Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Introduction & Highlights of CA404

 photo Tibet_Intro.jpg

Few other destinations in the world have the ability to conjure up the wildest fantasies in each traveller as Tibet - a place where snow capped alpine mountain peaks, pristine turquoise lakes, luxuriant forests and wind swept steppes set the stage for truly breathtaking scenery at one of the most inhospitable places in the world. It is also a decidedly spiritual destination where the heady aroma of yak butter and incense permeates every corner of the region and Tibetan Buddhism forms the basis for the unique culture and way of life for the locals.

The challenging environmental conditions and rugged geographical features of Tibet had inspired mankind to attempt countless engineering feats over the past two centuries, and the first railway trains finally rolled into Lhasa in 2006 after decades of planning and construction. Built over unstable permafrost, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is an engineering triumph with its ingenious construction methods and environmental sustainability. As a transport enthusiast, it had always been on my "to-do list" to experience the overnight train journey on the world's highest railway.

 photo CA404_header.jpg

Date: Thursday, 23 May 13
Aircraft: B-6004, Airbus A319-115
Seat: 23A
Departure Gate: D41

Scheduled Departure Time: 0200 LT
Boarding Time: 0130 LT
Pushback: 0155 LT
Takeoff: 0205 LT on runway 02C

Scheduled Arrival Time: 0630 LT
Touchdown: 0618 LT on runway 02L
Actual Arrival Time: 0620 LT
Arrival Gate: 108

Introduction

Situated in southwestern China, Tibet Autonomous Region differs from the rest of China due to its social and political sensitivity which has a far ranging effect on tourism. Consequently, foreigners are not allowed to indulge in independent travel in Tibet at the point of writing and the only way to visit this region is by joining a tour group. Foreign visitors can either choose to join a package tour, or seek the more adventurous but significantly more costly option of hiring a Tibetan guide and driver to work around the rules.

Since this is a family trip, we decided to join a package tour in Singapore and started to shortlist a number of travel agencies based on the offered itinerary and the price. The travel season in Tibet lasts from early May till October, with the peak travel season culminating in the month of August when the giant thangka is unveiled at the various Tibetan monasteries in Lhasa. As we were keen to avoid the higher airfares due to the June school holidays and the months of July & August would be far too warm for our liking, we fixed our trip in late May when the region is in the early throes of summer.

The class of berths offered on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was also a prime consideration due to the length of the journey at 23 hours between Lhasa and Xining. Most tour agencies could only offer guaranteed hard sleeper berths, with an optional top up of about S$150 to soft sleeper which was in turn subject to availability. Having read various reviews online and heard about experiences from friends, we were convinced that the additional luxury of a soft sleeper berth was a necessity for a comfortable journey on the train and thus looked for an agency which offered it as a standard instead of an optional upgrade.

Chengdu and Xian serve as the de facto gateway cities to Tibet for most Singaporean tour groups and while I did not mind to add the ancient capital of Xian to my list of Chinese cities, I felt that the main focus of this trip was to focus on the Tibet portion instead. This was further coupled by the unfortunate decision of the travel agencies to use the red eye China Eastern flight on itineraries that include Xian as a gateway city. Departing at 0300hrs in the morning from Singapore, the flight is operated by my least favoured aircraft type and entails an hour long stopover in Kunming before arriving at Xian at 0940hrs. A previous experience on this flight last year had proved that the cabin crew certainly showed that they too, did not favour serving passengers at such an hour.

The travel agencies in Singapore offer near identical itineraries and places of attraction for the Tibetan portion, and we opted to visit the Nyingchi region. The luxuriant temperate forests and relative lower altitude of the region would also allow us to acclimatize to the high altitude before proceeding to other places of interests.

The trip was finalised in late February during the NATAS Travel Fair with a total of 16 members on this tour. As there were less than 20 members, there was no accompanying Singapore tour leader but a later decision was made to have a local tour leader to assist the tour group for the Tibet portion of the trip. The tour would see us taking the red eye Air China flight from Singapore to Chengdu where we would visit the Giant Panda conservatory and the old town before spending a night in the city. This was followed by an early morning departure on an Air China flight to Nyingchi located in southeastern Tibet (see below). After touring Nyingchi, Lhasa and Shigatse, we would embark on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to the capital of Qinghai province, Xining. This was followed by a domestic flight to Beijing and a transit to an Air China flight for our flight back to Singapore. It was certainly an unintended bonus to transit via Beijing instead of Chengdu due to a shorter transit time, and it would also be my first flight on an Air China A330.

 photo Tibetoveralledit_post.jpg

Tibetan sector - A coach ride from Nyingchi to Lhasa along the famed G318 highway which links Sichuan with Tibet and stopping by the sacred lake of Draksum-Tso for a visit. After spending 2 nights in Lhasa, we would continue our journey to the second largest city of Tibet, Shigatse and visit the Yamdrok-Tso lake and the Karula Glacier. We would return to Lhasa on the next day for a final night stay at the provincal capital before leaving on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Xining.
 photo TibetMap2_post.jpg

Pre-Departure Briefing

A pre-departure briefing was held at the travel agent's office two weeks prior to the departure date where tour members were suitably warned about the effects of altitude sickness. Generally known to cause a wide variety of symptoms including headaches, lethargy, loss of appetite and in extreme cases, nausea and vomiting, it affects the ability of the body to function normally due to the lower conecentration of oxygen at altitudes above 2,800m. To this end, we were told to prepare dark chocolate, American ginseng and glucose drinks to help alleviate symptoms during the trip. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually recommended not to resort to canned oxygen to reduce the reliance on such aids. However, instead of reassuring the tour group that few actually develop serious life threatening conditions, the briefing seemed to have the opposite effect on scaring much of the group!

Check In

The tour agency representative met us at Terminal 1 at the designated time to hand us our e-tickets and confirmed details of the tour as well as oversaw the check-in for the group. Surprisingly, the check-in row was deserted although the check-in for the Chengdu flight had just opened. The ground handling agents also directed some passengers to other check-in desks which were just about to conclude the check-in for the overnight flight to Beijing. It was certainly a quicker and more pleasant process instead of the usual messy group check-in as we were able to request for seating preferences directly with the check-in agent.
 photo CA404_checkin_post.jpg

Boarding Pass for our flight to Chengdu. Air China uses its own boarding pass stock for flights departing from Singapore.
 photo CA404_boardingpass_post.jpg

Changi Airport featured a special thematic display to tie in with the large number of school children heading overseas with their parents for a short getaway during the June school holidays. Titled 'Joyous Harvest', several larger than life fruit displays were placed around the terminal building to remind young passengers of the importance of eating fruits regularly.
 photo CA404_changidisplay_post.jpg

With the wave of north Asia and Europe flights from Terminal 1 departing close to the stroke of midnight, the retail shops in the terminal also start to close for the day and passengers departing on the handful of post midnight flights are left with a limited choice of 24-hr eateries and shops to while away the time. The recently renovated Terminal 1 featured full height glass windows which allow for passengers to have an unobstructed view of the central apron. Convenient ledges next to the window panes also provide much needed support for night photography without the hassle of setting up a tripod.

British Airways B747-400 G-CIVS after pushing back from her gate as BA12 to London-Heathrow. BA11/BA12 terminates at Singapore while BA15/16 continues on/from Sydney and had been replaced with a B777-300ER with effect from Summer 2013.
 photo G-CIVS_post.jpg

Air China A330-300 B-6511 about to be pushed back from Gate D32 as CA970 bound from Beijing. Air China's earlier B-65XX series A330-300 do not feature PTVs and AVOD IFE in economy class.
 photo B-6511_post.jpg

Thai Airways B777-200 HS-TJB 'Uthaithani' resting at Gate D36 after operating TG401 from Bangkok. She would operate the airline's first departure back to Bangkok the next morning as TG402.
 photo HS-TJB_post.jpg

Memories of Air China CA403/CA404

China Southwest Airlines had served the Singapore - Chengdu route as SZ433/434 before the airline was merged into part of Air China in 2002 as part of a major Chinese consolidation exercise. The route was mainly served with the airline's fleet of Boeing B757-200 aircraft, but was later upsized to the newly delivered Airbus A340-300 to serve the burgeoning market on this lucrative route at the turn of the century. My last visit to Chengdu was in May 2000 as part of a tour package to Jiuzhaigou and Mt Emei in Sichuan province and had the opportunity to sample the offerings on China Southwest. It certainly still an exciting time then as other smaller pre-merger Chinese airlines such as China Yunnan were still operating scheduled flights to Singapore. I could certainly remembered the glee and surprise when I saw the China Southwest Airlines Airbus at the gate with its four comparatively puny CFM56-5C engines!

China Southwest A340-300 photo on Airliners.net

China Southwest Airlines handwritten air ticket. Emblazoned with the airline's distinctive logo on the cover, such foil ticket booklets had a personal touch then and were religiously collected by both occasional tourists and frequent flyers alike. Today, the modern conveniences of the internet and advanced electronic booking systems had reduced it to a soulless 6 character alpha-numeric code.
 photo SZ_boardingpass_post.jpg

Boarding passes from Singapore and Chengdu. The airline used a basic cardboard boarding pass in Chengdu where seat allocation was done by pasting a sticker from a common sticker sheet to indicate that the seat had been taken. It was also common for boarding passes to be issued without the names of passenger written on it then.
 photo SZ_boardingpass01_post.jpg

The Singapore-Chengdu route continued to operate after the merger of the airline and was subsequently renumbered as Air China Flight CA403/404. The flight would depart Singapore in the early hours of the morning for Chengdu and would overnight at Singapore Changi after arriving from Chengdu in the late hours of the night. Ex-China Southwest Airlines B757-200 were used as the fleet was gradually repainted into Air China's livery. In 2003-2004, the equipment was downsized to a Boeing 737-600 which were also ex-China Southwest aircraft. B-2156 was photographed preparing for her flight back to Chengdu at Gate D34 and is readily identified from the China Airlines B737-800 in the background by virtue of its unusually short fuselage and larger tail. These aircraft had since been retired from the fleet and now ferry US defense workers between Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base (otherwise known as part of Area 51).
 photo B-2156_post.jpg

New CFM56-5B powered Airbus A319 aircraft joined Air China's fleet between 2004-2007 and took over the responsibility of operating this lucrative link between Singapore and Chengdu. B-6035 was photographed rotating off runway 02C on the morning flight back to Chengdu.
 photo B-6035_post.jpg

Ex-China Southwest Boeing B757-200 still made infrequent appearances on this route, such as B-2855 in October 2005.
 photo B-2855_post.jpg

This daily link was eventually converted to a night flight to optimise the use of the aircraft on domestic routes during the daytime. For passengers, the inconvenient departure and arrival time was offset by the time saved by flying at night and being able to enjoy a full day of activities at either city.

The Flight

Gate D41 was allocated for our flight to Chengdu-Shuangliu airport this morning. It came as a surprise when I discovered that one of my friends was heading to Hong Kong onboard a red eye Cathay Pacific flight at the gate beside me when surfing Facebook before the boarding call was made.
 photo CA404_gate_post.jpg

Boarding was called at 0130hrs and all economy passengers were boarded together after a call for premium passengers. A small selection of local newspapers were available before entering the aircraft and passengers were greeted by the cabin crew before being directed down the aisle. It came as no surprise that the flight was fully booked and boarding was completed 15 minutes before the departure time. However, the air-conditioning packs were turned off and cabin lights were dimmed for the next 10 minutes. With an outside air temperature of 27 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 89%, passengers started to perspire in the packed aircraft cabin as the only sole respite was from the weak ventilation dispensed from the overhead air-conditioning outlets.

Air China configures the A319 with a 2 class configuration which features 8 standard business class seats and 120 economy class seats with a rather cramped 30" pitch.
 photo CA404_cabin_post.jpg

Much to the relief of passengers, push back commenced 5 minutes ahead of schedule and the air-conditioning packs were brought back online to cool the cabin to a more tolerable temperature. A standard Air China safety demonstration video was shown from the drop down screens as the aircraft made a quick taxi to runway 02C for departure.

After departure, a welcome announcement was made by the cabin crew in Chinese and English that the flight time is estimated to be 4hr 30mins for the 3,250km journey. A hot meal service would also be served on this flight with an accompanying choice of beverages.

A choice of Hokkien Mee or Fried Seafood Rice was offered to passengers. The portion of the mee was adequate but was overly dry as compared to the version that is typically served in hawker centres in Singapore. Baby corn, sliced tomatoes and whole olives with a generous salad dressing served as the appetizer. There was no dessert served apart from a fruit dish which comprised of a selection of neatly cut melon and kiwi cubes. A standard unheated bun with pre-packaged butter completed the meal. Generic plastic utensils devoid of the airline's identity were used.
 photo CA404_meal_post.jpg

As the drinks service was served from the front of the economy class cabin towards the rear and the meals were served in the opposite direction, it meant that many passengers were either served their drinks too early or only after finishing much of the meal. Passengers were offered a choice of apple or orange juice served from one-litre cartons, or mineral water from a standard 1.5 litre PET bottle. Soft drinks were also served in a similar fashion but only 7-Up or Pepsi were available. The standard hot beverages were dispensed directly from the respective pots on the drinks cart. It was also worthy to note that ice was not available to accompany the beverages and was a disappointment as passengers had came to expect that as a standard meal service item on a full service carrier.

The cabin lights were promptly dimmed after meal service was concluded 1.5hr into the flight, and no additional drink run was made as the meal trays were collected. Air China's A319s offer limited inflight entertainment and an obscure English movie was shown on the drop down screens. As with other Chinese airlines, the inflight movie is dubbed in English and Chinese which is selected from the armrest audio selector. Headphones were provided in the seat pocket for each passenger, but one of the two audio sockets in my seat was not working. There were two other audio channels that were each dedicated to a mix of English and Chinese pop songs.

Our flight headed north towards Bangkok and continued on to overfly the "Golden Triangle" in northern Thailand where the borders of 3 countries (Thailand, Myanmar & Laos) are located in close vicinity. After crossing the Chinese border into Yunnan province, the flight took a northeasterly track to pass to the east of the provincial capital, Kunming at a cruising altitude of 12,000m and cruising speed of 450kts.
 photo CA404_track.jpg

The cabin lights were snapped on 40 minutes before arrival and the cabin crew trooped down the aisle to offer passengers with mineral water which was poured into paper cups from 1.5 litre PET bottles. Passengers were also informed that the flight would be arriving into Chengdu slightly ahead of schedule and the lavatories would be closed in a short moment which led to a rush among many passengers for the pair of lavatories located at the rear of the aircraft.

Descending through the thick cloud layer at 0600hrs. The drop down screens showed a short video regarding the customs requirements for visitors entering China and a slideshow of Air China's latest route changes in English and Chinese. In addition, a video clip was also shown to showcase the different tourist attractions in Chengdu.
 photo CA404_app1_post.jpg

Final approach into Chengdu Shuangliu airport. Located in the middle of a basin and surrounded by mountain ranges, the provincial capital is blanketed in smog for much of the year due to pollution. As a result, it is actually a rare sight to witness blue skies in the city. The airport is also one of the handful of Chinese airports to be equipped with Cat II ILS approach system due to the limited visibility as a result of the smog and its importance as the main gateway to western China.
 photo CA404_app2_post.jpg

Video of the final approach and landing onto Chengdu Shuangliu runway 02L. While taxiing to the international terminal, we spotted a China United Airlines (CUA) B737-800 which was parked in the distance at a remote stand off the tip of the International Terminal [3:35]. The aircraft was surrounded by guards posted at each of the 4 corners of the stand and seemed to indicate the presence of an important Chinese official in the city.


Terminal 1 handles all international flights and also serves as the hub for Sichuan Airline's domestic operations. Our aircraft came to a stop beside another Air China A320 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Chengdu Shuangliu airport had been expanded over the years since my last visit in 2000 to become one of the most important airports in the country. As we walked up to aerobridge into the air-conditioned terminal building, I vividly remembered that we had queued outside the terminal building as the immigration area was far too small to contain the large number passengers disembarking from the China Southwest A340-300!
 photo CA404_CTU1_post.jpg

Being one of the first arrivals of the morning, there were barely any queues at the immigration counters and we proceeded to the baggage reclaim area where the checked baggage appeared on the belt after a brief wait.
 photo CA404_baggagehall_post.jpg

We met up with our tour guide for the Chengdu portion of the trip and walked towards the coach parking area to head to our hotel for a proper breakfast before a day tour of the city.

Next Post: Day 1-Chengdu's Pandas and Ancient Streets