Category Archives: Travel


Great? Britain… Get Your Visa Thing In Order… (Lure More Rich Chinese Travellers In…)

The United States just unleashed a massive peaceful-but-powerful weapon upon China: Visas. As in: relaxed visa policies.

I know that because I was once a PRC citizen. The US did not feel like a bolted fortress, but it was serious on its details. I had to get myself a US visa as a Chinese citizen, which kind of “went away” when I became Swiss in 2000. Now Tracy has to get herself visas for everywhere because China has only so many visa waiver agreements — mostly with the developing world.

When Tracy and I applied for the EEA Family Permit (thanks, Switzerland, for signing the free movement deal, even though we’re sure you’ll eat it one day if you continue to let Blocher and Co rule Helvetia), I’ve heard Tracy dig into Baidu rants. It was grilled by PRC citizens married to EU, EEA and Swiss citizens as this questionnaire that just went on and on and on — a hundred questions. As a Swiss I don’t take issue with these: I’ve heard that “facilitated naturalisation” has a wait-time of one and a half years… so I’m “familiar” with all those government forms and “stuff like that”. Visas are never an easy thing for some of us in some parts of the world to get, even though in several countries, procedures have been simplified.

But to many, the US remained that one country that, to lots of PRC citizens, could at times just refuse visas to its passport holders — and at times it felt like it was “on a whim”, even though the US, like Switzerland and most of the developed world, is ruled by a set of (at times pretty rigid) laws. (After driving around London, I wish more and more locals were a little Swiss on the roads.) So when the US simply opened the floodgates with ten-year visas, this was the next best thing after a blanket visa waiver (which I hope will also be reality one day; the Taiwanese “renegade province” so-called gets it already!).

This also means I had better get my (expletive deleted) State-side, since the terminology to way too many Americans visiting China will be very different with the set we have in London or Zürich. To the Brits, a subway is what you use to cross the road (underneath); to Americans, it’s what the Tube is for London. In the UK we’ve got to get our Council Taxes straight and report incomes to HM Revenue and Customs; in the US we are dealing with totally new terminology, including the likes of the IRS. The Swiss would be confused by the existence of Royal Mail and The Post Office in the UK, as they have “just one” in Alpine territory — that goes by up to four different names (in four different languages no less!).

Indirectly, China is opening its doors to more and more Americans, and the US opening itself also more and more to China. This leaves Schengenland and the UK to much of a disadvantage. Even if the Common Travel Area eventually became part of Schengenland, the generous-ness of the visa won’t work either. It’s time to realise that more and more Chinese have the big bucks (big quids? Do we or can we actually say it like that?) and need to head overseas — beyond the 31 mainland provinces. It is also time most of us realised that the era of the mainland Chinese passport is no longer stuck in this era where it was granted to a few, and had to be surrendered upon return; it is time some of us realised the full potential of this passport. I hope the trend for the PRC mainland passport will be more and more lenient visa policies — along with a biometrics requirement (to keep the bad guys out).

And I know this has to be the case. Go to Bicester Village… I dare you. It’s now a Chinese village in the making… seriously… There will be a day, I hope, that PRC passports will come, more and more, with ten-year visa vignettes affixed to it — for the UK and for Schengenland, too, as I hope…


Heathrow Terminal 2 vs Beijing Terminal 3 (Previous Version)

There’s good news about living in Harrow: We’re only two bus stops away from a rental car station. But now for the bad news as well: it’s closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday all day.

And sometimes, life calls for that trip to central London on Sundays — on more flexible timing than what the Tube offers you. So where do I get my car? Heathrow Airport. Thankfully, you get to choose where you pick your car up — you in essence arrive at any terminal, then choose the desk of your car rental company.

I decided to give the recently re-done Heathrow Terminal 2 a try some weeks back before I headed to my rental car company at the airport. (Coincidentally, I have now mastered this skill I once thought was impossible — driving a manual / stick-shift in the UK — I can do this as one of my licences is a full one for manuals as well.)

I can’t really speak for Terminal 2 as a full experience, since Tracy and I have yet to catch a flight there (plus British Airways doesn’t fly out from Terminal 2, so it’s the Speedbird terminal AKA Terminal 5 for most BA flights). But I did get a chance to grab a quick bite at the landside Terminal 2 cafés.

The one thing that comes to you after 14 years in China is this perception that all airports have to be big. Chengdu’s Terminal 2 certainly stunned us, as it took us forever to get from the plane to our taxi rank at the exit. (Barcelona El-Prat was huge as well, but at least it was more compact.) So I was looking for Heathrow’s latest addition to be huge, certainly landside. After all, this came after Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3, so it had to be inspired by China, or aspire to be of similar dimensions. Right?


Heathrow Terminal 2’s dimensions left me wanting for more. There was only this bit of the airport at the departures level where you had a bite (and even so, you had to head out of the main building into a covered “midway piazza” to change levels). There was woefully little for you at the arrivals level, and the fact they couldn’t exchange Macanese patacas wasn’t too encouraging either.

Contrast that with Beijing’s Terminal 3: there is a Starbucks that occupies probably 20% of the whole Arrivals area. I’ve met tonnes of visitors from especially the US in that part of PEK T3. It gave you a place to “belong to”, as it offered options “just in case” you needed something at the airport. The fact that Level 4 now comes with a railway ticket office for Chinese trains is a very cool new addition. And for those of us who would prefer something more British, there’d be a Costa at Departures Level as well, which was in fact where we entertained (quite coincidentally) British TV executives at the China-UK summit on TV formats about half a year back.

I’m not saying Terminal 2 “is through”; it isn’t, and for a terminal that opened less than 4 months ago, I’m sure there’s a lot more in store. I was expecting maybe a major brand name café a la Terminal 5 at the Arrivals Level (you at least got something from Costa before heading onto the Heathrow Express). But big name café chains aside, Terminal 2’s arrivals level feels tiny. Not that you had to have sofas at the arrivals level (PEK doesn’t come with that either). But it gave you a feel: This is as big a terminal as we have. Which for the world’s leading industrialised nation doesn’t say a lot.

(But then again, for the real Britain, you’d head outside of Heathrow.)

I’m thoroughly impressed by Terminal 2’s wide open spaces, but less so with regards of what the terminal building itself has. For the newest terminal building of the capital of the UK, I thought I’d be seeing something a little larger, with more on offer. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spoilt rotten by Chinese airports. Or maybe @ LHR T2 it’s still earlier days.

But I’ll still be thankful for the Costa at the Departures Level at Terminal 2. I know I’ll need to get work done on those long flights. Thank heavens I know there’s a Caffeine Charging Station. Plus to have the ultimate word on T2, I’ll need to get out of (or fly into) London from that terminal.

I hope when I’m airside, I’ll be positively surprised.

PS: I am starting to get used to the “duo-tone” airport jingle at Heathrow…

Streets of Rural Beijing

Ausländer im eigenen Inland? Why Beijing’s New Traffic Rules Compound Problems

The city of Beijing is promulgating two new regulations on the roads:—

  • Only cars with Beijing plates, as well as authorised, registered cars from elsewhere, may enter Beijing inside the 6th Ring Road (although they may use the 6th Ring itself, mainly for transit);
  • Long-term licences for cars from outside of Beijing will no longer be issued.

Its rationale: We need to keep the city to ourselves… we need to give Beijing cars priority in Beijing… so there!

And to that new rule I say: #FAIL. This is the typical knee-jerk reaction one expects from .gov.anywhere… EU citizens “overpopulate” Switzerland (are they not afforded “freedom of movement”?), so the Swiss go to the polls and literally votes them out (killer immigrant quotas to come); Beijing’s traffic gets awful, so City Hall goes and starts hurrying non-Beijing cars away from the centre of town.

Never before were you an alien in one’s own country. Or as the German would say, Ausländer im eigenen Inland. This is “logic” that defies logic.

It’s probably no secret much of the planet isn’t having its best days as of late. But rather than to exclude, we can elect to include

Include Tianjin and Hebei, nearby cities / provinces to Beijing, when you grow. Now the “CCP old guard” way to grow is to chuck the surrounding provinces all heavy industry. Great, so their people are polluted way further. (The next bit, then, is to throw them out to He’nan — a province already badly strangled in China when it comes to the image / inhabitants — He’nan people are on a lot of people’s “s**tlist” just for being He’nan people.) The new way, then, would be to dismantle or redo heavy industry, and spread them to parts near you (but outside of the Jing) so that they can both exist and no-one’s really gonna get hurt in all this.

Include the immigrants in your society and let them become you. If foreigners must be “foreign criminals”, that’s a Swiss fault as much as it is a foreign fault. The new way, then, would be to educate them better. Invest in the education of their home countries, so that they already know how to be better civilised before they move in.

To randomly exclude and to discriminate only makes an already bad situation worse. To be more inclusive towards all would make things much better.

Ente gut, alles gut…?

The word ente has two meanings (as far as I know — and hey, I don’t know all the languages in the world!):—

  • In German: A duck
  • In Italian: Either a corporation, or being

and I’d like to use the Italian version of the word ente whilst keeping it in a German phrase. So instead of it meaning A good duck makes everyone happy (a rather cheeky slogan in an ad for toilet cleaner — the classic Toilet Duck), I’d like to completely remix it and give it “new meaning”: Feeling good makes everyone happy.

Don’t you hate it when decalinguals drive you up the wall?

The year 2013 is drawing to a close. Whilst happy for what has been a moderate year, I’m willing to take things to the next level in the forthcoming year. For once I am announcing that I will no longer be spending the entire year — that is, over 80% — in Beijing.

I am looking “back to Europe” for a first destination outside of Asia. It is true that Beijing’s Subway system is longer and more modern than London’s variant. It’s no secret that Swiss trains run about 50% slower than their Chinese counterpart. But after nearly 15 years on the ground in Beijing, it’s probably time to take a trip — at least a comparatively longer one (30+ days or so) — into a foreign land. The last time I left home for over 30 days was in 1999. I used to live in Zürich, so heading to Beijing was heading “out” of my (Swiss) home.

Most people have less-than-positive views about the United States. I’m not one of these — although prefer when sitting at the Starbucks that the guy next to me didn’t have something “unharmonious”. So far I’ve been to only 4 US states (NY, VA — for Dulles Int’l Airport, and FL as well as CA) and the District of Columbia. That’s nothing. Somewhere down the line, I’d like to give North America a bit more attention. If anything, I’d like to do Wyoming, if it was only to be in a state which was completely square. (To a Swiss / Chinese, where no canton / province is 100% square, that must be a “new” experience.) And probably Route 66 as well. Or Amtrak across the country…

I admit there are a few destinations on the “wrong” side of the world I am missing: South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and New Zealand. I need these, and I also need a trek with Train K3 via Ulaanbaatar straight to Moscow. I should also probably test drive Train T5 to Hanoi, if only to travel in China’s only long-distance international service with the national emblem over a train in blue (others have the emblem over a train in green).

The other day, I did a pretty scary calculation of my total mileage: over a million kilometres, and just a bit short of a million miles. I’m thinking of both converting these into media / information platform shows (blogs included) and adding more to the meter. It’s about a trip-and-a-half to the moon and back. I’m still in my early 30s. I need more miles.

In China, there’s a saying: you need to read both thousands of books and have travelled thousands of miles. I’ve done the latter. 2014 might also be the time when I do a bit more of the former…

The new year, no matter how it starts or where I might start 2015, will be one I’m going to get pretty excited about. Stay tuned…

Street Level China: 0 m.a.s.l.

That’s zero metres above sea level, for the uninitiated. Some time ago, I joined my wife on a trip to the city of Qingdao (in eastern China). She had media business to do in Qingdao, so I went around the area while she got busy — I went as far out as west to Ji’nan (where I found my optimised English standards in use) and environs, as well as the cities of Zibo, Weifang and Gaomi.

Shandong finds itself at an HSR crossroads, although only some of its most important cities are linked to the national HSR system. There’s a 200-250 km/h HSR stretch from Ji’nan to Qingdao, which will soon have a newer 350 km/h addition. When that’s done, trains will take just over an hour to reach Qingdao from Ji’nan (at the moment, it’s upwards of three full hours).

The cities of Weifang and Zibo struck me as two cities I could really imagine myself living in. In Weifang I found wide, open spaces and (what else) a Starbucks and Pizza Hut, one next to the other, so I could do a little food refuge if a crass excess of seafood got me scared (I am, after all, a little more “continental” — remember Switzerland is a landlocked country!). Zibo, though, is a funny place. The city isn’t made up of just one locality, but a series — with the main city (Zhangdian district, Zibo) at the northernmost extreme. The main city district has a lot of buildings which remain those with a very 1980s / 1990s look; that’s no surprise given the fact that the city didn’t miss out on the first round of reforms (when Deng Xiaoping was around), but later rounds of reforms and development went elsewhere. My rail friend there told me that Zibo started off as a Tier 2 town, then was downgraded (unofficially) to something he calls “Tier 2½” — because it’s missing out on the latest round of reforms and opening up. A lot buildings in Zibo still retain the look they had two decades back; they money, in the meantime, has gone elsewhere.

Gaomi remained a sleepy town to me. Me and American-Chinese friend Will went there back in 2010; my granddad hails from there, so to give him a nice surprise, I picked up a train ticket from that town. I remember back in 2010 that when I went there, there was probably one major statue, a huge highway leading into town, and then all there really was — remained peace and quiet. They’re redoing the station — it’s showing its age, but is still incredibly busy.

I was also given a personal guide tour of Qingdao’s main station by station staff, who showed me how train crew got busy. Next time you board a train departing Qingdao early in the morning, just remember that you’re not the first onboard: the train pulls in an hour ahead and train crew have to prepare absolutely everything within around 30-40 minutes before they let passengers in. It’s work.

I hope to return to Qingdao soon — there’s a whole swath of eastern Shandong I have yet to totally explore!

David’s On the Go

I’ve put a new “thing” on my official website as of late: my mile-o-meter, which will, for the time being, show my rail and air mileages (air mileage approximated). You can see them on the bottom of every page.

These updates come in on the 5th, 15th and 25th of every month, so everyone is up-to-date on just how much travelling I’ve done during that time.

At present I have at least 160+K kilometres by rail, so that’s obviously the big winner here. Still, my goal is to clock in more mileage — more by train in China and Europe and more by air elsewhere.

My schedule calls for visits to Harbin and Taiyuan in the not-too-distant future, and Xi’an and Zhengzhou further down the line. Those will also be my first train visits to both He’nan and Shanxi.

So, see you around!

David Feng on Radio Today: Trains, 18:00— Beijing Time

Again, it’s time for a train journey — microphones included, please. I’ll be onboard Radio Beijing Joy FM live at 18:00 Beijing time today (Thursday, 13 September 2012) for a live programme about travel on trains, both in China and overseas. (Tune in the “traditional way” via radio: it’s FM 87.6 in and around Beijing!)

This comes at the culmination of a seven-nation train trip to Europe, where my wife Tracy and I travelled by train in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Liechtenstein, as well as visited the Freiburg im Breisgau Railway Station.

Present mileage here is around 23,019 km or so (not including two RER trips in Paris operated by SNCF), and I’m good to break 30,000 km within the year if all turns out fine. With 143 trips by train I am probably one of the most enthusiastic rail folks out there. I’m also a fast rider: 64.03% of these trips were at speeds of 300 km/h or faster.

This brings my global mileage from the 1990s to approximately 151,028.33 km. I have a little personal goal to reach 250,000 km by the end of 2014, in time for the second half of this still-new decade.

Sadly, I’m no longer as precisionist as I used to be: missing are specifics for train trip details as of mid-August 2012. The good thing, though, is I’m still keeping count on the timing of the trains. On one of these super-rainy Sunday afternoons when I tire of life off the rails, I’ll probably pull the rest of the figures into the database and see how things went.

Catch me live via Internet Radio (new on Sina Weibo) — click the radio icon on the official radio page on Sina Weibo, and chime in!

Trains and Media: What Happens When You’re (Not) Informed

Apart from the all-important first year party of the Beijing-Shanghai HSR entering into service, there’s also something big — in fact, two things that are big:

  1. Trains 6417 and 6418 running their final runs between Beijing and Chengde; and
  2. Longjiaying Railway Station shutting down to passenger traffic

The former received a lot of coverage. I was, in fact, invited to a live show on Beijing Traffic Radio just to tell people that these super-cheap trains in Beijing were running their last runs. (At CNY 1.50 per full price ticket (from Beijing to Beijing East), it’s CNY 0.50 cheaper than the Beijing Subway!) The latter received just about no coverage at all.

And I’m telling ya, there’s a world of difference. What I’ve seen on Weibo recounts of a huge crowd by the Beijing East Railway Station, and tickets from Beijing to Beijing East being fully sold out. Quite on the contrary, there was no coverage of Longjiaying being bid its farewell. No TV crews, not even the random microphone from the local radio station. Nada. Tracy and I boarded Train D4532 — the last HSR service from the station — as totally normal people with no outside media coverage at all.

Most of you might be wondering now just where the heck this Longjiaying is. It’s a railway station between Qinhuangdao and Shanhaiguan stations (which also might not make sense: OK, it’s Beijing’s closest major coastline, beaches included*. It’s so reclusive, in fact, that road signs don’t make reference to this isolated stop at all. To a lot of us, Longjiaying seems to be one of the stations nobody must have any idea of. This yellow-ish station, handled by the QInghuangdao Vehicles Department of Beijing Rail, used to remain hidden to passing riders through to 15 November 2010. Before then, the only trains that’d stop here were those from dedicated railway routes carrying cargo.

This Tier 3 station suddenly became a major stop on and after that date, as Qinhuangdao station nearby underwent a massive expansion effort to accommodate HSR services to and from northeastern China (to come later this year or by spring 2013, latest). A bit further away than Qinhuangdao itself, this station is probably Station 3 of 4 in the massive Beidaihe-Shanhaiguan semi-conurbation, which is just west of the boundary with Liaoning. (Liaoning is already part of northeastern China’s three provinces.) This bit of north-northeastern China sports some very nice coastlines (plus a few crazy donkeys and camels that Tracy forced me onto… heh…)

Longjiaying is going to end service as a passenger station as today (30 June 2012) draws to an end. There are plans to, even if just provisionally, move passenger traffic back to Qinhuangdao (now redone and bigger, with the obligatory skybridge passageway). The only folks who knew this were die-hard train addicts, as well as train crew. They signalled the end of services to the station as, upon arrival, they removed, permanently, destination stickers on the trains. (The platform opposite our arrival platform already sported trains with new stickers indicating their future departure station at the nearby Qinhuangdao station.)

Apart from that, there were no signs from “society at large” that Longjiaying was finishing its final day. It’s pretty obvious, then, that the media plays a big role in this. Make the closure public via media — and you’d get a crowd. Close it covertly — and nobody’d know.

That’s how big the media is these days — even on Weibo (and microblogs in general).

* It’s also where the super-secret political meetings happen in the summers, as the “political bigs” gather in covert locations to determine just what the heck will happen to the Middle Kingdom as the temps get cooler. We know this because as our train pulled into Beidaihe, which is in this region, super-official-looking vehicles were spotted on Platform 1. Of course, there were no photos at all; the mere thought of that might land you one heck of a heavy political hiding!)