Friday, March 31, 2006

Beginner’s Luck

The very first time I bought plane tickets on my own, I nearly got myself arrested. It was the summer of 1992, and I had just graduated from college and liquidated the bank account I’d kept in the town where I went to school. Having a degree in Chinese language and culture but no concept of how to be a grown-up, I hit upon the idea of deferring adulthood by traveling in China for as long as a visa would last me.

So I went to a travel agent in New London, NH, near where my parents and I were spending the summer. I fanned out a dozen hundred-dollar bills on the desk and announced that I wanted a ticket to China. I said I wanted to leave as soon as possible, and that I wasn’t sure when I would be back.

Plunking down a lot of cash and making vague demands to evacuate to a communist country is enough to get you arrested in many towns in New Hampshire. Luckily New London isn’t one of them. What did raise eyebrows was one of the hundred-dollar bills I’d been given a few weeks before by my college bank. I hadn’t noticed, but looking at the stack I’d tried to pay with, it was obvious that one was not like the others. Some of the writing was golden colored, and it was improbably dated 1928.

The agent said he thought it looked a little odd, and added, almost apologetically, that he was probably going to have to call the police. I told him I’d be happy to cooperate, and made a silent vow not act any more weird than I already had.

The agent picked up the phone, and I heard him call down to the station and ask to speak to any officer who knew something about paper money. He nodded and smiled as he spoke, never dropping his Our Town just-folks tone. Not until I heard him say, “no, she’s not going anywhere,” did I realize that I might in fact be going to the one place my parents wanted me to go less than China: jail.

The officer who arrived a few minutes later wasn’t old enough to remember the 1920s, but I guess every police force must have at least one expert on paper money to combat counterfeiters. The two men made small talk and finally got down to the business of examining my bill. The officer confirmed that this was something you didn’t see every day. My bill was a gold certificate. Once upon a time it had been redeemable for a $100 lump of gold. There was a time after the country went off the gold standard that ownership of gold certificates had been illegal, but by the early 90s, the bill was once again perfectly legal tender. (I wish I’d held onto it, though, since today they’re worth considerably more than face value.)

The cop left, and the agent apologetically issued my tickets. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a note of my license plate number as I left.

It wasn’t the very last time I went to a conventional travel agent. I tried it a few more times in the next couple of years. But almost nobody was more happy than I to see the advent of impersonal, mom-and-pop-stopping Web sites like Travelocity come along.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Paper Trail

I just picked up my airline tickets from the good folks at Airtreks. And when I say “picked up,” I mean it. They issue good old-fashioned don’t-lose-’em paper tickets. For the price, though, I don’t mind. They did a great job of booking a lot of one-way tickets on different airlines, literally taking me around the world. This would have been tough on Expedia.

I’ve gotten paper tickets now and then over the years, but I haven’t gone to an office and picked up a stack of tangible tickets since the first time I went to China in 1992. At least this time the police didn’t have to get involved.

Ooops, out of room. I’ll have to tell that story tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

You’re Right, That Was Mean

The theme for next year’s Lonely Planet essay collection is “The trip that changed my life.” Sorry. But you have to promise not to steal my idea, okay?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

If You Shoot for the Moon and Miss….

I just got an e-mail from Don George, Global Editor at Lonely Planet. He was writing to reject an essay I submitted for this year’s Lonely Planet travel literature anthology. That’s pretty disappointing, since I wrote it specifically for the project. But, I am choosing to accentuate the positive. Namely:

  1. He said mine made the very final cut. (He may say this to all the girls, but it made me feel good nonetheless. Considering that the final product seems to include essays from writers like Simon Winchester, Tim Cahill, and Pico Iyer, this is close to a landing among the stars situation.)

  2. He tipped me off early on the theme for next year’s collection. (No, I’m not telling. Go get your own essay rejected.)

  3. Did I mention, I just got an e-mail from Don George, Global Editor at Lonely Planet?! After a year of dropping my writing into the Black Hole of Editorial Indifference, this actually does count as some kind of accomplishment. Before you know it, I’ll be getting rejected by Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Vive Vivotif Typhoid Vaccine

I was pretty nervous before I headed off to Asia the first time, at the age of 18. I wish I could go back now and tell my younger self that by the time I was on the plane, the hardest part was already behind me (so to speak). I’m talking about the inoculations and medications required for entry to Taiwan.

The tetanus shot was no fun, because tetanus never is. The hepatitis series was rough, injected as they were in a place that, well, let’s just say it was impossible for the doctor to look me in the eye when he did it. Malaria meds were scary because of the horror stories I’d heard about psychological side effects. (Although if they gave me weird dreams, they weren’t sufficiently more strange than my usual teenaged imaginings for me to notice.)

The worst part was the typhoid vaccine. It was one little prick in the arm, barely noticeable. Later that afternoon, however, I suddenly felt unbearably cold on a warm day and started shivering uncontrollably in a movie theater. (Later I was talking to the friend I’d seen the movie with, and we discovered that we remembered almost entirely different movies. The one I’d feverishly imagined sounded like the more interesting of the two.) By the time I dragged myself home, I was bone-tired, burning up with fever, and sick as a dog. It occurred to me that I should write my roommates a note explaining that I’d had a vaccine that had gone horribly wrong, in case one of them discovered me dead, but you might as well have asked me to write a novel. I couldn’t even begin to tackle the task without at least 18 hours of sleep. It was hard for me to imagine that full-blown typhoid fever could make me any sicker than I felt right then.

So I wasn’t looking forward to a visit to The Travel Doctor, a little clinic in Oakland specializing in turning adventure travelers into human dartboards. It was almost all good news, though. It turns out I’m traveling in Japan a few weeks ahead of Japanese encephalitis season. I had a tetanus shot a few years ago, and it’s still good. The hepatitis series I got to go to Cuba in 2003 will protect me through 2018. The greater Shanghai and Beijing areas have been declared malaria free, and the areas I’ll be visiting by train are too far north for malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

The only preventative measure I needed was the dreaded typhoid vaccine, the old one having expired some time ago. But good news there, too: The old vaccine is off the market (“It gave everyone a fever,” the Travel Doctor doctor told me when I complained.) The new one hardly makes anyone shake uncontrollably, and best of all, there’s an oral form. Gluttons for punishment can still choose to have an injection, which has the advantage of being over and done with quickly. But I chose to try the oral form, which consists of four capsules, taken on an empty stomach every other day.

The verdict? It was a little bit inconvenient to keep track of which days I needed to take a pill, and hard for me to time doses two hours after a meal, and one hour before beginning to feed again. (I’m not proud of this, I’m just saying.) But I’d still pick this regimen over a shot any day. The very mild G.I. issues I had were hands-down better than thinking I was going to die of fever. Three cheers for medical science.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Talk to the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace

9am: Chinese consulate opens

9:15am: I arrive. The line to pick up visas is out the door. There is no line for dropping off applications, though.

9:17: P.’s visa application successfully delivered.

9:18: I get in the pick-up line

9:26: I arrive at the front of the line and slap down my credit card to pay the $50 fee.

9:27: My work here is done.

9:30: It begins to rain as I wait for the first of three buses that will take me to the Russian consulate.

10:31: Last of the three buses drops me off at the corner of Union and Baker. It’s only one block from the consulate, but unfortunately, this particular block has a vertical rise of about 80 feet. (They don’t call it Pacific Heights for nothing.)

10:36: Arrive at locked consulate gate. As I am wondering how to get in, I hear the lock buzz open. It’s as if they know I’m there.

10:36:30: Same thing happens at the door to the building. It’s uncanny.

There is no line here, just a few solo travelers and tour guides toting stacks of clients’ passports, keeping a wary eye on anyone trying to jump the invisible queue. The tour guides bicker non-stop about whether Serge or Andre is the one with the glasses until I want to scream. I wonder if situations like this are why there is a sign that says, in English, “Did you know that keeping your voice down will get you to the front of the line faster?” This is clearly a culture with advanced line-standing rituals.

10:39: The guy in the window says “next” and looks directly at me. I wonder if this is the Serge or Andre the tour guides are obsessed with.

10:40: Although I have stacked my documents in the prescribed order (passport, invitation letter, THEN visa application), I am turned away because Serge or Andre will not take a credit card to cover the $100 visa application fee. I also lose style points for neglecting to provide a photocopy of the information page of the passport I’m about to hand over. “Money order or company check” intones Serge or Andre.

10:58: I am on Lombard Street in the rain. Lombard Street in this part of town is not the Crookedest Street in America, just the Seediest. I am on an urban scavenger hunt, trying to find a Kinkos and a bank that will grant me a money order. It is still raining.

11:08: I spy a print shop with a self-service photocopier.

11:22: There is no bank among this row of bars and cheap motels, but there is an ATM. Surely the Russians still like their American greenbacks?

11:41: Serge or Andre and I pretend we have no history. But when it’s time to pay, he’s not pleased by my stack of 20s. “No cash. Money order or company check. I told you.” So he does remember. He looks at his watch, clearly pleased that there’s no way I’ll make it back before the office closes at noon. I wonder if blue jeans still have barter value for Russians.

11:41:15: One of the men I’ve taken for a tour guide pipes up. “I can write you a company check, he says.” He takes out a checkbook, scrawls on it, and hands the check to Serge or Andre. I give the checkbook man my stack of 20s. He hands me a business card. There’s a phone number, a Market Street address, his name, and in the biggest typeface of all, his title: “Visa Aide.”

11:41:18: I realize I’ve just handed $100 cash to a complete stranger. Still, it seems to work for Serge or Andre, who hands me a claim check and tells me to come back April 4. So tune in next week, when we discover whether or not your correspondent has thrown her passport and money in a deep, dark, Russian hole. Perhaps by then we also will have a clearer idea of why the Russians take twice as long and charge twice as much for visas as the commies over on Geary Street.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ironically, the Penalty for Mistakes is Exile to Siberia

The Russian visa application process, on the other hand, proves that Communism is not really dead. Russia may have instituted market reforms, but their entry requirements are still positively Soviet. The Chinese are content with knowing my address, occupation, and length of stay. The form fits on one page, with spacing like a padded term paper.

The Russian visa application, though, is two dense pages. They want to know the usual stuff, of course, but they also want to know my parents’ full names, where I went to college and what I majored in, a list of all the countries I’ve visited in the last 10 years, and the names and phone numbers of my supervisors at my last two jobs (not counting current employment). Supporting documentation is required, bringing the application to four pages. They want to know who’s paying for my trip. They want to know if I’ve ever served in any army. They want to know if I have health insurance. Most ominously, they want to know if I have “any specialized skills, training or experience related to fire-arms and explosives or to nuclear, biological or chemical activities.”

They also want to know if I’ve ever suffered from “a dangerous physical or mental disorder.” Something tells me I may by the time I have my visa in hand.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Big Brotherly Love

Of course, all the flight and hotel reservations in the world won’t help you if you can’t get into the country. So this week I’ve been trying to chase down visas. Neither Mongolia nor Japan requires visas of American citizens on short trips. (Who knew these two could agree on anything?) But China does, and boy does Russia.

Yesterday I stopped by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to drop off my visa application. It was an interesting experience, kind of like the DMV only with less despair and more yoga. There were lines, but they went pretty quickly. It took about 30 seconds for the woman at the window to collect my paperwork and tell me to come back Friday to pick up my visa. Easy.

The interesting part is that in front of both the entrances to the visa office were groups of Falun Gong activists. It was the most mellow protest I’d ever seen. A bunch of middle-aged and elderly people stretching. Monday mornings at Curves are more rowdy than that.

That’s one of the few good things about oppressive countries--it’s so easy to be a rebel without actually endangering yourself.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

No Going Back Now

Suddenly, it’s all falling into place. I paid for my airline tickets today, so it’s really happening. The flights are all booked and the train tickets are all reserved. That means my itinerary is set. For those following along at home, here’s what it looks like:

May 14: Japan Airlines from San Francisco to Tokyo, arriving Narita on May 15.
(Geeky details: The flight lasts 10 hours and 40 minutes, non-stop. The plane will be a 747. There are two meals.)

This week will be spent in and around Tokyo with my friend John and his S.O., who is Japanese. Stops include Kamakura, Hakone hot spring, and the Sanja festival in Tokyo.

May 21: Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Shanghai.
(Geeky details: The flight lasts three hours and 10 minutes, non-stop. The plane will be a 777. There’s meal.)

I’ll meet P. that same day in Shanghai. Together we will make a pilgrimage to the White Rabbit factory. After that….I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a museum or something.

May 28: China Eastern Airlines from Shanghai to Beijing.
(Geeky details: The non-stop flight lasts one hour and fifty minutes. The plane will be a 737. There’s a snack.)

In Beijing, I will meet up with John, and I also hope to visit the father of a friend who’s teaching math at a middle school there. I’ll also look up a T.A. of mine from college.

June 3: John and I leave Beijing on the Trans-Siberian train #23.

June 4: Arrive in Ulan Batar, Mongolia.
We will spend three nights in the area, two in U.B., and one in a yurt in a nomad camp (apparently cushier than it sounds).

June 7: leave Ulan Batar on train #363.

June 9: Arrive Irkutsk, Russia.
Irkutsk is the jumping-off point for Lake Baikal. We’ll spend one night at a home-stay in Irkutsk proper, and two nights with a Buryat family in the village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, on the shores of the lake.

June 12: Depart Irkutsk on train #9 (the Baikal).

June 15: Arrive Moscow.
We’ll be staying at the AST Hof Hotel. Anyone been there? My mother visited Moscow during the Soviet days, and her stories have set the expectation bar pretty low. As long as the room is not bugged by the KGB and no one has left fish in the nightstand (I’m not making this up), I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

June 18: Overnight train to St. Petersburg.
Here we’re staying at the Vyborgkskaya Hotel. Again, can anyone out there appraise the dead fish situation at this property?

June 23: Scandinavian Airlines from St. Petersburg to Copenhagen.
(Geeky details: The non-stop flight lasts two hours and five minutes. The plane will be an MD-80. I will have to buy snacks. The terrorists have won.)

Later on June 23: Scandinavian Airlines from Copenhagen to Chicago.
(Geeky details: Non-stop flight is five minutes less than nine hours. Aircraft is an A340. There’s a meal and a snack.)

Later still on June 23: Scandinavian Airlines from Chicago to San Francisco.
(Geeky details: Non-stop, four-and-a-half-hour flight. Because it’s a domestic flight, I will have to pay for food. I hope they take Mongolian tögrögs. Plane is another A340.)

ETA: I should be home around midnight on June 23--or perhaps during the first few minutes of June 24. Nothing like starting out your pride weekend with a sleep deficit.

Monday, March 20, 2006

E-Ticket Ride

I’ve put down deposits. I’ve made reservations. But today I finally made my first real travel purchase. And it’s not even for me. I bought P’s ticket to Shanghai--if “bought” is the word. I got the ticket by using up virtually all my United frequent flyer miles. (No, that’s a good thing.)

It’s amazing how far the process has come. I remember the first time I cashed in miles for a ticket. I think I had to send away for paper certificates saying I qualified. Then I had to take them to an airline office in downtown San Francisco and actually speak to a person, who grumpily gave me a paper ticket in return. (Then I got back in my buggy and trotted back to my apartment in the Barbary Coast.)

This time I was able to check my mileage level online, and automatically deduct the miles. A round-trip e-ticket to Shanghai, on a non-stop flight cost a grand total of $30.68--and about 10 minutes. I didn’t have to leave my house.

That made the horses very happy.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Special Delivery

Incidentally, something like the above scenario happened to me once before. When I was in college, I spent a summer studying Chinese in Taiwan. One day, I got two postcards from my great aunt, who lives in Connecticut. One was dated a month earlier than the other. The one that had taken longer to get there (about 6 weeks, I think) had two postmarks. One was from a Hartford-area post office. The other was from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More Encouraging Signs

Further evidence that my career is chugging right along: Today I got two rejection letters from the same magazine. (Curiously, one was dated Feb. 7, the other March 2.) They were rejecting two different article ideas that I’d pitched them.

I could look at this as a double dis, of course, but I prefer to think that this means they noticed me twice. They practically know who I am now.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Yeah, But Do They Serve Peanuts?

I’m in the process of planning two extremely different trips. One is my trans-Siberian odyssey. The other is a weekend trip to Vegas in April. And here’s an interesting thing I discovered: According to the Man in Seat Sixty-One site, it’s theoretically possible to travel between Moscow and Beijing--a journey of about 5,000 miles as the iron rooster flies--for as little as $200.

The lowest Travelocity round-trip fare for travel between Oakland and Las Vegas--a journey of 549 miles?


Monday, March 06, 2006

How Did They Do it in the Dial-up Days?

It took about 40 emails, but from California, I managed to book a trans-Siberian railroad itinerary through a group in China—while keeping my traveling companion, John, in the loop in Laos.

The whole itinerary hasn’t quite fallen into place yet, but the railroad part is set:

June 3, 2006: Depart Beijing train #23 at 07:40
June 4: Arrive Ulan Bator at 13:20. Spend one night at Elstei Ger (yurt) Camp
June 5: Return to Ulan Bator for 2 nights Bayangol Hotel
June 7: Depart Ulan Bator train #363 at 18:40
June 9: Arrive Irkutsk at 08:10 with 1 night homestay in Irkutsk, and two nights at Bolshoe Goloustnoe, on the shores of Lake Baikal
June 12: Depart Irkutsk train #9 at 16:35
June 15: Arrive Moscow at 16:58 with 3 nights AST Hof Hotel
June 18: Depart Moscow night train at 23:55
June 19: Arrive Saint Petersburg at 08:00 with 3 nights Vyborgskaya hotel
June 22: Fly home