China – Travel in Time

Steam locomotive in ChinaEarly Morning at a Train Station in Central China — North East of Shanghai — and Yes, the year is 1989….and Yes, you see a steam locomotive….

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Hotel Safe – Comments on an Article On-line

I came across an article from an otherwise good travel blog "Perrin Post" which highlighted some things about the hotel room safes that I believe are both clearly stated by most hotels and should be known to us travelers.

Just how safe is a hotel safe? That’s the question on my mind after inadvertently leaving my travel jewelry case (fashion jewelry—not fine jewelry) behind in the in-room safe of room 215 at the Crowne Plaza in Hollywood, Florida, a couple of weeks ago. I was in a rush to pack up and check out of the hotel, and I simply forgot to retrieve my stuff from the safe. The next morning, when I realized my mistake and phoned the hotel to see what they could do, I was told that another guest was now inhabiting room 215 and that the hotel could not send an employee to access the safe until after the guest had checked out. I was assured that, once the guest left, the hotel would open the safe and see if my jewelry was still in it.

Interestingly, I was never asked for the four-digit passcode that I had programmed into the safe.

A couple of hours later I heard from the hotel again: They had opened the safe (no passcode necessary) and found the jewelry there, and they would ship it to me. A couple of days later I received a FedEx package with everything in it and intact. The FedEx bill? $116. I’m not complaining—I was thrilled to have my belongings back—but I did learn three lessons from this episode

(from Perrin Post blog)

The three lessons the article highlights are the things that made me write here 

  • Remind yourself to check the safe before you check-out —- Of course!!! The same applies for making sure you did not leave items on the bed side table or on the hotel room office table or bathroom counter….or phone charger plugged into a hotel electrical outlet in the room…!  I have done all of the above and never forgotten stuff in the safe — so that tells you…!
  • The second claim is that you need to realize that the safe is not really that safe — again, another truism! Of course it is not!  Every safe is possible to break into…And in some hotels, management even posts a sign near the safe to clarify that to you – i.e. the safe is not a perfect deterent…However, the safe is still better than leaving things out in the open
  • The advice to carry a combination lock to store items under lock in our suitcase is also not perfect — that lock even invites attention and guess what if someone wanted to get into your suitcase — they can!

The more secure way to handle your valuable items is to ask the hotel for a safekeeping with them…..And the second option (the one I like) is not to travel with your most precious posetions.  Enjoy the travel – and do not cause yourself stress by thinking about how to protect your valuables. 

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Carry-on Bags for Air Travellers

I have always wandered what is on the mind of the air traveller (seasoned pro or someone who takes a flight or two or rarely) when they start pushing a bag in the overhead bins of the plane they have just boarded…I see a lot of amuzing and in some cases dangerous (for their fellow passengers) exercises – as folks try to shove and push a bag into the luggage compartment of a plane.

What it boils down to is some thinking prior to heading to the airport.  You need to have the "RIGHT" carry-on bag.  Otherwise you may be very frustrated or worse – having your bag to be checked…

So, what are the good carry-on bags?  Here is a list based on my experience and that of people I know:

The list I have organized here is my persnal preference – and is based on the combination of characteristics like (a) price for the luggage; (b) convenience of use; (c) easiness of carrying it; (d) organization capabilites it provdes

Here we go:

  1. Kirkland Signature 21.5 Expandable Carry-On – I own one of those and am proud to say have owned the previous version of this one as well.  Kirkland Signature Carry-onI have over 1.5million miles logged on my previous one — the current one I own is barely 1 year old and holding well
  2. Delsey Helium – I own the larger versions of these bags.  Must admit have not used this particular model but judging by my other experience with Delsey and the organization capabilities this model offers – this carry on bag is a solid product to use.   it offers a padded laptop sleeve so you can easily access your laptop if you have packed it in the roll aboard.
  3. Briggs and Riley Explore 19 Upright:  This is a more utalitarian look bag.  In has in-line rollers (similar to the Kirkland one above) and in a way resembles more a backpack rather than a suitcase, but it is a strong one and per the manufacturer offers warranty even for damage caused by the airlines.  I think that is cool — but check on it at the time you are buying it.    
  4. Samsonite Hyperspace 21.5 Carry-On Spinner:  This is a bag which offers good features – i.e. spinner wheels which is a great feature for manuevers when in a rush at the ariport.  It has also a couple of external pockets for easy access (e.g. for your toiletries – as you cross through security). The Samsonite has one draw back – it is heavy…
  5. IT Luggage – World's Lightest Carry On: this is a claim by the manufacturer.  And it appears to be true.  The bag is really lightweight – a traveller'smajor plus  but there are also negatives about it – the same reason the bag is very light makes it also vulnerable if it has to be checked in that one time when you may not be able to find overhead bin space and/or the plane is one of the regional jets…So be weary about this.  The bag offers little structural protection for your content but hey it is very light.  
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Flight Attendants’ Luggage

I rarely post write ups on issues I experience while traveling. Why? Because all of us usually remember the good about a trip rather than the bad. So to that extent, well, I prefer to focus on the positive about my trips. This time around though I think I will have to voice my gripes — in this case – about the flight attendants' practices of using overhead bin space for their own luggage.

On my last flight, on a Friday evening, while headed home after a business trip, the first of two flights I had to take was delayed by quite a bit of time (over 40-minutes) as a result we flew late into Dallas where I was to take my next flight going home.  Lucky for me the flights were all delayed so I was able to make it on board of a delayed flight (thank you AA gate agent).   

But as I was one of the last passengers on board – I had to check-in my roll a board bag.  I was not enthusiastic about it, but oh, well I WAS GOING home….

My surprise came when we landed and I saw that a whole overhead bin next to my seat was taken by luggage of one of the flight attendants!  Yet I could not bring my luggage on board — and I had to put my briefcase under the seat due to the lack of overhead bin space.   

Now, why is the flight attendant using that space???? She can use the luggage stowage that is at the front of the plane and allocated for the crew!  My bet was that she just wanted to be near her suitcases in case she wanted to retrieve something…. NICE !

So, if anyone from American Airlines is reading — yes, I like your airline, but REALLY?! please instruct your flight attendants to leave the luggage compartment to the passengers…!  After all it is intended for them…!


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Bulgaria in Images

Here are a few interesting photos from our recent trip to Bulgaria.  In my previous article I provided a guide on how you can get from Kazanlak to Istanbul.   So in this update I just wanted to post a bunch of photos from various corners of country so you can enjoy its natural beauty….

Here we go….

in the foothills of the Balkan range Sunset in a small town  Flowers in a Church yard, Bulgaria 

Bulgaria fields          Bulgaria sunflowers

Lavender          Lavender in Bulgaria

And a gallery of sunsets in a small town in the Valley of Thracian Kings

And if you would like to see a lot more photo albums from various places in Bulgaria – Thracian tombs, old fortresses, mountain resorts, monasteries, and more follow the link here

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Travel from Bulgaria to Istanbul

If you have come to this blog chances are you were searching for information on Bulgaria.  Well, you have come to the right place — and mind you — in the next few days, you will also get access to information on:

  • Getting from Bulgaria to Turkey / Istanbul
  • some places to stay in Istanbul
  • and of course tons of info on sites and interesting places to visit in Istanbul

So, here we go with the first information piece "Travel from Bulgaria to Turkey / Istanbul"

As usual, there are multiple options for getting from Bulgaria to Turkey and Istanbul specifically.  You can get there via

  1. plane: turns out the only fiights we could locate were from Sofia airport; asked for flights from Plovdiv (recently opened airport) and were told that none existed yet.  The flights to Istanbul were not exactly convenient. The only airline that flew directly was Turkish Airlines; All others (British Airways, Lufthansa…) included detour back to London or Munich or….really crazy itinerary given that Istanbul is Southeast of Sofia and those other cities are way West from it…!  As a result of this we decided that air travel was not the option we will pursue;
  2. Train:  We discovered that there are a couple of trains headed overnight to Istanbul.  The one we wanted to get on was the train from Bucharest (Romania) to Istanbul.  It stops at several cities in Bulgaria – Ruse, Gorna Oriahovitsa, Stara Zagora – to name a few.  The problem turned out to be access to sleeping car tickets.  When we checked with the international train ticket desk (called Rila) – we were told that one can buy sleeper car tickets only from Bucharest.  In Bulgaria you can only buy ticket for couchette – so we decided that was not an option for us either;
  3. Rental car:  We checked on getting a rental car in one direction.  Turns out you CANNOT do that.  Turkey requires that all cars that enter the country have to leave with the same driver.  So one way car rental was a no go.  We had only the option of hiring a car with a driver.  The price from Plovdiv: ~ approximately 300 euro!!! 
  4. Bus:  This was the last alternative.  There are a number of bus lines that travel from various points in Bulgaria (Sofia, Ruse, ….) to Istanbul.  We decided to use the HUNTUR bus line and get on the bus in Kazanlak traveling to Stara Zagora, Capitan Andreevo (the border crossing) and Istanbul.   The ticket price from Kazanlak is approximately 45-leva which is very reasonable given the distance traveled (Kazanlak to Istanbul accoriding to Google Maps is ~404km)

Here are some pointer for the bus ride:  (a) get ready for a relatively long journey; (b) the bus may include the occasional smoker – officially smoking is not allowed on the bus.  (c) the bus makes a number of stops for restroom use, smoking brakes; food;

About the Border crossing:

Border Crossing at Capitan Andreevo  Kapikule Border Crossing

Once you get to the border at Kapitan Andreevo (on the Bulgarian side) you will have to get off the bus and go through passport checkpoint.  Then you will get back on the bus and continue to the Turkish side. Before you get there though the bus will most likely make a stop for shopping at the duty free store.  Once you start crossing the Turkey border, you will have to give your passport and e-Visa (if you have purchased one ahead of time) to the Turkey immigration official and then wait for your passport to be processed.  Eventually, the passports will re-emerge and be handed back to you by the bus driver.  

Yes, the whole procedure is very strange and you need to pay attention to signs of what you need to do — that is unless you can speak Turkish and get information from the bus driver.

All in all the crossing is OK, and takes about one and a half hours.

After that, the bus stopped at one more restaurant and rest stop on the Turkey side and from there it was a non-stop run to Istanbul.    

In the next article I will summarize options for hotels in the European side of Istanbul and near the main sites in the city.  Stay tuned.

Istanbul view Istanbul views

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Just some photographs from New York City

I was thinking today about my two trips to New York City over the last year and a half, so I decided to put some photos on the blog to show interesting sites in the City… Plus I added a Photo Album page.  Enjoy!

NYC - Times Square (from Mariott)    Near Times Square


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Travel in China – China Railways CRH2

I have been meaning to put together a posting on the new trains in China for a while.  I remember years ago, 1987-1988-1990 timeframe to be precise, when travel by train across the country was a multi-day adventure.  My experiences from those days are very different and I will write a post later, in the mean time — I wanted to give you some view of the new, and really convenient modes of transportation in China — the bullet trains.  These days you can use those trains for a 45min journey from Shanghai to Nanjing, or a 4 hour trip from Beijing to Shanghai, a 50minute trip from Suzhou to Hangzhou….

All this is being made possible by the new high-speed trains which were licensed from Japan – and are based as I understand on the Shinkansen trains in that country.  As a reference – I have ridden on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and yes, the experience is very similar.   The trains started being tested in 2007 and now they are in full operation between a number of metro areas in China.

The high-speed trains of China

So next time you are thinking of looking for plane tickets to get from Beijing to Shanghai…..Don't !   The train is REALLY a lot more convenient and as fast (if not faster — given heavy traffic in China's airports and constant flight delays)


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More on China Eastern Airlines

Last week I published a note on China Eastern Airlines — or rather – a warning to avoid the airline if at all possible.  So now I am adding some more to my list of experiences with them.  This is on my recent experience with the comforts of their planes.  The reality is that the seats on the China Eastern Airlines are positioned extremely tight.  To the point of discomfort… The second aspect contributing to discomfort, is that these seats are setup with head-rests that are non-existent for anyone in the height range of 5'8" and above….

I really tried to get comfy on a couple of recent flights and I just could not find the magical formula to get comfortable.

So, my recommendation – use the airline at your own peril 

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Excellent Restaurant in Beijing

Finding a good restaurant in Beijing is always an on-going challenge.  Why?  Because there are so many different objectives to fullfil over a given period of time.  I am sure you, like me, would have friends who want to get together in an unassuming place, Or visitors who want to get to experience "authenthic Beijing place", or have good food BUT not having to pay a month's salary for it…and on and on….

Well folks, if you are trying to impress visitors from out of town, or show your friends a good place to see both a traditional Chinese house and experience great food (from Shandong), we have the place identified for you — but let me clarify — I have several of my friends to thank for bringing me first to this interesting restaurant.

Shandong Food Restaurant   Private dining room  

The restaurant is located on Suzhou Jie in Haidian District

Enjoy!  I will publish more photos 

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