Monday, 22 February 2016

Scooting and Storms Pt 2: SIN-TPE-SIN TZ 787-9

Part 1 of this report was about my wife, son and myself flying through the Big Wet on a Scoot Boeing 787-9 between Sydney and Singapore. This instalment is about our onwards flights to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

I have a great fondness for the Katong area in which the Grand Mercure Roxy is located. Parts of it retain the feel of an older, less sterile, Singapore, though this is no doubt scheduled for further demolition.

The hotel itself is convenient for food and local shopping. Beneath Roxy Square is a small food court housing Janggut Laksa, one of the closest you'll get to the original Katong laksas. That's where we eat breakfast.

Janggut laksa

We spend the rest of the morning wandering around more of the old shophouses and eating local treats, having a swim in the pool.

East Coast Road

Fried prawn mee suah

Hokkien prawn mee

Shophouses

Following on from two previous experiences, my travel fantasy involves spending a single night in the area before flying off to another country. But when we return to the hotel room I suddenly fall ill with a gastric upset. Both ends. I feel terrible. I no longer want to leave, to face another country. I just want to curl up in the hotel room and do nothing.

Do I feel so bad, so fearful because I am sick and utterly exhausted or is it the other way around? I don't know. I can't think.

All I see in my mind is that cloud near Singapore we suddenly hit yesterday. I see more clouds like it above us now. I don't want to fly. I am afraid of the storms.

We stay in that room until the very last minute, when we rush down to catch the free shuttle bus to the airport.

Like those times before when I caught a bus or train back instead of flying I want to give up now. But unlike those times I have B and Alex with me. It's not just my choice. I let myself be lead through check in, through immigration.

The Social Tree has a baggage handling game

Climate change has turned London tropical

We spot a Bengawan Solo selling the precious kuih lapis spekkoek that Alex and I love. I suggest we buy a couple of slices but B emerges with half a cake. Not cheap, but there will be no trouble eating it.

Kuih!

I need to sit down, to rest. We are booked on the afternoon Jetstar Asia flight to Hong Kong. My Qantas Club membership means that we are eligible to use the Qantas Lounge, but it doesn't open until 2.30 pm, giving us maybe half an hour before the flight.

Alex is altogether too used to these perks now and insists.

We wait for the lounge to open, then I sign us in. We are just walking towards seating when my phone rings. I'm sure it's somebody from work forgetting we are on holiday or maybe the website is down.

It's our neighbour, my mother in law's friend. A huge storm has just struck the south of Sydney and his tree has come crashing down, taking out his balcony and part of our roof.

What should we do?

We need to organise a temporary repair, deal with insurance. Maybe one of us needs to fly home to supervise, especially if there's been internal water damage.

But we are about to be offline for five hours, more if you include the night.

We make the snap choice to remain in Singapore. With barely 15 minutes remaining before departure we approach the Jetstar desk and tell them we aren't boarding.

Apologies to any passengers delayed. This time we had a piece of checked in luggage.

The process of re-entering Singapore and collecting the luggage is quite slow, but the Jetstar representative is very good about it, supervising us the entire way. Fortunately, we already have bookings for the flights out of Singapore and back to Sydney, satisfying the Singaporean immigration requirements.

So I get my wish not to fly. And it was due to storms, but not in the way I expected!

I book us a room for the night at the Ibis Bencoolen. My Accor Le Club membership gives us an upgrade that includes the use of a "Handy" mobile phone with free IP telephony to a number of overseas countries, including Australia. B does a great job of organising the insurance.

As much as I would like to have stay in Singapore at that point in time, B does not and I have no wish to ruin the trip for her. There is no point in going to Hong Kong now, so I cancel my Hong Kong Airlines flight. That would have been our first on the airline and our only full service flight on the trip. Instead we would fly directly to Taiwan. Scoot was by far the cheapest, though it left at the inconvenient time of 0:55 AM the next night.

On the plus side it will be on their 787-9, which gladdens me due to its advanced turbulence mitigation features.

Singapore Zam Zam was a major disappointment for breakfast. Terrible roti. We think they've gone downhill.


The next day I stay in bed while B and Alex visited Sentosa Island. Outside the skies are grey and stormy. I keep an eye on the weather forecast and wonder how I will cope.

Rain clouds outside our room

Fortunately, by evening the weather has calmed down and my stomach, bereft of lunch has as well. We head out to the Old Airport Road food centre for dinner, return to collect our luggage and then catch a taxi to the airport.

Food centre

Satay, the first meal I ever ate overseas.

First Order stormtroopers and a Tie Fighter greet us at Terminal 2. It's a pity we missed out on the full Star Wars: The Force Awakens display.

Singapore is an ordered society

Finn, is that you?

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I'm still not feeling great, still anxious, but in my heart is a glimmer of hope that I will cope. Not too much though, because I fear hubris.

We pass through immigration. Alex is upset that there is no lounge. Definitely a little spoiled, but he's understandably tired after a long day at Sentosa and the different time zone. We go upstairs to the entertainment area, wave him off the games room. Unfortunately, the movie showing in the theatre is the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, not something that will interest him. Other chairs are taken. The sunflower garden smells of smoke. So we head back downstairs.

Sunflower garden

Koi pond

Another couple stand up from their seats near the koi pond and we sit down, disappointing a gang of older Korean women who promptly take every other available spot, leaving us with two seats for three. Then they hog seats to allow members of their group to go off and do shopping.

Alex plays on his iPad while B rests or uses his own. I try to get comfortable sitting on the little table beside the seats - there is nowhere else for my bottom, three into two.

I'm not spotting tonight, nor am I exploring the airport. I don't care. I just want to rest.

Eventually it is time to head to the gate lounge. In Changi the security check is done when entering the gate lounge, so we join the queue, pass our bags through the x-ray, us through the metal detectors. Attack of the Clones is showing on the televisions inside the lounge. A Star Wars movie is something I could have coped with tonight and it is a welcome distraction.

When I booked the flight online on my Android tablet I wasn't given the option of selecting seats. My original seats were by the window, but towards the end of the aircraft. I asked at the counter and they found us some up near the rear of the wings, a bit better.

Boarding

I'm a little surprised that the aircraft is "Dream Start" and not "Barry". The window shade control forward of me is broken, pushed into the wall. So long as it isn't set on dark I don't care.

Scootee

Damaged window control. So long as it stays on max visibility I'm happy

The windows are foggy, giving a mystical appearance to the world outside.

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As we begin taxiing towards the runway I'm feeling very anxious and tense. The others are asleep already.

Feeling blue

The rest of the flight is a darkened blur. There are some bumps as we ascend out of Singapore, though a lot of the earlier cloud has dissipated. The air never entirely settles, with niggling bumps and even the seatbelt light at one point going through high cloud.

With the flight conducted entirely overnight service demands are kept to a minimum. We are on the wrong side of the aircraft for the hellish views of Taipei that normally seem to greet airborne visitors, at least in my experience, red and amber light glowing through dark clouds.

Now it's getting a bit pale

Dabadee dabadi

We are told that it is raining around Taipei and the airport, but the cloud is very low when it eventually swallows us up. More like a fog, soft and gentle on the aircraft. Poor visibility for the pilots.

Foggy
City lights

Seatbelt light on!

We arrive on to a tarmac with amber lamps casting a harsh light upon the sleeping aircraft parked there.

I have survived the flight. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but neither was it scary. Right now, however, all I want to do is get out and rest.

Dream Start?
We make our way out under the curved ribbed white roof to immigration, have our fingerprints and face scanned and are through into Taiwan.

Making our way airside

Towards immigration under Taoyuan's distinctive roof.

I've heard that business passengers like overnight flights because it enables them to do a full day of work. Maybe if you can afford a nice lie flat bed on the plane that might be true, but for those of us who can't sleep it means a day of exhaustion before your hotel will let you check in.

We arrive at Taoyuan Airport so early that most of its shops are closed. Most importantly, I can't purchase a prepaid SIM card until 8 AM. I'm still not feeling 100%, the other two are also tired and our hotel in Taipei won't be ready until 2 PM. B and Alex agree with my suggestion of a day stay at the nearby Novotel. I call the Novotel using Google Phone, but they say we have to check in in person. So down to the minibus we walk.

Unfortunately, when we arrive the only availability is for an expensive premium room. It's a pity because the transit stay we had in the Novotel Taoyuan back in 2013 was one of the best ever. Back on the free, but packed, minibus to the airport terminal.

The airport shops are now open for business and I quickly get a Chunghwa prepaid SIM card with 5 days of unlimited 4G data access for less than $15. Now it's off on another bus to connect to the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) train into Taipei, this airport being a whole other city away.

It's inconvenient having to catch a shuttle bus and it's quite a long ride. We could have caught a bus the whole way, like we did on our first visit. I'm told that Taoyuan Airport should be connected to the Taipei metro system in April, but for now you need to catch the shuttle to the Taoyuan THSR station.

Bus to THSR

At the THSR station we purchase a couple of sandwiches and some milk from the Mosburger outlet and convenience store and consume them on the orange, black and white Shinkansen derived train. It's just like being back in Japan. Fast and very comfortable.

THSR

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Looks so familiar

We are staying at the same hotel as last time in Taipei, the CityInn II, so we know the way from the station. It's a friendly little hotel, very modern, a lot like one of the Japanese business hotel chains we stay in but with a few extra features like a shared kitchen and free washing machines and dryers. Free coffee and hot chocolate too from the Nescafe machine.

This is an unplanned for day in Taiwan. Our original flights would have seen us landing here in the evening from Taiwan. Now we have a whole day to do something.

I really like Taiwan. It's like a dirtier version of Japan mixed in with China. The locals are friendly and less pretentious than some other places in the region. The food isn't always to my taste, but you are rarely short of eating options.

You can read more about what we did in Taiwan on my blog.

Day 1 was wandering around the area near our hotel, Dihua Street and Dadaocheng Wharf.

Street scene

The building designs are interesting

Lots of dried fruits and foods

Entrance to Dadaocheng Wharf

What used to be a major port is now this

Approach path of Songshan Airport

River scene


On Day 2 I had a train day and we caught the Neiwan Scenic Line (having done the Pingxi Line last time).

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Liujia Station

Sleepy Bear at Zhuzhong station

Cute carriage interior

At Neiwan Station

Lots of stalls selling a variety of local foods

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Hakka style lunch

More characters about town... Err Gizmo is getting wet!

No, this is not the Northern Territory

It was wet and we got soaked

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Dinner was at the Ningxi Night Markets close to our hotel.

Ningxia Night Market

Not yum

Mango ice - very yum!
On Day 3 we were Spirited Away to Jiufen, a mountainside town that provided inspiration for the spirit town in Studio Ghibli's movie.

Breakfast near the hotel

More breakfast

We caught the train to Ruifang

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Narrow food and shopping street

The vegetarian version of...

... this truly disgusting dish

This was wonderful though

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The Jiufen teahouse is lovely

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View from the top

Sometimes it feels like you are in a painting

Dinner at the Shilin Night Market

Burning squid

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Watch out for the fruit vendor ripoffs.
On Day 4 Alex insisted we ride the 4 kilometre long Maokong Gondola, after which we visited Ximen and returned to the Modern Toilet Restaurant, for Alex's sake of course.

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There are great views

Crystal cabins have glass floors

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It's a very long ride


A drink of brown urinal water

"Nuggets" in a squat

Soft serve or just too much fibre?

Waiting area

Ximen

Bit late for the Xmas trees



It's time to leave Taiwan. I feel somewhat anxious again, though not as bad as before. Although our flight is not until the late afternoon the requirements for international flights mean that most of the day is wasted.

We catch the THSR to Taoyuan and the shuttle bus to the airport.

Taiwan High Speed Rail
Shuttle bus

Check in
There's no queue at the desk and we are quickly checked in. It's lunch time, so we follow the signs down to the food court. B has a rice and duck set, Alex ramen and me just buns, all my flight worried stomach could take.

Duck set

Food court

Terminal 1 is very enclosed. A big "See you Taiwan" sign in a 70's brush font sits above the immigration gates. We madke our way to the "Fruit waiting lounge" which has a giant mural of fruit by our aircraft gate.

The other side

Just before security
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Green wall

The fruit lounge

This time we are flying Scoot's Maju-lah, celebrating Singapore's fiftieth anniversary with a poxy livery of sponsors on its Boeing 789.

View from the lounge

While our Scoot aircraft is parked, above it the clouds are themselves scooting across the sky, blown by gusting winds. I calmed myself with memories and observations. The clouds are many, but individually not dense. Though the winds are strong I recall the recent flight to Canberra in similar skies when the wind made little difference during the ascent. I can do this.

We take our seats and Captain Colin Croft and First Officer Dylan welcome us on board, warning that there might be a few bumps as we ascended to cruising altitude in these wet and windy conditions.

A Cathay Pacific 777 and the bendy wing of the 789.

I am more worried about the potential for turbulence descending into tropical cloudy Singapore.

For the next hour or so the only bumps are as we taxi along the tarmac. There is only one runway in operation and we are stuck in a very long queue. I fall asleep as inch forward, stop, inch forward, stop.

TransAsia and V air.
The line up
Terminal 2
Waiting in the cabin

Shenzhen Airlines

Enjoying these 747s

Eva Air

Hello Kitty

Passengers are allowed to use their mobiles and go to the toilet due to the delay.

Eventually it is our turn and we begin the long and slow take-off roll that seems to be the hallmark for this type of aircraft. The wind buffets us as we ascend through each cloud layer. I am tense, gripping my camera tightly, but at the same time transfixed by the view outside. This is the first time we've had any reasonable daylight view of Taiwan from above.

There are some great views of the airport and of a coastal power station construction, its surrounding wind turbines spinning rapidly in the wind.

Aligning with the runway

Take off!

Evergreen

Heading up


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Power station?
Up towards the clouds

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While it is still white outside the seatbelt lights are switched off. Suddenly we penetrate the final layer of cloud.

Just one more

And we are through!

And nothing.

No bumps. Just absolutely smooth and silent sailing through the evening skies above a carpet of cloud.

Suddenly the joy of flying floods back through me.

The Sun is on our side of the aircraft and shining directly through the window, so I dial the darkness up a couple of dots so as not to cause any discomfort to other passengers. I use the prepaid on board WiFi to post photos, check and reply to some emails and to check the weather. The various maps, including the FlightAware cloud overlay, seem to indicate that we should have a couple of hours of smooth flying. I relax.

Alex sets it extra dark

Above the carpet of clouds

Dusk approaches

I listen to a random playlist of music on my phone, then swap to a couple of episodes of the Star Wars radio play. Back when I was a young kid of about Alex's age we had recorded the complete set of the NPR dramatisation of Star Wars, bar one episode. We'd hook up the cassette player to the cigarette lighter socket in the bright orange Holden Kingswood (it only had AM radio) and listen to the episodes on our road trips.

Just after last Christmas I'd found a copy at audible.com and decided to let Alex experience the same for our drive down to Melbourne. It hadn't proved quite so popular, though of course he'd now seen his first episode of Star Wars at the cinemas (The Force Awakens). I still had it downloaded on my phone, so I listened now.

I still can't bring myself to completely avert my eyes from the window and watch a movie on my tablet. Alex and B are amusing themselves on their iPads. Alex's is running low on battery power, so I pay five Singapore dollars (plus credit card and currency conversion fees no doubt) to activate in seat power.

Alex about to race cars in the sky

I wouldn't mind a meal right about now, to dine in this "restaurant" so high above the ground. I can't be bothered to pay for it though. Besides, none of the meals on offer attract me. Scoot's options look quite unappetising. Surprisingly, I am later told that neither my mother-in-law or her friend enjoyed any of the hot meals they had preordered on Scoot. I would have thought that some of them would at least have been right up MiL's alley (which usually means I hate it).

Eventually darkness falls. A few breaks in the cloud lead to bumps here and there, but only minor and I can tell from Flight Aware maps that there was likely nothing to worry about. Below us is the occasional light from a ship or collections of bright individual lights from squid fishing boats.

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The 787 window

The only Rolls I get driven around by

Sunset in the cabin

Fading light

Dusk

Eventually our beautiful flight must come to an end. First officer Dylan announces that we are about to begin our descent but that there could be a few bumps close to Singapore. Yep, as expected, with the island experiencing rain.

And yes there were quite a few drops as we descended through the clouds. I gripped the seat tightly while Alex tried to distract me with tickles. Surprisingly, the 789 continued to handle it well. Then suddenly it is all over and we were curving around the island state, flying over Changi Airport and doing a complete U-turn to align ourselves for the landing. The lights of the city and the ships waiting outside are awesome. Finally we land.

Night lights appear

The red strobe

Changi Airport from the side
The ships

Now we are aligned - the ships again up close!
Over land

Probably be driving on the motorway shortly

Inside the cabin

Once we'd landed the windows fogged up.
This time we go straight to the taxi rank after collecting our bag. We were now quite late due to the congestion at Taoyuan and it is past 10.30 PM by the time we arrive by taxi at the Amara hotel and check in. We've had no dinner on the aircraft and are starving with a fair degree of hangry going around. Following the advice of the hotel we catch a taxi to La Pau Sat, a trendy food centre open late, and have satay for dinner.

Satay at La Pau Sat

La Pau Sat


Walking back to the hotel

Walking back we discover a couple of Muslim stalls at the closer Maxwell Food Centre are still open. Oh well.

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