The following is a trip report for a journey I took in August, 2012.
I woke in my hotel in central Beijing at about 6am. My budget room was actually in a basement level, and the room had been designed with fake window (complete with back-lighting), to eliminate feelings of claustrophobia. the room was simple, but comfortable; with a single bed, a bedside table, tiled floor and large bathroom. The television showed only Chinese language programs, but that was ok, I wasn’t there to watch TV.
I checked out of the hotel, located near Zhangzizhonglu subway station, and bought a savoury Chinese pancake. The pancake was made in front of me by an ancient man at a roadside trolley. It was filled with chilli, shredded pork and egg; a traditional Beijing breakfast. Delicious, simple and relatively healthy.
After Breakfast, I entered Zhangzizhonglu subway station and headed for the airport. I put my bags through the x-ray machines (located at each Beijing Subway station) and headed down to the northbound platform. Although my hotel was quite close to the Airport Express subway station at Dongzhimen (probably walking distance without my heavy bags), I had to take 2 subway trains; from Zhangzizhonglu; Line 5 north to Yonghegong, then interchange with Line 2 (inner circle line) to Dongzhimen. I probably could have taken a direct bus, but navigating a bus network when all of the stop names are in Chinese (Pinyin if you’re lucky) is a bit daunting, so I took the trains.
Interchange stations in Beijing, can be misleading. The newer stations have very short (sometimes cross platform) interchanges, but some of the older interchanges involve walking along long (often narrow) tunnels, sometimes negotiating stairs. The walking distance between and another can often be almost 300m! I wrestled with my bags through the long transfer at Yonghegong and onto the crowded line 2 train, before interchanging at Dongzhimen to the Airport Express.
The Airport Express is technically part of Beijing’s subway system, but is much more expensive at ¥25 (just under A$4.60) as opposed to ¥2 (about A$0.40) for the rest of the system. The trains have 2×2 seating with luggage racks, instead of the longitudinal seating and standing room of the other lines. It is also completely automated and Driverless. The airport line runs from Dongzhimen (connecting with subway lines 2 & 13) and Sanyuanqiao (connecting with subway line 10). There are 2 stations at Beijing Airport; Terminal 3 and Terminal 1 (also serves terminal 2). The track at the airport is configured as a triangle, with trains running from Dongzhimen to Terminal 3 (via Sanyuanqiao), then to Terminal 1 and back to Dongzhimen (via Sanyuanqiao). Airport Express trains run roughly every 10 minutes between 06:30 & 22:30 daily. The full journey (Dongzhimen to Terminal 2 or Terminal 3 to Dongzhimen) takes around 30 minutes.
I left the airport line and headed into terminal 3 to check in. After check in, I had to take another train (an automated people mover) for the 2km trip to terminal 3E (the international terminal). I was there quite early for my flight, and after a small eternity of browsing in overpriced airport shops and reading, I was able to board the Air Canada 777 for Vancouver. We departed Beijing on time, and announcements were made in English, French and Mandarin to say that we were expected to arrive in Vancouver slightly ahead of schedule.
Air Canada disappointed me. I had heard very good comments about their service and catering, but was let down. The food was typical airline food, in fact, I had had better on China Southern a few weeks earlier. The AVOD IFE (Audio Video On Demand In Flight Entertainment) system had a fantastic selection of movies and TV shows, but the navigation software was not user friendly, and a couple of times, my movie stopped, with no way to skip back to where I was previously. The earphone jack in the seat was poorly positioned; inside the seat armrest. Of the four Air Canada flights I took, all headphone jacks I encountered were damaged, generally requiring the plug to be wedged between the armrest and my leg to get any sound.
The landing at Vancouver was the roughest I’ve ever experienced; the aircraft seemingly coming down diagonally on the runway. The landing was so hard that most of the overhead lockers opened and several bags fell out. Other passengers could be heard screaming, but despite the discomfort, we safely made it to the terminal safely and without delay. I was connecting with an Air Canada “transborder” flight (Canada to USA), so I had to clear Canadian customs, then USA customs at Vancouver. I was guided through the maze of customs and immigration offices by efficient Canadian officials, and finally made my way to the departure area.
Vancouver airport was pleasant, in a generic international airport sort of way. It seemed more “friendly” than the Chinese airports, and it was nice to see some recognisable brand names on the shops (instead of cheap Chinese imitations). I had a cup of coffee while I used the free Wi-Fi, and was able to use Twitter, Wikipedia and Google for the first time in a month (China blocks these sites, along with many others).
The 2½ hour flight to Los Angeles was much more comfortable, on board a much smaller Embraer 190 commuter jet. the 2+2 seating was wider than the 777 on which I had travelled from Beijing to Vancouver, and the seat pitch larger. The AVOD IFE system was the same as the larger aircraft and unfortunately, so was the quality of food. At just after 6pm Los Angeles time, we touched down at Los Angeles International airport.
Because I had cleared US customs in Vancouver, I was able to walk straight out of the airport terminal from the gate. I found the stop for the free shuttle bus G, which runs from the airport to Aviation/LAX metro station. With half a dozen other people, I made the 10 minute journey to the Metro Green line station (from December 2013, you need a valid TAP stored value transit card to travel on the free shuttle). I still had my TAP card from my previous visit, so I made my way up to the platform, and only had a couple of minutes to wait for my train.
My train arrived, and I stepped on board the lightly loaded tram. Most of my fellow travellers were black and looked either down and out or young and rowdy and I felt very conspicuous travelling through south west Los Angeles with my luggage. After a while, I stopped being so self conscious, and realised that they couldn’t care less about the little white guy travelling on their train; it was just another day for them, I didn’t even register on their radar.
At Willowbrook, I changed from my eastbound Metro Green Line train to a northbound Metro Blue Line train, which took me to the 7th St Metro Centre; a short walk along 7th St, over the Harbour freeway to my slightly seedy motel in Westlake. After checking in with the night attendant (behind a security screen) in the reception, I made my way to my second floor room. The door opened directly from the pubic balcony to the bedroom, which had a tallboy, a bedside table with a lamp and an old queen sized bed. The carpet was thick and dusty, but the bedsheets were crisp and clean. The bathroom had a shower with cracked tiles that looked like they were from the 1960s. The ancient shower head gave a strong, hot stream of water and I was able to overlook the mould in between some of the tiles. After my shower, dried myself on the rough, tatty towel and fell into the soft, comfortable bed. From the time I had woken up in Beijing, to the time I went to bed in LA, I had taken 5 metro trains, an automated people mover, 2 international flights and been awake for about 31 hours!
After sleeping for 12 hours straight, I felt pretty good and went down to partake in the free breakfast that the motel provided. The “breakfast” was a very basic; a couple of boxes of cereal, milk and some bread and jam and butter on a small table in the motel reception. There was instant coffee and a toaster for the bread; simple but good enough, and I was soon on my way to explore LA.
I took the Metro Red Line to Union Station, and left my luggage in the cloak room on the main concourse. I then took a Metro Gold line light rail to Memorial Park station in Pasadena. The local shopping area was a pleasant and leafy area with plenty of cafes and coffee shops, so I stopped for some morning tea. After morning tea, I went on the search for a prepaid SIM card; I had researched the prepaid SIM cards before I arrived in the USA, and found AT&T to have the one that best suited my needs (mostly data use, with a few phone calls). As luck would have it, there was an AT&T shop in the shopping strip. I entered, and I bought the SIM off a pleasant, but clueless salesman. After inserting it, and restarting my phone, I had mobile reception but no data. Since that what was I mainly wanted the card for, this was a problem! I asked the friendly salesman, who had only a faint idea what I was talking about. After explaining for about 10 minutes, I gave up and said I’d try a few things and come back to him. I found some prepaid android handsets on display, which had active data, and copied their APN settings to my phone, it worked! I had data! I paid for the SIM and left the shop.
After catching another Metro Gold Line light rail back to Union Station, I decided to go for a ride on a Metrolink train. Being a Saturday, Metrolink trains were few and far between, however Antelope Valley Line train was departing in a few minutes for Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. I found that the cheapest ticket was a weekend pass, which gave unlimited Metrolink travel all weekend for US$10 (now only valid for one day; Sat or Sun – still good value). I bought my ticket from the ticket machine on the concourse and picked up a Metrolink timetable booklet as well. I rushed off to the platform, and boarded the the Hyundai-Rotem bi-level car shortly before it departed.
We departed on time, and I scrutinised the timetable. I found that to be back in good time for my 18:15 departure on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, I would have to leave the Metrolink train at Santa Clarita and catch the next train back to Los Angeles. The ride was smooth and interesting; inner city LA giving way to light industrial estates, then sparsely populated rocky, dusty hills lined with creosote bush and California Juniper. The train ran out through Glendale and Burbank, Sun Valley and Sylmar. We travelled through the San Fernando tunnel before stopping at Newhall, then skirting the north west corner of Quigley Canyon and arriving at Santa Clarita station.
I left the train, and found myself at a very basic station in a very large parking lot. The station had a couple of waiting shelters and a (closed) kiosk. Being a Saturday afternoon, the car park almost deserted. Across the line from the station was a rocky wasteland at the edge of Quigley Canyon. Next to the car park was a small motor racing complex, which appeared as if it hosted only amateur events. Aside from the car park and the racing complex, there was very little around the station.
I had just over an hour in Santa Clarita, so I decided to go for a walk around the local area. It was hot and dusty, and as I walked along Soledad Canyon Rd, I looked for somewhere to buy a drink. The road was well used, but desolate in terms of shops, and after half an hour of walking, I had to turn around and go back to the station. I arrived back at the station, tired, hot and thirsty. Thankfully, I didn’t have long to wait before the train, this time led by a cab control car, arrived into the station. I gratefully stepped into the cool, air conditioned interior, before finding the water fountain and taking a much needed drink of water. The journey back to LA Union Station was smooth and uneventful. I retrieved my bags from the cloak room and entered the queue to check in for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.