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Friday 11 January, 2008  

Good morning

Hopefully you read the advice last week that this week's newsletter would be a little late.  I'm freshly off my return flight back from Shanghai (two more pleasant enough flights with Northwest), and am still attempting to catalogue the almost overwhelming and very varied kaleidoscope of impressions from my week in China.

Much of this issue is accordingly about China - skip down through the various color changes to get to the week's feature article intro and what there is in the dinosaur, security, and general sections if this first part doesn't interest.

I spent three days in Beijing, took an all-day (ten hour) train to Shanghai, and then spent another three days in Shanghai.

Perhaps the strongest impression of China as a whole is not a very positive one.  The country appears to have terrible air pollution problems, and to my astonishment, not only were these problems very apparent in the two big cities, but the almost 1000 mile train ride between the two cities never once took us out of what was variously either fog/mist and/or smog, even when away from the less intensely urban areas.

Much of this pollution is the flip side of the astonishing growth of the Chinese economy.  I've been through many of the former Eastern bloc countries in Europe, and generally the feeling there is one of decay and neglect, with only occasional isolated patches of new development, usually only in the biggest cities, while countless dozens of factories are empty and rusting and the smaller towns are moribund.  In China, there is massive new development everywhere, not just in the major cities.

Signs of economic vitality were abundant everywhere.  The train journey between Beijing and Shanghai all the time revealed new highrises being built or recently completed (one mid sized city had a patch of over 20 cranes in a huge new development project), plus what look to be brand new freeways apparently in the middle of nowhere.  Last year China completed 5200 miles of new freeway alone, and should have as many miles of freeway as the US within the next ten years or so (China is almost identical in landmass size to the US).  Even the train journey is a beneficiary of new investment, featuring a nice new moderately fast train on reasonably good track (most of the time averaging about 100 mph and peaking at almost 130 mph), and there are plans for a newer train to travel the route at twice the speed.

Talking about trains, taking the maglev train out to the airport in Shanghai was an interesting experience.  It is a very short journey (just under 20 miles), and I suspect was built more out of national pride and to make a statement to the world than as an actual sensible investment in public transport, but there are plans to now extend the maglev train considerably further.  The train claims a maximum speed of 430 km/hr (270 mph) but despite implications to support the idea it actually travels at this speed, we 'only' reached a top speed of 300 km/hr (185 mph) during the eight minute journey.

The train is not well designed for airport traffic - limited luggage space and aisles too narrow for full sized suitcases to be rolled along.  Even worse was being greeted, upon arrival at the airport, with 35 steps to climb.  Its city terminal is actually some 15 miles out of the city center, requiring either a subway connection in to the city (impractical with luggage) or a cab ride to supplement the train journey.

One other travel related issue.  When the weather gets too foggy (don't ask me what the criteria is) the Chinese authorities simply close down their freeways, forcing traffic either onto alternate surface routes or making them wait until the freeway reopens.

One of my tours was a victim of this, and the freeway opening and closing seemed to be semi-random with some parts of some freeways open and other parts shut, based on the whims of local police officers.

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at the boast of another American in the group 'we never close our freeways'.  Reading this article now about a 70 car pile-up in Florida earlier this week, with four deaths and 38 injuries, leaves me uncertain as to the best strategy to adopt.

China - and India, too - are specifically exempted from the Kyoto Treaty protocols on carbon emission controls, and of course their omission rather negates the entire treaty, but the puzzling subject of why western nations have taken it upon themselves to make minor tweaks in their carbon emissions at great cost while allowing the unchecked growth in pollution to continue amok in China is not one for this newsletter.

However, the good news is that China does appear to be somewhat more sensitive to environmental issues, and subjects such as energy conservation are regularly written about in their local press, either extolling new plans the government has to improve energy efficiency or encouraging the citizenry to do their bit at a personal level, and Shanghai jumping on the irrational eco-bandwagon by passing a law prohibiting stores giving away plastic bags with their merchandise (but, ahem, they can sell you plastic bags, just no longer give them away for free!).  And how could the country ignore this topic with much of it blighted by thick smog?  It is, quite literally, a very visible issue for much of the population, and as they move into middle class security, quality of life and care for the environment become more important.  I'm encouraged as to what the future may bring, but the continued runaway growth of China's economy more than overwhelms any small enhancements in energy usage, at least for now.

It is clear that China's currency (called either the Yuan or Renminbi) is significantly undervalued and is likely to continue its appreciation compared to the dollar, at a rate greater than other currencies, and limited only by the political resolve of China's political masters.

The currency had been pegged at a fixed rate to the US dollar for many years, but in response to pressure from the US, in mid 2005 China started a process of gently allowing the currency to float up, although at a rate much lower than market forces would probably otherwise indicate, and since that time, it has consistently strengthened, and whereas a dollar used to buy almost 8.2 Yuan prior to the float, it now barely buys 7.2 yuan and even at this rate, the Yuan remains significantly undervalued.

This undervaluation is confirmed by the 'Big Mac exchange rate' (a theory posited by the Economist magazine that when currencies are in balance, the cost of a Big Mac should be the same in both countries) - in central Shanghai, a Big Mac costs a mere 12 Yuan (about $1.65, much less than in a downtown McDonalds in most US cities).  Bottom line for us as travelers :  While China is generally an affordable destination to visit at present, look for this to change markedly due to the twin evils of significant internal inflation in China (6.9% annual rate according to most recent official statistics) and a strengthening Chinese Yuan.

In terms of prices, currently it seems you can stay in a good four star hotel in Beijing or Shanghai for less than $150 a night, and can eat a decent meal from as little as $15 up to as much as you're willing to pay.

Beijing was an interesting city from a historical point of view, although I was struck at the poor state of repair of many of the buildings visited.  And I now understand why people talk about 'climbing' the Great Wall of China rather than walking it.  A guide explained that the Wall was built to follow the contours of the hilltops, using the hillsides as a further obstacle to keep out unwanted peoples, and so it unavoidably tends to have very few flat level sections (other than in the desert, of course); indeed, the Wall designers sought out hills on which to build the Wall.

The net result is that one can expect a very strenuous climb if one wishes to walk even a short distance along the top of the Wall.  There are various ways to effortlessly get onto the Wall, but as soon as one starts to walk, you'll quickly find yourself going either up or down hill, and sometimes almost perilously steeply.

One thing I didn't get, in Beijing, was much of a feeling for where the inhabitants lived and worked and shopped.  This was probably just a result of the tour itineraries that I took.  It also seemed to me, though, that Beijing isn't a great city just to wander around, but that perception too may reflect lack of knowledge on my part.

However, these unknowns and omissions were all answered in Shanghai, a city with a traditional core of downtown shopping, etc, and a city that one could more readily walk around to sightsee and enjoy on an unplanned basis.  Shanghai reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong, and in some ways offers a more comfortable (but still incongruous) mix of old and new, of west and east, of wealth and poverty.  One block away from the 'high rent' district of Nanjing Road and The Bund, which is replete with international fashion stores, banks and financial company head offices, and plenty of bustle and bright lights, you can find yourself in a sea of people on bicycles and tricycles, with little stores selling food or goods on the street side, and allegedly with limited indoor plumbing and what to the untrained western eye looks like distasteful squalor.  Like many other countries, there seems to be an increasing gap between the richer and poorer sectors of the economy, and China's government seems sensitive to needing to ensure that the poor get a fair trickle down of the wealth that is starting to saturate the upper classes.

It is hard to imagine two cities that are simultaneously more different to each other, but still sharing many common roots, than Beijing and Shanghai.  Shanghai has more neon in it than most major western cities, a smorgasbord of international dining opportunities, impressive imposing high rise buildings, and a marvelous metro system that is easy to use, amazingly quiet and smooth to travel on.

There were of course lots of good places in both cities to eat in and some fun places to shop at, with my purchases including a fake Breitling watch for under $20 (the poorer quality fake watches, with very short lived internal movements made out of plastic can be had for just over $5) and a fake Montblanc pen for about $15.  As well as 'normal' Chinese food, I had the celebrated Peking Duck, and also a 'hot pot' meal.  What is a hot pot?  Imagine a pot that has a charcoal burner funnel in the middle of it, making for a donut type ring of boiling water between the funnel and the outside of the pot.  Add some flavoring to the water, then dunk vegetables, very thin slices of meat, noodles, etc, into the water to cook, then eat them with sauces.  Great fun.

Perhaps in recognition of the greater international flavor of Shanghai, I had a good French meal, an average German meal, and an appalling Russian meal during my stay there.  There's food of just about every style and flavor to be had in Shanghai.

As I mentioned last week, it is wonderful to be in a country where labor is cheap and a strong service ethic exists.  I counted between 11 and 13 hotel staff usually visible at the front desk of the Beijing hotel I was staying at, and this small army of employees were usually dealing with no more than one or two guests at any given time.  Any time I went to get help, I'd be swarmed around by as many as four employees, all keen to have some relief from the monotony of standing around doing nothing.  Similarly in the stores, many times the staff outnumbered the customers, a far cry from the US where finding someone to help in a store is increasingly difficult.

Talking about stores, the shopping in China is very tempting.  The country has many beautiful things to tempt even the least interested shopper; whether it be silk clothing and bedding, art, jade, or chop stick gift sets, regular souvenirs, or fake brand name fashion goods, there's a huge variety of products to choose from.

There is a lot to like about China, and some very different and distinctive experiences.  But there were frustrations as well.  For example, upon arrival into Shanghai, I couldn't find where the taxi line was outside the railway station, and when I finally did find roaming taxis, I couldn't find one that knew where the hotel was (I stayed at a new upscale and large Howard Johnsons in the center of the city that any taxi driver should have known, either by name or by address but neither seemed to work).  I had to call the hotel then pass the cell phone to a taxi driver, and even then the first driver refused to take me for who knows what reason.  Fortunately, the second driver agreed, and taxi fares are wonderfully inexpensive (less than 50c a mile, or hire a taxi by the hour for $7.25 an hour).

And then there was the evening in Shanghai where I spent two hours looking for a restaurant in the Lonely Planet Guidebook without success, and much of the time lost.  Neither could I find the alternate restaurant I wanted to eat at either.  This was very frustrating, and made me feel quite out of my depth.  China is great when all goes well, but it only takes a small glitch for one to become quite helpless.

Indeed, I must say that the Lonely Planet guidebook on Shanghai was woefully out of date on many of the points I used it as a reference guide for; a shame but unavoidable in with print publications that may be completely rewritten only once every few years, with limited updates perhaps every year or two, and then published as much as a year after each set of updates, and offered for sale for a year or more.  This means that even a 2008 dated guidebook often has information that ranges in freshness from 2006 for the more recent material and perhaps 2004 or earlier for less recent content.

Problems like these are made worse in a country with a language that most of us can't either speak or read at all, combined with the unfortunate fact that very few Chinese people seem to speak much English.  All in all, China is still challenging for individual travelers doing their own thing (and remember that it is only comparatively recently that China would allow individual travelers rather than limiting tourists to members of official organized groups).  People who are not comfortable in such a situation would not be comfortable doing China on their own; it is definitely an 'advanced' rather than 'basic' tourist destination.

Which brings me to my plans for a Travel Insider tour to China.  Yes, there will be one.  And, like I did with Russia, I'm going to offer a 'Beta Testers Tour' of China this June, followed by a general tour for everyone next year.

What is a Beta Testers tour?  It means we'll be going places, staying at hotels, and doing things that I haven't done myself before.  It means I haven't been able to exercise quite the quality control in advance that I'd like to have done, and while I'm hoping all will meet or exceed our expectations, because I too am doing some of these things for the first time, there's a slight element of uncertainty present.  It is a small risk - we'll be doing the same things that countless other tourists have done before us, and I'm endeavoring to work with reputable travel companies in China.  I'll also learn from how you as tour participants react to the itinerary inclusions before shaping next year's tour based on those experiences.  I know what I like, and think I know what you might like, but the proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the testing (am I mixing my metaphors too much?).

So, here's the deal (and, if I do say so myself, what a deal it is!).  Make your own way to Beijing to arrive on or before 18 June.  We'll spend three nights in Beijing, with touring to all the usual major spots (and I think I've worked out a way to only walk downhill on the Great Wall, but even so, this is more a tour for more active walkers than not), then we'll fly to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors then on to Chongqing for a six night cruise down the Yangtze River, through the Three Gorges, and ending in Shanghai for a couple of days there.  The tour ends on 1 July, although you can optionally extend on beyond that as you wish, with a recommended extension being an extra day in Shanghai, then flying on to Guilin (beautiful mountain scenery) for a night and then to Hong Kong where you can either immediately return home or add a stay in Hong Kong before returning home.

This is the quintessential China experience, combining all the main elements of what to see and do in China.  Now for the good deal part.  A similar cruise/tour with Viking River Cruises would be about $4000.  I'm dealing directly with the leading cruise line in China - Victoria Cruises - the company that Amadeus Waterways have worked with, too, and so by cutting out several middle men, am able to offer this cruise/tour for a special value of only $3000 per person.  This includes almost everything from when you arrive into Beijing to when you leave Shanghai, and there are no port fees or fuel surcharges or anything else on top of this price.

Interested?  Let me know, please, by sending me a quick email, if this is something you think you'd like to do (or if you have more questions about what is included, etc).  Assuming a sufficiently positive response, I'll make it all happen during the next week and have full itinerary details and the tour ready to book immediately thereafter.

I guess I've been practicing what I've been preaching, because a complaint to the Shanghai hotel about my room being too hot not only got me shifted to a cooler room, but it was to a suite rather than standard room, and with a better view out the windows on the other side of the hotel, too.  And so, with that as 'writer credentials', let's have some more about the art and science of positive complaining :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Succeed when Complaining :  Many people do a bad job at handling conflicts and complaints, but this means that if you follow the simple rules in this article, you'll be well rewarded as a result of your rare skill of positive complaining.

Oh - one thing about complaining in China.  Don't complain in a traditionally western way.  Instead be polite, and don't cause the person you are complaining to have to 'lose face' as part of giving you the solution you seek.  For example, the person I complained to about my hotel room gained face because I was impressed and appreciative of her innovative solution to my problem, and complimented her in front of other hotel staff for being so helpful and responsive, and simultaneously apologizing for being a bother.

An interesting adjunct to being in China was problems with their censorship of the internet.  For example, they seem to have completely blocked off the Wikipedia site, something I use a lot in my researching.  Another site that was surprising to see blocked off was Joe Brancatelli's Joesentme.biz site - probably they're not so much blocking his site per se as they are blocking all the IP addresses from the web hosting company that hosts both his site and presumably some other site the Chinese government finds offensive or seditious.  This is part of the problem of web censorship - invariably you lose good content along with bad - whether it be the entire loss of Wikipedia (which is increasingly an essential 'must visit' site on the web) due to perhaps one or two articles the Chinese authorities would rather not see in their country, or the loss of all sites using a particular web hosting service due to one of the sites being disapproved of.

It couldn't happen here, you say?  Think again.  Many companies and schools routinely restrict access to sites they don't agree with, and third parties sell their filtering/censorship services to all who may wish them.  There are some words I can't use in my newsletters, because if I do, many servers will bounce the newsletter just because one word out of 3500 in a newsletter is considered to be undesirable.

More invidious are the actions by companies censoring the internet that you don't know about - as I think this article explains some more (I can't seem to access the NY Times from China to confirm the article that I read a brief summary of earlier this week...).

Dinosaur watching :  When was the last time you suffered a flight delay or cancellation due to a weather related problem?  Chances are it has happened to you at least once in the last dozen or so flights you've taken.  But, would you be surprised to learn that the airlines can claim a 'weather delay' pretty much whenever they choose, and no matter what the weather is like on the route your flight will be operating?  More details here.

If you were looking for reasons to continue avoiding transiting through Britain, this might give you all the ammunition you need.  The good news is that you can now take two carry on items on board flights with you again.  But the bad news is that exceptions abound.  Some airports are still restricted to only allowing one item, due to not meeting new security requirements airport-wide.  And some airlines have arbitrarily decided to continue the restriction, including Virgin Atlantic (VS), who will only allow their Upper Class passengers to have two bags (shame on them - this is an airline that prides itself on its customer friendliness and fairness).  On the other hand, BA is now allowing all passengers to take two bags - thank you, BA.

What a complicated mess.  Check with your airline before flying out of London.

Talking about VS, last week I wrote about Sir Richard Branson's involvement with his airline's labor problems.  It appears his letter helped win the day, because, at the last possible moment, the union called off its strikes and agreed to accept the airline's pay offer.  Well done to all concerned, including the union for recognizing the reality underpinning Sir Richard's letter.

Well done, Eurostar.  Boosted no doubt by its new faster service from London to the continent, Eurostar enjoyed a 5.1% increase in passenger numbers for 2007 compared to 2006, and smugly pointed out that 91.5% of its trains arrive on time or early, compared with only 68.8% of flights that compete on the routes Eurostar serves.

Truly, you have to wonder why anyone other than connecting passengers would now fly between London and Paris or Brussels.  From start to finish, the train is faster, more reliable, and vastly more comfortable.

What happens when you combine an airplane that is almost fully controlled by computers with a networked set of control computers with a supposedly independent passenger data network that passengers can access through their laptops?

Some people are concerned that a hacker could somehow jump across from the public part of the 787's computer network and access its internal flight control systems This article offers a less alarmist view of the situation than have some other sources, and notes that the FAA has required Boeing to show that there's no danger of hackers taking over the plane's control systems.

But.  Not only does this require Boeing to prove a negative - a very hard thing to do at the best of times - but surely Boeing is not the best organization to be asked to prove the integrity of their plane's data systems.  Wouldn't it be better to get a group of high school hackers on board with their computers and see what they could do during the course of a simulated 15 hour flight?

I know very little about computer hacking, but I know enough to have grave fears on this subject.  If teenage hackers can break into the Pentagon and other secure systems around the world - a feat emulated by groups sponsored by foreign unfriendly governments as well, and if Microsoft's operating system remains full of bugs and security holes, no matter how many billions of dollars they invest in improving their software - who is to say that Boeing's system doesn't also have some arcane obscure vulnerability that could be discovered and exploited by a computer hacker with evil intent.

Indeed, roll that thought forward a bit.  If there's a cross-over between on-board flight control systems and external passenger focused communications and internet access in general, a hacker doesn't even have to be on board the plane.  He can exploit any vulnerability from the safety and convenience of his tent in the desert....

In related 787 news, speculation is growing that the plane's delivery schedule may be further delayed, as this article details.

Meanwhile, the A-380 roll out - also massively delayed - continues, albeit very slowly.  The first scheduled A-380 service to/from the US has been announced by Emirates, which will operate service between New York and Dubai starting from the end of October.  Tickets are now on sale on their website.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A five year old was thoroughly searched and taken into custody at Seatac Airport earlier this week.  His crime?  Possessing a name that is similar to an alias that might be used by a terrorist.

Has the TSA abandoned any remaining shred of common sense?  No, folks, I'm not making this up.  Here's a link back to the story and video report.

Three American Boeing 767-200s that fly daily roundtrip flights between New York and California will receive anti-missile laser jammers this spring.  This is part of the Homeland Security Department's desire to thwart terrorists armed with shoulder-fired projectiles.

The jammers will be placed on the belly of the planes between the wheels.  The jammer works with sensors, also mounted on the plane, that detect a heat-seeking missile and shoot a laser at it to (hopefully) send the missile veering harmlessly off course.  The units have already been tested on cargo planes and these will be the first on commercial passenger aircraft in this country.

Sounds good?  Well, the test program is confined to testing what the extra costs will be of adding the units to planes.  No missiles will be test-fired at the planes, so there'll be no data gained as to how effective they are.

It would seem that everyone is more focused on the cost of deploying these systems rather than their effectiveness.

I'm a bit torn on this issue.  I wrote an advocacy piece in favor of anti-missile defenses back in December 2002, but have vacillated on the issue ever since.  My own mixed feelings really illustrate the problem that security advocates always confront - it is a very difficult 'sell' to get support for a new threat that has not yet been actively (and successfully) used by terrorists.

A sad 'stop press' - as a New Zealander myself, permit me to note the passing of the man I consider to have been the greatest living New Zealander (and a former near neighbor).  I refer to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mt Everest.  But his claim to fame was not just climbing Mt Everest before anyone else (reaching the summit on 2 June 1953).  It was his honesty and openness, his straightforwardness and his common sense that enduringly endeared him to New Zealanders during his 88 years.

The only living New Zealander to be honored with his picture on a bank note (the NZ $5 bill), Sir Ed represented all that is best about the New Zealand way of life and values.  NZ's Prime Minister described him as 'a colossus' who lived a life of determination, humility and generosity.  He was apolitical, and respected by people from every walk of life, and used his fame exclusively for good purposes, never for self-aggrandizement.

Not just New Zealand, but the world needs more people such as he - our society is terribly bereft of true heroes these days, while the antics of inane celebrities and venal politicians in no way fills the almost spiritual gap in our lives that the lack of positive role models and heroes causes.

Here's an obituary in the Seattle Times.  New Zealand is honoring him with a State Funeral, and the major NZ paper is not just publishing an obituary but an eight page special supplement.

With apologies to Sir Ed for the juxtaposition of these two items (but I'm sure he'd have been the first to laugh uproariously), and recognizing readers' interest in matters lavatorial, I thought you'd be fascinated at this picture of the toilet in my Beijing hotel room.  With almost as many controls as a television remote, and some fairly scary capabilities, it was with considerable trepidation that I used the convenience.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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