Cycling in the Wachau Valley, Austria

DISCLAIMER: I have cycled less than 100 meters of the Wachau Valley: The UNESCO-listed, Danube-banked wine producing region extraordinaire, just west of Vienna. However, I now know how, were it not for two thunderstorms, a knackered wrist and some squiffy direction taking. I’ll be taking this on as soon as possible.

I wrote briefly last year about W. Einker’s most convivial little wine cave in central Vienna which does wine tasting with almost entirely Austrian products. This inspired rooting around for the vine locations in more depth for this year’s visit. The towns of Melk, Krems and Spitz serve as a hub for this part of the Danube and they’re connected by cycling, train and boat on a remarkably flat route.



We woke up to a quite spectacular storm on the morning of this expedition and nearly abandoned the trip altogether, at odds with an early start. However, it seems that rain in this part of Central Europe is often sharp downpours after sustained build up of humidity in summer months. So a shower shouldn’t necessarily derail the trip. An optimal day-long trip can be had by taking a 0930 or 1030 train from Vienna to Melk, with the very easy Austrian state railway for about EUR 30 return.

I had, in the main part, consulted a newspaper article which highlighted the virtues of NextBike, however, this was plagued with difficulties. The service is an iteration of the bike hire schemes in London, New York and Paris and has docking stations in all three towns on the route – but it does seem to be harder than all three of the metropolises to use. Registering is easy enough, but QR codes and data access is needed to unlock them, and the system seems to struggle with non-Austrian cards.


A much simpler non-digital alternative was Wachau Touristic Bernhardt. Renting a cycle here was simple, with ID required, and includes drop offs at Spitz (20kms) and Melk (35kms) for EUR 10 for a bike for half a day. It was at this point our day unravelled with a few wrong turns onto a semi-island and then a bang on the wrist forcing a curtailment 15 minutes in. We’d wanted to go to the, admittedly splendous, Melk Abbey ahead of a winery lunch and splashing around in the river anyhow.

Putting it right

As we’d set off so late, we were probably always going to be up against it for time anyhow, so I’d say 0930 or 1030 are the correct times to leave Vienna, arriving at the bike hut for 1030 or an hour later. I was advised that 20kms to Spitz, where a few wineries, vines growing in the centre of town and several Heuriges, wine taverns, are available for lunch, would take an hour. I think two would be more agreeable, though the pathways seemed to be very easy going and are slightly downhill.

A bit more research and investigating some quite expensive guided tours revealed swimming in the river is a done thing as well, to consolidate an appetite and a thirst. This was dug out through organised tour research, though this was slightly off putting through prices and availability. Swimming locations aren’t the easiest to dig out, though it seems Dürnstein is an area where this can be done.

Returning to base from either Spitz or Krems can be done by a combination of bus, train or most appealingly, boat, for an upstream tour. We witnessed a quite amusing stand off in the tourist office with two large-of-backside tourists opining that the EUR 20 fee was too expensive and car hire would be cheaper. This misses the point, however, that the scenery from deck is the main draw of this part of the world. I can only see the appeal of car, bus or rail if budget or timings conspire against you.

This would leave a provisional schedule of:

1030 train from Vienna to Melk
1130 bike hire from Melk
1430 libation activities and lunch at Spitz
1730 Boat from Spitz
1901 Train from Melk to Vienna

I’ve got a stash of paper literature from the tourist office, below. It seems this was actually most useful and I can email any parts of it if you leave a comment below.


A word for our hosts: 25hours hotel Vienna

For different reasons, Langham and 25hours are consistently my favourite hotel chains across the world, and the latter came up trumps here. The Germanic based mini chain have exciting, artistic and vibrant set ups and the circus theme in Vienna is no exception. They have lively bars, this one coming with an aerial view of the Musuems Quartier, and good food, this branch focussing on pizzas with relatively local Italian ingredients and an inventive and amusing burger van in the garden.

It was a great piece of customer service that won us over on this occasion, however. A jammed plug in the sink, admittedly, wasn’t fixed when reported. It was above and beyond, then, to be migrated and upgraded to a top floor suite, replete with coffee machine and cooking facilities. I could see how busy reception was when this was reported, so welcome to see an above-proportion response to the omission, making this a fun stay and an efficient one.

(River image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Climbing the Great Wall of China

“Justin, It’s midday, we’re probably OK for the wall if you’re out of bed soon”

“Eeuurgh, OK, I’ll put my pants on”

There are at least three locations to take in the Great Wall of China on a day trip from Beijing – none of them work with a night out until three AM and sleeping into the afternoon. I attempted this with my Beijing expat friend Justin in September 2016, with a train ride to Badaling, then actually succeeded with a semi-organised tour to Mutianyu in March of this year.

Training it with the crowds

Greater flexibility is a decent reason for getting a train from the relatively small Beijing North train station, which doesn’t usually need reservations. As a result of a birthday party in the station area, combined with probably two hours in a taxi, then a 45 minute subway ride back to the station, we were hanging. When presented with a sold out train and a load of taxi drivers circling aggressively for a RMB 120 ride as an alternative to the RMB 6 rail option. We slunk into Starbucks and complained how tired we were.

Having failed on this occasion, I’ve since ascertained that Badaling, about an hour north west of Beijing, is super busy and über commercialised with a run of shacks leading to either a cable car or a walk up to the turreted monument. I have also learnt Panda hats, chess sets and calligraphy scrolls are available, though present difficulties for a slide dismount. Overall, it seems flexibility is a benefit of this route, but as often is the case, it’s flexibility on a it-depends basis.

As I knew I’d be coming back in 2017, I wasn’t massively disappointed by this and I’ve since reflected that the night out was a cultural experience of its own. This took in a pass of the Birds Nest stadium on two cab journeys, one 180 degrees in the wrong direction, accusations of being money counterfeiters and eventually a bail out from two bored bar keeps who dispatched us to a Hutong. This one was turned into a bar but seemed entirely, authentically, modelled a beige American teen rumpus room. Commodore 64s, reel to reel tape deck, 1970s TVs and pool tables plied for attention. A pair of old dears using a notebook to construct a Gin and Tonic slightly less so.

Tours to Mutinayu

Given the faff of 2016, my wife Becky had a more sensible idea of booking a tour. I normally prefer the independence of getting to locations myself, but a tour picks up from hotels in Beijing downtown and makes the logistics simpler by imposing an 0800 pick up. Mutianyu (1) includes contemporary rebuilt wall and the ancient original on a 10 km walk and return, deposited on the top by cable car. For the most part, the walk is a stroll though some parts are vertiginous staircases with over 500 steps in a row. I had long since wondered how historically pregnable the wall is and in itself I think not very. On top of and up and down high hills and mountains, though, it becomes a good old hike just to reach it.

The benefit of this height, however, is on the way down with the cheerful disregard of any health and safety concerns leading to the installation of a several hundred meter slide. Unfortunately, we were banned from using this because of tour insurance, though tales of its perilous reputation I’m sure were exaggerated. It was a good laugh listening to our guide make up the physical peril of using it. Given the 0800 start, crowds were pretty thin throughout with no queues at any stage, though we did get the positive benefit of other people over lunch. Of course, any decent Chinese meal requires a good crowd and chatting over the hike with other tourists was a good way to finish.

Apres Wall: Beijing art


Not feeling too burned out from this hike, it’s a three-quarter day activity, we had a wander around chic Sanlitun when we were kicked off the bus afterwards. I’d regarded Sanlitun, home of embassies and party officials, as not much more than a bar strip, though there was definitely more to it this time around. Great Leap Forward brewing had a good range of ale, some eye-wateringly strong, and staff kitted out in high school style gym kits to set off an artistic and creative feel using a period of Chinese history as a theme.

A nightcap at Pop Up Beijing was more elegant, with a more refined wine list. This is effectively a warehouse for furniture, mainly eye-wateringly expensive, which you can sit on with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the evening. A very neat solution for bar furniture and an opportunistic way to sell stuff to people in their weakened state.

Originality aside, it also showed a growing artistic feel in China, evident in Shanghai as well, Suggesting that China is starting to set a contemporary artistic path using its own history as inspiration.

(1) A very similar set of tours is available to Jinshanling as well. It seems closer in crowds, expense, time and experience to what we did here in Mutianyu than Badaling.

London Transport Museum Acton open weekend: Economic and social history

It is essentially a massive warehouse of retired London Transport equipment including esoteric tube trains from the 1930s, ticket booths, trams, posters and furniture. It’s market is young families, trainspotters and curious thirties urbanites. London Transport Museums open depot weekends are a fleeting and enigmatic presence, with last weekend’s open weekend the last opening until September.

The Depot, as it says on the tin, is essentially a massive storage facility for the permanent London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. I’ve only ever visited this twice: as a kid it was great for a trainspotting addendum and good opportunity to scramble over trams. As an adult, and post a renovation, I found it just as fascinating, though more as an urban history museum charting changing society in London through the mechanics of mass transport.

Social history

This was indeed what I was expecting when rolling up at the convenient-for-me, less-convenient-for-most-people suburb of Acton. The main exhibition is around a dozen tube trains of varying vintages being restored for the main museum, the real draw is the ones you’re allowed to wander around inside.


The adverts, from 1938 to 1988, drew me in including this cracker from British Rail circa early eighties, by my guess. 19p for an, admittedly, really odd looking sausage roll and 20p for a piece of fruit? Taking Greggs as a standard, that’s a pound for an apple now. Even Pret aren’t that expensive in 2017. There is more PPP fun to be had comparing prices like this, I’m still working out if 1978’s 40p Zone 1 single is a price saving to the present day.


A mezzanine area has a huge stockpile of signs, maps and London Transport furniture, which continues the theme of an evolving people. A big stack of Arsenal station signs contained another sociological gem, with the experience of a casual fan who went to either a Chelsea, West Ham or Arsenal game every weekend, via the tube. Doing this is probably the preserve of the mega rich these days.


An 80s/90s Waterloo and City line train, which I can just about remember in active use, was another hint of the changing state of the UK Economy. ‘The Drain‘ was seemingly under pre-privatised railway control until 1993, with this car nearly derelict on retirement. The contemporary line is renowned as being crazy busy under the tube’s control. But not systematically neglected. The tube has its knockers now, but privatised surface railways seem to be a worse service and poorer infrastructure.

Social now

The different types of people wandering into the shed were remarkable, even from the bus before I arrived. As expected, trainspotters were probably the main target audience of the exhibition with liberal amounts of rail journals and train set memorabilia on offer. It wasn’t immediately backed up by huge amounts of stereotypical candidates though.

Perhaps the biggest demographic group in attendance were young families, a reflection of the suburban setting. Indeed, a ride-on railway outside and a mezzanine-based art, craft and model railway-building area catered for that audience. This reminded me a lot of my youthful visit to Covent Garden, with the opportunity to clamber over a turbine or something, though it’s perhaps hinting as much at the existence of the middle classes.

Several stands offering Art Deco, first-print posters for circa £300 further hinted at this suburbanite tone. The back yard put it beyond any doubt. Hipster coffee, Indian streetfood vans, craft ale and a stall selling off the mocquette seat covers, stray furniture and old signs, clocks and luggage racks were all mobbed. Is vintage LT the accepted thirties face of suburbanites Is writing about it in a ironic way a tactic of the wannabe member of the set? Acton in September is the way to find out.




Visiting Kyoto for Japanese culture

Traditional Japanese activities are abundant in Kyoto, Japan’s one time capital and cultural fulcrum. Through iconically beautiful temples, inns that take you back 100s of years, Geishas and performances, however, I’ve taken a somewhat scattergun approach to visiting and it’s only after this 2017 visit I think I’ve got to know my way around a city I first visited in 2002.


‘Western style’ hotels in Kyoto are a waste of an experience so look to an Japanese style inn, a Ryokan, to turn the exercise of staying a night into an attraction. I have stayed at a budget B&B, a basic Ryokan and last month a more traditional Ryokan: Shiraume. This residence is approximately 100 years old and, in style at least, doesn’t seem to have changed much from the Geisha house it evolved from in the 1850s. Access is via a bridge, over a shallow river with greedy herons, with an early-blooming cherry blossom tree as part of a small Japanese garden create a sedate, spiritual feel that makes it hard to leave.


The routine, largely, of these places is to check in and abandon baggage while you are served with tea while given a refined orientation to the room and the lodge. In more remote locations, you are encouraged to don a yukata and take a wander around outside, though only the brave would attempt this in busy city centre Kyoto. On return, it’s very much bath time with one or two tubs servicing the whole inn with water refreshed once daily. Form, therefore, is a thorough scrubbing sat down on tiny stools before the wooden tub eases off the strains of a journey and a walk.

This was only the second time I’d had a full meal service in a Ryokan and the food here defies any attempt at meaningful description. Suffice to say all senses are required for an eight course ‘kaiseki’ experience involving meat and fish, a course based on ‘girls day’ with five separate components and a sizzling pea and bamboo concoction with its own heat supply. It was served with anecdotes about the amount of bamboo surrounding Kyoto, the size of tatami mats related to tax wheezes and why ducks have often been regarded as fish in Japan. An option for staying at Gion in Kyoto is to eat, then head to the Geisha street (1) around 9PM to see the iconic performers between tasks. A hot bath, heated floor, alcohol and eight courses, though, means rolling across to a futon and sleeping is as energetic as we could manage.


Temples – and getting templed out

The Temples of Kyoto dominate most itineraries of the city and the great thing about the city is there are enough of them that are unique enough to kick the experience out for three days without getting repetitive – but you do need to think about how to get between them a bit beforehand.

After a multi-course breakfast, we set out to tackle three. The first, Kiyomizu Dera is quite walkable from the city centre, though can take a while to see picturesque views of the city from a platform currently undergoing a little remedial work. In hunting the view here you can miss some of the design and colour of the buildings itself, though, which I had been guilty of on my 2005 pilgrimage. An orange-red base with ornate detail stands out vibrantly from a blue sky and green forest. What it isn’t is peaceful. The walk up and the temple itself is mobbed and the strip of gift shops leading up to it, while not overtly tacky, seemed busier and more commercialised than previous visits.


Fushimi Inari is similarly iconomic, mainly through imagery of two kimono-attired women walking along a path of tightly-packed orange tori gates. What this image doesn’t convey is just how long these tunnels are, with 4km of passageways leading to a shrine on top of a 200m high peak. It’s a slightly wearying path with the reward for getting to the top largely dependent on how tolerant you are of people trying to get a shot of an unpopulated stretch of gates. In our case, not very. Though commercialisation is evident here as well, it was more favourable for us with festival food for sale from stalls. The custard fish got our repeat visit.


The plan here was to head from here to Kinkakuji, flamboyantly clad in gold on the north side of the city. And this is when fatigue set in with the walking and crowds starting to get on top of us (2). I had visited chateau Goldfinger in 2005 and recall a subway-and-bus journey for the reward of a path slowly revealing the gleam of the temple set in bamboo hills, silence punctuated with the odd swoosh of bamboo in the wind. If you go gold, you should go silver as well of course and Ginkakuji, with a 45 minute walk out of the centre of town for a non-silver silver temple. This is a very cerebral experience, with a raked pebble garden requiring every ounce of concentration to decipher a zen-like message.

Over the fourteen year range I’ve made visits to Kyoto, the appeal of the temples has never diminished. It does seem far busier now, and more wearying getting between the disparate sites. It’s quite lazy to say they’re more commercialised in 2017, though the reality is it probably hasn’t changed much and entrance fees for the main attractions are never more than a few hundred JPY.

It does bring into focus, however, that Kyoto trips can be expensive and tiring. The Ryokan is approx GBP 450 and the bullet train journey from Tokyo a GBP 200 return. From my point of view it is, paradoxically, value for money. The Japanese experience is unparalleled and the societal history richer than other Asian equivalents I’ve seen. It seems to illustrate that outright tourist rip-offs are rare in Japan. If you plan well.


(1) Some pestering from Becky on the journey down meant I looked up what the costs and possibilities are of a Geisha performance, including shamisen playing and poetry recitals. As I suspected it’s astronomical at GBP 700 per performance, not including food, not including the faff of an intermediary to book it. There are occasional spring and autumn public performances and music sessions to take in, for a token fee, which seems an accessible way to achieve the same result.

(2) A different type of centuries-old Japanese entertainment did present itself when we were there, however. The Osaka prefectural gymnasium had a two-week long Sumo tournament in progress with around 10000 JPY enough to sit in the regal purple cushioned seats, cross legged. I’d written about this in the past, though the chiropractically-painful purple seats offer the more refined opportunity to have a 200 kilo wrestler thrown on you.

Living in Shanghai?

Not at the moment. But if an opportunity did come up it could be a comfortable adventure in a self-confident and overwhelmingly on-the-up city with, I’m sure, more change in the pipeline. A few vague possibilities thrown out from work for me and Becky recently meant we had to look at this increasingly commercially-globalised city as more than just a tourist destination.

Sights to start

We were probably not unique in observing that Shanghai offers a few tourist experiences that are not 100% Chinese in background. The centrepiece is The Bund embankment, with a 1920s Art Deco strip of buildings allegedly modelled on Liverpool’s waterfront. It looks over Huangpu river to skyscrapers demonstrating China’s present economic might in the Pudong free-trade district. The daytime stroll along here is quite sedate, a contrast to the hugely invigoratingly neon-lit display that dominates after dark.


A good viewpoint for both times of day can be found at Fairmont Peace Hotel, made famous from several films including Empire of the Sun and apparently inspiration for the opening scene of Indiana Jones Temple of Doom. The lobby of this hotel, for no entrance free, has a magnificent, vertiginous cupola flooding light into an initially-appearing quite dull frontage. There is also a geriatric jazz band performing nightly here, for around thirty GBP of drink per performance. The music itself is cheerfully murdered, but the surroundings and the period dress of the staff take you back effortlessly to 1920s boom town Shanghai. This could fill a cultural void.


Down to business

It’s very easy wandering around Xintiandi, The Bund and The French Concession area, where expatting activity happened a century ago, to come to the conclusion settling in as a foreigner would be straightforward. Modern, Western, apartment complexes shoot up and jungle cafes, lightbulb coffees, Naked Hub start-up work zones and Sprout Works compete for attention. Indeed, a super-efficient subway system is on par with Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s with a maglev whizzing people to and from the airport at 434 kph.


Perhaps one area to keep an eye on is taxis. The Maglev terminates, weirdly, well out of town and we got ripped off by a taxi charging 350 RMB for a journey that should have been 50 within an hour of touch down. Indeed, a cab all the way to the airport comes to 250 RMB, quite legitimately. The taxis, I philosophised later in the trip, prey on the obviously straight-of-the-boat though even the legitimate charge there means there are plenty of pitfalls, even assuming you are au fair with the foreigner in China standard of getting your destination written down in the native language.

Eating and drinking

Coming to Asia for a relatively small period of time, however, means you feel cheated by not getting involved with local specialties – and this created problems of it’s own. The Rough Guide details Shanghainese cuisine as “… using a lot of vinegars and not particularly popular with ex-pats”.

Despite this, we’d managed to track down a local scallion pancake and cook-your-own seafood market, only to find both shut down as a result of hygiene and urbanisation concerns respectively, leading us to assume a generally-held view of authentic. This was fortunate, and provided plenty of scope to go elsewhere.

Jason Atherton is one of the prominent figures behind a mystifyingly varied menu and cozy atmosphere at Commune Social. Food was probably more Spanish in origin than anything though the bar would be a good fit for Brooklyn or Berlin with dining areas from London or Sydney. Small plates mean three courses between two are palatable and the wine in 375m jugs is a fine way to balance this randomness out.

An Islamic beer is probably the best way to top the randomness of The Commune. Xibo offers this as an accompaniment to Lamb Skewers, Xinjiang Lamb, hot pot and other dry spiced vegetables in an upbeat representation of China’s North West region. Top tip from here is to eat quickly and noisily. The remnants I took away for a plane snack the next day were fatty and waxy cubes in taste and appearance.

Perhaps most popular with the local audience was actually a Cantonese place in a shopping centre, masquerading as Shanghainese. Crystal Jade did the pork belly, pigeon and assorted regular Chinese vegetables as well as anywhere with a braying audience of people watch in a modern and enjoyable atmosphere, topped off with a kitchen and food stored encased in clear Perspex in the middle of the room.

Xintiandi and French Concession

By environment and by historical musings, I had now come to the point the best of Shanghai is a genial mix of cultural backgrounds and Xintiandi and the French Concession encapsulate and showcase this feeling well. We stayed at The Langham after some comfortable stays at the HK branch. This didn’t disappoint with surprisingly personalised service but mainly for the easy orientation to the stone-built replica buildings, Shikumen, of the Xintiandi complex next door. European and American outlets (or themed as such) mean its an easy, tree-planed hangout for Westerners and a nice refuge.


The confusing centrepiece of the arcade, however, is the quite superb vignette of the site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist party. Once you’ve left a copy of your fingerprints at reception, the exhibitions detail the 1920s birth of the movement, without lapsing too much into the wearying heroism of Mao, ending with a diaroma of blue sky thinking of just what is possible under communism. This upbeat future is based perfectly one step short of the exit and a hop skip and a jump to the adjacent entrance to Nike World. More diversity or confused over the future?

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox

The hunt of the £200 hotel voucher goes on, fourth submission in the Guardian’s readers tips competition with two published (on Japan) and two ignored (for Germany). See how Mexico goes down…


Swimming with Whale Sharks is the wildlife highlight of Isla Holbox, a tropical, sandy-beached island 100 kms from Cancun. As with many marine wildlife spotting expeditions you buzz around in a boat looking for things to start, though this sedentary activity abruptly changes when the blue-with-white-spotted creatures are spotted, with twenty boats circling and swimmers observing from a respectful distance. Risk from these plankton-eating mammals is minimal, unless you swim into the tail like I did, though you wonder if it is environmentally sustainable. An afternoon eating boat ceviche, observing flamingoes, pelicans and fish in off-limits reservations indicates it probably is.

One World: Problems, great hidden fares and intriguing delays

I booked, thought about booking, travelled and prevaricated a lot in the last quarter of 2016 over various One World flights with BA, Cathay Pacific, JAL and Qantas. My experiences with lounges, cancellations, delays, customer service help lines and Visit Asia fares ranged from good to bad, from incomprehensible to unexpectedly good.

Cathay Pacific Lounge at Heathrow

This was really more of a sideshow, but did contain a nice little vignette of excellent customer service that catapulted Cathay to top of the opinion pile over the quarter. Their T3 lounge has recently been renovated, from November 2015 to December 2016 to be exact, thought the originally slated open date was July of last year, with problems rumoured to revolve around dated construction methods while expanding.

Irrespective of this, it was actually opened a day before our Qantas flight to Dubai in early December, and very pleasant it was too. Spilt into a a section resembling a refectory and a living room-style bar area it was relaxing, yet replete with a large noodle bar menu and interesting deli style snacks. Compared to the BA lounge at T3 it offered the possibility of a full meal before the flight, in a far mode sedate atmosphere.

The real bonus here was a DM tweet I sent them a few weeks ahead of soft launch asking if it would be ready. If was swiftly replied to with a ‘don’t know, try later’, though this was followed up with a ‘it’s now ready, swing by’ message two weeks later. It left a very favourable impression reminiscent of a long-term client-customer relationship than the swift, transactional nature of an airline business.

Qantas: Expensive solutions

Qantas’s flight to Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai offered an intriguing option for an actually good quality product on the way to the Rugby 7s tournament in the Middle Eastern Emirate. It’s probably ahead of BA and Virgin’s direct Premium Economy offerings from London and with two a380 flights a day, one with a lot of capacity. £250 was enough of a bid to secure a one way PE to Business upgrade on their cash-only bidding process.

Any sort of help desk function, however, was inefficient and frustrating. This was unfortunate with a problem on both the outbound and inbound flights. A system error in the Book Now Pay Later facility required not far short of £50-worth of phone calls waiting to be put through to someone with huge queues and inconsistent labelling of UK-based numbers on their website. Unlike Cathay, they replied to their tweets even slower and less helpfully. There was no credibly email facility.

Ithe One World Visit Asia Pass

The success of this product really comes down to how patient you are to get a discount. If offers good savings for reputable products, though isn’t available for online purchase and is barely available over the phone. The pass is explained in detail on the One World site, though in reality telephone agents usually don’t understand it and it’s fifty-fifty whether they can find out how to place a booking, even after elaboration, even after multiple transfers of call and call backs.

A source of mystery is how much the fixed-rate flights cost. There are six brackets with each allocated a price, which, presumably because of exchange rates, aren’t advertised. I eventually got two pairs of flights for the below prices, which worked out £100 cheaper than comparable online purchases. With a One World Sapphire card and the lounge, fast track and baggage allowances that come with it, I value that as a good saving, though it comes down to how much you value these things against 2-3 hours on the phone.

Cathay Pacific
Shanghai to Hong Kong
Hong Kong to Cebu

Manila to Tokyo
Tokyo to Beijing

I spoke to BA for the JAL flights which was just about achievable, though they couldn’t sort the Hong Kong hub flights. Cathay Pacific themselves sorted it out in under 15 mins, so It seems the lesson is use the call centre of the airline you’re buying off in your own country if they have one. In this Q4 unofficial One World experience-off, Cathay are clear winners.