Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Week DIY Itinerary In China For First Time Visitors

Daniele convinced me to post the itinerary I created for China back when I thought Apple would be a bit more human and approve a two week trip to China for Daniele.  This is an itinerary for first timers in China who want to see the big sights but also go a little off the beaten path.  It's more realistic than the itineraries that most package tours tend to create, but it's also a little faster paced than what a lot of independent travelers may do on their first trip to China.  It's not for someone who wants to take their time to see every last sight a city has to offer or who takes a whole day to go through one sight, but it's good for people who tend to go through sights fairly quickly and would rather see more than dive deep.  It assumes you are fairly active/ in shape and will not be traveling with children or anyone with mobility issues.  I've adjusted the schedule a little bit since our original trip included time with my parents, which meant time on business related activities, but everything else is more or less the same.

This trip assumes flying in and out of Shanghai, but can also be adjusted to flying into Shanghai and out of Beijing(or vice versa).  Our original schedule had us heading to Beijing right away after Shanghai so that we could make it to a Sunday Champagne Brunch at the Westin both in Beijing and in Shanghai, but I will list it out South to North because train tickets may be easier to get in this direction since most foreign tourist head north to south starting in Beijing. I've also placed Huangshan at the end of the trip instead of at the beginning as originally planned.
Qibao, A Water Town Outside Of Shanghai

Day 1
Arrive in Shanghai - keep this day relaxed, adjust to being in China or just take the time to sleep after a long flight.

Day 2

Flights Booked!

Alright, flights are booked for Shanghai.  Strangely enough Apple would not allow Daniele more than one week of vacation, which seems so pointless and weird for a tech company.  I joked with Daniele that working in a US campus is only slightly a step up from the sweatshops in Asia.  Since they wouldn't even budge and give him 10 days, we decided he'd have to wait until next time for his first foray into the wonders of Asia (not counting Japan since Japan is similar to the rest of Asia as Germany is similar to the rest of Europe).  So instead of a month in China, I'll only being spending around 3 weeks.

Our flight to China is through Asiana Airlines and includes an overnight in Seoul.  We'll be staying in the tourist center of Myeongdong right in the middle of what many have dubbed "shopper's paradise".  Well, if you're female.  No joke, there are literally door to door cosmetic shops right around our hotel, Hotel Skypark Myeongdong 1.  A quick walk via Google Street View shows more cosmetic shops around our hotel than there are Starbucks in downtown NYC.

I've never been very girly, but seeing how the South Koreans treat skin care and cosmetics, and seeing the ease in accessing a huge multitude of products, I can see how it can become an obsession. I'm even excited to do some shopping.  

It's my first time flying Asiana Airlines and I'm not sure what to expect.  I'm hoping they follow the good service I've come to expect from Asian airlines, even some of the low cost airlines in Asia always beat out just about every American airline and most European airlines (with Swiss Air as the only airline where I experienced outright racism).  From what I've read Asiana Airlines provides more leg room (yay!), friendly service, decent food, and many service perks that no longer exist on airlines in America.  Will they be a contender against my beloved Singapore Airlines(wonderful service aside, people underestimate how much more comfortable Singapore's economy seats are because they have footrests)?  
Notice The Adjustable Footrest, Lifesaver!
Regardless of how the airline is, at least it's another airline to add to the list of ones I've flown on.  

In some ways I wish we were taking United just to see how much that route has changed since my last United SFO --> PVG flight in 2006.  Surprisingly, that was a time when flights on United were actually quite enjoyable, one of my favorites actually (decent food,friendly flight attendants, seats were more comfortable, and alcohol was free).  The only other time I enjoyed a United flight after that was a 2009 flight out of Heathrow(thank you friendly flight attendant who kept bringing me and my seat neighbor free wine from first class), since then their services have been less than lackluster. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

City Hall - Neighbor Rant

On Tuesday I received an email from my project manager at Wingard, there's been a slight delay having our trusses delivered and installed on our house.  We live on a one way street and the trucks delivering and installing our trusses are huge, they would block the street.  Thank goodness for our contractor, Shane.  He's been going back and forth with the city doing everything he can to get plans approved so that his team can have the go ahead.  It's frustrating as the home owner, but looking it at from the city's point of view, it's important to figure out how our contractor will have this work done with the least amount of disruption to our neighbors and the city.  This pushes our schedule back by at least a week, but it's times like this I couldn't be happier with our decision to go with a professional licensed contractor who believes in doing good work. 

The other bit of news this week is actually more annoying and frustrating.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

China Visa Success

After the long weekend the line for visa pick ups was quite long at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, but luckily the line moved quite quickly and after paying $420 for three visas, we had our passports back in our possession. It was a bit of a sticker shock even though we knew each visa is $140, but I still remember when 3 visas to China were about the price of one visa now.  I'm really starting to sound old when I say things like that.  Next thing you know I'll be yelling for kids to get off my lawn.

We were all able to get a Q2 visa, multiple entry for 90 day duration without a problem, but the length of our visas varied.  My dad just renewed his passport and was able to get 2 years.  My mom's passport expires in just under 2 years so her visa was only for 1 year, but the most disappointing was my meager 6 month visa.  It's the most expensive Chinese visa I've ever paid for and the shortest duration.  I can't complain too much though, my passport expires next year in July and they only give visas for 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years.
Q2 Visa For China

In retrospect I was expecting the new rules for getting a Chinese visa to be a huge pain, but it ended up being pretty straight forward.  The new Q2 visa only requires a Chinese citizen to write a letter of invitation, this should be easy considering a Q2 visa was created for visiting family in China.  The rest of the requirements are more or less similar to the old requirements.

I can see how getting the L tourist visa may be slightly more of a hassle.  If you go in a tour you can easily get an invitation letter through the tour company you are using, but if you are an independent traveler like myself and you don't know anyone in China who can write you an invitation letter your only other option is to book your flight and hotels before applying for the visa, then make photo copies to submit with your application along with your itinerary.   I know most people aren't happy with the idea of booking flights and hotels before getting a visa, but your average citizen will not get rejected.  China wants the tourism.  If you really are paranoid about getting rejected for an L visa it's still not a big problem.  You can easily book hotels that allow for free cancellation, but most people get stuck when it comes to booking flights.  Nonrefundable tickets are usually cheaper than refundable flights, but if you get rejected for a visa you're stuck with the flight.  No worries, most booking sites give you the option to buy trip insurance for a reasonable price.  This trip insurance allows for a refund even on nonrefundable flights.  This is what we'll be doing for Daniele's visa.  We'll book all our hotels under his name and purchase travel insurance when buying his flight.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

China Visa And Travel Options

Today we stopped by the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to drop off our visa applications.  We arrived around 11 am and were done by 12:30 pm.  Not too bad.  After all the stress over the new visa regulations we didn't have any issues with our visa application packages.  Even if we had filled out our application incorrectly it seemed like the person at the counter was taking her time to go over any mistakes with each applicant, so kudos to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco for that.

Ever since the new visa regulations kicked in September of last year, I've dreaded getting a visa to China, not only is the visa now $140 for Americans regardless of duration and number of entries (it was $45 the first time I remember getting a visa to China), but there are so many more requirements.  Rather than a catch all L visa for tourist and short term visitors, there are now a larger number of visa options.  We stopped by a travel agency and they recommended my parents and I apply for a Q2 visa, short term for visiting family in China.  The requirements are a little more relaxed, we just needed an invitation letter from a family member in China on top of the basic documents (visa application, one 2x2 photos, copy of the information page of our passport, and passport).  I'm still a little weary of the new requirements, but as far as dropping off our application, everything seemed in order. We'll find out on Tuesday if our visa request for multiple entries in a 2 year period is approved or not.  The last time we were in LA my uncle pointed out to us that it is possible to write in 2 year multiple entry visa on our application IF we've received a multiple entry visa to China before, which we all have.

Once Daniele has approval from work to take a vacation I'll work on his tourist L visa.  His should be easy with minimal complications.  Since the L visa requires either a signed letter from a tour company OR photo copies of his flight and hotel confirmations, we'll just book our hotels under his name and buy trip insurance for his flight on the off chance he is denied.  His visa is also so much cheaper than ours.  As an Italian (and for many other nationalities other than Americans) he has the following options:

Number of Entry
U.S. Citizens
Citizens of Third Countries
Single Entry
Double Entries
Multiple Entries for 6 Months
Multiple Entries for 12 Months or more

Notice Americans only get the one price option.

Once this trip was confirmed, of course I couldn't keep myself from starting to plan.  If there is one thing I absolutely adore doing, it's trip planning.  Such a shame travel agents are no longer a viable career option.

Daniele really wants to see the usual tourist trail (Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an), which I've done to death, but I don't mind.  I'm going to skip the Forbidden Palace since it's not the same since they closed the Starbucks that was inside (just kidding), but I don't mind heading to the Great Wall again (potentially a new section that I haven't been to yet) and the Terracotta Warriors again, after all, that was one of the first sights to take my breath away.  In an effort to go somewhere new for me, we're going to skip Chengdu and all the sights around Szechuan and that left us with two options that caught our attention.

The first option involved the Li River and a bamboo raft

Biking and hiking in Yangshuo

Longji for the rice patties

The scenery is gorgeous, but to fit in Xi'an we figured it would be better to stay around the Shaanxi/Shanxi/Shanghai/Henan/Hebei region.

Daniele and my tentative itinerary is looking something like this for the time after my parents return to California, some of the places we found limited information about, while others are part of the well worn tourist trail. 

Shanghai - Not much in terms of sights, but I once briefly called this city home.  The best thing to do here is eat, eat, and eat - both Chinese food and overindulgent western food.

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors, the city wall, Muslim quarter.  

Pingyao - A bit touristy, but that's alright.  I figured Daniele would really enjoy staying in an ancient walled city.  Pingyao has been named a UNESCO world heritage sight and is a favorite stop for many tourist.  This would be a quick rest for us, a little relaxation before climbing a second mountain (the first is Huangshan, not mentioned here since we'll be doing that with my parents).

Mianshan - For some reason most overseas tourist don't know Mianshan exists, only half an hour from Pingyao, yet it's rarely mentioned on most tourists' itinerary from Pingyao.  We were looking at Longtan Valley as well, yet another location not big on the foreign tourist trail, but we opted to go with Mianshan due to the gorgeous photos and the great reviews we read from the few people who have gone.  The lack of overseas tourist might mean English will be limited, but we should be alright with my dormant Chinese language abilities.

Ningwu Ice Cave - Another location where information is limited, but it's on the way between Pingyao and Datong, and it's so different from everything else in the region and our itinerary.  If we don't have enough time for everything this will probably be the first thing cut from our list.

Datong - Back on the tourist trail.  Not far from the city is Yungang Grottoes, and just over an hour away from the city in the opposite direction is the hanging monastery.  

Beijing - What itinerary to China can be complete without a stop in Beijing.  First time visitors love all the historic sights, repeat travelers go back for the nightlife and food.  I'm dreaming of that Beijing duck, roujiamuo, zajian mein, and this amazing sour glass noodle soup that I can't remember the name of.

Budget List

My home reconstructing feels like it is forever ongoing, but I know it's really only been almost a month.  This past week we were given a budget list for choices we needed to make for things like the hardwood flooring, stove top, dish washer, etc...  It was a surprise how low the budgets were for some of the items, even taking the cheapest choice was below the budget.  I knew contractors take off a premium for things like this, but it was a bit of a shock.  Luckily we like to do things the Chinese way and headed to the Chinese manufacturers around the area for the hardwood floor, marble, and tile, which meant we were able to go over budget for just about everything else with the savings we made by skipping Home Depot for the above mentioned items.   That means we have enough budget to add in two new tubular skylights, one in our uber dark stairwell and one for the hallway by the front door.  Now there are no dark spots in our home!  That makes me really excited.  

The tubular skylight we found actually is flat, which makes me happy, I never liked the look of the dome most tubular skylights have.

We Found One Similar To This
The Result Will Look Similar To This
I know I can't hope for the areas to be super bright from this type of skylight, but since the majority of our house is pretty bright already, this helps us chase away the last dark corners. 

An Example Of What A Difference A Tubular Skylight Makes

The rest of our selections should look quite good, it makes me excited to see what the finished project will look like.  In a lot of ways it'll be like a brand new home, but we are also keeping most elements of our home the same as before, just brighter and more welcoming. :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

How To Visit Venice And Actually Enjoy Your Trip

Every year there is always someone writing about the overcrowded mess that Venice turns into during the summer, and every time I roll my eyes because it's unfathomable to think that this day in age with the countless resources available online that the people didn't do a little research beforehand to avoid the suffocating crowds.  I've been to Venice twice and I've managed to have the best time while avoiding crowds even in the middle of the high season.  Venice is probably one of my favorite places to visit in Italy and the crowds are more than avoidable.

Here's a few tips I've learned to make for a much more enjoyable trip:

1. Stay for at least one night, I can't stress this enough.  I know it's an expensive city, but if you've dreamed about visiting Venice, do yourself the favor and stay overnight.  Why take the time to go to Venice and only do a day trip, this only ends in heartbreak and yet another pseudo travel expert lamenting about the terrible experience of Venice.
Early Morning
I've helped numerous friends plan trips to Italy including time in Venice and I always tell them the same thing, Venice will be their most expensive hotel experience in Italy, but it won't necessarily be the nicest hotel you stay in.  Know that from the beginning and you can plan how to split your budget accordingly.  A 2 or 3 star hotel will cost about the same as a 4 or 5 star hotel elsewhere. If you are going as a solo traveler or a couple, I recommend staying at a hotel, but if you are going as a family you'll find much more value staying at an apartment rental.  The last time I was there I went with my family, we stayed overnight at a rental I found and our train didn't leave until 6 pm the next day, we lucked out when the owner let us stay as long as we wanted on the day of check out.  This worked out well since my parents like to rest in the afternoon and take a nap.  Essentially we were able to rent the apartment for two days for the price of one, or about $125 per day for a family of 4.  Even if we didn't get the extra day $250 for one night for a family of four is still a steal.  

If you really are on a tight budget and can't afford a hotel, then schedule a train departure for as late as possible.  This isn't ideal since by the later part of the day you'll be wishing you had somewhere to go to get off your feet and take a quick break, but if you have more energy than money, it's worth considering.

2.  The Vaporetto is your friend.  Yes, the best way to explore Venice is on foot.  No question about that, but after many twists and turns feet get tired fast.  This is a guarantee especially for those who only want to spend a day in Venice and still see as much as possible.  The Vaporetto seems expensive when you don't plan on taking it only to break down when you realize you're too exhausted to walk from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark's Square and just want to ride the Vaporetto once.  7 euro for one ride is expensive, but if you plan your day out knowing you'll take the Vaporetto you'll find it's well worth paying for a 12 hour, 24 hour, or longer pass.  18 euro for 12 hours, 20 euro for 24 hours, 25 euro for 36 hours, etc... are great deals.  Keep in mind, unlike some parts of Italy where a day pass expires at midnight the day of validation, the passes for the Vaporetto go by hour, which means if you buy a 24 hour pass and start using it at noon, you can use the pass until just before noon the next day.  
A Ride On A Gondola Is Up To You, But Not Great For Actual Transportation

My parents loved the Vaporetto.  We arrived in Venice at 10 AM, walked around and explored all the side streets we could stand before taking a rest in the afternoon to avoid the day trippers.  By 5 pm we bought and validated our 24 hour Vaporetto tickets and were able to travel comfortably all over Venice for the evening and the next day even fit in trips to Murano and Burano because we had extra time since we planned against the crowds.  Our 24 hour pass didn't expire until 5 pm, which gave us plenty of time to go back to the apartment rental via Vaporetto, rest for a quick moment, then walk to the train station.
A Trip To Burano Made Possible By Avoiding Crowds In Venice

3.  In every tourist destination there are certain places that everyone flocks to, in Venice this includes St. Mark's Square, Bridge of Sighs, and Rialto Bridge. This means you have to put up with crowds at some point while in Venice if you want to see these sights, right?  Wrong.  My next tip is to stay away from St. Mark's Square.  I don't mean never go to St. Mark's Square, it's really too beautiful to miss, but don't book a hotel there and do not visit in the afternoon.  The shops and restaurants around St. Mark's Square are the most expensive and usually the most mediocre on the island, which means if you choose a hotel in the area not only will you have to deal with crowds, but you'll deal with mediocrity even when the crowds disappear for the day.  Choose instead any of the countless places along the Grand Canal and near a Vaporetto stop for line 2.  I can't recommend Cannaregio enough.  I have an absolute favorite apartment rental right next to the Guglie Bridge that will always be my apartment of choice whenever I visit.  There are some sites that suggest the Cannaregio neighborhood is too far, but I really wonder if those writing that have monetary motives for suggesting tourist stay in and around St. Mark's Square.  The reality is Cannaregio is far enough from the maddening crowds, but an easy 15 minute walk to St. Mark's Square.  Factor in the fact that it is also walkable to and from the train station, this means not having to drag around luggage traveling in and out of Venice.
Passing By Rialto Bridge

By The Doge's Palace

4.  Plan your visit differently than a day tripper would.  If you've been taking my suggestions to heart so far you'll be staying at least one night in Venice in a less touristic neighborhood while planning on a 24 hour Vaporetto pass.  That means you're not limited to the time constraints of a day tripper, so why would you go the same route as one? If you're staying somewhere less touristic spend your time exploring by foot your neighborhood or a neighborhood that really catches your interest.  This is the absolute best part of visiting Venice and most day trippers don't have the time to enjoy what makes Venice really special.  Most day trippers are gone by 5 pm and do not show up until after 10 am, which means heading to the main tourist sights between 10 am and 5 pm equals feeling like a sardine.  The day you arrive in Venice will probably be after 10 am, if you plan on exploring different neighborhoods and taking a siesta before 5 pm, by the time you head to St. Mark's Square or the Rialto Bridge you'll have each location practically to yourself.  Keep in mind photography is the best during these hours as well, worst in the afternoon.  The next morning you can decide how to use your time, either going back to St. Mark's Square or use the time to go to another island.  Just remember, avoid the route a day tripper would plan their day and you have most places either practically empty or with more manageable crowds.  By the time the crowds start forming you'll be ready to go explore a few more nooks and crannies before needing to head to the train station.  
Just After Sunset At St Mark's Square, Virtually Empty And Magical

5.  Restaurants are expensive in Venice.  Decide if the specialties in Venice are things you are interested in trying.  If they aren't, you may well end up at a restaurant ordering overpriced carbonara and wondering why its not as good as carbonara from Rome  or ordering pizza and wondering why it's not as good as pizza from Napoli.  Liver, squid ink pasta, fried seafood, and other seafood dishes are what Venice does really well.  If you aren't interested in these things then rethink how you dine in Venice.  If you are on a budget consider heading to the markets.  Restaurants are more expensive in Venice, but I've found the food in supermarkets are some of the best priced in the major cities of Italy.  Take full advantage of what makes Italy great, in other words, Italy is known for fresh and tasty produce and access to tasty high quality meat (the type of food us Americans pay a premium for at specialty shops).  Cook your own food if you have access to a kitchen, otherwise try out the deli or precooked food in the markets.  We were surprised how cheap it was to buy steak, pork chops, beer, wine, etc... in the markets in Venice and ended up eating a much tastier home cooked meal than the food we had at a restaurant the next day.  We had some really good food in Italy, but my parents still rave about how great the quality of meat we found in Venice was.  We kept it simple, letting the flavors of the quality steak and pork chops shine through.  Going to the market, cooking lunch, and hanging out in our neighborhood while the day trippers squished together at St. Mark's Square gave us a much more enjoyable experience while still making it to all the major sights during off peak hours. 

There are no hard and fast rules on how to enjoy Venice, but as with any tourist destination, the key is to avoid doing what the tour groups/cruise ships/day trippers are doing at the times they are doing it.  I used this same principle visiting the Vatican Museum and ended up having the museum almost to myself.  Large tour groups are the bane of my travel existence, but so many people insist on taking them and will continue to do so unless they stop being profitable (not likely) or they are banned (even less likely).  They are a fact of travel, but they don't have to ruin your trip.  Take a little time before your trip to figure out when peak hours are and plan your time avoiding places where huge crowds make a place actually feel over crowded.  You'll have a better time, still see all the sights you want to see, and have extra time for places you may not have considered before. Only then does the magic of places like Venice really shine through.