Posts filed under Travels

Home, Sweet Home

Filed in Food, Travels

You know it’s time to go home from vacation when you think about the food back home. Notice I didn’t write “miss”, but “think”. And I was prompted to think about a particular food item when I saw it in Ya’an this morning.

Wow, “I love yoo” in China!

This selection looks rather pathetic, but there’s a reason for it.

They’re made fresh on-site.

They got me thinking about ours back home. I’m flying home tomorrow night, and right after a shower and long nap after arrival, I expect I’ll be headed out to look for the Malaysian version.

Comfortable and Secure

Filed in Travels

I’m off to Chengdu later today to visit Animals Asia‘s moonbear sanctuary tomorrow morning. The sanctuary offers Open Day visits to the general public two Saturdays a month, and it so happens one of their March 2010 Open Days coincides with my current visit.

So, for a change, I’m not with my giant pandas this morning. Instead, I’m sitting in my room, reflecting on the difference in lodgings from previous years.

For my last two visits, I’d stayed at Xiao Xi Tian (Little Western Sky), located inside Bifengxia Panda Base. Ideal location except it’s little more than a backpackers’ inn, with really very basic amenities. But it was within walking distance of the various exhibits, and it was cheap, dirt cheap. But after two stays, I didn’t think I could stay there one more time. Fortunately, something came along that made it possible for me to stay somewhere else.

Air Asia now flies direct to Chengdu, which means I saved on the travelling time and also on the airfares. The basic fare is about 2/3rds what I paid to Guangzhou in previous years, plus it’s the only fare – no more connecting flights or extra fares to pay.

So with the money saved on flights, I opted for better lodgings this time. Annette recommended the Ibis Hotel in Ya’an City. When I arrived, I found out how central it is, within walking distance of shops, including what I thought was the EverJoy supermarket, but is really called NewJoy. It’s also about 15 minutes’ walk to the bus stop where I take the staff bus to and fro the Base everyday.

When I checked in, the reception staff asked if I wanted a room with a view. I did. She gave me a room on the top floor, facing Ya’an’s best known landmark.

It’s the bridge that’s the landmark. What looks like a magnificent historic building on the bridge is actually a shopping centre, filled mostly with tea shops.

The room itself is a BIG step up from Xiao Xi Tian, especially the bathroom!

But the room and attached bathroom are not the best features of the hotel. It’s the security that really impressed me, even tho I had to find out the hard way.

After checking in, I went to take the lift to my room. The lift door closed, I pressed the button for my floor … nothing happened. I pressed again. The button still did not light up. It was then I saw the little slot next to the bank of buttons.

The lift buttons can only be activated by a room key, and therefore only by a registered guest of the hotel. Very secure.

There’s one more thing that made me glad I’m staying at the Ibis Hotel – its Spring Festival (as Chinese New Year is called in China) decorations on the hotel’s facade.

DIY Travel

Filed in Stress Busters, Travels

This time last month, I was at Bifengxia Panda Base. It was my first full day there, having arrived the previous night. Mr Yang, one of the two co-owners of Xiao Xi Tian motel (actually, it’s more like an inn), was at the airport to meet me. I looked around for him and found him holding a large piece of paper with my name in both Chinese and English. The look of uncertainty on his face turned to recognition as he walked up to me and said, “You’re here again.”

After an almost 3-hour ride, we arrived at the main entrance and the same uneven path, complete with unexpected steps, leading into the inn. Having been there before, I should remember the path; well, I did, but not exactly where it dipped or rose. This time, I also had to deal with a path made slippery by rain that had accompanied us most of the way.

Compared to last year, the entire leg of the journey from Kuala Lumpur right up to the Base this trip was smooth. I still remember last year, the day before I was to fly, the airline had called to ask me to travel a day later as they were cancelling the flight I was travelling on. I kicked up a fuss, saying I had a connecting flight and accommodations already booked, would the airline compensate me for the missed flight and unused room booking? After a couple of phonecalls, they told me to be at the airport the next morning, and I was eventually put on a similar flight an hour later than the original flight. As a result, I would be too late for the original connecting flight to Chengdu and had to rebook a later flight, which the staff at KLIA assured me would be taken care of, except when I arrived at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, I found it wasn’t and I had to do the booking myself. With the connecting flight sorted out, I was looking forward to getting on the plane and be on my way to Chengdu. Except the flight was delayed; in fact, there were so many flights delayed that day, which I think had something to do with the fact that the Olympics would be held in Beijing later that month.

The same part of the journey (KL – Guangzhou – Chengdu – Bifengxia) this year had no cancelled or delayed flights. I didn’t even have any paper tickets for the various flights, only my passport to show at the check-in counters for the staff to check my name against the passenger lists. I have to admit that was my biggest worry, that my name would not be on the list and I did not have a seat on a particular flight. As it turned out, my worry was unfounded.

So, with all the hassle from last year’s trip, why did I not book through a travel agent and let them handle everything for me? Why did I do my own bookings, going online to check flights, compare prices, etc.? Simple – my trip itinerary was not available as a convenient all-in-one package from any travel agent. At least, not from Malaysia. I know in Europe there is an organisation that handles similar itineraries but as far as I know, not in Malaysia. I did go through a travel agent in Chengdu for both my 2007 Wolong and 2008 Bifengxia trips, but only because I’d never been to either places and was not familiar with the available accommodation at both places. But having been to Bifengxia last year, I felt confident to make my own arrangements this year and for all future trips to come.

In the end, I learned something from this year’s DIY panda trip. I learned about the different online travel companies (all operating in mainland China) that offer discounted flights, hotels and tours. I learned about the different levels of discounts. I also learned that these discounts sell out pretty fast. I managed to book my Guangzhou – Chengdu flight at 68% discount, but soon learned that booking and confirmation are two different things. Within 30 minutes of receiving an acknowledgement that the company had received my booking, came a second email saying they could not sell me the ticket at that price because the airline would not sell it. That was really just bad English, because what it meant was the 68% discount tickets had been sold out. I then managed to book another ticket at the next level of discount at 53%.

The Chengdu – Fuzhou flight is another travel tale I’ll enjoy telling and retelling, mainly thanks to the current global economic situation, particularly the fluctuating currency exchange rates. I had to reschedule that flight, but because it was a discounted ticket, I could not just change the time of my flight. Instead, I had to cancel the first flight and book a new flight. I paid a small penalty of 5% for the cancellation and got a refund, but thanks to the fluctuating currency exchange, I ended up paying less for the new flight.

There were a couple of other lessons learned from this DIY trip. eTickets are as good as paper tickets, and online Chinese travel companies CAN be trusted. These same travel companies can also be trusted to refund any money from incomplete bookings (like my Guangzhou – Chengdu flight) or cancelled flights (like my Chengdu – Fuzhou flight) in a very timely manner.

So, after enduring a full day of travelling, a cold night and a room even worse than the previous year (the inn Xiao Xi Tian, which means “Little Western Sky”, requires its own blog entry), I woke up early the next morning, ready to say hello to the staff of the Panda Club office, the keepers from last year, and of course, my beloved black and white bears. By the end of day, I had visited with some friends from last year, and had to remind myself to slow down, as I would there for the next six days.

Some of the cubs born in 2008 now live in the kindergarten – how they’ve grown since I saw some of them in August last year, when they were just tiny pink hairless and helpless creatures

This one stood out from the rest for standing up and being restless and maybe a little reckless

Three of the girls from the 2006 batch. The one in the middle is my adopted panda, Feng Yi. She had arrived late the previous month from Beijing Zoo where she had been part of the Olympic attractions with seven others from her batch. I thought she was looking a little unhappy that day. Life on the Base must be rather boring compared to the public display and crowds at the Zoo.

Three of the boys from the 2006 batch. Two of them, Lang Lang and Tao Tao, had been at Beijing Zoo until late the previous month.

These two are Funi and Fuwa, twins from the 2006 batch. Fuwa was in Beijing Zoo until late last month. Funi will be going to Adelaide Zoo later this year with Wang Wang, born in 2005.

This is Gong Zhu who I helped to look after last year and also this year. She is a very special panda who appeared in the Disney movie, Trail of the Panda, with her 2007 cubs, Zhu Ling and Zhu Hai. Their scenes in the movie are very precious because Zhu Hai died in June 2008.

I got my wish

Filed in Stress Busters, Travels

And so on 12 May 2009, the first anniversary of the China earthquake that affected tens of thousands of lives not just in China but also around the world and not just humans but animals, too, I found myself with my precious bears at their new home in Bifengxia Panda Base.

In true “Duh, Chet” fashion, I forgot about marking that particularly moment – 2:28 p.m. – with a meaningful gesture. By the time I remembered, it was at least five minutes past that moment, and I was getting ready to leave my room at Xiao Xi Tian (“Little Western Sky”) Inn* to return to the Base just a few minutes’ walk away. And that was the way it happened for many of the panda keepers a year ago – many of them were getting ready to return to work after the lunch break.

As it was then in Wolong Panda Centre, so it is now in Bifengxia Panda Base – the lunch break is from around 12:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. In Wolong, staff quarters were next to the Panda Inn, itself right beside the Panda Centre. Many of the keepers, including the married ones with their families, were in their own rooms when the grounds rumbled and the mountains came tumbling down on beloved Wolong that afternoon. One keeper I spoke to during my recent trip said he was on the first floor when he heard what sounded like a steamroller nearby. It was only when he saw the glass in the windows shatter that he realised it was an earthquake. He first went to the toilet and eventually leaped to the ground from a window next to the toilet.

Perhaps one of the most famous panda rescue images from that day is that of keeper Tang Chenping emerging from a collapsed wooden house with the 15-month-old cub, Qing Qing, in his arms. It was only later that we would learn that his wife and 53-day-old baby daughter were in their rooms in the staff quarters but both escaped to safety.

A year later, Bifeng Gorge, where the Panda Base is located, decided to commemorate the day with free entrance to the zoo nearby and a discounted entrance fee to the Base itself. This resulted in a massive traffic jam and the eventual closing of the road at noon. Mr Yang, the inn keeper, was supposed to fetch my friends Annette and Ellen at their hotel in Ya’an city at 9:00 a.m.; an hour later, he was still on the road (the journey would’ve taken at most 45 minutes) and nowhere near the hotel. He later called to advise them to cancel their plans to come up to the Base that day.

It turned out to be an eventful day of sorts for me. That morning, as with the previous two mornings, I’d gone to visit a favourite giant panda. She lived in her own enclosure up on a small hill. Having been there the two previous mornings, I was a little over-confident with my steps, unaware that the path was slippery until it was too late. Yes, I slipped and fell quite hard. By the time I got up, I peered over the wall and saw an anxious panda looking in my direction, her eyes wide open (she’d been asleep the two previous mornings, sprawled on the ground, butt facing the world). But I was too worried about whether I’d broken any bones to think of taking a picture. And so that image of that anxious beloved panda is only available in the camera of my mind.

I’d started my outdoor volunteering the day before, but one of the outdoor enclosures I was assigned to clean was a little too steep for me. I was not sure if I wanted to continue with the work, and now with that rather bad fall, it seemed the decision was made for me. I spent the rest of the day hanging out at the Volunteers’ Lounge and visiting some of the bears.

Here are some pictures I took at Bifengxia Panda Base on the first anniversary of the China earthquake.

This is the outdoor enclosure that I’d helped clean the day before. You can just make out the head and ears of You You, the resident of this enclosure.

Three of the 2008 cubs, including a very curious one, in the outdoor yard of their kindergarten.

I’d helped to look after Gong Zhu last year, and got to look after her again this year. I have very strong evidence that she remembers me. When I went to help feed her on my last day on the Base, she was outdoors and would not come in when keeper Gao Qiang called her. But when I called her, she came in. *grin* She also shifted her sitting position when I told her to “come here”.

*Before arriving in Bifengxia last year, I was told Xiao Xi Tian is a hotel but really, it’s nothing more than a backpacker-style motel. This year, I finally figured out what it really is – an inn

The “Joys” of Travelling

Filed in Stress Busters, Travels

There was a time when travelling was exciting. In those long ago days, not many people got to travel but tour packages soon made travelling possible for them. A tour package would comprise a set number of days, usually through more than one country, with airfare, accommodation and some meals included.

Positive stories about such packages included how one got to see and experience a few countries at one time. Negative stories included how one got herded around with limited time to see and experiences those countries – get up in the morning, meet at lobby, get on bus, go to first place on that day’s schedule, get off bus, walk around, take pictures, back on bus, on to next place, etc.

Still, people went on such packages, mainly because of limited budgets and limited free time (aka annual leave).

Now, in the wake of the H1N1 flu pandemic, there is a new story to add to all these travelling stories.

I was in China between 8 and 18 May 2009 to visit my beloved bears in Bifengxia and Fuzhou. About a week or 10 days before the trip, the outbreak began. My brother advised against the trip. I was quite determined to go on it, but told him I would monitor the situation closely. A day before my trip, he emailed to ask if I was still going. I replied yes. He told me to be careful.

At that time, China had not reported any cases. Still, the airlines were taking precautions. I, too, took precautions. I went to the pharmacy and bought five N95 masks. I’d called in advance to ask if they had the masks, and told the man over the phone I needed five, to which he’d replied “Ha?” (the Chinese equivalent of “What?”). He said at most, people would need two – one for the flight going, and the other for the returning flight. But I was taking internal flights while in China – three, to be exact – so I needed a total of five. In the end, I didn’t use any of them.

On 8 May 2009, the H1N1 situation seemed to have stabilised, and the scene at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport seemed normal – not a mask in sight.

On board, the usual announcements were made about safety and what to do in the event of an evacuation. Then came a new health announcement. It went something like this:

“Will passengers who have travelled to the following countries (list of countries on the H1N1 alert) or felt unwell in the past seven days please identify yourself to members of the cabin crew … ”

Wtf? Couldn’t they have done this before we boarded the plane? I’ll bet you no one identified themselves to any member of the cabin crew that flight, or any other flight with a similar health announcement.

On 12 May, my fourth day in Bifengxia, we heard of the first case in China – a Chinese man travelling in from the States had been found with suspected H1N1 on a flight coming into Chengdu. From then on, we started feeling a little uneasy, especially for those of us who would be travelling later on.

After Bifengxia, I’d gone on to Fuzhou with two other friends. We took a flight from Chengdu to Fuzhou. Suddenly, every cough heard on board seemed ominous. We started to look around to see how far we were from this or that cough.

Upon arrival in Fuzhou, we’d taken an airport shuttle bus to our hotel. My two friends sat a few rows behind me. During the ride, I would glance over at them to see how they were doing, and saw that they’d fallen asleep. I also saw they were wearing masks. I wasn’t. I didn’t think of it. But the bus was an even smaller enclosed space that the plane had been. Upon arrival, both of them told of a passenger just behind them who was coughing so they decided to put on a mask.

On the flight home to KL at the end of my 10-day trip, there was the same health announcement asking passenngers to identify themselves to the cabin crew, etc. I looked over to the guy sitting next to me and made a comment about how this should’ve been done before we boarded the plane. He agreed.

Upon arrival, we were told we would be given health declaration forms to fill before we get off the plane. There was a delay as we waited for officials to come on board with the forms. For the first flight at the start of the trip, health forms had been given out during the flight, along with the usual disembarkation forms. Why couldn’t it have be done this way for the return flight?

So we made our way to the exit of the plane where we were each handed a pink form. All the while, I wondered how we would get to fill in the forms before getting off the plane.

As it turned out, we left the plane and were ushered single file through a door to a room with a group of people that included a camera man pointing a video camera at us. Every now and then, a few would be let through, then we were told to hold on and then another few let through. When it was my turn, the camera man pointed to a guy behind me and told a woman in uniform to take him out. The rest of us went on to a waiting area where we filled in the forms. I wasn’t sure about the question asking if I’d been to a H1N1 identified country seven days before returning to Malaysia so I left that blank and went to ask on my way to submitting the form. The answer to my question was “of course, that’s why we’re screening this flight.” Of course. The H1N1 identified country that I’d returned from was China. Major duh, Chet.

This trip has been quite an experience, and not just because of my beloved bears. I’m not sure if it’s a travel story I will remember to tell, except maybe for how they should’ve screened passengers before allowing us on board. But for those passengers who were identified and “taken out”, I’m sure this is one travel story they will be telling for a while to come. Or maybe not.