countries like Canada and the U.S. will benefit. With the recent opening of the Los Angeles VCB office in Beijing, places like LA and Vegas will certainly be among the first American cities to benefit when the U.S. finally obtains ADS. But the question is, are they ready? Can they handle and service that many Chinese tourists? Do they have the cultural sensitivity? Do they have the language skills? Certainly, with large Chinese immigrant communities (particularly in LA) they have the food to satisfy Chinese tourists. But what about the activities they will do and the fact that the majority of Chinese people can‚Äôt drive? These are the issues that Roy Graff and his company, Ccontact, help overseas tour companies and destinations work through in their China strategy. How genius is that?

In the interview Roy Graff said he expected the trend in outbound tourism for experienced Chinese travelers to be

More people will choose to stay more time in a single country or go on ‚Äėtheme‚Äô tours, such as cultural Europe, sports activities etc.

In this case, I‚Äôm going to have to disagree with the expert. I don‚Äôt think Chinese tourists are going to choose ‚Äėtheme‚Äô tours, unless that theme is shopping. The Chinese usually aren‚Äôt interested in culture when they travel overseas, evidenced by the fact they travel in large groups which minimizes interaction with native peoples, they refuse to eat local food, and their favorite activity is shopping. A large part of the appeal for the Chinese to travel overseas is to impress friends and relatives back in China with where they‚Äôve been and bring back designer goods and photos to prove it. Therefore, I expect the more well-traveled Chinese will seek out iconic places like Los Angeles where they can go to Disneyland and Universal Studios or Vegas where they will stay in the MGM Grand and say they‚Äôve rubbed the lion‚Äôs foot and gambled in Vegas. And after that, they will look to more exotic destinations like Africa and even Antarctica. Despite the fact the Chinese people shun the sun, they are surprisingly in love with places like Hawaii and the Maldives.

Although Chinese outbound tourism has huge potential and will do a lot to expose the Chinese, one group, or one solo traveler at a time, to the outside world, I have to say I’m more interested in inbound China tourism. Hence, why I have a Shanghai shopping business catering to inbound tourists and work in a local hotel that receives many foreign guests. (Just a clarification: outbound tourism is people of the country being mentioned going abroad for travel; inbound tourism is people of other countries visiting the country in discussion. For example, my family would be China inbound tourists, whereas my colleagues wanting to go to the Maldives are potential outbound Chinese tourists.) This is why I proposed doing research on and working with local governments and the China National Tourism Administration to promote to foreign tourists the appeal of remote inland locations such as the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Guangxi or Shangri-la in Yunnan. But alas, my proposal was not accepted; instead, here I am offering Shanghai inbound tourists custom shopping tours as well accommodations at a local boutique hotel.

Yay! Power to tourism!  Power to entrepreneurship!