Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beijing Trip Day 2 Mutianyu Great Wall Following Michelle Obama Tobbogan Ride and Ming Tombs

We were in Beijing!  We were staying at the Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel, and flew up on Singapore Airlines (see page 1).  As we landed late and went to bed only in the wee hours of the morning, we decided on a later start on Day 2 of our holiday.

The alarm clock woke us up and we had breakfast at the 4th Storey cafeteria (too much to eat!).  After that, we went up to the 21st Floor Club Lounge to get some bottled water, and I was surprised at the buffet spread available for breakfast.  They even had a live noodle station. Impressive.  Here is a video.

The Plan
Today, we hired a private driver.  His name is Simon and he runs his own company - My family had used his services before and all was good.  He met us at the driveway at 10AM (as agreed) and he would drive us to Mutianyu and Ming Tombs today.

The drive to Mutianyu Great Wall took a while, I think about 1.5 hours.  The distance was more than 70km.

Along the way, I was watching the cars.  Many nice cars on Beijing Roads.  I commented to Simon that many of the cars I observed on the roads were larger cars (i.e not compact), and many SUVs, Mercedes, BMW, Audi.  Simon confirmed that the Chinese (Beijingers) loved nice cars, especially the Audi.  He said many of these car manufacturers have set up factories in China and most of the cars I saw were made (or at least assembled) in China.  He also said that getting a license to own a Beijing car was like striking lottery.  There was some lottery system and when you got the right to own a car, people tended to splurge and buy the nicest car possible.  Still, given that so many nice cars were widespread here, I could only conclude that people in Beijing were getting rich.  Towards the end of this car watching video, I even spotted the new Tesla SUV.

Mutianyu Great Wall
The visitor center at Mutianyu Great Wall looked rather new.  Simon told us that far fewer coaches and large tour groups go to Mutianyu, as compared to Badaling.   Well, the latter is older and more established (having been opened since 1957) and the Wall was very well preserved.  However, as you will see in my following pictures and videos, Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is pretty awesome too!  Another important reason why almost all tour coaches go to Badaling was because there were plenty of these Chinese shops there.  Tour companies will often make it compulsory for the groups to visit some shops or shopping village.  They want you to spend money.  Simon said there were not that many large shops near the Mutianyu Great Wall, which in my opinion made for a much quieter and more pleasant visit.

We arrived and we were blessed with a brilliant day to visit the Great Wall.  Bright sunshine and good temperatures (around 15 deg). Very light winds. Awesome.

We bought the tickets and decided to have some food before we ascended up via cable car.  Reason was that it was close to lunch time, and even though we had a late breakfast, it was better to fill up on some food before we do the walk.   Since we were so full, we just shared a Whopper Junior Meal from Burger King, and changed the drink to hot milk tea (which was good!)

In this video, we arrive at the Mutianyu Visitor Center, buy our tickets and head to the Burger King nearby to have a light meal.  Then we take the shuttle bus from the visitor center area up to the area where there were cable cars.  In the latter area, you could either take a cable car up to Tower 14, or chair lift up to Tower 6, or walk.  Our route today was to take the Cable Car to Tower 14, walk downwards towards Tower 6, and take the Toboggan back down.

The cable car ride up was fast.  Not many passengers today.  This was the low-season, and also at Mutianyu, you don't get the huge hordes of people that you may see at Badaling, well at least not during low season! The views when we got up the Wall were breathtaking!  We even spotted a Chinese couple take wedding photos.  I can understand why.

In this picture, you can barely make out the Cable Car station in the distance.  Watchtower Tower 14 is at the top of the ridge, slightly to the right of the Cable Car station, followed by by more towers.  I think I was already near Tower 7 or 6 from this angle.  Trust me, it was breathtaking.

In this 5 minute video, you will see snippets of our walk from Tower 14 to Tower 6, which took us about an hour.  Stop to take plenty of photos and videos! Beware of the steep steps. You will see that the steps were very steep at times.  So, come to the Wall while you can still manage steep steps, up and down!  Otherwise, it could get challenging.  Mutianyu Wall is definitely NOT disabled friendly.

At the Great Wall, I saw a photograph of Michelle Obama taking the Tobbogan, and coming back home I found it on the official White House website.  Here it is. (Official White House Photo, 2014)  The guy in black sunglasses following closely behind can't be the odd tourist!  (I am guessing USA Secret Service).

I quote from the First Lady's well written blog:

"Today we drove about an hour north of Beijing to a village called Mutianyu to visit a section of the Great Wall of China, which was simply breathtaking. The scenery on the way there was beautiful – a wide vista of mountains and trees – so the car ride alone was a treat. But then, running along the highest ridges of the mountains, you see it: The Great Wall – one of the great marvels of human history.

"In its entirety, the Great Wall stretches from east to west across more than 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside (that's about four times the length of the entire United States from Maine to Oregon!). It is not a single, uninterrupted wall, but rather a series of smaller walls which sometimes overlap and run parallel to each other.

"Certain sections of the Wall date back as far as the seventh century B.C., but the majority of the Great Wall we know today – including the section at Mutianyu – was built between the 1300s and the 1600s.

"To get to the Wall, we rode a cable car up a mountain (and we later rode back down on a long slide!). The section we visited is one of the more popular parts of the Wall for tourists, and it’s easy to see why. At Mutianyu, the Wall is roughly 20 to 25 feet tall and full of stairs, and there’s a watchtower every 100 yards or so. Those watchtowers serve as a reminder of why the Wall was built in the first place – to defend against attacks from armies descending from the north. Throughout its history, the Great Wall has gone through decades, even centuries, of ruin and disrepair. But it has always served as not only a physical barrier, but a psychological one to intimidate potential invaders.

"During our visit to the Wall, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a massive undertaking it must have been to build it. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and peasants were given the dangerous, painstaking – and often fatal – task of carrying ton after ton of granite, brick, dirt, and wood through the forests, up over the hills, and down through the valleys to create this incredible structure. They did this year after year, decade after decade – and it’s because of their hard work and sacrifice that the Great Wall remains standing today."

Upon reading Michelle Obama's blog (after I returned to Singapore), I realised that we had followed the same route to the Mutianyu Wall!  First, Cable Car up to an area near Tower 14, then walk down, reaching the Toboggan near Tower 6, and taking the Toboggan down.  Awesome.

So, if the First Lady of USA (obviously that makes her a VVIP) could take this ride, I figured it would be safe enough for mere mortals like myself to try.  So I decided to make sure I documented my Tobbogan experience.  Check out the following videos.  First, I arrive at the Tobbogan area.

The cost for a one way downward ride was 80RMB.  So be it.  And, here we go!  The ride was relatively long (almost 4 minutes) and at times, you could go quite fast, if you didn't want to apply the brakes.  They stationed men along the way, especially at the sharp turns, which was a good sign, though some of them were snoozing under the shade.  Fun ride and well worth it! Be warned though, no helmets provided.  If you are a speed devil and try to take the corners at 100MPH, mind your head.

That was fun!  After the ride, we took another short break at the same Burger King (shared some food), and it was time to make our way to the next destination - Ming Tombs! The ride took about an hour as it wasn't that near, and there wasn't a highway to get there.

The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty. The following write-up from Wikipedia.

"The first Ming emperor's tomb is located near his capital Nanjing. However, the majority of the Ming tombs are located in a cluster near Beijing and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明十三陵; pinyin: Míng Shísān Líng; literally: "Ming Thirteen Mausoleums"). They are within the suburban Changping District of Beijing Municipality, 42 kilometres (26 mi) north-northwest of Beijing city center. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain), was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley.

"From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming dynasty emperors were buried in the same area. The Xiaoling tomb of the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu Emperor, is located near his capital Nanjing; the second emperor, the Jianwen Emperor, was overthrown by the Yongle Emperor and disappeared, without a known tomb. The "temporary" emperor, the Jingtai Emperor, was also not buried here, as the Tianshun Emperor had denied him an imperial burial; instead, the Jingtai Emperor was buried west of Beijing.[1] The last Ming emperor buried at the location was the Chongzhen Emperor, who committed suicide by hanging (on 25 April 1644), was buried in his concubine Consort Tian's tomb, which was later declared as an imperial mausoleum Si Ling by the emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty, Li Zicheng, with a much smaller scale compared to the other imperial mausoleums built for Ming emperors."

So, what's the point of going to see Tombs?  Well, apparently this entire place was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.  Why?  The grandeur of these 15th Century tombs is a symbolic reminder of how powerful and rich the Chinese were in that era of history.

Our first stop was the Chang Ling tombs, of Emperor Zhu Di (1360 to 1424), also known as Emperor Yongle.  Plenty to read about him online, so I shan't repeat that here.  Interesting that his ascension to the throne was not a given and he led  an internal rebellion against his own relatives and pretty much made himself Emperor.  This was the Jingnan Campaign, a civil war that lasted 3 years.

In this video, you will see the large numbers of Chinese domestic tourists.  People and more people! So many tour coaches in the parking lot!    

After Chang Ling, we headed over to the Ding Ling Tombs. Located in the southern foot of Tianshou Mountain in Changping County of Beijing, Dingling Tomb is the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 - 1620) of Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and his two empresses, Empress Xiaoduan and Empress Xiaojing. Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupied the throne for 48 years, the longest among all of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty. Built over six years between 1584 and 1590, the tomb, which covers an area of 180,000 square meters (44 acres), is of great historical value, attracting millions of tourists from home and abroad every year.

At the Ding Ling tomb, you had to walk in a fairly long way and then you could literally walk down many floors (via steps) to the underground Palace.  A very interesting experience.   Check it out!

We stayed at the Ding Ling Tomb area museum until closing time, which was 5pm.  On the way back to the carpark area, we came across this steele on a turtle.

Drive back to Hotel
It was a rather long ride, primarily because the traffic got very heavy as we got closer to Beijing.  Did some more car watching along the way.  Spotted a couple of Trumpchi SUVs.  Didn't know what brand of car this was.  Only later did I find out that this was a local China brand (not to be confused with Donald Trump), and the car would be launching in the USA this year!

Once we reached our hotel (around 7pm), we headed to the 24F Executive Club lounge.  Since there was sufficient food, we decided to take our dinner there.  The lounge was pretty crowded though.  Check out the video I made . !

This concludes Day 2.  Check out Day 3 as we visit Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and others.  Thanks for reading!

Beijing Trip SQ Flight to Beijing and Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel Day 1

China!  The most populous country in the world.  Beijing (formerly romanised as Peking), is the capital of the People's Republic of China, a megacity, with a population estimated at 21 million, or about 4 times the population of Singapore.

We did a short trip (4 nights) to Beijing, covering Mutianty Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City amongst others.  In this and the next few blog posts, I will detail our trip.  Meanwhile, the number one takeaway for me was nicely summarized in this quotation on a cup:

Genesis of Trip
Our trip to Beijing came about almost by accident.  My wife and I were deliberating upon a short holiday (without the kids) and our initial search only focussed on vacation spots in South East Asia. Then, my wife spotted this compelling offer by Singapore Airlines which made us sit up and book almost immediately!  I recall the offer was over the Christmas period 2016.

Return Flight on SQ at $394 per pax
Return flight on Singapore Airlines (outbound SQ806 and returning on SQ801) at a very attractive $394.  For a 6 hour flight, this sounded like a very good deal on a full service Singapore flag carrier!

Researching Hotels
Well, after settling the flight, we researched hotels.  Since it was just the two of us, let's look for something nice.  The good thing with Beijing is that they have many 5-star hotels by all the major chains (presumably built for the 2008 Olympics and then continue to be used because Beijing is after all the capital of China).  The revamped Marriott app (which I downloaded on my iPhone) is very good for searching.  After searching the various properties (Marriot group has many properties in Beijing too), we settled on the Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel:

We found that the room rates for this hotel, which was located in the CBD area, to be slightly below the other equivalent Marriott properties.  Tripadvisor reviews were all rather glowing, especially the 24F Club Executive Lounge.  So we took the plunge and decided to go with a studio suite because they had a 'Suite Dreams' package and the deal applied to us as you had to stay 2 consecutive nights and the rates for the suite over the weekend was lower than weekdays.  Overall, for a 4 nights stay, we paid less than 5,500RMB (SGD$1,120) for our stay (including taxes), and including the late check-out.

Here We Go - Departure Day 
Thank God we could take leave and make suitable arrangements for in-laws to look after our kids when we were away.  Very grateful and blessed to have wonderful family support, without which my wife and I would not be able to take this trip.

Our SQ flight departs from Terminal 3.  We took a Grab Car from our place to the Airport.  Nice and easy.  Check-in was very quick and we parked ourselves at the Krisflyer Gold Lounge (thanks to my Star Alliance Gold status) to chill and get some food before our flight.  This was my first time in the Krisflyer Gold lounge.  While definitely not as upscale as the SilverKris Lounge, it was pretty much adequate for me.   The food selection wasn't very wide, but decent enough.  You will see in the video that I had enough to eat (including Pork Buns), and they even did a very nice made-to-order salad.

Made to Order Salad
Doesn't this look healthy?  It was.  Just plain Garden Salad with some dressing.  I liked it.

The live Orchid display in the lounge was a nice touch.  Very Singaporean.  The lounge wasn't crowded when we were there.  Plenty of seats.  We were early, so we had our lunch in the lounge, then went out for a walk around Terminal 3, before returning to the lounge again to get some coffee and snacks, and then we boarded the plane.

Singapore Airlines SQ 806 to Beijing (9V-SWR)
SQ has 21 weekly departures to Beijing, 3-flights daily.  By the time we got to the boarding gate, it was time to board.  The aircraft today was an older Boeing 777-312(ER) with a rather long rear portion?  Serial number 9V-SWR.

Boarding was quick and the flight was at most 2/3 full. Despite the lighter passenger load, the overhead compartments were completely full!  Wow.  Reason was that this profile of passengers (mainly PRC Chinese) loved to shop, and they also loved to stuff everything into the overhead compartment including their smaller backpacks and handbags. As a result, the cabin crew had a bit of difficulty re-arranging overhead cabin baggage.  I can't imagine, if the flight were full, we would have an even bigger challenge.

Fight review video of SQ 806, Singapore to Beijing
Service and food were good.  I had my usual Singapore sling for the post-take off drink, followed by the Asian-choice for the meal (dinner was served).  It was steamed rice with two large pork balls.  Ice-cream was served as a dessert, which provided for a sweet ending.

Speaking of Pork balls, here was what the main course looked like, with my disposable chopsticks stuck in. Of course, they provided fork and spoon too, in case you did not like to eat with chopsticks.

After dinner was cleared, there was almost 4 hours of the flight more to go.  So it was time for a nap (call it evening nap?).  We were scheduled to land in Beijing at 2300hrs local time.  There was no time zone change between Singapore and Beijing.  The IFE map display alternated between English and Mandarin.  Snapshot of the Mandarin version, with all the Chinese cities listed.  Beijing 北京  (PEK) was our destination.

Landing was smooth and we cleared immigration and customs relatively quickly.   I noticed that they x-rayed every bag as we left the Customs Control, but fortunately that didn't slow down the lines too much.  The taxi queue was rather long, but it moved.  Finally, we got onboard a metered taxi and were on our way to our hotel.   It was past midnight, but traffic was still very heavy, and even jammed at places . We took an hour, maybe more, to get to our hotel. Distance was about 30km, and the cost (by meter) was 110RMB.  We gave the lady driver a 10RMB tip, and she was very pleased. This was the route we took:

Hotel Check In
At the wee hours of the morning, the hotel reception was empty, and we could check in very quickly. The receptionist told us that they had received my message that we were here to celebrate my wife's birthday.  The Exec Lounge had prepared something special in our room - surprise!

Rose Petal Display on the bed.

A closer look - this was going to be an awesome stay! 

What was this?  A birthday cake made up of towels, rose petals and red ribbons.  Wow.  So sweet.

Time to Sleep
It was late (or very early to be exact).  By the time we washed up and slept, it was past 2am.  We had a hectic day tomorrow so it was time to sleep. Here is a video review I made of the studio suite.  Check it out and continue to my next page on Day 2 of our holiday! .

Continue to Page 2, we visit Mutianyu Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Vietnamese Ao Dai National Costume Documentary Figure Hugging

Flew on Vietnam Airlines long-haul (Singapore-HCM-London) return and had some time to watch the movies in their in-flight entertainment system. This documentary on the history of the Vietnamese Ao Dai caught my attention. It is definitely a traditional costume of Vietnam, and super figure hugging too!

Very charming, this model.  Ao Dai is a traditional costume that covers everything, yet covers nothing.

Ao Dai, welcomed by the women at that time.

Here is the full video. Only on board Vietnam Airlines.

Here are some more pictures of the Vietnamese Ao Dai, taken from the internet.

And some more.  Very elegant.

A modern (sleeveless) version of the Ao Dai.  Still unmistakably Ao Dai.
Thanks for watching!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chinese Lunar New Year 2017 Year of Rooster Cool Videos

2017 marks the Year of the Rooster, according to the Chinese Zodiac.  What struck me was the many varied Rooster animations and videos sent around on the social media.  I think the Rooster and all the crowing lends itself very well to these fantastic animations.  Here is a collection of some.

We start with a short video.  As usual, the Rooster crows at the start, and a bunch of them starts to do some type of catchy dance.  Watch out for the Rooster in cool dark sunglasses swaggering along.  Very funny.

Now, this video talks about the virtues of how to succeed in 2017. Virtues include patience, hard work, alertness... the usual stuff but the animation makes it fun to watch.

Oh McDonald Had A Rooster!
Oh McDonald had a farm Rooster song is downright hilarious. I had a good laugh watching this, and frankly, I watched this many times. A mixture of East and West often hits the right spot with me. sd

Many Well Wishes New Year Video
A more traditional type of Chinese New Year video, saying all the nice things, well wishes and the like. It gets boring after a while though.

Hip Rooster Band Video
Now, this Rooster Band is way more hip. Roosters are natural pop stars, as this video shows you why. The animation is very cool, I like it.

The compilation of foreign leaders sending Chinese New Year greetings is nice.  Leaders featured included Donald Trump, Theresa May & Rodrigo Duterte.

Robots Taking Over the World!
Not so much a song, but some robot calligraphy. Felt a bit ominous watching this. Robots taking over the world soon?

Malaysian Airlines Awesome Lunar New Year 2017 Video
Finally, the best of the best Lunar New Year video for 2017? Ironically, nothing to do with Roosters. Rather, it was this amazing, mind-blowing video from Malaysian Airlines showcasing the Malaysian people - it was truly a picture of racial harmony! Non Chinese, speaking Mandarin and other Chinese dialects fluently! Hats off!

So, which was your favourite?  Or do you have a favourite that I am not aware of?  Please let me know. Blessed Lunar New Year to everybody.  Have you received it yet?

Lunar New Year 2017 Blessings!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

China Won't Return Terrex Vehicles to Singapore Unless....

Watch this video by a very articulate Chinese person, likely speaking on behalf or speaking on proxy for the Chinese Government. What is he saying?

Well folks, let's face it. We are in a David vs Goliath situation. As the old saying goes, Big Countries do what they want, and and small countries suffer what they must. Big China has decided to teach Small Singapore a lesson by seizing the Terrex vehicles that were transiting through Hong Kong's port. After more than a month, there is no end to this saga.

 This Chinese official (obviously told to go on media), has explained it very clearly. Singapore has not given China the assurances on two very important conditions.

First, Singapore did not inform the Hong Kong authorities that such sensitive cargo was transitting through the port. Why was this?

Second, and the real reason, Singapore did not adhere to the 'One China' policy because Singapore continues to train in Taiwan. The official said that Singapore's reason that the relationship with Taiwan goes back to the 1970s does not take into account that the modern reality is different. China is not the China of 30 years ago. Back then, Singapore started training in Taiwan (with the silent backing of the USA), China could do nothing about it even though China was not happy.

Today, China has decided to do something about it. Until these two conditions are met, the Chinese official categorically stated that Singapore will NOT get back her Terrex vehicles.

Not Going To Give You Back, Big China tells Small Singapore
Poor Singapore. Kena bullied. How can an island of 5 million stand up against an emerging superpower of 1.3 billion? In Singaporean lingo, China is telling Singapore to 'wake up our idea'.

What should we do? That, ladies & gentleman, is the million dollar question.  Now, bear in mind, the whole world is watching this closely, watching what Singapore would do, watching whether Singapore would cave in to China, watching whether the people of Singapore would scold their Government and tell the Singapore Government to give in.

If we give in, I'd say we are doomed.  Yes, we will get back our 9 Terrexes (apparently worth $30 million or so), but what will we lose?  We will lose our credibility as a sovereign country in the eyes of the rest of the world.  We will lose our reputation as an independent country, upholding international law, respecting rule of law.  So, give in, and don't blame our foreign friends for thinking that we are now part of China.

What We Should Do
Much as I don't like Donald Trump, I would like to quote his tweet as a possible Singapore response, in the event China simply refuses to return the Terrex.  Here was his tweet,

To paraphrase Trump,

"We should tell China that we don't want the Terrexes they stole back - let them keep it!"

Tell the whole world that China is the thief, the big bully, the country that unilaterally disregards international law.  They stole our good and let them keep it, so that the whole world can see for themselves who the thieves are.

As for the 9 Terrexes, we'll just build another 9 lah.  After all, aren't they locally made?  Create jobs for ourselves ain't a too bad an idea is it?

Majulah Singapura!

Monday, January 2, 2017

UK England and Scotland Driving Holiday Day 1 and Day 2 Stonehenge, Bath, Stratford upon Avon December 2016

Greetings to all!  Over the next few pages, I shall document our recent UK Driving Holiday in December 2016 for easy reference.  Bear in mind this was a holiday in winter.  Why winter?  Well, we had to plan our holidays around the school holidays, and since we had been to UK before, we decided to do a driving holiday for the fun of it, even though we knew that it would be colder and the day light would be shorter.  Still, what's life without an adventure of sorts?  So off we went.

Day 1 - Arrival, Picking up Car, Going to Stonehenge & Bath, Overnight Premier Inn Trowbridge
After a wonderful flight on Vietnam Airlines (we were in the Business Cabin), we arrived at London Heathrow Terminal 4 in the morning, just after 7am.  It was fairly chilly, around 6 deg C. Getting through security and immigration was very quick (thanks to Fast Track) and before we knew it, we were in the arrivals hall trying to figure out how to get to SIXT car rental.

Then, I spotted this wall, which looked promising.  After all, it said "Car Rentals".  So we headed to the temporary looking display for a closer look.

And this is what I saw.  Under SIXT Rent a car, it put Bus stop 2.  Great, let's go to Bus stop 2 for the pickup.  But wait a second, I decided to read the fine print.  This is what is said - "Please call 0203 462 6791 to request a shuttle service, then make your way to bus stop 2 to be collected."  I read it a few times.  Duh!  You had to call them?  Ok, let's try using the phone, but look carefully, the phone was broken!  Oh goodness gracious.  Imagine if you did not know how to read English, you would have just gone to Bus Stop 2 and waited like a fool.  Even if you could read English, how to call?  Thank God, we had UK mobile numbers (Lesson learnt, always good to get a local mobile number when travelling, because you never know when you need to call somebody) and I called the number and true enough, the person on the other side said that they would despatch a shuttle bus to pick us up.  (No call, no bus LOL!)

Well, the Lord is good.  So we made the call, found our way to the Bus Stop 2, and waited.  At Bus Stop 2, I noticed three other shuttles waiting for passengers, including Hertz.  Later, I figured out that you didn't need to call if you booked from say Hertz, because they have constant shuttles to the various London Heathrow Terminals to pick up and drop-off passengers.  SIXT is a much smaller set-up compared to the big-boys, hence they will only pick you up if you call them.  Makes sense, however, SIXT should at least ensure that the phone in Terminal 4 is working! 

Well, the good thing from hiring from a less busy company was that we had the entire shuttle bus to ourselves.  It came to pick us (we waited only around 5 minutes from the time we arrived at the Bus Stop 2) and the ride to SIXT took around 10 minutes.  This was the sight that greeted us.  It was fairly bus and I had to wait about 10 minutes before I was served.

Service was efficient, though I expressed disappointment when I couldn't get the car I had hoped to get, which was the Mercedes E class Estate.  From the SIXT website, the choice of car in the category I booked looked like this.  It was the Premium Class Estates PWAR category, and advertised as Mercedes Benz E-class Estate or similar.  The key is the word 'similar'. Unfortunately, they did not have this model so I had accept the Audi A6 Estate instead.  No matter, it was a very new and nice car, Adblue issues aside!

Why choose an Estate Car?  Well, we needed more boot space, and since this is a rental, I decided to get a Premium model since I don't think I'll ever own an Audi or Mercedes in Singapore (just too expensive to afford).  Another practical reason - only premium models came with onboard GPS, or they call it Sat Nav.  Car models without Sat Nav means that you have to hire Sat Nav separately and that costs at least 10 pounds per day.  (Or you could buy or bring your own, but that is just too troublesome for me).  The rate I got was similar to the one you see in the screenshot before, approx 70 pounds per day for the day.

When you get the keys to the rental car, there is a huge temptation to load up, and drive off.  I would caution against that.  Better to check the car carefully for damage otherwise you may have to pay for the damage!  So I walked one round the car and took this video and some photos.  Something like this.

Alright.  After inspecting, and loading up, it was time to go!  In the UK, the most reliable way to get to your destination is using the SatNav, but even SatNav will only bring you to the immediate vicinity.  Useful to have your itinerary printed out in front of you too, in case you need to make quick reference.  Also useful to use maps like Google Maps to visualize the route.  Our first stop for the day would be the Stonehenge Visitor Center, almost 75 miles or 120km away.  Time to drive.

Traffic was fairly light and we got to Stonehenge quickly.  All the way here to see some stones?  Yes, that's about it.  Stonehenge is about stones from the pre-historic era.  The weather was a tad chilly, but good enough to spend an hour outdoors.  All to see some stones.  You can read up about why the Stonehenge is so famous online.

And here is a video of our Stonehenge experience.   Looking at stones from pre-historic times, even before Roman times.  The stones were left by a culture and people that left no written word. This place gets super crowded during the busy times in Summer, because it is one of England's most famous tourist site.  This place can't cope with the crowds and you are encouraged to pre-book your arrival times otherwise you may not be able to enter the exhibit. We didn't have any of such problems in winter.  The loads were very light.  While in line, we were approached by a staff selling the English Heritage Visitor Pass, which we bought. Turned out to be useful because it could be used at many English Heritage sites.    Oh, one more things, due to large crowds, visitors can no longer go right up to touch the stones.  The video will show you the closest you can get to the stones, which is still quite far off.  Still, this was a bucket-list sight for us, and we're glad to have done it.

There was a cafe at the Visitor centre, but we decided not to eat anything, because time was tight and we wanted to visit Bath before going to our hotel at Trowbridge.  Why so complicated?  Well, when we were looking at hotels to stay in Bath, they turned out to either be fully booked or very expensive.  There was something happening at Bath over the weekend, so we booked the Premier Inn at Trowbridge instead.  The following map extract shows you the two places. The distance from Stonehenge to Bath wasn't too far, however, it would be on smaller A-roads, so it would take a while.

Took a little over an hour to reach Bath from Stonehenge.  The problem we faced was parking.  I circled around the city a bit but couldn't find any place to park (entered a car park but it was full), and finally had to park at a Cricket Club which was about a 10 minute walk to the City Center.  Take note that parking in UK cities would cost some pounds, and enforcement is quite prompt.  Usually, it is a pay and display type of system.  You got to find a machine to pay money, get the ticket and display on your windshield, like this.  In this case, I paid 4.50 pounds for 3 hours of parking.

Our first stop in Bath was to find a place to eat.  Googled and found some chinese restaurant where we had some Chinese food.  The food was only so-so (and at UK prices), but we still need to eat.

What we noticed was that this restaurant was very crowded, and Sichuan food was very popular!

Turns out that Bath City centre was quite crowded.  Heard that there was a Rugby match going on and many people were out and about.  There were also Christmas markets.  With our tummies full, we decided to talk a walk around the city center, but we did not visit any of the paid sites.  Just felt a tad too crowded for our liking, and after some walking we headed back to the car for the drive to Trowbridge.  Here is a video of the people in Bath.  Oh, this was a Saturday, so that helped explained the crowds too.

The drive to Premier Inn Trowbridge too about 30 minutes.  By this time, it was getting dark and jet lag was setting in.  We had arrived in London that morning! It was also getting cold. Fortunately, we found the hotel, as well as car-parking (take note, carparks are not always available) and checked in Kids didn't want to go anywhere and since we were quite full, we just bought some takeaway pizza from a nearby restaurant and that settled dinner.  The UK was hitting a cold front.  Usually, it isn't this cold during this time of the year. We were all tired, so went to bed quite early. Weather was getting cold and tomorrow would be Day 2.  Fortunately, the weather looked like it would warm up after a few days, but tomorrow (Sunday) looked chilly.

Day 2 - Breakfast and onwards to Stratford upon Avon
Day 2 morning.  We slept well and didn't wake up too early, I think around 6AM.  Soon, it was time for breakfast.  We like the Premier Inn chain for its breakfast because Kids eat free! And they define kids up to 16 years of age.  So we buy 2 adult breakfast, and up to 4 kids can eat free.  We only have 2 kids, but that's good enough!  How much per adult?  Here is our receipt.  It was 8.99 UK Pounds per adult.  Notice the VAT in UK - 20%.

Breakfast - we were the only customers in the restaurant!  This was the low season after all.The self-service Costa coffee machine was always very welcomed, especially in winter.  Have as much as you like, when you have the breakfast.

Here was my feast. Way too much for breakfast, but hey, I was on holiday.  Just eat and be merry, since it was cold, and we would be out for the rest of the day.

Here is a video of the Premier Inn Trowbridge Room and breakfast experience.  The room cost 66 UK pounds for that one night. You can see that it was a large Family room, with sufficient bedding for the four of us.

After a good breakfast and plenty of hot coffee (I usually have 2 cups and my family members too!), it was time to get going.  But before that, we had to deal with a somewhat frozen car.  Check it out!

Yes, it was below zero overnight, so there was some frost on the car.  Nothing too serious, though coming from tropical Singapore, this was an interesting experience for us who were so used to 30 deg C heat and humidity! Anyway, after warming up the car, it was time to head off.  Today, the plan was to go to Stratford upon Avon.  This was the route:

The absolute distance of about 75 miles didn't sound too far, but because we were travelling largely on smaller A-roads, I couldn't drive that fast so the journey did take some time.  Along the way, we must have stopped at some supermarket to buy water and snacks, since I found these videos in my collection:

We arrived in Stratford upon Avon in good time.  Fortunately, the sun was shining and it was longer as chilly as the morning.  Parked the car at a public carpark and it was time to explore Stratford upon Avon.  Here was a map.

The town wasn't big at all.  Very easy to walk around on foot, using these maps, and my phone GPS. By this time, we were feeling hungry. We found a decent look pub, and it turned out to be part of the Wetherspoon chain.  So we decided to have some pub food.  We have dined at the Wetherspoon chain of pubs before, so we more or less knew what to expect.  The video shows you what we had for lunch.  The portions were quite large and the four of us could easily share three portions.  Here is a video of the food, plus the pub menu.  This place was crowded!

After lunch, it was time to visit the various Shakespeare historic sights.  The most interesting was the Shakespeare's birthplace.  I had read on TripAdvisor that there wasn't really very much to see, and I was given the impression that this place would be a tourist trap.  The verdict? Well, if you want to be cynical about it, yes it was kinda a tourist trap.  However, I did find the 16th Century house that Shakespeare was born in to be very interesting.  And also found out that Shakespeare's Father was a craftsman (he made gloves) and even rose to become the Mayor of Stratford upon Avon.  During Shakespeare's time, this town had a population of around 6,000 (I think).  So, yes, I could be cynical about it but Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer of our time (had to read so many of his works while in school) and it was in our bucket list to visit his birthplace. So we did it!  If you are not a fan of Shakespeare and you don't like 16th Century houses, give this place a miss.  Here is a video of our experience in Shakespeare's Birthplace.

On top of the birthplace, there were a few other sights included in the ticket price, but it didn't leave much of an impression with me.  So, this concludes Day 2 as we would then head to a Premier Inn at Stratford upon Avon Waterways, to spend the night.

(To be continued)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Flight Reports Overview 2016 - Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2017!

2016 would be remembered for Brexit, Trump's stunning victory, Carrie Fisher's passing, just to mention a few.  For myself, I thank God that 2016 has been another fruitful year, one that has passed by very quickly during to a hectic schedule. In 2016, new experiences were Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, Turkish Airlines (Economy) and Vietnam Airlines (Economy and Business).  Repeats included AirAsia, British Airways and Singapore Airlines.  All these trips have allowed me to continue my hobby of publishing Flight Review videos on YouTube - Guitar Singapore Travels - now exceeds 4.6 Million views (as at end Dec 2016).  Thank you viewers, for all your support!  And most grateful to God for the opportunity to travel and for the many new experiences!  

On this summary blog post, I post a summary of the various flights that I have enjoyed in 2016 as well as the memorable moment or learning point for each flight mentioned. The year started with an AirAsia flight from Singapore to Langkawi, Malaysia . Memorable moment, cabin crew were still serving the pre-ordered food even as the plane descended into landing.  I had food as the plane landed!  (Technically a safety breach)

The return flight from Langkawi to Singapore was on SilkAir, fully owned subsidiary of SIA.  I've not flown SilkAir in many years and couldn't remember what it was like.  Memorable moment - no In-Flight Entertainment system but I could use my own phone to watch some movies.

Next, was a long-haul trip to Washington DC, flying Singapore Airlines Business Class to London, before transferring to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class to DC.  This would be a long flight, across many time zones! This first video is Part 1 of the SQ 306 Singapore to London flight.  Memorable moment - caught up on many movies, including Star Wars Episode 7.

I had read so much about the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow, and so it was a real privilege to be able to use the Heathrow Terminal 3 Club House for a few hours before my connecting flight on Virgin Atlantic to Washington DC.  Memorable moment - the lounge serves a mean breakfast! This is arguably the best Business Class lounge in London Heathrow. 

Flying from London Heathrow to Washington DC was on Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, my first time on this premium product.  Memorable in many ways, including this wonderful afternoon tea service which I had on board prior to landing.  Service was very good too!  I enjoyed my flight, but certainly didn't enjoy the almost 2 hour wait time at Dulles International to clear immigration.  (No Fast Track either!)

The return trip from Washington DC to Singapore was the reverse order of flight - Virgin Atlantic from Washington to London Heathrow, followed by Singapore Airlines from Heathrow to Singapore. But before that, I spent a few hours at the Virgin Atlantic Dulles Clubhouse, and this experience was awesome!  Food was great and so were the craft beers (Flying Dog Seasonal Hop).

From London Heathrow, I took the Singapore Airlines SQ 305 flight back to Singapore. It was on a retrofitted Boeing 777-300ER and I managed to snag seat 11K which was super private and comfortable, right at the front of the Business class section and just behind the First Class cabin (which had only four seats).  Awesome!

In the middle of the year, we tried something new - Turkish Airlines!  We had to make our way to Copenhagen, Denmark, for a cruise to the Baltic Seas.  We chose Turkish due to the good price and the fact that we could return from London Heathrow.  This was the almost brand-new Turkish Airlines plane we sat for the Singapore to Istanbul Leg, on flight TK55 out of Singapore.  Interesting experience with interesting food.  Memorable moment - Turkish Airlines have flying chefs and they serve passengers in Economy class too.

The second leg of the flight from Istanbul to Copenhagen proved to be interesting because one of our seats was missing a seat cushion!  Definitely a first for us.

After our cruise, we made our way from Copenhagen to London, by plane.  The flight was with British Airways BA815 (Airbus A320), and it was a glorious sunny day in Copenhagen.  Even though it was a relatively short flight, we still got something to eat, and I even managed to get whiskey to go with my coffee. Hilarious me. (We bought a one-way ticket from Copenhagen to London)

Flying back to Singapore from London Gatwick, was our return leg on Turkish Airlines.  This was our first time flying out of Gatwick (in many years) and I didn't like the experience much.  The airport was really far away. Anyway, Gatwick aside, the flight back to Singapore via Istanbul was fine.  The first leg on TK 1998 from London Gatwick to Istanbul on an Airbus A321-200.  This regional jet had personal In-Flight Entertainment system installed.

From Istanbul to Singapore, we flew on TK54, which was also an Airbus A330 (similar to the one we flew Singapore to Istanbul). The Economy seating was in a 2-4-2, which was more comfortable.   I must say that after flying a few times on Turkish Airlines, the food (in Economy class) started to taste the same.  Not that it was bad, but the taste was very similar across flights. (Yes, I got bored)

On a whim, we decided to take a short family holiday in Hanoi, flying Vietnam Airlines!  Fun and exciting.  It would be our first time on Vietnam Airlines, and we had no idea what to expect.  It turned out to be very good, given the price.  Food was good and service was also very good, given that this was a 3 hour regional flight.  The aircraft used was an Airbus A321, Flight VN 660.

The return flight from Hanoi to Singapore was also good.  On this flight, we had an interesting dessert, which I don't know the name in Vietnamese.  We have similar desserts in Singapore, but the concoction provided on the aircraft was nice.  Also tried Halida beer!

Towards the end of the year, it was a real privilege to fly again in premium cabins.  This was on the new Singapore Airlines Capital Express, connecting Singapore with Canberra (capital of Australia) and Wellington (capital of New Zealand).  This flight route started in mid Sep 2016. The video below was Part 2 of the Singapore to Canberra leg, which they call a sleeper service.  I booked the cook (choosing a beef dish called Soya Beef), which ended up being my breakfast before landing!

On the flight back to Singapore from Wellington, I spent some time at the Air New Zealand Business Lounge in Wellington before boarding the plane.  It was a decent lounge.  Star Alliance Gold members could also gain access to this lounge.

The first leg coming home was Wellington to Canberra.  SQ 292 would depart Wellington for Canberra at around 2100hrs local time. This was a relatively short 3 hour leg. A full meal (dinner) was served on board and I thoroughly enjoyed the food and service.  After the dinner, I managed to grab a 1 hour nap before the aircraft arrived in Canberra.

The next leg was Canberra to Singapore.  This was a sleeper service, as the aircraft departed Canberra in the early hours of the morning.  Given that I had a full meal on the previous leg, I wasn't hungry, therefore I chose to go to sleep shortly after take-off, and have a full meal just before landing.  Food was good, service was great.  Well done, Singapore Airlines.

And finally, the last trip of the year (with the family), was again on Vietnam Airlines, this time to London Heathrow!  Now, doesn't that sound exotic.  Yes, we fly Vietnam Airlines to London, from Singapore.  The first leg up was Singapore to Ho Chi Minh.  But before the flight, we checked out the SATS Premier Lounge at Changi Terminal 3, which came with Osim Foot Massagers and chair massagers.

The first leg was Singapore to Ho Chi Minh, on a regional Airbus A321.  Of course, being in Business class, we sat in front.  I found it interesting that the Business Class cabin only had 2 rows of seats, in a 2-2 configuration, with 8 seats in total. Service was good, meal was good!

We had a rather long layover at Ho Chi Minh before the next flight.  No worries, we camped at the Lotus Lounge, which was nicely decorated with decent food, especially Vietnamese Pho.  Wifi connection was very strong, so the time passed quickly.  Here is the video of Lotus Lounge.

Finally, it was time for the Ho Chi Minh to London Heathrow leg.  This was the exciting part of the trip because we would be flying on a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner which uses the latest Business class product for Vietnam Airlines!  Yes, it was the reverse herringbone 1-2-1 configuration.  The seat could easily turn into a flat bed, which was very good for a long flight of 13 hours. Flight VN 51 would bring us to London Heathrow, and it was a very good experience indeed.

In part 2 of the Ho Chi Minh to London leg, I called it Bed and Breakfast because I took a closer look at the bed.  At first, I could not deploy the bed fully into a lie-flat position and I wondered if my bed was not working properly. Turns out that it was my own fault. My backpack and shoes were blocking the way!  Silly me.  I also show you the wonderful Vietnamese Pho we had for breakfast.  It was an awesome experience and I drank up all the soup.  My first time experience Vietnamese Pho on board an aircraft - only on Vietnam Airlines, of course.

After our holiday in the UK, it was time to fly back to Singapore.  Vietnam Airlines operates from Heathrow Terminal 4.  Before the flight, we spent some time at the SkyTeam lounge, which frankly was a tad disappointing.  Food at breakfast wasn't great, the coffee machines weren't working properly and the empty cups were not re-filled.  The lounge looked pretty though, with the green walls.

This time round, we would fly to Hanoi first, before heading back to Singapore.  Yes, it was the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, though this time the plane was a bit older (more than 1 year), but hey, we were flying in Business Class so can't complain!  Looking back, it is a great privilege and humbling to be able to do this as a family.  This was a day flight (departing LHR at 1100hrs), so we didn't sleep very much on board.  Spent the time watching movies and day-dreaming.

We arrived in Hanoi on schedule (5 AM local time) and had plenty of time to kill because our next flight home wasn't till 1050hrs local time.  Thankfully, the Lotus Lounge in Hanoi was a nice place to chill for many hours, and I captured our experience in the video below. When we arrived shortly after 5, the lounge doors were opened but everything was still dark.  The staff had just arrived and were setting up.  Fortunately, they let us go in and rest.  Later on, all of us took a shower.  What was memorable in the lounge was instant noodles and instant Vietnamese pho.  You had to prepare the noodles yourself, using hot water from an electric flask, and then using the micro-wave to further heat the noodles up.  First time I see this in a Business Lounge - Fascinating.

Our final flight for the year, Vietnam Airlines Hanoi to Singapore.  This flight was completely full! Flight to Singapore was about 3 hours.  Meal service was efficient and thereafter, I managed to get a nap, before arrival in Singapore.

That's it! This wraps up my flight travels for the year 2016.  Looking back, it was a wonderful year of flying, with many new experiences and learning points.  Grateful for the opportunity and thank God for journey mercies, and the ability to see and experience so many new things.  I do not know what 2017 will bring, but I trust the Lord to open and close doors as He sees fit.  Wishing one and all peace, and a very fruitful and healthy 2017 ahead.

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2017.  Thanks for reading.