Monday 26 March 2012

To Melbourne Airport the Cheap-Arse Way

[NOTE: For the latest information, see my 2014 update to this blog post by clicking here]

The cost of getting to and from airports throughout the Western world can be outrageously expensive, and Melbourne is not immune to this problem.

However.... there is a way of getting to and from Melbourne Airport cheaply, though the airport authorities and other vested interests would much rather you didn't learn what I'm about to tell you.

So draw your chairs closer to the fire, lean in and discover how to save a tidy bit of cash...

For the cheap-arses among us, there is a relatively new and much cheaper way into the city centre than the 20 minute $17 Skybus journey, though of course it takes longer (about 60 minutes).

This is how it works. On leaving the airport terminals, turn right and walk about 500 metres, all the way past the separate Terminal 4 where Tiger Airways flies from.

You’ll eventually reach a regular suburban bus stop – this is where the airport has hidden it in the hope that travellers will never find it.

Here you catch the 901 bus to Frankston, which leaves every 15 minutes from about 5am to midnight (timetable here). Buy a 2-hour Zone 1+2 ticket from the driver, or if you have the new Myki smartcard just touch on via the validator inside the door.

When the bus reaches Broadmeadows train station, get out and walk through the underpass to Platform 1. From here a train will take you straight to the city centre (timetable here).

The fare for the Metcard ticket from the bus driver is $6.50, and has the advantage of being able to be used on all public transport for the duration of the two hours – so it covers both the bus and train, and you could also transfer to a tram when you reach the city centre (for example).

Metcard tickets will be removed at the end of 2012 in favour of the already-running Myki smartcard system; presumably by then you’ll be able to buy Myki cards at the airport, though they’re not available there yet (I'll amend this info as it changes).

The Myki fare is even cheaper – just $5.54 for 2 hours. Even better, on Saturday & Sunday the Myki fare is only $3.30 for all-day travel.

The catch is that you must buy the Myki card for $6 and top it up with credit to be able to use it; though of course you’ll be able to keep using it during your stay in Melbourne, and retain it for use on any future visits.

The other good thing is that the 901+train option gets you straight into the “being in Melbourne” experience – you can eavesdrop on some pretty entertaining conversations on the train from Broady, which has a reputation for being one of Melbourne's tougher suburbs.

Don't let that put you off catching the train from Broadmeadows though, as it's a staffed, well-lit station.

So happy flying - and enjoy the cheap ride to/from Melbourne Airport.

[NOTE: For the latest information, see my 2014 update to this blog post by clicking here]

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Asia Memories 2: The Clarinet & the Long Crotch

Last month I asked readers to enter a competition for a copy of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook, to mark the accumulation of over 1000 followers on my Twitter feed.

Here's the winning entry, Erin Matthews' account of an unforgettably hot day in Tiananmen Square, Beijing:

So you want to hear my most memorable Asian travel experience?

I was playing clarinet with the official Beijing Olympic orchestra and we had a performance on Tiananmen Square.

It was a big deal because we were the first non-Asian performing group to ever play there.

Only problem… it was 40+ degrees and 100% humidity on the day, and musicians were dropping like flies. About 100 of the 1,800 musicians, in fact.

Unfortunately I was one of those flies, and it wasn't pretty.

They put me in an ambulance with about five Chinese nurses and a doctor. They were all screaming at each other over the top of me while I dropped in and out of consciousness. The only comfort I had was one nurse speaking to me in the only English she knew "It's ok, girl. It's ok."

For those of you have never been in a Chinese ambulance, they're… small. I'm not a short person but my ankles marked the end of the bed with my feet flopping over the edge, and my head was resting on a pillow they had put on the table behind the bed. It was small.

We got to the hospital and they settled me into a room with some other Australians. Once I had calmed down a bit I was bombarded by four Chinese nurses. They were all trying to get me out of my spectacular snot-green and red marching pants and shirt (with a cape), in order to get me into a robe.

So then I was settled.

I then had a visit from one of the guys from my band who I hardly knew (I was very new to the band at that point).

His opening statement was... "So the crotch in these pants, right?" It's true that the pants did have an unusually long crotch… but really?

It turned out this guy had had a choice to go with me, the unconscious girl, or another girl with a dislocated thumb. He chose the latter.

This whole scenario became the topic of many mocking conversations later on. The crazy boy talking about the crotch in his pants became my boyfriend, and is now my very best friend.

It made the whole shambles worthwhile. 

[Read the second-placed entry here]

Friday 9 March 2012

Asia Memories 1: Confusion on the Beijing Express

Last month I asked readers to enter a competition for a copy of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook, to celebrate my accumulation of over 1000 followers on my Twitter feed.

Here's the second-placing entry, Fran Watson's entertaining tale of the difficulties involved in finding one's train in a busy Chinese railway station (edited from the longer version on her blog):

In hindsight, I possibly didn’t choose the best route for my first solo train trip in China: Taiyuan to Beijing. Even forearmed with my ticket, the whole experience is overwhelming.

Taiyuan station is quite a large hub for the area. It’s not a little regional station. I should have tried to do this from a small, two platform station but noooooo, I've chosen the crossroads of a zillion communities. 

Although Taiyuan Station is quite the hub, it’s not quite up to the standard of the big city stations. Beijing and Shanghai have stations like airports (and they’re bilingual!), but not Taiyuan.

Numbers and pictures

Airports in China are pretty much bilingual. Everything is stated twice, once in Chinese and once in English. Stand in front of a board long enough and you will find where you need to go. I stand in front of the big flashing LED board at the station long enough. I still have absolutely NO IDEA where the hell I'm going.

Finally I see my train number and time flash up. There it is D2006, departing at 11:30 for 北京 - that would be Beijing. This much I can ascertain from comparing squiggles on my ticket.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else I can glean from the magic light board. It does indicate that I need to go to a waiting room that looks like this  and another unidentifiable symbol.

I look for help. Damn near every worker in China has an official looking uniform, so it’s not necessarily helpful to approach someone who may LOOK like they are an authority figure, because you’re just as likely to find that they are the local dog walker.

Crouching tiger, hidden platforms

Well I have my ticket so let’s rule out all the windows labelled ‘ticket’ and assume that there’s no baggage check.

That leaves one door. Here’s hoping this is the right direction. Through I go. Baggage x-ray machine and more people in uniform, this time waving wands. Well, it seems to be progress. No point having a security check just for the hell of it. Bags through, me through, wand waved in a rather non-effective way.

At the top is a big corridor with what appears to be waiting rooms breaking off at regular intervals.

Sill no signs in English, numbers that mean nothing, people swarming all over the place carrying neat little suitcases and enormous bundles of unidentifiable food. I am yet to even see a TRAIN let alone a platform, or tracks, or anything that vaguely identifies this as a station. In fact, all I have done is gone UP to the second floor. 

Enter the waiting room

I spot a sign at the end of an enormous hall. This is the only way I can describe this waiting room: it’s like a giant ballroom of rows of chairs … and people, thousands of people! Well … it looks like I am going to have to go through each waiting room one by one. I stand in the corridor and take a deep breath. I am completely lost.

Do you remember that feeling you had as a child that first time you got lost in the supermarket? For me there is no recollection of conscious thought, it’s just a feeling of utter despair and fear. As an adult I don’t feel this far out of my comfort zone often. I rarely feel this utterly lost. Today though, I am almost at the point of sobbing.

I consciously tell myself not to cry. I actually mutter it under my breath: “I will not let this beat me! I have got this far in a foreign land and I’ll be damned if a fricking railway station is going to beat me.”

Form a disorderly queue

I have now pushed my way through the barrier into three other waiting rooms. I have discovered that the LED ticker sign at the end of each waiting room is above a bank of stairs and escalators leading down to … OMG! PLATFORMS! Thank God, sign of trains!

Finally in waiting room number four I see my train number, D2006, departing 11:30am for 北京.

There are people forming a queue over to the far left of the room. This is in front of a bank of stairs and escalators; however, my LED ticker is over on the right side of the grand hall. Does this mean they lead to different  places? Is that the queue I should be in?

The big mob seems closer to my ticker than the neat queue in the far left of the room, so I’m going to go with that. I weave my way through the crowd to what, I think, is the ‘end’ of the ‘queue’, and I stand. I am pretty sure I am in the right place. Although I am still somewhat curious about the smaller line near some ‘nice chairs’. 

The secret of the nice chairs

Now I have a first class ticket, and I am wondering if I have access to the ‘nice chairs’ and the small queue. I sure as hell am not going over there to find out though.

I decide to try and communicate with a fellow mob member. After some charades and ticket pointing, neither of us are any the wiser as to what the other is saying. Then, from behind me, a rather proper, somewhat hesitant voice says "Hello, may I help you?"

I turn to see a young Chinese man who has clearly had to think about his words. It’s not his native language. It is music to my ears though.

“Am I in the right place?” He looks at my ticket. He points to the smaller queue and the ‘nice chairs’. “You may go over there if you like.” 

The gate opens

I am pretty sure I tread on some toes, I think I drag my bag over the odd foot, I try ever so carefully to be polite. 

Anyway, I finally get to my more civilised queue… and I wait. This queue is far less of a seething mob than the other… until the gate opens. 

One person through is enough to show sign of movement and chaos ensues. Everyone seated is now pushing into the queue. A grand ballroom of people just started pushing forward. It would not surprise me if people die doing this!

Finally my bag and I make it through the barrier in one piece, then down the escalator to the platform. I know that I am on carriage 16, seat 51. Once I figure out which direction the numbers go, I start heading down the platform … carriage six, carriage seven, carriage eight … I am starting to run out of train here. Ten minutes and ten carriages later, I get to carriage 16.

To Beijing and beyond

From here, it’s easy. Just like a plane. Seat numbers are clearly marked. Perfect. Bag stowed, I find my seat. Relax. Deep breath. I made it.

The trip is uneventful and three and half hours later I am in Beijing. Thank whichever deity you care to, I chose the right train.

And that folks, was my introduction to train travel in China.