Asia and Middle East Travel tagged posts

2015 Index and YWW Year in Review

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It’s a bit late, but here is my 2015 travel year in review post.  It was a huge travel year for me, as I hit 5 continents and did more long-haul flying than I’d ever done before. It was a lot of mileage redemptions, and low on the mileage earning front.  I re-qualified for American Airlines Gold status. I thought about going for Platinum but it was a busy enough fall and winter that the marginal utility was not enough to outweigh the financial and other costs.

As for the blog, I have kept it as a personal travel diary rather than changing to something else, but hopefully folks find it enjoyable, useful, or both.   My philosophy is the same today as it was in my 2013 year in review post: “I will never stop loving travel, but business class and nice hotels isn’t the point of life.”

So, what were my travel patterns and accomplishments of 2015? I’ve put indices of the places, planes, and hotels I’ve reviewed at the bottom of this post, and have some statistics as well. It was a heavy year of international travel, with only one domestic purely leisure trip.
6
Total continents visited: 5
New continents: 1 (Australia)
Total countries (excluding U.S.): 10
New countries: 5 (Australia, United Arab Emirates, Korea, Taiwan, Brazil)
New states: 1 (Missouri)

New airlines: 7 (Qantas, Etihad, Asiana, TAM, Virgin Australia, Germanwings)

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Return Home: Cathay Pacific Business TPE-HKG, the Cathay First Experience HKG-ORD, and The Pier Lounge

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I was going to fly home via Tokyo on Japan Airlines in First Class to LA, connecting to a domestic first class flight on American to DCA.  When my travel dates changed, I was able to snag a flight on Cathay Pacific First from Hong Kong to Chicago, which is more desirable not only because Cathay is seen as better, but because it represented a longer chunk of the journey.  Unfortunately I was only able to connect from Chicago to DCA in coach, but that’s fine.  One disadvantage of flying Cathay through Hong Kong on the way home versus JAL via Tokyo was that it meant an early morning departure from Taipei (it is also a bit out of the way).   Cathay has flights from Taipei to Hong Kong basically every hour or so.  My flight from Hong Kong to Chicago left at 11:55am, and I wanted to make sure I at least had some time to explore the first class lounge in Hong Kong, so I took the 8:05am out of Taipei, which would give me a 2 hour layover in Hong Kong.

Having gotten proper instructions from the Landis concierge, I left the hotel at 5:05am and walked about 2.5 blocks to an express bus stop, where a bus was already getting ready to depart.  I paid my 140 TWD (~$4.50) and at 5:15, the bus was on the road for the airport.  The bus was in theory fancier than the all-stops one I had taken on my way out, but was a little more beat-up.  With no traffic, I was at Taipei Taouyan International Airport at 5:50.

I made my way to the First Class check-in counter for Cathay and was greeted by two friendly agents.  The agent offered to move me to the 7:05 flight to Hong Kong.  I hesitated briefly, knowing that it would mean a rush at TPE, but decided an hour at The Pier in Hong Kong was better than an hour at the Taipei lounge.  Cathay’s lounge at TPE is actually closed for renovation, so I was given an invitation for the China Airlines lounge, which I had...

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Taipei Megapost: Landis Hotel and 2 Days in Taipei

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It’s been more than two months since I got back from Taiwan, and a lot has gone on since then, so excuse blog posts lacking on detail. To help me catch up, I’m going to one Taipei megapost, covering both the Landis Hotel and my exploration of the city.

The Landis Hotel

The (wrong) bus from the airport dropped me off right across the street from The Landis hotel, which I had booked via Skyauction at a very good rate of about $60 a night. The Landis is one of Taipei’s luxury hotels, but it is a bit past its prime. It’s not in a very interesting location, but close enough to the MRT, Taipei’s subway, to get around very easily.20151014_125147

The Landis Taipei

The Landis Taipei

I got to the hotel around noon, and my pre-assigned room was not ready, but the

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Seoul (ICN) to Taipei (TPE) on Cathay Pacific Business Class

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A 9:20am flight isn’t that early, unless you are flying out of Incheon, which is basically like flying out of Baltimore if you live in DC.IMG_4414

I woke up at 5:15am, checked out of the Holiday Inn Express and headed to the Metro. My original plan had been to take a taxi to Seoul Station, and take the Airport Express train from there. But I realized that getting a taxi at the HIX would not be easy, and that the subway ride to Seoul Station wasn’t that bad.

At 5:45am, the trains aren’t super frequent, so I had a bit of waiting for both of my trains, but I was at Seoul Station by 6:10am. There are two different trains to Incheon (and Gimpo) from Seoul Station. There is the “All stops,” which takes about an hour and works basically like the rest of the metro system and costs about $4, and the “Express,” which only stops at the two airports, and costs about $8 for a 45 minute ride. Valuewise, the All Stops might be the better option, but since I was already feeling I was leaving too late, I aimed for the Express train. The downside is that the Express train runs far less frequently, about every 30 minutes, making me nervous about making the connection. (Although, I could always have taken the next All Stops train.)

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Two Days in Gyeongju, Part 2: Exploring Gyeongju

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The City of Gyeongju was not what I was expecting at all. Described as a “museum without walls,” I expected the whole city to be ancient architecture and charming and beautiful. It wasn’t, which isn’t necessarily bad, but not what I expected. It certainly did have its charming parts, and was a nice break from Seoul.

On my first night, I took the bus from the Hilton into the “downtown,” which had a lot of small, very traditional Korean restaurants and markets. I then suddenly found myself in a bustling shopping district, bright with tons of clothing stores open at 7:30 on a Sunday night. I ended up at a well-rated but disappointing and expensive Indian restaurant, before exploring the center a bit more.

"Downtown" Gyeongju

“Downtown” Gyeongju

Gyeongju is a city that shines at night, and I’d read th...

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Two Days in Gyeongju, Part 1: KTX and the Hilton Gyeongju

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My original plan was to head South for three days, splitting them between Gyeongju and Busan, with one night in each. Gyeongju is a smaller city, filled with World Heritage sites as the former capital of the Silla Dynasty, about two hours south of Seoul by train. Busan is South Korea’s second city, large and on the southeastern coast, about an hour South of Gyeongju. There’s a Hilton in Gyeongju which looked nice and wasn’t too expensive on points or cash, and a Park Hyatt in Busan that should have been redeemable using my annual free night certificate as a Chase Hyatt Visa cardholder. The free night was supposed to be deposited in my account sometime in September, so I was checking daily, hoping there would be still be award availability. I decided to just give up and spend two nights at the Hilton Gyeongju, as part of my new philosophy that trips aren’t relaxing unless you stay at least two nights in the same hotel.

Since this was a fairly last minute decision, I had already bought a 3-day Korail pass, which allows for unlimited travel on Korail trains for a three day period for 96,000 won (about $83). This would have covered my KTX high-speed train from Seoul to Singyeongju, Singyeongju to Busan, and Busan back to Seoul, where I’d spend one night before flying down to Taipei the next morning. (Had I planned in advance, I could have flown directly from Busan to Taipei and done 2 nights in Gyeongju and 1 in Busan. Whoops.)   The Korail pass is only for foreigners living abroad, and you buy it online, print a voucher, and then exchange the voucher for an actual pass. Then you book tickets using the pass in person.

Seoul Station

Seoul Station

Without the Singyeongju-Busan leg, it only saved me about $1.50 – probably not worth the inconvenience. I left the Four Points at around 10:30, and it took about 15 minutes to walk to the KTX (as opposed to subway) portion of Seoul Station. I went on the ticket line, only to be told I needed to go to the Information Desk first to exchange my printout for the pass. The lines weren’t that bad, though, and I soon had a ticket for the 12:30 KTX to Singyeongju.

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One City, Three Hotels: Reviews of the Imperial Palace, Four Points by Sheraton Seoul – Namsan, Holiday Inn Express Seoul Euljiro

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I spent a total of four nights in Seoul, which ended up being split between three hotels.   The first hotel I booked was the Imperial Palace in Gangnam, for a great rate on Skyauction.com. Unfortunately, when my plans changed and I wanted to add a third night, there were no rates via Skyauction available. Since I’d be heading to the train station on the morning after my third night, I figured I’d find a hotel closer to Seoul Station. I originally booked an award night at the Millenium Hilton, but then I decided to book a revenue stay at the new Four Points by Sheraton Namsan, also walking distance to Seoul Station. After my trip down to Gyeongju, I also booked an award night at the Millenium Hilton, but then decided to switch to the new Holiday Inn Express Euljiro, not terribly far from Seoul Station.

In a city with hundreds of hotels, I don’t particularly recommend any of the three, although I would consider the Imperial Palace. Now to the play by play…

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace Seoul

Imperial Palace Seoul

The Korean Air Limo Bus from Incheon dropped me off across the street from the Imperial Palace, and the driver called over to have a bellman meet me as I walked over. The hotel is fairly large, with multiple towers, and an opulent lobby with bar and live music area. The property looks like it was built in the late 90s, and has a “European” theme, which isn’t my personal aesthetic, but works.

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Trip Report: A Day in the DMZ

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There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do a DMZ tour when I went to Seoul. There are two main kinds of DMZ tours.  One is a tour of the JSA – or Joint Security Area – which is the heavily secured actual border within the DMZ, and the other tour hits other areas of the DMZ, including some tunnels, a non-operational train station, and other Korean War related sights.  Each can be done as a half-day tour, or they can be combined for a full day tour.  Given the short amount of time I had in Seoul and the kind-of boring sounding rest of the DMZ, I decided just to do the JSA tour.

I had originally hoped to do it Friday, my first day in Seoul, but it turned out there were no tours due to the Hangul holiday.  By the time I realized that, the recommended “USO” tour agency was sold out for the day I wanted, though it really doesn’t matter what tour agency you use for the JSA tour.  (And note, the USO tour isn’t actually run by the USO, and hasn’t been for years.  The USO just licenses a tour company.)  That’s because the JSA tour itself is done by American soldiers stationed at Camp Bonifaz.  At 6:45, I checked out of my hotel and left my suitcase and backpack at the concierge.  Right on time, a man in a van came and picked me up in a small van, which picked up two other tourists at separate hotels, before dropping us at a rendezvous point, where several different tour companies gathered.  There, we waited for a large, mostly-full bus, which the three of us boarded and took to the DMZ.

By the time we hit the road, it was almost 8am. The tour guide gave a good narration of the parts of Seoul we past, followed by a history of the two Koreas and the DMZ.

The guide gave us a little bit of an orientation as we left Seoul, pointing out some sights as we started and then again as we arrived in the DMZ.    Established in 1953, originally as a neutral area, but later divided.  It took about 45 minutes to arrive to Camp Bonifas, home to the UN command, at the southern end of the JSA.  The JSA was established in 1953, originally as a “neutral” area, but that didn’t go so well.  So now the border runs right through the JSA.  At the Southern end of the JSA, we waited just outside the gates to the U.N.’s Camp Bonifaz (staffed nearly exclusively with U.S. and South Korean soldiers), before a soldier came on board and checked everyone’s passport against the pre-registered list.   From there, we were taken to the visitor’s center, where we were combined with another bus tour (the USO one actually) and given a powerpoint on the JSA by one of the American soldiers.  He was pretty.
IMG_4182

Camp Bonifaz

Camp Bonifaz

Aft...

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Trip Report: Exploring Seoul

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I ended up having four nights and two and a half days in Seoul, which I think was actually good enough for me. Seoul is an absolutely massive city – probably the biggest I’ve ever been to; the streets are packed and the neighborhoods are sprawling. You could spend a week and not see all of the areas of the city, but at the same time there aren’t that many “must sees.”

First, some general observations. Seoul stood out among cities I’ve been to and that I didn’t really see any poor people. The people I did see were super stylish and put-together, regardless of age – much more than in NY or other big cities.

People in Seoul seem to love three things: coffee, makeup, and food. On the coffee front, there are Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs, Krispy Kreme, local chains, and independent shops everywhere. Coffee isn’t cheap, and young Koreans seem to love sitting and posing over elaborate drinks with their friends at night. Note, though, that coffee is not a breakfast thing, and it’s hard to find a coffee shop open before 8am. As for makeup, there are cosmetics shops everywhere, open until late at night – as well as 24-hour plastic surgery clinics. Finally, food. I was actually a little disappointed in the food in Seoul. In many areas, there were tons of Korean barbeque restaurants, and lots of Korean fried chicken, and not much else. Other neighborhoods had more traditional Korean food – hotpots and such – which is authentic but didn’t really do it for me. But restaurants are everywhere.

Just like home

Just like home

Coupledom is also very big in Seoul. There are lots of stores that sell “his and hers _____”. The most common is his and hers underwear sets. And you’ll also see a lot of young Korean couples walking around Seoul dressed in matching outfits. How do you say “barf” in Korean.

Despite the sprawl, Seoul is a great city for sightseeing. Attractions such as museums and palace are generally very cheap or free. Also, the subway pretty much goes everywhere. As a warning, though, you will transfer changes at least one on any trip, and transfers can be a huge walk, as each station is massive. (And you will probably get lost.)

And last before specifics, if you think Americans are attached to their cell phones, you haven’t seen anything.   Walking down the street, I was shocked more people weren’t tripping.

My ...

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A Far East Adventure: Preview

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Things have been very busy here in YWWville.  I’m in escrow on a condo, work is hectic, and I just finished up the Jewish High Holy Days.   I hope to wrap up my trip reports from Germany this weekend, because next week I head off on a ten day adventure to East Asia.

The impetus for this trip was my friend from high school, who was living in Abu Dhabi, moving to Seoul with her husband.  I’ve never been to that part of the world, so why not.  Initially I planned on spending about a week in Korea, and then 4 days in Taiwan – not the closest place, but a place that’s supposed to be pretty and nice weather in October.  For the outbound travel, I used United miles to book business class tickets on United and Asiana (though I made a mistake on that I’ll talk about later that I had to fix)...

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