Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winter in China: Sun Island Park Harbin


Sun Island lies on the north bank of the Song Hua river. It's about a twenty minute cab ride away from Harbin city which should cost no more than 20-30 reminbi. You could also get to Sun Island by taking the cable car across the river or walk across it during winter (more than that later).

Welcomed Enchancement to Krisflyer American Express Gold Card in Malaysia

As I shared in the year on our travel strategy, we primarily use either the Citibank Premier Miles or Amex Krisflyer Gold credit cards. Extracted from our earlier posting:

Mileage earning from credit cards isn’t as exciting in Malaysia as in the US but we still try to make the best of the situation. We primarily put spending on two credit cards namely the Krisflyer American Express and Citibank Premier Miles Card. The Krisflyer card earns 1 Krisflyer mile for each RM2 spent where as the PremierMiles card earns “1 PremierMile” for each RM3 spent. The PremierMile and be converted into Krisflyer, Cathay and Thai miles at a one to one rate and also Malaysia Enrich miles for a more than that. I would recommend the Krisflyer card as a way to top up miles for those who primarily credit to Krisflyer or the PremierMiles for those who want to flexibility on where to credit the earned miles to.  In addition, both credit cards provide access to Plaza Premium Lounges in Kuala Lumpur main and low cost terminal but the PremierMiles card provides complimentary Priority Pass membership which provides lounge access in most airports around the world. 

I received a text message earlier today from Amex that there is now a "Double Up" feature on the card and to visit their website for more details. The details didn't actually post on the website till late this evening and it's a good one!

With a minimum spend of RM40,000 a year, the miles earned will be doubled up. For example, if you spent RM50,000 a year, you would have already earned 25,000 Krisflyer miles. On the card anniversary, if you earn another 25,000 Krisflyer miles. The earn rate is now 1 Krisflyer mile for every ringgit spent which is the best earn rate I've seen so far for miles on ANY credit card in Malaysia.

On a side note, there used to be a 50% of miles or up to 22,500 miles voucher if one spent a minimum of RM40,000 offered as part of the card that was recently dropped. The new addition of the "Double Up" feature certainly is much better than the previously offered voucher.

I will be shifting most of my spending to the Amex now thanks to the double miles. In addition to the occasional redemption promos offered by Singapore Airlines, this is certainly the card to use in Malaysia for the frequent flyer. There are also some rumors on Singapore Airlines finally allowing saver redemptions on First and Business Class on the "new" cabins and if the rumors were true, this would give me even more reason to use the card and redeem on Singapore Airlines.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Winter in China: Exploring Harbin


The main reason for the entire trip was to see the yearly world famous ice and snow festival in Harbin. Random ice and snow sculptures can be seen through out the city with three parks hosting their own exhibitions. The smaller but cheapest and closest to the city is at Zhaolin park. We skipped this as it was rather small and we caught glimpses of the sculptures from outside. We spent half a day each at Sun Island Park which primarily has snow sculptures and another evening at Ice & Snow World which is famous for their lighted ice sculptures. I'll leave you with a couple of pictures first but will post up more details on this two exhibitions in upcoming posts.

Entrance of Zhaolin Park

Ice Sculpture at Song Hua River

Before sharing other highlights of Harbin, I do need to talk about the weather. We had clear blue skies and the sun was out while we were in Harbin but the average temperature was an ungodly -25C!. Stealing from Bourdain, -25C feels like our face was stuck to a piece of ice - it's cold and it hurts! We had to completely wrap ourselves up and any part that was uncovered would start to hurt after being exposed to the cold for a couple of minutes.  Talking to the locals, it was warmer than expected when we were in Harbin. Is gets even colder? Yikes!

My advice would be to invest in some good winter clothing. With beanie to over the head, good down jacket, thermals, scarf, thick wool socks, snow boots in addition to my "normal"wear of a sweater and jeans, I did pretty okay and was able to stay outside in the freezing temperature most of the time. Some of my other family members who didn't too well in the cold just simply wore more layers.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Winter in China: Ibis Harbin


We decided to stay at Ibis Harbin primarily because the hotel was really cheap (~$20USD/night) for a room thanks to the Accor supersale rate. The normal going rate is about ~$50 USD per night and the check-in agent helping us even made a comment on how cheap our rate was. We would have paid more to stay at the Sofitel which had additional facilities but the location seemed too inconvenient as it was out of the city. The Ibis was located right smack in the city which provide easy access to plenty of shopping, restaurants and other attractions like Zhou Yang Street, Zhao Ling park and the river.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Winter in China: Food in Harbin


Similar Beijing, there's a TON of food to try in Harbin. However, we did leave Harbin somewhat disappointed with the food quality. Most of the food here was even oilier and saltier than the food in Beijing.

Cotton Candy
There are multiple food courts in the shopping malls around town and the food courts would be the easiest way to sample a multitude of choices. I personally liked the food court at the "new 100" shopping mall. I enjoyed the meat wrapped pancakes and wok fried Sichuan style dish where you can choose the meats and vege to be wok fried similar to a Mongolian style grill. There's also a pretty good dessert stall where I liked the red-bean yogurt dessert. Yum..

Wok Fried Si-Chuan

Read Bean and Yogurt

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winter in China: Beijing to Harbin on Air China


Air China operates only 2 class cabins on most domestic flights in China with the front of the plane tagged as first. There is no business class. Since our BMI redemption was for business class, we were relegated to the back of the plane for the flight to Harbin.

We arrived at the airport around 5.30 am for our early 7.30 am flight. I'm surprised that there's such a lack of Star Alliance related signage at Beijing Airport!We didn't see any signs for Star Gold check in and the lines for economy counters were already long. We tried checking in at one of the automated machines but failed. We eventually were able to check-in at the Air China First Class domestic counters after showing my Star Gold card.

After passing through security, we made our way to the Air China business class lounge. The lounge is pretty big which adequate seating although the furniture was somewhat drab. Instant noodles and packaged snacks were the only food available when we arrived. Soon after, breakfast was offered at the dining area which consisted of only Chinese choices like rice porridge and pastries.

Sleeping Rooms

Enhanced Hilton Hhonors Diamond Benefits

For the past week, rumors were abound that there would be enhanced perks for Diamond members. Looks like it's official:
  • Upgrades to Preferred Rooms which may include suites.
  • 1000 bonus points per stay.
  • Continental Breakfast
  • Guaranteed Executive Lounge Access.
This is definitely a good move. In the past, Diamond members had to choose only one of the options, i.e. either the upgrade or the 1000 bonus points. In addition, the upgrades did not include suites and were usually normal rooms on Executive Floor. Some hotels do go above and beyond and upgrade to suites but this was not per the rules. 

One of the biggest complains of the Hilton Hhonors program in the past was that there was very little difference between a Gold and Diamond member. With this enhancement, it does make sense to go for Diamond status instead of maybe shifting some business to another chain once you hit Gold. I personally would do it!

An additional enhancement that's still missing s the free mini-bar. Only Intercontinental Royal Ambassadors are offered this perk and I think would be great for Hilton to follow. Who doesn't like a free mini-bar??

There are some concerns on whether this enhancement will impact Gold members. Some are concerned on less upgrades and lounge access for Gold members. I personally don't see this happening as I don't see how this enhancement will impact Gold members. Most Hiltons I've visited treat Gold members really well and even provide lounge access even when they could not upgrade to executive floor rooms due to no availability. Per official rules, they only need to provide lounge access if an upgrade was available to Gold members.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter in China: Food in Beijing


There's just so much good food in Beijing albeit on the more oily and salty side of things! Food options range from cheap street food to high end fine dining. One of the major highlights definitely was the hunt for the best Beijing Roast Duck that we tried at three different restaurants.

Other highlights included the street food at Wangfujing street. There is actually two spots for this with the one on the main street looking much cleaner and organized although at a slightly higher price. We were also adventurous enough to try some scorpions, beetles and starfish. Let's just say it's just a one time experience.

"Enjoying" some scorpions

Leg of sheep

Lydia and her star
Fruit Sticks


Winter in China: The Duck Hunt


One of the must eats in Beijing is the world famous Beijing Roast Duck. There have and always will be  debate and arguments on which restaurant serves the best roast duck in Beijing - just do a google online and you'll end up with many recommendations. We ended up having Beijing roast duck at three different restaurants while we were in Beijing.

The highlight of Beijing Roast Duck is the crispy skin that's skillfully carved out live in front of you. This is often eaten with pancakes filled with green onions and some sweet sauce.

Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant
This restaurant comes highly recommended from many websites and word of mouth. It has 3 branches in Beijing and we visited the branch near Wangfujing since it was closet to our hotel. We made reservations through Visa concierge so we didn't have to wait when we arrived. Our first impression on arriving at restaurant was WOW. The deco and ambiance was really nice and they roasted the duck live where the customers can see it. There's also a bar for those who might have to wait to get a table.

Table side prep

The Duck


The menu was extensively and it took us a long time to decide what to order. The food appeared to be more modern, fusion and "fine dining-ish" than your typical Chinese restaurant.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winter in China: Novotel Beijing Peace


Since the mistake rate for Hotel G was only available for our first night in Beijing, we moved to Novotel Beijing Peace for the rest of our time in Beijing. I chose the hotel primarily for its ideal location right by Wangfujing (wish we had booked at the Hilton though but it costs 3 time mores) giving us easy access to shopping, restaurants, subway and the Forbidden Palace.

We arrived early at the hotel at ten in the morning but the only rooms available at that time were smoking rooms which we declined. There was no mention of my Aclub Platinum status during check-in and had my request for upgrade rejected citing that the hotel as operating at full capacity. I wasn't having any expectation for any upgrades since it wasn't per the Aclub rules and hearing about similar experiences both on flyertalk and tripadvisor.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter in China: Exploring Beijing - Temple of Heaven


 Temple of Heaven was the last major attraction we visited while we were in Beijing. From our hotel in Wangfujing, it is an easy 15 minute subway ride away. The closest stop is Tiantandongmen. We arrived around shortly after breakfast around 10 am and as usual, there was already a crowd at the entrance but the line for tickets wasn't too long.

The Entrance

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter in China: Exploring Beijing - The Forbidden Palace


The Forbidden Palace was a 15 minute walk from our second hotel in Beijing, the Novotel Beijing Peace. It's also easily accessible via the Beijing Subway. We made a quick detour to check out Tiananmen Square which is located opposite the south entrance before heading into the Forbidden Palace. To better control traffic by trying to force the crowd in one direction, there is only one entrance on the south side with the exit on the north side.

Tiananmen Square
I was amazed by the number of people visiting the Forbidden Palace. There must have been at least a couple of thousand but the crowd did thinned out once we got deeper into the palace grounds.

The Main Entrance

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Winter in China: Exploring Beijing - The Great Wall at Mutianyu


There are three popular spots to visit the Great Wall from Beijing. Badaling would be the closest but it is supposedly the most touristy. Simatai is the furthest away but the less restored which is good for those who want to see the wall as close to it's original state. We ended up choosing to go the wall at Mutianyu since it was a good in between option - less than an hour drive from Beijing and less touristy and packed if compared to Badaling. 

To get to Mutianyu, one needs to rent a car and driver that will take you there and wait for you when you explore the wall. There are probably public trains & buses but we didn't think it was worth the hassle. There are many driver recommendations on tripadvisor and flyertalk and we picked one that ended up being good. Send me an email if you want the contact for the driver we used. 

We set off for Mutianyu even before the sun was up at 6.30 in the morning. We got to Mutianyu right as the sun was coming up and it made for some stunning views. There are 3 ways up to the wall - a cable car, a ski lift type ride or you could hike/walk up. We chose the ski lift ride as for a couple of reminbi more, it includes a ride down on the toboggan slide (more on that later). 

The lift to the top
Since we were there early, there were only a couple of other tourists around. The tour buses haven't arrived yet. At certain parts of the wall, we were the only ones around which made the experience so much more enjoyable and peaceful. Pictures that we took earlier in the morning also turned out better as there was no haze. 

We spent the next couple of hours just walking (more like hiking) a long the wall. One some parts, it did get pretty steep and it was challenging especially in the cold. Lydia and I gave up when we reached the cable car stop where as my bro and sis in laws continued to the end.

Winter in China: Exploring Beijing


We had 3 bright and sunny days in Beijing. Sure it was still freezing cold with temperature close to zero Celcius but I heard that it was a rarity to see blue skies in Beijing. My first impressions of Beijing was how surprisingly modern, clean and somewhat organized the city is. I'm not sure where got I the misconception from but I was expecting Beijing to be loud and chaotic which really wasn't the case. It wasn't the uber organized Hong Kong or Singapore but reminded me of cities like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

The one thing to get used to however is crossing with streets. Even with pedestrian crossings, it was an adventure to make sure you don't get knock down by an incoming car. Cars have right of way in China.

During the 3 days, we did the must-do tourist attractions such as visiting the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Olympic Park and the Forbidden Palace in addition to the endless visits to the malls and eating around. I'll leave you with some pictures for now but I'll post more details on the visit to the Great Wall, Temple of Heavan and Forbidden Palace in upcoming posts.
Great Wall
Temple of Heaven
The Bird Nest

Mr. Mao

Forbidden Palace
Oldest Catholic Church in Beijing

Drum Tower

Friday, January 13, 2012

Air Asia X drops Europe and India

WOW. Rumors were afloat last week that Air Asia X might be cancelling their European and Indian destinations which I thought and hoping were just rumors especially with the London routes. There have been many articles and debate on whether low cost long haul will work and being biased as a Malaysian even though I don't fly them long haul, I was hoping Air Asia X would prove everyone wrong.

Air Asia X is blaming the economic situation in Europe and high carbon tax for the failure in London/Paris and high airport charges for the failure in India. What I don't get is that all other airlines have to go through this but have you seen Emirates cancelling flights to London. On other hand, they are further expanding with more A380 flights to London! My personal opinion is that the price difference between Air Asia X and the mideast airlines like Emirates and Qatar have become negligible where consumers are choosing the mideast airlines where you get luggage, food, IFE and pre-assigned seating for just a bit more or even the same price.

There are also parties that believe the flight cancellation is merely a route rationalization after the MAS/AirAsia share swap so they don't kill each other. Air Asia X just got approval to fly to Sydney where as MAS would be starting flights on the A380 to London soon. What a coincidence! This might be good for the two airlines but this can't be good for customers as this means less competition.

Only time will tell if Air Asia X will bring back Europe flights and the real reasons behind the cancellation. I guess they gave it a shot..

Winter in China: Hotel G Beijing

We stayed at the Hotel G Beijing for our first night taking advantage of the Hotel G mistake on booking.com where a $200 USD room was available for 200 Chinese Yuan or ~$30 USD inclusive of breakfast. What a deal! Too bad I could only get those rates for just our first night in Beijing. I must commend the hotel for honoring the mistake especially since they even allowed the 4 others on this trip who arrived at ~8 am to check-in early. 

Hotel G is one of those cool, stylish and modern hotels which reminded me of the Vie in Bangkok. We later found out that the random colors seen in the picture could be changed individually by people in their rooms. The hotel was somewhat hard to find with most cab drivers not knowing where the hotel is. We would recommend printing a map and telling the cab driver the main road that the hotel is on. We personally had to hunt around a couple of minutes before spotting the hotel. 
Hotel Lobby

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter in China: Bangkok to Beijing on TG

Our flight from Penang parked at a domestic gate so we had to be bused to the international terminal. It took an annoying 15 minutes for the bus ride and the walk through security rescreening and the transit area before we were in the Thai Royal Spa lounge for our 30 minute neck and shoulder massage. My back was killing me the entire week and the massage did wonders even though it was cut short by about 5 minutes so we would make our flight to Beijing. We only had an hour plus layover in Beijing.

As we made our way to the departure gate which was one of the last ones in C-gate, I tried to set the expectation to Lydia that the seats and IFE were not going to be that good since we were probably going to be on the old 744 especially since we’ve tried the F cabin before previously. I caught a glimpse of our plane from a far and noticed the 2 engines on each wing so we probably didn’t get “TGed” and our flight was still going to be a 744. I was pleasantly surprised that when we reached the gate to see that yes the plane did have 2 engines on each wing but it didn’t have the 744 upper deck hump. We got “TGed” to an Airbus 346 which had better seats and IFE in all cabins. The only downside was that I didn’t bother double checking our seats when we checked in at Penang assuming we had our pre-booked upper deck seats. We ended up with middle seats and would have preferred window seats for the view.

Our ride to Beijing
Business class was pretty much full on this flight with only a couple of empty seats. Pillows, blankets, headphones, menus and amenity kit were waiting for us in the seats when we got to our seats. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winter in China: Penang to Bangkok on TG


We got to the airport around 6 am for our 8am flight to Bangkok. There was no line in the business class line. Check-in was done by MAS agents with a supervisor from Thai Airways. Our bags were tagged all the way to Beijing and we were handed boarding passes and lounge invitation to the MAS Golden Lounge.

It was rather annoyingly warm and stuffy that not all the air-conditioning was turned on yet when we got to the lounge. The staff eventually turned it on a couple of minutes later. I caught up on email before enjoying a hearty breakfast of nasi lemak and coffee knowing that the food in the lounge would probably be better than on the plane later.

My hearty nasi lemak breakfast
The lounge itself was pretty good with plenty of seating, a good view of the tarmac, business center, a kids play area and even a shower. It does puzzle me however who actually gets to use the lounge since the lounge is on the international wing of the airport and MAS does not serve any international destination from Penang.