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Friday, April 25, 2014

Return to Asia 2014

We are in the process of planning a third intrepid trip to Asia in May-July 2014. Here is an outline of the scope of the trip and some of the key internet sites we have used in setting it up.

Trip Plan
Our plan is to fly to Bali and then, after a four day rest stop, on to Hanoi via KL where we will head up to Sapa and the Hmong and other hill tribes. From there we plan to cross by land to Yunnan to visit the Yuanyang rice terraces made by the Hani people, including villages such as Quingkuo, Quanfuzhang, Bada, Duoyishu, and Mangpin, some of the local markets and the nearby old town Jianshui en route to Kunming. Here is an excellent blog of the rich varieties of national dress of the minorities in the area.

Scenes from Yuanyan with two Hani women, Xijian and a Miao performance,
a Tolou cluster and a Hakka woman washing vegetables.

From Kunming we will take a night train to Kaili to visit the local Miao townships such as Xijiang, Leishan, Matang, Zhaoxing, staying in one or two of them. From there we will travel north to Zhuzhou and Hengshan mountain, before taking another overnight train to Longyan via a bullet train to Guangzhou, where the Hakka Tulou roundhouse towns are. After visiting Xiamen and its islands we will travel north to Suzhou where we will visit some of the old canal (water) towns - Tongli, Zhouzhuang, Lushi and Xitang departing from Shanghai for South Korea.

We plan to then spend a week in each of Korea, Kyushu and Taiwan, traveling by rental car through the countryside, visiting national parks, old towns and temples, before heading back to Bali to recuperate for a few days. In Korea we will start on Eurwangni Beach on the same island as Seoul airport, traveling to Danyang, Andong, Songnisan National Park, Jeonju, Mokpo, Wando, and Tongyeong. In Kyushu and Taiwan we will circumnavigate each island, working between the coast and mountainous interiors. More details to come for these.

Eurwangni, Songnisan, Jeonju and Tongyeong

We got our Chinese visas directly in person at the consulate here, but for Vietnam have purchased a visa on arrival letter from Vietnam Visa Corp one of several agencies negotiating a group permission letter for $17 US each. This is reputed to cause a messy 50 min delay at the airport getting one's passports stamped for a fee of $45, but appears cheaper than the $100 fee each for sending our passports to the Vietnamese embassy here. We can get a visa on arrival in Bali for $30 US. These are the only two countries requiring a visa for us.

We have made all our air bookings directly with airlines,  rather than travel agents, to make sure we have genuine e-tickets with the airline we are flying on. These were all at or below the minimum found on internet travel sites. We used web sites like Fare Compare to figure out the lowest price fares available through agencies before booking them directly with the airline internet booking sites.  The eight flights put together have cost only us $1741 US each. The three airlines we have booked with offered the same budget prices, unlike many commercial carriers, which charge a premium fare on their own booking sites, although discounting some seats through agencies:
Jetstar: NZ-Bali return and Taipei to Bali via Singapore.
Air Asia: Bali to Hanoi via KL.
China Eastern: Shanghai to Seoul and Fukuoka to Taipei.

Vietamese Trains
The key site for understanding Vietnamese trains is the Vietnam Seat61 page. Vietnam Railway one of many many agencies offers both schedules and internet booking for a 4% fee. You can book the ordinary sleeper to Sapa here and the more expensive tourist carriages here. However we have decided to get our hotel in Hanoi to prebook tickets to be collected at the hotel.

Chinese Trains
The China Seat61 page has all the details about trains in China, including both direct station bookings and links to agencies doing internet booking. TravelChinaGuide has more up to date information about tickets.  China Train Guide has exhaustive train schedules. You can also check the availability of reservations (and arrange for e-tickets online if you wish) using either China DIY-travel (which provides an E-ticketing service for exchange for tickets at any railway station for a fee of $10 AU per ticket), or with ChinaHighlights (for 50% higher fees). This can be helpful as some routes get booked out almost as soon as they open 18 days before departure. We are probably going to risk booking all our China train reservations directly at Kunming station when we arrive, using a schedule of alternative options translated into Chinese should our choices be booked out, as we have a complicated schedule of short stops, making pre-booking very expensive. Ctrip also provides a booking service which includes hotels in many Chinese cities.

Japanese Trains
Hyperdia provides a scheduling and booking site for Japanese trains.

We are still waiting on the Kobee hydrofoil between Busan and Fukuoka to open up its July bookings which can be made on sites like Ferrysavers.