Sunday, February 27, 2011

Places I've Been: Prague

I was going back through a lot of old photos and found the set I took in Prague. That trip in 2004 to Prague and Vienna was my first entirely solo journey. I learned a lot about myself and also stepped outside the comfort zone of Ireland/France/Italy for the first time.

This is Prague Castle, which lies on a hill that is a bugger to climb. I was there in October and it was briskly cold but offered up crystal blue skies. Visitors reach the castle by crossing Charles Bridge and walking through Mala Strana "Lesser Town" and uphill.

This is the view from one of the towers on Charles Bridge. Obviously, the bridge is a great place to people-watch as well as find souvenir hawkers and street musicians.

These are views of both Castle Hill and Charles Bridge, day and night.

This was a quiet little canal I found walking back from Castle Hill.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Playing the airfare game and other randomness

For whatever reason, I told the travel consultants that I would find my own airfare to China. So if you know me at all by now, you know that this has become an all-consuming project for me. At work all day Wednesday and Thursday this week, I researched flights and immediately identified United as my carrier of choice, only because I can purchase an additional 5 inches of leg room in coach. I figure with 13+ hour flights ahead of me, 5 inches could feel like a mile, right?

On Thursday I was playing on the United site and figured out that if I booked each leg individually (say, Boston to Chicago and Chicago to Beijing) that was coming up with cheaper fares than if I'd done Boston to Beijing. As in $300 cheaper. But I didn't book that, and haven't seen that fare again, damn it. I'll return to work next week and check periodically during the day, hoping that I'll nail that fare again on Wednesday or Thursday.

My other bit of randomness is that I learned that China requires that your US Passport be valid for 6 months after your visit to China (most European nations require that it be valid for just 3 months). My passport expires in January, which means, you guessed it, I will have to renew my passport before I get my Chinese visa this summer. Argh, that's like paying for a 10 year passport and only getting 9 1/2 years out of it! Oh well...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Let the countdown begin: I'm going to China!

The deed is done...well committing to it is done! I just submitted my reservation form and deposit on the trip to China! I am really, really excited for this trip, which was not even on the radar at the start of this year. China is someplace I've always wanted to travel to and experience, and the panda volunteer program is a huge plus. I am SO EXCITED!!!

Now the planning begins in earnest:

Get new passport
Get visa
Set up VPN or proxy for internet access (Chinese government heavily censors internet traffic)
Read, read, read
Buy clothes!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More on China...

With a bit of a lull at work this week, I've had time to think about, obsess on and otherwise kick the wheels on this trip to China. The nice sales dude from Access China sent me a nearly-finalized itinerary that is pretty sweet, while sort of frenetic, it does get me to where I want to be in fairly good form. I spoke with Wendy Wu's place today and they didn't seem nearly as clued in as she was when she and I spoke on Sunday. I am waiting to hear back from them. I wrote the third provider of these panda volunteer tours and haven't heard back at all. He's losing my trust rapidly.

In the process of researching hotels on Trip Advisor, I came across two reviewers of hotels that mentioned they were on this same trip last year, so I wrote to both. One wrote back almost immediately and really sold me on the trip. She said things about feeding the pandas and getting to play in the panda kindergarten and holding them twice (once at the Chengdu Center and once at BiFangXi, the place she volunteered at). I am nearly ready to sign on the dotted line for this. So I'm not spending as much time in Beijing as I'd like, I am hitting the main sights. I should settle for that and go back if I need to.

Damn, did I just say "go back"???

I realized Chengdu is very near Tibet, as one of the hotels is Hotel Chengdu Tibet. Hmmm.

I made the mistake of looking up airfare just to see what the fares and routes are. It's about 17 hours with 1 stop going over, but mother of god, it's about 23 hours coming home. I will need drugs, lots of drugs, to get through that!

And speaking of drugs, I looked up on the CDC Website what I should get for vaccinations before this trip. Don't tell my mother, please. I need to get: Hepatitis B (remember, I already had the Hep A vaccine for Russia), Typhoid, Polio booster, Japanese encephalitis and Rabies "if spending a lot of time outdoors, especially in rural areas...and for travelers involved in any activities that might bring them into direct contact with bats, carnivores, and other mammals." Bingo, that's me. Shoot, I've heard the rabies vaccine is painful! So off to my doc I will go shortly, as the Hep B set of three shots takes six months. That was the first time I wondered if it's really worth it, but you know I figured it is. I'm still writing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's looking like China...

Today I spent a half day at the Boston Globe Travel show. I went because I was curious and it's like a mall of vacation and travel opportunities. Granted 70% of it was cruise, Caribbean and package travel companies. It was the 30% of other offerings that captivated me. My goal primarily was to talk to two of the companies that offer the panda volunteer experience in China. Three companies have that connection and two were there to speak with. Access China Tours, the company I wrote to when I was sick and first heard of this possibility, was there and the sales guy sort of gave me the car showroom feeling. What did pique my interest though was that this year's itinerary (which I am waiting for them to finalize) includes Xi'an, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. That is a huge score; if I'm going to China possibly once in my life, to see the Great Wall and the Warriors would be imperative. Access China's previous itineraries did not include Xi'an.

Where my well-thought-out plan went awry was when I attended the presntation on "Off the Beaten Path China" by Wendy Wu, owner of Wendy Wu's China, the other company I am investigating. She had me at hello. Her slide show had pictures of things I'd never have dreamt would attract me. She had several variations on lengths and depths of trips. Some "only for people who've been to China 6 times." Yes, that's right, six times. To me it just really seemed like she has her act together and knows how to do this right. She pointed out that she doesn't just take you to the closest, most crowded point at the Great Wall like everyone else does, she takes you to somewhere more secluded. "No photos with millions of other tourists", she says. Hmmmm. I've read that she is the UK and Australia's #1 China Travel Consultant, just now making in-roads in the US. This could be very good for me....

I sought Wendy out after her presentation and asked about the panda volunteer trip. She said it would be customized for me. Just me. There'd be no group of 15 going to volunteer, I'd be doing it on my own. I'd also have private guide and driver in the rest of China (where have I heard this before?). She recommended 9 days to see Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai, and end in Chengdu where the pandas are. Taking a very quick look at her catalog, this trip is already proving to be far less expensive than Russia. At least 30-40% and it includes air and visa. Yee ha.

I spent a fair amount of time signing up for raffles for free trips (I'd go to the Azores for free -- it's only 4 hours away!) and even spoke with a hot-looking South African guy about safaris (coming soon!) as well as a rep from the Turkish and Israeli Tourist Boards. I have bags of stuff I need to read!!!

So I'm waiting to see Access China's itinerary and will call Wendy later in the week (she said to call and ask for her directly!) But given that I just can't seem to get excited about Poland, or Germany, or Italy, but I have this simmering internal flame of wanderlust for China, maybe this is it. Stay tuned.