Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Worked, What Didn't

As we embark on the next stage of our travels, I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things—equipment, travel strategies, experiences—that worked and also on some of those that didn't during our six months of independent travel in Asia and the Pacific. Our travels included considerable trekking and hiking, and thus some of the equipment we carried. Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts:

Our SteriPen—a UV water-purification system for backpacking—worked great, both in developing countries and on trails. These devices are not well known, and often caused a stir when we brought it out to use. But we swear by it and are carrying it to Europe. Relatively light-weight, too.

Buzz-Off clothing. We bought a couple outfits each, at some expense. In our view, Buzz-Off doesn't work beyond a few washings and does not justify the expense. The bugs light and bite. We covered up and used DEET.

Vasque boots. I bought a pair of medium weight hiking boots, admittedly more for fit and style. Vasque is a well-known name in backpacking and hiking. But these boots did nor hold up. A month in Nepal, on generally excellent trails, and they needed to be re-glued as well as re-sewn. The re-gluing and re-sewing were needed a couple months later in Queenstown. I won't buy any more Vasque boots. (I am currently wearing some older Raichles; the best hiking boots I ever owned were Merrill's. And I still have my original Colin Fletcher-recommended Pivetta Eiger one-piece Italian leather boots from 1971, re-soled twice and still functional (but very heavy)).

FootPrint guides to New Zealand worked. Excellent, informative, reliable. Also the AAA spiral guide to China. We'll be using the AAA spiral for Ireland too.

Chopsticks. In Chongqing and in Chengdu we saw spoons at every table setting, in addition to the chopsticks. Why not go the other 50% and include forks? I ask. The Chinese themselves estimate some 45 million trees are cut down annually for chopsticks.

My Tilley Lightweight Mesh hat: the gold standard of travel/adventure hats.

Wheeled luggage. Several sites or blogs we visited recommended against wheeled luggage, since it's not so useful off-pavement. Most of the time we carried the big pieces, however, it was just from the baggage claim to the taxi or bus; and then from the taxi or bus to the hotel or hostel. The times wheels would have been great far outnumbered the times they would not have worked. Our Osprey wheeled piece was great; we often wished we had two of them.

My little Asus 900 eee computer worked flawlessly. At 2 lbs, it is the perfect travel laptop. The SSD drive is small—only 20 gigs on the version I converted from Linux to Windows. But that's an issue only with pix, and we put them on an iPod, which functions just fine for the bigger storage.

Blogger was just fine for effortless, intuitive blogging.

Asian airlines, in China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, all were great, new, efficient, competent. Only the Twin Otters that Yeti flies to Lukla seemed sub-standard, and the airfield there dictates the kind of craft used. The airlines we flew—some 35-40 flights—never lost nor damaged our luggage, they were with one cancellation always on time or early departures and arrivals, and they fed us some very good food, normally with both Asian and Euro-American options. Oh yes, there was the matter of the airport closure in Thailand, for nearly 2 weeks, but that was hardly the airlines' fault.

A strategy that worked for us was to buy local flights locally. The half dozen flights we made in China would have cost far more if booked in the US. The Chinese have sites just like Expedia and its competitors.

Train travel in China and India turned out fine, but would have been difficult for us to book.

Our Circle Asia passes with United Airlines worked fine. We had done considerable reading and research on the merits of consolidator tickets versus the circle fares, and opted for the latter. They worked and were less risky and expensive.

Four sets of clothes—all quick-drying—were ample. Of course, we carried additional cold-weather garments for trekking. Three pairs of shoes also were adequate, one for hiking, one closed-toes Keens for comfort/warm weather, and a pair of flip-flops for the showers, beaches, and creek crossings.

Our camera, a Panasonic DMC-TZ5 Lumix, was great, an excellent compromise between weight and quality. Our only complaint is that it took so very few bad pictures to delete! Our Asia/Pacific pix occupy 35 gigs of staorage. To download, edit and post pix, we simply inserted the camera's SD card into the Asus computer.

For our kind of travel and communications, Skype was indispensable. We carried a cost-per-minute Mobal World Phone for emergency use, but never once used it. We're still carrying it though.

Vicki's Sony E-Book Reader was a major disappointment. Sony claims you can keep it charged through your computer, but, in fact, if you let it get too low, it requires an AC adaptor, which is not included in the regular purchase. Vicki's E-Book indeed got too low (in Nepal, India), and despite adaptors bought in Thailand and Australia, never re-charged. It was useless baggage for most of the 6 months. Sony subsequently replaced the unit for a $40 charge.

Beware electronics purchases in Bangkok. Once you get the wrapper off, you're likely to find it is a refurbished model that still doesn't work.

We did a number of one-day excursions and hired local guides. These were uniformly good and often got us to places we could not have gotten to ourselves. (See my post at the end of India, November, 2008, for our arrangements and guides in India).

On the Everest trek, we felt like we did it the right way, hiring only locally, both guide and porter, and not joining a larger tour. With the larger tours, we suspect, little of one's money gets to the locals. See my post at the end of the Everest trek.

Although we enjoyed it, we felt the Yangtze cruise was not worth the expense and time. You cruise by half the scenery at night. Duh. And it's not that spectacular.

Next time, we'll take a day cruise on Milford Sound rather than kayak. One sees relatively little of the fiord's 20 miles from a kayak.

The Kalalau trail on Kauai was a disappointment and a disgrace.

Of the tramps we did in New Zealand, the Abel Tasman was the best. The Rob Roy Glacier was the best day hike we have ever done anywhere. Among the NZ “Great Walks,” only the Milford absolutely requires advance reservations.

September in China is very hot and humid...the “Autumn Tiger.” And in the Gulf of Thailand, the monsoon lasts well into November.

In Cambodia, we saw only Siem Reap and Angor Wat, but loved it all.

From Australia on, we spent a good number of nights in “backpackers” and hostels. At least in that part of the world, hostels are no longer for the gap-year set. The “grey nomads,” including us, are now a substantial part of tourism and are as often to be found in hostels as younger people. We wish other parts of the world featured budget travel and tourism so prominently.

Local beer is always cheaper, and often better, than the imported stuff. It was often cheaper than bottled water. Local hard liquor is often cheaper, but not so good. Forget the wines until you get to Australia and particularly New Zealand.

PS...a year later; Vicki asks I add Dukoral as something that worked. The two cases of intestinal distress we had were more on the order of food poisoning; generally we had no traveler's diarrhea nor like symptoms, despite diverse places visited, etc; I'd have to say our other meds worked too (e.g., the altitutde sickness stuff and the anti-malarial stuff) at least to the extent we didn't get any of those maladies. FWIW.

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