Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taking the Long Way Home

Despair at 35,000 feet... and this was the good meal!
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. When I was booking the flights for my trip back to Colorado, I tried to plan everything out properly. I had the flight from Asia to L.A. handled, I just needed to book a flight to get me to Denver from there. Since virtually every airline in America now charges for checked bags, I chose the one airline remaining that lets you check two bags free, Southwest Airlines, thinking this would save me about $100-120. (The other airlines charge $25 for the first bag and $25-35 for the second — each way.) But for whatever reason, Southwest's final flight of the day from LAX to Denver was at 6:20 p.m., and my flight from Asia didn't land until 6:00 p.m., an impossible connection to make. So I booked the flight to Denver for 6:30 the next morning, thinking I'd either stay in the airport (boo!), visit my uncle out in the desert east of Los Angeles, or stay with a friend of mine from KL, who was possibly going to be in L.A. for business at that time (hey, free hotel room). Well... none of that came to pass, so I booked the hotel room at the Radisson while I was in Guangzhou, and that all seemed to be okay, even though it took a $60 bite out of whatever checked-baggage money I had saved by booking with Southwest. (Other airlines had later flights to Denver.)

Things only went downhill from here...
So my uncle decided to make the two-hour drive to my hotel from his place, just so we could visit for a short while (at 3 a.m., mind you), and then volunteered to take me to the airport. However, the roads are not well-marked from the hotel, and we had to take a detour and track back to get to LAX, costing a few minutes. After I was dropped off at the curbside check-in place, there was a massive crowd of people waiting to check in for Southwest (at 5:30 a.m., no less!), and the line inside was even worse. So I stood in the line outside, wondering if I would make it at all. I did, but only barely, and apparently my bags didn't get checked in time, so they were tagged "LATE" like some absurd scarlet letter to announce to everyone what a crappy layabout of a traveler the owner of these bags is. So I got to Denver unscathed, and went to baggage claim where exactly one of my two checked bags made an appearance. The other had not made the flight with me, so it would be coming in on the next flight, which, fortunately, was only an hour later, so I just waited. So, coupled with the long flight, I had an overnight sojourn in L.A. and a delayed suitcase with a yellow-tag scolding from Southwest Airlines.

This, quite grievously, was but a pale, dim harbinger of the misery to come on the journey back to KL.

I already wrote about being stranded in L.A. for 24 hours, so let me continue on from there. Since the employees at Southwest who were there at the airport specifically told me that Southwest would reimburse me for my hotel expense, I got a room nearby, which I also wrote about. I think I made the best of that whole situation, and the time spent there watching the football game and relaxing before heading back to the airport was really not too bad. Once I got to LAX that evening though, I guess things started to unravel. I checked in and gave China Southern my bags some three hours before my flight left, so no problem there. I made my way through the awful security bottleneck at the International Terminal (a little over an hour) and to the gate. Though the Terminal 1 concourse there is actually pretty decent, the actual gates at LAX's International Terminal are dire. Sterile, bare, never enough seats... a truly woebegone farewell to departing passengers. So there I languished for another two hours, then got on the plane for the 15-hour flight back across the Pacific. The flight was completely full, always a nightmare on such an epic flight.

Now think about this... when was the last
time you saw an ashtray at your seat
on a commercial aircraft?
So as I settled into my seat, I noticed something odd. Look at the picture... just what in the chicken-fried hell is going on here? That is an actual ashtray in the armrest of my seat. An ashtray!! Now, this aircraft was a 777-200ER, an aircraft that wasn't even introduced into service until 1997, long after smoking was banned aboard all aircraft. So I can only assume that, at some point, China Southern cheaply retrofitted the plane with seats from another aircraft from the pre-smoking ban days. Lord. That probably explains the sucky quality of the video screens in the seatbacks (and the very limited content selection), which I couldn't even bother to use. So yeah, even though China Southern is the sixth-largest airline in the world that most of the world's population has still never even heard of, they still have a long way to go.

So after an uneventful 15-hour flight across the Pacific that, mercifully, I largely slept through, we landed in fabulous Guangzhou early in the morning on January 10th. The outside temperature was 48°F, about 9°C, and I'm not even joking here, the temperature inside the airport wasn't much higher. I don't know if the heat was not working or if they just never bothered to install it to begin with, but it was flat-out cold inside the terminal. All the workers were wandering around wearing coats and scarves. I half-expected to see a team of sled dogs being mushed down the concourse. Once again, we had to endure the abject silliness of going through immigration and security, all with the added joy of freezing half to death during the process.

What the hell? It's so bizarre, there's not even an
international symbol for it. (Note that all the other
signs have symbols alongside the text.)
Once I cleared the lone security checkpoint and wondered once again what this sign really meant (it doesn't bode well for anyone that the airport has an entire giant sign directing travelers to a place for those whose flights were cancelled), I went downstairs to the gate for the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Yes... downstairs. Unworthy of even getting a real gate with a jetway, the flight to KL boards Air Asia-style, where you walk outside onto the tarmac and climb up a flight of stairs haphazardly propped up against the aircraft. Worse, we had to get on a bus to be delivered to the plane. As I was standing on the bus with all my carry-on booty, this middle-age Chinese woman got on and stood nearby, clearly seething about something. Moments later, she got off, walked over to the gate agents and just completely went off on them, delivering a blistering verbal beatdown... shouting, pointing, screeching, gesturing wildly, the works. It was quite the meltdown. Alas, it was also a Cantonese meltdown, so I have no idea what she was so agitated about. After she finished scolding the agents, she stalked back on the bus and stood there, silently simmering and glowering for another couple of minutes, then, after apparently deciding that she hadn't castigated them quite enough, got off the bus and went and unloaded yet another salvo on the two hapless gate agents, whose ears hadn't even stopped bleeding from the first tirade. Honestly, I cannot imagine what had her so riled up, but she was definitely not amused about something. I thought about filming the whole scene, but can you imagine the drama if she'd have noticed that? Yikes.

Not sure about the Chinese part, but
the English part is a total lie
So this final flight was aboard an ashtray-free 737-800, and really about the limit of what I like to fly on a narrow-body jet — it was about a 4.5-hour flight down to KL. The flight wasn't entirely full, happily, and the seat next to me was empty, which is always a bonus. That, and the fact that none of the planes crashed, really amounted to about the only good parts of the entire odyssey to get back to KL. The food on the long flight from L.A. was adequate (at best... that's what's in the first picture), but whatever crap they served up on the flight from Guangzhou to KL was just hideous. I couldn't even eat it. It was some vile mockery of a chicken dish, and I don't think it was even fully cooked. Avoiding salmonella is one of my standard goals when I eat, so I didn't even sample this mess. I had a couple of forkfuls of rice, and I think I ate the cold dinner roll, too, but that was all. I was so distraught, I even had a glass of wine, ignoring the fact that it was only something like 8 a.m. The "salad" was a half-dozen rubbishy, ill-ripened cherry tomatoes rolling around unhappily in a little melamine dish, nothing more. The whole thing was so pathetic and appalling, I couldn't even be bothered to extricate my camera and snap a picture. Definitely not a memory I wanted to commit to a photo. I can't believe a poor chicken actually had to give its life for that utter sham of a meal. What a complete dishonor. I mean, it's not like the chicken is a noble bird to begin with, but come on. I can only hope that whatever parts didn't go out in a disgraceful blaze of wretchedness for that dish at least got put to a less-humiliating use. Lord... that may just be the worst airline meal I've ever had placed before me. Anyway... once I arrived at KLIA, I cleared immigration, bought my customary bottle of duty-free booze, resisted the urge to drink it on the spot, and wandered out to the luggage claim carousel, happy and relieved that all the winged travel and gruesome, half-cooked poultry was, at last, safely behind me.

See my suitcase here? Yeah, neither did I.
Needless to say, after my travails in the lamentable Guangzhou airport, walking through KL's gorgeous, modern airport, with its myriad shops, free WiFi, and amenities galore (and an additional few degrees of warmth, courtesy of Mother Nature), felt like a total return to civilization. There's not much that Malaysia gets right when it comes to transportation (of any kind), believe me, but KLIA is just a delight to fly in and out of. So, with my liter of booze in hand, along with my carry-on suitcase, my jacket, my laptop, and a portable charcoal grill I got for Christmas, I got my free trolley and eagerly waited for my luggage to arrive. My big bag, the one that weighed every bit of the allowable 23 kg., arrived first and I heaved it onto the trolley, then waited for the smaller bag to make its triumphant appearance, which would effectively punch my ticket to get out of the airport and start the final two legs of my long trip home (airport to KL Sentral, then Sentral to my condo). I waited a few minutes, saw with increasing despair the "last bag unloaded" notice on the monitor, then watched the carousel grind to a halt. No little blue suitcase in sight. Perfect. Pretty much the expected end to, bar none, the worst trans-Pacific trip I've ever taken. So I went to the lost luggage office and filled out the required paperwork, grateful at least that I wasn't in the same sorry boat as the backpacking Australian girls next to me, whose luggage had also gone missing, but who were only going to be in KL overnight at a yet-to-be-decided hotel before setting off for Bali the next day and staying there at an equally yet-to-be-decided hotel. Wow. So I was given a case number and informed that I would get a call once they tracked down my bag. I trudged dejectedly to the bus corral where I bought a ticket for a ride to KL Sentral precisely two minutes after the bus had departed. Sigh. So I had to wait for the next bus, which really isn't as traumatic as it sounds, but I'm going for the total sympathy vote here. I finally departed for the city and arrived about 50 minutes later, a pretty good travel time. I will say this much... the absence of that final bag, which weighed about 20 kg., made schlepping my considerable amount of luggage around KL Sentral infinitely easier, though still quite troublesome. You'd think a massive transportation hub like Sentral would have scores of luggage carts around, but you would be wrong. There are random ones to be found here and there, but they're extremely few and far between. But, tenacious as ever, I managed, and my friend Ivan drove up about 25 minutes later to fetch me. I walked in my condo's door at 4:45 p.m., a staggering, breathtaking 57 hours after leaving for Denver's airport in a snowstorm.

Later that night, I got a call from China Southern airlines, telling me that my bag hadn't actually been lost, no no no, it had actually been purposefully detained in Guangzhou. They said they suspected a pressurized can was in the bag, so they wanted my permission to open the luggage (nice of them to ask) and remove the offending can. Now, fortunately, I had packed my bags with loads of time to spare back in Denver, and actually made an inventory list of what was in which suitcase. Yeah, I know, I'm insane, but I've only ever done this twice, and both times it's paid off. Once was on my initial flight to KL when I moved here and one of my bags got mauled and eaten by the baggage handling system in Los Angeles. And now this episode. I wonder if it's making the inventory lists that's causing the problem?? Hmmm...

Oh, you evil, wicked shaving gel, causing
all this international drama
Well anyway, I consulted my inventory and determined that it could only be the shaving gel that was in there. Though it seems an odd thing to buy in Denver and bring back all the way to KL, consider that the exact same product costs three times as much here, once you convert the currency. Less than $2 (RM6) a can in Denver, about RM18 here. So I tend to stock up when I go back. So, upon hearing this request to open my extremely stuffed suitcase and rifle through it to find and remove my shaving gel, I reflected on a few things. First, China Southern clearly had no problem with the shaving gel flying from L.A. to Guangzhou, so it was questionable as to why this can suddenly presented a problem on the next flight. Second, there was an identical can of this shaving gel in the suitcase that did get flown from Guangzhou to KL, so clearly they were applying the "no shaving gel" rule pretty arbitrarily and inconsistently. And third, HELLO! It's shaving gel. Millions of people pack cans of shaving cream and gel into their luggage every day! I even checked China Southern's website and it wasn't on their "do not pack" list in any form. So in consideration of all this, I flatly refused their request and told them they'd better get their act together and get that bag to me in a hurry. Bizarrely enough, that's apparently all it took, because it was on an evening flight to KL the following day and delivered to my doorstep at 9:45 p.m., intact and unmolested. So because of all this idiocy, China Southern apparently had to pay Malaysia Airlines to fly my bag to KL, then pay some airport guy to drive it out to my place. I will say this much though: In a similar scenario, there's no way America's odious TSA agents would ever ask a passenger for permission to open a suitcase. They'd open it on a lark, forcibly if necessary, take out whatever they deemed to be the problem item, steal any valuables if it suited their fancy, and leave you a note for your troubles. (They apparently did this to my bag in Denver before flying it to L.A., and though they didn't remove anything, they obviously couldn't be bothered to re-secure my brand-new luggage strap around the suitcase because it was gone when the bag hit the carousel at LAX. Awesome. Thanks guys.)

So now, the only thing left to do is try to get my reimbursement from Southwest. So far, they're refusing, but I'm not backing down since it was totally their fault the flight was delayed (they told me it was a baggage unloading issue that delayed the plane from even reaching Denver on time), totally their fault I missed my flight to Asia, and totally their employees who emphatically assured me I would be reimbursed. I'm rather annoyed by Southwest's unwillingness to own up to this and just pay my hotel bill, but I am almost certainly not going to fly China Southern again if there's any way to avoid it. They're just stupid. Stupid airline and an even stupider airport. *Shakes fist*

To end on a more upbeat note, I'll close out with a few photos from the trip that didn't make the previous entries. See you next time...

Shiloh and me in happier, pre-travel times;
I just need an eye patch and a pirate hat

The City and County building in
downtown Denver... all lit up
for Christmas

Frozen waterfall — Idaho Springs, Colorado
(Can it even be called a waterfall? It's not water and it's not falling. Hmm.)

My dad and mom, hunkered down against the
howling winter winds in the mountains west of Denver

A cold, clear late December day in the Rockies

My crazy bird, Shiloh, helping herself to my coffee

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christmas in Colorado

At long last, I'm back at my place in Malaysia. The voyage back was easily the worst I've ever endured. Let's recap, shall we? Totally stuffed-full airplanes, flight delays, screaming toddlers, missed connections, the freaking 24-hour delay in Los Angeles (lest we forget), a cancelled flight, bad food, bad turbulence, and to top it all off, lost luggage.

Before I get into all of that, and before I lay down a blistering, excoriating critique of China Southern Airlines (and possibly Southwest Airlines, too) and the woefully inept Guangzhou airport, permit me to write about the actual trip back home, which was really good. I may put the saga of the trip back to KL in its own separate entry.

As I noted in an earlier entry, we got a substantial snowfall just before Christmas, which began the day I arrived in Denver. After that, there was no snow for the rest of my stay, until the day I left. Thought that was pretty interesting, and was really exactly how I'd have scripted it, had anyone asked me. :)

I've gotta dream up a name for these!
For reasons passing understanding, I agreed to prepare and cook Christmas dinner for everyone (ten people), even though I was only arriving in town three days before that. It was a bit of a fiasco trying to get all the ingredients I needed before the stores closed on Christmas Eve, but it ultimately worked out okay. I decided to cook a couple of Beef Wellingtons with spinach and mushroom duxelles (and all the side dishes, as well). I also made a wild mushroom soup with crème fraîche as the starter. That part was good, but the beef didn't cook as quickly as I had hoped, so there was a long delay between the soup course and the entrée course. Whoops. I also prepared hors d'oeuvres, but have no name for this little creation. It's a slice of Genoa salami and a bit of garlic- and herb-seasoned cream cheese in a small puff pastry shell, festooned with a stuffed Manzanilla olive. It's one of my favorites to make, and they just burst with contrasting flavors. Anyway, the dinner was great -- family and friends. We all exchanged gifts and ate and drank and just enjoyed the day. We had the dinner at our friends' house in Colorado Springs, and they routinely get deer wandering around in their yard and we had a trio come right up to the back door as we were getting the dinner ready.

The table is set for Christmas dinner...

"You're not cooking venison, are you?"

Dad and me, freezing at Red Rocks Park
In an even greater source of confusion, my mom took it upon herself to e-mail my father, who lives in Alabama, and invite him out to Colorado while I was in town. Now, they divorced over 35 years ago, and really haven't spent any appreciable time together in at least three decades, and it's been at least that long since the three of us, our little erstwhile family unit, had been under the same roof. So when she dropped this bombshell on me, that my dad would be appearing in Denver the day after Christmas, and staying at her place, no less, I was pretty stunned. However, I knew it would all be just fine and likely pretty enjoyable... and it was. Turned out to be a really fun visit. Here's a pic of him and me at Red Rocks, the park and natural amphitheater just west of Denver. Dad was there visiting for four days and had a great time. I took him to the Coors beer brewery for the free tour, which I hadn't done myself in probably 15 years. They give you three complimentary beers to drink at the end -- a beer tasting, I guess, since you can choose from about 10 different offerings -- and since they're very nearly full-sized beers, we got a tiny bit buzzed, then headed down the street (in downtown Golden, Colorado) to the Capitol Grille and split a wonderful and huge grilled bison burger with some of the best crispy fries I've had in a long time... and had another couple of local beers. Ha ha. It was great.

It wasn't until half the pizza had been devoured that
I realized I hadn't yet snapped a picture of it!
Another high point was going up to the mountains one day. We went to a landmark restaurant in the small town of Idaho Springs called Beau Jo's. This place makes Colorado-style "mountain pies" — big, thick-crust pizzas that people heading to or from the ski slopes of Colorado's mountains have been savoring for many years. We actually got a "prairie pie," which is the semi-thin crust version, and created this culinary marvel from their ridiculously long list of crusts, sauces, cheeses, and toppings. My dad was raving about it, calling it perhaps the best pizza he had ever eaten. It was made with a basil-pesto sauce, a four-cheese blend of mozzarella, provolone, fontina, and feta cheeses, pepperoni, mushrooms, Andouille sausage, and a shower of Greek herbs and seasonings on top. It was absolutely gobsmacking delicious, I kid you not. From Beau Jo's, we proceeded over the always-scenic Highway 103 over Squaw and Juniper Passes. There were ferocious winds howling through the Rocky Mountains that day, easily gusting up to 90 mph (144 km/h), so we saw a lot of what they call "ground blizzards," where the high winds whip up the snow from the ground and can create whiteout conditions, even under a cloudless blue sky. It was a beautiful drive. Cresting the pass at over 11,000 feet (3,300 meters), the views are always breathtaking, and this time was no exception. You can see why people love living in Colorado!

The amazing view from Colo. Highway 103

This is the view of Denver from Red Rocks Park in the
foothills just west of the city
The rest of the trip was pretty standard... relaxing, shopping, eating out (had some outstanding Mexican food, as usual), evenings by the fire, things like that. One of the other nice moments happened around dusk one afternoon (the sun sets very early in December there) when we were up in the foothills in a town called Evergreen. The town has a good-sized lake that, of course, freezes over every winter. A part of the lake is maintained for ice skating, and there were loads of people out skating that day. I snapped a picture that quickly became my favorite of the trip... it's truly a winter wonderland. Boys crossing the bridge over a frozen creek with their hockey gear after a day spent on the ice, the last of the afternoon's warmth and light stealing from the scene, the crowds still ice skating under the darkening sky... it was just magical. A huge part of getting that great shot is simply being in the right place at the right time (and having a camera handy).

Ice skating in Evergreen, Colorado

I took this picture at my mom's place as we were leaving
for the airport... and the snow was falling again
As 2011 gave way to 2012, I still had a week to enjoy being in my home city, and the weather was just fantastic. One fine day — in early January, mind you! — the temperature hit nearly 70°F (21°C). But it didn't last. When I first moved to Colorado back in 1989, I was repeatedly told, "If you don't like the weather here, just wait an hour." Sure enough, the temperature had plummeted to 42°F (5°C) by the next day, and the day after that, my departure day, it was snowing steadily. Such is life in Colorado! Here in KL, no one ever discusses or cares much about the weather, because it's mostly the same day in and day out. You'll hear no forecasts on the radio, see no weather segments on the local news... it's just not something that needs any real consideration here. In Denver, though, the weather is a major factor in people's day-to-day life, and it changes all the time, sometimes crazily and rapidly!

So I'll wrap this up here and write soon about the odyssey of getting back to Malaysia. Never a short journey to begin with, this particular one took a jaw-dropping 57 hours to complete. The harrowing details... coming soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Marooned in L.A.

I admit it. I'm one of those people. I don't want to get to the airport three hours before my flight, just to sit and languish in the airport forever while waiting for the flight to board. I've had my fair share of close calls, but have never missed a flight, and really, have very rarely made any mad dashes through the airport, either.

This is a deliriously happy sight for any traveler!
However, this time was different. With snow falling on the day of my departure and three very heavy suitcases to heave around, I was taking no chances. My mom and I had a great lunch and a pitcher of margaritas at a local Denver Mexican restaurant at around 2 p.m., then headed to the airport very early. I arrived some two and a half hours before my flight, and I am here to tell everyone: If you want to fly out of Denver hassle-free and without a crowd of millions at every security checkpoint, Saturday evenings seem to be the time for that. Look at this total lack of people at security. I breezed through!

Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the good times ended. For some reason, the plane that was to take me to Los Angeles was late in arriving, so there was an announced 20-minute delay in the flight. Since I had a little over a two-hour layover in L.A., this wasn't too troublesome. However, the 20-minute delay swelled into a 75-minute delay, and we took off at 8:12 p.m. instead of the originally scheduled 6:55 p.m. As we made our approach into L.A., our announced arrival time was 9:07 p.m. My China Southern flight was scheduled to depart at 10:30, so I was pretty concerned at this point.

My snow-covered plane that got me to LAX safely,
just not on time
The flight itself was fairly bad, too. The snow in Denver didn't cause any serious problems apart from an extra ten minutes or so of delay as they de-iced the plane's wings. But once we got airborne, nothing really improved. Despite the near-empty terminal, this flight was completely full, and there must have been two dozen small children on the plane. I'm not kidding; there were at least six of them right around me, one of whom threw a full-blown and very loud screaming tantrum as we neared LAX. We also had some really bad turbulence on the descent, too, which is never a good time. Anyway, we landed, taxied to our gate, and I got off as quickly as possible and collected my checked luggage probably around 9:35, loaded up a luggage cart, and bolted out the door for the International Terminal, which is stupendously far from Terminal 1 at LAX. At a leisurely walk, it would easily take 12-15 minutes. I got there in about half that time, and when I got to the China Southern check-in counter, it was nearly closed. Only two staffers were still there, and they were closing out everything and cleaning up. They initially said that it was possible for me to make the flight, but that there was absolutely no way my luggage would go -- and that it would arrive a day later. After explaining my options to me, it was around 9:50, and by that time, there was no way for even me to get through security and to the gate, so I had officially missed my flight thanks to Southwest's delay.

So, on the advice of the China Southern ticket agents, I trudged all the way back to Terminal 1, only to find that the entire Southwest ticketing wing was closed. Nobody was there at all, so I went down to baggage claim and found some of their staff hanging around. They issued a so-called "delay certificate," which supposedly will get me onto the next China Southern flight without being charged, and told me that Southwest would reimburse me for my lodging and food on account of my being stranded for 24 hours in Los Angeles, so I'm saving my receipts and holding out hope that Southwest will be as good about taking care of this issue as they were about paying up for my destroyed suitcase and its contents back in September 2008 when I first moved to Malaysia. Like this time, that flight was also quite late in departing. I'm not sure what it is with Southwest and its flights to L.A., but I've not had any luck at all with them.

Watching the game at the Radisson's restaurant
I got a shuttle bus to the Radisson, staying once again in the same hotel I stayed in almost three weeks ago, except that time intentionally. And that's where I am now. I went down to Subway for lunch, and wow, was it ever nice outside! Can't deny that southern Califoria in January is a great place to be... it was a perfect 67°F (about 19°C) with nice blue skies. So I had my lunch, and the front desk folks let me stay in the room until about 2:30 p.m., and now I'm in the lobby in their casual restaurant, just relaxing, surfing the net, and watching the Broncos-Steelers NFL playoff game on TV, which is a great way to pass the time... much better than being adrift and miserable at the airport, in any case. It's about 4:30 p.m. now, so I have another six hours to go before my flight departs. With any luck, my next entry will be from the cozy confines of my condo in Damansara Perdana.

Oh, as a P.S., I just got an email notifying me that China Southern has cancelled the flight from Guangzhou to KL that I was originally scheduled to be on. At first I thought it meant that they had cancelled my seat since I missed the flight from L.A., but when I read it carefully, it showed that that the entire flight was cancelled. So even if I had somehow managed to make that outbound flight from L.A. last night, I'd still have been stuck, for who knows how long, in Guangzhou's airport of despair... so maybe this was all for the best.

Will I ever get home?? Stay tuned!


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Greetings from America...

Winter in the Rockies,
black-and-white style
... and happy 2012 to everyone. Apparently, this year marks the end of the world, so let's make sure it's a good one. Ha ha.

So here I am, home for the holidays back in Colorado. Christmas has come and gone, and now, all the New Year's festivities are behind us, too, so I thought I'd write and kind of give an update on the trip so far. I've been here almost two weeks now and have a few more days before leaving the Rocky Mountain state and flying back to Malaysia.

The flight over was pretty uneventful, a marked difference from the dreadful China Southern flight home two Christmases ago. The layover was much shorter, and the airplane was newer. But they still have a ways to go. In 2009, I didn't even get a boarding pass for the second leg of the flight (Guangzhou to L.A.) until I actually arrived in Guangzhou, an issue that caused quite a kerfuffle. This time, I got both of my boarding passes upon check-in at the counter in KL, but once we arrived in China, a mob of transit passengers was still required to stand in a lengthy immigration queue. Apparently, the fine people in Guangzhou still haven't sorted out what "transit" means. At every other airport I've transited through (Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, etc.), all transit passengers just get herded to the transit area. There's no passport inspection, no checking of documents, you're just passing through. So after the lengthy wait to clear immigration (for whatever reason), I proceeded up an escalator to an even slower line... for security screening. Never mind that we had just gotten off an international flight, hundreds of people had to be shoehorned through ONE security gate. Every person was metal-detected, hand-wanded, and their belongings x-rayed. Keep in mind there was only one line for this, and it took forever. Seriously, transiting in Guangzhou still sucks. The only reason I chose China Southern again was just the huge difference in fare price ($1,000 USD vs. about $1,600 and up for every other airline).

So once I finally cleared security, there I was, on that same hellish concourse from two years ago where I languished for 20 hours in total on two epic layovers. I didn't have long to wait this time, but WiFi is still frustratingly absent there. Numerous people were wandering around in a techno-daze with their smartphones and laptops held out plaintively, searching in vain for working WiFi signals. I finally found one at one of the tea/coffee shops, and felt compelled to pay a whopping $6 USD for a cup of admittedly very nice tikuanyin tea just to use their network guilt-free. But by that time, my flight was already about to board, and the tea shop was completely chaotic, so I was very pressed for time. I somehow managed to hurriedly book a room at the Radisson hotel near LAX using my little iPod and a hotel app I had just downloaded. Since I'd be overnighting upon arrival in L.A., booking the hotel gave me a great sense of relief, knowing I wouldn't be adrift in the airport there from 6 p.m. until 6:30 the following morning. So off we flew... and funnily enough, we actually landed in California earlier (by local time) than when we departed!

So I got to L.A. and cleared immigration and customs easily and efficiently. The airport in L.A. still sucks, but they are definitely making strides in improvement, particularly in the international terminal. It's loads better than it was 3-4 years ago, so props to them for that. I still prefer flying into other ports of entry into America, though. I got my luggage and found the free shuttle bus to the Radisson and headed off into the California evening. I was really surprised that I was able to get such a nice hotel right next to LAX for only $58... it was a mobile-only promo on some iPhone app, so I was happy to get that rate. I wouldn't expect to get much more than a budget motel for around $50 in Los Angeles, but this was a solid 3-star-plus hotel. The room was great, the bed was huge and very comfortable, and I got to enjoy a long soak in a hot bath... total bliss after a 13-hour trans-Pacific flight (which itself followed a 4-hour flight and 3-hour layover for a grand total of 20 hours of transit). There was a Subway just nearby, so I walked down in the surprisingly chilly night air (mid-40s -- I didn't know L.A. ever got that cold) and got a footlong Italian sub and took it back to my room and devoured it. So tasty!
This is the morning after the snow
began -- we got a bit more, but this
shows the majority of the snowfall

The next morning, December 22nd, I flew to Denver and within hours of my arrival, snow began falling, continued at a fairly heavy rate throughout the night and until around lunchtime the next day. When it finally stopped, we had around 10" (25 cm), a hefty snowfall for the city in December. With this much snow on the 23rd, a White Christmas was virtually guaranteed! The following day, Christmas Eve, we had a spectacular, cloudless blue Colorado sky, and the fresh blanket of snow really made it easy to get into a holiday mood!

I'll stop here and write more once I get back to Malaysia, along with a lot more pictures, but here are a couple to get you started... the one from my mom's back porch here is interesting because of the expanse of deep snow on the hillside in the background. It doesn't provide much contrast with the snow on the table, but you can sort it all out. It was a nice, deep snowfall, for sure!

To be continued...

Midday on Christmas Eve just near my mother's house...
definitely click on this one to enlarge!