After a long hiatus from traveling, I am back on the road, again! This time, it’s another around the world adventure. As many of you may recall, it was this time last year when I went around the world for a second time visiting Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, the U. A. E, Oman, Jordan, Israel, and Greece. The trip also included a transit of the Suez Canal. For those of you who are new to my travelogues, if you would like a copy of that adventure, simply e-mail me.
This journey will take me to Xi’an, China to visit the Terracotta Warriors. From there, I will go to Chengdu, China and spend a day at a Panda Research Center. Continuing my journey south, I will visit Lhasa, Tibet and tour the palaces of the former Dali Lamas. Unfortunately, the Dali Lama is currently in India for political reasons. From Lhasa, I will fly to Kathmandu, Nepal to get a firsthand view of majestic Mount Everest, weather permitting. After a 3-day side excursion to Paro, Bhutan, I will return to Kathmandu to spend the night before flying to Shanghai, China. After several days of touring Shanghai, my journey will continue westward toward the opulent city of Dubai, U. A. E. There, I hope to finally get to visit the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I missed that opportunity the last time I was in Dubai due to being stuck in a traffic jam for 4 hours.
The last new country to visit, on this adventure, will be Morocco. I will stay in Casablanca and take a day trip to Marrakech. From Morocco, I will head north to Frankfurt, Germany and change planes. The last leg of my journey will take me home to Las Vegas, via San Francisco. Thus, I will have completed my third circumnavigation of our planet. I find traveling westward on these journeys to be much less stressful from the effects caused by jet lag.
Before I begin this journey, I would like to give you some insight into the planning of this trip. I did the vast majority of the planning myself and made all my air travel arrangements and hotel accommodations. I find in doing this, I have more control over the flight schedule and the brand of hotels. I mainly use United Airlines and International Hotel Group properties. My loyalty to these brands has been rewarded with numerous perks and benefits. My first tip from this travelogue is to find a brand of airlines, hotels, rental cars, and/or cruise lines and stick with them. Thus, you will earn points and higher status levels for your loyalty. It really is worth the effort.
By doing all my own air travel arrangements, I was able to take advantage of a little-known program with United Airlines and their Star Alliance partners. This is the “Round the World” Program. While it is a restrictive program with certain rules that require strict adherence, the cost savings make the rules compliance very tolerable. We are talking nearly $8,000 in savings per person! Some of the rules include a minimum number of countries visited, a maximum number of cities in each country allowed, a minimum number of days in each region, and no backtracking or repeat of cities visited. If you are interested, check out the program. It might be worth your while. I have one tip to bypass the limit on cities visited. If you want to visit additional cities in a country, make separate travel arrangements outside of the “Round the World” Program. That way you will enjoy the savings of the program and still have the cities you desire to see.
While I had been dreaming of this trip for years, I began the actual planning for it in September of 2017. Being retired and having the flexibility to absorb schedule changes was a benefit in doing my own travel planning. I was prepared for the numerous changes and the associated domino effect that occurred when a flight was changed or even cancelled. For example, I had scheduled my departure date on May 6th because that was the first date a United Airlines direct flight was scheduled to go from San Francisco to Xi’an, China. I always prefer direct flights that avoid the pit falls of changing planes in unfamiliar airports. My entire around the world trip and “Round the World” air fare was based on this flight. However, United Airlines cancelled all direct flights from San Francisco to Xian! I got notified via e-mail to contact United Airlines immediately regarding that flight confirmation number. That was not going to be the only time I got such an email and I learned to respond to them as soon as possible.
After several hours of coordinating with the United Airlines “Round the World” desk, it was determined that I could still arrive in Xi’an on the same day after changing planes in Beijing. Thus, I didn’t have to reschedule transportation, hotel accommodations, or tours. Furthermore, since United Airlines created the problem by cancelling the flight to Xi’an, they would waive the 3-city limit in one country and I would be able to change planes in Beijing without a severe penalty.
On other occasions, the domino effect was in full force. Several times, my flights with Air China were either changed or cancelled. One cancelled flight required me to visit a country on a later date. That required modifications of hotel reservations in that country and the previous country. Of course, there were changes in transportation arrangements and tours, too. I think you are getting the idea of how complicated being your own travel agent can be. For me, it was like a hobby and I found the challenge frustrating, fascinating, and rewarding. For others, the convenience and security of the travel agent may be well worth the additional expense. There is no wrong answer.
I mentioned several times about arranging transportation and tours. My primary source for these arrangements was Viator Tours. At “Viator.com,” I entered the country and city I wanted to visit. Viator provided an extensive variety of tour and transportation options with various lengths of tours and price ranges. I used them in every country except Tibet and Nepal for reasons I will explain when we get to those countries. I highly recommend them and here is my next tip. They occasionally offer sales with discounts ranging from 10 – 15%. I bought most of my tours during those sales and saved even more money. If you have any questions, give them a call. Their staff is very capable and willing to help.
Now that I have either encouraged you to or discouraged you from doing your own travel planning, it is time for our journey to begin! My lady friend, Alexa, helped me pack, offered to watch my house, and even drove me to the airport on the morning of May 5, 2018. It was a bright sunny day, excellent for flying. Because, I wanted to improve the quality of my travelogues with better photos, I was carrying 3 cameras, associated batteries, chargers, a tripod and other equipment. Additionally, my suitcases were ladened with clothing for several climates. It was going to be hot and humid in China, but hot and dry in Dubai and Morocco. Also, it would be cool or even cold in the higher elevations of Tibet and Nepal. Thus, I looked a bit strange carrying my red all-weather parka on one of the hottest days this year in Las Vegas. Thank God for being 1 K status with United Airlines. I was permitted to check 3 bags each weighing up to 70 lbs. While I didn’t come anywhere near that limit, it was nice to know that weight was not an issue.
Even though my flight to Xi’an via Beijing, China departed on May 6th, I flew to San Francisco on May 5th. Experience had taught me that San Francisco often gets closed for morning fog. The last thing I wanted to happen was to be stuck on the ground in Las Vegas while my 10:45 AM flight to Beijing was boarding in San Francisco! Thus, I flew to San Francisco the afternoon before the flight to China.
The airport was extremely crowded! I thought the busy times were Friday night and Sunday morning with the locals leaving Las Vegas on Friday night and the tourists leaving on Sunday morning. Yet, mid-morning Saturday was a madhouse! Thank God for TSA pre-check! Even though there was a long line as TSA Pre-check, it was nothing like the lines for the normal security. For those who have been reading my travelogues in the past, you’ve heard me say it before and I’ll say it again, my TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry Pass is the best $100 I have ever spent!
I went to the United Lounge which had recently been remodeled with improved furniture and better quality of snacks. The flight to San Francisco was smooth and on time. Upon arrival, I took the airport shuttle to the Holiday Inn Express which was within eyeshot of the airport. There I spent a quiet evening relaxing and waiting for my flight. Again, it was much easier than trying to catch that 06:00 AM flight to San Francisco and wondering if it was delayed by fog and would I miss my flight to China.
The only problem was that I could not print my China flight boarding passes nor confirm the flights. I called the United 1K help desk and was informed that I would get the boarding passes at the airport after I presented my passport and Chinese Visa. In January, I had gone to San Francisco to attend a camera workshop. I paid an extra $20 to get overnight service for the Visa and picked it up at the Chinese Consulate the next day. The visa is good for 10 years.
Because of a potential problem with the boarding pass, I had a quick breakfast at the hotel and left for the airport about 07:30. Once I showed my passport and visa, there was no problem and I was on my way. The staff took my 3 bags and directed me through TSA Pre-check and on to the new United Polaris Lounge! Once again, I was so happy I had TSA Pre-check!
I had previously been to the United International Lounge at the San Francisco Airport and it was not very impressive. However, the United Airlines new Polaris Lounge had just opened. It was the best airport lounge I had ever seen in the United States. In fact, the only one in the whole world that was better was the Turkish Airlines First Class Lounge at Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. After spending a morning there, I realized that I could have easily lived there!
The United Polaris Lounge at SFO International Airport served a wonderful breakfast buffet as well as meals ordered from a menu. I immediately regretted eating such a big breakfast at the hotel buffet. The entire place was new, clean, modern, and quiet! It was staffed with persons who obviously took pride in their new work area. I will find a way to return there.
All too soon, it was time to board the flight to Xi’an via Beijing, China. We were flying to Beijing on a Boeing 777-300 W with the new Polaris upgrade motif. United had done away with First Class on these flights and had
created a new status of Business/First Class. It provided individual cubicles with a TV and a chair that could be converted into a full-length bed that even fit me at 6 feet. There was only one problem. The odd numbered seats had an entry way that is only 9 inches wide. I mentioned this to the Purser who had noted the problem on previous flights. It probably was a classic case of engineering done with cost effectiveness in mind without a reality check. I wondered if the design engineer ever tried to get into the cubicle. The even number seats didn’t have this problem. Thus, here is my next tip: if flying Business/First Class on a Boeing 777-300, request an even numbered seat such as 6 F. You will get more room.
The morning haze/fog had cleared, and it turned out to be a lovely day for flying. Boarding the huge jumbo jets is always an exercise in organized confusion. People trying to find their seats, store their gear in the coveted overhead compartments, while flight attendants are trying to hang up coats or serve the first round of cocktails. Yet, everything finally settled down and the long flight began.
As the huge jet lumbered into the blue sky dotted with puffy little clouds, we made a turn to the left that took us out over the coast line heading north. I had deliberately chosen a window seat on the right side of the plane in
the hope that this would be the flight path and that the weather would be clear. My plan was working. For the first time, I had my camera ready with the anticipation of getting a spectacular shot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco. Spectacular? You be the judge. I’ve included my best shots of the day. I was a bit disappointed because of the haze.
Shortly after San Francisco, the ground became obscured by cloud cover. Following the flight map on my TV, I noted that we did a course change around Redding, CA. That took us over the ocean toward Alaska. We were doing the Great Circle Route that would take us over Russia and into China. For the remainder of the flight, until we were well within the borders of Russia, we flew above the clouds. That was okay because there wasn’t much to see except the deep sapphire blue waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean.
As you might expect, the inflight cuisine favored the Asian taste. In fact, the only dinner that might appeal to the western appetite was seared short ribs with grits. The grits forced me to another selection. I chose the sea bass with asparagus and was quite happy. There was a full assortment of movies. I had seen “Darkest Hour” but didn’t need to see it again. I watched Annette Benning in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Ms. Benning did a nice performance. However, I found the movie totally depressing. I stuck with it with the hope that it would end happily. It didn’t, and I can’t recommend it. The flight was about 12 hours long and I had the opportunity to watch “Best in Show.” I found that film to be totally strange with interludes of good humor.
Since we departed about 10:45 AM, the entire flight to Beijing was during day time hours. For me, this made sleep difficult; although, I did get a couple of hours. After a light continental breakfast, people began preparing for their arrival to Beijing. Gear was stowed. Immigration forms were completed. The sun was out as we flew over the snow-covered mountains and plains of North Eastern China. As we approached Beijing, the snow disappeared, and the sun became dimmed by a heavy haze. Was this the famous Beijing smog that I had heard so much about? I had been to Beijing before but there wasn’t any smog, then. It was sure here, now!
We made excellent time to Beijing due to a strong tail wind for most of the flight. We arrived almost an hour early, but lost a bit of time waiting for our gate to open. Once on the ground, we said our pleasant goodbyes to the cabin crew and headed to immigration and customs. Like many international airports, both are a considerable distance from our gate. It was good to be able to stretch my legs with the long walk at a fast pace. As in most airports outside of the United States, luggage carts are free. Beijing was no different and I got mine for those 3 pieces plus my carry-on. Immigration and customs were a breeze. There were no interrogating questions, just a welcome to China. I guess if you were able to obtain a visa, you were good to go.
Once I obtained my luggage, I immediately took it to the area for in-country transfer. It is similar to the system used in Newark, NJ, for people returning from Europe. You simply put your luggage through a security scanner and give it to an agent who sends the bags on their way. It is very efficient. Even though Beijing Airport has the second greatest number of passengers in the world, I was able to do all of this with over an hour to spare. I was impressed with their efficiency and passenger traffic management.
I was only able to visit the Beijing Air China Lounge long enough to get a bottle of water and to collect my thoughts. I arrived at the gate for my flight to Xi’an with about 30 minutes to spare. Suddenly, the agent made an announcement in Chinese and everyone started to rush the gate. I surmised it was time to go! There was no boarding by group numbers, no pre-boarding of infants and oldies. Just a simple “Come-on, let’s go!” in Chinese. I joined the rush!
The flight to Xi’an was just over 3 hours, during which the lack of sleep finally caught up with me. The sun had set, and we were flying over hilly countryside. We arrived on time. Again, the free luggage carts allowed me to quickly and easily exit the baggage claim area. There, I saw the best sight of the day. It was my driver, from Viator Tours, holding a sign saying “James Thomas!” He was there, on time, and waiting for me. He immediately took my cart and proceeded to the parking lot. I didn’t resist. It had been a very long day. I was thankful that he had brought a Kia 4-door that was large enough to carry all my luggage.
Xi’an is a huge city of about 7 million people. It took almost an hour on freeways and toll roads to get to my hotel. Yes, the Chinese Communists had discovered one unique aspect of capitalism…toll roads! They also had discovered photo speed monitoring. Yet, I wonder if they actually used the system. I saw numerous photo flashes. Yet, no one seemed to adjust their speed, including MY driver. Thankfully, I was so tired that I dozed off during part of the trip. My driver’s English was limited, and our conversation consisted of bowing, grunting, and pointing. That being said, we arrived safely at the Crown Plaza, where I learned another unique thing about the Chinese culture. My driver refused a tip! My room was prepared, and I was eager to use it.
In my next travelogue, I will visit the famous and historic Terracotta Warriors. I will share that experience in my next writings. I hope you enjoyed this first segment. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.