Category Archives: travel

Beating Jet Lag: The Sprint/Marathon System

Getting from the US to Hong Kong–or vice-versa–typically involves around 24 hours of travel. You can cut that down to 16 hours if you book a direct flight, but unless you get lucky that’ll cost you about the same as a good laptop.

So instead of tackling 12 hours worth of jet lag, you’re tackling jet lag on top of a sleep deficit. Good luck with that.

For expats, jet lag is a fact of life–I’ve grown used to battling it during my trips back and forth to the US, or shepherding friends through it when they visit. And let’s be clear: it’s more than an inconvenience. Jet lag means missed productivity on business trips, squandered time on vacation, and can be dangerous if you’re driving. Jet lag can make or break your trip.

But I have a method for dealing with the dreaded upside-down clock, one I refer to as the Sprint/Marathon system. Essentially, it’s a way to synchronize with the current time zone by getting a fast start to each day (the sprint), then keeping yourself awake until 10:00 PM (the marathon).


Pictured: An Alternative Method

Here’s how it works:

Start the Transition Before You Leave

This is a great trick if you can do it–I can’t. The basic idea is to go to bed and get up progressively earlier (or later) each night the week before you leave, which minimizes the shock of the new time zone. I’ve never found this feasible (I’m an insomniac writer who can’t sleep on cue) but I have friends who swear by it. I assume it involves NyQuil.

Decide Whether to Sleep on the Plane

To me, the first question is whether to sleep–or try to sleep–during a flight. I’m tall, so while I might cat-nap on flights, I usually don’t out-and-out sleep unless I’m in an exit row. (Aside: most Asian airlines don’t charge extra for exit row seats.) Still, even if I don’t sleep, it helps to lie still and rest my eyes for an hour or so.

Here’s my rule of thumb: If you’re arriving at your final destination in the morning, sleep. If you arrive at night, stay up.

The object here is to get on local time. If you’re arriving in the morning you need to be ready for a full day. Not a nap-in-the-afternoon-and-bed-at-7:00-PM day, mind you, a caffeine-fueled rock-it-out-until-10:00-at-night day. If you arrive at night, you need to be so tired you’ll collapse in bed immediately.

You need to either crash or hit the ground running–there’s no in-between.

Morning: The Sprint

So you’ve either just stepped off your flight, or you’re waking up from your post-arrival coma sleep. Rev your engines kid, because it’s time for the sprint.

The first thing you should do is go through your morning routine–shower, shave, brush teeth, scarf breakfast–then immediately get out in the sun.

The point here is to shock your system. UV rays tell your brain it’s get-up time, and the smell of eggs and toothpaste brings a familiar routine to the first day. Do anything that convinces your body clock that it’s go time. Drink the marvelous nectar that is coffee. Blast music. See a new place right away. Sprint.

And I mean that literally. Go exercise first thing–whether it’s a walk around the block or a full-on run. Catch some Pokémon. Get a shot of adrenaline within an hour of waking up.

Do this right, and it’ll carry you through the afternoon. And make sure to enjoy it, because it’s going to be the easiest, most fun part of the day. If you’re working, now’s the time to do your exciting tasks or anything requiring concentration, because your energy levels will only go downhill from here.

Beware the Afternoon Crash

The most dangerous part of your day is the afternoon crash. For my wife and I, it always comes at about 3:00 PM. You’ll want to rest. You’ll want a nap, but don’t give in. Do not under any circumstances take a nap. Don’t even lie down. Lying down when you’re tired is the “just one bite” of the jet lag world.

Story time: When my wife and I moved to Hong Kong, we were badly jet-lagged. Our first day was exhausting. We ran around opening bank accounts and getting cell phone plans. It was the first time we experienced the crush of Kowloon crowds, and on top of it all, it was pouring rain. When we got back to our hotel room at 3:00 PM, we laid down on the bed for five minutes before getting up to change and continue our errands.

We woke up seven hours later. We’d missed our own welcome dinner.

But missing events isn’t the biggest deal–the problem is that when you nap, it further desynchronizes you from local time. Instead of wanting to sleep in the day and be up all night, you’re waking up at 10:00 PM and not wanting to sleep again until 8:00 AM. It essentially ads a day to your adjustment. Repeat after me: It’s. Not. Worth. It.

When you want a nap, drink coffee instead. Run around the block. Best of all, don’t be anywhere near a bed at 3:00 PM. Stay on your feet and out in the world.

Evening: The Marathon

The worst part of the day, by far, comes after 3:00 PM–this is the marathon, a seven-hour march until 10:00 PM.

It’s going to suck.

The best thing you can do is distract yourself. Sometimes I’ll schedule an event at night–a play, concert, or dinner–just so I’m forced to stay awake and mobile. Yesterday, I binge-watched five episodes of Stranger Things knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep without seeing the end. If I’m trying to be productive (like today) I’ll do my fun high-energy work in the morning when I have energy (like this blog), and leave mindless admin tasks or errands for the afternoon. It’s okay to be low-energy and conserve your strength, provided you don’t fall asleep. If you’re on the couch, don’t lay down. If indoors, keep the lights blazing. Big warm meals are a bad idea.

Stay up as long as you can. I usually set 10:00 PM as my target bedtime, but will concede if I’m falling asleep at 9:00 PM. Crashing in bed when you’re tired is better than getting a second wind, which can happen if you push it too far.

Getting Your Best Night’s Sleep

Okay, you made it to bedtime–let’s talk about getting the best sleep you can. Here’s some tips:

  • Set an alarm for 7:00-8:30 AM. You want to be up with the sun, and if you crash at 10:00 PM that gives you 9-10 hours of sleep to make up for any deficit you’re running. If you wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 AM, give yourself 30 minutes to try and get back to sleep–if it’s not happening, then get up and moving.
  • Sleep with the curtains open at least a crack. Remember: sunlight is the best alarm.
  • If you can get someone else to wake you up, do it. It’s too easy to turn off an alarm and roll over. Tell them they won’t be doing you a favor by letting you sleep in.
  • Turn your cell phone off. Don’t use it as an alarm if you can help it. Someone who doesn’t know you’re traveling might Facebook Message you at 3:00 AM, and you will not be able go back to sleep. Trust me–it happened to me at 5:30 AM this morning.

Do It Again on Day Two

Day Two is always the worst. The first day you’re usually riding an adrenaline wave, excited to be in a new place or happy to be home. By the second day, you’ve settled down and the sleep deficit starts dragging at your ankles. Day Two can be a tricky bastard, too–it’ll make you feel like everything’s fine, then sneak up from behind and knock you out a few hours after lunch.

Stick to the script and you’ll push through it. Get up, sprint, beware the afternoon nap, and marathon until the end. Stay caffeinated, on your feet, and physical.

Remember that it only gets better from here.

China’s New 72-Hour Transit Visa: I Did It, And Yes, It Works

For ten months now, I’ve lived a one-hour subway ride from Mainland China but have never been there.

It’s more logistics than anything – as an American, applying for the visa is a pain and it’s relatively expensive for a double entry. While I plan to spring for it next year, this year it just wasn’t in the cards.

But wouldn’t it be great to get a couple days in Shanghai or Beijing without all that hassle?  See the Wall, the Forbidden City or Asia’s tech hub?

Well good news, impatient or poorly-prepared U.S. citizen: you can! In 2013, the People’s Republic started a new program that allows onward travelers to stay 72 hours visa-free in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and an ever-expending list of other cities. There’s no pre-registration, no visa, and best of all, no repeated trips to the Chinese consulate – you just book your ticket and go.

While I’d known about this program for awhile, no one I knew had used it yet, and whenever I brought it up among friends I frequently encountered skepticism that it could possibly be as easy as the ads described.  But when one of my friends visited Hong Kong and our plans for a Thailand side-trip fell apart due to high temperatures and an inconveniently-timed military coup, I suggested we book a flight to Beijing instead.

Having done it, here’s the good news: provided you read the requirements, it really is as easy as it’s described. While I’d recommend you look at the actual text or a good summary of the program, these are the basic requirements:

  • You Have to Be a Citizen of Certain Countries: But it’s a 51-country list that includes the U.S., U.K. and Canada, so if you’re reading this in English you’re probably golden. Still, check.
  • NO ROUND TRIPS: This is a transit visa, so you can’t fly round trip – i.e. no Hong Kong to Beijing and back to Hong Kong.  You can fly from Hong Kong to Beijing, stay 72 hours, and fly on to Singapore.  The neat trick here is that Hong Kong and Macau count as two different countries – but more on that later.  Note that you have to have an onward ticket already booked when you arrive in China.
  • You Must Arrive and Leave by Air On a Direct Flight and Can’t Leave the City: The visa is only available in airports, and you can’t travel to another city during that 72 hour period. Your flight can’t have a layover inside China either on the way there or back (a layover outside China is fine).
  • The 72 Hour Period Starts on Takeoff and Landing (Varies): This actually varies by airport, but in general your 72 hour period starts once you land/get issued your transit visa.  In my mind it’s better to just make sure your tickets fall within the 72 hour period to avoid ambiguity – so if you arrive in Shanghai at 10:00 AM on Thursday, your flight needs to leave before 10:00 AM on Sunday.  Check the requirements for your airport.
  • Tell Your Airline You’re Using the 72 Hour Visa: They’ll inform immigration that you’re coming. Apparently you don’t have to do this for Beijing, but we did at check-in anyway.  We did it verbally and didn’t have to fill anything out.
  • Once You Arrive, You Need to Register: If you’re staying at a hotel, you don’t need to worry about this step as the hotel staff will do it for you.  But if you’re staying with a friend, you have to register at a police station within 24 hours of arriving.



Yep, I’ve confirmed it: it’s certified easy.  Provided you follow the fairly minimal rules, it’s a no-hassle experience – in fact since the program isn’t well known yet, we got through the 72 hour visa line faster than people with standard visas. When you arrive at your destination, have your passport, itinerary and arrival card all filled out and ready to go.  The itinerary is to prove you have an onward ticket, and in our group we used both itineraries printed off email and those printed by the airline – neither caused a problem. The only issue is that since the program’s new, the immigration officer may need some walking through what you’re doing – ours didn’t speak great English, so be prepared to smile a lot and point at the relevant parts of your itinerary. Our guy rang his superior to ask a question, but let us through after that. The whole process probably took 90 seconds per person.



The biggest sticking point for most people is that you can’t use the 72 hour visa on a round trip, meaning you need to chain your China visit with a longer travel itinerary or eat the cost associated with a triangular flight path. But there’s a way around that if you’re living in or visiting Hong Kong or Macau. Both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China, but they have independent legal systems and different immigration requirements. That means for the purposes of this program, they’re considered separate countries – which is great, because they’re also 45 minutes apart and connected by a cheap ferry. So when our guests visited, we worked it like this: we caught a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, stayed 72 hours, boarded a flight from Beijing to Macau, and once we arrived in Macau partied until we lost energy and took a US$21 ferry ride home to Hong Kong. Since Macau’s entry requirements feature a free visa-on-arrival for U.S. citizens, you can basically just show up without any notice.  And who doesn’t want to see the Las Vegas of Asia?



It depends.  If you’re trying to embed yourself in the culture and get a thorough appreciation for what China means then no.  But if you want to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and buy live scorpion-on-a-stick at Donghuamen Night Market, then it’s totally adequate. But remember that it is a condensed schedule, so book a hotel near the things you most want to see.  Transit represents wasted time, but it can also can drain your energy if it’s around rush hour and you can’t afford to tire out on a packed itinerary.  Thankfully Beijing has an efficient and cheap subway system with stops near popular tourist sites. It’s preferable to cabs, since drivers will quote you a price that’s three to four times what a trip should cost. Best of luck travelers!  And if you’re going to sling ink while you’re there, remember to pack your writer’s travel kit.

The Writer’s Travel Kit

Travel.  Adventure.  Putting your boots on foreign soil.

It’s something we all aspire to do, but for the writer travel can serve a unique need.  Inspiration, for example, or research for a new project.  Distance and breathing space is another worthy goal.  Or perhaps, like me, you just want to see the world and jam it into your notebook.

But in my new life as an expat writer, I’m finding that my travel kit has changed significantly – because it turns out writers need a few different tools than your average backpacker.

Since I’m packing for India and it’s on my mind, here’s my new kit for writing across the globe:

Carry The Right Bags

I’m a proponent of carry-on baggage –  large bags don’t do well in crowds or on trains, and I find it’s better to do laundry halfway than overpack.  Plus, if you’re a writer you’re probably not swimming in hard currency, and it’s nice to save on baggage fees and be able to stay in a smaller room.  Ideally, I only use my suitcase for clothes, relegating everything else to a large backpack, and a smaller day pack I keep stowed when it’s not in use.  My suitcase of choice is an old Zero Halliburton I inherited from my dad.  It’s small, stylish, crazy maneuverable and the aluminum shell could stop bullets.  Hell, they’re so cool James Goddamn Bond uses them and the DoD chose it to carry the Nuclear football.  If you don’t want to blow an entire paycheck on one, you can pick them up cheap on Ebay.

Travel Journal

Recently when my dad and grandmother passed away, I found myself wishing they’d kept journals. Both of them saw so many places and witnessed so much history, and all of it disappeared when they passed away.  Determined that the same won’t happen to my experiences, I’ve become a dedicated journal writer on trips – both so I can remember where I’ve been, and so my (currently theoretical) kids can still benefit from my wandering days when I’m gone.  Besides that though, journaling gives me a depth of vision I wouldn’t have otherwise.  Patterns emerge, and you get to know both yourself and the place better – and of course, it’s a great place to pull details from when you’re writing.

Travel Notebook

“But wait,” I hear you say.  “Don’t you already have a notebook?”

“No,” I reply. “I already have a journal.”

“WTF semantics!” you say. “That’s the same thing.”

But no, it’s not.  My journal is where I download my experiences at the end of the day, my notebook’s what travels in my pocket.  If my journal is the big, double-barreled Get Off My Lawn elephant gun, my travel notebook is a concealed pistol.  Let’s be honest here: you don’t want to carry your travel journal around, it’s too much risk.  You could lose it, it could get stolen with your bag or drenched in a sudden downpour.  Your memories from three trips, gone in a blink.  So carry a second, portable notebook that’s for jotting notes you use to craft your journal entries in the evening.


I know that there’s a big movement right now to, “OMG, get off the internet and find yourself!”  But listen, speaking as a former security analyst, there’s some places you don’t want to disconnect.  Last month I took a 17 day trip to Thailand and Cambodia, both of which are in the middle of major political instability.  In Thailand we were connected to local media in real-time via Twitter and managed to keep abreast of events and avoid the protests (except one march that passed our hotel).  But in Cambodia I made a bad decision: I didn’t get a tourist SIM, reasoning that our hotel would keep us informed, and it would be good for me to get away from social media.

Big mistake.  When we asked, the hotel desk said everything was fine.  When the army beat striking garment workers and the police opened fire on protesters with AK-47s, the hotel hid the morning paper.  After I pressed the concierge for information, he incorrectly informed me where the major protest site was, and as a result my wife and I wandered into a full-on government crackdown, complete with armored riot cops and military police carrying loaded assault rifles.

Keep your phone working and monitor local news – both for safety and intellectual curiosity.

A Phrase Card

Visitors can have a bad habit of visiting a place but ignoring its people, and as a writer people should always be your primary concern.  Language, of course, often stands in the way of getting to know others when you’re abroad, but a little can go a long way.  When I was in Thailand, I created a file on my iPhone listing basic Thai phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much is it?” and started referring to it regularly.  It’s amazing the difference that it made in my interactions – vendors smiled at me more, people took extra time to help me, taxis offered fairer prices and the hawkers lost interest in me.  In short, people were more genuine rather than maintaining the facade that holds sway in tourist areas.  This led to conversations that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

I’m carrying on this tradition in India by making a pocket-sized card with basic Hindi phrases.  It may not be the silver bullet that it proved in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s respectful nonetheless.

Laptop and Power Adapters

I’m of two minds about the laptop.  While I’d love to bring it along to write on a trip, in reality I always end up back-filling journal entries rather than working on fiction.  (Besides, I’ve learned from experience that I find writing on the road unpleasant.)  Add in the possibility that it might get lost or stolen, and a laptop comes off as a liability.  On the other hand, a laptop is crucial for researching tour bookings, restaurants or other local entertainment on the fly and connecting with family should something bad happen overseas.  Our standard procedure is to bring my wife’s laptop, and if I feel like writing I do it in the cloud, pulling stories I’ve uploaded to Google Drive or Dropbox.

A word of warning though: many countries have different plugs, voltages and frequencies.  Remember to do your research and bring adapters if necessary.

Ziploc Bags

Last month I took a speedboat down the Mekong from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  Five hours jammed into a fiberglass tube with no ventilation, zero escape exits and the worst squat toilet in Asia.  It was actually more pleasant to ride on top of the passenger compartment, but to get there you had to shimmy along a six-inch ledge holding onto a railing until you came to the rebar ladder.

Did I mention this boat was going 60 miles per hour?  As I hung there, feeling the wake spraying my legs and watching stilt villages whip by, I was suddenly very glad that I’d secured my iPhone and notebook in Ziploc bags.  There are less dramatic reasons to do that of course – rain and splashes for example – but a good Ziploc is especially important if you’re traveling by boat.  You could get a real dry bag if you want, but I find Ziplocs do fine as long as you’re not submerging them.


Rather than explaining all the local news events I reference in my travel journal, I just pick up some cheap scissors and clip articles from local papers.  That bigass pocket at the back of a Mokleskine has to be good for something, right?

Magellan Outdoors Wear

I’ve worn Magellan outfits on two archaeological digs and in four countries.  They’re tough, light and have mesh netting so you don’t have to worry about your underthings going swampy in the heat.  The pants also can convert into shorts within sixty seconds and they have so many pockets for notebooks and pens it borders on absurdity (many with zippers and dry pouches).  And because they’re basically swimsuit material, in a pinch you can wash them in a bathtub and let them air-dry overnight.

Local Literature

Writers like to read – stereotypical but true.  And when traveling, I find it enlightening to bring along a book about the country.  In Thailand it was a collection of short stories called Bangkok Noir.  In Cambodia I picked up several history books about the Angkor period.  When I was in London seven years ago, I burned time on trains reading Henry Fielding.  For India, I’ve loaded my Kindle up with Rudyard Kipling, and will pick up a book from a local author when I’m there.  Not only does reading this give you a better sense of place, it also keeps your own writing fresh since it’s likely written from a different cultural perspective than you’re used to.

A Camera

Obvious, right?  Not everything can be captured in words, sometimes you have to see something amazing so you can reference it in a story later, or keep it just so you can Facebook your friends and say, Holy turdmuffin guys, look at this – there are five kids riding this damn moped and two of them are asleep.


That’s about it for my gear.  How about you guys?  Anyone got a cool gadget that helps them write on the road or keep a travel journal?  Any tips or tricks I missed?  FILL THE COMMENTS WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.