The writer’s toolbox

Travelling is always a good source of material to add to the writing store.

Writers collect anecdotes, descriptions of their fellow travellers, more the idiosyncrasies than an actual physical description, and of the experience, though it is all the better if it turns out to be really, really bad than good.

This equally applies to experiences in hotels, with hire cars, tourist spots and especially fellow travellers.

Start with the airline. This can make or break the start of a holiday and could be the difference between a great start or a horrid one.

We can usually accept the sardine arrangements, the lack of legroom, being within earshot of a screaming baby, or put up with the constant kicking in the back of the seat by the wretched uncontrollable child sitting behind you.

It’s having the person in front fully reclining their seat in your face that gets your goat. For an hour and a half or eight hours, it is still the biggest bone of contention when flying.

We are taking one airline down to Melbourne the one that makes a big deal out of the full service it provides, and another airline back, formerly a low-cost airline but now trying to match its so-called full-service rival.

The flight down is smooth, and the food reasonably good. The landing, even though the pilot was battling sharp crosswinds, was very heavy and left us in no doubt we had reached terra firma again. I’ve been on worse.

Hire cars are a rich field to pick over and I’ve read some interesting experiences involving even the best. So far I’ve not had a problem. I pre-booked as far in advance as possible to get a small fuel-efficient vehicle. Sometimes we are upgraded and while they think they are doing you a favour it is not necessarily the case, especially when you finish up with a large car that barely fits small provincial French roads one lane wide. It does happen.

There is also the waiting time at the car rental desk, particularly when it’s the rental company you picked, while other company desks are empty. You also quickly discover that most of the people in the queue didn’t think of pre-booking a car, which to my mind is expecting trouble with it being the peak holiday period.

We had to wait in a long queue after taking a chance it would be less crowded at the pick-up point than the desk in the airport terminal. It was no surprise to discover that a lot of other travellers had the same thought.

Hotels can also be one of the major letdowns of a holiday. If you are going to use a travel agent to pick a hotel for you, make sure you check as much as you can because no matter how it is described, seeing it, in reality, is always completely different than the pictures in a brochure and sometimes on the Internet. It requires research and a good look at TripAdvisor. Or word of mouth by someone you know and trust who has stayed there.

Take, for instance, staying in a five-star hotel the usual stomping ground of the rich and famous, it is always interesting to see how the less privileged fare. Where hotel staff are supposed to treat each guess equally it is not always the case. Certainly, if you’re flashing money around, the staff will be happy to take it though you may not necessarily get what you’re expecting.

We are lucky to be in the highest loyalty level and this accords us a number of privileges; this time working in our favour but it is not always the case. Privilege can sometimes count for nothing. It often depends on the humour of the front desk clerk and woe betide you if you get the receptionist from hell. Been there, done that, more than once.

Then there is the room. There is such a wide variety of rooms available even if the hotel site or brochure had representative pictures the odds are you can still get a room that is nothing like you’re expecting or were promised.

Believe me, there are rooms with a view, overlooking pigeon coops or air-conditioning vents.

A bone of contention often can be the location of the hotel and sometimes parking facilities not the least of which is the cost.  Valet parking; forget it.

We are reasonably near transport if we could walk, the km to the nearest bus or tram stop is a long long way when you can’t walk and that’s when the hotel starts to feel like a prison. Taxis may be cheap but when you have to use them three or four times a day it all adds up.

Be wary when a hotel says it is close to public transport. While that may be true in London, anywhere else especially in Europe you could find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Its when you discover your travel agent didn’t exactly lie but it is why that weekly rate was so cheap. In the end, the sum of the taxi fares and the accommodation turns out to be dearer than if you stayed at the Savoy.

So airline, hire car and hotel aside those front line experiences are fodder for the travel blogger, these people who are also known as road warriors.

I wondered why until we started travelling and discovered the incredible highs and lows, of flying, yes there are good and bad airlines and the bad are not confined to the low cost, of rental cars and of hotels. There is a very large gulf between five stars and three and sometimes three can be very generous. And of course, l now have a list of hotels l would never stay in again, the names of which might surprise you.

Unfortunately, my travel exploits are sometimes as boring as the day is long, but even then, there’s at least one calamity to deal with.

Our airport experiences are all without incident, although from time to time the sight of police or soldiers patrolling with guns can be disconcerting.

We have also experienced the odd problem in London at Heathrow firstly trying to get hep from the designated help staff and then to find the check-in desk of an airline apparently no one available knew existed.

That was momentarily exciting after phone calls were not answered and internet contact was not possible. Not until a little footwork found the agents desk and the misunderstanding was sorted out.

By the way, the airline itself was a pleasure to fly on, the staff pleasant and most of all we arrived just before the airport closed.

On the way home, only a flight stands between us and getting home. After days sometimes weeks it is that moment we all look forward to sleeping on our own beds making our own food and getting to the gym to work off those extra kilos put on by delicious hotel food or local fare where calorie counting is not part of the dining experience.

Of course, getting to the airport from the hotel can be an experience in itself whether by taxi perhaps the taxi driver from hell who knows only two speeds fast and stop and is also, unfortunately, colour blind.

Or whether you have arranged for a transfer only to discover it’s not coming because the company went out of business or you changed hotels and someone forgot to tell them.

Or the travel agent made a mistake or forgot to confirm the booking.

Oh yes, it happens.

We have a hire car and will be returning it t the same place. Let’s hope the signage at the airport makes it easy to find the rental place. In London we had a hell of a time trying to find it; good thing we were hours earlier than we should be.

And just because the sign says rental returns for the lane you’re in it doesn’t necessarily follow it’s the right lane. Then as you miss the exit, and get stuck on the one-way road system, all of a sudden you have left the airport and you’re heading back to the city.

If you’re running late …

But if everything goes to plan you get to the airport with time to spare.

We manage to arrive early at the airport. Rather than wait three hours for our flight we decide to try and get on an earlier departure. This will depend on our ticket type and whether there are seats available, preferably together.

We line up in the service queue, which by its very description means you have a long wait as service is mostly between difficult to impossible depending on the request.

We wait for twenty minutes. There’s a long queue behind us. Our request is taken care of quickly and efficiently making it almost seamless, certainly painless. I’m sure our request was one of the very few easy ones the staff will get.

Today it seems it is our lucky day. The transfer to an earlier flight is free and there are two seats available together. All we have to do is alert the pick-up driver at our destination we are going to be an hour earlier. Done.

Checking in bags is usually the bane of the traveller’s existence.

No matter which airport in whatever country you are departing from the only difference is the length of the queue; from incredibly long with a half-hour wait to the head of the line to up to an hour. Our queue is 15 to 20 minutes.

One assumes this is why intending passengers are asked to go to the airport two hours ahead of their fight. There are times of the day where the queues are horrendous, and that not only applies to Heathrow.

And if you are late, just panic.

And if your bags are overweight be prepared to have your credit card hammered.

Especially if you’re flying Air France from Venice to Paris. Domestically in Australia, it’s not so bad.

Now its time to relax. There is an hour before we have to be at the gate so just enough time to get coffee and a doughnut.

And be horrified at what shops charge for simple items like sandwiches. I think $10 is very expensive. But if you’re hungry and forgot to eat before getting to the airport then be prepared to pay more than you usually would for the same fare.

It’s also time to observe our fellow passengers, and there is always the one who has a last-minute dash for a plane that is just about to leave, passengers with panic-stricken looks.

We all know what happens if you miss the flight even as you’re downing that last cocktail in the airline lounge while thinking, yes they’ll hold the flight for me!

Apparently not because airlines want to keep their ‘on-time’ record.

Even so, there’s still three more calls for the missing passengers and then nothing. If they missed the plane there their problems are just beginning. It’s the same feeling you have when your name is called out before the flight starts loading.

Only once have we been called up and given an upgrade, and once in the US to be told we could take another flight because our flight was overbooked. Business-class was greatly appreciated and was worth the extra hour we had to wait.

The next bottleneck is the scanners and sometimes the queue here is very long and moving slowly because the scanners are set to pick up belts and shoes so people are scattered everywhere getting redressed and putting shoes on. Today being a weekday the queue is not so bad.

Loading is painless and reasonably organized except when the passengers in high numbered rows try to board by the front door instead of the rear door and clash midway in the plane. After they untangle themselves and get to their seats we’re ready to go.

This flight still has a manual safety demonstration which most people ignored but is slightly better than the video demonstration. Let’s hope we don’t go down over the water.

I’ve charted my path to the emergency exit and l have quite a few people before me. I guess there’s more than one way to be last off the plane.

Sometimes you get to pick who you get to sit next to, especially if you are travelling with your partner which this time l am, but in a three-seat arrangement, you have no control over who takes that third seat.

We are lucky this time because it will not become a tight squeeze but unfortunately, our fellow traveller has a cold and in a confined space for several hours it could turn out to be a problem.

The flight is smooth, the snacks edible, but there is no liquor service like the full-service rival but that might be a good thing.

No air rage on this flight.

Time flies, pardon the pun, and we have arrived. Even though it took forever for the baggage to be delivered we still got home early.

Until the next time, we fly.

 

The writer’s toolbox

Travelling is always a good source of material to add to the writing store.

Writers collect anecdotes, descriptions of their fellow travellers, more the idiosyncrasies than an actual physical description, and of the experience, though it is all the better if it turns out to be really, really bad than good.

This equally applies to experiences in hotels, with hire cars, tourist spots and especially fellow travellers.

Start with the airline. This can make or break the start of a holiday and could be the difference between a great start or a horrid one.

We can usually accept the sardine arrangements, the lack of legroom, being within earshot of a screaming baby, or put up with the constant kicking in the back of the seat by the wretched uncontrollable child sitting behind you.

It’s having the person in front fully reclining their seat in your face that gets your goat. For an hour and a half or eight hours, it is still the biggest bone of contention when flying.

We are taking one airline down to Melbourne the one that makes a big deal out of the full service it provides, and another airline back, formerly a low-cost airline but now trying to match its so-called full-service rival.

The flight down is smooth, and the food reasonably good. The landing, even though the pilot was battling sharp crosswinds, was very heavy and left us in no doubt we had reached terra firma again. I’ve been on worse.

Hire cars are a rich field to pick over and I’ve read some interesting experiences involving even the best. So far I’ve not had a problem. I pre-booked as far in advance as possible to get a small fuel-efficient vehicle. Sometimes we are upgraded and while they think they are doing you a favour it is not necessarily the case, especially when you finish up with a large car that barely fits small provincial French roads one lane wide. It does happen.

There is also the waiting time at the car rental desk, particularly when it’s the rental company you picked, while other company desks are empty. You also quickly discover that most of the people in the queue didn’t think of pre-booking a car, which to my mind is expecting trouble with it being the peak holiday period.

We had to wait in a long queue after taking a chance it would be less crowded at the pick-up point than the desk in the airport terminal. It was no surprise to discover that a lot of other travellers had the same thought.

Hotels can also be one of the major letdowns of a holiday. If you are going to use a travel agent to pick a hotel for you, make sure you check as much as you can because no matter how it is described, seeing it, in reality, is always completely different than the pictures in a brochure and sometimes on the Internet. It requires research and a good look at TripAdvisor. Or word of mouth by someone you know and trust who has stayed there.

Take, for instance, staying in a five-star hotel the usual stomping ground of the rich and famous, it is always interesting to see how the less privileged fare. Where hotel staff are supposed to treat each guess equally it is not always the case. Certainly, if you’re flashing money around, the staff will be happy to take it though you may not necessarily get what you’re expecting.

We are lucky to be in the highest loyalty level and this accords us a number of privileges; this time working in our favour but it is not always the case. Privilege can sometimes count for nothing. It often depends on the humour of the front desk clerk and woe betide you if you get the receptionist from hell. Been there, done that, more than once.

Then there is the room. There is such a wide variety of rooms available even if the hotel site or brochure had representative pictures the odds are you can still get a room that is nothing like you’re expecting or were promised.

Believe me, there are rooms with a view, overlooking pigeon coops or air-conditioning vents.

A bone of contention often can be the location of the hotel and sometimes parking facilities not the least of which is the cost.  Valet parking; forget it.

We are reasonably near transport if we could walk, the km to the nearest bus or tram stop is a long long way when you can’t walk and that’s when the hotel starts to feel like a prison. Taxis may be cheap but when you have to use them three or four times a day it all adds up.

Be wary when a hotel says it is close to public transport. While that may be true in London, anywhere else especially in Europe you could find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Its when you discover your travel agent didn’t exactly lie but it is why that weekly rate was so cheap. In the end, the sum of the taxi fares and the accommodation turns out to be dearer than if you stayed at the Savoy.

So airline, hire car and hotel aside those front line experiences are fodder for the travel blogger, these people who are also known as road warriors.

I wondered why until we started travelling and discovered the incredible highs and lows, of flying, yes there are good and bad airlines and the bad are not confined to the low cost, of rental cars and of hotels. There is a very large gulf between five stars and three and sometimes three can be very generous. And of course, l now have a list of hotels l would never stay in again, the names of which might surprise you.

Unfortunately, my travel exploits are sometimes as boring as the day is long, but even then, there’s at least one calamity to deal with.

Our airport experiences are all without incident, although from time to time the sight of police or soldiers patrolling with guns can be disconcerting.

We have also experienced the odd problem in London at Heathrow firstly trying to get hep from the designated help staff and then to find the check-in desk of an airline apparently no one available knew existed.

That was momentarily exciting after phone calls were not answered and internet contact was not possible. Not until a little footwork found the agents desk and the misunderstanding was sorted out.

By the way, the airline itself was a pleasure to fly on, the staff pleasant and most of all we arrived just before the airport closed.

On the way home, only a flight stands between us and getting home. After days sometimes weeks it is that moment we all look forward to sleeping on our own beds making our own food and getting to the gym to work off those extra kilos put on by delicious hotel food or local fare where calorie counting is not part of the dining experience.

Of course, getting to the airport from the hotel can be an experience in itself whether by taxi perhaps the taxi driver from hell who knows only two speeds fast and stop and is also, unfortunately, colour blind.

Or whether you have arranged for a transfer only to discover it’s not coming because the company went out of business or you changed hotels and someone forgot to tell them.

Or the travel agent made a mistake or forgot to confirm the booking.

Oh yes, it happens.

We have a hire car and will be returning it t the same place. Let’s hope the signage at the airport makes it easy to find the rental place. In London we had a hell of a time trying to find it; good thing we were hours earlier than we should be.

And just because the sign says rental returns for the lane you’re in it doesn’t necessarily follow it’s the right lane. Then as you miss the exit, and get stuck on the one-way road system, all of a sudden you have left the airport and you’re heading back to the city.

If you’re running late …

But if everything goes to plan you get to the airport with time to spare.

We manage to arrive early at the airport. Rather than wait three hours for our flight we decide to try and get on an earlier departure. This will depend on our ticket type and whether there are seats available, preferably together.

We line up in the service queue, which by its very description means you have a long wait as service is mostly between difficult to impossible depending on the request.

We wait for twenty minutes. There’s a long queue behind us. Our request is taken care of quickly and efficiently making it almost seamless, certainly painless. I’m sure our request was one of the very few easy ones the staff will get.

Today it seems it is our lucky day. The transfer to an earlier flight is free and there are two seats available together. All we have to do is alert the pick-up driver at our destination we are going to be an hour earlier. Done.

Checking in bags is usually the bane of the traveller’s existence.

No matter which airport in whatever country you are departing from the only difference is the length of the queue; from incredibly long with a half-hour wait to the head of the line to up to an hour. Our queue is 15 to 20 minutes.

One assumes this is why intending passengers are asked to go to the airport two hours ahead of their fight. There are times of the day where the queues are horrendous, and that not only applies to Heathrow.

And if you are late, just panic.

And if your bags are overweight be prepared to have your credit card hammered.

Especially if you’re flying Air France from Venice to Paris. Domestically in Australia, it’s not so bad.

Now its time to relax. There is an hour before we have to be at the gate so just enough time to get coffee and a doughnut.

And be horrified at what shops charge for simple items like sandwiches. I think $10 is very expensive. But if you’re hungry and forgot to eat before getting to the airport then be prepared to pay more than you usually would for the same fare.

It’s also time to observe our fellow passengers, and there is always the one who has a last-minute dash for a plane that is just about to leave, passengers with panic-stricken looks.

We all know what happens if you miss the flight even as you’re downing that last cocktail in the airline lounge while thinking, yes they’ll hold the flight for me!

Apparently not because airlines want to keep their ‘on-time’ record.

Even so, there’s still three more calls for the missing passengers and then nothing. If they missed the plane there their problems are just beginning. It’s the same feeling you have when your name is called out before the flight starts loading.

Only once have we been called up and given an upgrade, and once in the US to be told we could take another flight because our flight was overbooked. Business-class was greatly appreciated and was worth the extra hour we had to wait.

The next bottleneck is the scanners and sometimes the queue here is very long and moving slowly because the scanners are set to pick up belts and shoes so people are scattered everywhere getting redressed and putting shoes on. Today being a weekday the queue is not so bad.

Loading is painless and reasonably organized except when the passengers in high numbered rows try to board by the front door instead of the rear door and clash midway in the plane. After they untangle themselves and get to their seats we’re ready to go.

This flight still has a manual safety demonstration which most people ignored but is slightly better than the video demonstration. Let’s hope we don’t go down over the water.

I’ve charted my path to the emergency exit and l have quite a few people before me. I guess there’s more than one way to be last off the plane.

Sometimes you get to pick who you get to sit next to, especially if you are travelling with your partner which this time l am, but in a three-seat arrangement, you have no control over who takes that third seat.

We are lucky this time because it will not become a tight squeeze but unfortunately, our fellow traveller has a cold and in a confined space for several hours it could turn out to be a problem.

The flight is smooth, the snacks edible, but there is no liquor service like the full-service rival but that might be a good thing.

No air rage on this flight.

Time flies, pardon the pun, and we have arrived. Even though it took forever for the baggage to be delivered we still got home early.

Until the next time, we fly.

 

Searching for locations: Old Shanghai, China

The old Shanghai refers to a small area of Shanghai that used to be walled in and remained that way until about 1912 when all but a small section of the wall was demolished.  With the advent of the concessions, Old Shanghai became the administrative center until later when it became a shopping complex.

Now it has many restored historical buildings as well as new buildings in a somewhat traditional style that has become one of Shanghai’s main tourist attractions, housing many shops and restaurants.

The “Old Town” is not exclusively old, as you still have a chance to take in the atmosphere if you wander into the quaint side streets.

But, on first viewing walking down the street towards the complex, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say this is in reality old Shanghai, except for what appears to be a true representation of it architecturally. 

The buildings, which are shops and restaurants, are set out symmetrically, with streets, alleyways, and squares which may prove that it was specially built for the tourists, and no mechanized traffic.

Anyway…

The buildings are magnificent, and a photographer’s delight, and you’d finish up having hundreds of photos by the time you leave.  All the buildings are exquisite representations of traditional Chinese architecture. 

As for buying stuff, remember if you’re not Chinese you have the sucker tourist stamp on your forehead, so be prepared to walk away if the vendors will not bargain.  

Nothing here is worth the price tag and in our group discounts like from 130 RMB to 50 RMB and from 1 for 1,200 to 2 for 950 RMB are common.

Here common t-shirts that we can get for 3 dollars back home start at 150 RMB which is roughly 35 dollars.  It’s that kind of market.

We end up is a tea room, on the third floor of the meeting point below, and discover all the tour guides sitting around a table counting money, and I have to say it’s the most $50 notes I’ve ever seen in one place.  
It is, we were told, where they discussed ‘strategy’.

Searching for locations: Shanghai, China, by night.

When we arrive at the embarkation site we find at least 100 buses all lined up and parked, and literally thousands of Chinese and other Asians streaming through the turnstiles to get on another boat leaving earlier than ours.

Buses were just literally arriving one after the other stopping near where we were standing with a dozen or so other groups waiting patiently, and with people were everywhere it could only be described as organized chaos.

Someone obviously knew where everyone was supposed to go, and when it was our turn, we joined the queue.  There were a lot of people in front of us, and a lot more behind, so I had to wonder just how big the boat was.

We soon found out.

And it was amusing to watch people running, yes, they were actually running, to get to the third level, or found available seating.  Being around the first to board, we had no trouble finding a seat on the second level.

I was not quite sure what the name of the boat was, but it had 3 decks and VIP rooms and it was huge, with marble staircases, the sort you could make a grand entrance on.  The last such ornate marble staircase we had seen was in a hotel in Hong Kong, and that was some staircase.

But who has marble staircases in a boat?

We’re going out across the water as far as the Bund and then turn around and come back about 30 to 40 minutes.   By the time everyone was on board, there was no room left on the third level, no seats on the second level nor standing room at the end of the second level where the stairs up to the third level were.

No one wanted to pay the extra to go into the VIP lounge.

We were sitting by very large windows where it was warm enough watching the steady procession of the colored lights of other vessels, and outside the buildings.

It was quite spectacular, as were some of the other boats going out on the harbor.

All the buildings of the Bund were lit up

And along that part of the Bund was a number of old English style buildings made from sandstone, and very impressive to say the least.

On the other side of the harbour were the more modern buildings, including the communications tower, a rather impressive structure.

I had to go to the rear of the vessel to get a photo, a very difficult proposition given here was no space on the railing, not even on the stairs going up or down.  It was just luck I managed to get some photos between passengers heads.

And, another view of that communications tower:

There was no doubt this was one of the most colourful night-time boat tours I’ve ever been on.  Certainly, when we saw the same buildings the following day, they were not half as spectacular in daylight.

I never did get up to the third level to see what the view was like.

Searching for locations: Driving in ice and snow, Canada

This morning started with a visit to the car rental place in Vancouver.  It reinforced the notion that you can be given the address and still not find the place.  It happened in Washington where it was hiding in the back of the main railway station, and it happened again in Vancouver when it was hidden inside a hotel.

We simply walked straight past it.  Pity there wasn’t a sign to let people know.

However…

We went in expecting a Grand Jeep Cherokee and walked out with a Ford Flex, suitable for three people and four large suitcases.  It actually seats 7, but forget the baggage, you’d be lucky to get two large suitcases in that configuration.

It is more than adequate for our requirements.

Things to note, it was delivered with just over a quarter of a tank of gas, and it had only done about 11,000 km, so it’s relatively new.  It’s reasonably spacious, and when the extra seats are folded down, there is plenty of baggage space.

So far, so good.

We finally leave the hotel at about half-past ten, and it is raining.  It is a simple task to get on Highway 1, the TransCanada Highway, initially, and then onto Highway 5, the Coquihalla Highway for the trip to Kamloops.

It rains all the way to the top of the mountain, progress hampered from time to time by water sprays from both vehicles and trucks.  The rain is relentless.  At the top of the mountain, the rain turns into snow and the road surface to slush.  It’s 0 degrees, but being the afternoon, I was not expecting it to turn to ice very quickly.

On the other side of the mountain, closer to Kamloops, there was sleet, then rain, then nothing, the last 100kms or so, in reasonably dry conditions.

Outside Kamloops, and in the town itself, there was evidence of snow recently cleared, and slushy roads.  Cars in various places were covered in snow, indicating the most recent falls had been the night before.

We’re staying at the Park Hotel, a heritage building, apparently built in the later 1920s.  In the style of the time, it is a little like a rabbit warren with passages turning off in a number of directions, and showing it is spread across a number of different buildings.

It has the original Otis elevator that can take a maximum of four passengers, and a sign on the wall that says “no horseplay inside the elevator” which is a rather interesting expression that only someone of my vintage would understand.  And, for those without a sense of humor, you definitely couldn’t fit a horse in it to play with.

The thing is, how do you find a balance between keeping the old world charm with modern-day expectations.  You can’t.  Some hotels try valiantly to get that balance.  Here, it is simply old world charm, which I guess we should be grateful for because sooner rather than later it’s going to disappear forever.

In my writer’s mind, given the importance of the railways, this was probably a thriving place for travelers, and once upon a time, there were a lot more hotels like this one.

Searching for locations: West Lake, Hangzhou, China

West Lake is a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, China. It is divided into five sections by three causeways. There are numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, and artificial islands within the lake.

Measuring 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) in length, 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) in width, and 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) in average depth, the lake spreads itself in an area totaling 6.5 square kilometers (2.5 square miles).

The earliest recorded name for West Lake was the “Wu Forest River”, but over time it changed to two distinct names.  One is “Qiantang Lake”, due to the fact that Hangzhou was called “Qiantang” in ancient times.  The other, “West Lake”, due to the lake being west of the city

It’s about to get busy, with a number of activities planned, and the warmth of the day is starting to make an impact.

The tour starts in the car park about a kilometer away, but the moment we left the car park we were getting a taste of the park walking along a tree-lined avenue.

When we cross the road, once again dicing with death with the silent assassins on motor scooters.

We are in the park proper, and it is magnificent, with flowers, mostly at the start hydrangeas and then any number of other trees and shrubs, some carved into other flower shapes like a lotus.

Then there was the lake and the backdrop of bridges and walkways.

.

And if you can tune out the background white noise the place would be great for serenity and relaxation.

That, in fact, was how the boat ride panned out, about half an hour or more gliding across the lake in an almost silent boat, by an open window, with the air and the majestic scenery.

No, not that boat, which would be great to have lunch on while cruising, but the boat below:

Not quite in the same class, but all the same, very easy to tune out and soak it in.

It was peaceful, amazingly quiet, on a summery day

A pagoda in the hazy distance, an island we were about to circumnavigate.

Of all the legends, the most touching one is the love story between Bai Suzhen and Xu Xi’an. Bai Suzhen was a white snake spirit and Xu Xi’an was a mortal man.

They fell in love when they first met on a boat on the West Lake, and got married very soon after.

However, the evil monk Fa Hai attempted to separate the couple by imprisoning Xu Xi’an. Bai Suzhen fought against Fa Hai and tried her best to rescue her husband, but she failed and was imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda by the lake.

Years later the couple was rescued by Xiao Qing, the sister of Baisuzhen, and from then on, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xi’an lived together happily.

The retelling of the story varied between tour guides, and on the cruise boat, we had two.  Our guide kept to the legend, the other tour guide had a different ending.

Suffice to say it had relevance to the two pagodas on the far side of the lake.

There was a cafe or restaurant on the island, but that was not our lunch destination.

Nor were the buildings further along from where we disembarked.

All in all the whole cruise took about 45 minutes and was an interesting break from the hectic nature of the tour.

Oh yes, and the boat captain had postcards for sale.  We didn’t buy any.

Lunch

At the disembarkation point there was a mall that sold souvenirs and had a few ‘fast food’ shops, and a KFC, not exactly what we came to China for, but it seemed like the only place in town a food cautious Australian could eat at.

And when tried to get in the door, that’s where at least 3 busloads were, if they were not in the local Starbucks.  Apparently, these were the places of first choice wherever we went.

The chicken supply by the time we got to the head of the line amounted to pieces at 22.5 RMB a piece and nuggets.  Everything else had run out, and for me, there were only 5 pieces left.  Good thing there were chips.

And Starbucks with coffee and cheesecake.

At least the setting for what could have been a picnic lunch was idyllic.

Searching for locations: Toronto to New York

After leaving Toronto, we just had enough time to have breakfast and get to the car, another sedan, just managing to fit everything in.

By now we have finally realized the booking agent at Flight Centre had made the wrong type of car bookings for us in Canada, and I will be waiting with interest what cars we get in New York.

We went to a special section of the airport where Air Canada planes depart for the USA, and where the customs and immigration were completed on the Canada side and we just walked out of the terminal into the USA.

The plane trip was undertaken in an Embraer 175, twinjet, a small plane with 27 rows of 2 x 2 in coach, the American equivalent to economy.

Today we are traveling from Toronto Pearson to Newark Airport, somewhere near New York, USA.

The flight, a relatively short one, was supposed to take 56 minutes flying time, but as we all know, that’s not usually where the problems lie.

Here is the flight’s running sheet:

Boarding completed at 12:08

Push back at 12:18

Advised of a 45-minute wait at 12:41, something is holding us up.

Engines are shut down and we are sitting on the tarmac somewhere within the airfield. Snacks are handed out.

Take off is at exactly 1:30 pm

Landed 2:40 pm after taking the long way to Newark. Follow the course tracker as we approached Newark was like watching a drunk wander home from the pub.

Taxied for 8 minutes only to discover our parking bay is still occupied, so waiting to see if it is a long or short wait.

We have been plagued with difficulties.

Engine shutdown, or so I thought, at 2:56 means we are in for a long wait for a gate. Turns out the engines were on slow idle so they could power the lights and air conditioning.

Here we sit on the tarmac at Newark airport and going nowhere. Other planes are seen to come and go.

A 3pm announcement, another 20-minute wait for a gate.

3:40 pm we can now go to our gate.

4:15 we exit the terminal and find the car, and set off for the hotel in New York

Suburban 7 seater, very sedate driver, didn’t go over 45mph. Finally, we get a car that fits us and our luggage.

As for the ride from the airport to the hotel…

We were picked up by a Chevrolet Suburban, driven by the most cautious driver in America. Hoping to get a glimpse of the US countryside on the way from Newark to the hotel, arriving after 4 and getting dark by 4:30, most of the drive was in the dark

As far as I could tell, after taking the Manhattan tunnel, we drove around the outside of the island till we reached the nearest street to our hotel. It took about 45 minutes but at least it was warm, comfortable and better than any limousine we’ve had so far.

And then the Manhattan club…

I can’t help but think on first sight that this was once a night club, you know, the type that existed in the 40s and 50s where it wasn’t a social crime to smoke and drink and then drive home though I suspect most of the customers those days had nearby apartments.

Yes, a different and now lost forever, age.

As for the truth…

Searching for locations: The Silk Factory, Suzhou, China

China is renowned for its exquisite silk, so naturally, a visit to the Silk Spinning Factory is part of today’s tour.

After that, we will be heading downtown to an unspecified location where we’re getting a boat ride, walk through a typical Chinese shopping experience, and coffee at a coffee shop that is doubling as the meeting place, after we soak up the local atmosphere.

The problem with that is that if the entire collective trip a deal tourists take this route then the savvy shopkeepers will jack up their prices tenfold because we’re tourists with money.  It’ll be interesting to see how expensive everything is.

So…

Before we reach the silk factory, we are told that Suzhou is the main silk area of China, and we will be visiting a nearly 100 years old, Suzhou No 1 Silk Mill, established in 1926.  Suzhou has a 4,700-year history of making silk products.  It is located at No. 94, Nanmen Road, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

Then we arrive at the Silk Factory, another government-owned establishment with a castiron guarantee of quality and satisfaction.

The look and feel of the doona cover certainly backs up that claim

And the colors and variety is amazing (as is the cost of those exquisite sets)

We get to see the silk cocoon stretched beyond imagination, and see how the silk thread is extracted, then off to the showroom for the sales pitch.

It isn’t a hard sell, and the sheets, doonas, pillows, and pillowcases, are reasonably priced, and come with their own suitcase (for free) so you can take them with you, or free shipping, by slow boat, if you prefer not to take the goods with you.

We opt for the second choice, as there’s no room left in our baggage after packing the Chinese Medicine.

Searching for locations: New York to Vancouver

The flight from Newark via Air Canada to Vancouver is about 5:30pm so we are slated to be picked up by the limousine at about 2:30.

We have to be out of our room by 11am so we decided the day before that on our last day in New York we’d go to the Times Square red lobster. It gives us about three hours to get there, eat, and get back.

It’s always fun packing bags the day you leave, so most of the hard work was done earlier. This time it’s particularly a trial because we have so much stuff to fit into a small space, and weight considerations are always paramount because of the 23kg limit.

Outside is has gone from minus four to minus two in the two hours before we leave the hotel at 11:30, but that’s not so much of a problem because we have a long walk from 56th street to 41st street to warm us up.

At least today it’s not as cold, as it has been previously.

At Red Lobster it’s not difficult to make a decision on what to have, the mix-and-match special, with Lobster alfredo, filet mignon, and parrot island coconut shrimp, with Walt’s special, though what that will remain a surprise until it is served.

To drink, it was the Blue moon beer, wheat type.

For appetizers, we had scones that are supposedly bread but to me are dipped in garlic butter and baked like a scone. Australian style. They are absolutely delicious.

There is an expression a one-drink screamer and we’ve got one, but the truth is the drinks are very lethal. Pure alcohol and ice with a touch of soda.

The meals at this Red Lobster are definitely better than those we had in Vancouver, except for the pasta with lobster I had which was little more than a tasteless congealed mess after it reached the table. This did not detract from the deliciously cooked and served seafood that accompanied it.

All in all, after such a great lunch and the thought of having to walk ten blocks the decision was unanimous to get a cab which took us back to the hotel by a rather interesting, if not exactly the most direct, route. I think the driver guessed we were tourists.

We are picked up at the hotel by a driver in a large Toyota which had enough space for 3 passengers and all our bags. The driver was chatty and being foreign, preferred soccer to the other traditional American sport. Don’t ask me how the conversation turned to sports, but we may have mentioned we went to the ice hockey.

At Newark airport, all I have room for is a glass of burned beer, whatever that means, though it has an odd taste, and a Samuel Adams 76 special which was rather tasty.

Today we are flying in a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with a maximum of 298 passengers in three classes.

It looks very new even though it is about 6 months old. It has seating of 3 x 3 x 3, and we are in row 19, just behind the premium economy cabin, and the closest to the front of the plane of all the Air Canada flights.

Engine startup is loud at the lower revolutions with the vibration going through the airframe. Like all planes, the flaps being extended, it is very noisy. All of the vibrations go away when the engines are up to speed. On take off the engines at max are not as noisy as other planes and are relatively quiet. It will be interesting to see what the landing is like.

In-flight when not experiencing turbulence the ride is very smooth and reasonably quiet which is better than the other planes with seeming continuous engine whining and the flow of air past the fuselage.

The seats are comfortable but still just a little small and the middle passenger can be tightly squeezed in if the two on either side are larger than normal. The seats fully recline but the seatback is not completely in your face, and bearable when you recline your own seat.

There are several seats by the toilets that would be terrible on a long-distance flight because the passenger inevitably comes very close to the seat when entering and leaving. As for the toilets, they are larger than any of the other aeroplanes, and so too, coincidentally, are the windows.

The plane also makes the same amount of noise when it lands so I’m failing to see what’s so good about it. I’ve also been in an Airbus A350 and those planes are nothing to write home about either.

I suspect the only advantage of having planes is for airlines. Fewer costs and more sardined passengers.

It’s something else I can write off my bucket list.

When we arrive back in Vancouver it’s the same reasonably simple process to get through immigration.

Outside our driver is waiting and this time we have an Escalade picking us up. A very large SUV that fits us all and our luggage.

But…

We were lucky because we were supposed to be picked up in a sedan and the baggage would not have fitted which would have involved one of us taking a cab with the extra luggage.

He was in the neighbourhood and picked up the call. His advice, called the service and request a bigger car and pay the difference. We did. It was going to cost another 20 dollars.

As for the hotel, what is it with hotels and late-night arrivals? We get in, the check-in was smooth, we get to the room. Very large with a separate bedroom. But only a sofa bed.

It was not a desirable option, not before 24 hours in relatively squashed plane seats, so it necessitated a change of rooms to one a bit smaller, but a corner room with a reasonable view, and two proper beds.

Late night, need rest, but we have free breakfast so there will be no tarrying the next morning. We have to be down by 9am being Sunday.

Besides, we have a mission. There is a toys-are-us nearby and it does have the toy we want. All we need to find is a cab.

Searching for locations: From Zhengzhou to Suzhou by train, and the Snowy Sea Hotel, Suzhou, China

For the first time on this trip, we encounter problems with Chinese officialdom at the railway station, though we were warned that this might occur.

We had a major problem with the security staff when they pulled everyone over with aerosols and confiscated them. We lost styling mousse, others lost hair spray, and the men, their shaving cream.  But, to her credit, the tour guide did warn us they were stricter here, but her suggestion to be angry they were taking our stuff was probably not the right thing to do.

As with previous train bookings, the Chinese method of placing people in seats didn’t quite manage to keep couples traveling together, together on the train.  It was an odd peculiarity which few of the passengers understood, nor did they conform, swapping seat allocations.

This train ride did not seem the same as the last two and I don’t think we had the same type of high-speed train type that we had for the last two.  The carriages were different, there was only one toilet per carriage, and I don’t think we were going as fast.

But aside from that, we had 753 kilometers to travel with six stops before ours, two of which were very large cities, and then our stop, about four and a half hours later.  With two minutes this time, to get the baggage off the team managed it in 40 seconds, a new record.

After slight disorientation getting off the train, we locate our guide, easily ground by looking for the Trip-A-Deal flag.  From there it’s a matter of getting into our respective groups and finding the bus.

As usual, the trip to the hotel was a long one, but we were traveling through a much brighter, and well lit, city.

As for our guide, we have him from now until the end of the tour.  There are no more train rides, we will be taking the bus from city to city until we reach Shanghai.  Good thing then that the bus is brand new, with that new car smell.  Only issue, no USB charging point.

The Snowy Sea hotel.  

It is finally a joy to get a room that is nothing short of great.  It has a bathroom and thus privacy.

Everyone had to go find a supermarket to purchase replacements for the confiscated items.  Luckily there was a huge supermarket just up from the hotel that had everything but the kitchen sink.

But, unlike where we live, the carpark is more of a scooter park!

It is also a small microcosm of Chinese life for the new more capitalistic oriented Chinese.

The next morning we get some idea of the scope of high-density living, though here, the buildings are not 30 stories tall, but still just as impressive.

These look like the medium density houses, but to the right of these are much larger buildings

The remarkable thing about this is those buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.