Turboprop coast to coast to coast with youngsters

A friend wanted to be dropped off in Bend, Oregon and not witness the inevitable mask disputes of commercial airline travel. We loaded up the extra seats with family members for the following route:

  • KBED (Boston area)
  • KGYY (Chicago)
  • KRAP (Mt. Rushmore)
  • KBDN (Bend, Oregon)
  • KHWD (San Francisco area)
  • KBVU (Las Vegas)
  • KBWG (Bowling Green, Kentucky)
  • KGAI (Washington, D.C.)
  • KBED

It was an 11-day trip total and my main take-away is that this is too short if the goal is to show children the United States. Even with a reasonably fast airplane, three weeks would make more sense and be a better use of dinosaur blood and CO2 footprint.

Late fall weather in the U.S. is pretty ugly. On a lot of days roughly half the country was covered with airmets for turbulence and icing and the occasional sigmet for severe turbulence or thunderstorms. Morning of our departure from Boston (ignore the route):

We spent three days getting out to Oregon in order to avoid surface winds gusting up to 48 knots in South Dakota. We left Bend a day earlier than planned in order to avoid strong winds and severe turbulence. We stayed an extra day in San Francisco for the same reason. We departed Las Vegas a day earlier than planned in order to avoid forecast thunderstorms and snow over the Rockies. The Pilatus PC-12 is a good airplane, but we would have needed a plane capable of cruising at FL430 or FL450 (e.g., Phenom 300) to avoid the turbulence and travel in guaranteed comfort on a fixed schedule.

The boys are 5 and almost 7. Their firsts in Chicago:

  • International Style (we did a walking architecture tour)
  • A Picasso sculpture used for skateboarding (why hasn’t Picasso been canceled and the sculptures/paintings sold to the Chinese and Russians?)
  • A massive Chagall mosaic
  • The Art Institute, especially the miniature rooms and arms/armor
  • A protest (“Trump/Pence Out Now!”)

(Central Camera, boarded up after losing $1 million in inventory during the BLM protests:


Firsts in Rapid City, South Dakota:

  • seeing Mt. Rushmore
  • meeting some Native Americans (other than Elizabeth Warren)
  • seeing the statues of U.S. presidents all around downtown (Gerald Ford was a big favorite because his statute includes a dog)
  • staying at the historic Alex Johnson hotel
  • breakfast at Black Hills Bagels

Speaking of President Ford, the hotel puts him right next to Gene Simmons of Kiss on the wall of famous guests:

In Bend, Oregon:

  • seeing snow-covered Rocky Mountains (from the plane)
  • Walking up Pilot Butte and along the Deschutes River
  • Mercedes crew car
  • Mount Shasta (way out)

We coincidentally parked said crew car right in front of a candy store!

In San Francisco:

  • Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge crossings
  • Urban sea lions (Pier 39)
  • Redwood trees (Muir Woods)
  • Pacific Ocean (Cliff House)
  • Bison herd (Golden Gate Park)
  • Conservatory (Golden Gate Park)
  • Science Museum
  • gauntlet of hundreds of homeless lining both sides of the street as in a Zombie movie (near the Bay Bridge ramps)
  • SFO and San Mateo (visit to 6-month old cousin)
  • Nob Hill (Mark Hopkins hotel)
  • Union Square (crazy guy screaming continuously)
  • Ferry Building
  • Transamerica Pyramid
  • the highest peaks in the Lower 48 (e.g., Mt. Whitney)

Firsts in Las Vegas:

  • Hoover Dam
  • Bellagio Fountains
  • Bellagio Conservatory
  • High Roller Ferris wheel (world’s tallest!)
  • Red Rock Canyon
  • dinner at Andy and Tina’s (playing the Otamatone, making cotton candy from Jolly Rancher)
  • Animatronic Ratatouille scene at the ARIA pastry shop. Also a house built entirely of sugar and a Henry Moore sculpture (of brief interest by comparison!)
  • The Halo water vortex sculpture at the Crystals mall
  • 800-pound chocolate Statue of Liberty at New York, New York
  • ancient hieroglyphics at Luxor
  • a Komodo dragon at Shark Reef
  • pizza restaurant dedicated to Evel Knievel
  • the Fremont Street Experience
  • In n Out Burger
  • Trump International Hotel
  • Wynn garden
  • Venetian canals (“What news on the Rialto?”) and St. Mark’s Square (improved with handrails!)
  • the best of Paris
  • ancient Rome (Caesar’s Palace)
  • Statue/memorial to Siegfried and Roy (who survived Montecore’s teeth, but died at age 75 from Covid-19)

We had planned to stop at the Grand Canyon, which is blessed with a beautiful airport. However, the shuttle and taxi services are both run by government contractors and they’ve elected to shut down #UntilTheresACure. No rental cars are available. No crew cars are available. We did fly over the Zuni Corridor at 11,500′, though:

In Bowling Green:

  • National Corvette Museum (the sinkhole collapse simulator was a huge hit!)
  • White Castle
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Stalagmites and Stalactites in (Diamond Caverns)
  • “truck on truck” (5-year-old’s coinage)

When they grow up they’ll be asking “What voltage came out of those pumps?”

On a three-week trip we could have relaxed a bit more in Vegas, driven to/from the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, stopped in Colorado, stopped in St. Louis and/or Kansas City, stopped in New York City.

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Trump International Hotel Las Vegas review

One of our young customers got it into his head that we should stay in Bellagio. We indulged him for two nights and enjoyed some of the architecture, e.g., the Conservatory, but the hotel felt crowded despite a 50 percent occupancy limit imposed by the state’s COVID-19 mandarins (subsequently reduced to 25 percent). Lines developed at the breakfast restaurant, for example, and it wasn’t practical to keep a 6′ distance from others when navigating from the parking lot to the room. (Partly this was due to the Swedish MD/PhD prediction that humans wearing masks feel invulnerable to coronaplague.) The air was always a bit stale/smoky. The kids were exposed to scenes of gambling every time we wanted to go out and do anything.

The Trump hotel, by contrast, is all non-smoking and there is no casino. It is conveniently located about one block off the Strip abeam the Wynn. There is a good restaurant in the lobby (“DJT”) with reasonable prices and also a shopping mall across the street with a bunch of additional dining options. We got a corner suite on the 53rd floor. Senior Management: “The bathroom here is as big as our entire room at the Bellagio.” (It was finished with enough marble to entomb a communist leader.)

Our suite had a full kitchen (Wolf, Bosch, Sub-Zero appliances; they must have gotten a screaming deal when buying hundreds of these!), but the plates, silverware, and pots had been removed due to local COVID-19 restrictions.

Valet parking is included.

If you’re a light sleeper, be aware that the hotel is close to some train tracks and heavy/noisy freight trains roll by periodically. (But they’re mostly carrying coal, so President Harris and AOC will put a stop to these soon?) On the plus side, the bed and linens are both top-of-the-line. The photo below shows the train, a sex shop, and a marijuana dispensary (though, as with San Francisco, the sidewalks are now so empty that you might need to buy your own marijuana if you want to get high).

As at other Trump hotels, the staff is superb. We had a great breakfast at lower-than-Bellagio prices and, unlike at Bellagio, the servers got our order precisely correct.

The pool is huge, open longer hours than the casino pools (7a-6p in mid-November during our visit), heated to 80-85, and blessed with open southern exposure for nearly the entire day. It is a perfect late fall/early spring pool. The gym was large, well-equipped, and empty.

Depending on your politics/religion, the strongest or weakest spot might be the lobby’s “Trump Store” with Trump logo items (suitable for wearing in most of America’s counties, if not in the big cities where bigger government tends to spend taxpayer funds). For the Age of Coronapanic, the WiFi is also a weak spot. It seems to be provisioned at 70 Mbps download, but only 3 Mbps upload, a marginal speed at best for video conferencing.

Summary: An almost-perfect hotel in Las Vegas. It would be nicer with outdoor balconies for each room (only a handful of Vegas hotels have these, which is a shame considering the wonderful shoulder season climate) and with a higher WiFi upload speed for Zoom/FaceTime/etc.

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Vegas casinos implement some of my coronaplague ideas

As readers of this blog may recall, I’m a big enthusiast for reengineering our environment so as to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses such as coronaplague:

One thing that I’ve been wondering for months is that, with $trillions allocated for dealing with coronaplague, why we don’t see handwashing sinks appear in more places.

Where is my dream alive? Based on a recent visit… Las Vegas! There are now sinks in the middle of the casino. Wave don’t push to open the doors. From the ARIA:

Instead of impressing by valet parking our rented Dodge Journey, we had to self park it almost everywhere.

Supposedly casinos were limited to 50 percent occupancy during our visit (just recently cut to 25 percent), but most felt uncomfortably packed. People proved the Swedish MD/PhDs correct: told that masks will prevent coronaplague, they ignore the 6′ social distance directive (and 7′ is the new 6′, according to the overhead projections on Fremont Street; see below and note that folks who confront Covid-19 at 350 lbs. or more can eat for free at the Heart Attack Grill).

Also from Fremont Street, the Main Street casino where whatever you lose goes to Wall Street and the California casino where presumably you’re funding retired public employees…

One positive for Vegas in the Age of Coronapanic is that one’s eyeglasses tend not to fog up when wearing a mask. Dry and hot is apparently perfect!

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Coronavirus will breathe life into my two-thirds-full airline idea?

David St. Hubbins: “It’s such a fine line between stupid.”

My idea for an airline that wouldn’t sell its middle seats was greeted with derision back in December 2019. Apparently it was on the “stupid” side of the fine line.

If people won’t support the idea in the name of comfort, speed of boarding/unloading, and overall efficiency, maybe fear of death will make the proposal look better?

A coach seat with a guaranteed empty middle seat provides even more separation from a potentially disease-ridden fellow passenger than a first class seat, right? How is that not worth 50 percent more in the coronavirus age? Set a minimum pitch comparable to JetBlue’s Extra Room seats and everyone can travel again for a reasonable price, with reasonable protection from contagion, a lot faster (total time, including boarding), and with a lot less stress from Fall of Saigon-style lines at the gate. (Throw in a free N95 mask for each passenger as soon as the supply chain returns to normal.)

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Baha Mar hotels in Nassau

Sick of the cold weather yet?

On a no-plans-in-advance island-hopping trip around the Bahamas everyone we asked for a hotel recommendation in Nassau said “Baha Mar”. The good folks at the Odyssey FBO have a corporate rate with the Hyatt Baha Mar so that’s where we ended up.

The Chinese-built complex is the newest development in Nassau and everything sparkles. Staff members at all of the hotels are friendly and competent.

Budget at least $100 per day per person for food within the complex. Restaurants are good, but everything is about 2X the price of what it would cost in a big U.S. city. Restaurants are crowded at dinner. We had trouble getting a table for two at 7:30 pm on a Thursday.

The epic breakfast buffet is worth it, though Michael Bloomberg would not approve of all of the dessert items available:

A taxi downtown is a fixed $18 for two passengers. There are no independent restaurants within walking distance. There is no Uber in the Bahamas.

There are a fair number of activities within the resort, including a twice-daily flamingo walk, a fountain show every 30 minutes, and a marine animal sanctuary containing sea turtles, sharks, rays, fish, etc.

When the massive hotels are full, the pools are busy and not relaxing. The Rosewood hotel is within the complex, but has its own private pools that are much quieter. If traveling with children, one big issue is that the pools close at 6 pm (maybe later in the summer months?). What are the kids going to do from 6 pm until bedtime? Play the slots?


The beach is reasonably sheltered and the water is calm, though perhaps not as calm as in Provo (Turks and Caicos).

The gym seems to be shared among all of the hotels and it is huge and blessed with water views.

If you need to get work done or just enjoy Skype with friends around the world, the Chinese-financed and Chinese-built Baha Mar offers a Chinese level of WiFi: at least 75 Mbits symmetric everywhere that I tested and usually a bit more.

The Rainbow Flag Religion is weak here:

Competition: we had wanted to stay in Atlantis, but all of the Bahamians warned us against it. “It need to be renovated” and “It is run down” were typical comments. We hopped in a taxi to Paradise Island (formerly “Hog Island”) and were awed by the lobby of the Atlantis. Public WiFi clocked in at 0.82 Mbits (1/100th the speed of Baha Mar) and then failed altogether. There are herds of cruise ship passengers who come here on tours. To keep them from wandering too far, there are security people everywhere challenging people (most of whom seemed like obvious guests, e.g., with nothing but flipflops and a towel) to see proof of hotel guest status. An adjacent marina has some impressive superyachts and signs telling people not to go anywhere near them (ignored by the Chinese tourists). My friend was unimpressed with the Atlantis: “even the chairs in the casino look old.” The lagoon was deserted.

The veneer of luxury and wealth on Paradise Island is thin. Right across the street is a strip mall with a downscale casino, a grocery store with canned goods, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Farther to the east is the Ocean Club, run by the Four Seasons. This is a small expensive hotel with a single pool, which was fairly crowded. On a day when the Baha Mar beach was nicely sheltered and perfect for swimming, the Ocean Club beach was hanging a “caution” flag and the water was rough. It is a great place for lunch and probably a great place to stay if you want to get away from the crowds (but, if so, why not simply stay on one of the “out islands”?).

Conclusion: the locals seem to be right about the Baha Mar complex being the best place to stay in and around Nassau. However, you have to want to be in a city-sized development (2,200 rooms) that seems to be quite full even slightly off peak. Imagine a huge cruise ship that never leaves the dock. If you want to be in a smaller scale lower-rise hotel and enjoy a perfect beach, consider flying an extra 30 minutes to Turks and Caicos (Provo).

Separately, as here in Massachusetts, the construction of casinos is encouraged. Unlike in Massachusetts, however, it is illegal for a local to gamble:

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Cruise ships in the time of plague

Even if coronavirus isn’t a serious statistical risk from being on a cruise ship, I wonder if the public health response will trim the sails (so to speak) of the hitherto unstoppable industry.

Consider the passengers on the Diamond Princess in Japan. Best case for the healthy ones is to be stuck at the dock for 14 days, mostly in their tiny cabins. From NPR:

On the ship, passengers — including some who had already spent two weeks aboard the vessel before the quarantine doubled their stay — are told not to leave their rooms. They visit the deck in shifts, for a rare breath of fresh air.

But there could be days of quarantine after a scare, right? So if you book a cruise from Date X to Date Y you won’t have any guarantee of getting back to work, family, and other commitments.

Does this prove the old adage that being on a boat is like being in prison, except that you can’t drown in prison?


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A philosophy of travel

Destination Earth: A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler, by Nicos Hadjicostis, describes what the author learned during a 6.5-year trip around the world.

As you might expect from selection bias (he traveled for 6.5 years while others did not), he’s an enthusiast:

The Chinese proverb “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books” is more pertinent than ever. For the experiences gained by travel are pulsating and permeated by the breath of human experience and interaction. Book knowledge helps us obtain a basic understanding of subjects and categorize them; it moves in one dimension. Travel is multidimensional: It connects the various branches of human knowledge that are held isolated in unconnected mental compartments; it gives flesh and bones to the world’s nations; it introduces us to new sounds and smells and an infinite variety of circumstances. Travel is not only the Ultimate University but also the only one that is alive!

He points out that Hainan Airlines’s $650 round-trip fare from Boston to Shanghai is an example of what is new for the human race:

This is the first time in the history of humanity that millions of people have the ability and means to travel around the world. What was once the privilege of historians like Herodotus, emperors like Hadrian, royal emissaries like Zhang Qian, intrepid explorers like James Cook, or simply the aristocratic few is now within the reach of the middle class.

Let me put in a plug for the smartphone too! It has its pluses and minuses when at home or at work, convenient, but also a distraction and an isolation device (since we don’t talk to people in public places as much). But for the traveler, the smartphone lightens our luggage by 20 lbs. or more (leave out the books) and enables facts and history to be looked up whenever curiosity motivates us. I would read a sign in an ancient garden in China, for example, and then learn more about something described on the sign via my phone and the $10/day in Verizon roaming fees.

Why not put on the VR goggles and travel from the air-conditioned comfort of one’s living room?

There is a widespread belief among people who do not travel that it is not necessary to actually visit other countries because one can get a good sense of them by watching travel programs, leafing through magazines, or reading travel-inspired books. A new species of “armchair-travelers” who sit in front of their television sets watching travel documentaries has emerged in the last decades. This suggests that it is possible to travel without departing from one’s home! The underlying presupposition is that travel is seeing places, and that instead of actually going to places one may bring them into one’s living room. This mistaken view has to be firmly debunked. The relationship between taking a cruise along the Li River in China and experiencing the otherworldly landscape of the Guilin karsts enveloping the boat – full of fellow Chinese travelers – and the watching of a film about Guilin is akin to the relationship between seeing a photo of a person you love and having the actual person next to you. The visual portrayal of a place, whether it be a photo or a movie, as well as any verbal description of it, are incommensurable with the immersive living experience. There is no comparison between Guilin-the-photo and Guilin-the-place-and-experience. Another analogy is comparing the photo of a French cheese platter with eating the real cheeses. One is dead, the other alive. The real cheeses have a wealth of smells, textures, and tastes; the photo is a mere representation. Often, modern man lives in his mind and forgets that Guilin is a real place situated in a three-dimensional universe with a sky above it, a real river running through it, and surrounding rice fields with farmers tending them. No digital reproduction or literary description, however good or poetic, can replace the feeling of a breeze on one’s face or the little droplets from the river’s spray. At best, any description is a pointer to what one may experience if one gets off the couch and sets out to discover the actual place.

He divides up travel into four possible categories. A “one-dimensional” trip is taking an organized tour or flying out to see a new city’s main sights. A “two-dimensional” trip seems to be the same thing, more or less, but a bit longer, e.g., two weeks on a fixed itinerary. Real travel begins with three-dimensional trips of at least three weeks and without prearranging hotels beyond the first few nights. The ultimate:

The four-dimensional journey is much longer in duration and usually involves more than one country. This is travel with infinite degrees of freedom. It opens up a whole new universe of sights, sounds, smells, but also new ways of seeing the world and of understanding mankind in general and oneself in particular.

Examples of total travel are a nine-month journey around Latin America or a six-month journey in West Africa, where one will basically be on one’s own and discover his way around as he moves.

Traveling around the world is a special case of four-dimensional travel. It is the most ambitious and all-encompassing type of travel and belongs to a category of its own. The whole of life becomes the field of exploration of the world-traveler.

Who among us can take off months or years to do this, though? Plainly the young can do it, backpacking among cheap hostels. The author says that this is suboptimal because (a) the traveler lacks sufficient life experience, and (b) going cheap means the traveler misses out on a lot of the social environments of each country. He suggests that a person should be at least 35 years old to fully appreciate a round-the-world four-dimensional journey.

What about those of us who have to love Royal Caribbean and its organized shore excursions (thanks, Mom!)?

Yet, out of fear of the unknown, a large part of the world’s population never travels. At its heart is the fear that one’s needs will not be taken care of, that one will wander alone and helpless in the world. That is why the majority of those who travel choose to do so in a manner that allows them to feel as though they have never left their comfort zones. The majority of travelers who choose to join group tours do so not just to save money but also to feel safe and secure and to have the certainty that nothing will go wrong. Behind modern mass tourism lies an unexpressed fear of the unknown. A second fear is that of not being in control. The modern travel agency or tour operator solves both: It makes the unknown seem known by showing photos of the places to be visited, and it deals with the fear of the traveler not being in control by offering its own control over the way one will travel – it provides fixed itineraries and detailed schedules. The traveler therefore buys the illusion of both security and control over his journey by relinquishing his freedom. However, by doing so, he paradoxically turns the journey into something that is beyond his control, since everything has already been planned by others.

After talking down the organized tour, a few pages later the author describes his experience as an independent traveler:

I had already been cheated many times across the whole spectrum of my dealings with the Vietnamese. Taxi drivers, hotel managers, and fruit sellers were overcharging me at every possible opportunity. Being an experienced traveler, I was amazed at how I was being exploited like a novice every time I slightly dropped my guard. All the daily little robberies, exploitations, and occasional bullying by the Vietnamese are effective because the majority of tourists allow it. Visitors come to Vietnam to have a good time, and they don’t want to constantly argue about the price of everything.

Maybe there is some value in letting the tour operator do all of the commercial negotiation in advance!

He discovers that what’s off the beaten path is sometimes beating

To take another example, on the way to explore the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia’s South Omo Valley, we may come upon a market at which locals invite us to witness the young men’s rite of passage featuring ritual whipping, by which young men prove their manly abilities and are permitted to claim a wife and start a family. We end up in the forest witnessing a few handsome teenagers whipping female family members on their backs until they bleed. It is easy to rush into premature conclusions and think that this behavior is the product of a violent male-dominated society. Yet if we defer judgment and are attentive, we will observe that the women are actually willing participants and persistently demand that they be whipped! Rather than judging, we may seek to better understand the situation by unabashedly asking the locals to enlighten us, and by reading about the custom later. As it turns out, the custom serves a deeper purpose: that of strengthening familial bonds and of initiating young men and women into adulthood.

He learns that, even in countries not run by Donald Trump, citizens believe their own country to be “great”:

… many people in many different countries think that they live in the best country in the world. It was always enlightening to hear the rational arguments these people invented in order to support their already-formed ideas and prejudices. It never crosses their minds that they have been brainwashed by family or school into thinking that their country is the best. Nor do they consider that because they grew up adapting to the environmental and cultural specifics of their own country, they ended up turning these into the weights and measures of evaluating all other cultures. Nor does it occur to them that they came to love those specific elements in their culture that they themselves had acquired, and thus their love for their own culture is in great part another expression of self-love! … If you don’t believe me that your country is neither the most beautiful nor the best in the world, then visit France. And if you are French, stay put!

What about loneliness? The author adopts an attitude that the traveler is not alone because “He is almost always surrounded by people, be they locals, other travelers, or passersby.” and that it is possible to communicate with these people primarily nonverbally. He suggests getting into a mindset in which it doesn’t matter that specific people aren’t there and not trying to photograph and share the experience with the folks back home.

The people you love are not a fixed, unalterable set! We would dare say, they should not be a fixed set. Friendships are created through a conscious mutual effort that involves openness to the unknown person and a movement towards him. There was a moment in time when each of your current friends was not a friend. At some point, even your spouse was as unknown to you as every person you meet in your travels. Every friend you have ever had was as much a stranger to you as this old Papuan man you have just met, who sleeps in a thatched hut with his pig. Yet if you would start talking to him with openness and an earnest desire to come to know him, you would soon discover that not only is he an extraordinary person but that, in spite of your age difference, your different cultures and upbringing, you could become friends. Before you know it, you would realize that you have made a new friend, Papete. You would know that you will remain in the heart of one another for the rest of your lives, even if you never meet again.

One does not have to agree with the author to

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Meet in Bermuda or Turkmenistan?

I’m going to Bermuda January 10-13. Weather supposedly typically involves a high temp of around 70 degrees, perfect for walking around the downtown area. Who wants to join? I don’t have a schedule there, just making an exploratory foray to decide if we should organize a trip there with the kids (requires military-style planning).

The other option is a Silk Road trip organized by the MIT Alumni folks (but you don’t need an MIT connection to sign up). It is April 27-May 14, 2020. It is a soft and easy way to see five “Stan” countries that are challenging to visit independently. I think that there are still a few spots left (max group size: 21). From the web site:

Explore four different UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the fabled Uzbek oases of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and Turkmenistan’s Parthian Kingdom of Nisa. In Penjikent, Tajikistan, explore the ruins of the 5th century AD trade center, Shakristan. Wander through colorful bazaars and step into the past on the streets of Silk Road trade centers crowned with complex Persian architecture. Along the way, meet with local experts and artisans, attend an engaging performance of the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas, and visit a traditional Kazakh falcon farm.


2 nights Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
2 nights Khiva, Uzbekistan
3 nights Bukhara, Uzbekistan
3 nights Samarkand, Uzbekistan
2 nights Tashkent, Uzbekistan
2 nights Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
2 nights Almaty, Kazakhstan

I’m going solo since (a) our kids will be in school, (b) senior management will not abandon our children for that long, and (c) most of my friends are stuck working or teaching. (Our ground school class at MIT is over in January and I’m done with the data science class at Harvard Medical School by the end of March.)

One of our pilot friends spent a whole year in Turkmenistan teaching mathematics at an American high school. She loved it! During a trip to Moscow, I learned that Uzbeki food is a staple for Muscovites, in the same way that Mexican food is popular among Americans.

It is easy and inexpensive to get to these places on Turkish Airlines (even from Silicon Valley) or Emirates.

Send me a note (philg@mit.edu) if interested!

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Hainan Airlines review: Awesome, but bring your own coffee

This is based on a recent Boston-Shanghai nonstop round-trip, about 14 hours each way on a Boeing 787.

Airfare was only $650 round-trip, including up to two checked bags, a sign of the lack of demand in November (probably the ideal time for a tourist visit to Shanghai due to moderate weather and minimal rain), and the plane turned out to be only 2/3rds full. (incredibly boring video, intended for toddlers, of the plane pulling in to park)

Hainan has a higher staff-to-passenger ratio at the check-in counters. Even though I arrived right at the magic 2-hour-prior peak moment, the typical 45-minute line to check in was absent. A helpful Chinese woman whose English was good checked me in and had me on my way to security within a few minutes of arriving at the curb.

Massport invested heavily in signs promoting free WiFi at Logan:

… and then did the usual American-quality job of provisioning to ISDN speeds:

(See below for how this is 1/100th the speed of WiFi at Shanghai Pudong Airport.)

Thanks to the plane being only 2/3rds full, boarding was a lot faster than less stressful than a typical JetBlue or United attempt to board a narrow-body plane with fewer passengers.

The ordinary economy-class seats are arranged as 3-3-3 and have a reasonable amount of legroom (I’m 6′ tall) and a reasonable recline. I had a whole row of three seats to myself (“poor man’s business class”). Even if the plane had been full, though, it would have been vastly better than sitting in coach on a U.S. carrier. More than 90 percent of the customers are Chinese, so the probability of sitting next to a tall obese person would have been low and, as mentioned above, the legroom is at least as good as on JetBlue and much better than what the typical U.S. carrier provides in coach. Chinese kids are generally cheerful, so the chance of being near a screaming child is also lower than on a carrier catering to Western customers.

The flight attendants begin the flight by standing solemnly near the front of each section and introducing themselves as a group, thanking passengers for entrusting them with this voyage, and expressing the hope that their service will bring us pleasure. They then bow to all of the passengers. All of the flight attendants appeared to be women in their 20s or 30s, elegantly attired in a Chinese-patterned dress. In other words, the people on both flights actually matched the flight attendants you might see in an ad for the airline. From a Hainan web page describing the uniforms designed by Laurence-Xu and introduced in 2017:

From the same web page:

At the same time as our introduction of the Rosy Clouds uniform line, Hainan Airlines has consulted with renowned make-up artist Mao Geping to create a new look that is both simple and sophisticated. This new style is fresh and clean, enhancing the natural beauty that is already there rather than garishly painting over it. The sandy color of the women’s lipstick echoes the colors of the cabin interior. The pearlescent eye shadow not only matches the blue and grays of the uniform but also the fabric on the seats. Our beautiful new uniforms paired with the elegant women who wear them creates a new professional image of the Hainan Airlines flight attendants.

Service is much more soft-spoken and elegant than in the U.S. They do use carts for serving meals from trays, but otherwise everything is done with trays including trash collection. Apparently a Chinese customer does not want to see a flight attendant carrying a trash bag down the aisle. Every passenger is provided with a kit containing a sleep mask, ear plugs, toothbrush and toothpaste, and travel socks. Headphones are offered at no charge.

The plane was configured to deliver WiFi Internet, but the service was not available on our flight. I am not sure how it would have worked given a route that goes over Greenland, Svalbard, and Siberia.

Food service is calibrated to the non-obese and the sleeping: a light dinner, some self-service snacks, sandwiches starting after about 6 hours, and a medium-sized breakfast. Pitchers of green and black tea are prepared for the Chinese customers. A request for coffee yields a cup made with freeze-dried instant coffee. If you’re planning to stay up for the flight and are accustomed to the American diet, it would make sense to bring fruit, nuts, carrot sticks, and cold-brew coffee.

I was expecting the Boeing 787 to be a whole new world of comfort and quiet and the noise control for a composite fuselage does seem impressive. However, the net result does not seem dramatically quieter than the front portion of a Boeing 737, for example (I neglected to bring my sound level meter, and the iOS ones are junk). Cabin pressure at 33,000′ was 4,650′ according to ForeFlight (3.8 psi versus 12.4 psi, for a differential of 8.6 (compare to 7.8 max differential on a Boeing 737, so I am not sure what all of the fuss is about)). Walking up and down the aisle it is plain that there is a “extra noise zone” near the back of the wing and therefore the engine exhaust. Try to avoid a seat around row 46. Seats farther back were actually quieter.

Seatback entertainment offers at least 100 movies and an awesome “3D Airshow” from Panasonic Avionics, much better than anything I have experienced on a U.S. or European carrier (video of the system’s animation of our route). There are power outlets (compatible with U.S. plugs as well as European) and USB A outlets for all of the economy seats.

I had thought that the weather over the Arctic tended to be smooth, but we hit some turbulence over Greenland at 33,000′ and experienced at least a few bumps for about 1 hour out of 12+. Everything in China was kept a bit warmer than in the U.S. and the Boeing 787 was no exception. I was comfortable in a T-shirt and jeans, but consider packing shorts to change into during the flight.

Arrival in Shanghai involves escalators, hallways, and a train. The distances seem vast, on the same scale as Heathrow, but everything is new and shiny. We arrived at what would have seemed like a busy time, around 6 pm on a weekday, but clearing immigration required waiting behind just one other person and took just a couple of minutes. Unlike in the U.S., the folks who check passports and suitcases are not armed. In fact, I did not see anyone in the Shanghai airport with a gun.

Apple Maps showed that the quickest way to central Shanghai was simply a taxi ($30 for a 45-minute drive despite the evening rush hour; note prices posted above baggage carousel), but I wanted to try the maglev (a fairly long walk from Terminal 2). If you’re on a budget, just take the Metro anywhere in the city straight from the airport for less than $1. That adds about 15 minutes compared to the maglev.

The return journey was equally smooth. My hotel was not right at a Metro station so I just jumped in a taxi for a 40-minute Sunday morning ride. Again arriving exactly two hours before the flight, I went from curb to bag check to passport control to the completion of security in about 10 minutes. China is a bit like Turkey in that passengers who can afford air travel are treated by the airport staff, even those involved with security, with a certain amount of deference and respect. As with the arrival, I did not see anyone carrying a gun. WiFi is fast, but the Great Firewall won’t let you reach Google, Facebook, or Wikipedia so you may end up sticking with roaming LTE (there does not seem to be any restriction on what can be accessed when roaming from a foreign country).

If you’re going to the G gates, accessible via train, keep in mind that there is more variety in shopping and food in the main D section of Terminal 2, i.e., before you get on the in-airport train. Most of the souvenirs that you’d want to buy, including fine silks and hand-made fans, are available at the airport and at roughly the same price as at a nice shop in the city.

Some items to note from the photos below: “Taiwan” is classified as something other than an “International” departure; the bathroom signage is pretty clear on what a “man”, “woman”, and “family” might look like. There are no “all-gender” restrooms. Starbucks and Burger King are available. See if you can find the special lounge for PHP programmers:

The flight back was just as good, but smoother and a bit longer. Again I had three seats to myself. The route stuck closer to the north coast of Alaska and took me back to Gjoa Haven and the heart of the Northwest Passage.

Since it had been around 70 degrees and dry every day in China I hadn’t bothered to check the weather for Boston. It turned out to be low IFR with a heavy rain cell right over Logan Airport during our scheduled arrival time. We were vectored around a bit and then, contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant theories, the Hainan crew did a perfect smooth landing. I checked the METAR:

KBOS 241850Z 02025G37KT 3/4SM R04R/2000V5500FT +RA BR BKN009 OVC017 08/06 A2911 RMK AO2 PK WND 01037/1847 TWR VIS 1 1/2 P0018

That’s wind from the northeast (020) at 25 knots gusting 37 with 3/4 statute miles of visibility (everything else in aviation is generally nautical miles). Compare to 1/2 miles of visibility as the minimum for the standard instrument approach to Runway 4R at Boston. Runway visual range (“RVR”) was as low as 2000′, variable up to 5500′. Compare to 1200′ RVR as the minimum for a CAT II ILS 4R at Logan. There was heavy rain and a broken ceiling of clouds at 900′ above the surface (compare to 200′ for the minimum on an ordinary ILS approach to 4R). Temperature 8C, dewpoint 6C.

For the non-Global Entry masses, the immigration lines were epic. Back in the Land of Freedom (TM), there were close to 100 government agents carrying guns in the immigration and customs area. The sluggishness of clearing people through immigration meant that baggage piled up on the carousel (passengers not having emerged in time to claim it). I saw more obese people in the 10 minutes after landing than during 10 days in China.

The good news for U.S. airlines is that it would be illegal for Hainan to operate U.S. domestic routes! Certainly this would be a preferred choice for an American consumer.

(Note that if you take Hainan to Shanghai and then need to connect to a flight from the second airport on the other side of the city need to connect across airports in Shanghai, there is a direct Metro line (2) that does this for $1. This should never be necessary since both airports are international and serve most destinations, but it would not be inconvenient or expensive.)

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