Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cruise Through Moscow-5/28

The Radisson River Cruise lines provide tourists with a comfortable way to see some of Moscow. We crossed under several of these car and pedestrian bridges and were able to have different views of the Kremlin and other tourist sites. They had an MP3 player available that described the different sites along the way, fortunately in English.

This is the House of the Government of the Russian Federation where Boris Yeltsen was under siege after he declared the death of Communism.

 

Here are some views of the Kremlin along the cruise with the Kremlin palace on the left and several of the gold domed cathedrals.

Yet another cathedral along the way and this one is called Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which had been severely damaged during the Communist regime.

After the cruise I couldn't help taking a picture of the Bentley and Maserati dealerships just down the road from the old KGB Headquarters---Lubyanka. So much for communism.
 
Now I will be off to catch my Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Irkutsk--about an 88 hour train ride from May 29th to June 2nd. I will be traveling platzcar which is a third class sleeper with about 52 bunk beds in a train carriage. Good thing I have a bottom bunk. I will be staying in Irkutsk for a few days before continuing on to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
 
 
 
 

 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Views of Moscow--5/27

I have been getting lots of Trans-Siberian travel tips from other travelers who are staying at the Godzilla's Hostel. These travelers are from Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, Japan, but so far no Americans. Some of their comments included:

  • get some instant noodles to eat in case the food is bad or too expensive in the restaurant car,
  • use the plugs in the hallways, but stay by your electronics
  • be nice to the train carriage attendant
  • when the train stops and you get out, be sure keep alert for when it leaves
  • take tea bags or instant coffee and a cup so you can use the hot water samovar in the carriage

I joined Florin--Flo--from Munich to take in the major tourist spots. We had quite the adventure using the Metro. The signage was all in Cyrillic, but unlike other Metros I have used in other countries, there were very few signs on the walls to show which station the train was stopping at. At least the different Metro lines were color coded. To get where we wanted to go, we would ask a young person---more likely to understand English-- to show us on the Metro map which direction we should go. Even after this advice, we found ourselves going in the wrong way twice. We then just jumped off the next stop and crossed the platform to go in the other direction.

 
 

The majority of the tourist sites are found around Red Square and the Kremlin so we started there. Unfortunately there was a lot of construction material affecting taking some great pictures. Here I am in Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral behind me.

Here are some pictures of the interior of St. Basil's Cathedral.
 
Lenin's Mausoleum runs along the side of Red Square with the Kremlin walls towering above the Mausoleum. Apparently they keep him well preserved with secret methods that are now for sale to others for a cost of $1,000,000. He looks more like a wax statue to me. This video pans from Lenin's Mausoleum, the Kremlin walls, St. Basil's Cathedral, and ends at the GUM shopping Mall that circle around Red Square.
 
 

Once inside the Kremlin, we learned that the Clock Tower was closed, the Armoury sold out all of the admission tickets for the day, and one of the four cathedrals was closed for a service. At least we got good views of the outsides of these buildings. On the cathedrals we went into, the walls were filled with pictures, elaborate and ornate carvings, and hundreds of icons.

 

This Tsar cannon and bell have never been used.

 

Bolshoi Theater

 

Arrived in Moscow--5/26

After an easy flight from Seattle to Frankfurt I ended up having to go through another security clearance that took me about an hour to go through. Too bad I could not just go get to my Moscow gate without going though another screening.

I arrived at the Moscow airport late afternoon. It was easy to find the ATM machine where I got 9000 Roubles to start my Russia Adventure. I worked my way through the agressive touts offering trips and tours to downtown Moscow. Instead, I headed to the Aeroexpress Train which would take me downtown for 400 Roubles--$12USD which was a 50 km trip.

Navigating this Metro was the most difficult because the signage was so unclear. On the way to the hostel I ended up going the wrong direction so just got off on the next stops and returned to the station I needed.
Here is the station nearest to the Godzilla's Hostel which was just about a 10 minute walk from here.

I was so happy to get to the Godzilla Hostel after traveling so far. I met many travelers there who had just finished traveling the Trans-siberian train from Beijing who gave me lots of tips on how to do my trip south to China.

 

y

 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Odds and Ends Before Moscow Flight

The biggest event is that I am now a Grandpa with the arrival of Atticus Wyatt Beckham at 4:39 PM on May 17th after Jessica had a 32 1/2 hour labor. He weighs in at 9 lbs 2 oz. and is 21". Jessica and Joshua are tired but very happy and relieved. We visited them today just before I head off to Moscow on Sunday. I am so happy for them, and I will enjoy getting to know him when I return in August. Just think, my pack weighs less than Atticus.

I just got my Lufthansa boarding passes from SEA to Frankfurt and then on to Moscow. I have an aisle seat on the long flight to Frankfurt and a window seat going from Frankfurt to Moscow.

I think is is worthwhile to mention it again the following travel issues: frequent flyer miles approaches, travel insurance, medical issues, money, and travel guides.
 
Frequent Flyer Miles
I would not have been able to take all of these trips I have taken since 2000 without the benefit of the frequent flyer mileage programs. We use mileage credit cards for almost all purchases to rack up miles. Plus, I do what they call churning my credit cards where I get anywhere from 25,000 miles to 50,000 miles for opening up credit cards. I also switch brokerage firms to rack up 25,000 to 50,000 miles. Right now my wife and I have about 600,000 miles accumulated on Alaska, American, Delta, and United Airlines and only used 62,500 miles for this trip which would have cost over $5,400 if I were to buy a ticket.
Although there are several websites that provide great frequent flyer advice, these are two great sites I look at when I want to learn more about taking advantage of frequent flyer programs:
  • Gary Steiger runs the Frequent Flyer Miles website which has lots of tips and provides updated information on changes to all of the frequent flyer programs.
  • Rick Ingersoll runs the Frugal Travel Guy website which also has lots of travel tips on how to maximize your travel experience using a whole variety of programs.
After getting 50,000 miles for opening a United Chase Visa card and then cancelling it, I then tried to open up a new card after the first card had been closed for about 3 months. Although United gave me a new credit card along with two United Board Room passes, they refused to give me the 50,000 miles because I had previously gotten the 50,000 award.
I consulted with Gary Steiger about the Chase refusal and he suggested that I wait at least 18 months before trying again. He also said that I should apply for the Chase Saphire credit card that gives you 40,000 points which I did and they gave me the points. These points can be added to my United mileage account. This is what I have done, and is the card I am taking on this trip since they have no foreign transaction fees.
Over the years, I have found that the United mileage program gives me the best flights at the lowest number of miles required and they allow for stopovers which Delta does not.

Travel Insurance
You must have travel insurance any time you travel! Avoid signing up for the travel insurance offered by the airline companies as a part of your ticket purchase because you will end up paying more and getting less coverage, especially if you take multiple trips each year that are more than 100 miles from youur home.
I buy annual travel insurance from Travelguard which costs $267 per year. The coverages and benefits include:
  • accident and sickness medical expenses $10,000
  • baggage and personal effects $1,000
  • baggage delay $150
  • emergency evacuation $100,000
  • travel medical assistance included
  • trip cancellation $1,500
  • trip interruption $1,500
  • 24/7 travel assistance included
Check out my April 3, 2012 entry to see some of the successful claims I have had. The critical documents you need for successful claims are police reports which are sometimes hard to get from the police.

 

When you use your credit card for travel purchases, there are a number of benefits you may qualify for including collision coverage for car rentals, trip delays and/or cancellation, up to accidental death benefits, etc.


Medical Issues

You can see how the travel insurance provides me with monetary benefits in case of injuries or illnesses.

Here are some additional measures I have taken to avoid illnesses or lessen the impact of illnesses or injuries.

I have immunizations for the following: yellow fever, polio, meningitis, typhoid, tetnus, flu, and shingles.

I carry the following medicines and first aid: Cipro, neosporin, aspirin, ibuprofen, sudafed, imodium, bandaids, needle, and handiwipes.

I use a steripen--UV light--to purify all water I drink.

 

Money

I carry about $200 in US dollars, mostly in $20s with $10 of one dollar bills that I use only in emergency situations when ATM machines are not available.

My major source of local currency is to use ATM machines which are increasingly found in most large cities. Sometimes I find out that one type of bank ATM doesn't work so I find another one that does. It is essential that you do not lose your ATM card.

However, if you lose your card or the ATM machine swallows it as happened to me in Malaysia, you can still get cash advances from your credit cards, but with a very high fee. I carry the Chase Sapphire Visa and AMEX Delta Gold credit cards, and both of these have no foreign transaction fee. However, local merchants often times charge up to 3% for the priviledge of using credit cards. With AMEX I can get up to a $4,000 cash advance and with Chase it is a $6,400 cash advance.

Travelers checks are now fairly obsolete because you pay a service fee for the checks, generally have to go inside the banks, wait in the queues, and then get possibly more local currency than you need for your remaining stay in that country.

Travel Guides

Although I am still cutting out sections of some of my travel guides for the major cities I am staying at, I am increasingly relying on downloading the Lonely Planet Guides to my mini iPad. I have also downloaded sections of the Seat61 guides for train travel in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand.

My mini iPad has just the wi fi feature which I can use to access all other types travel information whenever I find a wi fi hot spot. I can make hostel or hotel reservations using my wi fi. I do not use a cell phone, nor do I use my mini iPad to navigate my way around town, however, many travelers find this mapping feature very useful.

 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Here is What I am Packing

If you check back to my 2012 blog report, you can read what I packed for my Brazil trip. This is what I am now packing for my train trip through Russia, Mongolia, China, and Vietnam. In my Brazil trip my backpack held 9.3 pounds, and for this trip I am carrying just 8.2 pounds. For Brazil I wore 9.1 pounds and for this trip, I am wearing just 8.1 pounds. The weight savings is mostly because the guide books are on my iPad instead of carrying hard copies. The only hardcopy guidebook I am carrying is the "Trans-Siberian Handbook" by Bryn Thomas. With this book, I have cut out the portions that I am not traveling to like Petersburg, Trans-Manchurian, the BAM or Baikal Amur Mainline, and the Tran-Siberian route to Vladivostok to save some more weight.

So now am I able to carry less weight in both my pack and what I am wearing. Here are the details.

The six little cards shown here are the cheat sheet money cards I use that provides simple comparisons of what dollar values equal a specific exchange in the six countries I will be visiting. You can get these cheatsheets at onanada.com.

The backpack items this time include 8.2 pounds which includes:

  • Golite pack at 13.625 oz.
  • Video charger and SD cards at 11.875 oz.
  • Black net bag with plugs, wash rag, spoon, flashlight, iPad earphones, lock, razors, sew kit, bandana, pen, pencil, file, mirror, bandaids, ear plug, buds at 18 oz.
  • Red bag with deodorant, razor, Rx, floss, toothbrush and paste, wash rag, chap stick at 11 oz.
  • soap, hair gel, and sunscreen at 11 oz.
  • Green designer bag with camera charger, SD cards, iPad connectors at 11 oz.
  • Vitamin supplements at 8.8 oz.
  • Plastic 1 liter bottle at 2 oz.
  • Steripen and charger at 6.25 oz.
  • 2 shirts and PJs at 20 oz.
  • OR rain Jacket at 6.8 oz.
  • 1 pair socks and shorts at 4 oz.
  • Mosquito head net at 2 oz.
  • Metal cup and bowl at 4 oz.

The items I am wearing weigh 8.1 pounds and include:

 
  • Red travel folder with all travel documents and maps at 10 oz,
  • shoes and socks at 34.5 oz.
  • passport and calendar at 5 oz.
  • 2 shirts at 14 oz.
  • REI pants, shorts, and belt at 19.5 oz.
  • Money belt at 2 oz.
  • Watch at 3 oz.
  • Pedometer and fob at 1 oz.
  • Sunglasses and case at 4 oz.
  • Wallet at 3.5 oz.
  • handiwipes at 3.5 oz.
  • Sapa bag, mini iPad with keybord at 18 oz.
  • Panasonic video camera and bag at 12 oz.

If in my travels, I need more clothing all I need to do is to buy it. I find it so much easier to travel with fewer things than to burden myself with lots of things. For this to work, I need to continually wash out my clothing at nights or if I am staying for a few days, have the hostel wash my stuff quickly. Too many travelers carry huge packs with several changes of clothing and trinkets which burden them down and make their travels from one place to another a real chore. I usually hold off buying trinkets until right before I am leaving so I am not schleppiing them around.

Just about 10 days before departure and my daughter Jessica, still has not given birth to Atticus Wyatt Beckham. She is about 2 weeks overdue and they now have Friday, the 16th scheduled for an induced delivery. Hope all goes well, Jessica and Joshua are now more than ready!

 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Planning My Siberian Train Trip

After reading Paul Theroux's "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" and later "The Great Railway Bazaar", I decided that I would enjoy traveling by train through Russia, Mongolia, and China on the Trans-Siberian Railway on the Trans-Mongolian route rather than the Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostok or the Trans-Manchurian route from Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria. The Trans-Mongolian route would allow me to visit Mongolia to take some tours around the Ulaanbaatar area, including staying overnight in a "ger" and riding a horse on the steppes before continuing my train travel to Beijing. You can see my route in the blue line from Moscow via Ulaanbaatar to Beijing along with the other routes in the map provided to me by Mark Smith of The Man in Seat Sixty-One His website was an invaluable tool for me to plan my trip as well as buy my Trans-Mongolian train tickets.

I then planned my train route through China following the red line with stops in Guilin for a repeat visit to Yangshuo which I visited in 2009, and then on to Nanning where I plan to take the international train to Hanoi. After Hanoi, I plan to take the train down to Danang where I will stop for a visit to Hoi An. This will be my third visit to Hoi An, a beautiful arts and crafts port city, with delectable restaurants throughout. After that I will take the train the Nha Trang for an island party boat ride and some wonderful snorkeling.

From there I will visit Delat, a Central Highland town, famous for its embroidered art work. I received a gift of a village scene from the owner of the Hy Vy Hotel in Saigon who had unsuccessfuly applied for a US Visa to visit her two childeren who were attending school in San Diego. I sent a few letters to the State Dept. on her behalf and advised her on how to explain that she intended to just visit and then return to Saigon to run her hotel. On the third time, she was successful and following that she sent the beautiful embroidery.

From Delat, I will be taking a minibus to Ho Chi Minh City and tour there a few days before flying to Bangkok. While in Thailand, I plan to visit several islands like Ko Chang, Ko Samet and Ko Samui as well as Krabi.

On my way back to Seattle, I will take advantage of stopover priviledges offered by the Star Alliance, Eva Air and stop in Taipei, Taiwan (TPE) for about a week. I previously done one week stopovers in Japan, but this will be my first time visiting Taipei so it should be very interesting.

Since I always use frequent flyer mileage for my international trips, I began my search on September 18th for flights to Moscow and from Bangkok on the United Air website that were leaving near the end of May 2014. I plugged in my search for multi stops beginning with the SEA-DME (Moscow) leg and then did a BKK (Bangkok) to SEA leaving around the end of July. I immediately got the first leg to DME, and then I saw that I could do a stopover in either Frankfurt, an intermediate stop on the way to DME, or in Taipei. Since I had never been to Taipei, I decided to book the one week stopover there. I ended up using 62,500 United frequent flyer miles with airport service fees of $96, and will be flying from SEA to DME on Lufthansa, and from BKK via TPE to SEA by Eva Air. I did a search of the same flights using Kayak, and I came up with a price of $5,480.

Other than generally figuring out the major places I want to visit, I normally only make advance travel and hotel arrangements on the first day I arrive or if I am arriving in a city after dark. This time, I had to make reservations for my travels through Russia, and China so that I could get the required "invitations" for my visa applications. Typically I use the Lonely Planet guidebooks as a starting point in looking for budget accommodations, but this time I used Hostelworld. It is a great resource because there are detailed descriptions of the amenities, accommodations and prices, traveler reviews, locator maps, and you can make reservations as well as change them for a small fee.


Here, I have laid out my airline itineraries, US Passport, copies of my three visas, the three guidebooks I used in my planning: "Trans-Siberian Handbook", Lonely Planet Guides, "Trans-Siberian Railway" and "Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand", Russia Invitation Letter, Russia train confirmation, and the Godzilla Hostel confirmation.

Once I get to Beijing, I just have three other set times where I have to be and that is my Air Asia flight from HCMC to Bangkok on July 6th, my Bangkok flight to Taipei, Taiwan, and my return flight from TPE to SEA on August 1st. After Beijing, I will still have about 2,700 miles of train travel plus some bus travel before arriving in HCMC, so I will need to keep "track" of my pace through China and Vietnam.

 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Trans-Siberian Train--Russia-Mongolia-China-Vietnam Trip

After leaving Loreto, Mexico on April 3rd, I have been busy organizing my upcoming trip beginning May 25th on the Tran-Siberian Train through Russia, Mongolia and Beijing, China. After that, I will be continuing my trip through China and Vietnam with a short flight to Bangkok and then on to Taiwan before returning to Seattle on August 1st. I will be traveling by train for over 7,500 miles through 5 time zones.

For this trip, I needed to get three Visas ahead of time: Russia, China, and Vietnam. On April 4th, I met with ABriggs Company, a Visa fixer to get the Visas. I had my passport pictures and had filled out the extensive on line questionnaires for these countries which asked for a whole host of questions ranging from listing the last 10 countries I had visited and dates, my military service, participation in any armed conflicts, if I was a trained killer, weapons I have been trained to operate. my purpose for travel, my detailed itinerary of all of the hotel/hostels I was staying at, invitations to come to Russia and China---obtained from the hostels---and arrival and departure dates, mode of transportation and flight or train numbers.

ABriggs and sent my China Visa request to the China Consulate in San Francisco. A week later, I received my passport by FedEx that contained my Vietnam and China Visas. These Visa application processes that require invitations from hotels or tour companies and airline flights are designed to provide income to these entities and do not benefit independent travelers like me.

ABriggs and other fixer companies charge about $80 plus FedEx shippiing for each visa obtained in this manner, but the cost is about the same if you tried to go directly to the various foreign embassies or consulates unless you live in a city where they have an embassy or consulate. Even then, China contracts out the Visa process.

For me, the ABriggs here in Seattle was a great bargain, because they got me the two visas I needed in time to get the final Russia Visa. ABriggs charged $458 to process both visas: the fee for the Vietnam visa was $90 and the China visa was $140. ABriggs was charging $100 for getting the Russia Visa, but they told me that it would be easy enough for me to go to the Seattle ILS-Russia Consulate partner on Western Ave and apply myself which I did.

My Vietnam Visa was issued on April 8th and good for travel in Vietnam from June 24th through July 23rd and my China Visa was issued on April 10th and good for travel in China until April 10, 2015 with continuous stays up to 30 days.

On April 14th, I went to apply for my Russia Visa at the ILS Office near the Pike Place Market. I ended up using my Real Russia Train company invitation as a part of my application proces. They told me to return on April 28th after 1PM so see if my Visa was approved. I don't think Edward Snowden had to go through this much scruitiny.

On April 28th, I received my US Passport back from ILS with all of my needed Visas: Russia, China and Vietnam. Only the Russia Visa had limited my visa to just the stated days I would be in Russia: from May 26th to June 8th. Mongolia, Thailand, and Taiwan all allow Visas on arrival. This process was much faster than I expected, and now I can concentrate on my trip and what I need to take.

My Visas: