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International First Class to Beijing!

International First Class to Beijing!

Old Aug 15, 09, 5:55 am
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Join Date: Apr 2009
Programs: AAdvantage Gold
Posts: 1,615
International First Class to Beijing!

For graduation, my parents bought me a First Class ticket to China with their frequent flyer miles. This is the first time that anyone in my family will fly on a true First Class trip, though my father has flown on domestic First Class quite a few times and my sister has managed to score an op-up to Intl Business twice and I flew domestic First a few times at the end of last year. My itinerary is AUS-ORD-PEK on July 1 and PEK-SFO-LAX-ORD-AUS returning on Aug 12.

So the trip starts on July 1, 2009

July 1, 2009
United Express Flight 7017 Operated by Mesa Airlines
AUS-ORD, Seat 1A, First Class

This is an early morning flight (6:00am!) and I didn't get much sleep the night before. I have been on United Express twice with Shuttle America last year which was actually one of the nicest Domestic First Class flights I've enjoyed, however, this flight was just so-so. The seat was ok, and the service was just so-so, and the lavatory was all the way at the back of the plane. At least I didn't have to deal with the engines at the back of the plane. We did not get pre-departure drinks, we had a bit of a delay on the taxiway as a disabled passenger had to be tended to. We took off a few minutes late but made up the time in the air. All I got served was the infamous United Snack Box which would have costed $5 if I was sitting in coach.

No power ports at all on this plane, no IFE, no nothing. I doubt anyone really pays to sit in First Class on this plane. I was only in First Class because I was connecting to an International First Class flight in ORD.

We landed on time and I was glad to get off this plane. We exited via a ramp and had to walk along the tarmac into the commuter terminal.


Once I entered the terminal, I figured I'd go visit all four United lounges in the airport. First stop, the commuter Red Carpet Club.

The front desk agent let me in but told me not to waste my time here since I was entitled to access the International First Lounge. I took a quick look, grabbed a banana, took some pictures and left.

Next stop, the B concourse Red Carpet Club.

Again, the agent lets me in but asks me why I would want to spend my time in a Business Class Lounge when I am should be in the First Class Lounge. I tell her I just want to take a look, which I do. I walk around, grab an apple and leave.

Next stop, the C concourse Red Carpet Club. This time, I tell the agent that yes, I know the First Class Lounge is just around the corner, and all I want to do is take a look. She advises me to hurry since I shouldn't be wasting my time in an inferior lounge. I grab a peach, take a few photos, and leave. Just outside, there is a promotion where pax can spin the wheel to win certain prizes. I ended up winning a bottle of water, though I did try to "cheat" and fix the wheel to the Economy Plus prize. The girl running it had a laugh and she knew I didn't really need it since I was already seated in First Class.

Finally, I arrive at the International First Class Lounge. Are there any sweeter words to an airline passenger than "International First Class"? I think not.

I go in, get checked in, get seated, and then go to the food bar and help myself to a free lunch on United Airlines.

The food is fine, enough to tide me over until the flight. While the Red Carpet Club Business Class Lounges are fine in my opinion, the First Class Lounge has an air of exclusivity. The only way to access the lounge is to be on an International First Class Ticket (and no, Canada, Mexico, Carribean, Central America don't count) or maybe be a Global Services pax. Normally, a ticket like that costs about $25,000. I paid just $40 in taxes and cashed in 145K miles. There are only a few pax in the lounge, and I spend most of the time enjoying the free snacks slowly. Sure, it is "all you can eat", but in a first class setting, you really don't want to be pigging out like in a buffet restaurant. I try one of each of the snacks and have some orange juice which was about all I could want. There is also an unlimited supply of alcohol, but I opted to pass on it since I rarely ever drink.

Pretty soon, it is time to board my flight. The agent comes to get me and lets me know that I can board at my pleasure. I thank the agent and head for my gate, which is just around the corner.

July 1, 2009
Boeing 777-200ER
United Airlines Flight 851
Seat 3J, First Class

Just boarding the flight was fun. The gate utilized a dual bridge system and I headed down the First Class/Business Class bridge. No line there. Just walked right up, agent stopped boarding the Economy bridge to take my boarding pass. Once I walked on, I just had to pause for a moment and admire the First Class cabin. I've never been up here before, and actually, have never set foot on a United 777 until this flight. (Now, I just need to fly on an A320 and a 767 with UA). This is actually only my second time ever on a 777, first time was about 11 years ago on a China Southern 777. The FAs greet me by name and introduce me to the cabin. They personally bring me a drink, show me to my seat, help me out with whatever I may need, and even let me visit the flight deck. I took a peak inside, and noticed the huge bag of trail mix the pilots had. I jokingly told the FA to convince the pilots to share their trail mix with First Class. The tranquility of boarding in the F cabin was marvelous. There were just four of us up front (1A, 2A, 2J, and 3J) out of the 10 seats available, so I had seats 3J and 3F all to myself (I ended up using 3F as my blanket storage seat).
Here's a few pics of my seat:

and a pic of the other seats:

Now, I know United does have a newer version of the First Class seats but I find these seats to be more than adequate. We take off from ORD in due time and I am finally off on my way to China after 8 years of being away. This is actually my first flight over 4 hours since 2002. Once it's safe to, I set up my laptop (even purchased an emPower adapter to use for this flight) and set up the movies that I had stored on an external hard drive (500GB USB powered 2.5" drive). Pretty soon, the meal service starts. Now I am aware that United prioritizes meal service by status and I have no status. I told the FA that I was aware of the priority system and would understand if I didn't get my meal choice but the FA told me not to worry, and that there only four of us and there were enough meals to go around for all of us to get our choice. That was my first surprise. I don't remember if the mixed nuts were served, or I may have just declined them, can't recall. The meal was a five course meal, and I decide that instead of just wolfing the food down, I'd much rather just go about and enjoy the food while taking in a movie. I watched "Bride Wars" on my laptop which was pretty funny. My Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headset helped cancel out much of the engine noise so I could have the perfect dinner movie. I also had in my bag a Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headset to serve as a "backup" (okay, I really had it with me to give to my father as a late father's day gift since I'd be meeting him in Beijing.) The IFE wasn't that appealing to me as I had plenty of Entertainment on my laptop (years of flying in AA's M80s have taught me a valuable lesson: Bring Your Own Entertainment).

Anyways, here's the meal service, First, the appetizer:

About 15 minutes later, the soup:

About 15 minutes later, the salad:

20 minutes later, the main course (the sea bass was terrific!):

and about 90 minutes later (delayed at my request), the ice cream sundae:

and all while watching a movie:

The entire meal took me about 2 hours to eat and I did have a glass of red wine with it, though I didn't finish the wine, the only other time I've had wine was last winter going SFO-DEN in Domestic First Class for breakfast (I guess I'll start a ritual where I will only have wine when I'm in First or Business Class). The meal was just absolutely delicious and I didn't want to just gulp it down.

After the meal, I took a 30 minute nap, and then wandered around the First and Business Class cabin, trying out the cradle style Business Class seat. FAs didn't mind me wandering around the plane. I could've wandered back to coach but opted not to. There was a curtain between coach and business but nothing between business and first. I had a chat with one of the Business Class FAs about various things in the airline industry and stretch out my legs and try out some of the other snacks available in flight. It's essentially a long buffet with anything you want. About 7 hours into the flight, I decide to watch Pirates of the Carribean, Curse of the Black Pearl, which was really enjoyable. The FA gave me a hot turkey and cheese sandwich to eat while watching the movie. The sandwich was so good that I thought about asking for another one but didn't. I had plenty of glasses of diet coke and water during the flight (and also had to go to the restroom a few times, nothing special about the first class lavatory, it's just a regular old aircraft lavatory). About 2 hours prior to landing, I saw the captain out on his break and chat a few minutes with him. He even showed me the crew bunk (outside of the flight deck on the 777) which looked quite comfortable. Shortly afterwards, we are served lunch, which was just delivered on a single tray (don't really care, it's just lunch) and identical for First and Business Class. I opted for the pastrami sandwich which was quite delicious, though I declined the chips since I was a bit too full:

After lunch, I lie down one more time and enjoy the view of the clouds. It had the feeling like I was on a cruise ship in the sky, just an absolutely marvelous sight that no camera could capture. Soon, we begin our final descent and I start the process of cleaning out the side bin, unplug my laptop, turn off all electronics, put away everything, and reset my seat to the landing position. We land in Beijing and turn off the runway. Just as we're turning off the runway, a few passengers in Business Class get up out of their seats to get their belongings (I later found out that this practice is quite common on the chinese airlines) but we were on a US airline and the FA had no patience for such stupidity. The FA went on the PA and told off the passengers up in the aisle and embarassed them in front of the entire plane until the pax sheepishly sat down. It was absolutely hilarious. Once we arrive at the gate, we had to wait for the health authorities to board and clear all the pax, one more time for me to lie flat again and relax! About 10 minutes after arriving at the gate, we leave the plane and head for immigration. As I'm getting off, I noticed that we were the 777 with the Star Alliance livery. Immigration was quick and we headed for the train to take us to the baggage claim area and customs. I ran into the business class pax in row 8 (right behind first class) and they commented on how much I enjoyed laying the seat flat, which I did. I told them that I got to sit in First Class for free with my miles and they were rather impressed. My bag is one of the first to come out, I bid them farewell and pass through customs, which was rather quick. I head out the door for the airport shuttle to take me to my dad's apartment in Beijing.

Overall, I had a great time in First Class, sure it's not Singapore Airlines Suite Class but still, it was very nice. The service was fine, and I had a great time. Would I enjoy Singapore Airlines suites? Heck yes, but I also did have a very good time flying UA First Class. The best part, was I got a kickass 17.7 Cents per mile redemption rate! Considering that I can get 11 miles per dollar spent on mileage plus dining, I'd be actually profiting here!

Last edited by bniu; Aug 15, 09 at 3:11 pm
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Old Aug 15, 09, 5:57 am
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Join Date: Apr 2009
Programs: AAdvantage Gold
Posts: 1,615
Part 2 of my trip
After spending just two nights in Beijing, I headed down to Chendu in Sichuan Province in South Central China. This means getting back on a plane again!

Air China Flight 4102
Airbus A321, Seat 12L, Economy Class

After flying on the US Airlines exclusively since 2002, it was a bit refreshing to try out a foreign airline. I used to fly Air China quite extensively back in the 1990's but that was long before they joined the Star Alliance, so no credit for all those miles there After sitting in International First Class, it was a bit strange riding in coach once again, though I didn't mind so much since I've been flying coach for about 18 years and it wasn't until last November that I finally got to ride up front. I went with my dad and another friend of his. My dad's Star Alliance Gold card enabled us to check in at the Business Class counter, which was nice due to the small lines there. We could've gone into the Business Class Lounge with my dad's Star Alliance Gold card, but since he was only allowed one guest, we opted to skip the club rather than leaving one of us outside. For this flight, we were in the domestic end of the new Terminal 3 and the thing is one marvelous structure. The terminal building actually consists of two ends, separated by a taxiway, the near end is the domestic half and the international half is in the remote part accessible only by the terminal train (which I rode on arriving into Beijing the other day). Pretty soon, it is time for us to board. In China, unless you're in First or Business class, boarding is kind of a free for all, everyone just crowds around the gate and tries to shove their way to the front of the line (why? they're getting on a plane that doesn't leave until everyone gets on, and by shoving around, it actually slows down the process...) We waited for the crowd to thin out before we board.

Once onboard, the first thing you'll notice is that all the FAs are really really young and quite attractive and it seems like there is a lower FA to pax ratio than on US airlines. How is this possible? Air China policy requires FAs to retire at 50, and since the airline is state owned, it doesn't have to worry so much about FA salaries and so can afford to staff more FAs on flights. Also, the young and attractive FA image has largely disappeared in the US due to labor unions and anti age discrimination laws. You'll never find 80 year old FAs in Asia. The FA also personally came by and introduced herself to my dad and told him that she was there to fulfill whatever requests he may have. They treat Star Alliance Gold members really well. Another thing we got on the flight was meals in economy on this 2 hour 30 minute flight. Here's the meal below:

I haven't seen an onboard meal in domestic economy since before 9/11 I suppose. Well, it's still airline food and it's edible but nothing to get too excited about. In case you're wondering what First Class was like, we did walk by it on boarding and it looked like the same boring Domestic First Class seat you see in the US on most narrowbody flights. At the end of the flight, the FAs actually bowed to the passengers, a cute little gesture. While the Chinese FAs are pretty, well mannered, and nice to talk to, sometimes I find it hard to take them seriously and wonder if they really would be able to step up in an emergency. I may be in the minority here, but I definitely prefer flying US Airlines over asian airlines as I do feel safer on the US Airlines. Another thing is some Chinese pax are so impatient that they will get up to get their bags while the plane is still moving on the taxiway and the FAs don't bother saying anything about it! If they do that on a US airline, they would be guaranteed to get chewed out by the FAs.

After we arrive, we are directed straight to the arrivals hall. It seems like in China, they do not want domestic arrivals pax to be wandering around in the secure area, which is different from the US, though in Chendu it was possible to stay in the secure area.

We leave the airport and head to the hotel, a four star and five star hotel that has hosted many dignitaries around the world. We stay in Chendu for three days. The entire trip to Chendu was free since my dad was going there for a conference. The first day, we went to an ancient palace which had artifacts from many dynasties ago when Chendu was the southern capital of one of China's many kingdoms. The second day, we went to an archaeological site, which I didn't find all that interesting since the stuff was all a bit ancient for me. The good thing was I did bring along my iPhone 3GS that I bought on launch day (waited just 10 minutes in line for it and scored the last one in stock at my local AT&T store) and managed to record some nice videos.

The 3rd day, I went to the Panda research base with one of my dad's friend's kid. This research base has the world's largest number of Giant Pandas and even has a few Red Pandas.

That was the highlight of the Chendu trip for me, I just love Pandas!

We leave Chendu on the 4th day for Shanghai. We didn't buy the tickets until the last minute and had to fly China Eastern, which didn't net us any miles (Boo!) but did sit in some nice Emergency Exit seats on the Airbus A330 aircraft (yes, I was aware it was the same plane type as the Air France jet that crashed a few weeks back but stuff like that doesn't really scare me anymore, I will even read about airplane crashes before I fly and sometimes even while I'm sitting on the plane during boarding, though I do make an effort to keep what I'm reading away from other pax). We did get to access the China Eastern lounge at Chendu since the agents were a bit clueless on whether or not star alliance gold pax would get access and I guess they wanted to err in favor of us in case we were right. We got meals again but it's just the standard barely edible airline food. We did get to ride the maglev from the Airport though it didn't get to go to the 400km/h top speeds.
We stay in Shanghai for two nights at a Fudan University hotel, where my dad has another conference. The first night, we went out to the Shanghai city center and walk around. Not much to see since we've been there before. The next night, I went on a cruise with the conference's group along the river in Shanghai. We saw much of the Shanghai skyline, the same skyline that I'd seen 11 years ago. Shanghai is China's premier city and does have a sense of elegance that really represents China well. The streets are rather clean, the people are much more open to the west and western customs, and the atmosphere is really like a true international city, though youtube is still blocked (big BOO!).

We leave on July 9th for the small city of Hefei which is on the other size of the Yangtze river from Shanghai. We went by express train in First Class, which was a nice car, except I had caught a cold that day, and the train station terminal was rather unsanitary. One thing that was hard adjusting to was the low standards of sanitation in chinese restrooms, and the excessive smoking that chinese men do and our train was delayed by two hours. Yuck! I prefer flying, even a short 20 minute flight over a train ride, airport restrooms at least have sanitation standards and there are strict no smoking rules in airports and on airplanes that are missing elsewhere.

I only stay in Hefei overnight and fly back to Beijing alone on the 10th. The hotel in Hefei was a five star hotel though the behavior of the hotel staff was a bit less than five star. They kept hounding me over a restaurant bill that I put on the room bill insisting that the university wouldn't pay for it, which I said was fine, I'd just pay what I owe when I check out the next day but they kept calling me all night insisting that I go downstairs to pay immediately. Since I wasn't feeling well, and that behavior was more fit for a one star hotel, I reminded them on the phone that they are a five star hotel, their clients are all rather wealthy, and that they should trust their clients to pay what needs to be paid upon check out. Next day, they just comped the restaurant bill since they were a bit embarassed about their behavior the night before. In the morning, I head for the airport, the bellhop gets me a taxi and carries my bags to the cab and I actually tip the guy some money (not a common practice in China, though at 5 star resorts, it is starting to catch on...). Taxi driver was really cool, got me to the airport quickly, earning him a nice tip from me (I figured, I didn't want to carry around loose change and the tip equivalent was about 4 dimes in US dollars, it was more keep the change...) The Hefei airport was quite small, check in was quick, security was quick, and I got to the gate rather quickly.

While waiting, this saleslady from ctrip tries to sell me on their service, supposedly offering cheap fares across China, which I really didn't care for since I get most of my tickets for free or paid for by others and I also don't read or write chinese so I really didn't need their service. She kept trying to sell me on it so I just told her that I buy only First and Business Class tickets and asked if they can get cheap tickets for those cabins. She said, that premium tickets are sold at one rate and they can't do much about those. Perfect way to get her to leave, convince her that you have no need for the service, which is what I do at most airports when agents ask me if I want to apply for the Chase Mileage Plus card, I just say that I already have it, it gets them off my back, heh heh. The flight is back on Air China on a Boeing 738 aircraft. The seat pitch was ridiculously tight, even tighter than United E- seats. The FA offered to let me go sit in the Exit row middle seat that was still open but I spotted an empty row up front and sat there instead. I figured, lateral space was just as good as extra legroom. Upon arrival in Beijing, we deplaned at a remote stand, (the 2nd largest terminal in the world and we still need remote stands?) and as soon as the aircraft stopped, a huge group of pax just started squeezing up front, enroaching seriously on my personal space...(good time to let out some gas, I thought, but didn't have the heart to do such a thing...). Arrived back at the Beijing airport and returned to my dad's apartment. It was this point that I forgot all about my cousin from Shanghai, who I've known for quite a while and had also just recently got married to a Taiwanese man. Now, I'd probably have to go back to Shanghai just to go see her or maybe just wait for my next trip.

My cousin in Beijing came by to visit that night and we went out to dinner with our uncle. She is the only relative of mine that speaks competent English. She and I are actually 2nd cousins but we've known each other for a long time and have become good friends over the years. Her mother and brother came by to visit a few days later, my dad let them stay at his apartment since he was still away at the time. I went out with them a few times, mostly to places that I've already been to. The only new place that none of us had been to was the Bird's Nest:

I also went to visit the Beijing Apple Store!

The Olympic complex was cool but it wasn't that different from the facilities that I see everyday at the University of Texas at Austin. I did see Harry Potter 6 with my cousins at the midnight premiere. It was in English with chinese subtitles so it was no different than any other movie in the US for me. My cousin's family had trouble acclimating to Beijing, they are from interior China, and could not get used to eating western food, which I cannot stop eating. They found all my eating habits strange: ice water, subway, starbucks, diet coke, KFC, and other stuff. Actually, subway was the most common place I went to eat during my stay in Beijing. Nice, easy and healthy. Yes, I am of chinese heritage but like most chinese-americans, I prefer western food. They left after a few days. My dad came back on the 19th and left on the 20th to head back to America to attend one of his students' PHD final defense. Now what? My cousin (the female that speaks english) agrees to go with me on a sidetrip to Xian, China so I can go see the Terra Cotta Warriors. She also wanted to surprise her boyfriend, who lives there, and I needed an interpreter and I got to employ her for free and she paid for the hotel! That trip would go from July 23rd to July 26th and will be covered in the next part of this trip report!

Last edited by bniu; Aug 17, 09 at 10:46 am
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Old Aug 15, 09, 5:57 am
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Posts: 1,615
The date is now Monday, July 20th, my dad had just returned to America for 2 weeks and I receive an email from my mother saying that my grandfather (on her side) had recently been hospitalized and that she needed to come to China within the next month or so. I called some relatives who all assured me that the situation was fine and I did not need to rush my mother to China. I noticed the award ticket sale on United and purchase my mom a ticket for 50,000 miles to come to China on Aug 18, the first day permitted under the promotion. This was also optimal as it meant that I could stay in China a bit longer if I wanted to (it's not that hard to change an award ticket in First Class). In addition, I also purchased a ticket from Beijing to Datong (where my maternal side relatives were) to see my grandparents for the next monday july 27, costed just US $45 and was a short 30 minute flight. So all is well, on Thurs, July 23, my cousin and I head to the airport to go to Xian, China, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors!

Here's where the trip gets interesting (and quite sad):

Air China Flight 1235
Boeing 767-300, Seat 12 J & L (Business Class)

When we went to purchase the tickets, the only option we had for the outbound was full fare economy and I noticed that Business Class wasn't a whole lot more ($100 USD for both of us combined) and decided to go for it. We managed to score deep discount coach seats for the return trip. My rationale was that Beijing Airport's lines are known to be long, security lines would be a pain, especially during the afternoon rush, and I figured the Lounge Access wouldn't be so bad. The return trip, I didn't care so much since Xian is a much smaller airport. Well, somehow, I gambled correctly. How? The checkin lines were long as usual, so the business class counter was really cool, we got to use the VIP security line, took less than 2 minutes, and we got to relax in the lounge. Then, just as we were about to begin boarding at 4:00pm for our remote gate, a huge storm hits Beijing and the airport shuts down.

We go back to the Business Class Lounge and at least get to relax comfortably while we wait out the storm.

An hour later, the airport re-opens, but a huge queue of takeoffs and landings now has to be sorted out. We finally board around 6:00pm. There was a huge crowd at the gate pushing and shoving to get in line. We got to zip around and use the VIP line and were then escorted to a VIP bus rather than the regular bus. The tranquility of premium cabins, it was already starting to pay off! Our bus waits for the regular bus to leave, purposely waiting for the economy cabin to board the plane before leaving for the remote gate, this way, we could get on board peacefully. We arrive at the remote gate, and guess what, we're at the bottom of a jetway, go up an elevator, and enter the plane through the jetway. I'm thinking, now why couldn't they have just directed us to walk to that particular gate and go down the jetway as you normally would board an aircraft? Then I realized that the 767-300 was an international jet that had arrived from Singapore and was parked at the international gates, which is only accessible through emigration (yes, china actually has emigration control as well as immigration control unlike in the US where the govt could care less if you leave). So we board and only 4 of 26 seats are occupied in the business cabin while the First cabin had all 9 seats occupied. Guess what? We then find out that we are really far back in the takeoff queue and we have to stay at the gate for an undefined period of time. At least, it was nice to wait out the delay in the Business cabin rather than in the coach cabin. This cabin was actually quite similar to standard US Domestic First Class, nice but could be better.

I chatted with the FAs for quite a while, it turned out, I knew more about their planes than they did. They were quite impressed that I knew the plane we were flying on was due for retirement soon. We talked about the differences between the US and asian aviation industries. They were impressed that United had FA's going on 80 and still working! When they asked me what airline program I belonged to, I pointed to the United Jet next to us:

and might I add, one of the FAs was exceedingly cute. She served me my business class meal while on the ground and I kept engaging her in conversation (she was the business cabin FA and there wasn't much else for her to do so I kept both of us entertained ), I learned that she also had to work the return flight immediately after we would land in Xian and that the five hours of extra work that she had to do on the plane was all unpaid since Air China only pays according to what the official schedule says. She also served me some Chinese sandwiches, which didn't taste good at all, I didn't have the heart to tell her that I didn't like the sandwich (her service was so good!) so I just put it in my bag while she wasn't looking and threw it away later when I got off the plane.

Anyways, around 9:30pm, five hours late, we finally get on the runway and take off. I slept the whole 80 minutes of the flight. I didn't have lunch that day save for some instant noodles in the lounge and the business class dinner was simply a few slices of fruit, cookies, and nuts which I had while we were waiting out the delay. We get to Xian around 11:10pm and as we leave, I thank the crew for their service and patience and wish them well on the return leg (they put in like 6 hours of unpaid overtime that day, they wanted to leave more than we did, who wants to be trapped at work for six extra hours and not get paid?). We head to baggage claim and wait for my cousin's bag. Since we were in Business Class, her bag was tagged as "Star Alliance Priority" and it came out of the chute with lots of "Priority", so much that it was the LAST bag to come out! Yeah, so much "Priority" there, haha!

We head to the hotel and we're so tired, we skipped the dinner that we had previously planned and just retired for the night. Next morning, July 24th, we got up around 8am and she gets in touch with her boyfriend and arranges to have lunch with him and me around 11:30am that same day and afterwards, she and I would head to the terra cotta warriors exhibit. Just as we were about to leave, she received a text message from her mother informing us that my maternal side grandfather had suddenly passed away the night before. Just a few days ago, everything was fine and now he was gone. I spent the next two hours making phone calls to my relatives to verify that it was indeed true and didn't stop until I managed to get ahold of my parents and delivered the bad news to them. I thought about heading immediately for my grandmother's home but after consulting with my relatives, I decided to stay in Xian and stick to my original schedule. It was a thursday night in Austin where my parents were and after speaking to my father, we decided that they would go down to Houston the next morning to get an emergency visa and I would start looking for flights to leave that Saturday morning from Austin. Before leaving for lunch, I posted a thread on Flyertalk looking for tips on last minute travel, and received much advice, which I appreciated greatly.

At that point, I had done pretty much all I could do for the moment, so my cousin and I headed out for lunch with her boyfriend. My cousin is primarily related to me through my father's side, we share a common set of great grandparents, though she is also distantly related to me through my mother's side as well (3rd cousin once removed on that line) and my grandfather was also her first cousin three times removed, though they have never met before. (many families in china don't really keep track of relatives past 3 degrees unless the 3rd degree families happen to be good friends). We do our best to put the tragedy aside and try to enjoy our visit to the terra cotta warrior exhibit as best as we could.

The Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit was absolutely incredible. Before, I had only seen it on paper but now, I finally got to see it in person. I also learned that the statues were actually in color when they were first dug up but the colors would quickly fade in just 24 hours due to oxidation. Interesting...

We return to the hotel around 7pm and her boyfriend and her go out to have dinner. They invited me to go along but I declined figuring that I should go and check up on airfares and for advice from fellow FTs on how to purchase my mother a ticket to return to China on short notice. After several hours, I came up with a solution. Last October, I decided that I wanted to stockpile some AA miles in anticipation of using them for an intl First Class ticket to Hong Kong in 2010, so I signed up for the credit cards, dined with the rewards network, and took some inconvenient routings on domestic trips just to squeeze out all the miles I could get, about 112K by that point. Then, in April, AA announced the one-way award structure which I thought was really neat. However, the problem was AA only flew to Shanghai and I needed PEK and calling from China to the US was rather expensive. Enter, Skype! I originally did not plan on bringing my laptop to Xian but at the last minute, decided that I would. I was also lucky that the hotel had internet access in each room. Went online, purchased some Skype credit and called AA and managed to find just what I needed, a one way award from AUS to ORD to NRT to PEK leaving early Saturday morning. I knew my mother was facing a long bereavement trip and she was also looking at an overnight train trip from PEK to Datong, where all the relatives were, so I ignored her request for Economy and booked her in Business. This way, she could get some rest on the plane and not be as tired upon arrival. I was so glad that AA had started the one way awards, it was so nice to not worry about the return date. There was a $100 close in processing fee which I gladly paid. Upon ticketing, I then contacted my parents and told them that everything was taken care of as far as airfare was concerned. Now, I shifted my attention to getting her to Datong. Fortunately, we had a family friend in Beijing who was quite wealthy and I enlisted the friend to purchase an overnight train ticket and to pick her up from the airport and take her to the train station, so everything was all set now. I also noticed that my mother would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, July 26th about 15 minutes before I would, great timing! With everything taken care of and now really mentally exhausted, I ate the sandwich that my cousin brought me and went to bed.

The next day, my cousin's boyfriend took us to a waterfall in a nearby town. We had a lot of fun there, though I originally didn't plan on getting wet but ended up getting wet when I went to retrieve my cousin's shoe that got lost in the river and fell in accidentally. Since I was already wet, I didn't care anymore about staying dry and dove in and had some fun. Didn't really think much about how I would dry off later.

Afterwards, we head back and exhausted again, I head back to my room and start monitoring my mother's flights to make sure that everything was on time and to deal with any delays should any occur. Trying to find a way to dry off, I borrow a hairdryer from the hotel and start blow drying my clothes. It worked! Since we wouldn't be flying until 7:30pm the next night, I arranged to have a 6pm checkout at the hotel, which only costed me $10 USD for a half day rate (gotta love how the US Dollar converts to chinese yuan!)

The next day, July 26th, Sunday, that morning, I received a call from my uncle saying that the funeral was set for Monday morning and in an effort to get my mother and me there in time, he had sent a distant cousin of ours to drive to Beijing to pick us up straight from the airport since the trains would not arrive in Datong until 7am or so and my scheduled flight the next day would not get in until 8:30am. I immediately called our friend to cancel the previous plans and thanked her for all her efforts and promised to reimburse her for all expenses she incurred. The rest of the day, I just sit in the hotel checking up on my mother's flights and even while at the airport, I paid $6 USD for a drink, just so I could get on wi-fi to receive updates on my mother's flights and also to make sure the inbound of our flight was not delayed. We departed Xian on time and arrived in Beijing at 9:10pm (I originally picked the flight since Air China's intl configured planes have more legroom in economy), and my mother's flight arrived at about the same time. After coming out of the arrivals hall, I had some trouble finding my distant cousin picking us up but thank goodness for cell phones, with which we were able to use to find one another. We found my mother already outside waiting and together, we headed to the car and drove to my dad's apartment so I could pick up some things and my cousin stayed there for the night and headed home the next day (it was late and I didn't want her taking a taxi alone that late in Beijing). We arrived in Datong at around 4:30am and the entire family was there waiting for us. The funeral started at 5:30am and ended about five hours later. The whole process was a last minute project since my grandmother had already begun to move out of the apartment since the building was being torn down, and the tragedy just hit suddenly. Many of the relatives had not slept for days on end. We all knew that that particular day would be coming soon, my grandfather had had Alzheimer's disease for about five years already at that point and his memory had long since faded. I've only seen my grandparents (both sides) a handful of times and the last time I saw them all was nine years ago, and had hoped to see my grandfather one more time, though he would not have known who I was at all. It was not much fun in Datong, especially with the whole city being virtually torn down and rebuilt at the time and the excessive rain and pollution. It really was the lowlight of my trip by far. Another annoying thing I discovered was that the city was so low on water that no water was available except for meal times, I couldn't wait to get out of there. Before leaving, I did go see the giant budha just outside of Datong:

Basically, for Shanxi province, where Datong is, unless you have a reason to go there, it really is a place to avoid. It is by far one of China's worst provinces and is light years behind the modern marvels of Shanghai and Hong Kong. I would spend the next few days visiting my paternal side grandparents and also meet a few cousins that I have never met before which will be covered in the next part of this trip report.

Last edited by bniu; Sep 11, 09 at 2:15 am
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Old Aug 15, 09, 5:59 am
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It's now the last day of August and I arrive at my paternal side grandparents' house. One of my paternal side uncles drives me to Shuo Zhou (another small town in Shanxi where my dad's family lives). I also meet their daughter who I have never met before. Now, I've got one more first cousin i have yet to meet (and this one lives in Inner Mongolia). My grandparents here are in really bad physical condition, neither can really walk and they are more or less confined to their home. There wasn't a whole lot to do there, since I never really knew them all that well and it'd also been nine years and after factoring in the huge cultural divide, it was hard for them to understand how I go about things. I did see a few other relatives, mostly ones that I've seen extensively in the past, though I did meet a new one, who was a 2nd cousin through my paternal grandfather's side. She was just two weeks younger than me and a pretty decent student who has come a long way. Surprisingly, she is also good friends with my cousin from Beijing (they're not related, they just happen to be good friends from high school, though they do have me as a mutual 2nd cousin). The rest of my cousins who were school age were heavily involved in these summer classes where I found out from my aunt that it was just a repeat of what they'd learn in the fall. I hear that the Chinese school system is extremely inefficient and is largely ineffective, all the students seem to care about is their college entrance exam scores whereas in the US, sure our SATs matter, but they're not the end of the world...whereas in china, college entrance exams are the end of the world, i'm sure glad I grew up in the USA. I took a sidetrip to Pinglu, another small village where another cousin lived. I stayed there for a few hours before heading back to my grandparents' home.

While Pinglu and Shuo Zhou have improved greatly since the last time I was there, they still have a long way to go before they can even compare with the Beijing of 1960. It seems like there is no future for these places and hopefully most of my younger relatives can leave the area for more prosperous regions of China.

btw, I also learned that only a few of my relatives over 40 years old speak any Mandarin. They speak some local chinese dialect that sounds rather strange but is somewhat comprehensible to Mandarin speakers. The younger relatives that have gone through college speak much better Mandarin, which hopefully, will catch on more...

After a few days in Shuo Zhou, I head to Taiyuan via train. Thank goodness my iPhone kept me entertained the whole train ride.

I arrive in Taiyuan for two nights at another cousin's house. This cousin's son just recently got engaged and the fiance came by for dinner. I had to make a call and borrowed the finace's sim card, (since it was cheaper) and afterwards, forgot to switch back the sims. I got a call from the fiance's brother and suddenly realized that it was for her but being in a prankster kind of mood, I decided to answer the call in French. Now how many people in China speak French? I got some good entertainment at the fiance's brother's expense. I also went to visit my aunt (via marriage) and she took me in her car all over Taiyuan. I got to see her son (another cousin of mine) and had lunch with them as well as his cousin from another side. She then took me to WalMart to look around and later that night, took me to Pizza Hut for dinner. Her husband (my uncle) bought me a plane ticket back to Beijing the following morning, for which she was also nice enough to take me to the airport.

I fly out of Taiyuan, and there was a nice security line exclusively for Beijing passengers. The plane was an old Air China Boeing 737-300. While boarding, I had my Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headset on, which got a few jealous looks from the FA's, one of whom asked me where I bought it from. After some small talk, she offered to let me sit in the exit row aisle seat normally reserved for their safety officer, who wasn't flying that day for some reason. The flight lasted just 45 minutes and we arrived in Beijing and we pulled up to a real jetway surprisingly, considering my last two arrivals there had all been remote stands. I was so glad to be out of Shanxi. I met up with my cousin from beijing later that day for dinner at a really great Brazillian BBQ place, though we didn't eat too much since neither of us were hungry. I saw my dad that night, he had just returned from America the previous day, and was leaving for Datong to join my mother the next morning. I had just 5 days left in Beijing, now what to do? I did get my original Beijing to Datong air ticket refunded for a cancellation penalty of just $5 USD! a strange twist coming up in the next part of this epic trip report!

Last edited by bniu; Jun 28, 20 at 4:44 pm
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Old Aug 15, 09, 6:00 am
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I had originally planned to stay in China a bit longer but due the tragedy in my mother's family, now both of my parents were in China and my 15 year old sister was back in Austin staying with friends. Now I kinda had to head home. I was not looking forward to the PEK-SFO-LAX-ORD-AUS routing and wanted to simplify it but that would cost $150 to change the ticket. I pretty much spent all of Sunday Aug 9 looking at possible trip combinations since if I was going to pay $150 in change fees, I may as well have some fun with the ticket and optimize it. I then remembered the cousin from Shanghai who I had forgotten about on my previous trip. Determined to find a chance to see her, I decided that I was going to Shanghai, at least for a day, just for the purpose of seeing her and meeting her new husband. I looked at tickets and they were all going at full fare rates of $150 USD each way. An idea popped up in my head, if I'm going to be paying $150 to get down to shanghai, and $150 to get back to Beijing, and $150 to simplify my ticket, why don't I see if I can just leave China from Shanghai and not have to pay $150 to fly back to Beijing? I looked and sure enough, there was award availability for PVG-ORD on Aug 11, but nothing that could get me back to Austin on the 11th, so I opted to retain my ORD-AUS segment from my original itinerary, figuring I could attempt to standby at ORD and if I was successful, go home a day early, if not, spend a day in Chicago. Win Win situation there. I call United over Skype and have my ticket changed to leave on Aug 11 from Shanghai to Chicago and I call my uncle to book me a ticket from PEK to PVG for the 10th. This works out perfectly, I get to leave a day early, and see my cousin. The change fee was a wash since it would've costed me the same to keep my original itinerary but have to fly back to PEK. So, on Aug 10th, one more Air China Domestic Flight:

Air China Flight 934
Airbus A340, PEK-PVG
Seat 31C, Economy Class

There was a bit drama at the airport as they gave me the wrong boarding pass and tagged my bag with the wrong name (another pax had the same last name as me) and I had to spend a few extra minutes at the service counter getting them to correct their mistake. While waiting in line, I ran into a couple who happened to go to UC Berkeley, my alma mater that I had just graduated from this past spring. They were a few rows behind me. The A340 is a four engined intl configured aircraft that had arrived from Paris, France, so we had to do the remote gate bus to the intl jetway since we couldn't access the boarding gate where the aircraft was docked as it was behind emigration control. I chose the A340 because intl configured jets do have some extra legroom in Economy. This was also the first time I've been on an A340 and the first time since 2001 that I've been on a quad-jet (not counting the air force one 707 display at the Reagan library in simi valley). We are served chinese sandwiches for an afternoon snack which was rather bland. Once we arrive in Shanghai, we taxi by an American Airlines 777 serving as flight 288 taking off for Chicago. We park at the remote stand and have to get bussed into the baggage claim area. That's the problem with intl configured jets in China, you almost always have to use remote stands for immigration control purposes. I grab my bags and outside, I am greeted by my cousin (2nd cousin once removed to be exact) and her husband. We stay at a local hotel and we have dinner together, it was great since he was taiwanese, we were able to talk some baseball, a sport we've both played before. After dinner, I go and surf the net a bit and then retire for the night and get ready to leave for Chicago the next day!

Tuesday August 11, 2009
The trip will come to a close today. I arrived at the airport about an hour before check in for Chicago was to start. They were still checking in the SFO flight and I tried to check in early but they told me that they couldn't because the baggage handlers were not ready to accept checked bags for the Chicago flight. They said if I had only carry ons, they could possibly make an exception. Oh well, didn't hurt to ask. I then decided to walk around the airport terminals to waste some time, which seemed rather drab for an international gateway airport, especially compared to Beijing's Terminal 3. Once the 12:30pm check in time rolled around, I headed to the First Class check in line, which consisted of just me! A few economy passengers came to line up in this line, so I politely pointed out to them that this was the first class line and they should get into their line while it was still short. I figured, they didn't know what each line was for, and it was better to point it out to them so they could get back into the still relatively short economy line rather than wait for the check in agent to send them to the back of the economy line, which will have gotten longer...

I was glad I wasn't in that economy line, which stretched quite far. If I ever fly economy, I'll make dang sure that I'm a 1K before I do it (which would at least entitle me to business class check in, also, not too bad plus lounge access). Actually, the business class person beside me got checked in first, but who's counting? I get checked in quickly and head to emigration, which was fast and painless. Then, the First Class security. No line, no pressure, took my time, it went all easy! Next, time to hunt for the lounge. I somehow ended up in the Cathay Pacific OneWorld Lounge, and they redirected me to the Shanghai Airlines Star Alliance Lounge. I get to the Star Lounge and go in, and am directed to the First Class section, though I did get some strange looks when I said I wanted to take a look at the Business Class side, which they did let me, but I quickly headed for the First Class side after a look. I had a nice brunch and some wine in the lounge and even took a shower, which was extremely refreshing.
Anyways, here's some pics of the Shanghai Airlines Star Alliance First Class Lounge:


Shower Suite

While eating, I saw the incoming aircraft for my flight landing on the runway. I think it was the first time I've recognized the inbound aircraft for my outgoing flight. Another thing that was interesting was where it was parked, it was in a row with a Continental Airlines 777, a Delta Airlines 777, and an American Airlines 777. Made me forget for a moment that I was still in China.

Boarding is announced for our flight, flight 836 and I start to head down to the gate area, walking around the economy line and using the premium line:

At the gate, there are security personnel who ask us to empty our drinks, saying that those cannot be taken onboard. Not seeing much logic in their request but also not wanting to create a ruckus, I just handed them my unopened diet coke can. Anyways, walking down the jetway, here's our plane:

and I will be sitting in Seat 1A, at the very front of the plane, even further ahead of the pilots!

I board at the door and immediately turn left into the nose of the Boeing 747-400! FIRST CLASS!

Now, this is still the old config, one of four 747s that have yet to be converted but I don't mind, I actually like the old config. I can always fly on the new config in the future.

I head to the flight deck to take a look, and I've also never been to the upper deck of a United 747 before, only been in coach. The pilots ask me where I'm sitting and I told them that I was sitting forward of them in seat 1A downstairs. They let me sit in the captain's chair for a photo:

I wanted to sit a bit longer but there were other people waiting in line so I thanked the pilots, got up, and took a peek at their sleeping bunk, which looked really neat. I then take a quick photo from row 15, the seat that I've been trying really hard to get for 17 years but this time, I overshot it and ended up in First Class.

The FA asked me if I was sitting on the UD and I said that I wished I was since I've been trying to get to the upper deck for years but I ended up in First Class this time. She said I could always trade with someone if I really wanted to but I declined, figuring, not many people get to sit in the nose of the Boeing 747 either. I jokingly told the couple in Row 15 that I've been trying to get those seats for years and almost got it this time but with my luck, got sent to First Class instead.

For the requisite pre-flight drinks, I asked for a champagne, FA was a bit iffy about my age so I just pulled out my passport to prove my age to her, some ppl may get offended by this, it didn't bother me, especially since my passport was in my pocket at the time. I didn't finish it in time for takeoff but oh well. I store my bags in the locker between Seat 1A and 1J. 1J happened to be empty as well so I used the seat as my "extra" seat.

We were soon rolling down the runway and I bid China farewell after 41 good days. About an hour into the flight, the dinner service starts but I wasn't too hungry so I asked the FA to just take my order but to bring it by later after I had had a nap, which she happily obliged. Three hours into the flight, I decide to take my meal and the "personal" service starts:

Mixed Nuts:




Main Course:



Ice Cream Sundae:

And my dinner Entertainment: King of Queens, just gotta love Jerry Stiller!

And I also have two glasses of white wine and a glass of Port Dessert wine as well. This dinner took well over two hours to eat as it was so much!

Rest of the flight, I do some reading, watch some more King of Queens, chat with the FAs, wander around the plane (yes, walked all the way to the back of coach twice!) and even wandered back up to the upper deck twice.

Prior to landing, we were served lunch, I opted for the pizza and sat in seat 1J for the lunch service:

Soon after we arrived and went through immigration and customs, I try to standby for the flight with the Terminal 5 agents just outside customs but they were of no help, and didn't really understand the Arrivals Lounge Procedure. I then figured that I would have to stay in Chicago for a day but still wanted to go utilize the Arrivals Lounge. I went to Terminal 1 went to the First Class check in line. I explained to the agent that I would like to try to get on the standby list, mostly to get my checked bag checked so that I could go inside and utilize the Arrivals Lounge. She told me that she wasn't supposed to do it but she did sense that I wanted to go to the Arrivals Lounge and so she took my checked bag and told me it was going to Austin that night, regardless if I was on the plane or not, which I said was fine since all there was inside was a pile of dirty clothes. She gave me a Departure Management card which got me through security. I didn't really care about standing by, I just wanted to shower in the arrivals lounge. I go back to the International First Lounge that I had previously visited on the way out and am greeted by the front desk receptionist who already has my info on the list. He invites me to take a shower, which I graciously accept. I head to the shower room and get to have a nice soothing shower!

After the shower, the agent invites me to sit down in the lounge and enjoy some free food while I was waiting for my standby flight. I grab some snacks:

and make a dinner out of it, free dinner on United Airlines!

As my standby flight time comes closer, it looks like I may have a small shot at getting on, but I didn't really want to bother waiting at the gate and a side trip to Chicago sounded awfully appealing so I asked them if I could use their computers to make a hotel reservation. They handed me a weather delay slip and tell me to call the hotel consolidator that they use when they have weather related delays for passengers. I wasn't even delayed and they gave it to me! I used it to book a night at the Hilton Hotel right inside the airport for $119, a bit pricey but awfully convenient!

The IFL agents then offers to confirm me on the 8:40am flight to AUS the next morning but I declined, saying that if I was going to stay a night in Chicago, I may as well go see the city, which I have never been to before despite being born close by Chicago. The IFL agents then make a few suggestions as to what I can do in Chicago and even advise me about the subway train that runs 24/7 into the city from ORD. I couldn't believe it but my wish had come true! Get delayed in ORD so I can go see Chicago!!! I could use one more vacation! I will cover my Chicago mini-vacation in the final part of this trip report.

Last edited by bniu; Sep 11, 09 at 2:24 am
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Old Aug 15, 09, 6:00 am
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Aug 11th, 8:00pm, I decided to head out to Chicago and see what all the Hoopla is all about. I went to the Millennium Park area and the Chicago river to take in the sights, and even wandered over to Buckingham Fountain.

Millennium Park:

Chicago River:

Chicago is a really beautiful city, though it may seem a bit dangerous at night. I started to walk towards the Sears Tower but figured that I had seen enough and it was time to call it a night.

The next morning, Aug 12, I stayed in the Hotel until 10:30am, taking care of some business, and then, I check out of my room, leave my carry on bag in storage at the hotel and head back out to Chicago. First stop, Navy Pier:

I had no idea that Navy Pier was an amusement park, it kinda reminded me of the Boardwalk in Monterrey, California. Great place to walk through though I didn't buy anything. I took a Water Taxi from the Navy Pier to the magnificent mile. Here's a pic of the southern end:

This farmer couple represents the roots of Chicago back to the days of Chicago being a large farm hub. At the north end of the mile, I run into the John Hancock Tower:

I could have gone up but I've been in enough tall buildings that I really didn't feel like going up and I've seen the Chicago skyline plenty of times from the plane (I connect at ORD regularly). After walking back to the south end, I return to Millennium Park to take some pictures of the Cloud Gate:

I felt the Cloud Gate was the most interesting piece that I saw in Chicago. After the Cloud Gate, I wandered over to the Crown Fountain:

I got to see many kids just splashing around in the fountain, having the time of their lives. I thought it was cool that it looked like the water jet was coming out of the person's mouth.

I then return to the Chicago River to take the water taxi to the Sears Tower. Again, I opted not to go up and just took some pictures from below.

I was quite exhausted by this point and headed to a Starbucks to rest for about 45 minutes before taking the subway back to O'Hare and the Hilton to grab my bag. My bag weighed 25 pounds and it was a pain lugging it around, so I headed to First Class check in and have that bag checked as well, since I was entitled to two bags total. Priority Security was a breeze and I was back in the ORD terminal, heading to the Commuter terminal in Concourse F. We were delayed about 45 minutes but I didn't find the delay that much of an inconvenience.

I was quite happy, I finally got to see the city of Chicago and got a cheap mini-vacation out of it. The mileage ticket from ORD to AUS was essentially free since I had already flown on the segment that mattered, PVG-ORD. Now returning home:

August 12, 2009
United Express Flight 7135 Operated by Mesa Airlines
Seat 1A, First Class

Coming off of International First Class, First Class on this plane was a complete letdown. No pre-departure drinks, just a simple snackbox served in First, I opted to take home a sealed box rather than having it opened. The lady behind me told me she voluntarily got bumped from another flight onto this one, and figured that a 4 hour wait was worth the chance to sit in First Class initially, but she found out quickly that it wasn't really First Class, more like E++. After true International First Class, CRJ First Class does not do the name "First Class" any justice. I didn't bother with any pictures on this flight, it was a free commuter First Class flight, nothing special, nothing to get excited about, nothing to write home about. I arrive in Austin and grab my bag off the carousel and grab my bag that had been checked on the previous night's flight. I head to the parking lot, where I find my dad's car and drive it home. Home at Last!!!

Last edited by bniu; Aug 15, 09 at 9:55 pm
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Old Aug 15, 09, 6:54 am
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Nice report thus far! Can't wait for the rest!
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Old Aug 15, 09, 10:07 am
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Nice reading so far---I've never done an international first class either.
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Old Aug 15, 09, 12:01 pm
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Great read so far ^ Keep it up! I've always wanted to visit China
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Old Aug 15, 09, 1:00 pm
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Great report!

keep it coming. This is a great read!
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Old Aug 15, 09, 6:24 pm
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I think this is the best trip report for United F I've ever read.
The pictures are lovely - well done! You actually made their food look quite nice!

Now that you have done F class overseas, things will never be the same......

Save some of those miles for SQ or perhaps ANA in the future.
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Old Aug 15, 09, 7:12 pm
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Great report! Interesting reading about some of the internal flights. Oh, and your cousin is hot.
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Old Aug 15, 09, 7:16 pm
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Ummmmm..... are you sure you're old enough to fly?
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Old Aug 15, 09, 7:24 pm
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Great report ^
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Old Aug 15, 09, 11:11 pm
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Good read! Glad you enjoyed your CN trip!

Originally Posted by bniu View Post
The next night, I went on a cruise with the conference's group along the river in Shanghai. We saw much of the Shanghai skyline, the same skyline that I'd seen 11 years ago.
Are you sure the skyline was the same as 11 years ago
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