Saturday, February 24, 2007

Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch

If I were still practising, I might be tempted now to check these four points of the male catholic compass, because today we put our money where our mouth is. Just a hundred Euro deposit mind, but money has now changed hands and that is a secular sacrament if ever there was one. There's another (tenuous) connection with the sign of the cross - it calls to mind the traveller's equivalent : that of groping at one's many pockets to check for tickets, passport, money (or the minimalist's version: toothbrush and visa card) on the way out the door. Today we are ticking all those boxes:

As well as booking the Beijing leg of the round-the-world ticket, we also began the hopefully straightforward process of getting the kids' passports. Biometric-ready photos and all.

The tickets are of the World Discovery Plus variety, and come in at €2.5k each (incl. taxes) but with a 25% discount for the girls (under 11's). This is more or less what we had budgeted for. Unfortunately we had to drop Tahiti as a stopoff due to the extra mileage. It would have required us to return to New Zealand in order to get from Tahiti to Santiago in Chile, so it really wasn't on. As an alternative we are looking at Fiji, but we won't go there just for the sake of it. More research required. The travel agents (Foreign A Fares in Carrigaline - are travel agencies as corny as hairdressers when it comes to names? Answers on the back of a postcard please...) have been very helpful and very contactable all along, including today.

The passports, even for Nina who was born in Germany (and whose birth therefore cannot be registered in Ireland) should be by-the-book. We did have to make sure that the photos were suitable for biometric purposes, and this means, amongst other things, no smiling! The two girls were hilarious standing up on a stool in the pharmacy in Carrigaline trying to keep straight faces for the camera. They managed it in the end, despite my best efforts, but the result was two very serious faces indeed. They'll have to live with those scowls for the next 5 years.

It feels good to have got to this point. Not scary. Not even particularly exciting. Just good.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Travelling in China: Lecture in Cork

As part of a series of lectures on China and the Chinese, Emma Connelly will be delivering a talk called Travelling in China in the Central Library, Grand Parade, Cork City tomorrow the 20th of February.

I've tried to find out a little about Emma online, but unsuccessfully so far.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Collapse: China, Lurching Giant

I've just re-read Collapse's chapter on China. There are only 20 pages there, but it is a torrent of bad news. Diamond does manage to finish on a hopeful note, and I don't doubt his sincerity, but there was no sign of that optimism in the preceding 19 pages.

When it comes to environmental problems, you name it, China has it in spades. Air and water pollution, soil erosion and salinization, 20% of it's native species endangered, habitat destruction due to a number of factors, and on top of all this, what Diamond calls megaprojects (Three Gorges Dam, South-to-North Water Diversion Project). Complete the picture, if you will, with an image of the most populous nation on Earth moving towards First World living standards, growing its economy at 10% pa, but achieving all this through desperately inefficient use of its resources.

I wonder how much of this we'll actually witness first hand while there. Will the air be so bad in Beijing that we'll be learning the Mandarin for face mask? Will we experience one of the infamous duststorms that plague the capital from the soil-eroded plains to the North? As we approach Xi'an on the train from Beijing, will we see the lunar landscape of the Loess Plateau, which is 70% eroded? We certainly hope to set eyes on theThree Gorges Dam which is due to be complete in 2008/9. And what about the water shortages - I doubt we'll see any halts in the flow of the Yellow River, seeing as we'll be there in Winter.

There was a very interesting Will Hutton article in the Guardian a few weeks back that described the tension that exists between the huge growth in the economy, and the fact (at least according to Hutton) that the Chinese market was still very much managed, and very much in the hands of the Chinese government - in other words the Communist Party. His thesis is that due to the enormous problem of corruption within that party - thanks to the lack of the western structures and freedoms whereby the government might itself be governed - the Chinese rush to riches will end up in either civil strife, or industrial collapse.

There are echoes of Collapse in that article too, but Diamond overall sees the unique control that the Chinese government still holds as being a cause for optimism (a style that he refers to somewhat euphemistically as Top-Down). Only in China could the population growth be reduced to 1.3% (the One-Child policy). Only the public ownership of all land could allow the easy establishment of 1757 natural reserves (13% of China's area), an outright ban on logging, enormous reforestation and reclaiming of desert.

The metaphor that Diamond finishes the chapter with, is one that he uses throughout the book: a race. There is a race between the destructive and remedial powers of humankind and our ingenuity. China itself is lurching between these positive and negative tendancies, but doing so with a momentum that makes it unique amonst nations. A momentum that makes it uniquely responsible.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Getting the Right Travel Insurance

In a previous post I described the fairly poor selection of insurance options open to travelers who didn't fit in to a very restrictive category (backpacking students are OK, 3-week tripper families are fine too, but backpacking families are as well received as a fart in a church).

I've found two places that will entertain me with a quote. The first is WorldNomad which seems like a popular site and is recommended by Lonely Planet. I got the second quote quite simply by contacting the insurance brokers that helped me with my house and motor insurance: O'Leary Insurances right here in Cork.

First up, Nomad are cheaper at a little over 800 Euro. In fact when I told the Cork broker about their price his first reaction was to tell me to go with them! But I asked him to send me on a quote in any case, asking for a discount based on the fact that I was an existing customer. The price he came back to me with was 1100 Euros.

At face value I would be right to go with Nomad, but there's more to it than that. The insurance products on offer are actually very very different. For starters, the Nomad policy goes up to a maximum combined payout of 250,000 Euro per person per trip. So even if it appears that it'll pay 100% of hospitalization and 100% of Compassionate Emergency Repatriation, there is still that ceiling of 1M in total for the family (might sound like a lot, but compared to what other policies offer it's very modest). And it doesn't protect you in the case of cancellation nor does it cover activities like skiing.

My local insurance broker's suggestion, while costing almost 300 Euro more, has a lot going for it. Firstly, their is no overall ceiling - just a ceiling per cover section. So for example, there is a 6,350,000 Euro maximum per person for medical expenses. There's personal liability cover set at a max of 2.5 M Euro (as we're not going to the US, we're less in need of this kind of cover, but it's nice to have). Adventurous activities like skiing and scuba diving will most likely be covered without any need for extra on the premium. But most importantly, I'd have a broker - with his phone number and email address - that I could contact while on the road (or indeed on our return) to help with any questions or claims. That counts for an awful lot. Already he was able to answer a lot of questions about fine print, and offer advice on when I should actually take out the policy.

I'll do some extra fishing around, but so far, I have to say that O'Leary Insurances are worth the few extra euros.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Where to go in China?

Our plan is to spend three weeks in China, flying into Beijing and out of Shanghai, and going to Xi'an somewhere along the line. We're really looking forward to a week or so in both Beijing and Shanghai, but I have a few concerns:
  1. It'll be mid-winter, and I hear that it's bloody cold!
  2. The travel times between these three cities is significant, though we plan to take sleeper trains.
  3. I'm concerned about where, and how long, to stay in Xi'an. We're obviously going to visit the monumental tomb of Qin Shi Huang, but I gather that the city of Xi'an itself might be just a big concrete smokey disappointment.
If you have ever been to China, or are living there, please feel free to correct my views which are mostly based on reading and not very well informed. Is our selection of cities a reasonable one? Would we be better off making adjustments or wholesale changes? Any and all advice is very welcome.