Things I Learned When Traveling by European Railways

I observed that when traveling by train in many other European cities, it is important to be aware of certain things that may easily be overlooked or ignored by many.

Departure and Arrival signs are usually displayed separately. When looking for your next trip displayed on large screens in train stations, be quick to ensure that you’re looking at the correct display. Arrival displays are often separated from departures and destinations can actually be origin stations. For those who don’t read Italian, French or German, no worries. English translation of these signs are most likely available.

Look for train numbers. Using train numbers found on tickets as reference when looking up for departing trains is more accurate than destinations. It is possible that the destination is the last stop of the train and not those in between. For example, a train from Milano may display Salerno as last stop but not stations in between such as Firenze or Roma. So train number becomes a more reliable point of reference.

Validate tickets. Ticket validation is needed when usage is limited for a particular time. Most of tickets do not need to be validated especially those that are valid for specific times and trains, but those that have no fixed travel times may require such validation. One example is Roma’s Leonardo Express which connects Roma Termini railway station and Fiumicino airport. You can buy it at the platform or at the vending machines inside the railway station and can be used anytime. But remember that before using it, validate these tickets at the small green machines found in Termini’s track 24 where you can ride the train to the airport.

Be on time. It’s a given that trains arrive and depart promptly. But I noticed that stopovers allow only a few minutes for arriving passengers to disembark and departing passengers to get on board. That means even before a train arrives from its previous stopover, locate the gate and train number so you’ll be able to position yourself and your luggage closer to the train, especially on large train stations like Zurich Hauptbahnhof or Roma Termini.

frankfurt_railway
Frankfurt railway station.

Reserve seats for peak hour trips. We experienced booking first class seats from Munich to Salzburg but ended up sitting on our luggage in front of staff desk since our seats since all seats were reserved and taken by other passengers. Booking tickets entitles passengers the right to board the carriage, as explained by a RailJet ticket checker, but not necessarily the seats, if other passengers have reserved them. Upon realizing the importance of seat reservation, which cost 4 euro per passenger, we booked the remaining legs of our ride in Austria’s RailJet. It turned out that there were plenty of seats available and seat reservation was unnecessary. Therefore, I think the rule of thumb is to reserve seats during peak hours, and during travel seasons.

Orientation on seats. When reserving seats, you can choose what seat layout you can choose, especially those with company. You can sit together, face each other or have the option of table in between, depending on carriage and availability. One thing that I found hard to predict is the direction of the seats. Train seats of opposing direction is available on every carriage, and trains can travel forward and backward so I guess people who are not comfortable facing backwards may need to talk to a customer support at railway stations to ensure they get the right seat orientation.

Placement of large luggage. Just like in the airplane, there are also spaces available at overhead compartment for smaller hand-carry bags. But since there is no check in luggage when taking the railway, you’ll also have to bring your large bags with you on the cabin. In between every opposing seats is a space for your large luggage, so they’ll be within your reach. If these spaces are filled up, there are compartments at the end of the train.

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Why Research Beats Instincts When Traveling

Milan’s Centrale railway station is a bit different to the ones we previously experienced in Zurich, Innsbruck and Salzburg a few days ago. The station is huge but crowded, expanding vertically to accommodate passengers and shops. While directly going to the information desk was the apparent first step on our previous stop, the combination of poor color choice and sheer size of the station made it easier for us to overlook the information counter even with its very prominent location.

In short, we went out of the station armed with little knowledge on how to find our hotel room. The information provided by Agoda was good enough, but I realized that it is different when you’re on location. The distracting presence of several exits, unfamiliar street names and station guards unwilling or unable to accommodate simple questions made the experience even more daunting. Making matters worse is the fact that the weather didn’t cooperate. It was a rainy day in the city.

milan_mapAs we only have less than 24 hours to explore Milan, critical thinking is necessary to get us out of Milan Central Station and reach the hotel as soon as possible. When it was as if we exhausted all possible means to no avail — security people refuse to talk to us, we couldn’t find a single location map, and no wi-fi signal was available, unless maybe we enter Burger King, order fries and get a patchy signal, I hatched a not-so-novel idea. Before my wife and I could engage ourselves in a blame game, I instinctively looked for a map on sale in a multi-level bookstore located inside the railway station, tried to find out hotel street in the midst of a collage of Milanese landmarks. I discovered that our hotel location isn’t far from the station, as confirmed by Agoda’s sketchy details.

Without waiting for a store keeper to tell me they have a touch-it-you-buy-it policy, I took a snap of the street detail out of that guide map. The move proved key to us finding our hotel, just five blocks away from the station, but whose location I found harder to navigate.

The experience taught me a lesson that even if you’re a seasoned traveler, you could become more self-righteous and rely on instinct rather than due diligence. In many cases you’d wish you printed out that guide map or checked your train tickets ahead of time rather than making assumptions. Preparations for travel may be time consuming and even unnecessary in some cases, but in times when all else fail, being equipped for the trip saves time and possible trouble. Indeed, in every travel experience, we’re bound to learn something.

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Honor System in Europe’s Public Transport

One of the most remarkable things I observed in Europe is the fact that public transport sector do not need plenty of enforcers to ensure the riding public gets to ride the buses, trams or subway systems.

When spending a few days in cities in Europe (or other parts of the world), one of the most handy things to avail is the day pass which allows unlimited ride on almost all public transport links. Upon arrival at the airport or central railway station, you can buy these 1-day, 2-day or similar day city transport passes. There are a variety of options such as free or discounts on entries to museums, restaurants and other offers, on top of unlimited rides. But for those who wish the cheaper option which covers free pass to public transport, the choice is yours.

With these day passes, not only you’ll get free rides, you’ll also save time looking for ticket kiosks or understanding the local language that comes with these vending machines. Besides validating the ticket before using it for the first time, you’ll only need to keep it as you board the bus, train or local tram if available.

swiss_ticket

In many European cities like Vienna, Prague or Barcelona, train stations aren’t as ‘sophisticated’ as back home in Hong Kong. Free from turnstiles and human intervention to verify if you’re a paying passenger, everyone can board the trains even without these tickets. But these stations are not intended to be free for everyone to use; carriage maintenance, station power supply and staff wages need to be paid so collecting money from passengers is a neccesity.

The only difference between these ‘open’ stations and Hong Kong’s can’t-get-in-without-a-card MTR network is that they use honor system. Honor system enables passengers to board ticket under the assumption that they have the right to do so; they can show a proof they have paid before getting into the carriage — a 1-day card or a monthly pass, for example.

For freeloaders, getting into public transport is a choice that comes with a big risk. While they’ll save a few euros everytime they ride without bothering to pass through the vending machine and get a ticket, or secure a long-term pass upon presentation of their residence ID, inspectors who come and check tickets randomly can be their nightmare. Without a ticket or pass to show, fare skipping passengers are subject to huge fines — sometimes worth more than a year’s worth of free rides, plus a possible criminal record for repeat offenders. And while nobody seems to be looking while you sneak into a tram without paying, surveillance cameras may have monitored you, preparing to surprise you on your next offense.

A successful implementation of honor system in a city indicates a mature society. I think it will also teach newcomers to be more responsible, honest citizens and undestand the difference between a right and a privilege, in the context of public services. With less investment on infrastructure or personnel to check paying passengers, more funding can be allocated on other purposes like track upgrade and maintenance or other city facilities, for transport systems managed by the government. This is okay especially if the government is willing to subsidize operations. In case the economy falters, and the local government runs into budget deficit, operating a public transport system that relies on honor system may incur heavy losses.

Other cities do not adopt this honor system scheme. Milan requires railway passengers to use tickets before entering trains. While Budapest subway stations do not have turnstiles, I observed that staff are deployed on entrances to check individual tickets, thereby creating backlog during busy hours. In the case of Hong Kong’s MTR, more security cameras or ultra-efficient gates do not seem to deter fare-dodging passengers; incidents of people leaping off the turnstiles or crawling under them get occasional mention at the local papers.

 

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Getting Schengen Visa in Hong Kong

Innsbruck, Austria – I am fond of traveling and one of my most favorite places to go in Europe. 

But since I carry a Philippine passport, I don’t have a visa-free access to most of Europe. Azerbaijan and Georgia in Eastern Europe and Kosovo in the former republic of Yugoslavia are the exception but getting to these places most likely require transit from countries that require a visa, and that there’s no direct flight from Hong Kong that I know of.

In short, going to Europe requires a visa. The most popular option is to get a Schengen visa since it provides hassle-free access to multiple countries. Most of these countries have a consular presence in Hong Kong so applying for relevant tourist visa doesn’t require me to move out of the city.

My first visit in Europe was in 2006 where my Schengen visa was assisted by my friend Girlie who lived in Austria. Naturally, Austria became the first entry point of my visits to Europe. At the time requirements were more stringent since I didn’t have a hotel booking and stayed at my friend’s apartment. But it was approved anyway, and my second visit to Europe the following year also used the same route to apply for visa, with similar results.

My third visit to Europe in 2010 marked my first as a married man. This time, we applied for a Schengen visa at Spanish consulate in Wan Chai. It was also the first time I booked hotel accommodation to support my application. I guess with Philippines’s link in history with Spain, our visa fee of 60 euros (HK$635) was waived.

Our fourth visit to Central Europe (Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) used Munich as gateway from Hong Kong, via Beijing. However, it was only until that time I was aware that you need to apply for a visa on the country you’ll spend the longest, and if such cannot be determined, application must be lodged at the country of first entry. I applied for a visa in Germany, where an officer told me they won’t grant me the visa since we will hardly stay in Germany  (we stayed only for four hours max, at Munich and Berlin’s Tegel Airport). So I changed my itinerary to spend time the most in Prague. Therefore, I had to go to Czech Republic’s consulate to apply for  our Schengen visa.

This year, my fifth in Europe, we decided to embark on a ten-day, six-city journey which starts in Frankfurt and end in Rome. The original plan was to stay in Germany for four days and divide the rest of our travel among Zurich, Milan, Florence and Rome. But for the second time in as many years, Germany’s visa staff seemed to make it hard for me to apply for Schengen visa. Even if I had confirmed hotel booking at Agoda, the woman in the front desk told me she cannot accept a booking from a third-party website and instead demanded an official letter from the hotel, something that I can do but won’t guarantee response given the limited amount of time left. I thought bookings from hotel aggregator sites like booking.com, agoda.com or expedia.com are good enough. Apparently in this case it’s not.

schengen_visa

I had no other choice but to change the itinerary and studied the European map for hours, considering the train fare, hotel costs and time allocation before I decided to pay Austria another visit. This time, Salzburg and Innsbruck will be part of the route, and I subsequently dropped Frankfurt and Stuttgart along the way. After six years, I returned to Austrian consulate in Central and met Mr Wong, the visa officer who handled my application in 2006 and 2007 application. As with past experience, my Schengen visa application at Austrian consulate was approved for the third time.

So in my five Schengen visa applications in Hong Kong, as a Philippine passport holder, it appears that Spain (visa fee waived) is the best place to apply. This is followed closely by Austria, thanks to the very accommodating consular staff like Mr Wong, and Czech Republic whose female staff is also very helpful and the only disadvantage is that it receives application only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Thank you Austria, Spain and Czech Republic consulates for helping me fulfill my dream to travel to Europe.

Germany, on the other hand, seems to be the consulate I’d like to avoid due to a couple of failed attempts. It would have been acceptable if I didn’t present enough documentation, but staff offered rather arbitrary and unreasonable demands.

 

 

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My First Long-Haul Flight From HK to Moscow

I’ve always wished to travel to Russia. One of the intriguing reasons to pay a visit is my fascination with the largest country in the world even during the height of Cold War. I used to read books on geography and marvel at the great Soviet landscape, but even more intrigued by its people. I followed historic events like Gagarin and Laika’s space milestones and controversies and highlights such as the 1972 basketball game between Soviet Union and USA and the vindictive Miracle on Ice in 1980 Moscow Olympics.

My interest was rekindled when in 2006, I made my first trip to Europe. I was excited yet nervous in my first attempt to get a Schengen visa. Girlie Presto, a college friend based in Austria was instrumental in making the trip happen. She found time to assist in preparing documents to ensure I get the desired entry pass to this culturally rich continent. I booked my Aeroflot flight for Vienna via Moscow. As you know, Aeroflot is Russia’s flag carrier and as such, it is customary to make stopovers at airline hubs. Now this is my chance to set foot in Russia, even as a transit passenger.

Before my trip to Austria, I had strange feelings not on the destination but in the brief stopover. For those not familiar with Russian mindset, it can be intimidating. And I am one of those who harbor the feeling. I started to learn Russian phrases.

dobrae ootro
preevyet
spaseeba

February 2006, I stepped into Aeroflot and took off in the middle of the day. In the cabin, passengers were a mixed bunch of Chinese, Middle Eastern and Caucasians I presumed to be Russians. Since this was my first long haul flight, it felt uncomfortable longer than my earlier flights. The previous longest one was in October 2005, when I  visited former flatmate Jun Angulo in Tokyo. That duration of flight was just about ideal to sit down in the economy class without starting to feel uneasy and bored. At least the cabin attendants at Aeroflot were nice and accommodating, occasionally asking if passengers need extra blanket or a cup of tea. While staring at the on-board flight tracking system, I asked one middle aged stewardess if we were in the vicinity of the Volga region.

“Are we now passing by Samara?,” with my finger pointing downwards. In halting English, the lady managed a wry smile and gestured otherwise, as if to say “what the hell is this person talking about.”

About nine and half hours later, I was in Moscow’s old Sheremetyevo Airport experiencing the longest daylight hours ever. As I later learned, the outdoor temperatures were in minus 20s as I keenly observe people starting to put on their thick fur jackets while preparing to disembark. The runway was filled with snow and I wonder if it was hazardous for flights at such conditions.

The airport was dark, with dimly lit interiors and limited seats available for transit passengers among the first things I noticed. But to feel that way was better than preoccupied with thoughts about getting questioned by transit official who insist on speaking the local language. I had about an hour or so to wait for the shorter onward flight so once I figured out my assigned terminal number (after another round of screening by airport staff) I walked around a plethora of fellow transit passengers: Japanese tourists taking a much-needed toothbrush break before flying to Cairo, a young child asleep at the lap of his mother, and a talkative Indian fellow whom I befriended. I found out that the half-open dining places weren’t worth the visit.

moscow_duty_free

“Where are you going?” he asked. “I am going to Vienna to visit a friend,” I replied.

“I find it unusual for someone like you to take vacation on your own,” sounding skeptical. “What about you,” I retorted.

“I am on my way to Yerevan to take up medicine,” he answered. “Oh, Armenia.. I find it unusual for an Indian guy whose country has a plenty of nice universities to go somewhere that’s not well-known for medical education.” At least I am not aware.

When it was time to board the smaller aircraft, people started to form a short line. Yet I felt a bit discriminated that while folks have smoothly got into the cabin, I was stopped for another round of review of my Schengen qualifications. The airline officer stared at me for two seconds and gestured for me to move along as he handed me back my passport.

Thanks Sheremetyevo airport. It may not be very memorable, but nonetheless I managed to fulfill that wish to land in Russia.

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The Price of Cebu Pacific’s Rapid Growth

Cebu Pacific’s rise from a mere low-fare airline to a national carrier has been impressive.

From 24 daily flights between Manila, Cebu and Davao in 1996, its frequency increased to 80 flights in 18 destinations in 2001. By 2008, Cebu Pacific was named the top Asian airline in terms of growth, with passenger surging from 3.45 million in 2006 to 5.5 million in 2007. Now it flies to 52 destinations on a fleet of 43.

With the help of government’s market deregulation, Cebu Pacific, under the management of JG Summit Holdings, flew to places previously not served by other carriers. Its no-frills approach attracted even more passengers, thus staying true with its logo “Why everyJuan flies”.

cebu_pacific_counterI have been flying Cebu Pacific most of my trips to the Philippines. With several flights to choose from, timing wasn’t much of an issue. I can fly on day time or take a red eye shift. I can fly direct to Davao (an obvious choice but this sector was short-lived), or pass through Manila or Cebu at my discretion.

Flights were mostly on-time too, so the infamous Plane Always Late definition of the erstwhile flag-carrier’s acronym was even more pronounced.

But with aggressive growth ambitions in mind, Cebu Pacific seemed lean more on revenue generation to support its plans while customer approval rating apparently dipped. As  more destinations were unveiled, so were the fees passengers have to deal with. The 15-kilogram check-in luggage, for instance, used to be part of the standard fare. Now, passengers are charged separately, plus an option for heavier baggage at extra fees.

Although this helps hand carry passengers save money, this scheme impacts a wider customer base. If passengers were already used to not munching anything in the cabin for free, CEB now up sell its flights with favorite Filipino dishes for hungry passengers, on top of the regular souvenir items. Wait, we can make  money further: introduce seat reservation system which enables passengers to choose seats.

Rising fuel cost has always been the obstacle to raking in profits, so being creative in pricing methods is but crucial in the survival and sustainability of the business, now that Cebu Pacific has wrested the coveted “flag-carrier” status.

Increased security measures, no matter how necessary, adds to passenger inconvenience and eventually drop in on-time performance. As of last check, May 2013 on-time performance was just 69.7%, a far cry several years ago when efficiency hovered around the 90s. When I flew Cebu Pacific last week (May 28th), our 1:35am flight for Cebu left Hong Kong International Airport 40 minutes later.

Inside the cabin I learned that the aircraft arrived late, so onward flight’s customary procedures — cleaning, refueling, and baggage loading — had to be delayed. Maybe it’s a forgivable offense but who knows the real culprit could be  some other unforgivable reasons.

cebu-pacific-1peso-fareJust a day after I returned to Hong Kong, the unfortunate landing at Davao airport took place. Cebu Pacific is not a stranger to previous air tragedies — the 1998 Cebu Pacific 5J 387 crash at the mountains of Misamis Oriental is one of the worst in Philippine aviation history — flight 5J 971 from Manila skidded off the runway of Davao’s Francisco Bangoy International Airport, leaving passengers in state of shock, but thankfully alive.

According to reports, flight attendants lacked crisis management skills in their failure to respond appropriately. This was aggravated by airport authorities refusing the entry of local rescue team into the premises, which prompted outgoing city mayor Sara Duterte to label them as liars. No wonder that it’s almost a necessity to include insurance in booking tickets online, even if I fail to do so.

I would imagine that Cebu Pacific excels in its marketing arm: regular promotion newsletters that feature Piso Sale and seasonal slogans like “Flights, Camera, Action”, “Stop Book and Listen” and “Juan to Go Farther”. Its short-lived dancing cabin crew surely attracted attention — and derision — of the media. But as the airline flexed its marketing muscles, other aspects are left wanting. Customer service may be understaffed or overworked, and it showed when Cebu Pacific recorded the highest number of complaints between December 2012 and March 2013.

Although active in social media, its messaging is almost exclusive to promotional offers (check out Cebu Pacific Facebook page), and devoid of contingencies, apologies and assurance to passengers affected by flight delays, cancellations and this Davao airport incident. Even after the statement from Ateneo de Davao University made rounds in Twitter, its Twitter account didn’t seem to notice and offered anything to address the call for boycott. Its homepage (checked at the moment of writing) doesn’t show guidelines for affected passengers, let alone a link to apology statement. In short, the company’s image is in tatters for failure to address these issues even when channels are available.

If there is one or two who can seize the moment and turn it into PR showcase its the competing carrier. Philippine Airlines can offer stranded Cebu Pacific passengers free one-way ticket to their onward destination — even if it means heading for a 3-hour drive to General Santos City airport. Not only distressed and disgruntled passengers will appreciate the move, more people will notice, and PAL could earn heaps of praise from often forgiving netizens and media alike. Now that’ could turn a one company’s PR disaster into a competitor’s golden opportunity.

Times change and what used to work before may not apply now anymore. As more flights get delayed, the high on-time rate highlighted in its past slogans was quietly replaced with “why everyJuan flies”, justifying its affordability and perhaps, better profit margin. If traditional booking process couldn’t cope up with overhead costs, CEB made adjustments — adding fees for luggage, legroom, food — even boarding passes are now printed on ordinary paper. In the name of profit and growth.

Airlines group forecasts that in 2013, industry profit will reach US$12.7 billion amid high occupancy rate. Cebu Pacific’s plans to expand flights to Middle East and Australia later in the year should help it grab some of the

But as Cebu Pacific grapples this controversy, surely it still has legions of die hard followers — the loyal Juans — but unless it, at least  tries to, addresses its flaws (some of which I’ve mentioned here), Cebu Pacific’s brand equity may drop to a new low, thereby limiting one’s perception of this airline as a cheap, oft-delayed, ill-prepared flag carrier of the Philippines.

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More Love for Bratislava

The first intercity train ride we took in this vacation was the Prague to Bratislava route. The journey normally takes about three hours as we pass through a few stops.

Buying train tickets can be a dilemma since buying them online a few weeks before intended travel provides psychological assurance, but also at a hefty price sometimes. On the flip side, waiting to arrive at the station before securing a train ticket entails nervousness to a newbie traveler, but ensures you are not paying more for that extra convenience you can handle yourself anyway.  I’d like to call out Rail Europe, whose Hong Kong website offers train tickets at exorbitant prices compared to the actual rate you pay on the station. While I read at a certain forum that its UK counterpart offers more reasonable train ticket fares, I’ve resolved to avoid the company in favor of buying tickets at the originating station, if circumstances allow.  Now, you can choose what’s best for you.

Boarding the EC 171 Hungaria, we left Prague close to noontime and arrived at Bratislava around quarter before four. Our second class compartment was good for four, and we shared seats with a South Korean student and a Hungarian elderly woman. Both of them are bound for Budapest, the terminal station of this route. The seats are actually facing each other but, unlike taking the seat opposite driving directions at Hong Kong’s double decker First Bus units, sitting on either side offers the same level of comfort.

The short trip takes us to the plains of Central Europe, this time occasionally covered in a blanket of snow or hectares of leafless oak and linden trees. From a distance, it is easy to observe small farming hamlets with a handful of dwellings, whose household, at this time, must have been busy tuning up fireplaces as evidenced by the faint smoke coming out of the chimney.

Approaching Bratislava Main Train Station

Approaching Bratislava Main Train Station

First stopover was at Kolín, located along the Elbe River and just 55 kilometers from our starting point. The train station is rather old, and just like the more popular Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, has Soviet influence painted all over it. Twenty minutes later, we made our second stop at Pardubice, known for its chess tournament and home of ex-NBA player Jiri Welsch. Just the same as Kolín, there’s not much activity in this station except for a few boarding passengers. The surrounding was cold and doleful. Perhaps locals are just dealing with Christmas hangover and wish to stay indoors.

Inside our compartment, our elder companion chose to occupy time with her daily dose of sodoku and a handy paperback. The South Korean guy must have felt isolated from his American friends and decided to leave his luggage — and reservation label outside our compartment — and head towards the more jovial cell a couple of blocks away. Shortly after, a female ticket inspector armed with bar code reader, pen and perhaps a box of currency visited each cell and sought for our tickets. Our tickets were printouts from an online booking transaction so it was necessary to scan the accompanying bar code, while the conventional ticket the Hungarian passenger is holding deserved a quicker glimpse and a nod of thanks.

One of the things we can easily do while traveling is to rob our bags with whatever food it can offer: crackers, granola bars or mint candies. But I realized that it is much more important to keep hold of drinking water. We brought with us the indispensable 500 ml bottle container primarily to make sure we have steady supply of fresh water during long trips, especially when water is expensive (a small bottle costs about 1.5 euro), if available at all.

After equally short stops at Břeclav and Kúty, we drew closer to Bratislava as we begin to see bigger buildings, busier roads and thriving workforce, from street sweepers to truck drivers. We bid goodbye to our Hungarian roommate who offered sort of greetings (which unfortunately sounded gibberish to us) with a smile. It was almost 4 pm and noticeably the weather isn’t favorable for backpacking couple stuck in a gloomy winter afternoon. Melting snow offered risk for slippery roads. But never mind, we have to make the most of our brief stay in this place, the shortest among our four-city journey.

One of the things I often read about Bratislava is their notorious ticket checkers who allegedly prey on innocent/ignorant passengers who fail to validate tickets after boarding the trolley bus. Mind you, Bratislava doesn’t have a subway line so trolley buses and trams are the most efficient means to get around. But even before we arrived, I was determined not to take public transport mostly because the hotel we are staying (Abba Bratislava) is just about twenty minutes away by foot and located in between Bratislava hlavna stanica and the city’s major attractions.

Amid the rain patches and wet footwear, my wife and I braved the cold, wet weather to reach our hotel. Once we arrived at Abba Bratislava Hotel, we were rewarded with warm and accommodating front desk personnel and wonderful hotel room. This is the convenience of a smaller, boutique hotel: no long queues and you certainly get to your room within ten minutes of your arrival.

Bratislava Castle Winter Night

Bratislava Castle Winter Night

Since we are bound for Vienna tomorrow afternoon and time is of essence, we decided to take anevening walk to view part of the city. It’s a good thing that Bratislava’s main attractions we well-lighted and tourist-friendly (plenty of pubs and coffee shops remain open until late).

One of the most attractive landmarks is the Bratislava Castle, located on top of an isolated hill and just overlooking the Danube river. Equipped with a map provided by the proactive hotel staff, it wasn’t hard to find our way through the attractions. And I guess we will be forgiven for being ignorant on the distinction among tram stops, trolleybus stops and bus stops even though we never attempted to board any of them. The whole town is nicely paved, with occasional cobble stone pathways especially leading to Bratislava Castle. On the way you’ll see cozy small cafes populated by hockey fans watching live games (ice hockey is Slovakia’s national sport; its national team won silver in the 2012 Finland/Sweden World Championships) while enjoying a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. Otherwise,  the path we took was a dark, cold and desolate slice of the city.

The weather was rather unpleasant; it wasn’t only cold, it was also wet that pavements are pretty slippery especially those with chunks of ice and snow, and reminded me of a hard fall I experienced at Flagstaff, Arizona. No wonder, I am thankful I brought that bulky but reliable pair of Rockport shoes which were more ideal for such terrain. On our way leading to the Castle, like in many other instances, there are hits and misses. It’s not unusual for us to retrace our steps once we found out we’re on the wrong way.

Finally, after catching our breath and averting slips, we reached that majestic Bratislava Castle, its recently-repainted white walls  are illuminated by the lights that magnify its beauty. In other places, castles like this may require people to pay to get in. But Bratislava Castle was free to all who wish to explore this landmark built in the 9th century. A couple of guards at the gate were unmindful of our presence along with a dozen others who were greeted with a reassuring note that the castle was open until midnight.

I learned that from this point in the hill, it is possible to view portions of Austria and Hungary, given good weather conditions. But we didn’t expect that on this cloudy night.

Bratislava Tram

Bratislava Tram

Going around the city’s main square was like a smaller replica of its big sister Praha. The places described in Wikitravel were just a stone’s throw away from each other. There was a sense of more intimacy — fewer skaters in a smaller skating rink, fewer passengers on trams with fewer sets of coaches. And even at night time, it was a wonderful place to take photos. It wasn’t hard to update Facebook check-ins on mobile either; wi-fi hotspots are plenty within the main square, notably on nearby bars. I just had to stay close to a pub near Saint Michael’s Gate. No need to buy drinks or ask for password to get a connection.  It wasn’t long before we discovered that Taiwan has been assisting Slovakia in its wi-fi projects.

The following day, we decided to check out early and leave our luggage at the counter as we continue exploring the city. We would pick them up on our way back to the main train station, again by foot. This is why I think Abba Bratislava is an ideal hotel for short-stay visitors to make the most of tight schedules in the city.

Before heading towards the main train station for our hour-long travel to Vienna, we treated ourselves a well-deserved dose of rice meal at a Turkish restaurant Bosphorus along Obchodna street. Devoid of large malls in sight, we resolved that presents to friends will have to wait until we arrive in Vienna, or Budapest.

I am glad I inserted Bratislava into the “original” list of cities we planned to visit (which explains why we only had a day to spare here). The visit was worth the inclusion. The city, at least the more prominent attractions, can be explored in a day.

As we were waiting for our train in the station, the past 24 hours seemed like a blip in our brief European tour, but it dispelled some of a newbie traveler’s worries. That security is still best served with common sense, that rude ticket inspectors may have better attitude than advertised, and such a city, whose popularity isn’t at par with Paris, London or even its revered neighbors Vienna or Prague, should remain the way it is. Bratislava certainly left me with good memories.

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Beijing, China: Conquering the Great Wall (2004)

Melissa, a friend in Hong Kong, wanted to fulfill one wish before leaving Hong Kong later this month: travel Beijing and experience China’s splendid beauty at its best. She will be assigned to my home city of Davao by mid-October so there is not much luxury of time to waste. Despite conflicting schedules we also wanted to make her dream possible; obviously she can travel on her own but nothing compares to being one with the crowd making noise in a foreign land.

After countless preparations, the trip was decided along with who are coming. I was not one of them for I was uncertain it was possible with busy schedules at the office often made me leave office past 10pm. But for some forgotten reasons, I was on board and became a permanent fixture of a group arbitrarily called “Beijing group”.

As I am often dead tired once I get home, I am only able to read the emails of ever active Melissa and Weng as well as ocassional dosage of Dodo’s, Mike’s and Jun’s tips and suggestions in preparation for the trip such as places to go, payments to settle, where to go first, who are staying at one room, etc.

Destination: Beijing
Certainly enough, the day has come. Most of us hoped that since the departure day is a Friday, we won’t be dumped with pending work to do and put our travel time in peril. I thought coming to the office early would make more sense to justify leaving also early. So despite regularly waking up at half past seven, at that same time I was already in Airport Express station with Weng to check in even if I had no check in baggage, while waiting for Melissa to follow suit.

I came to the office thinking I win the gold — first to reach the office — but I failed to do so as Marcus, our General Manager came ahead of me. I had things to do for e-newsletters which I did fairly quickly. Lunch time came and still I am at work. It was almost 6 and all are still in the office. By virtue of coming in the office early, it was easy to sneak out then.
Our office is just like a typical Hong Kong workplace, every staff tries not to be the first to leave his or her desk.

Taking a walk to Tin Hau MTR Station plus traveling towards Central Station and eventually walking to the airport express councourse took longer than I expected. Yet at 6:10pm I am still not too far behind. Near the lift where I boarded stood Melissa, Dodo, Mike and Weng. In a few minutes we took the same lift going to the train station one floor below. We were hoping Jun
could catch up with us down there. But as I called to know his whereabouts, he was moving out of the lift while the train moved on. With Hong Kong’s efficient Airport Express system, however, we’re assured he’s only ten minutes behind us. We reached the airport at 6:43pm.

Sprawling with 500,000 square meters and 1.27 kilometers from the entrance to one end of the Y – shaped concourse, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport is among the best in the globe. Operating 24 hours a day all year long it was not so hard to explain a massive workforce of 45,000 keep the airport in operation from its launching in 1998. Dodo can attest to this. As a veteran of intercontinental flights spanning several international airports to compare. “San Francisco airport lounge is just about this size”, while referring to a couple of blocks of check in counters to his left. Despite the size, we still can locate Gino over the other edge.

Gino has been raving about the trip since our household meeting last night at Jay’s. “I probably won’t sleep because of the beautiful flight attendants”, Gino quipped, referring to the Dragon Air flight attendants. Dodo noted of this distinction among the flight attendants as a frequent flier of the airline on his trips to the mainland.

With Gino in sight, we started to take group photos as if we’re leaving Hong Kong for good. With group travels, you can always feel the excitement that you’d never bother to think and say “it’s too corny to take a photo behind theDeparture entrances”. In a while, Jun came and the Hong Kong cast is complete. I ad an almost brush with the law when I just took a small bottle of Watson’s and handed to Mike my coins as if he is the cashier. Unmindful of the honest crime, I rushed back to the cashier and pay. I realized that a guard was standing
in front of the store. Should I got caught, I’ll spend my weekend at the Airport Police station. But that was a sign of things to come later the night.

We wasted no time and proceeded to Gate 51, somewhere at the tip of the North wing. I would love to get a piece of Burger King but later reckoned Dragon Air flight KA 906 must have some nice dinner prepared for us. In general, airline dinners aren’t that good but to a hungry fellow like me, it should be alright. Before the start of the trip the guys already started the camera assault; all but me has a camera in tow. We’d take wacky shots, candid shots, group photos and photos with nonliving subjects. All for the sake of photography. It’s fascinating that more than half of the passengers in this flight are gweilos (Cantonese term for Caucasians). Since China opened its doors to the West it has reaped the benefits of globalization. Somehow this created more economic opportunities among the peoples in the countryside too. As a result China’s economic growth is currently the highest in the world. What makes it enormous is the fact that it’s home to over a billion people; almost one of every five people on earth is a Chinese.

That is why companies from Europe and America have moved offices and relocated facilities to China, though this activity has been initiated a few decades back. With increasing number of people classified as middle class, China is indeed becoming a lucrative market for various products from cars to cellphones. Traditionally it has been difficult for a typical Chinese to move out of a province and settle elsewhere in the mainland, let alone go outside of China. Now, with relaxed travel restrictions and with CEPA in place with Hong Kong, mainland tourists from Guangdong province come in on a daily basis, boosting the local economy badly hit by SARS. Ironically, it was suspected that some mainland tourists may have brought the disease from southern China and wreak havoc in Hong Kong last year.

Our plane is a small airbus 320 6-seater row model. While the three guys (Jun, Mike and Gino) were on one side, Dodo is seated between the two girls. I asked to be seated on another row “to explore things”. The flight was a bit delayed and experienced some turbulence along the way, owing to the fact that it’s relatively small plane plying a distance of 2024 kilometers. This is an unusual experience for Dodo as he always found on-time departures and smooth journey on his past travels.

Meanwhile, I am seated next to two mainland women in their late 20s or early 30s. I was reading USA Today while they pored over fashion pages of some local daily, ocassionally conversing in their thick Beijing accent. In a while, flight meals were served. There at the back, Gino must have been observing who among those ladies serving passed his standard. I could ask him in a snap but I thought it was too rude to do so. They don’t look bad, though they’re not distinctive from the other flight attendants I have come across the following airlines: Air Philippines, Cebu Pacific, PAL, Thai Airways, Garuda and Cathay Pacific. Not a big deal.

First Flight in 2004
The trip is going to take about close to three hours and I found it difficult to take a nap nor relax. The aisle seat I was located seemed not to serve the purpose I wanted. With ocassional restless passengers wanting to move across the cabin, I feel like I am lying in an hospital ward. Audio entertainment is conspicuously invisible so I’d rather stare at the ceiling and figure out where the spotlights fall as this French-made aircraft creates the gentle midair gush at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Meanwhile, the guys at the back are having wandering eyes on the flight attendants as inflight meals are served. I do not know if what we saw impressed us in terms of the lofty expectations brought about by Dodo’s earlier comments. To me, Kieve does not look bad, though she’s typically a Hong Kong girl who are identified as possessing slim to skinny bodies. We had sumptous dinner of either beef or roasted chicken on top of rice, noodles
and fruits for dessert. Apart from Cathay Pacific, this is one of the best I had; I was frustrated in the food I got from Thai airways last year. Taking this dinner diminishes any thought of that big Burger King bite at Chek Lap Kok.

Overhearing the conversations of Dodo and Melissa, attempting to take a nap for the fifth time, reading the newspaper’s hostage taking at beslan article, glancing on the window are all that surround me in the past forty five minutes. In a little while, the American flight captain apologizes for the second time about the flight delay and promised to bring us to Beijing before 10 in the evening.

Truly the promise became a reality as I can see the bright lights of Beijing from my seat. I was wondering what the temperature outside at the moment. Even with my small backpack, I managed to bring a piece of cool weather clothing. It did not take too long before we disembarked. Melissa and I were ahead and by the time we’re in the middle of the escalator, the rest of the guys took
their first Beijing pose. Anyway I’d like to go ahead and settle myself somewhere.

While Melissa went ahead I found myself in front of a lady immigration officer. After a minute waiting at the counter I can see Dodo and Gino emerging outside the counter. I can sense there is something wrong when the officer called another officer passing by and showed my passport to the latter. Then the second officer approached me and led me somewhere near their office. She asked why my passport has broken photo edges. I was dumbfounded and began to think they were suspecting me of altering my passport. They approached another officer and asked my credit card for identification. Logically I thought my Hong Kong ID was the best thing I could show but when they got hold of it, it seemed as if they saw a Hong Kong identification card only for the first time. One even tried to mangle it, as I was trying to get hold of it. At this time, I was mimicking as an arrested terrorist suspect, with hands chained. I did not feel worried, partly because
these officers were not asking me anything, despite their inability to speak English. Later, with no concrete set of questions to ask, I was let go.

The adventure in Beijing has definitely come underway even if we have not started ur itinerary. Three hours ago in Hong Kong, I accidentally pulled out a bottle of Watson’s water out of the convenient store’s outlet at the airport, even passing through the security guard’s attention. Avoiding a real theft charge I immediately paid gor my honest mistake.

Beijing’s airport needs a major overhaul despite its decent look and generally clean surrounding. I have no knowledge as to whether a mammoth airport is being build in time for the Olympics in 2008. We see taxi peddlers and special tour operators all over the place. It’s almost 11 and we’re not yet deciding on how much to pay to the driver now we have come out of the baggage claim area, we were met by tour operators and taxi dispatchers, similar type of people you see in Manila. As Dodo is relatively more familiar with the place and with Melissa’s researches and inquiries it was best to look after suitable cabs on our own; peddlers often charge unreasonably high markups.

We then found ourselves choosing a 400 RMB van and a “cheaper”one were have yet to see. After deliberations and influenced by our tired bodies, we felt it was practical to cut costs than to avail of a a great adventure, than to feel comfortable and get the cheaper one. Beijing nights have been cooler than expected. Looking at the map guide, mercury rises in between 19 – 27C in a typical September day. I was seated in front of the van making the most of the mildly cool air in the middle of a near empty speedway running at 90 kph. After 30 minutes we reached Novotel Xingiao hotel right at the center of Dong Jiao Min in Beijing. I am anxious to hit bed.

And while Melissa is negotiating the rooms, the also sleepy attendant told us to wait in a fashionable Beijing accent. It was half past 12. And we need to meet a tour guide at 8am later in the morning. Once I settled the room with Gino, we get to see a view of the Dongmen Hospital and the wide street across a subway station. Watching CCTV for a moment, I noticed and realized the televisions in China are controlled by the state communist party. I have always heard that any news bringing negative impression of China will immediately disappear before the TV screen. What a shame for a country trying to open up its doors on its neighbors whose citizens are enjoying much more freedom.

Anyway it’s 1am and Gino is arranging his things. I called it a day.

The Adventure
I was awakened by Gino’s uncanny ability to wake up at early hours of the day. He is used to this because his work starts even before I hit the showers so he typically slept very late last night but since this is a vacation, he never let his guard down and instead enthusiastically started the day right. The lobby where we will have our breakfast is elaborately decorated with fancy flowers and set up under the sun baked roof overlooking a pool on the other side of the hotel. When we got there Jun, Mike, Dodo, Melissa and Weng were already seated. We were wondering If Orly and anne were in town to join us in the morning trip to Great Wall in badaling. At 8am the guide was already waiting for us at the lobby. She is a veteran tour guide with sunny disposition and spoke in impeccable English. We will be boarding a van, which looks much better than the one we rode last night!

Beijing has never been a place often visited by tourists in the past due to its policy of isolating itself from neighbors, notably the west where it used to engage Cold War in the 80s until Deng Xiao Peng changed the political landscape and paved way for China to position itself as the most lucrative market in the world today.

Dodo has been taking a lot of photos even before we could start the first stop of our itinerary. With a powerful Nikon x99, he has the most coveted accessory in the house. We ocassionally pose somewhere, pretending not to be aware a candid shot was taken. The trip to the location was a smooth one, across paved roads on quiet neighborhoods, across trees aligned on major thoroughfares snd with multi lane expressways, traffic congestion is out of the question. Along the country roads, we can take a glimpse of the majestic structures man has ever created, stretching 4,500
miles long – about the distance from Miami, Florida to the North Pole – and took about 200 years to build.

Our tour guide was in high spirits while showing the sights, telling the facts and even singing a traditional Chinese song which I believe has the same melody as a Filipino music. A bit sleepy, I felt comfort in my seat as the airconditioning unit tempered the warm air outside. I had been wrong to note that the climate has become cooler and concluded my red Nautica sweaters will never be put in use. The ride from the hotel to the foot of the Badaling took us about an hour and half. We had to drop by a shuttle bus stop where we also met other tourists, Westerners and mostly Chinese fellows in their ever recognizable fashion statement – high waste black trousers and dark flower polo shirts – which make them easy to distinguish apart from their rather darkened complexion and facial structures.

We had to walk across the foot of one of the structures of the wall. It’s been blazingly hot and having a bottled water at hand is a welcome relief. A head cap is also useful, as I did wear one, along with Gino, Jun and Melissa. While Dodo’s passion was on his camera, Orly was also busy filming the whole Beijing experience over his camcorder.

As I do not have a camera I had to contend borrowing an owner so I can have his or her solo photo session using the beautiful wall as a background under the clear blue sky. The crowd was huge and people often get caught by the camera while walking by. It is amazing to notice that the stones used to build the wall are still in good condition but I believed it will deteriorate eventually if no proper maintenance is done. While Apple, as we started to call our guide, has been steadily walking up, aiming to reach 8 towers in a short span of time, we can’t help but pause for a while and take photos, whether on our own or as a group. It was her first time to experience guiding tourists who were more interested in taking photos with the views in the background rather than taking the views as the main subject.

But she enjoyed watching us though. During the sars season last year, tourist guides like Apple had a terrible year. No one wants to go to Beijing, for obvious reasons. And while it kept
them worried the disease will eventually wipe them out, the aftermath would be disastrous that recession will likely be taking place.as China recently opens its doors to outsiders, it has developed its fledgling tourism industry, to enable country people to showcase the beauty of China’s hinterlands, previously not promoted and much less familiar even to fellow mainlanders than the symbolic Great Wall of China. In 2002, I got the chance to take a look at every scenic spot in China — no I did not travel from Hong Kong to X’ian to Yunnan to Urumqi
to do this, I went to Shenzhen’s splendid China with Weng and Benjie — and awed with the sights from Terracota warriors to imposing pagodas.

But with the SARS outbreak, tourism was bleak. And even if tourism is not the sole breadwinner of the country’s economy unlike Maldives or Tahiti, the spreading of the disease means jobs of hundreds of thousands of people are in jeopardy. So I totally understand Apple’s predicament. The mid morning heat wasn’t scorching hot, thanks to the easterly winds that bring cool breeze. It is hot but not humid, so to speak. The blue skies above us was a perfect color match to set up a background of us taking photos in this imposing structure. The crowd numbers showed no signs of abating and instances of people getting caught in the middle of our smiles and the camera lenses frustrate us. It was then not difficult to decide we have to go down; we already got what we want from the Great Wall of China. Retracing the way back was a little longer than we took on our way up. We then came to a halt at a few stores offering souvenir items that attracted us. Melissa, Anne and Orly were leading the group applying the Mong Kok – Shenzhen buying rules.

It wasn’t long before we boarded the van leading to a restaurant atop a French inspired ceramic cottage house. We were toured on the facility and were amazed how much each 3 foot jar costs when it takes at least three weeks to finish this product after shaping, carving and polishing? Similar to the intricate mahogany carvings in Bali’s woodcarving villages that take 18 months to finish a single elaborate art, a single item is indeed worth calling a masterpiece. The restaurant at the top floor reminds me of a typical yum cha facility in Hong Kong with at least a couple of dozen round tables, each accomodating about 11 guests. The place was packed but we got our seats immediately, thanks again to the efforts of Apple. As guides were not allowed to take lunch with tourists, we promptly handed her and the van driver some cash for their lunch. I am not good at identifying the dishes but would only say that the servings are not new to me. I have been out for lunch with Chinese officemates and dinners with Chinese friends and the servings are familiar to me. One thing I still feel new in doing is handling of chopsticks; im not a good chopsticks user. Services were straightforward but the waiting time is a little longer. Language barrier was still a prominent problem even if more than half of the guests seated are
Caucasians. I was told that this is a government run enterprise that tour guides were required to bring their visitors here for lunch.

This time I feel a little sleepy standing outside the restaurant waiting for the van to take us to our next destination. Nothing much to see except Mike was taking photos in the midst of warrior statues, while Jun and Weng were savoring some ice cream. I had the urgency to sit and take a nap as I usually do in the office at this time, something that some officemates treat as a sign of weakness rather than recharging one’s mind and irks me everytime I hear someone comment about it.

The skies are now filled with cumulu-cirrus clouds which helped ease the hot weather of the day. We’ll be moving to the Ming’s tomb in a while. It will take us another hour to drive there, passing through some of Beijing’s suburbs. The city, which will host the 2008 Olympics has been gearing up big time for this event. The government is hiring native English teachers to educate the masses with the universal language and help guide visitors in the coming Games. Even as most mainland Chinese do not speak English, Beijing’s English speaking population has been thriving, with influences in the newspapers, cultural shows, and media (the one we see at 8am with former TVB Pearl’s James Chau at the anchor). It is understandable for a country not colonized by any foreign influence; if many Hong Kong Chinese do not speak ‘ying man’ despite the British presence that lasted even less than a decade ago, how much more do ordinary people in the villages and counties ever learn without being taught in medium other than native tongue and hearing public discourses of Wen Jiabao, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in r-flavored Potunghua?

On our way, we can see a symbol of old China’s tradition outside houses and businesses: pillars that signify prominence in the society. It was told that four pillars erected at the top of doors mean you are an heir of a highly respected person in the community and it means you can only marry another person of the same social stature. I am not sure about this but to me it sounds similar to Indian caste system than even if the government strongly denies applying this in the modern Indian society, it is still very visible to everyone. Wide streets, often misguiding tourists where to cross because of its apparent absence of signs. But the good thing is that in contrast to Manila or Bangkok traffic jams, Beijing traffic situation is virtually under control — for now. As affluent middle class people grow in numbers, so are the cars that ply along the streets and with roads never meant to become wider — as it is very wide at the moment — the problem of traffic congestion could be in the list of Beijing planners headaches in the near future.

Finally we reached the ming’s tomb at about half past 2. Talking about time, China’s adopts single timezone (gmt+8) which means regardless if it’s still dawn in Xinjiang in the West or it’s mid morning in Harbin in the east, both cities share the same time. Each of us paid 40 rmb to get inside, which the entrance notice boasts of age-old preserved antiquties from giant Yunnan logs from the southwest and royal clothing which our tour guide was quick to dispel the fact. Truly, this is a real cultural minefield in this part of Beijing. Whilst the city moves towards the new generation, preserved relics of ancient rulers were a manifestation of love for heritage, which is one of the world’s richest. To attest this, over 90% of the visitors we see are of Chinese ethnicity. They may come from different countries in the world but they belong to one race and the heart of their origin lie amongst the sprawling museum complex recently threatened by denudation coming from the region of Inner Mongolia. Winds drive the desert further east to Beijing so in order to counter the threat, Beijing is sprucing up the metropolis with fir and other sub temperate trees to preserve soil quality.

Inside the compound are trees carefully labeled to show age. It did not take us long to tour important areas of the Ming tomb. We were mostly concerned of the beautiful spots where we could take out our cameras and click. But we’re also careful with what we do. Earlier, Mike mimicked a monkey climbing a relatively young tree for a photo op when he was immediately berated by a visibly irritated guardsman.

Photo Credit: Dodo Casibang

Apple as a sign of desecration of the tomb’s lesser guarded properties. Dodo came across a painting of various shapes and sizes, abstract and illustrations. The painter prodded him to try his paintings and embed his name in Chinese. Dodo replied in Potunghua saying things straight: “what will I do with that” while moving away to the chagrin of the artist. Along the way, I took the comfort of borrowing again Gino’s shades while ocassionally taking photos on our way back to the city. I feel sleepy again at this point. Melissa was discussing plans for the next two days which will cover until Monday. Gino and I will fly the next day back to Hong Kong so most likely schedules on half of Melissa’s itinerary plans will never be experienced by both of us.

This time Melissa, our tour leader discussed in Tagalog about the payments to the cabbie and our tour guide who did splendid job. While they agreed to watch the carnival I feltl adamant about it. Apple began calling the ticketing office and inquired about ticket sales. Each premier ticket costs about 300 RMB which is roughly equivalent to seats 30 feet from the stage of an Elton John or Duran Duran concert in Hong Kong. With the recommendation of her friends, Melissa is quite sure that it is worth it. Apple returned from a conversation that while there may be tickets available, the time to reach there may not be enough to start the show. Upon learning about this snag, coupled with a long, exhausting day at Badaling and Ming tomb, it was a practical decision to leave it for the next day the most.

On our way to the hotels (Anne and Orly were booked on another hotel 5 minutes away from ours) we fancy eating something popular in Beijing: roast peking duck. Something we don’t want to miss out despite all the rants about cholesterol. After dropping off souvenir items to the hotel and me managing to change to my black Hard Rock Cafe shirt. We will be going to Wang Fu Jian, a busy street filled with souvenir confetionery stores, street hawker food stalls and just anything similar to Mong kok and sham shui po. We got our first ride on the Beijing subway system.
The train network is composed of two lines spanning Beijing’s busy eastern business district and central district, which is home to government offices. It is not as efficient and as automated as Hong Kong’s mass transit railway; tickets have to be bought only from a counter and attendants have to check the tickets. Orly noted this is chaos if the system is implemented in Hong Kong, whose train systems MTR and KCR carry a combined three million passengers each day.

It was not long enough for us to wait for the next train to Wang Fu Jiang to arrive but we were able to sneak a couple of photos in the platform. The trip won’t be long as we only have to travel to the next station. Walking in Beijing streets is relatively safe, as opposed to years ago when walking on dimly lit pavements invites crime perpetrators.

When we reached one restaurant, we could hardly come inside, and when apple asked about the availability of seats, the host promptly notified us everything is taken at least until an hour later. Looking at the place makes me think Beijing’s elite take their visitors here. Until recently, state officials are the recognized elite as communism forbids people from owning properties in excess of the items prescribed by law. So I see foreign dignitary photos taking their share of sumptuous Beijing cuisine at this very place. It reminds me of some noodle shops in Hong Kong that proudly displays photos of Chris Patten taking a sip of tea with a smiling propreitor by his side.

We had to vacate the place and settle somewhere else. Good thing it did not take us a long time to find one decent place. Everyone is hungry and whatever is laid on the table becomes a welcome treat. We were seated at the table nearest to the door. Along the hallway are portraits of dignitaries and officials along with their signatures and feedback about the whole eating experience. Ghana, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Soviet Union and Thailand leaders were among those I see. At the table, I often get disoriented on how and when to use the bowl, plate, knife and chop sticks. Should I put the dim sum on my bowl? Maybe on the plate? But it’s difficult to pry it with chop sticks that way. Anyway I will get used to this. But I have been in Hong Kong for the past three years and handling chopsticks should be a piece of cake. Apple had to arrange the orders because we could hardly communicate with the waiters. When every item has been ordered, she asked to go.

The slices of were especially delicious. Top it with the dangerously crispy duck skin and everyone is busy helping himself or herself. I ate once with Shasha and her mom in Hong Kong’s Yung Kee and the taste is almost the same. The Hong Kong order was more expensive though. Once we finished the dinner, we took time walking around the street which was apparently closed for pedestrians to enjoy wider space for a leisure walk amidst this dry weeknight air. I was thinking what to bring to the PCL people. I had in mind not all of them would be pleased with something from mainland China but I am trying to imagine the delicacies they want. After all this is my first time to bring some goodies to the office.

We dropped by a specialty store which brings us to virtually all kinds of confectioneries. We toured the store before approaching the demo taste section flocked by us and ocassional mainland tourists as well. I am not so keen on what type to bring. I was more conscious of where are the cheaper ones. I had chosen a pack of preserved fruits and carefully selected items by flavor and dumping them into a plastic bag before handing over to the saleslady for weighing. Ok, I got enough for 15 people in the office. I hope they will like it.

Walking with Hong Kong friends in this lovely evening at a foreign land is something that happens very rarely. The last one was in 2002 when I was in Jogjakarta with fellow SFC members Shasha, Jenny, Barbie along with newly met friends Cielo and Patrick just after our food festival adorned in traditional Chinese costumes. Here in Beijing, our mind is in unison, not much worry about work but purely relaxation though the term often connotes tiring yet not stressful day of adventures. After a few sightseeing of neon lit 10 rmb shops and ocassional shots, we headed back to our hotel.

As the mattress is softer than what I have at home, sleeping has never been a problem. There was a joke circulating on the other room about snorers. So far I had no qualms about Gino maybe because he does not snore and simply falls asleep as soon as he snugs inside his comfy blanket.I stay a little later preferring to spend time watching BBC News which I prefer over CNN about Beslan hostage crisis in the Caucasus. After filling up my diary for the day, I found my way to bed.

The next day Gino and I got to the table earlier than the rest of the gang. Same old variety of food which is really good. We’re gonna miss this tomorrow; we’ll be flying back to Hong Kong at 720pm later. Today Apple will not be with us so we have to contend with traveling on our own. It’s not a worry though as we have almost everybody familiar with Potunghua: Anne and Orly are from Guangzhou (also known as Canton, which I believe where the word Cantonese is derived yet people there speak Mandarin), Jun, Weng and Mike are Mandarin students and Gino and Dodo are the most well versed among the group. That technically leaves me or Melissa as the only ones who will be lost in limbo once left on our own.

You jump, I jump
Today we will be going to Tiananmen square, the place I longed to be, besides the Great Wall. We took the subway ride again and when we got off the station we can see ancient structures sprawled across the area. Lush greeneries surround the area under the temperature of early twenties. We took time taking photos from almost any angle and here we started the jump sessions where in a click of the camera we will be caught at our fresh from its best ever finish in the Athens Olympics, Chinese countrymen are eagerly awaiting the homecoming of their
athletes. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was here until yesterday. While China is in jubilant mood, the Philippines is again empty-handed for the second straight Olympics despite the hype and publicity of the country’s chances. Open spaces were great places for photography. It took us almost an hour for the photo sessions even as we walked across the sprawling complex filled with weekend revelers: country folks exploring better life in Beijing, old townsfolk sitting at the balmy edge of the streets, street hawkers and young families taking the kids for a walk. We met John, a Filipino working in Beijing for the past 4 years. He is a member of Singles For Christ Beijing and is active member of South Cathedral’s choral group. He gave us hints on which places to visit and things to do, despite the limited time we are going to spend amongst those suggested itineraries.

The air is calm and gray skies cover the sunshine yet I perspired a lot probably because summer is still not in a distant past. Dodo and John lamented that winters are bitterly cold and skies are gray most of the time when the cold season is out. We were led to the Church just before 10am. Contrary to my belief that religious practice is suppressed here, Christians are free to profess faith. In the church we see a sizeable number of parishioners at the south cathedral who are composed of locals and expats as well. Local filipino community provides the melody of
the holy eucharist, as is in almost every place where Filipinos thrive as a product of worldwide diaspora.

The Mass was in English but a couple of other translations were also noticeable in some parts of the liturgy, notably in the prayer of the faithful. The lively choir rendition, dominated by Filipino singers and instrumentalists is a familiar sight in many of Hong Kong’s Parishes where Filipino men and women manage church activities from lectors to singers to alms collectors. Just before the bishop read the final prayers, Edwin Lee, my buddy in the Jogjakarta conference and CFC coordinator here invited the faithful to attend the Christian Life Program
which will commence by noontime at the church halls. As we went out of the church I haven’t thought that the number of local Chinese parishioners still dwarf the foreigner numbers. Among them are members of Singles for Christ. As we gather at the church entrance to interact with fellow CFC’ers a few reluctant yet interested folks came over the table and signed up for the clp. Among them were an Indonesian couple who had been in Beijing for three years. We then took photos with the bishop and friends gathered at the time. John was to lead us to a fastfood plaza for lunch.

Beijing skies were still under the blanket of gray high-altitude clouds. The weather is warm but often times we sweat a lot due to humidity. As we walked along the streets, we can’t seem to stop taking shots of the Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City In the city’s central landscape. Upon entering the monumental building, it is evident that Beijingers are way ahead of their provincial siblings: they eat at McDonald’s or KFC; they wear GAP or Abercrombie and Fitch; they listen to Michael Learns to Rock and Westlife. The way they embrace Western lifestyle was unprecedented though not totally unexpected since the demise of Mao Zedong and establishing Western ties by the late Deng Xiao Peng. And while the state is still ruled by the communism, signs point its shift to capitalism and participation to free trades among neighboring ountries.

We came across a wide variety of Chinese foods, from dim sum to noodles of various sizes and preparations. There were also non-Chinese dishes of course. I picked the big bowl full of thin fried noodles shared with Gino. John took Yoshinoya while others took sauteed eel or more conventional menu. Food is also cheaper than in Hong Kong. The surrounding was not different from Hong Kong where people often go out; which is why Hong Kong boasts of more than 10,000 restaurants while the much bigger city of London only has about 7,000. Beijing people tend to be more laid back than their brothers in the South. Sunday is a special day for the family, to gather together, eat together, frolic in the park or crowd the shopping malls.

Going Home
It is just a few hours and Gino and I have to separate ourselves from the group as we avoid the pitfalls of not being well versed in the Chinese language. What if I was lost and everyone is around me but nobody could speak my tongue? I might end up in jail. But I am quite assured Beijing people learn English quickly especially with the Olympics held not in the distant future and English speaking citizens are easily considered heroes in their very own rights, making China hospitable to visiting athletes, coaches or media when that time comes. Gino speaks Potunghua yet feel not confident to converse it around — until the taxi ride to the airport. He always insist that the language he learned is quite different from the lingua franca version.

Meanwhile, when the lunch was over we trekked inside the forbidden city and traced the mace that we ourselves are beginning to negotiate. Inside the forbidden city are relics, admirably well preserved by the government. The sun shone brightly as the afternoon progressed on. While the rest of the guys were busy looking over the structures and intricate carvings i was constantly nagging gino while looking at my wristwatch and reminded that the airport is at least an hour away in my poor estimates. Not long after the final group photo session I led Gino outside and in there we still took photos using his camera for the last time. Taking taxicab in China is the same in the Philippines where drivers who park their cars near the park charge as much as 500% more than those who ply the highways.

No wonder Caucasian backpackers ahead of us chose to stand up and wait for passing cars to hail while the unscrupulous ones try to persuade the elderly ones to take the ride. It did not take a long while to get a ride and the driver as expected did not speak in english but in “tongues” that I could hardly understand, not a thing, nada, zilch. But Gino is a promising Potunghua speaker so I have confidence we can overcome the language barrier. On the other group, at least Dodo, Mike and Jun are at least studying the language so they’re in safe situation. On the way to the airport the driver marveled Gino’s fluency despite the latter’s admittance that his version is taiwanesque and is void of The ‘ars’ in this region’s tongue.

Fast forward and we’re in the airport. I did not have the harrowing experience three days ago. While I imagine the rest of the gang looking forward to the next day’s activity while performing more jumps in their current locations. Meanwhile, I have to think about work at the office again. As I ask gino what the cantonese conversations on people around us are all about. It has been a great experience to be with friends in china’s majestic landmark and making new friends up North.

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Belo Immigration Ads Great for Medical Tourism

Many Filipinos associate Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) with corruption and different types of malpractice unbecoming of a public agency. There is widespread knowledge about grumbling immigration officers who make things difficult for first time travelers outside the country. There are airport staff who openly ask for dole outs from balikbayans and inspectors who outlaw certain baggage contents so they can keep them. It will not be surprising if many inbound or outbound passengers try to get out of the airport as soon as they can. What a shame to the country’s airport, named after the father of the current President Noynoy Aquino III.

One of the latest controversies that hound the immigration department was the printed arrival and departure cards that feature cosmetic surgeon Vicky Belo. This comes after the same set of cards were printed with the photo of President Aquino. The President balked at seeing his photo on the card before boarding his flight to the United States. But Belo is a willing replacement, so immigration officials were possibly laughing their way to the bank.

Not so fast, cowboys.

The card shows Belo in white medical gown wearing her signature smile and a tagline that carries the credential that her clinic has “20 years of making people beautiful”. While the image itself presents commercial nature, the fine print further persuades holders to visit one of the Belo clinics for an exclusive offer: present the card — now termed a coupon — for a 10% discount on non-surgical procedures.

In the Philippines, it is not unusual to see government facilities littered with promotional items from commercial interests. When I arrived in Davao airport, all I see are ads of Smart Communications, one of the leading mobile communications companies in the country. There is one at the airport bridge. Another at the glass windows. Finally, there are signs, banners and tarpaulins bearing the logo and proclaiming the city is a Smart city. No wonder at the back of Belo ads in the immigration cards are Microtel Hotel and Resorts and Mall of Asia promotions.

As the Philippines tries to get that share of medical tourism market, Belo ads hit bulls eye when it comes to finding the ideal place to promote its services. Everyone who enters the Philippine territory by air is required to fill up the form: balikbayans, overseas Filipino workers, foreign tourists and businessmen. They are the prime targets of Belo’s services: generally affluent group of people who can afford such method of self-indulgence.

But sorry to ruin the party, such ad laden departure and arrival cards were scrapped for good. If it were allowed a few months, it could push revenues of Belo medical business to the roof and usher a major recruitment drive to attend to the demands of the business.

In contrary, our neighbors never tried to vandalize their immigration cards with ads. Or if they do, it’s not that obvious. Maybe because it’s a crime to do so, or they just didn’t feel morally correct serving their business above the country’s interests. But that can’t be said in the Philippines, at least to the officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Immigrations Ronaldo Ledesma, who has nothing against the celebrity dermatologist’s picture being printed on the cards, but stressed that the BI should have been consulted first.

While the idea of putting ads on public documents like departure/arrival cards don’t seem right, I think it’s wrong to immediately pin the blame on offices who allow these things to happen. Lack of government budget is one big reason why officials resort to these tactics that possibly present win-win situations. A big mall could sponsor the construction of a classroom or an energy drink company agreeing to shoulder the expenses of the Philippine team in an international sports event. But as a business, these corporations want some sort of return of their investment assistance.

Let’s take a look at the immigration cards from other countries and compare it with ours.

THAILAND

INDIA

CHINA

VIETNAM

MYANMAR

Photo credits:
* http://www.travelindiasmart.com/arriving.php
* http://www.nextstopbangkok.com/arriving
* http://www.havefuninchina.com
* http://www.flickr.com/photos/preetamrai/
* http://tourism.goldenlandpages.com

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Philweb Memories

In not so distant past, I was one ambitious monkey attempting to dive into cyber space at the dawn of the Web. By the time I was officially enrolled in the industry, the unraveling of dotcom bust already took place a dozen timezones behind. But I was glad it happened that way. Otherwise, I could be cultivating a career quite different from what I have now.

After finishing Computer Engineering at UIC, working there wasn’t exactly my plan. However, maybe because I thought it was the safest route to start a career, I’d further my learning by doing BOTH teaching and programming or I was eager to recoup the educational investment I made with my alma mater (yes, I thought about it), it wasn’t a difficult decision to extend my stay at the University.

But after three years, I thought it was enough. So by June 2000, I left UIC at the time when the new school year is starting. (School calendar in the Philippine education system starts in June.) I remembered talking to the school president S. Ma Assumpta David and trying to be firm with my decision. I thought she respected it and didn’t offer to persuade me to stay.

Two weeks of homestay and curtailed income passed before I got a confirmation I was offered a job in Cagayan de Oro City, a good six hour bus ride from Davao City — along the way passing by the house of my future wife. I have relatives in the city where I could stay. And I thought that my journey of hundreds (or thousands of miles) should begin with this step, no matter if it’s more than just a single one.

Thanks to Rizza R., a childhood friend and neighbor who referred me to the job, and an employee leaving the company, I got in. Interestingly, I realized that this reunion marks another milestone between me and Rizza. We went to the same grade school together. We were classmates in high school. And we took the same course in UIC. Now, we’re colleagues. I also came to know a few more in the office. Candice C., Shelley S., Roy Y., Meg V., Kent, D., Alex, Chui O., Edward N., Sir Chavs and Jimmar R. Our office was at Fr. Masterson Avenue, in the third floor of a building called White House because of its immaculate white painting that stands out of the neighborhood.

We’re only about ten people in the office, so it was really an intimate group. We shared lunch together. My aunt Flora prepares packed lunch so I had no problem waking up early and cooking my food. But at times I just want to try what colleagues want to have for lunch. I remember buying mongo at a house located near the office. At work, it’s not unusual to play MP3 from a PC with Winamp; we only got to play what we want to hear. During this time, downloading music through Napster was still prevalent.

In my effort to be with the family every week, I take the Rural Transit bus on Friday nights and arrive in Davao at about 7 in the morning the following day. As I get home, I hit the bed immediately and wake up at about 11, just in time for lunch. I know I had only a few hours left before I pack my things and make the return trip to Cagayan de Oro. By Sunday afternoon, I am already at Ecoland terminal waiting for my bus to leave Davao.

After work, we sometimes hang out at a friend’s house or we ate dinner together. We played Starcraft a lot! I guess we had a lot of plans that time, like going to the beach or other type of adventure. Unfortunately, they didn’t materialize because I was recalled to the Manila office. I thought the move was killjoy. But I realized this was the reason I left UIC.

Cagayan de Oro was a favorite city of mine. As a kid, we go for summer vacation prelude to the exciting Bohol adventure. For some reason I remember urging my mother if I could study high school there. But the idea was frowned upon, and now I can’t imagine why I made that absurd request. Apart from meeting my relatives (mother’s side), my job in Cagayan de Oro also gave me the opportunity to meet my aunt Sylvia a few years before she died of cancer.

In the office we built this e-commerce suite called e-Padala. I thought the system was promising (Oracle database and competent Meg V. as DBA) but the execution was poor. Procedures were lax at best (not scalable, no strict coding practice and a nightmare system to take over, from an incoming I was asked to move to Manila to finish things.

While it wasn’t my first time to go to Manila, I was still mesmerized by its size. I was with Meg and Sir Deck P. reassigned in Philweb in the posh Enterprise Tower in Makati. Staring at tall buildings was overwhelming — not that they’re taller than Hong Kong skyscrapers — and you’d feel you’re a small dot in a big organization. No longer the easy going lifestyle I enjoyed at the White House. In Manila, you have to hurry up. Even if our office is just one jeepney — or a ticycle if you wake up a bit late — ride away.

Our staff house was located along Estrella Avenue, near Rockwell. It wasn’t big (in fact we were crowding in the rooms), but good enough for newcomers in the city. It has air conditioning unit that’s loud enough to wake you up at night. (I have to say many of my house mates snore in their sleep, so if you’re among last to hit the bed, good luck.) My stay at the Estrella staff house also revealed Metro Manila’s weakness. One of the strongest typhoons in the year left Manila flooded and us unable to leave the staff house. Ironically, as water was everywhere down the street our faucet couldn’t produce a drop of water. We had to rely on bottled water as tap water has become an unreliable source. This reminds me of Davao City, where water flowing out of our tap is safe for drinking and buying bottled water was considered a crazy idea. And we seldom experience waterless faucets too.

In the morning colleagues just rush to the bathroom and head to work in a hurry. Many of us just take our breakfast on the road, or at the fast food area (notably Jollibee) of The Enterprise Tower. For dinner I usually eat at the fastfood at Landmark on my own. This made me miss my mother’s cooking. I was always told that in Manila, every move you make costs money. I guess having this dinner instead of enjoying the company of family members and homemade cooking is part of it. From a predictable life at the UIC campus in May to a new layer of freedom in CDO in July and a chaotic Manila in September, this is the break I’ve been waiting for.

If I accomplished something, it was not seeing the beta version of e-Padala but in landing another job at Zurich Insurance at nearby Citibank Tower. When I told Sir Chavs via instant messaging that I have something to share by the time I return to CDO in October, he already understood I was leaving. I did not only bid farewell to colleagues I only got to work with for two and a half months. I also had to bid goodbye to my aunt Flora and uncle Lito as I packed my clothes and take the evening bus trip to Davao.

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