3 ways my trip to Beijing was exactly like the Apollo 13 mission to the moon

I just got back from a trip to China. Based on everything that happened, I came to the conclusion that the best way to explain my time in Beijing was to compare it to the 1969 Apollo 13 mission to the moon.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with that mission, all you need to know is that it was a mission that didn’t go quite as planned, and it was the result of rapid creative thinking which helped to bring the astronauts home alive.

Now, I’m not saying that I was in danger of losing my life at any point during this trip (except maybe for the taxi rides to and from the airport), but I couldn’t help but to laugh when I realized that everything that happened was kind of like a lot less serious version the 1995 Apollo 13 movie directed by Ron Howard.

1. Saving battery life became the number one goal

Unfortunately, I had a momentary lapse of intelligence which led me to completely forget to unplug my iPhone charger from the outlet between the seats as I walked off the plane in Beijing.

SANspotter selfie JAL
Just a picture of me being forgetful and careless, oblivious to the fact that my iPhone charger is still plugged in between the seats. How was it even possible to forget about what was possibly the most important thing that I brought along with me on this trip?

It wasn’t until I had arrived at the hotel later that evening that I realized the mistake. I frantically dug through my backpack, all the pockets in my jacket, as well as the pockets of my jeans 10 times each. It was a sinking feeling to realize that the lifeline to my world (my phone) was just about dead and I had absolutely no way to recharge it.

Everything was on that phone. My itinerary, communication with friends and family, and important things like maps which would help me explore the city the next day. Without my phone and that precious data, things could’ve become very difficult very quickly.

Compare that with the astronauts of Apollo 13 (who admittedly had it horrifically worse than I did): they were stuck floating around in a powerless craft in outer space, and thier only hope of returning home safely at that point was fully dependent on a very limited amount of power from damaged battery packs.

hose batteries were all the astronauts had at that point, and they knew that they needed every single ounce of energy from them in order to make it home. But they also needed things like communication with Mission Control, heat, and small bursts of thrust to keep them (somewhat) on course. Without battery power, none of that was possible.

Apollo 13 movie
Assessing the situation. How crazy is it to think that our phones have more computing power than what was in that entire spacecraft?

They kept their spacecraft completely powered down most of the time, and only powered it on when absolutely necessary for communications and slight course corrections. It became a delicate dance of turning it on, quickly doing what needed to be done, and then powering off as fast as humanly possible in order to conserve valuable power.

I found myself doing exactly that with my iPhone for the first 12 hours of this trip. For example, letting my family know that I had safely arrived was very important because I didn’t want them assuming that I was lying dead in a ditch somewhere if I didn’t check in.

So I turned on my phone, fired off a quick text message, and then quickly turned it off as fast as I could.

I was down to 30% power that point, and it needed to last me two more days at least – which would typically only last about four hours or so in normal use.

I thought long and hard about each time that I needed to use it for something, and I only turned it on for the most important things. Never since 2007 (when I got my first smart phone) have I ever understood the importance of being connected more than I had at this moment.

My dead iPhone 6
It’s pretty scary to think how dependent we have become on these devices. I felt embarrassingly lost without it!

Part of me actually wishes that I wasn’t able to find an iPhone charger the next day in a store less than a two minute walk from my hotel (lol). I mean, think of the stories I’d be able to tell right now about the adventures of making an iPhone last an entire weekend on a single 30% charge. Now that would be entertaining content!

Busy Beijing city
Thankfully Beijing is a bustling modern city with electronic shops full of iPhone chargers for sale all over the place. Disaster averted.

2. Finally, after many years of preparation, it was time to go to the moon China

I’m not sure exactly what it is about China that makes me think of it so highly, but for my entire life I’ve considered it to be a destination synonymous with “world travel”.

If somebody would’ve told me that they were going to the Bahamas for vacation, it wouldn’t have impressed me nearly as much as saying that they were going to China instead.

For example, when I was in my teens, I considered visiting China as some really serious shit – people who went to China were hard-core travelers and the ones that I looked up to the most.

There’s just something so exotic and different about Chinese culture that has always fascinated me, and I had always thought that if I could visit China and get around OK on my own, I’d be a bonafide world traveler myself. Sounds cheesy, I know, but those are the kinds of things going on in my brain.

SANspotter in Beijing
OMG I’m really here! This place (Tiananmen Square / Forbidden City) was burned into my memory after the 1989 student protests, and to finally see it in person was kind of a big moment. Oh – and props to the college student who hustled me out of $30US for buying one of her paintings near here. Her sales pitch was good, and from one entrepreneur to another, I couldn’t help but to support her and make the purchase.

My fascination with China was similar to primitive man looking up at the moon from earth long ago. They could see it, they knew it was there, but it seemed so far away and impossible to reach.

The astronauts of Apollo 13 had all of that same curious excitement as well – stepping foot on the moon was their ultimate goal in life, and it would have established them as part of a very elite group of explorers in the history of mankind.

They had been preparing many years for that exact moment, just as I had been preparing (and dreaming) of a trip to China since my teens.

SANspotter Beijing selfie
Everything about this China trip was fascinating to me, and it was hard not to just stand there like the tourist I was and soak it all in.

Visiting China didn’t do anything for me in terms of establishing myself as part of an elite group of travelers, but it did make me pause for a moment and feel immensely satisfied for achieving one of my biggest lifetime goals.

Even if nobody else cared about my accomplishment as much as I did, I felt so proud to return home a “bonafide world traveller.”

3. The stench of cigarette smoke everywhere

One of the things I remember most about the movie was the fact that everybody was smoking.

And I do mean everybody. whether it be in Mission Control, at the dinner table, in meetings, or gatherings with friends – there was a thick haze of smoke filling every scene, which almost seems comical in this day and age when smoking isn’t so widely accepted anymore (at least here in the US).

Apollo 13 movie smoking GIF
Smoking the stress away at Mission Control.

This is not the case in modern-day Beijing. I didn’t necessarily witness very many people smoking, but the stench of cigarette smoke in the air was strong wherever I went.

Especially in the taxi cabs. Based on my extensive research of riding in two completely different taxicabs during this trip (ha!), I’ve come to the conclusion that Beijing taxicab drivers are serious smokers – and if you’ve got a sensitivity to cigarette smoke all I can say is that you best be prepared to deal with it.

 Beijing pollution haze
The unmistakable haze of the Beijing skyline. Cigarette, anyone? Just step outside for a moment and inhale deeply…

Smoking is very much part of the culture in China, the same way it was part of US culture back in the 60s during the Apollo space missions. I almost felt out of place for being a non-smoker, and who knows? Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed my stay even more if I burned through at least a pack a day.

The quiet serenity of Taipei during Chinese New Year

Coming into a new city for the first time is always one of the most exciting parts of a trip for me. Getting my first glimpse of the skyline from a distance, taking the exit off the freeway, twisting and turning thought the busy streets on the way to the hotel – it’s an exhilarating thing for a traveler to experience.

Taipei taxi
The taxi ride into Taipei from the airport. The anticipation is building!
Taipei taxi ride
Getting my first look at the city of Taipei.

My first impressions of Taipei were interesting, mostly because the city never felt big to me during my entire ride in from the airport.

I could see the skyline off in the distance, but it was difficult to determine where the “downtown” area was just from looking at all the buildings.

The Taipei 101 tower seemed to the the tallest structure in the entire city, and it stood alone in one part of town separate from another cluster of large buildings off in the distance. This was certainly not the Taipei I was expecting.

I had envisioned Taipei to be a huge sprawling metropolis with the chaotic energy of Hong Kong. It wasn’t. On my day of arrival, the streets were empty and a majority of the shops were closed.

I naturally assumed the lack of activity was because it was Sunday, and the following day the city would come alive with everyone going to work and getting back to their normal daily routines.

empty taipei streets
The vacant streets of Taipei.
taipei buildings
It felt like a deserted city at times – a very eerie experience.

It didn’t happen though. Monday morning came and went with no increase in activity, and it was then that it started feeling like something was wrong. Had the city been evacuated due to a deadly virus spreading like wildfire? Was there a threat of war? Did everyone get the hell out of town because they knew SANspotter was coming??

The jet lag must have been fierce, because I missed the most obvious answer: Chinese New Year. Yes indeed, this was the first time I’ve been in Asia during Chinese New Year, and I had no idea how major of a holiday it was. It’s three days long. It’s the biggest public event of the year. And it has the power to empty entire cities.

SANspotter selfie taipei
All alone at the top of the Taipei 101 tower.
taipei 101 tower candid photo
This guy looked pretty lonely as well.
walking in taipei
Walking in silence around the city. I was not expecting things to be so calm!

There were still pockets of activity around the touristy areas like the Taipei 101 shopping center and observatory, but whenever I strayed too far from this area the streets turned vacant and quiet. It was possible to walk down the middle of the street in some places, which is downright eerie in big Asian cites such as Taipei.

taipei side streets
Vacant side streets with only a few locals in sight. Where did everyone go?

The bad thing about all this is that I began to accept it as “normal”. On my final day in the city, the holiday was coming to a close and everyone started coming out of their houses and poured into the streets.

Traffic was brutal. There was the smell of delicious food in the air. All the shops and cafes were open. It was like a completely different city, and I couldn’t help to feel a bit cheated since I didn’t have enough time to soak it all in. THIS was the Taipei I came for!

busy taipei streets
There were still pockets of activity around, and things slowly got busier as Chinese New Year came to a close.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was really lucky to have had the experience of seeing Taipei as calm and quiet as I did. It ended up being a very relaxing two and a half days, which was just what I needed to decompress from the stress of work back home.

If I had come into the chaotic Taipei I was expecting, I probably would have returned home feeling just as tense as I did when I left.

Someday I’ll go back to Taipei to experience things as they normally are, which is intriguing to me considering that it will probably be like getting to visit this place again for the first time…

3 days in Hong Kong (how I spent my time)

Spending 3 days in Hong Kong is something that I can easily recommend. This city has it all, and there is something for everyone – even those of you with a pesky attention deficit order such as myself…

3 amazing days in Hong Kong

It was good to be back in Hong Kong again, and my body knew it. Despite arriving late the night before and not getting to bed past 1am, I was wide awake by 6am in anticipation of a great day of exploring.

To be completely honest, my plan was to keep things simple and not rush around and do too much – this was a vacation after all, and I’ve never been a big fan of cramming as much as humanly possible into a day. That’s worse than being busy at home!

Day 1: Tsim Tsa Tsui, the Star Ferry, and Victoria Peak

I eventually rolled out of bed by 7:30, dragging my feet and slowly getting ready for the day. All I knew at this point was that I wanted to get breakfast at the hotel restaurant, but beyond that there were absolutely no plans! The shower was slow and relaxing, it took forever to get dressed, and I had absolutely no desire to tidy up and get organized.

This vacation stuff is really nice, and it really makes me appreciate how pointless the 9-5 rat race in really is. Of course it’s my 9-5 job that allows me to be able to afford traveling like this, but there are other ways to earn a living besides slaving away for someone else in an office. But that’s a topic for another blog…

morning in hong kong
Dawn breaks over Hong Kong, as seen from my hotel room window
hyatt hong kong hotel restaurant
Main dining room of the hotel restaurant
chinese style breakfast
I started out my breakfast Chinese style…
made to order omelet hyatt hong kong
…but the made-to-order omelet station at the buffet looked too good to resist.

After pigging out at the hotel restaurant, I thought maybe I’d like to walk around outside for a while just to get reacquainted with Hong Kong. It started out as a simple enough stroll, but then things took off quickly from there.

“I’ll go down to the waters edge to have a look at the skyline” I thought, but two hours later I found myself at the top of Victoria Peak looking down on Hong Kong Island. This is an amazing city for sure, and it’s hard to resist the urge to see it from every angle.

victoria harbor hong kong
It felt good to be back in Hong Kong again!
Hong Kong skyline
The Hong Kong skyline, as seen from the Avenue of the Stars
hong kong tsim tsa tsui promenade
Walking along the waterfront on the way to the Star Ferry Terminal
Star Ferry Terminal hong kong
Inside the Star Ferry Terminal, just about to board the ferry
Star Ferry Hong Kong
Onboard the Star Ferry, headed over to Hong Kong Island

The weather was surprisingly good today – I don’t think I’ve personally ever seen the sun shine in Hong Kong, but it was a welcome sight for sure. Not so welcome was seeing how commercialized Victoria Peak has become.

They’ve literally built a full-fledged shopping mall up there, and it dillutes the experience of looking down on the city IMHO.

Yes, it was highly commercialized the last time I was here (back in 2002), but the’ve built a lot more since then and all the shops and restaurants were distracting to say the least.

I’ve also matured a lot since then, and I guess I’ve become more sensitive to this sort of thing. But still, it was fun to look down on the city and appreciate the moment of being in one of the greatest cities in the world.

walking through the city of hong kong
Navigating the streets of Hong Kong on my way to the Peak Tram
hong kong architecture
I love the architecture of this city!
Waiting in line for the Peak Tram
Waiting in line for the Peak Tram
peak tram hong kong
The tram has arrived. Here we go!
inside the tram victoria peak hong kong
This pic doesn’t show how steep the climb is. My neck actually started hurting half way up!
victoria peak hong kong
See those people way up there on top? That’s the observation deck, and I’m headed up that way…
Sky Terrace 428 Victoria Peak Hong Kong
Sky Terrace 428 Victoria Peak Hong Kong
sky terrace 428 observation deck
The view from the observation deck is nothing short of amazing
victoria peak hong kong selfie
Selfie time!
Sky Terrace 428 observation deck
The Sky Terrace 428 observation deck is well worth the price of admission!

I also shot a quick time-lapse video of the action from the observation deck:

It was nearly 1pm when I decided that I had enough, so I just decided to spend the rest of the afternoon meandering back to my hotel in Kowloon.

It was essentially a repeat of what I experienced in the morning, but this time in reverse: take the tram down the mountain, walk to the Star Ferry pier, take the ferry across the bay to Tsim Tsa Tsui, and then navigate the busy city streets to find my hotel.

victoria peak tram
Taking the tram back down the into the city
inside the victoria peak tram
Here’s a wider angle view from inside the tram
victoria peak tram tracks
A view of the the tracks as we go down the mountain
star ferry terminal hong kong island
Star Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island
star ferry to Tsim Tsa Tsui
Just about to board the ferry to Tsim Tsa Tsui
inside the star ferry hong kong
I wasn’t able to get a “window” seat, but oh well
Star Ferry interior
Heading across Victoria Harbor to Tsim Tsa Tsui on the Star Ferry
nathan road hong kong
Navigating Nathan Road on my way back to the hotel

The long walk back to the hotel was hot and muggy – but so much fun. Despite that, it felt really good to sit in the cool comfort of my hotel room and chug a full bottle of water!

With the beautiful panoramic views of the city from my hotel room window, it was a relaxing afternoon of surfing the Internet, checking up on things, and basically not doing anything for a couple hours. I never get to be this lazy and non-productive at home so this was really nice!

Hong Kong skyline
Beautiful views of the Hong Kong skyline from my hotel room window

For dinner I decided to grab something to eat at one of the many local take out restaurants in the area. I was pretty hungry by 5pm (I had skipped lunch) so I set off in search of a good meal.

It didn’t take long to find it – there were lots of great little restaurants within a block or two of the hotel so I just picked one and ordered some sort of grilled meat combo. It came with steamed rice, a side of vegetables, and soup. Not bad! It wasn’t completely fantastic either, but it did satisfy my hunger for the rest of the evening.

hong kong take out dinner
I wasn’t in the mood for anything fancy for dinner, so this place looked perfect
hong kong take out dinner
The meal was ok – not amazing, but certainly not bad either.

I don’t normally watch TV while at home, so there was something deliciously “bachelor” about sitting in front of the TV while stuffing my face with really good Chinese food.

The activities of the last two days combined with a bit of jet lag hit me hard by 9pm, but I did force myself to stay up until at least 10pm to minimize the chance of waking up in the middle of the night wide awake.

I certainly did more than I had planned today, and I went to bed a very satisfied and happy guy.

Day 2: Blending in

I’m not normally one to get hit with jet lag, but despite the massive difficulties I faced staying up until 10pm the night before, I was wide awake and tossing and turning by 2am. Dang it! I tried as hard as I could to clear my mind and meditate myself to sleep, but it was futile – the last time I looked at the clock it said 6:30 and the sun was already coming up.

However, that was right about the time I fell asleep again and I didn’t open my eyes again until 8:30. So, it wasn’t a great night of sleep, but at least I got some.

It was pouring rain with a bit of thunder and lightning as I walked out the door to get breakfast shortly after 9, and I was mentally preparing myself for the thought of being super lazy today and staying inside to work on this trip report.

Remember, I’m not the kind of traveller who feels the need to run around like crazy all day to cram as much as I can into my vacation – that’s not a vacation in my book! Sitting and being lazy for once, quietly blending into the city I happen to be in is my idea of a good time and I’m a really happy guy if I can find a nice quiet spot in the shade to sit and people watch.

rainy hong kong
The view from my hotel room window right after I woke up. Looks like it’s going to be a wet one today.
breakfast hyatt regency hong kong
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant – I couldn’t resist another one of those made to order omelets!

By the time I finished breakfast and returned to my room to gather my belongings, the rain had stopped and the clouds were starting to part.

I thought it might be good to grab my iPad and set off in search of a nice cafe or lounge before it started raining again, which for some reason I was convinced it would.

Hey, this is Hong Kong after all, where there is always a layer of menacing low clouds hugging the skyline. It always looks like it’s going to rain at any moment.

Hong Kong Trip Report
Found a nice place under a canopy to escape the rain drops for a few minutes
streets of Tsim Tsa Tsui hong kong
Navigating the wet streets of Tsim Tsa Tsui
hong kong street view
This pic doesn’t show it well, but this time of the morning (10am), it’s all about the delivery trucks making their rounds.
hong kong panoramic view
I ended up walking down to the Avenue of the Stars again
wet hong kong
It was still kind of wet and gloomy though so I just found a semi-dry spot to sit, relax, and people-watch for a while.
I wore my funky socks today!
I wore my funky socks today!
cloudy hong kong
The area near the Star Ferry Pier is really nice – lots of open space, with great views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island.

The longer I walked around, the better the weather became. It was tempting to keep walking and exploring, but I had some writing to do so I went back to the Hyatt and hung out on a nice comfy corner chair in the lobby for a couple hours and poked away at the keyboard of this iPad churning out this trip report.

I returned to my room by 1pm due to a much-needed break, and I succeeded magnificently in being lazy and doing nothing until 4pm. It was staring to look really nice outside again, with high thin clouds and plenty of sun – time to go explore Tsim Tsa Tsui (or “TTT” as the locals call it).

There was certainly plenty to see – the streets were bustling, and the weather was fantastic, and it was only hunger that made me call an end to it at about 5:30pm. I was thinking about grabbing some Chinese take out from a local restaurant, but…the thought of splurging on room service back at the Hyatt won.

Nathan road intersection hong kong
The hustle and bustle of Nathan Road
cloudy hong kong
The clouds are finally starting to thin out!
nice afternoon in hong kong
It ended up turning into a really nice afternoon.
sunshine in hong kong
The sun eventually came out in full!
Room service back at the hotel
Room service back at the hotel.

Long story short, it was a very expensive not-so-good meal. Don’t get me wrong – the quality was top-notch! But it was far too spicy for my tastes and almost inedible. Keep in mind that I’m a total wimp when it comes to spicy food, so what I think is inedible is probably the best thing ever for those who like a little kick to thier meals.

After eating as much as I could (it was expensive – darn right I was going to eat it), I soaked in the bathtub for a while until it became too hot to bear. The bath was great, but it made me a lot more tired than I already was so once again it was a struggle to stay up until 10pm.

bubble bath in the hotel
I can’t remember the last time I took a bubble bath – but this was a perfect way to end the day!

Loud Chinese TV couldn’t keep me awake, and I went to bed thinking that I’d sleep like a baby for sure.

Day 3: I love this city!

My difficulty staying awake past 10pm the night before did nothing to keep me asleep all night. I woke up to go to the bathroom at 2am, and it was all over at that point. I tossed and turned until dawn so I finally got up and prepared myself to head downstairs for breakfast.

At least the weather was much better today – the sun was actually shining and it looked like a beautiful morning outside.

hong kong sunrise
Good morning Hong Kong!

Breakfast was slow and lazy, and I returned to my room by 9:30am to gather my things and prepare for a morning of walking around and doing pretty much nothing.

I was actually starting to feel like a local at this point – I knew my way around the area very well, I had a pretty good idea of how busy certain places would be at certain times of the day, and I knew where all the interesting cafe’s and shops were should I need to get a snack or refreshment.

sitting in the hotel room
Doing a little bit of writing on my iPad before heading out for the day

I started my walk towards the Star Ferry Terminal thinking that I’d just hop on the ferry and head over to Hong Kong Island to meander for a bit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any coins with me, and the smallest bill I had was HK$50 – which the token machine for the Ferry wouldn’t accept.

Yes, I could have bought something at a local shop to break that $50 bill, but I didn’t have ANY spare room in my backpack for souvenirs (which would have made the trip home more difficult), and I was neither hungry nor thirsty at the time.

Oh well. I guess I didn’t really want to get on the Ferry that badly anyway. So instead, I just hung around in a spot in the shade near the Avenue of Stars for a while and just people-watched.

nathan road hong kong
Nathan Road isn’t so busy this time of morning.
avenue of the stars hong kong
I could literally spend hours here on the Avenue of the Stars looking at the Hong Kong skyline across the harbor.
hong kong
The heat was already starting to build, so staying in the shade was really important!
hong kong city view
I sat here in this spot for about an hour and a half just people-watching and thinking…

After 1pm the heat was getting unbearable, so I decided to go back to the hotel and relax for a while before heading out again one last time in the evening to soak in as much of the city as I could.

It turned out to be a nice afternoon actually – sitting by the window overlooking the city, doing some reading and writing on my iPad, while sipping on ice-cold water in a comfortably air-conditioned room. Nice!

hong kong view
Awesome views of the city from my hotel room window.
resting my feet
Giving my poor, tired feet a much-needed rest.

I went back outside around 4pm with no plans at all. I just started walking, and what ended up happening was trekking Nathan Road for miles.

I just kept walking and walking and walking – almost feeling like Forrest Gump when he just started running with no goal in mind. I didn’t go quite as far as he did, but it was a really nice walk and a great way to cap my stay in this amazing city.

Walking along Nathan Road
Walking along Nathan Road

The sun was setting just as I returned to my hotel room, and I ended up taking tons of pics (and video) of the scenery outside my window while I waited on my room service to arrive.

Yeah, more room service. I had planned on finding something to eat locally around Tsim Tsa Tsui, but…I was tired and room service seemed like the most convenient option.

hyatt regency hong kong room service
Room service: prawns with asparagus with a side of rice and soup.
sun setting over hong kong
Dinner with a view. Perfect.

Lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me again, which worried me a bit considering that I needed to wake up at 3am in order to make it to Chek Lap Kok (HKG/VHHH) on time to catch my flight.

The possibility of sleeping through the alarm was real, so I set both my iPhone and iPad alarms at max volume and hoped for the best. And wouldn’t you know it…I ended up waking up at that time naturally anyway, so the dual alarms weren’t even needed.

This ended up being a really good trip despite my lack of sleep, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip. Until next time, Hong Kong!