What is the “real China”

Earlier today, I was on the CityWeekend web site, where I encountered an article written by Japhet Weeks. The article went on and on about the notion of how expats search for the meaning of the “real China”…..Needless to say, the overall tone of the article got me going so here are some of my thoughts on the subject of what makes the Real China:

Having read through this article I would like to point out to the author / Japhet Weeks that China has been changing every year. The notion of a “Real China” is a notion that is tough to pin point to one point in time. When I arrived for my first stint in China I did see the Mao suits and flods bicycles…. That was in the Fall of 1987. By the time I left, at the end of December 1990, Beijing, Shanghai, China were completely different places – Shanghai’s Nanjing street was exploding with consumerism, the Portman Ritz Carlton was operating, bars were everywhere on the streets around the Hilton….Was that the real China then? Yes, and No. It depends… It is all a point of view. Tourists were coming in larger numbers and discovering luxury hotels like the Portman, the brand new Garden Hotel (Hotel Okura chain)….Then I was back in late 1990s — I remember staying in Tianjin and wondering what was different….Also tough to say. Then I came back to Beijing in 2004, started another assignment and started re-discovering the city and China again. I spend many weekends driving around Beijing, the countryside, driving to Chengde, to other smaller cities… It is all the REAL CHINA. Like any other place on Earth, China is constantly changing, and that change is REAL. So if you are looking for the real China, I believe there is one thing to do — get to know the Chinese people and the foreigners living in China. They make the place real. They define it and make it change. It does not matter whether those people are in Beijing, Shanghai, rural Sichuan province, or any other place…

Starbucks and the Forbidden City — too much noise about what?

Over the last week there have been a bunch of articles in several newspapers in China and overseas about whether or not the Starbucks location in the Forbiddent City in Beijing should stay or go. There has been a tremendous number of postings on various sites and comments to newspapers from Beijingers who appear to be in a oversensitive state of protectionism and nationalism — i.e. “….Starbucks should not be in one of the most visited national monuments in China…

My response to all this noise is “What is the big deal…?” The Starbucks location in the Forbidden City is located in a very discrete small building (it was used centuries ago by visitors who waited there for an audience with the Emperor). The actual Starbucks signage and logos are barely visible and you really need to be close by in order to notice it. The building itself is preserved in the traditional style of the rest of the buildings and is very non-obtrusive. So all in all it is just an issue of actually being there, rather than being visible.

At the same time you need to know that other corporate logos are VERY visible around the Forbidden City — e.g. the American Express logo is on most if not all plaques that describe the sites…. Of course it will be — American Express has contributed significant funding for the restoration of the site.

Also, I would say, the Forbidden City has other problems to solve — e.g. how it is organized and how tourists can find the multiple attractions inside. It is rather confusing place, the various exhibits are not easy to locate. I have been there multiple times over the years — the first time in 1987 (when I was a foreign student in China/Beijing) and as late as the Spring of 2006. Things are still not very orderly.

So rather than nitpicking about whether or not there could be a coffee house on the premises (no matter if it is Starbucks of one of the Chinese copycat establishments — e.g. IBC Coffee), I believe the management of the Forbidden City should spend significant effort in improving the organization and arrangement of the museum.

Don’t take me wrong — the Forbidden City is a grand museum — but it will benefit further more from some organization.

Fast Track to Elite Status in Frequent Flyer Programs

American Airlines has an unadvertised feature of its frequent flyer program whereby a customer can attain Gold or Platinum status by flying a greatly reduced number of miles–as long as they inform American Airlines beforehand of their intentions and they complete the flights within a three month period. To attain Gold status, you only need to fly 5000 miles and Platinum status only takes 10,000. This is a great deal fewer than the 25,000 and 50,000 miles respectively that are required for normal qualification for these statuses.

So how do you do it? Just call American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flyer program (1-800-882-8880) and tell the representative that you are speaking with that you would like to enroll in the Gold Challenge or the Platinum Challenge. (I’m not sure if you need to sign up with AAdvantage first–that might be a good idea). If the representative says that there is no such thing, call back and speak to someone else. (I’ve never had trouble asking American Airlines representatives about the Gold and Platinum challenges, but I’ve heard that some people have.) If you think that you won’t be able to attain enough miles to make the Platinum Challenge, go for Gold–otherwise, you should try for Platinum because it has much better benefits. One catch is that only American Airlines miles count toward the Gold/Platinum challenge–you can’t use miles from their airline partners to qualify.

Can you do the challenge more than once? Yes, but only if you have legitimately achieved the status you want to re-take the challenge for in-between Challenge attempts. For example, if you take the Platinum challenge and attain Platinum status by flying the requisite 10,000 miles within 3 months and then you re-qualify for Platinum in a subsequent year in the standard, non-challenge way, if you then lose your Platinum status after that, you can re-take the challenge. Otherwise, you can’t. Successive challenges without legitimately acquired elite status in between them are not allowed.

How else can you get elite status? Well, once you have gotten elite status with one frequent flyer program, you can ask for a ‘elite status match’ from another frequent flyer program and they very may well give it to you. Typically, all you need to do is to call the airline in question and ask them what you need to do to get an elite status match. They should give you a number to fax your documentation to and tell you exactly what you need to send in. You typically need to send them your most recent statement from the frequent flyer program that you currently have elite status with. It is a great way to get elite fast, but you have to be elite in one frequent flyer program already in order to make this nifty trick work.

The nice thing about elite status is that due to mileage bonuses, once you have attained elite status (by whatever means), it is much easier to re-qualify for it. So, the next time you are considering a faraway trip, consider taking advantage of the AAdvantage challenge!

How to get the seat you want!

Getting a good seat on a flight, particularly on a lengthy international one, can really make a difference in your overall enjoyment of a trip. In the old days, it was simply a question of being able to select a window versus an aisle seat, or one closer to the front of the plane, but in these days of seat maps, the savvy traveler has a lot more tools at his/her disposal. However, an airline-provided seat map tells you little beyond the general configuration of seats and their location in relation to restroom facilities. Fortunately, this information gap has been filled by websites such as SeatGuru, an excellent traveler’s resource. Let’s say that you have an upcoming trip to Tokyo. There are two flight segments—one from Austin to Dallas and one from Dallas to Tokyo. When you are making your seat selection, note the aircraft type and then go to SeatGuru to find out what information is available on that type of aircraft for the particular airline you are flying. Because seat configurations vary between airlines for the very same plane, you need to first select which airline you are traveling on, and then select the type of aircraft. So, if I am flying on an American Airlines S80 in economy class from Austin to Dallas, SeatGuru gives me the following invaluable information of seats to avoid.

  • Seats 19 A, B and F don’t recline all the way
  • In rows 22-27, the AB seats are less roomy than the DEF seats on the other side of the aisle
  • Row 28-31 DEF seats have the smallest amount of legroom (called seat pitch) on the whole plane, and row 32 DEF doesn’t even have a window. These seats are also extremely noisy due to the fact that the engine is at the back of the plane.

However, I can also see that some prime economy seats are to be had in the exit rows and the bulkhead, but not all the exit row and bulkhead seats are good. SeatGuru says that on that particular aircraft configuration, only seat 7D in the bulkhead row is good—the others all have limited legroom. And in the two exit rows (rows 20 and 21), 20A and 20F should be avoided because they do not recline.

Now, while a non-reclining or extra cramped seat might not make or break things on a 45 minute flight from Austin to Dallas, seat selection on a 13 and a half hour flight from Dallas to Tokyo can be crucial. Noting that this flight segment is also on American Airlines, but this time on a Boeing 777, you go to SeatGuru where you learn the following:

  • Seats 26C-G all have limited recline.
  • All the seats in rows 43-45, which are at the very back of the plane, should be avoided as they are noisy and bright from the nearby galley and lavatories. In addition, the seats in row 45 have limited recline.
  • On the positive side, seats CDFG in row 41 have a little extra room and have extra wide armrests. (This is because the aircraft, which normally has a 2-5-2 configuration, narrows toward the back and comes to a point where 5 seats in the middle section will no longer fit, but there is still a bit more room than is needed for 4 seats. American Airlines compensates for this extra room by putting in extra wide armrests which house the tray tables and personal video units so that passengers don’t have to put up with them being misaligned with the seats in the row of five in front of them.)
  • Exit row seats 31 B and H are good, but seats 31 A and J in the same row are not as comfortable because the emergency slide compromises their legroom.

Seat assignments are not the only thing that SeatGuru can help with. The site also has data comparing the seat width, seat pitch (or legroom), video type, and power port information between various airlines for domestic economy, domestic first class, international economy, premium economy, international business class, and, for those lucky enough to be traveling this way, international first class. These comparison charts can be very informative. They are sortable by each of the columns of data, so you can sort by airline, aircraft type, seat pitch, seat width, and power port type/availability. Looking at the international economy chart, if seat width is your primary consideration, you might want to avoid ANA, whose seat width on its Boeing 777 planes is a mere 16.5 inches, as opposed to the 17 or 18 inches offered by many airlines on that aircraft. (American Airlines offers the widest seat for that aircraft, at 18.2 inches.) If legroom is of the most importance to you, you might want to consider Thai Airways’ Airbus A340, as it offers a whopping 36 inch seat pitch, as opposed to the 31,32 or 33 inches offered on that aircraft by other airlines. Of course, that assumes that you are traveling somewhere that Thai Airways flies…

SeatGuru also has informative articles such as Bulkheads Explained: the Pros and Cons, a review of Noise Canceling Headphones and an informative look at TSA Baggage Restrictions. All in all, it is a great site for both the frequent and infrequent traveler and well worth a look.

What camera you use to take photos on your trips

What would say about a discussion on digital cameras? Well over the last 5 years I have gone through my fair share of digital cameras – Konika, HP, (used a Canon for a while), and now my current one — a Samsung Digimax L85

some examples Melnik2 Wild flowers the camera =>

(The examples above are actually in a reduced resolution — I still have to think about storage space on my server space….so I did not upload the 8M pixel images)

I know this might sound weird — almost as an advertisement about a product, but the reality is that I truly like the camera and have used it non-stop since I bought it in Seoul in May of 2006. I did get a very good deal (including extra secure digital Flash card, carrying case, HDMI cable, etc). Yes, HDMI cable — it is important to note that the HDMI cable makes it very convinient to use the camera connected directly to a HDTV.

I have used the camera for both still image photography as well as for taking MPEG-4 video footage. It is great — you can then play it directly (via the HDMI cable) on HDTV.

Bulgaria on multiple Travel Hot Lists/Destinations

To all readers Happy New Year! Xin1 Nian2 Kuai4 Le4 新年快乐! Честита Нова Година!

The New Year usually brings a series of articles which include rankings and ratings on Travel Destinations, New cars, Best hotels etc. So, just over the last couple of days I came across some new lists with such information. It was interesting to find that both Bulgaria and China were listed in multple rankings as top destination for 2007 travel.

Several Web sites published such lists. Here are a couple of examples:

News.com.au — Has Bulgaria as one of the hot destinations (could not agree more 🙂 )

Realbuzz.com — same thing — also show some very exotic places and Bulgaria is on that list too

Come to thing about it this blog has been getting its fair share of hits coming from searches on both Yahoo and Google for locations in Bulgaria and for general information on Bulgaria. So these lists must be somewhat true 🙂 people are seeking out information on that country.

Well, let me know what you think about such rankings. I will try next to may be even create a poll on this blog to see what the readers’ opinion is on the subject. Until then, Happy Travels!