Catch Up – A Long Time Coming

So as I said in my last post it has been a long time since I last posted. A lot has happened. When I last posted I was a bachelor, still living in Shanghai, and writing about the business trips I took to various parts of Asia. Since then I have moved back to USA, got married (with someone that I met in Shanghai), and am expecting a baby boy in November. Life certainly does come at you fast and it seems like just yesterday that I was on a plane ride for my first trip to work at Asahi Kasei. That was really the catalyst that set the tone for my twenties (I am now thirty). Before living in Japan a year I was a twenty year old sophomore in college with only dreams of being able to even visit overseas. Fast forward ten years I am married, have lived in both China/Japan, and have made more overseas trips than I can even remember.

Instead of writing a full blog post on everything that I have done since in the two years since my last blog post I thought I would just summarize here and write my thoughts of each one of the events.I’ll try to “reset” from here and do my best to update the blog as I go along.

Korea/China Trip – April 2016

  • About a month after I came back from living in China I went on a business trip to South Korea/China.
  • South Korea was pretty uneventful. I was visiting a customer (Samsung). I remember them having more security getting into the Samsung campus than I have seen at most airports.
  • At the Samsung campus you have to catalog every single piece of electronics that you bring in so that they can account for it on the way out.
  • I stayed at the IBIS Ambassador Suwon. It was a pretty standard business hotel with no fluff. Still it was clean and they seemed to speak relatively good English.
  • Incheon Airport was a nightmare coming in. I carry-on only for business travel and good thing I did so on this trip. The line for security was about three hours long. Luckily I had coworkers that had already been in line for three and a half hours (they came in from San Francisco, I came in from Dallas), and I could just cut in front of them.
  • Pollution in Suwon was noticeably bad.
  • Food was awesome. Had the normal kimchi, barbecue, grilled octopus, soju, etc.
  • Went to Shenzhen to visit another customer. It was Shenzhen- a boring city with not a lot to do. Stayed at the pirate ship hotel.
Korean BBQ

Korean BBQ

More Korean BBQ

More Korean BBQ

Random street in Suwon

Random street in Suwon

Me "working" at the hotel restaurant in Shenzhen. Not a strip club, this is the restaurant at the Intercontinental.

Me “working” at the hotel restaurant in Shenzhen. Not a strip club, this is the restaurant at the Intercontinental.

Wedding (in Hawaii) – June 2016

The wedding was at the Disney Aulani hotel in Oahu, Hawaii. The location was somewhat chosen as it was a good halfway point for her family (in Japan) and my family (in USA). Pictures of the wedding at:

http://wedding.timothylogan.com/

  • Mickey and Minnie Mouse came to the wedding. It cost an extra $1200 for that to happen. If I ever want to give up the life of being an engineer I should try to be the guy under the Goofy suit.
  • Even with the $1200 premium it wasn’t that expensive. The wedding was small (both my parents, her parents, her grandma, her sister, and my sister (and her boyfriend). Disney did a great job catering the event.
  • After the wedding we stayed at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki. The sense I got from this hotel was that it was really something in the 70s, but somehow has since become a little dated.
  • The wedding dinner was at Roy’s Ko Olina. Great food and good service. I remember my wife and I being the dividing line at the table of Japanese speakers (her family) and English speakers (my family)
  • American Airlines direct from Dallas was fine. The plane was ancient, but it got us there on time.
  • We actually got legally married in Richardson TX at a small ceremony in a court house. We did this so that Asumi (my wife) would be under my health insurance in case anything went sour in Hawaii
Wedding on the beach

Wedding on the beach

Me with Minnie

Me with Minnie

Us with Chip and Dale

Us with Chip and Dale

Poke!

Poke!

Near Disney Hotel in Hawaii

Near Disney Hotel in Hawaii

Tennessee Trip (July 2016)

  • Went to Tennessee to introduce my Grandma and my Uncle to my wife.
  • Stayed at the Holiday Inn in Columbia. It was adequate and a standard Holiday Inn.
  • I remember when we were at my Uncle’s house there were a ton of fireflies. Asumi said that fireflies only are in places with very clean air
  • In Nashville we stayed at the Indigo Hotel. The hotel was nice and the location was great, but the room was small. Somehow I preferred the Holiday Inn.
  • On the last morning we were walking around Nashville and say a 5K/10K that was being run. This is what first made me interested in 5K running.
  • We saw fireworks over the Nashville river. It was pretty nuts. Sheryl Crow was there live and it was on-and-off rain
  • We went to the zoo in Nashville. It was a nice walk.
Fish at the Nashville Zoo

Fish at the Nashville Zoo

Fireworks in Nashville

Fireworks in Nashville

Palo Duro Camping Trip (October 2016)

  • Went out to Palo Duro Canyon for a camping trip.
  • We tried to cook the first night. There were bugs everywhere. We had very small dinner and pretty much sprayed the entire campsite with hardcore DEET pesticide.
  • Went hiking the next day on one of the intermediate camping trails. Was a nice walk. Had the dog in a “doggy” backpack.
  • The second day we didn’t want to go through the bug camping dinner so we drove to The Big Texan in Amarillo. Had a big Texas sized steak.
  • Stopped by Texas Tech on the way back and walked around. Talked to some professors.
  • Sleeping at Palo Duro in the tent was an ordeal. The wind was strong so going to sleep was challenging with the constant violent flapping of the tent.
  • Wild packs of turkeys were constantly making the gobbling noises throughout the night.
Samantha in her backpack

Samantha in her backpack

Asumi and I at Palo Duro

Asumi and me at Palo Duro

Big Texas Steak

Big Texas Steak

Me making fire in Palo Duro

Me making fire in Palo Duro

Japan Trip (add-on to business trip) – February 2017

  • Took advantage of the business trip airfare to Asia and stayed at Japan for a few days on my way to China (see below)
  • Stayed at one of my favorites Hotel Century Southern Tower.  It has a nice view and is on the quieter Shinjuku Southern Terrace Entrance.
  • Visited the old bar that I always went to (Gina’s in Atsugi). Atsugi is so nostalgic to me. It’s nice how some places don’t change.
  • Bought a ton of stuff for my wife from Daiso in Atsugi as well as Uniqlo in Shinjuku. I had two bags that I had to lug back from Asia.
  • I went to Kappabashi (a place that sells those fake food samples that sit in front of restaurants) and bought a fake beer to keep on my desk at work.
  • Went to eat at Tsukiji at least once (and had the obligatory toro sushi)
Sushi!

Sushi!

Uniqlo in Shinjuku

Uniqlo in Shinjuku

Atsugi never changes

Atsugi never changes

Me with friends at Gina's in Atsugi

Me with friends at Gina’s in Atsugi

China Trip (return) – February 2017

  • Went to Shanghai and Shenzhen in February 2017 for work.
  • In Shanghai I stayed at the Hongta Hotel. Was nice because this is not too far from where I used to live in Shanghai.
  • I met up with a previous coworker and we all ate at one of my favorite restaurants (Ding Tai Fung in Lu Jia Zui).
  • Went to Kang Dao massage in Tangqiao (where I used to live). The masseuse did not mess around- my back was purple by the end.
  • Shenzhen was boring Shenzhen. Stayed at the pirate ship. I remember going to an awesome Sichuan food restaurant at a mall.
  • Getting out of Shenzhen was a bit hectic. Tried to get home a day early and really JUST got on the ferry from Shenzhen to Hong Kong airport. Was able to get back to Dallas for two full days before I had to ship out to Germany (see below)
Went to the Ritz Carlton bar in Shanghai

Went to the Ritz Carlton bar in Shanghai

Ding Tai Fung!

Ding Tai Fung!

Germany Trip  (Munich) #1 – February 2017

  • This was my first time in Germany (or rather my first time in mainland Europe).
  • I went from DFW->LHR->MUC (Munich). I remember being surprised that British Airways charges for any sort of drink on the plane from London to Munich.
  • In Germany I was staying at the Airport Marriott in Freising. Freising is where my company has their main office in Germany.
  • I had one day where I went into proper Munich for sightseeing. I went to Marienplatz and walked around downtown.
  • I distinctly remember in downtown Munich going to this place which had a ton of wooden picnic tables and places that were just slinging out beers for a few Euro. I had my nice morning beer at 11am.
  • I wrote post cards as a souvenir and sent them out from the Munich post office
  • The train getting from Freising to Munich was a bit confusing. I didn’t know if I had an assigned seat or what. I should’ve done more research here beforehand.
  • One night in Freising the guys at the local office took us out for a night of laser tag and drinking. It was super fun. I remember feeling in bizarro land running through the German laser tag arena while X’ gon give it to ya by DMX was blasting.
  • My go to restaurant in Freising is Weissbraeu Huber. They speak English, the food was good, and they take AMEX (my company card).
  • Went to the Weihenstephaner brewery. Oldest brewery in the world supposedly. A bit touristy, but the food was good and the beer was world class.
Beer!

Beer!

More beer!

More beer!

Downtown Freising

Downtown Freising

Downtown Munich

Downtown Munich

Morning drinking is OK if everyone else is doing it.

Morning drinking is OK if everyone else is doing it.

Israel Trip – June 2017

  • Went here for business to sync up with the team about some collaborative projects between Dallas and Israel.
  • Office is in Ra’anana, hotel was the Dan Accadia in Herzliya. This was probably one of the best hotels that I went to for business. Right on the boardwalk of the Mediterranean Sea and reminded me of Venice Boardwalk in California.
  • Getting into Israel was a bit tough. I took American Airlines from DFW to Frankfurt, and then El Al Airlines (Israeli) from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv. Security to board the El Al flight was super strict. I got screened for “extra” security. They took me to side room and made me go over every single article of clothing and completely stripped my luggage to the bone to make sure there wasn’t anything dangerous. I had to specifically tell them what I was doing and which parts I was programming. They made me check my carry-on.
  • Security actually at Tel Aviv airport was not too bad. I think the amount of business travelers going to Israel is small compared to tourists so I was pretty easy to go through.
  • Food summaries:
    • Hummus restaurant. In USA hummus is something more to snack on- not a full blown meal. This was delicious, however was super filling. I wanted to pass out afterwards.
    • Gloria’s Cafe. A restaurant owned by someone from South Africa. Went there for lunch and had a Jem’s Beer. First time drinking beer for lunch on a workday.
    • Kosher McDonald’s. I had to stop by amall to get some Laline bath souvenirs for my wife. Had McDonald’s. It was very similar to USA McDonald’s except there was no cheese on the Big Mac (this is not kosher)
    • Hotel breakfast. No bacon (there is not a lot of bacon in Israel). A lot of fruit. Wasn’t my favorite, but it was good quality.
    • Yam 7 Bar. My “go to” as it was next to the hotel, had a great view of the Mediterranean, and had cold beer. Had burgers, fish dishes, etc. Was a bit pricey but they took Amex.
  • The office was nice. They have really gourmet coffee and these huge bean bag chairs everyone uses to take a break (these were particularly nice after wanting to pass out due to hummus).
  • Had one free day. Decided to book a tour to see Mazada and The Dead Sea. Chose this over Jerusalem as I only had one day and I did not think this was enough to really see all of Jerusalem. I am also not religious so the religious aspects would’ve been lost to me.
  • Tour bus booked online through some tour company. Wanted to do a canned tour as I wasn’t too familiar with Israel and didn’t want to get lost somewhere I was not supposed to be.
  • Tour group was about 15 people and was in English. They gave you freedom to walk around.
  • Mazada was amazing. History aside, the view from atop the mountain was breathtaking. The Dead Sea looked like something out of a movie. Words cannot do it justice.
  • Dead Sea was also awesome. After changing we had to take a trailer/shuttle to the actual shoreline. The Dead Sea is disappearing so the actual shore was a mile or so from where the resort was.
  • I’m sure people say this a lot- but I can’t believe how salty The Dead Sea was. A drop of water accidentally got into my mouth and it was one of the most disgusting tastes ever.
Hotel breakfast

Hotel breakfast

Hummus. AKA cement

Hummus. AKA cement

Mazada ruins

Mazada ruins

Me at Mazada. Awesome view.

Me at Mazada. Awesome view.

Me floating in Dead Sea

Me floating in Dead Sea

Sunset in Herzliya

Sunset in Herzliya

New York City Vacation – June 2017

  • Quick two day baby moon. The last trip Asumi and I took together without a kid.
  • Found awesome airfare. Round trip from DFW to Newark was $75 per person.
  • Stayed at the Holiday Inn Times Square. Location was great, staff was friendly, and it was relatively cheap considering we were a couple of blocks from Times Square. I think it was something like $220 a night.
  • Flying into Newark wasn’t that bad. Uber was easy to get and I don’t remember it being particularly crowded.
  • We saw Aladdin on Broadway. Show was good and cast was amazing. What you would expect from Broadway.
  • Tons of kids (it was Disney). Some kids were distracting.
  • As there were a lot of kids I decided to get a double Maker’s Mark neat from the lounge bar. It came to $30. Granted it was a souvenir glass I could’ve just bought an entire bottle of Maker’s Mark at a liquor store.
  • One morning we decided to go get some bagels for breakfast. Line for the bagel place was around the store so we decided to go a diner (as New York is famous for). We went to Brooklyn Diner. As we passed by I remember thinking “the guy in the window looks a lot like Jerry Seinfeld.” Once we sat down I realized “the guy in the corner IS Jerry Seinfeld.” Did my best to eat the eggs and hash (Asumi got Eggs Benedict) with Jerry Seinfeld in my peripheral vision. Didn’t want to be “one of those people” that bothered him or even stared in star shock.
  • Went to the Modern Art Museum. It was nice, but I think a lot of it was lost on me as I am not exactly  a scholar of art.
  • Went to Chelsea Market. A lot of nice looking food there, but it was crowded. A bit touristy.
  • Walked around Central Park. Was nice, relaxing, and free. Not everything in NYC will cost you that much money.
  • Had nice Italian food the first day at Casa Nonna. Hip and relaxing place. Near the hotel.
Both of us at Times Square

Both of us at Times Square

Asumi in Central Park

Asumi in Central Park

Asumi in NYC

Asumi in NYC

Asumi at the Aladdin entrance

Asumi at the Aladdin entrance

Aladdin on Broadway!

Aladdin on Broadway!

India Trip (Bangalore) – July 2017

  • First time flying to India from USA. That trip sucks. I flew from Dallas to Dubai and then from Dubai to India. That trip really sucks and you end up a zombie by the time you actually get to India.
  • I brought power bars this time as a backup so I didn’t have to eat too much of the food
  • More of the food- I ate breakfast at the hotel, power bars for lunch, and a mix of either power bars for dinner or hotel food for dinner
  • There was an alcohol ban in Bangalore when I was there. I tried to go to TGI Fridays to get a nice frosty Kingfisher, but had to settle for a luke warm Sprite instead. It sucked.
  • I stayed at the Hyatt MG Road. I wouldn’t stay here again. They were doing construction until late at night and it wasn’t that great of a hotel to stay at. Next time I am going to opt for the Leela Palace.
  • I remember thinking how dirty the roads were and how trash was caked everywhere. Cows were hanging out wallowing in and eat garbage piles.
Garbage cows. This was not actually the worst I saw.

Garbage cows. This was not actually the worst I saw.

Germany Trip (Munich) #2 – July 2017

  • I came here directly from India and was greeted with clean streets and safe food. I made up for the beer that I missed out in India.
  • I did laundry at the hotel. Laundry at the Marriott in Freising is expensive. It came out to about 150 euro. If I had known it was going to be this much I probably would have just bought new clothes.
  • The first full day I was there we went to some sort of carnival/mini Oktoberfest in the country. Pretty much a bunch of carnival games and a huge beer tent. Had a couple of liters of beer. Beer turned into schnapps. The rest of the day was a bit hazy after the schnapps.
  • At the carnival I was introduced to Wurstsalat. My new favorite German food.
  • Ate at all of the restaurants from my first trip to Germany. Didn’t make it into Munich proper this time.
  • It was Biergarten season this time around. First Biergarten we went to was Plantage in a forest area. It was nice, but I remember constantly having to dodge bees. Food was “Biergarten” food which included the jumbo pretzels and the “currywurst” (a sort of curry and sausage combined).
  • Second biergarten was a place by the lake that we went on the last day. Very local place and super chill atmosphere. Seemed like more of a family place where the locals go to wind down after work. Weather was perfect.
  • Coming back to USA I went through Chicago, and then onto Dallas. My flight from Munich to Chicago was delayed so I had to sprint through the airport in Chicago to make the Dallas flight. Thank god for carry ons and Global Entry.
Schnapps!

Schnapps!

Festival in downtown Freising

Festival in downtown Freising

Me at the carnival festival

Me at the carnival festival

Shenzhen Business Trip and Hong Kong Vacation

So it has already been a year since I have moved to China. A lot has happened and life has been very busy. Last week though I went to Shenzhen for business to attend (and give) a training. I was able to swing it so that I flew in and out of Hong Kong which gave me a couple of days of personal time in Hong Kong for vacation.

 

Hong Kong and Shenzhen

Hong Kong and Shenzhen

I left on an unassuming Sunday and took a taxi to the airport. After checking in, I learned that my flight was delayed for three hours. This was particularly a pain because the delay made the flight fall in between dinner time. You would think a huge international airport like Shanghai Pudong would have an abundance of restaurant options- but in reality the choice is quite abysmal. In Terminal 1, you are pretty much limited to Ajisen Ramen (a terrible ramen place), Burger King, and a catch all “western” cafe. I boldly attempted the western cafe and had one of the worst meals of grilled salmon which was almost inedible. Not even a Starbucks or decent coffee shop- all generic Chinese shops which were awful.

Anyways after about four hours the flight finally did take off. I flew DragonAir/Cathay this time. No big complaints about the flight- entertainment was good, food was edible, and there were USB charge ports at every seat. I finally arrived in Hong Kong at about 10pm. After collecting my luggage and meeting my coworker in the arrival lobby, I met my “limo” service to Shenzhen. Hong Kong (while now officially under China) is considered “international” travel. This means Hong Kong people have their own passports, money, elections (for now), etc. Because of this, when I took the limo service from the Hong Kong airport to my hotel in Shenzhen we had to go through immigration at the border. Usually you can go through in the car, but this time for some reason the driver said it would be quicker if we got out of the car at the border and walked through the checkpoint. Anyways, after a couple hours of driving and standing in line at immigration, I arrived at the J.W. Marriott Shenzhen at about midnight.

The hotel was super nice. For some reason or another (probably because I arrived so late), they stuck me on the top floor on a corner room. The view was great all week from my room and the weather was unusually clear/sunny.

View from my room

View from my room

As usual, I won’t really go into the specifics of the business here. All-in-all the training went well and the presentation/demo that I gave went down without a hitch. As it was a week long summit, I did have a couple of days where I had some free time. One day we went to Huaqianbei. Huaqianbei is a huge electronics district in Shenzhen and is known to have just about anything electronic (fake or real) that you would want to buy. There was a huge 10 floor (or so) mall that we went up in that had every manner of electronics, ICs, connectors, etc. I bought an all-in-one Miniport adapter for my surface for a cheap 30RMB. I thought about buying some fake Beats headphones for about $32, but I decided to wait until Hong Kong to just get real Bose headphones. I also ended up buying a selfie stick- not for practicality, but for novelty.

SEG store at Huaqianbei

SEG store at Huaqianbei

Selfie stick I bought

Selfie stick I bought

The rest of the week was filled with the normal work routine. There were a couple of company sponsored dinners where we went to traditional Chinese food places. I was also quickly able to locate the Starbucks next to the hotel so I could get my morning Americano fix.

At the end of the week, it was time for me to check out of the hotel and head to Hong Kong to start my vacation. One of my coworkers was heading to Macau, so I shared an Uber with him to the Shekou Ferry Terminal (the ferries to Hong Kong and Macau leave from the same port). After arriving at the port and picking up my ticket (I bought it previously online), I bid farewell to my friend and boarded the ferry to Hong Kong. For the ferry ticket, I opted to pay about 20RMB more and get a “first class” ticket. This granted me access to the first class deck. I would say that it was worth the upgrade- there were about 15x less people in first class and made for a very pleasant/quiet journey. The ride was a bit rough towards the end, but overall not too bad. I got to look out the window at the great views of Hong Kong bay.

 

Ferry Terminal

Ferry Terminal

Ferry in the distance

Ferry in the distance

Quiet first class

Quiet first class

Once arriving in Hong Kong, I had to somehow get to Tsim Sha Tsui station in order to meet my AirBNB host. Hotels in Hong Kong are extremely expensive, so this time I opted to try AirBNB for the first time. I arrived at the station (by taxi) around 4pm and the apartment owner showed me to the apartment. It was a very good experience overall. The location was great (right in the middle of the trendy Tsim Sha Tsui district in Kowloon). I could walk virtually anywhere in Kowloon and the metro station was right outside. The apartment itself was clean and more than large enough to accommodate me. If I had a family it might have been tight, but for my means it was more than enough. This was the room I booked.

 

My AirBNB room

My AirBNB room

After walking around a bit, I decided to visit the iconic Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak is known for its breathtaking views of the Hong Kong skyline. The most popular way to get to the to peak is by tram. I took the metro to the tram stop and was greeted with a horrendously crowded tram station. The line was estimated to be about a two hour wait. Luckily, I had a backup plan and walked to a nearby bus station to take the bus to the top. The bus was somewhat of an experience- the road was very narrow and the drops on the margin of the bus looked downright treacherous. Still, after about 20 minutes I arrived at the top of the mountain. From there I siphoned my way through a shopping mall and bought my ticket to the observation deck. Again, the observation deck was beyond crowded and filled to the brim with loud Chinese tourists. I didn’t spend too much time here- about 15 minutes or so. I spent just enough time to snap some pictures and take in the view.

My view from Victoria Peak

My view from Victoria Peak

 

Coming back I had a bit of a problem. The bus, tram, and taxi lines were all about two hour waits. Luckily, Uber (at the time) worked in Hong Kong. After ordering Uber, I was greeted by a Mercedes S-Class about five minutes later to take me back to Tsim Sha Tsui. Once back, I had a quick sushi dinner and conked out for the night. I had developed a bit of a head cold so I didn’t want to push myself with a late night.

The next day I had a full schedule of hiking planned. I had read that Dragon’s Back hiking trail was a great way to escape the crowds in Hong Kong and a good chance to get some fresh air. I had developed a little bit of a head cold, so I stopped by 7-11 and picked up some Dayquil equivalent. One thing that you consistently notice in Hong Kong are remnants of the British influence in the area. At the convenient stores, you see western medicine, foods, drinks, etc…. definitely more so than Mainland China. The fact that I could walk into 7-11 and buy something as simple as Dayquil is a convenience that I do not have here in Shanghai.

I found this very helpful guide on how to get to the base of the hiking trail. Essentially I took the metro to one of the outlier stations (Shau Kei Wan) and caught a bus to the trail head. The following hike was very very refreshing. I love to hike- but in Shanghai there really are no good mountains nearby (not to mention that the air is normally filthy). Dragon’s Back was simply stunning. The weather was great and it was the perfect mix of uphill and downhill. It’s called “Dragon’s Back” because it goes up and done repeatedly (much like a dragon’s back). All throughout the hike there were awesome views overlooking the bay with water as far as the eye could see.

 

Start of trail

Start of trail

At the peak

At the peak

You can see why they call it "Dragon's Back"

You can see why they call it “Dragon’s Back”

The entire hike took a few hours and was very relaxing. When tourists go to Hong Kong, they normally swarm around shopping malls. This is what made Dragon’s Back such a good experience for me- it was virtually deserted besides from some locals and the occasional westerner. It was definitely a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai city life. Instead of going to the beach front, I looped back to where I started on the trail and caught the bus back in town. After getting back to my apartment, I decompressed a bit and took a much needed afternoon nap.

After another sushi dinner, I decided to go see a movie in Hong Kong. Ant Man was showing and I really wanted to see it so I bought a ticket at Gateway Tower movie theater. I bought a special “D-Box” seat. From what I could gather, this means that the seat was special in that it vibrated and moved depending on what was happening on screen. After walking around a couple hours (and snapping a couple of great selfies by the harbor) I was seated and watched the movie. The overall experience was light years better than the experiences I had in Mainland China. Everyone was quiet, polite, and did not text. The moving seat legitimately was a good experience and added quite a bit of fun to the movie. I thought it was going to be gimmicky, but surprisingly it worked.

 

Harbor in Tsim Sha Tsui

Harbor in Tsim Sha Tsui

My D-Box Seat

My D-Box Seat

The movie let out late so I ended up getting back to my apartment and just conking out again around 11pm. The next morning I did a bit of walking around Tsim Sha Tsui. My flight did not leave until about 2pm so I had quite a bit of time to walk and shop. As my Bose headphones were at the end of their lifespan, I ended up buying a new pair of QC25 headphones for those long transpacific flights. At about 11:30am, I caught a taxi to the airport and flew back to Shanghai. Luckily, the flight going back was actually on time and I reached Shanghai at a very decent time.

Overall Shenzhen/Hong Kong was a good experience. Hong Kong has a completely different vibe than Mainland China and the people there have completely different mannerisms. I am glad that I could visit both cities and hope I get the chance to go hiking in Hong Kong again.

Facebook Pictures

Cambodia Vacation

Cambodia. Before coming to China, I had not thought a lot of people went to Cambodia for vacation. Growing up, it was some unknown eastern Asian country which had a somewhat dubious history. Nonetheless, after coming to China I noticed that many of my colleagues went on vacations to Cambodia. After checking airfare and realizing that direct flights to Cambodia are quite cheap (only about $400 round trip), I decided to book a week long vacation (with my girlfriend) to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Cambodia

Cambodia

Our first destination was Siem Reap. Siem Reap is world famous for housing such temples such as Angkor Wat and Beng Mealea. Out flight was at about 6pm on a Tuesday so I left after work via Uber and met my girlfriend at Pudong Airport. This time we flew with China Easter Airlines- which was not ideal, but a cheap mistake. The service isn’t too bad on China Eastern, but the problem lies your fellow passengers. People were really loud and inconsiderate, people spat on the airplane, the bathrooms were unusable within 15 minutes- not the best airline experience- not to mention the food is borderline inedible for a foreign stomach. Still, after a four hour travel we arrived in Siem Reap.

The first thing I noticed getting out of the airplane was how humid it was. I had a similar experience with Singapore, however going from dry/cold Shanghai to hot/tropical Cambodia was definitely a polarizing experience. Siem Reap airport seemed incredibly small- only a handful of immigration counters and only a couple of baggage claims. After getting off the airplane, we had a bit of a bizarre experience. We were a bit worried with being caught in the midst of a rush of Chinese passport holders in immigration. Chinese passports aren’t known to be the most versatile and usually have a bit more scrutiny taken on them everywhere outside of China. American and Japanese passports however tend to go relatively quickly through immigration. For this reason, I ran ahead of the swarm of Chinese to save a place for my girlfriend and myself. Turns out this was a bit of a mistake. At the entrance to the airport building, they were detaining all Asians. They saw me and waved me through quickly, however they detained my girlfriend and the airport employee seemed to want a bribe. After some confusion, they realized she was Japanese and let her through. It turns out they were only accepting bribes from Chinese passengers. Why this was, I don’t know, but it was a somewhat bizarre situation.

Anyways, after grabbing our luggage and going through immigration I picked up a SIM card for my phone. For about $5, you get unlimited 3G data which was definitely a good deal. Outside the airport we met our courtesy shuttle to the hotel. We were staying at Borei Angkor Spa which has an impeccable reputation on TripAdvisor. It was about 20 minutes away from the airport. After arriving, decompressing, and unpacking, we both fell soundly asleep. The hotel itself looked a little bit old, however I cannot recommend it enough. The staff was genuinely happy to help, the breakfast buffet was the highlight of every morning, and the pool offered a great escape after returning from a hot and dusty day of sightseeing. The price is right and I would easily recommend it to anyone traveling to Siem Reap.

Borei Angkor Spa

Borei Angkor Spa

After waking up in the morning and catching a great breakfast buffet, we were off to Angkor Wat. We arranged a Tuk Tuk driver to take us there. For half a day, I remember it came out to about $20 (he waited for us and took us back to the hotel). The Tuk Tuk driver first took us to the ticket gate. For a 3-day pass, the price was $40. Again, a little bizarre as they were very keen to ask for my girlfriend’s nationality. I’m not quite sure if they have something against Chinese tourists, but it seemed to be a continuing theme in the temples we went to. After getting the tickets, we were dropped off at the entrance to Angkor Wat. We arrived maybe around 10am and there was already quite a few people, however given how big the temple was it never really felt crowded. At the entrance, there was a huge river surrounding the actual entrance to the temple grounds. A big stone bridge led up to the entrance and the whole scene was quite serene.

Our Tuk Tuk driver

Our Tuk Tuk driver

River outside Angkor Wat

River outside Angkor Wat

Me taking pictures on the bridge

Me taking pictures on the bridge

After crossing the bridge and passing through a small entrance way you are in the actual temple grounds. Words cannot really describe the tranquility of Angkor Wat. The temple itself is made up of huge stone structures carved with intricate decorations in mesmerizing detail. There is a big courtyard leading up to Angkor Wat itself with big reflecting ponds on each side. During the rainy seasons these ponds are full of water, however when we went (during the dry season) they seemed about half full. Angkor Wat itself is truly a wonder of the world. Again, words cannot quite describe it nor can pictures. After entering the temple itself, you are lost in a world of stone carvings depicting everything for great battles to religious events. You could literally spend the entire week at the temple itself.

Outside the temple

Outside the temple

Looking back at the entrance

Looking back at the entrance

Me struggling with some stairs

Me struggling with some stairs

In the innermost part of the temple there is an elevated temple where you have to climb a set of really steep stairs to get to. For women, shorts are strictly forbidden. My girlfriend was wearing shorts so we settled for taking pictures from the outside. A common theme in all of the temples that we went to was the steep stairways. One of my fears are high places where I can fall very easily, so I struggled with a few of these stair cases.

Steep stairs

Steep stairs

Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

After enjoying the temple for a few hours, we bought a few souvenirs (and a guide book) from the shops to the side of the temple. I bought some post cards to mail to my family. We met our tuk tuk driver outside the temple and headed to the downtown of Siem Reap. In downtown we walked around a bit and did some shopping. I bought a pair of fake Oakley sunglasses for $4 and my girlfriend bought a few t-shirts and various other trinkets. We had lunch at a lovely cafe in the heart of downtown. I had a sort of Cambodian curry and my girlfriend had a glass noodle salad.

Downtown Siem Reap

Downtown Siem Reap

Cafe

Cafe

After returning to the hotel we rested up a bit. For the evening I had booked an ATV (four wheel all terrain vehicle) tour which was very highly recommended by TripAdvisor. At about 4pm, we met the ATV tour guide in the lobby of the hotel and he took us to the ATV tour shop. I have never driven an ATV so I was quite nervous, however after a quick training session I was good to go. The ATVs are quite powerful (they have about as much power as a regular motorcycle). In any case, we had booked the “sunset” tour where we rode to a rice field to see the Cambodian sunset. The tour was very interesting and I recommend it to anyone visiting Siem Reap. You drive your ATV through rural parts of Siem Reap and see some of the more authentic aspects of Cambodian culture. Our guide was very helpful and very friendly. The sunset at the end was magnificent and being able to explore backwater Siem Reap was very rewarding. The one downside was that the ATVs were quite loud, so I felt that we were being a little bit inconsiderate to those who lived in the rural areas.

ATV after sunset

ATV after sunset

Me on the ATV

Me on the ATV

After the ATV tour, our guide dropped us off at the “Pub Street” of downtown. In the pub street in Cambodia, there are many restaurants and bars all with outdoor seating. It is a very lively place and full of nationalities from all over the world. After exploring the restaurants, we decided on a traditional Cambodian restaurant and had a barrage of Cambodian food. One dish that we seemed to get quite a bit of in our trip in Cambodia was fresh spring rolls (not the deep fried stuff). At all of these restaurants, 50 cent draft beers were advertised. The beer they served was Anchor beer (not to be confused with Anchor Steam). This beer may sound Cambodian, but in reality it is a bit of a scam. It is owned by Heineken and is actually very low end beer tasting like watered down Heineken. I’d recommend investing a little bit more and getting the true Cambodian Angkor Beer.

Pub Street

Pub Street

Fresh Spring Rolls

Fresh Spring Rolls

Angkor Beer (the good stuff)

Angkor Beer (the good stuff)

After dinner, we walked around a bit and stumbled into a massage place. It was quite small, however we got a one hour foot massage for only $7. Despite the inexpensive price, the massage was excellent and the masseuse was very good at her job. We returned to the hotel a bit early to prepare for the long day ahead. The next day we wanted to catch the famous sunrise at Angkor Wat. Since we also wanted to visit Beng Mealea on the same day, we rented a driver for the entire day (for about $100). Waking up at 5am was a bit of a challenge, but somehow we were able to do so and make it to Angkor Wat in time for the sunset. We had forgotten to bring a flashlight so I had to make due with the LED light on my phone. After finding a good location right by the pond, we waited in the pitch black for the sunrise. Boy was it worth it. Seeing the sunrise over the iconic structures of Angkor Wat was truly a wonder. The colors that the sunlight caused made the entire scene to look like a picturesque painting. It was definitely worth waking up early.

Right before sunrise

Right before sunrise

Beautiful sunrise

Beautiful sunrise

After returning to the hotel for a quick breakfast, we were off to Beng Mealea. We made a brief stop at a pharmacy where I picked up some cheap western medicine (without a prescription). Beng Mealea itself is about an hour outside of Siem Reap. It lays in a state of ruin and has not been restored like many of the other Cambodian temples. The drive there was a bit interesting, however we took the chance to get caught up on sleep. I woke up a couple times and glimpsed at rural Cambodian life. The temple itself was a very unique experience. Like I said before it has not been restored, so you pretty much just take a walk through the ruins. What is unique about Beng Mealea is that they don’t really have too much information about it. It is not known who made it or when it was lived in. The guide book I read mentioned that it’s demise into ruin was most likely from natural reasons (and not a war), but the mystery of the temple almost gave it a romantic notion.

Beng Mealea Ruins

Beng Mealea Ruins

More ruins

More ruins

Even more ruins

Even more ruins

Once we wandered around the temple for a few hours we headed back to Siem Reap. We decided to go into town again for lunch. For some reason or another, we went to Hard Rock Cafe. It’s about the same as Hard Rock Cafe in any other city- expensive, but the food is pretty tasty and familiar. We walked around a bit and bought some more souvenirs after Hard Rock and then returned to the hotel. At this point we were pretty exhausted (being up since 5am) so we decided to have a nice relaxing evening at the hotel. We relaxed by the pool and ordered pizza for the evening before retiring.

The next day was a bit of a wild card. It was our last full day in Siem Reap so we decided to visit Angkor Wat one last time as well as the adjacent Angkor Thom. Before that, we booked a two hour massage at the hotel spa. It was OK (definitely relaxing), however it was about $60 per person. While this is extremely cheap for USA standards, I’d recommend going to the $7 place in town. After the normal breakfast buffet in the morning, we booked a Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. At Angkor Wat something very funny happened. There was a monkey hanging out on the pathway to the temple eating some morsel of food dropped by a tourist. An Asian guy walked by the monkey with a bag full of food and did not notice the monkey. On queue, the monkey ran after the guy and ripped the bottom out of the bag and stole they guy’s food! It was so funny and the guy was so shocked. The guy’s wife tried to take the food back from the monkey, but the monkey adamantly defended it. The guy eventually gave up and left the monkey to his spoils.

Monkey thief

Monkey thief

Monkey enjoying his reward

Monkey enjoying his reward

After we were done monkeying around at Angkor Wat, we headed to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a collection of temples in a relatively large wooded area. We were dropped off at the main temple and immediately noticed that it was a lot quieter than Angkor Wat. There seemed to be less tourist groups in this area and it was a bit more peaceful. After walking around the main bigger temple, we made our way to a smaller one that was full of steep steps. After a grueling five minute stair climb, we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area. Since it was quieter, you kind of had the sense that you could be explorers finding an unknown ruin.

Angkor Thom face

Angkor Thom face

Struggling with more stairs

Struggling with more stairs

View from top of temple

View from top of temple

After we got back to the hotel it was getting quite late. We decided to hit pub street one last time for one last souvenir run and a nice Cambodian meal. We ended up dining in a lovely Cambodian restaurant with a great second floor view of the street. We had the normal fair of fresh spring rolls and Cambodian curry. After dinner, we walked around the night market a little. I bought some Cambodian liquor and my girlfriend bought a few trinkets. It was a nice and relaxing night to top off our last day in Siem Reap.

The next day we woke up bright and early to go to the airport. From Siem Reap, we decided to spend one day in the capital Phnom Penh. We took a very uneventful flight using Cambodian Angkor Air to the capital. After getting our luggage, we got a Tuk Tuk from the hotel counter and headed to the Intercontinental Hotel. Right away from the Tuk Tuk ride you could tell Phnom Penh was a lot different than Siem Reap. It felt more “third world” and was noticeably more dirty than Siem Reap. The road was definitely an issue too. You would think the road going to the airport would be at least paved, however it was supposedly under construction and was about as bumpy as an old roller coaster. After about 20 minutes we did arrive at the hotel and rested up a little.

We decided to go to the waterfront area of Phnom Penh for lunch. The air was noticeably more polluted in the capital. Supposedly back in the day the area had a “French Riviera” feel to it, however you could tell that it is quite an industrial city nowadays. The riverside is full of quaint little bistros and cafes. After a lunch of a club sandwich and some curry, we stopped by Costa Coffee for a refresher. One thing I noticed about Cambodia is that there were very few chain stores that you would often see in Japan or China. There were no Family Marts, McDonalds, Starbucks, or just about any other chain that you see so much in the rest of Asia. Costa was the first one that we went to. We took at Tuk Tuk to the central market afterwards and did a little shopping. The Central Market was nothing special- more of the same fake sunglasses and cheap souvenirs. We decided to go back to the hotel and take it easy that night- which given that a monsoon like rain happened was in hindsight a good idea.

Riverside in Phnom Penh

Riverside in Phnom Penh

The next day I had booked a bicycle tour of Phnom Penh as well as the surrounding “Mekong” islands. This is something I wanted to do more than my girlfriend, however since she is so awesome she also agreed to come along. We woke up early and had a great breakfast buffet before heading out to the bicycle shop. At the bicycle shop we met the rest of the tour group that we would be with that day- a few Europeans, Hong Kongese, and a Canadian. After getting fitted for our bike, we were off. I was a bit nervous about riding a bike in crowded Phnom Penh, however the urban area was only a small percentage of the tour. We first rode to a small port where we took our ferry to a smaller island. The island was considerably more rural than Phnom Penh and was very enjoyable. It was really fun riding a bike through rural Cambodia and was honestly one of my high points of the entire trip. I love riding bikes, however I do not get to do so very often in China.

My mighty bike

My mighty bike

We made a few stops along the way. One was at a silk factory where a lady gave us an interesting tour on how silk was made. We enjoyed some very delicious and fresh fruit which included bananas, mangoes, and dragon fruit. We passed through a small farm where the locals explained how they made their living and we got a good photo-op with some cows. We also stopped by a peaceful temple where we got to take some really good pictures and learn a bit of the history. I cannot recommend Grasshopper Tours enough and do not have anything but kind things to say about our tour guide- definitely a must if you have any remote interest in a bike tour.

Rural bike path

Rural bike path

One of the boats we took

One of the boats we took

Silk weaving machine

Silk weaving machine

After the tour, we arrived at our hotel at around 1pm and took a much needed shower before checking out. We left our luggage at the hotel and headed back to the waterfront to kill some time. We had a 12am flight back to Shanghai so we had about 8 hours to kill before heading to the airport. We grabbed a great lunch at one of the riverside restaurants (I had a delicious Tom Yum pasta) and decided to get a massage to kill off some time. The massage was for two hours and only cost $14. I opted for a more expensive $20 massage where they use hot rocks to massage your feet. It was very relaxing. After the massage, we headed to AEON mall. AEON is a huge Japanese mall that is very famous in Japan. The mall itself showed a more modern side of Phnom Penh. It was very clean, organized, and had all of the high end designer shops. We had a quick dinner at a brew pub restaurant and wandered around the mall for a while. There was also a supermarket in the mall which stocked many western products. I took the chance to stock up on hand sanitizer.

After the full day we went back to the hotel, picked up our luggage, and went to the airport via Tuk Tuk. Somehow the ride to the airport was even bumpier than the ride from and it was almost hazardous. We had to hold onto our luggage to make sure it didn’t fly out of the Tuk Tuk when we went over a big bump. We did eventually arrive though and checked in with a couple of hours to spare. After moping around the duty free stores for a while, we boarded our red eye flight back to Shanghai. I hate red eye flights, however at that point I was so exhausted that I somehow managed to fall asleep.

All-in-all, Cambodia was a worthwhile vacation. While most travelers could go exclusively to Siem Reap and have an adequate Cambodian experience, I am glad that we did also stop by Phnom Penh. After getting back to Shanghai I felt that I could sleep for hours though. Whether or not I will be back in Cambodia in my life I don’t know, however I will definitely cherish the rewarding travel experience.

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Harbin Vacation

Since even before coming to China, one of my dreams was to visit Harbin China and go to the world famous ice and snow festival that takes place every year. Since I moved to China last year, this dream turned into a reality. I decided to take advantage of the company holiday for Chinese New Year and booked my trip to Harbin China.

Harbin, China

Harbin, China

Since Chinese New Year is a big holiday where pretty much every single Chinese person travels back to their hometown it was imperative that I booked travel early. In the end my girlfriend and I booked travel about three months before hand and planned to stay three nights. The ticket came out to about $350 and the hotel (Shangri-La Harbin) came out to about $1000 for two people. Even before going to Harbin I started to prepare. Harbin is located in the far north of China and is known for its extreme cold and unforgiving climate. For that reason I had to buy a bunch of very warm cloths. In hindsight it was a bit overkill, but I bought:

  • Three pairs of thermal underwear/longjohns
  • Winter gloves
  • Ear Muffs
  • Winter Jacket
  • Russian snow cap (pictured below)
I'm a Russian ninja

I’m a Russian ninja

I bought the majority of these on TaoBao (kind of like the Chinese Amazon) with the exception of the winter jacket. I went to the fabric market here in China and got that custom tailored for about $200. It is a wool/cashmere blend and is very warm. I will definitely be using this jacket for many winters to come!

Winter Jacket

Winter Jacket

The airline that we went with this time was China Eastern Airlines. Since it was domestic travel there was no choice to opt for any better luxury airline. After catching an Uber from my apartment, we got to Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai early in the morning and boarded our flight. The flight had a quick stopover in Qingdao (famous for its beer). It was a bit odd because normally when there is a stopover (without a plane change) you get to stay on the plane while others disembark/board, however in Qingdao everyone had to get off the plane. We got to walk around the Qingdao airport for about an hour, however after that we just ended up boarding the same plane and took off for Harbin.

Getting off the plane in Harbin I was expecting an arctic chill that instantly froze any patch of bare skin, however it actually wasn’t that bad. It was probably around 25F and with all the layers of clothes I was wearing I didn’t seem to notice the cold too much. Anyway, after taking a bus from the airplane to the airport (it was the old school way) and grabbing our luggage we met our hotel provided taxi and had a 40 minute or so ride to The Shangri-La Harbin. I do have to say that I was very impressed with the service at The Shangri-La. The moment that we got to the hotel we were greeted by the staff and went directly to our room to check in.

The hotel room was nice. Since I am a frequent guest at The Shangri-La I was able to get on the club floor with a good view of the frozen river. The bed was warm and cozy and the view alone was simply beautiful. At night you could even see the ice festival off in the distance. After unpacking our luggage a little bit, we decided to see if there were any good places around the hotel to eat. At the advice of the hotel staff, we decided to go to a nearby Harbin style restaurant. Walking to the restaurant we got our first taste of Harbin City. My first impression was that it looked somewhat European. Being so close to Russia, the buildings had a very distinct Russian influence.

The streets of Harbin

The streets of Harbin

After fumbling around a bit we were able to find the restaurant (with the help of Google Maps through VPN). The restaurant was… an interesting experience. When we first entered the staff seemed somewhat surprised and confused to have foreign guests. After some more confusion, we were somehow able to understand that they wanted us to go to the second floor. When we went to the second floor it was somewhat deserted, however the waiter insisted on sitting us in the empty hallway by the window. They also shuffled in another group of foreigners, however they soon migrated downstairs to get a more “authentic” atmosphere. Even weirder was there was a guy who was randomly taking pictures of me and my girlfriend. At first I though he was just some random Chinese guy that rarely sees foreigners, however later (after he brought us printed pictures) we were able to guess he either worked for or owned the restaurant.

In lieu of a printed menu, we were handed an iPad with pictures of all of the different foods that we could order. This is where I made a major mistake. I guess the saying is that “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”, however I (not my girlfriend) ordered way too much. To make things worse, the food wasn’t exactly anything special. It was OK- however nothing to write home about. I’ve highlighted a few of them below.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Dumplings

Dumplings

After dinner we walked back to the hotel. On our way back we stopped by the frozen river and enjoyed the beautiful sunset. There were bug chunks of ice on the lake and the whole scene was like something out of a poem.

Sunset at the river

Sunset at the river

So beautiful

So beautiful

I love the colors

I love the colors

Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to gear up for the ice festival.This involved bundling up with all of those warm clothes that we bought. The ice festival is known to be prettier at night with all of the lights illuminating the ice sculptures. After putting on enough clothes to survive a winter hibernation we got a taxi to the ice festival. The taxi charged by hour (70 RMB an hour) and we were told by the hotel to keep him on the clock while we visited the ice festival as taxis were supposedly hard to get during the Chinese New Year festival. One surprising thing was how much tickets cost to the ice festival- about 330RMB (about $50). That’s even more expensive than Six Flags in Dallas! Still, for the experience, we shelled out the money for the ticket.

So how was the ice festival? Not bad. It was definitely quite impressive to see all of the different structures that they made out of ice. I had to constantly be on guard to not slip and break my tailbone on icy floors- however the entire experience was quite enjoyable. There were a few times we were reminded that we were still in China- a couple of times where there were urine stains in some of the more discreet snow sculptures, but overall it was a very beautiful festival. One of the big attractions was the huge ice slide, however the line was too long and we did not want to weather the cold to get on it. Below are some of my favorites from the ice festival.

Entrance of ice festival

Entrance of ice festival

Me on ice horse

Me on ice horse

Ice couch

Ice couch

After we saw all that we wanted to see, we found our hired taxi and made our way back to hotel. After winding down, we settled in for the night and prepared for a full schedule the following day. The next morning our plan was to go to the famous Siberian Tiger Park. After a wonderful breakfast at the breakfast buffet we caught an hourly taxi to the park. This park was a bit more reasonable (90RMB per person) and didn’t seem to crowded (we did get there early). After getting our ticket, we went into the entrance lobby where we could pay 50RMB to take our picture with a baby Siberian tiger. I think the tiger cub liked my girlfriend more than me (he kept gnawing on my gloves), however he was super cute and I got a great picture.

Baby tiger

Baby tiger

After our face time with the tiger cub, we boarded a caged bus and were taken through the tiger preserve. The whole experience is pretty amazing- in the park there are about 100 or so tigers just chilling out everywhere. You can tell that they are very well fed and most of them have a bigger belly than mine. In addition to tigers, there were different cats such as lions. At one point of the tour a caged jeep came around the truck and a guy through a bunch of live chickens out towards the tigers. The tigers definitely knew what was up and instantly tore the chicken to pieces.

Tiger chilling out

Tiger chilling out

A lion couple

A lion couple

That poor chicken

That poor chicken

After the bus ride, we were taken to a raised/caged boardwalk area where we could see the tigers a bit closer. Definitely an interesting experience being able to get that close to the tigers. There was a guy that was selling live chickens and dead meat that you could feed to the tigers. Not wanting to incur any bad karma by playing chicken executioner, I opted for the tongs of dead meat. The problem was that at first I pointed to the live chicken (I misread the Chinese characters). The guy proceeded to yank the chicken out of the cage and it made an awful squawk, however after realizing that I wanted the dead version he shoved the chicken back into the cage and gave us two tongs of dead meat. You took the tongs and placed the meat in between the links of the cage. The tiger would then leap up and eat the meat giving you the chance to take some awesome pictures.

Live chickens and dead meat

Live chickens and dead meat

Feeding the tiger

Feeding the tiger

There were also white tigers, leopards, lions, and a host of other cats. After we had enough of the board walk, we walked around to the exit and caught our taxi back to the hotel. The entire experience was very cool and I definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Harbin. After getting back to the hotel, we wanted to go out and get some lunch. My girlfriend found a very popular Russian restaurant close to downtown so we decided to take a taxi. The restaurant was very posh and clean. The food was great and they had this very sweet and delicious homemade wine. They also had a very delicious borscht as well as an awesome pickle/sausage platter.

Yummy borscht

Yummy borscht

Pickles and sausage

Pickles and sausage

After dinner we decided to walk to one of the famous walking streets in Harbin called Zhongyang Dajie. We miscalculated how far it was from the restaurant and ended up walking about an hour through some “interesting” parts of Harbin, however eventually we found our way to to road. It was very picturesque and old fashioned. The road itself was closed to all but pedestrians and was made of old cobblestones that gave off a very European ambiance. We stopped at a Russian souvenir shop where I bought some Russian chocolates for my office and my girlfriend bought a Russian doll. Afterwards we stopped by a supermarket where we both bought some Russian fish eggs.

Zhongyang Dajie

Zhongyang Dajie

Very European

Very European

After taking a breather at a cafe, we went to go see St. Sophia’s cathedral. We were a bit tired at this point (and it was a bit crowded), so we decided to just take pictures and not go inside. We then took a taxi back to our hotel for a lazy night of eating an (uninspiring) dinner at the hotel Dim Sum restaurant and watching movies in the room.

St. Sophia Cathedral

St. Sophia Cathedral

The next day for lunch we had an appointment at the ice restaurant (everything is made of ice) for hotpot, however the weather was a little warm and the restaurant had to close because it was melting. Instead, we decided to go to another Russian restaurant that was on Zhongyang Dajie. After catching a taxi from the hotel to the restaurant, we found that it was packed. Determined, we took a number and waited for about an hour until we were seated. It was typical Russian fare and was very delicious. The highlights included borscht, pepper steak, and a strong Russian ale.

More Russian food

More Russian food

Russian beer

Russian beer

At this point it was pouring rain, however we were somewhat lucky and were able to catch a taxi pretty quickly back to the hotel. I decided to go for a nice swim and we both relaxed in the hotel until dinner. I had some food credits saved up from Shangri-La so we decided to try out the dinner buffet. We had high hopes, however the buffet was very mediocre. This was a disappointment because the breakfast buffet (that we went to every morning) was awesome. Still, it was free for me and we made the most of it before retiring for the night.

The next morning was super cold and by far the coldest day of the trip. Our flight was at 11am so we had a bit of time to walk around again on the frozen river. It was really picturesque and somewhat amazing that an entire river could be completely frozen. There were a few instances where it looked less frozen than other places. In those instances, we hastily retreated.

Very cold river

Very cold river

After walking around the river, we took the hotel taxi to the airport and returned to Shanghai. Overall the trip was quite enjoyable. This was one of the only domestic travels that I have done in China before. It was very interesting to see a city so different from Shanghai and taste very unique food. I would definitely recommend Harbin for anyone who wants a quick vacation in China during the winter.

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India Business Trip

If there is one Asian country that I did not have any strong desire to go to, India would have been it. I’ve gone out of my way a couple times in the past to prevent Indian business travel to be honest. There is not too much that is attractive to me. I’m not a huge fan of the food, it has the reputation for being a somewhat dirty country, and to make matters worse my company’s offices are located in Bangalore. Bangalore is known to be the high tech capital of India and not too much of a tourist area.

India

India

Coming off my flight from Singapore, I arrived in India about 9:30pm. The security/customs coming into India was a bit unique with what I am used to with eastern Asian countries. India is the only country I’ve been to where you have to go through the full metal detector and security screen coming into the country. This probably has to do with the increased terrorist activity and political climate that plagues much of the region- however after about 20 minutes I was through security and had my baggage. My company had made a reservation at the Hyatt MG Road Bangalore hotel. With this reservation, you got free shuttle service to and from the airport. After stopping by an ATM very quickly to pick up some Indian cash, I met my shuttle driver and was off to downtown Bangalore.

The shuttle experience was where my first taste of the “sleazy” India came in. Being a somewhat seasoned traveler, I was a bit guarded for taxi scams and tour guide scams. I made the mistake of mentioning to my driver that I had a day to myself in Bangalore and he took the opportunity to try to sell me his private chauffeur service. “$50 for the day is a bargain! The hotel will charge you at least $100!” he said. I later learned that even $50 would have been a blatant ripoff. After firmly telling him I had a friend/coworker to show me around, he gave me his number and somewhat backed off.

The actual drive from the airport to the hotel was… an experience to say the least. If there is one country that makes China look clean India has to be it. In Shanghai the trashy/slummy areas are largely hidden by the government (although absolutely present), however in India these sort of places are right out in the open. There will be mounds of trash muddled with dilapidated buildings right in the middle of a swanky financial area. The hotel itself was gated and surrounded by a huge cement wall. After going through the gate (we had to open the trunk and they checked for bombs under the car with a mirror), I was greeted by another metal detector and security checkpoint. This is the common theme that I’ve noticed with going to public places in India- metal detectors. Shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, department stores- they all have security checkpoints and metal detectors.

Metal detector at the hotel

Metal detector at the hotel

The hotel itself was a bit different than the normal Hyatt experience, but I had no complaints. It’s a bit smaller than the Hyatts that I have stayed at and the room at wooden floors and a more compact layout. Still, the staff was friendly and the room was adequate. I will say that the shower at the Hyatt MG Bangalore is awesome- it’s like a jet engine and can almost double as a massager. After meeting up with a coworker, I went passed out in the big comfy bed. The next morning I met my coworker downstairs for breakfast. The hotel breakfast was definitely the highlight of every morning. They had a selection of western and Indian foods and they made a killer french toast. Even more it was completely safe. I’d heard horror stories about dangerous food quality in India so I wanted to make sure that I was friendly to my stomach.

Hotel breakfast

Hotel breakfast

After breakfast, we grabbed a shuttle to my office (this was also included in the rate). Again, the shuttle driver tried to pull a scam on us. After giving us a somewhat obviously scam-like sob story about how he was a poor student and was scraping by money as a taxi driver as a part time job, he suddenly remembered it was his birthday (I’m sure everyday is his birthday). He then insisted that he wanted to buy chocolates for us, however he made a gesture reaching in his pockets that he was out of money. We weren’t buying it and he shut up after he realized we were a bit privy to these situations. Again, the drive was a bit enlightening. There would be random cows on the road and the traffic would give way to them (as they are considered sacred). Also mentioning again, there was tons of garbage and dilapidation everywhere. Below I put some of the pictures from around the city I took throughout the week.

Dog in trashy India

Dog in trashy India

Cow in the road

Cow in the road

Garbage Garbage Garbage

Garbage Garbage Garbage

The office was in a tech park and was a pretty decent building. I particularly liked the coffee machine in the office that was complementary for employees. I started each morning (and burned the midnight oil) with a fresh brewed coffee from the office coffee machine. The next few days were all work. Not going to go into the work here other to say that it was a productive trip. I post a lot of food pictures here, so I will go over some of the more interesting food experiences I had below.

The first day at lunch we had some sort of Indian crepes. Quite delicious and only about $3 for two very big crepes. This was on-campus at my company.

Indian Crepes at TI Cafeteria

Indian Crepes at TI Cafeteria

The first night we had some sort of North Indian food from a restaurant called Mast Kalandar. We went here with a friend/customer from Bangalore and it was in a smaller shopping center on the second floor. The food was quite good. Pretty much you got a plate with separate sauces and a plentiful serving of thin bread. You use your hands to take the bread and scoop up the sauce. The dessert was a very sweet Indian delicacy consisted of a deep fried doughball smothered in sweet syrup.

Northern Indian food

Northern Indian food

Dessert

Dessert

Went to some sort of Brazilian BBQ restaurant called BBQ Nation another night. They come around and carve off meat/veggies for you to grill at a grill in the middle of your table.

BBQ in India

BBQ in India

Group shot at BBQ

Group shot at BBQ

Went with one of the managers to some Bangalore-style restaurant. The food at the restaurant was very good (similar to the bread/sauce style of the North Indian restaurant), however the more interesting aspect was how we go to the restaurant. We took a tuktuk. It was barely big enough to fit three of us, but it was an interesting experience.

Tuk Tuk

Tuk Tuk

Bangalore food

Bangalore food

Other memorable dining experiences included Subway and TGI Fridays. At Subway, I got my normal Italian BMT, however it had lamb meat instead of pork meat (pork meat is considered unclean). TGI Friday we had pork ribs, however they double charged my credit card. I’m still trying to get them to reverse the charge (on my corporate card) and even had to call my bank as TGI Fridays Bangalore is denying it. Never go to TGI Fridays in Bangalore. I suspect they did it on purpose and were hoping to pull a quick one.

Another memorable thought was that Hyatt had snacks in my room each night I returned. The first night it was a delicious chocolate cake and the other night I came back to the hotel to find brownies. Very nice touch.

Free cake at hotel. Thanks Hyatt!

Free cake at hotel. Thanks Hyatt!

The last day was a Saturday and time to leave Bangalore. My flight left at 11:30pm so I had the entire day to “explore” Bangalore. I had plans to meet a friend in the afternoon for him to show me around Bangalore. After waking up, checking out, and leaving my baggage at the front desk I decided to check out the shopping center right next to the hotel. This turned out to be a bad choice as the moment I stepped out of the hotel I was harassed by taxi drivers wanting to take me to their junk souvenir shops. They kept insisting that I should buy “sandle wood handycrafts” as that is what Bangalore is famous for. I escaped the taxi drivers and went to the (gated) shopping center next to the hotel. There was a shop called “Big Bazaar” that I walked around a bit. Nothing special- kind of like an Indian target. After about thirty minutes I had enough and walked back to the hotel to hang out by the pool and eat a tiramisu.

Tiramisu by the pool

Tiramisu by the pool

By about two my friend came around to pick me up. As I mentioned earlier, Bangalore isn’t too much of a tourist city. The one landmark that my friend could find that was somewhat touristy was Bangalore Palace. This was somewhat a summer house to the various Maharajas (a ruler) in India. It wasn’t anything special. You paid an entrance fee and got a audio tour guide which told you about various rooms of the palace. You needed to buy a pass to take pictures. I didn’t want to pay money to take pictures, however my friend was lucky enough to snap a picture before the guards called us out.

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

After the palace we headed towards center Bangalore to a sort of restaurant and shopping center. We went to a place called “3 Monkey’s Brewpub” which is sort of restaurant that brews their own beer. We had a few very tasty beers and a selection of American bar fare.

In front of 3 Monkey's

In front of 3 Monkey’s

Once we finished dinner, we did some of the activities in the shopping center where the restaurant was. This involved a few carnival-like games like shooting bottles with an air gun and some archery training. After everything was done, my friend dropped me back off at the hotel and I caught the shuttle cab to the airport. Again, I had to insist to the driver that I did not want him to take me to his shitty sandlewood souvenir shop and take me directly to the airport. After getting to the airport a bit early (the cab had to be randomly screened and checked for bombs), I checked in and went through security. After a quick nap on the bench outside the gate, I boarded the plane and started my red eye flight back to Shanghai (with a transfer in Singapore). Red eye flights suck. Having nine hours in the air plus an hour transit in Singapore was not enjoyable at all and I really will try to avoid these sort of flights in the future. I finally ended up getting back to my apartment in Shanghai a little after 12pm.

India was definitely interesting, however I wouldn’t be too heart struck if I don’t have to go back again. My stomach definitely acted weird on a lot of the spicy food that I ate. Nonetheless, I did have an interesting travel experience and look forward to more interesting travels in my future!

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Singapore Vacation

Last week I was tasked to go to Bangalore India for vacation. While planning flights, I unfortunately found that there is no good easy way to get to Bangalore from Shanghai. No direct flights and it seems that all of the connecting flights had horrific layovers. After scouring through various flight plans, I found one that had a layover in Singapore. I had always wanted to go to Singapore so I jumped at the opportunity and turned the twelve hour layover into a two day layover.

Singapore

Singapore

On Saturday afternoon I caught a taxi to Pudong Airport in Shanghai and boarded my Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. Singapore Airlines is widely known to be one of the best public airlines on the planet so I had high hopes. Even with my economy class ticket, I was not disappointed. The service was great, the food was delicious, and the stewardesses were all very attractive/tall Singaporean girls that jumped on every opportunity to provide excellent service. In Asia, airlines tend to hire stewardesses based partially on looks (a practice which would have severe lawsuits if done outside Asia). While I don’t necessarily agree with the practice- it was not a downside for me.

After a four hour flight I landed in Singapore. I have to say that customs in Singapore was the quickest experience that I have had anywhere in the world. I was through customs/immigration and had my bags in literally about 5 minutes. Definitely an upgrade from the two hours it took at LAX when I connected there. The first thing I noticed when stepping out of the airport in Singapore was the heat. When I had left Shanghai, it was about 0C and dry. I donned a big winter coat and had a winter hat on. In Singapore, being close to the equator, it was closer to 30C and as humid as a sauna. I immediately stripped down to the t-shirt I was wearing underneath my mound of winter gear.

I found the line for the taxi and queued up. Once in the taxi, I told the driver to take me to the Shangri-La Hotel. One thing that is also immediately noticeable in Singapore is that everyone speaks English… very well. This was a pleasant change from Shanghai where most taxi drivers speak no English at all. The taxi driver seemed to approve of my hotel choice. The most “popular” hotel in Singapore is the distinct Marina Bay Sands. While I would have loved to stay there, I decided to stay at the Shangri La as I have a loyalty account there and it was about $100 cheaper per night. At $350 a night, the Shangri-La was definitely not a bargain- however I couldn’t really justify that extra $100 just for a nice view. The taxi driver said that I made a right choice and that the Marina Bay Sands was a bit nosier and the air wasn’t as clean.

I got to my hotel in about an hour and checked into my gorgeous room on the 14th floor. I definitely recommend anyone traveling in Asia to stay at a Shangri-La. The service and level of quality you get are unmatched. My room in Singapore was huge, comfortable, and had a very interesting “home automation” panel on the night stand. You could control every single light using the buttons on the panel and even open/close the curtains. The bath tube was huge and the shower felt so good after the long flight.

Nice bath

Nice bath

Automated curtains in the morning

Automated curtains in the morning

So I was faced with a dilemma- what to do for dinner? Singapore is a country that is known to be a fusion of many different Asian countries and is famous for having some of the best food in the world. With this plethora of choice, where did I go? I went to the hotel buffet. I know, some will say that I was lazy and wasted a night and arguably the foodie capital of Asia- however this was my vacation. If I want to be lazy and spend $60 to knock down a couple of beers and eat gourmet seafood at the hotel buffet- who will stop me? Vacations are meant to relieve stress and by staying in the hotel and relaxing I did just that. The buffet was great (I know at this point I am sounding like the Shangri-La paid me). There was assortments of food from around Asia and I ate copious amounts of crab and sushi.

The next day I was scheduled to meet my friend Hung Lun and his wife Weng in my hotel lobby. I had worked with Hung Lun when I lived in Asia and had kept in touch via Facebook. After meeting in the lobby, we decided to go to the nearby botanical gardens and have a nice walk. We met up with his wife and enjoyed the scenery of the mark. Singapore has the reputation of being very clean and walking around the park it lived up to this reputation. One thing that I noticed was the surprising number of foreigners in the park- maybe even being in the majority compared to Asians. I’ve heard that a lot of companies are jumping ship from Hong Kong to Singapore (to escape the Chinese government), so perhaps this is what I was seeing. Perhaps I was just in a “foreigner” area. In the park there was a paid “Orchid” garden. I went in and took pictures of flowers (many of which I was told were rare).

Lake at Botanic Garden

Lake at Botanic Garden

Some flower that might be rare

Some flower that might be rare

Another flower that might be rare

Another flower that might be rare

After the botanical gardens, we decided to head to Sentosa Island and caught a subway to Harbour Front Station. At the station we grabbed a quick lunch at the food court. I had a sort of “pick and choose” soup that had quail egg, tofu, various vegetables, and assorted seafood. Very good and I remember the price being somewhat reasonable. After lunch, we dropped by a supermarket and grabbed some drinks to enjoy by the wading pool on the roof of the station (which was also a big shopping mall). Again, when we got out on the roof I was surprised by the heat. The sun was blaring down and I was afraid that I was going to get roasted- however fortunately we found a shaded area. Hung Lun’s daughter played in the water while we all took a rest.

Pick and choose soup

Pick and choose soup

Pond for kids to play

Pond for kids to play

We decided to take the cable car to Sentosa Island. Sentosa Island is an island on the southern part of Singapore known for its resort like areas. It has a few different beaches and even a Universal Studios. The cable car was really a pleasant experience. We passed high over the sound connecting Sentosa Island to Singapore and had some amazing views.

View of cable car from distance

View of cable car from distance

Inside the cable care

Inside the cable care

On the other side, it became quickly apparent that Sentosa was indeed a touristy area (some might call it a tourist trap). Admission was free (save the $20 cable car ride), however there were a ton of touristy shops scattered about. It was still very fun and the weather was great which allowed us to leisurely walk around. There was also a huge Merlion close to the cable car stop. The Merlion is somewhat like an icon in Singapore and is a statue of a lion mixed with a mermaid.

Sentosa Merlion

Sentosa Merlion

Chinese New Year Decorations

Chinese New Year Decorations

After walking around a bit, we caught a tram to Palawan Beach. After waiting 30 minutes for a tram that took us about 30 seconds down the road (we felt foolish for not walking), we arrived and Palawan Beach and was greeted with a gorgeous seaside view. After relaxing a bit with a couple of drinks, Hung Lun and I went to the obervation tower on the south side of the beach and took in the great views. There was also a sign saying that it was the “southern most part of continental Asia”.

Palwan Beach

Palwan Beach

Palwan Beach

Palwan Beach

We enjoyed the beach a bit and then caught a taxi back into town. Hung Lun and his wife invited me to their family’s house to enjoy a nice home cooked dinner. He mentioned that his father-in-law enjoyed liquor. I had brought some Chinese liquor as a gift for Hung Lun so it was a really good match. After a taxi ride to the apartment, I was greeted by a meal of seafood that could definitely pass at a five star restaurant. His inlaws are from Pudian (China) so I had a very interesting assortment of seafood ranging from soft shell sea crab to fish ball soup. There was also copious amounts of alcohol involved and I even go to try some homebrew rice wine which has a lovely fruity flavor.

Homecooked Meal

Homecooked Meal

After saying goodbye to everyone, I caught a taxi back to my hotel, took a shower, and then passed out. The next day I had to catch a flight at 9pm to Bangalore so I could enjoy a full day of sightseeing. The weather was not as good as the previous day (there was an on-and-off drizzle of rain), however I weathered it out. I spent a good part of the morning swimming and sitting by the pool reading a book. The pool was great and was very relaxing (and also very deep which I love).

Relaxing by the Shangri La Pool

Relaxing by the Shangri La Pool

When I was done with the pool, I took a quick shower and packed/checked out of the hotel. I left my luggage with them so that I could go see the sights of Singapore. Singapore is famous for “hawker stalls” in public places. Hawker stalls are pretty much a single stall that makes one specialty dish- very well. They are normally in an outdoor “food center” and are bunched together with many other stalls (about 50 or so). Hung Lun suggested that I go to one on Old Airport Road and I was not disappointed.

The first stall I had specialized in a sort of dried sardine soup. It had just the right level of spice and was very delicious.

Sardine soup

Sardine soup

The second stall was definitely the most interesting. They specialized in big prawn soup. After ordering, the lady caught a live big prawn from the tank she had outside and boiled it alive. Mixed with various greens and a spicy broth, it was great.

Giant prawn soup

Giant prawn soup

At this point I also got some fresh juice of green apple and sour plum to wash down my last dish.

Juice stand

Juice stand

The last dish was a chopped and roasted duck served on white rice. It was…. OK, however definitely the weakest of the three dishes.

Roasted duck

Roasted duck

At this point I was completely stuffed and caught a taxi to the main bay area of Singapore where the main iconic Merlion was located. This Merlion is right in front of the bay and provides a nice seaside view of The Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The Merlion was pretty impressive and I snapped a few good pictures.

The famous Merlion with Marina Bay Sands in the back

The famous Merlion with Marina Bay Sands in the back

Different view of Merlion

Different view of Merlion

At all of these touristy places, I kept seeing a theme of older western guys with smoking hot Asian women. Later (after looking it up online), I found out that prostitution is not only legal in Singapore, but highly regulated/taxed. While I would never partake, I think this is the right approach. Anyways, after grabbing a mango smoothie at Starbucks I decided to walk over to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. On my way there, I was caught in a bit of a flash rain, however I endured and made it to the hotel. The hotel itself has a casino and a super rich (think Galleria x5) shopping mall at the base. I wasn’t interested in gambling (or paying $50 for a Gucchi t-shirt) so I headed straight to the sky garden of the hotel.

Marina Bay Shopping Center

Marina Bay Shopping Center

Basically, even if you are not staying at the hotel, you can pay about $15 to go to the top of the hotel and enjoy the view from the observation deck. It was definitely worth it as the view was simply incredible. You could see the skyscraper filled metropolitan skyline of Singapore, however my favorite view was that of the bay area with all of the boats grouped up to dock. I could have spent hours just staring at the bay wondering and imagining stories for each individual ship.

View from observation deck

View from observation deck

Me on observation deck

Me on observation deck

I took in the view and then caught a taxi back to the Shangri-La. After enjoying a cheese platter in the hotel cafe, I got my luggage and went to the airport via taxi. I had about three hours to kill at the airport and the airport at Singapore is definitely the airport to kill time at. There is wifi access everywhere and even free massage chairs to relieve weary feet (which I welcomed). After a few hours, I boarded my flight to India (which I will write about next). Overall Singapore was a great experience. I felt like it was a bit rushed, however I am still glad I went and consider myself very lucky to have had native friends there to show me around. I definitely want to go back and look forward to hanging out by the pool again!

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Japan Business/Vacations

Japan. I lived there for a year and continually go back and forth for a mix of business and vacation. Japanese is my second language and it has morphed beyond the casual hobby that it was in college and into almost a part of my everyday life. Last month I went to Japan twice- once for vacation and once for a mix of business/vacation. Back in July I had bought a cheap ticket ($350 round trip from Shanghai) and the following month after I was approved to go to Japan for an embedded conference. Both times were amazing and there must be a tuna shortage in Japan after everything that I ate.

I don’t really know what to say about Japan that I haven’t already said in countless blog posts before. It’s a great country to be. It is clean, safe, free, and the people there are genuinely kind. I won’t go into the level of detail that I do with other travel trips, but instead just post some of the more interesting pictures.

Chinese Rice Liquor - I bought this as a souvenir for a friend.

Chinese Rice Liquor – I bought this as a souvenir for a friend.

The view from the Hyatt Regency Shinjuku. Not bad- that's Shinjuku Chuo Park in the foreground.

The view from the Hyatt Regency Shinjuku. Not bad- that’s Shinjuku Chuo Park in the foreground.

Whale sushi - I had this when I went to a conveyor belt sushi place in Tsukiji (the fish market). I didn't know it was whale until after I ate it. Quite good.

Whale sushi – I had this when I went to a conveyor belt sushi place in Tsukiji (the fish market). I didn’t know it was whale until after I ate it. Quite good.

At the same sushi place. At 12pm the chef caught a fish from the aquarium and killed the fish right there to make sushi as fresh as you can get it.

At the same sushi place. At 12pm the chef caught a fish from the aquarium and killed the fish right there to make sushi as fresh as you can get it.

After the kill. Definitely delicious!

After the kill. Definitely delicious!

Me at Gina's with the staff and Rumi. All are friends that I knew when I lived in Japan.

Me at Gina’s with the staff and Rumi. All are friends that I knew when I lived in Japan.

View from Intercontinental Hotel in Yokohama of Yokohama bay. This was the hotel that my company put me at. I stayed at a cheaper business hotel for vacation.

View from Intercontinental Hotel in Yokohama of Yokohama bay. This was the hotel that my company put me at. I stayed at a cheaper business hotel for vacation.

My company at the Embedded Technology conference. All the companies had very cute girls to wave in onlookers.

My company at the Embedded Technology conference. All the companies had very cute girls to wave in onlookers.

Fatty sushi (ootoro). I had so much of this in Japan. In Dallas, one of these will run you $20. In Japan, two for $5.

Fatty sushi (ootoro). I had so much of this in Japan. In Dallas, one of these will run you $20. In Japan, two for $5.

Hamburger sushi I got at a conveyor belt sushi place. I learned later it is normally for kids.

Hamburger sushi I got at a conveyor belt sushi place. I learned later it is normally for kids.

Narita Express that will take you from Shinjuku to Narita Airport in about an hour and a half. Definitely worth the money.

Narita Express that will take you from Shinjuku to Narita Airport in about an hour and a half. Definitely worth the money.

I’ll be back to Japan. Living in China, it is a bit depressing watching/reading the news as there is so much muckraking towards the country. Sure, Japan has it’s problems (every country does), however the news makes it out to be demonically bad. I think most people who actually visit the country from China are surprised on how clean/friendly it is and how it is not the demonic hellhole that the news makes it out to be. I’ll tell you one thing- I definitely have not had sushi that even rivals the freshness that I experienced in Tsukiji market. Traveling there for the fatty tuna alone is worth the plane ticket.

South Korea Vacation

This time I went to vacation in South Korea. Korea has always been a bit of an unknown to me. I have had many Korean friends over the years and absolutely adore Korean food, however I am relatively unfamiliar with the country and especially the language. My very good friend in Dallas is Korean and she recommended that I go. After checking for flights on Kayak and booking a hotel through Priceline, I was all set for my Korean vacation.

South Korea

I have nothing but good things to say about Korean Air. They are definitely up there with JAL/Cathay as far as quality of service goes… in other words the best. I caught a taxi from my apartment in Shanghai to Pudong Airport around 11am. After killing about two hours in the first class lounge, I boarded and made the hour and a half journey to Seoul Incheon Airport. After landing, getting baggage, money, and a SIM card (from the convenient store), I was tasked with how to find a way to get to the Renaissance Seoul Hotel. I was a bit nervous before hand as I normally take a taxi to my hotel, however the airport in Seoul is so far away than a taxi would have run about $100 or so. Instead I wandered around the airport and actually found a bus from Korean Airlines that stopped directly in front of my hotel. At 16000 Korean Wong (about $16), this was a bargain. After a long hour and a half bus ride through Seoul rush hour, I arrived at my hotel in Gagnam District.

Bus from Incheon Airport

I went to Korea alone. My friend from Dallas had got one of her friends that was living in South Korea to meet up with me on the Saturday, however for the first night I was left to fend for myself. That night I wanted to get some Soondae as it is one of my favorite Korean foods. I soon found out that UberX was free in Korea due to it just being rolled out into a new market. UberX is a sort of ride sharing application where people with their own cars act as the taxi. The experience tends to be more enjoyable and the service/price (even when it is not free) is miles ahead of a normal taxi. Anyway, after the UberX picked me up at my hotel, I showed the address in Korean and we were off. The restaurant was in Gagnam in a pretty lit up street full of bars/restaurants. After navigating on foot a little, I found the restaurant and order some soondae soup, a combination soondae dish, and some beer/soju (Korean liquor). It was really good and delicious! Also, which is typical with Korean food, I was served kimchi (in this case kkakdugi).

Soondae combination with soju

A little bit tired, I walked back to my hotel (which was about 15 minutes away) and went straight to bed. The next morning was my chance to do some of the touristy stuff in Seoul. After waking up around 9am, I made my way to the Seoul metro station to make my way to Gyeongbokgung. After going to Yeoksam station and buying a T-Money/Pass card from a machine, I navigated through the subway (which required one transfer) to Gyeongbokgung station. My impression of the Seoul subway is pretty positive. A little less anarchic than the Shanghai subway, but a little bit more noisy than the Tokyo subway. Still, even during rush hour, it seemed to operate very smoothly and pleasantly. Once at Gyeongbokgung, I exited the station and walked around outside. After buying a ticket for about 3000 wong (about $3), I entered the palace. The palace itself is pretty impressive. It looks like a very typical Korean architecture. In the main area (where the main palace is), it was a bit crowded/loud. I specifically remember seeing a bunch of Chinese tourist groups. If you walked around to the side though, the crowds thinned out and it got more peaceful. The weather was magnificent and I enjoyed walking around/relaxing for a good hour or so (while taking pictures).

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Garden around Gyeongbokgung

After making a short visit to the folk museum next to Gyeongbokgung, I boarded the subway back to my hotel. After I left the subway near my hotel, I was a bit hungry (it was lunch time). I video chatted with my friend in Dallas, and she saw a really nice/cheap Korean food restaurant that is known to give you a good bang for the buck. The place is called Gimbap Heaven and specializes in Gimbap. Being next to my hotel, I ended up going to this restaurant a few times. I never spent more than around $5, so this definitely turned out to be a bargain. THe first time, I had kimchi ramen and a regular gimbap.

Gimbap from Gimbap Heaven

That evening I met with my friend at my hotel’s lobby. We decided to go to a park that boasts a very good view of Seoul called Namsan Park. We took a (free) UberX there and walked around a bit in the park. In the park there is a very recognizable tower called Seoul Tower. We walked/hiked around the park to the base of the tower. Again, tons of tourists here (many from mainland China) and the crowd was a bit overwhelming. The wait to get into the tower was a bit long, so we decided to just enjoy the views around the tower and take the cable car down.

View from Namsan Park

Seoul Tower

After catching another UberX, we went to a restaurant next to my hotel called Bono Bono. This is a sort of super buffet that has everything from king crab, to sushi, to German sausage. After a day of walking around this was definitely a welcomed dinner. A bit expensive (I think maybe around $50 a head), but the amount of king crab alone that I ate made up for it.

King crab from buffet

After dinner, I got my friend a free UberX back to her home and I returned to my hotel and passed out. The following day (after sleeping in until 10am) I had an early lunch of Tteokbokki and kimchi gimbap from Gimbap Heaven. I then took an UberX to a park my Korean colleague from TI suggested called Hangang Park. It was a very nice park and very relaxing to walk around next to the Han River. It seemed like a place local Koreans went to run/exercise/relax (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight except for me). After walking around for an hour or so, I made my way to the subway to meet my friend at Hongik University station. Around the station, we had some sort of Korean pork soup called gamjatang. It was very good (and spicy) and was accompanied by the usual array of side dishes/kimchi.

Hangang Park – so peaceful

Gamjatang and side dishes

After the late (second) lunch, we went to a Korean culture center where they showed you how to make kimchi. I was the only one here (in addition to my friend), but it was very fun none the less. They showed you how to mix the spices, cover the lettuce, and wrap everything so that the kimchi would be ready to ferment. The way that kimchi is made is that after the lettuce is spiced, it has to sit around for a week or so (in the old days, they buried the container in a ground). Since we didn’t have a week to let it ferment, they had some premade that tasted delicious! Afterwards, they had a few traditional Korean clothes that I could try on. I got some pretty interesting pictures of mean in Korean garbs.

Teacher explaining how to make kimchi

Me making kimchi

Me in Korean clothes

Afterwards, we went to a very tradition/touristy Korean road called Insadong to buy some souvenirs. After a quick ride on the subway, we arrived and started to walk around. It was a very interesting area and there were a ton of good souvenir shops. I bought some post cards to write to my friends and family in USA. We also stopped by a tea shop and got some really nice tea ice cream.

Road in Insadong

Tea ice cream

After we walked around Insadong for a bit, it was time to get dinner. I had been planning on eating live octopus on this trip (it had been on the bucket list since seeing it on the TV show Bizarre Foods) and it seems that it is one of the more notorious Korean foods. My friend did some research and found a very highly rated place in Korea to get the octopus. After a short subway ride, we arrived. The restaurant was a bit small and situated off a lively street close to the subway station. In the front, there was a small aquarium with a few live octopuses. After being seated, we ordered beer and a couple of octopus dishes (fried with vegetables, and an actual live octopus). The live octopus was truly a unique experience. The restaurant lady came with two octopuses in a small metal bowl of water as well as two wooden sticks and some spicy chili sauce. When I gave the word (after making sure I had ample beer), she grabbed the octopus (she had gloves one), pressed it against the stick, wrapped the tentacles around, dipped it in sauce, and I ate it in one bite off the stick. This was the first (and admittedly probably the last) time that I killed something with my mouth. The octopus is still alive when you bite it off the stick and the sensation is very unique. Each individual suction cup on all the tentacles grabs different parts of your mouth and is a little unnerving. At one point, a tentacle grabbed the back of by throat and made me slightly wanted to gag, but I muscled through the chewing and swallowed. I wasn’t really concentrated on the taste, but it was more or less like extremely fresh sushi. My friend also did this for the first time (despite being Korean) and had a similar reaction. We took a video of the entire experience.

Octopus about to meet his fate

After the live dish, we ate another dish where a bunch of vegetables were brought out on a large metal pan and put over a stove. A live octopus was cut/added and chili sauce was added. You could see the tentacles squirm even after being heated a little. This was a very delicious dish and was a bit more manageable to eat than the live octopus. Of course, like all Korean meals, we had the assortment of side dishes/kimchi to complement the main meal.

Fried/Cooked Octopus

After dinner, we took an UberX to the Intercontinental Hotel in Gagnam for a farewell drink in the bar on the top floor. I had read that this bar boasts one of the best views of Seoul and I was not disappointed. Despite paying about $20 for a beer, it was a nice atmosphere and the view was indeed splendid. There was a nice live piano/viola performance going and it was a nice end to a wonderful day. After spending some time in the bar, I bid farewell to my friend and caught a normal taxi back to my hotel to sleep (UberX was too far away).

View from COEX Intercontinental

The next day was a bit of a wild card. Originally I wanted to take a DMZ tour on this day, however I had waited too long to book tickets and was unable to go. Instead, my friend from Dallas sent me a link of an international festival going on in Itaewon. Itaewon is a district in Seoul that I believe is situated near a military base. As such, there are many foreigners/expats in this area. After waking up and getting ready, I stopped by Lotteria (a Korean fast food chain) and got a Bulgogi Burger. I the caught an UberX to Itaewon and was greeted by a lively street festival. There were many booths/souvenir shops ligning the street and the road had been shut to normal traffic. Each booth had a country associated with it (I remember the American one being steak themed) and there was no shortage of yummy food. There were a few street performances going on as well. One memorable one was a “K-pop magic show” where two street magicians did magic tricks to loud Korean pop music. There was also a Taekwondo performance and various musical/rock performances. One interesting thing I remember is a bunch of booths set up for craft beer. Having had the typical light/lager Asian beer for the past few months, I welcomed the opportunity to get a hoppy IPA beer.

Taekwondo Demonstration

Itaewon Festival

After hanging around the festival and buying souvenirs for an hour or so, I headed back to my hotel via subway. I got a quick snack of gimbap from Gimbap Heaven and decided to take a killer afternoon nap. The rest of the day I was busy doing nothing. This might sound like a waste to stay around the hotel for an entire evening in South Korea, however this was my vacation and I just wanted to relax. I did leave the hotel to go to a Korean barbecue place on a road next to my hotel. I wandered around a bit and found a place with an English menu. After sitting down and pointing to what I wanted, the waitress brought out a grill and a selection of vegetables/meat. I think she sensed that I was not direly familiar with Korean barbecue, so she actually put all the meat/vegetables on the grill and helped me cook it (normally you do this yourself). It was very delicious and a nice dinner on my last night in Korea.

Korean barbecue

The rest of the night was very relaxing with one exception. I wanted to relax and drink some wine while watching a movie/reading a book so I went to the 7-11 and bought a moderately priced ($15 is moderately priced for me) bottle of red wine and some snacks. When I brought it back to the hotel, I used a cork screw that the hotel provided to open the bottle. I got the cork out, but as I did I accidentally hit the bottom of the bottle on the counter and the entire bottom shattered. This left everything that I was wearing soaked in red wine (luckily I had taken off my shoes) as well as a colossal mess- needless to say it was not exactly the relaxation that I had in mind. After cleaning up, throwing away a nice pair of shirt/shorts, and having the hotel clean the carpet a bit, I went and got another bottle of wine (I was determined). Finally, I was able to enjoy my evening while sipping wine and watching TV. The movie Leon was on TV which I had not seen for ages.

The next day it was time for me to return to Shanghai. I slept in late (until about 10am) and went to Gimbap Heaven for a final meal of tuna gimbap and kimchi ramen. I then lounged around the hotel a bit and caught a bus to Gimpo Airport. The trip back to Shanghai was uneventful and I got back to my hotel around 7pm or so.

The trip was definitely a lot of fun and an interesting experience. It is interesting to travel to different parts of Asia and see the differences in cultures/societies. South Korea is definitely a lot more modern than China and is in the “first world” bucket. I remember walking down the streets a few times and thinking how nice that it was that cars weren’t honking their horns and people weren’t spitting on the street. People in Korea were definitely very friendly to me and I will think back on the trip with warm memories. Hopefully next time I visit Korea I will be able to take my time and visit other places such as Busan or Jeju. Seoul is definitely a modern city and I would without hesitation recommend anyone to go visit.

Facebook Pictures

Vietnam Vacation

Vietnam. The country has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people depending on generation and circumstances. For me, it was always a country that I associated with the Vietnam War. This might have been because I grew up watching movies like Forrest Gump and Full Metal Jacket, however the notion of visiting the country (much less for leisure) never really crossed my mind. However, a couple of months ago my friend from Houston contacted me and said that she was going to be in Vietnam to visit family/friends and offered to be my translator/tour guide if I could get myself over to Vietnam. If I did not have a local that knew the language/culture, I probably was never going to go to Vietnam which made this opportunity so unique. After checking flight prices from Shanghai (it came out to about $300 round trip on Vietnam Airlines) and booking a hotel using my miles, I was set to go to Vietnam. Originally I was supposed to just stay within Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), however after a coworker showed me some pictures of his trip to the island Phu Quoc, I decided to book a couple of days at a hotel on the beach.

I left my apartment in Shanghai about mid afternoon and made my way to Pudong International Airport. Getting to the airport is usually pretty intimidating, but I am getting used to the art of hailing a cab down from the street. After making it to the airport with time to spare, I checked into my flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was really nice and I remember being very impressed with the food served on board. I’ve had the sensation of smelling freshly baked bread on an airplane before (let alone in Coach), however Vietnam Airlines did an awesome job with their dining option and even had some of the best coffee that I have ever had (and I am not even a coffee drinker).

Anyway, after about a four hour flight (where I watched Braveheart on my tablet), I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam is one of the rare countries that Americans actually need to get a visa (China an North Korea are also in the same bucket), however the process to get the visa is very easy. There are a slew of online services that will do the visa application with the consulate for you so that all you have to do is pick up your visa at the airport. I used MyVietnamVisa and it seemed about as good as any other. The one thing I forgot to do was to bring enough money to cover the visa fee at the visa counter in the airport. Luckily, they let me go through customs (keeping my passport as a retainer) and pony some money from an ATM. After catching a metered taxi from the queue, I was off to my hotel The Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. In the taxi, I was able to get my first glimpse of Ho Chi Minh and the ensuing traffic. The first thing that any westerner will notice is the shear number of motorbikes. I’ve been to Taipei (where motorbikes are also prominent), however in Vietnam the numbers are almost overwhelming. They swerve in and out of traffic like schools of fish and it is amazing how much coordination everyone has. I’d definitely get into a wreck if I tried.

The schools of scooters in Ho Chi Minh

Anyway, about ten minutes later I arrived at the hotel and met my friend in the lobby. The Intercontinental is a very nice western hotel and I was very impressed with the service and quality of the hotel. When I was in college, I opted for the cheaper hotels/hostels, however now that I have an adult job I normally tend to get the fancier hotels if price allows. After checking in and dropping off my luggage in my room, I walked with my friend to get a dinner. The place we wanted to go was about ten minutes walking from the hotel and was next to the “reunification” palace. Walking on the street, I started to get the authentic feel that I was in an exotic and different country than the USA (and even China/Japan). The city has a certain smell to it- not a bad smell (although in certain parts those also exist), but almost a spicy aroma that gives you the sense of being in an ethnic and culturally diverse city. At this point, it had already become dark and the streets were dimly lit by the scattered street lights. I remember crossing the road was somewhat stressful in Vietnam, however I had a local with me that was more than happy to keep this dumb foreigner from getting hit by a school of scooters.

The restaurant we went to had a nice feel and atmosphere to it. It was a restaurant that specialized in grilled seafood and had the layout that one might expect from a German Beer Garden. All of the seating was outside and various trees/vegetation decorated the restaurant to give a very nice and relaxed feel. Various mist machines where situated next to strong fans so that the customers would not get too hot during their meal. My friend and I opted to get a variety of seafood dishes. I also took the opportunity to sample the local Saigon beer and was not disappointed. Beer in Asia tends to be on the light side and you are lucky if you can get anything that isn’t a generic lager. Saigon Green, despite being a lager, was very smooth and refreshing. Sitting in the moist evening of Saigon while eating roasted clams with a coconut glaze along with charred scallops in a honey vinegar sauce really made be feel like I was on a legit vacation.

Great shellfish and beer

After dinner we walked back to the hotel (stopping at a Circle K to pick up some tooth paste that I had forgotten) and called it a night. The next morning we had to wake up relatively early to go to the airport to catch a ride to Phu Quoc. As said before, the original plan was to stay in Ho Chi Minh City the entire time, however after seeing a coworker’s pictures from his vacation I decided to take a detour for a couple of days to Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc is a small island situated off the south west coast of Vietnam that is known for its inviting beaches and accommodating tourist resorts. From Ho Chi Minh Airport, we were able to check in quickly and board a prop-jet plane bound for the island. I haven’t been on a prop-jet in ages (I think the last time is when I went from Dallas to Lubbock), however somehow being in the older plane made me feel more adventurous. After a smooth one hour flight (during which we saw the beautiful cityscape of Ho CHi Minh as well as the coastline of Vietnam), we arrived at the airport. I was a bit surprised by the airport- it was very modern. It gave me the false impression that the island was a little bit more developed than I had previously anticipated, however after grabbing a taxi to our hotel I found out that the airport was the most modern part of Phu Quoc (by a very large margin).

The prop-jet to take us to Phu Quoc

The taxi jetted from the airport to a main highway where we were able to see our first glimpse of the beach. Adding even more to the excitement/anticipation, the taxi turned down a very wooded/windy/small side street. We were a bit worried- this was rural. Sure, the hotel had good reviews online, but what happens if it was just some staunch shack in the middle of a Vietnamese beach? The hotel we stayed at was Mai House. After a few minutes on the twisty road we arrived at the hotel where I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel owners/staff were extremely friendly and our “bungalow” was about 20 meters from the beach (we could even see it from our window). It’s a little hard to describe the hotel/resort as I have never really encountered anything like it in the USA. It is almost like a summer camp layout. There is a main lobby and a bunch of individual huts/bungalows lining up to the ocean. We had booked the superior sea side bungalow that cost about $65 a night. I really recommend Mai House as the service/location are impeccable. The owner is really friendly and speaks great English (I sensed a bit of a French sounding accent).

Entrance of Mai House

View from Mai House’s beach

Our bungalow itself was like something out of a movie. A huge king sized bed with a mosquito net draped around the edges. Hard clay floors with the various commodities/furniture that you would find in any five star resort. As expected there as an air conditioner (I made sure there was before I booked) that worked like a jet engine. The bathroom was simple, but adequate. The shower in sort of an open setting and a separate outdoor washroom to clean sand off your flip flops after a long day at the beach.

Our Superior Seaside Bungalow

King bed complete with mosquito net

We decided to take the day easy (we arrived around 1pm or so) and just soak in the sounds and sights of the beach. The resort had their own private beach front cafe/restaurant and we ordered a variety of seafood dishes. The highlight of lunch was a sweet and sower seafood stew that included fresh squid, white fish, and octopus. I ordered a refreshing tiger beer and relaxed while overlooking the beach. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We went swimming in the beach and also walked along and enjoyed the sunset while eating grilled squid with a lime juice and salt dip. One thing I noticed about the beach is that there was a lot of trash. The water itself was clean, however slightly above the banks of sand you could see trash/litter from all of the resorts. Mai House appeared to do a good job cleaning it up, however the trash was still noticeable (however like I said, the view was not spoiled).

Sunset on the beach with a dog

The next day we had booked a tour of snorkeling/boating with one of the local tour agencies. After a quick breakfast by the beachfront (Mai House provided a standard breakfast of fruits, omelettes, bacon, etc.), the tour van picked us up at about 8am. The van took us to a larger bus where we joined other members of the tour group. You might remember that on my post about Chongming Island I mentioned that the bus ride was the roughest that I have eve been on, however the Vietnam tour bus was 100x worse. It didn’t help that the roads were pretty much non-existent (dirt bath with tons of bumps/potholes), however it was pretty crazy. There were a couple of times that I was airborne off my seat. Still, the bus took us through some of the more rural parts of the island (which is saying a lot). You could see Vietnamese cows grazing next to the beach and there were also rurals houses lining up the thick and muggy jungle setting. Our first stop was a pearl farm. They showed how to cut the pearl out of a shell and my friend bought an authentic pearl ring for a discounted price.

Road that the tour bus took- so bumpy!

Taking a pearl from a shell

After about 40 more minutes of the bumpy roller coaster bus, we arrived at the beach where our boat was located. There was a bit of an outdoor cafe lining the beach with various souvenir shops lining the beach side. Once we got to the beach it was absolutely gorgeous. This is the sort of beach that you see in movies and the word picturesque does not even begin to describe how beautiful it is. The beach had powder white sand sitting below crystal blue waters. Various tour boats sat a good 50 meters or so off the beach. We loaded up on a smaller boat that took us out to the main larger boat. The larger boat was pretty standard. It was two floors and pretty spacious. All in all, there were about 25 other people in the tour groups with nationalities ranging everywhere from Vietnamese to European to American. One lady that we made good friends with was French (although living in Spain). After taking a few pictures and sitting through a safety demonstration, we were off.

View from the beach

Small boat to take us to larger boat.

Me on the larger boat

The boat took us around the island and we admired the awesome scenery and views. The lush jungle mixed with the green hills mixed with the blue water really gave a euphoric feeling of enjoyment and vacation. Our first stop was a fishing location where we were given a few fishing lines and started to line fish. This was pretty much a bust and only a few people caught fish. I was a little boat sick at this point, however the feeling eventually subsided after I drank enough water. Our next two stops were definitely the high point of the tour- snorkeling. My friend and I were given snorkeling gear and we jumped off the boat to admire the gorgeous coral and sea life of Phu Quoc. I saw many fish, coral, crabs and vegetation. The one regret is that I forgot the sunscreen and ended up getting a pretty killer sunburn which was felt for the next week or so. One interesting thing to note is that the weather was absolutely perfect. This was a bit unusual because it was monsoon season. According to the hotel owner, it had been raining hard constantly for about a week before we arrived- so we were very lucky as the vacation could have been spoiled by an untimely monsoon.

Snorkeling! So fun!

After snorkeling at both stops we had a light lunch on the boat. For fear of my boat sickness, I did not partake in the meal however it looked like a good mix of fresh seafood and vegetables. After lunch, we also paid for the tour. It was absurdly cheap. It came out to about $20 for the entire day. This included the bus ride from the hotel, a 1.5L bottle of water, the boat ride, snorkel/fishing gear, and a lunch. For that price you cannot go wrong! After the lunch we returned back to the original beach where we were given some free time. My friend and I tried to get a jet ski, however there was some problem with the gas of the jet ski so we had no luck. At the beach I bought one of those Vietnamese hats for a dollar or so. After another bump filled ride, we arrived at our hotel.

I bought a Vietnamese hat

Somewhat exhausted, we decided to take it easy for the night. We walked to a smaller cafe that was near the main road of the resort and ordered some seafood dishes. This was one of those restaurants where you picked out the fish before they cook it. I picked a red snapper, a tuna, and a few squids. I was not disappointed with this food. The squid was some of the best squid that I ever had and was grilled with various spices/herbs and served with a lime juice chili sauce. The tuna/red snapper were prepared in a similar manner, however it was up to us to pick apart the fish with our chopsticks and navigate around the bones. Of course there was some ice cold Saigon beer to wash it all down.

Picking out our dinner

The result

The grilled squid- my favorite!

After dinner, we bought a couple of souvenirs (postcards which I mailed to friends/family) and returned back to the resort for an early night. We were set to fly out the next day around 4pm, so we woke up early to enjoy the beach life some more before we left. The seafood we had the day before was so good that we returned to the shop and had some more tuna/squid. On the way back we decided to get a massage as they were really cheap. My friend also wanted to get a pedicure/manicure, so I entertained the idea and went along with it. The massage/manicure/pedicure was very cheap (maybe around $10) and was very relaxing. After grabbing a tequila sunrise on the beach, we checked out of the hotel and headed for the airport. After an uneventful one hour flight in the prop-jet, we were back in Ho Chi Minh City and back at the hotel. We decided to order Vietnamese pizza hut (which to be honest was nothing special) and called it a night.

Getting a pedicure

The next day was the only full day that we had planned in Ho Chi Minh City. After waking up, we took Uber to an indoor market where we were set to buy some souvenirs. I bought some dried kiwis, mangoes, and coconuts for my coworkers as well as some snake/scorpion whiskey as my own souvenir. The whiskey had a full cobra/scorpion in the bottle which was bit intimidating. Of course I don’t plan on drinking it as it looks far too dangerous, however it is an interesting souvenir. I also stopped by a pharmacy where I bought some prescription drugs for dirt cheap. Nothing dangerous, just standard allergy medicine and antibiotics for if I get sick in China. We also stopped by the central post office where I mailed a couple of more post cards to friends./family. After shopping, we walked back the restaurant that we had gone to the first day and had another round of grilled seafood and glass noodle salad.

Cobra/Scorpion Whiskey

Market near our hotel

That evening, we met up with a few other friends and went to this sort of Vietnamese tourist city on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh called Binh Quoi. This is a small area that is situated along a river and has been built up with traditional Vietnamese architecture and gardens. The main theme of the area is the huge buffet that contains many traditional Vietnamese dishes. We took a few pictures and helped ourselves to generous portions of grilled seafood, sweet and sour snail soup, and other seafood dishes. Again, the weather was perfect (albeit a little humid) and the entire atmosphere was very enjoyable. There was also a band that was playing traditional Vietnamese music that added to the ethnic atmosphere.

Binh Quoi. Decided not to try the bridge

Nice and peaceful at Binh Quoi

Charred fish

Various grilled seafood

Vietnamese band

After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel and hung out by the pool for an hour or so. The pool was a little bit interesting as the bottom part was see-through and you could see anyone that was in the pool. My friend took a couple of funny pictures of me.

Crazy pool!

The next day I had to wake up very early and catch an early flight back to Shanghai. It was a bit sad saying goodbye to my friend, however I am sure that I will see them again soon. The entire vacation was very enjoyable and I am glad that I made the borderline impulse decision to go. Vietnam might be a country that stirs a lot of bad history with Americans, but I can vouch and say that now it is a very welcoming and beautiful country with very friendly and hospitable people. The cost of living is also very cheap and makes it very easy for budget travelers to live like a king on a very small budget. I am glad I went and am looking forward to my next adventure.

Business Trip / Vacation to Taiwan

So I went to Taiwan again for business. I guess you have been to Taiwan a lot when you lose track of exactly how many times you have been. This time, I was able to “tag” a few days onto the trip as vacation. I was supposed to actually spend a few days in Hong Kong at the end of my Shenzhen business trip, however urgent customer business made me reschedule these plans and go to Taipei instead. Having a few friends in Taiwan definitely made the vacation very enjoyable and I am glad I went.

Anyway, like I said I was in Shenzhen and had to run back to Shanghai to pick up my laptop and get some work done. During all of these last minute flights, I was flying China Eastern Airlines. China Eastern is considered on of the “budget” airlines and has a notoriously bad reputation for foreigners. It is funny though- whenever I asked my friend about China Eastern my Chinese friends had glowing reviews while my western friends told me to avoid them at all costs. My verdict? The service/plane/food is really not that bad, however they are almost always late. From what I hear this has something to do with Chinese airlines having a difficult time getting permissions to take off, however I will say the actual service inside the airplane was 10x better than the average American airline. One interesting note was that when boarding the plane everyone had the old school “stairway” to the plane instead of the bridge. I was a little bit confused when I had to board a bus after scanning my ticket, but I guess this sort of thing is quite common in China.

Loading into the plane by the staircase

Going to Taiwan and not having the normal jet lag was a welcome change. I flew into Taipei and arrived around noon on Sunday. Since I didn’t have any customer responsibilities until the next day, I decided to go on a hike to Elephant Mountain (深山). This mountain is a very small mountain that is situated very close to downtown Taipei. It touts some of the best views of the cities and was perfect for an afternoon hike. After taking the base of the mountain, I started my hike to the top. The one thing that anyone will notice when hiking to the top of elephant mountain are the stairs. There are so many stairs. This coupled with the high humidity and temperature made me covered in sweat. It was definitely a nice hike though and the view was pretty spectacular.

Stairs while climbing Elephant Mountain

View of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

After getting back to my hotel, I took a quick nap and cleaned up for dinner. I was meeting a couple of my friends that I often hang out with in Taiwan (I had met them when I lived in Tokyo) for drinks/dinner. We went to Ding Tai Fung, a popular Xiaolongpao restaurant in Taipei. Xiaolongpao are a type of Chinese dumpling that are usually filled with pork/meat/etc. Ding Tai Fung tends to attract a lot of tourists from Japan/Hong Kong so it was pretty interesting hearing all of the different languages in the restaurant.

Crab dumplings from Ding Tai Fung

The next couple of days were all business. I was able to knock the customer issue out pretty quickly which allowed me time to relax and spend time with friends. On Tuesday after work I actually took the high speed rail to visit a friend in Taichung (a city in the middle part of Taipei). The high speed rail in Taiwan is pretty awesome and apparently contains elements from Japan/China/German high speed rails. The country is also quite small so you can get from one side of Taiwan to the other in about an hour.

On Monday night I met up with my friend to go to Outback Steakhouse and see a movie. In mainland China, movies are very controlled by the government and often times censored/altered if there is anything the censors do not like. For that reason, I took my time in Taiwan as an opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie theater experience in Taipei was pretty enjoyable and everyone seemed to be very polite in quiet. The Outback Steak we had before had was “so-so”. I asked for mine medium rare, however it came out pretty rare. A recurring theme in Asia is that you should always ask for your steak two levels above what the American standard is to get what you really want. Going back to the movie- it was awesome. I love Marvel movies. I am a bit afraid to see a movie in Mainland China though. I hear people are completely disrespectful, talk, answer their phones, and make the entire movie going experience a sham. I wish they would open up an Alamo Drafthouse here.

Wednesday was my first full vacation day. I wanted to walk around a little bit, so I decided to go try to take the Maokong Gondola to the mountains to get some fresh air. Unfortunately, it was raining quite hard so the gondola service had been suspended. Still, next to the gondola station there was the Taipei Zoo so I decided to check that you. It was very cheap to get in (only about $6) and was very worthwhile- unfortunately the rain dampened everything. I was able to buy a $3 umbrella from some random umbrella saleswoman on the street, but inevitably I got a bit wet. The new feature at the zoo was a new baby panda that was born. It was definitely the most popular exhibit and everyone seemed very excited to see the panda. Unfortunately, the pandas seemed to be very lazy and were just sleeping. Still, it was fun to go around and take pictures of all the animals. I saw tigers, monkeys, elephants, and a few other animals. Because of the rain, I decided to go back to the hotel and take a killer nap.

Lazy Pandas

Swinging Monkey

After the killer nap, I went to karaoke with friends and coworkers. Karaoke in Taiwan is very similar to karaoke in Japan. You get your own room, copious amounts of alcohol, and sing all night and a very low price. Very fun. I need to practice my Japanese/Chinese songs though as I am getting a bit rusty.

I had a full day planned on Thursday planned with my friends from Japan. We planned on going to Shifen. Shifen is a very old Taiwanese town that used to be a coal mine back in the day, but has since transformed into a touristy spot. It is situated on an old set of train tracks and is about an hour away from Taipei by train. For lunch we ate at Chili’s in Taipei. Chili’s in Taipei is very similar to Chili’s in USA (albeit a little pricier). After a quick taxi ride to Songshan Station and a mad dash to catch the hourly train, we were off to Shifen. As the train went further and further away from Taipei the scenery got more and more rural. It was a nice sunny day so the weather definitely aided more to the vacation feel. After about an hour, we reached an intermediary train station where we were going to take a cab to the Shifen Station.

Station on the way to Shifen

Again, the weather was gorgeous. After talking with a cab and negotiating, we took a cab ride for about 390 minutes to Shifen Station. The cab went over a very windy and twisty mountain that reminded me a lot of Initial D (a popular Japanese anime about racing in the mountain). They even had the gutters where Takumi does his special AE86 trick. Anyway, after about thirty minutes we were at Shifen Station. I am not quite sure if it is Shifen Station (or another station in the same area), however they all looked pretty much the same. Small shops hugging a functional train track that sell traditional Taiwanese fair such as Taiwanese sausage and tea.

A unique thing about Shifen is that they sell lanterns that you can write wishes on and light up into the sky. Different colors had different meanings (I forgot what ours meant), but the thought is you write your wishes onto lantern, light it up into the sky, and eventually your wishes came true. We held off this at the main train station (we were going to take the old-timey train to another station), and instead walked around and took pictures. There was a bit of an ominous cloud in the background which made the lanterns look a bit scary. Also at this station, there was a pretty cool looking rope bridge that we took some pictures on.

Shifen Station

Ominous black clouds with lanterns

Rope bridge with me and my friend jumping.

After taking a pretty packed train to the next station, we explored around. I grabbed a snack of a Taiwanese sausage and some sort of a smoothie for energy. After going around and admiring the scenery/taking pictures, we made our own lantern. I wrote the typical nerdy things like “live long and prosper” as well as things like お金持ちになりたい (I want to become a rich person in Japanese). After lighting up our lantern it flew really high and eventually burned up and feel down. I was curious about what happens to all of the lanterns that fall down. I asked, and apparently they are made out of some bio-degradable material.

Writing wishes onto the lantern

Lighting the lantern with my friends

Up it goes.

Going into the sky

After we caught the train back into Taipei, we ate a nice meal of Dimsum and called it a night. The next day (Friday), my friends had to work so I thought I would give another try to the Maokong Gondola. The weather was perfect so I did not have to worry about it being closed. After talking the train to the Taipei Zoo exit, I walked about 5 minutes to the gondola station and bought my ticket. You can opt either for a “regular” gondola or a “crystal” gondola that has a see-through glass bottom. The line for the crystal gondola was about twice as long, however since I was only going to be there once I decided to opt for the crystal one. The view was amazing. Taipei has so many forests and mountains surrounding it that it makes the entire city very gorgeous. The gondola seemed to be very sturdy and provided excellent views of the city/mountains. I was in the same gondola as two girls from Singapore in Taiwan for vacation and we had a casual conversation.

Maokong Gondola Station

Crystal Hello Kitty Gondola

Glass floor led to some cool views.

View from gondola

At the top, I wanted to hike around and get some exercise. After buying a jumbo size of water from the convenient store, I started to walk. One thing I missed a little bit is that I didn’t take any specific hiking path- I just hiked around the road. This was still very enjoyable as I got to see some spectacular views of the Taipei 101 financial building as well as the luscious green scenery. I stopped at a roadside cafe called “The Cat’s got Nothing to Do Cafe” and had an iced green tea latte while admiring the scenery. I also ran into some random temple. I tried to video call my friend back in the states, however the 3G connection was a bit shoddy so I gave up on that.

Cat’s got nothing to do Cafe

Sipping green tea latte and admiring the view

My plan was to walk from Maokong Station (the highest one) to the next lowest station, however I underestimated the difference and instead turned back after about 5 miles or so (there was also an ominous looking rain cloud). I was a bit afraid the rain cloud would develop into something that would cancel the gondola so I rushed back to the station and took a regular gondola (not a crystal) back to Taipei.

After returning back to my hotel and taking another nap, I met up with my friend to go to the Raohe Night Market. In my previous times in Taipei, I have been to many night markets so I won’t spend too much time writing about it here. I bought a few Taiwanese snacks including a raw bamboo shoot dish that I always go for and a Taiwanese sausage. I wanted to buy a USB battery for my phone, but couldn’t really find anything that I felt was reliable/a good deal.

Raohe Night Market

Raw bamboo shoot with mayo

Stinky tofu. I did not eat this time.

After the night market, my friend and I combined with our other friend for a night of drinking. We wanted to go to Carnegie’s (a local bar that holds some nostalgic value), however it was in “club” mode so we decided to go to a different bar close by called “Music Land”. After drinking way too much at this bar (and making a side stop at the Shangri-La bar), I called an Uber. After dropping my friends off at their home, I headed back to my hotel, drank copious amounts of water, and fell sound asleep. The next day (Saturday) wasn’t terrible, however I was definitely tired and wasn’t looking forward to the flight. Still, after a quick breakfast with my friends, I muscled to the airport and flew back to Shanghai.

A few side notes about traveling to Taiwan this time. One is that this time I flew to/from Songshan Airport instead of Taoyuan Airport. Songshan is the smaller/mainly domestic airport and is definitely preferable. It is very close to downtown and customs/security takes a lot less time than the further away Taoyuan. Another side note is that I bought a SIM card for 7 days data for my unlocked iPhone 5S. This definitely was a good idea as I was constantly using LINE (a messaging app) and looking up stuff on the internet.

I’ve been back in Shanghai about a week now and definitely enjoyed my time in Taipei. I can’t wait until I can go back and also look forward to my next adventures. I have already booked airfare/hotels for Vietnam in September, Korea in October and Japan in November (all for vacation). It will be a very busy year and I look forward to making the most out of my time here in Asia!

Picture Albums

Elephant Mountain Pictures

Taipei Zoo Pictures

Shifen/Maokong Pictures

Japan/Taiwan Business Trip / Vacation

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on here, but I figure I will start up again since I just got back from a two week stint in Japan/Taiwan. Both places were for business this time, however I took a few extra days in Japan to visit with friends and explore some of my old stomping grounds from when I lived in Japan.

First, to keep track, this was my seventh time flying to Asia. Below is a list of times/reasons I went to Asia:

  • July 2008 (Japan) – 1 year – Asahi Kasei Internship
  • April 2012 (Taiwan) – 2 weeks – TI Customer Project
  • June 2012 (Taiwan/Japan) – 3 weeks – TI Customer Project/Vacation
  • September 2012 (Beijing) – 1 week – TI Customer Debug
  • June 2013 (Shanghai/Japan) – 2 weeks – TI Training/Vacation
  • August 2013 (Taiwan) – 1 week – Customer Training
  • March 2014 (Taiwan/Japan) – 2 weeks – Customer/TI Training

As many times as I have been to Asia, that trans-pacific flight never gets easier. I’d say the most comfortable way is to fly direct to Tokyo from DFW. This way you get to minimize your time in crappy American airports and instead get to hang out eating ramen in the Narita airport if you need to transfer.

Also a good recommendation is to load your phone/tablet with as many movies and TV shows as you can. Sure, the flight will have inflight entertainment, however the aspect ratio and whole movie experience is completely distorted. This past time on my way to Japan the plane had an inflight entertainment of 12 Years a Slave. This movie, which received an academy award for its amazing and very serious/somber story, is the type of movie that should never be watched on a 4:3 aspect ratio with washed out brightness and audio quality that of a bootleg CAM release. Ender’s Game was also being shown and I refused to watch it for the same reason. Also, and maybe this is just me speaking as an engineer, but American Airlines seriously needs to replace their 30 year old resistive touch panels as half of them are broken and the other halve’s picture quality have been severely segregated from years of abuse.

But enough with the flight over there. I left Dallas at about 12pm on Saturday and arrived in Tokyo at about 4pm the next day (you fly over the international date line). Getting through customs was pretty uneventful and relatively painless. This time in Japan I decided that I would try to rent a portable WiFi router. Softbank offers this service for roughly $10 a day. I was able to pick up the router with ease (I made a reservation). In hindsight, I should have not rented the router. I found out later that T-Mobile now gives you free international roaming. The speed is not blazing (they cap it at about 150kbps), however it is “good enough” to use web, LINE, messaging, etc. The Softbank router had about a 1GB over 3 day cap, so defaulting to only use the T-Mobile roaming would have been the best way to go.

Normally, if I am on my own dime, I will take the regular train into Tokyo from Narita (which roughly runs about $20). This time, since it was the company’s dime and traveling to Yokohama, I decided to spring the money for the high speed Narita Express to Yokohama. The train was definitely a welcome improvement over the regular train as it had cushy leather seats and copiously air conditioned cars. After a jet-lagged hour and a half on the train I arrived in Yokohama. I’ve been to Yokohama station more times that I can count so I was able to find the Yokohama Bay Sheraton without issue. After checking in, ordering some overpriced Udon room service, and taking a shower I passed out for the night.

The next morning I was greeted with the lovely view from my hotel room. In the corner I could see Yokohama Bay:

View from Yokohama Sheraton Room

Traveling for business, the hotels normally tend to come with breakfast. I have to say that Sheraton Yokohama really did well with their breakfast buffet. Pretty much every type of food imaginable and the staff was extremely friendly and service oriented. Since I was still a little bit jet lagged, it was to be a light day in the Yokohama office. Pretty uneventful (and I make it a point not to talk about work on the blog), so I am not going to go into much detail about the work. I will say that we visited one customer on this day in Minato-Mirai and I was instantly jealous about the view from their office:

View from Customer Office

In the evening, I went to a Japanese style izakaya that was near the Yokohama office for ample shares of beer and food. One food that I always make a point to eat in Japan is a sort of raw horse meat that is served with garlic and miso paste. In the States, you can’t order horse meat at a restaurant. In Europe/Asia however, while maybe a bit luxury it is actually fairly common. The texture is like very tender beef and it very deliciously melts in your mouth:

Raw Horse

The next day I went to the Shinjuku office to give some training to a few FAEs. The training/work went pretty well, however that night was definitely the high point of the culinary adventures on this trip. I went with a few FAEs (some of which I had known from my first trip to Asia for TI) to a Okinawa Restaurant in Shinjuku. The food was awesome and it was all-you-can-drink for a good couple of hours. My favorite included this one seaweed dish that is really indescribable. It is like a cluster of balled up seaweed that is very juicy and exploded in your mouth when you eat it:

Weird Seaweed at Okinawa Izakaya

I also had a “high ball” drink which consists of soda water and Suntory scotch:

Japanese High Ball

Other favorites included a seaweed tempura, a very fatty pork dish, and a very strong Okinawa alcohol called Awamori. Overall the entire night was that of a typical company outing in Japan- one that involved copious amounts of alcohol, leisurely work talk, delicious food, and a ride on the last train back to the hotel. It really made me reminiscent about my own time working at a Japanese company. After the Okinawa restaurant, we went to a smaller Shinjuku restaurant for yet more drinks and delicious food. After that, it was close to 1am and we decided to call it a night.

The next day was strictly business and was overall very productive. I went to a couple of different sushi restaurants with coworkers, however the day was pretty uneventful. At night I wanted to take a break from drinking so I went to a combini and bought some nostalgic snacks/food. I bought some Asian pear Fanta and some chilled ramen that I always used to eat when I lived in Japan. I am pretty sure it is considered a cheap meal in Japan, however it was very nostalgic and I am glad I ate it:

Nostalgic Combini Food

I did manage to give some of the Texas souvenirs that I had bought to all of the coworkers in the Yokohama and Shinjuku office (over that past few days). If you ever go to Japan, be sure to bring copious amounts of souvenirs to give to friends/coworkers (this is tradition). I bought a bunch of Texas pecan sweets for all of my coworkers:

Texas Souvenirs

The next day marked the end of my business in Japan and the start of my few day vacation. I switched hotels to the Shinjuku based Century Southern Tower. I definitely recommend this hotel as it is a short walk from Shinjuku station and is very clean/comfortable. The view is great too and you can see the Tokyo Sky Tree from the lobby. It’s a bit pricey, however I had used my miles to get a subsidized price.

Sky Tree in Distance from Shinjuku Hotel

That day, after switching hotels, I met up with a Japanese friend that I knew from Texas Tech. She had been in Lubbock for a three month rotation for her company and we had kept in touch over the years. After a quick sushi lunch in Shinjuku station, we went to the Ebisu beer garden. This is definitely a great place to go to while in Tokyo. The tour costs about 500 yen and gets you two beers along with a tour of the museum. Ebisu is my favorite Japanese beer (and unfortunately you cannot get it outside of Japan), so the entire experience was great!

Ebisu Beer Museum

Ebisu Stout

After a great couple of drinks in the beer museum coupled with some gourmet cheeses, we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a great night view. This is one of the few free night views that you can get in Tokyo.We decided to have dinner up there (it is overpriced, but you are paying for the view). I recommend just going up to the top and going to the bar for a drink or two. The view is pretty awesome and you don’t even need to go to the bar.

View from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

The following day I decided that since the weather was so gorgeous that I wanted to go for a hike. I was originally going to go to Yoyogi Park, however I decided to go to Enoshima Island instead and enjoy the beach view. It is about an hour away from Shinjuku Station by means of the Odakyu Line. Enoshima Island is really awesome. After getting out of the station, you are surrounded by a bustling seaside town. You walk across a big bridge and get to a traditional Japanese island that is fully equipped with a Japanese temple. It is a great day trip and the views of the ocean are unmatched. I remember going up to one of the Pacific Ocean views and thinking, “on the other side is California.” I also decided to opt for going up in the Enoshima tower and was not disappointing by the stunning views. Overall a worthy day outing.

Enoshima Island

Great View!

Temple on Enoshima Island

After a great hike/walk, I returned to my Shinjuku hotel to prepare for the night. I had planned to go to the city I used to live in to visit a frequented restaurant with coworkers from my old company. I can’t count the number of times that I have been to GINAS at Hon-Atsugi, but it is always a blast. The night was full of nostalgic talk with coworkers and also huge (even by American standards) hamburgers. The owner (Shinobu) is always very friendly and I definitely will be back.

Me with Shinobu/Jenny from GINAS

Coworker with the “big” hamburger

After getting back to the hotel room at about 2am, I fell quickly asleep. The next day I had a few things planned. An old coworker from my previous company in Japan had invited me out to a Sakura flower viewing in Japan (hanami). There are only a few weeks during the year when you can see the Sakura trees blossom so I was very lucky to be in Japan during this time. I was even more lucky to be invited to an actual party considering I was a migrant. While I was a little bit early for the full bloom, I went to Shinjuku-gyoen. There were plenty of trees in bloom and it was overall a really good time. It was interesting talking to my coworker’s wife and her friend who were both Chinese. I try to practice Chinese as much as possible, however this was the first time I felt like I could have a conversation (even if it was drastically simple) in Chinese. Overall a great time!

Sakura Trees in Shinjuku Gyoen

Thanks to my friend for the invitation!

That night I met up with a friend (the same from the Ebisu day) and we went to another Japanese restaurant. At this restaurant we had enough sashimi to feed a family for a week along with a huge grilled onigiri. After that, we went to Harajuku for a short walk and also so that I could buy a few souvenirs for friends.

Tons of Sashimi

Big Onigiri

This night marked my last night in Japan for this trip. It was a very humbling trip and made me genuinely reminiscent of the year that I spent in Japan working for a Japanese company. Both inside and outside of work I was able to speak in Japanese quite frequently. This was really humbling to me as it was good to know that my Japanese is still sharp after all these years. I really hope to be back soon and like to thank everyone for hanging out with me.

The next day I had a flight to catch to Taipei early in the afternoon. After checking out of the hotel, taking an express skyliner from Nippori, and checking in at Narita, I was off to Taipei. Heading west, the flight from Tokyo to Taipei takes about four hours. I’ve done this flight multiple times, however this was the first time that I was not jetlagged (I don’t normally stop in Japan first). I flew JAL, which is an amazing airline and 100x better than any American airlines. I really can’t stress this enough- American based Airlines really suck as far as service goes. I can’t complain too much because at the end of the day I am getting into a small metal tube and flying across the world- but the common theme on this whole trip was that American Airlines treated you like prisoners while Japanese Airlines treated you like customers.

After arriving in Taipei, I quickly went through customs and got my luggage. I took a taxi to the Shangri La Far Eastern hotel. This is by far my favorite hotel in the world. The view of Taipei 101 is simply amazing and the service/quality of the hotel is unparalleled. The pool on the 42nd floor is also quite amazing! The breakfast buffet at the Shangri-La always makes my mornings great and has food from all over the world.

Pool at Shangri-La Taipei

View from roof of Shangri-La

Shangri-La Breakfast – with Ooolong Tea

Also, as it turns out, since I had stayed at this hotel so frequently in the past I had accrued about $650 USD worth of food/drink vouchers. Granted you could only spend $200 at one sitting, it definitely made it worthwhile to go eat and have a great meal with friends. On the last night I went out with a coworker/friend to the bar on the 6th floor and ordered a $60 glass of scotch.

Expensive Scotch!

Not going to talk about work here- other than it was productive and the customer visits seemed to go very well. The employees at the Taipei office are really nice and are very sharp when it comes to their work. During the nights, I went out with friends that I used to know from Taipei. I went to karaoke with them (and sang Chinese songs) and also went to the night market to buy a case for my new iPhone:

iPhone Wood Case

I was very happy that I could hang out with my friends from Taipei and hope that I can hang out again with them very soon. On the last day, I randomly met someone working at the Taipei office that went to the same university as me (Texas Tech). We went out with another coworker (and another friend of mine) to a traditional Taiwanese restaurant that included tons of delicious food and cold beer. After spending another $200 of vouchers at the Shangri-La bar, we called it a night.

The next day was the day that I flew back to America. After waking up early and meeting a friend for breakfast, I took a taxi to the airport. The flight going back is actually shorter (because of jet streams) and I transferred in Tokyo. Overall the trip was very productive and very fun. It was one of the more memorable trips as it wasn’t overly stressful and full of customer debug/support situations. I had a lot of very fond memories and am very happy I had the chance to practice my Japanese/Chinese. I hope I can go back soon (maybe even for an extended period of time) and visit and hang out with all of my friends!

Facebook Pictures

China/Japan Itinerary

China

Flight on 5/31
DFW->LAX Flight American Airlines 2421
(Depart DFW 10:30am, Arrive 11:55am)
LAX->PVG Flight American Airlines 183
(Depart LAX 2:30pm, Arrive 7:25pm (on 6/1))

Hotel (6/1 – 6/8)
Hongta Hotel Shanghai
(http://www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1365)
Check-In: June 1st
Check-Out: June 8th

Hotel (6/8 – 6/10)
Huangshan Shilin Hotel
(http://www.booking.com/hotel/cn/shi-lin-da-jiu-dian.en.html?aid=311088;label=shi-lin-da-jiu-dian-tlBffM0jO_BnvPUlBprJYwS13687682043:pl:ta:p1:p2:ac:ap1t3:neg;ws=&gclid=CKHmtub1jLcCFcfd4Aod5wIAOg)
Check-In: June 8th
Check-Out: June 10th

Hotel (6/10)
Dazhong Airport Hotel
(http://www.dazhongairporthotel.com/)
Check-In: June 10th
Check-Out: June 11th

Japan

Flight on 6/11
PVG->NRT Flight Japan Airlines 872
(Depart PVG 9:00am, Arrive 1:00pm)

Hotel (6/11)
IBIS Tokyo Shinjuku
(http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-8620-ibis-tokyo-shinjuku/index.shtml)
Check-In: June 11th
Check-Out: June 12th

Hotel (6/12 – 6/14)
Atsugi City Hotel
(http://atsugicityhotel.com/)
Check-In: June 12th
Check-Out: June 14th

Hotel (6/14 – 6/18)
Century Southern Tower Hotel
(http://en.southerntower.co.jp/)
Check-In: June 14th
Check-Out: June 18th

Flight on 6/18
NRT->LAX Flight American Airlines 170
(Depart DFW 3:55pm, Arrive 10:15am)
LAX->DFW Flight American Airlines 2444
(Depart LAX 11:45am, Arrive 4:55pm)

Beijing Business Trip

So it has been a long time since I have blogged, but I think now is going to be as good of a time as any to start up again. No explanation, other than I was too busy with life and work- also mixed with some laziness.

Beijing

Anyways, a few weeks ago I got a call from one of the managers in my group at work. This was a pretty surprising (but welcoming) call. I answered the phone and the first thing he pretty much said was, “Do you want to go to China?”. I jokingly replied “Can I leave tomorrow?” To my surprise, he was completely serious and wanted me to leave tomorrow, but the visa would take at least a few days to go through.

I am not going to go into the details of why I went over there for work. The majority of the trip that related to business was tough.  Anytime a software engineer travels long distances (and it isn’t for a conference/show) they can expect to work long hours and hard days. On the bright side, I did learn a ton about certain modules of the MSP430 and got some valuable experience with customer interaction.

So this brings me to the first aspect of the trip; the Chinese visa. Literally I was called on a Friday afternoon and had to rush around and get all of the visa application material together. The closest Chinese consulate is in Houston and my company uses a courier service to send the passport/paperwork to Houston and express it back to Dallas. After scrambling around to get my passport, visa pictures, invitation letters, etc, I did the ultra mega-fast FedEx to the courier service in Houston. I was told that the visa process would take about five business days.

After that craziness, I booked my travel through my company’s travel site. A last minute ticket was not cheap (even if my company is paying for it, I don’t want to bankrupt anyone), but surprisingly I was able to get a round trip to Beijing for only a few hundred dollars more than the average advance booking price. I also booked my hotel arrangements. I always like traveling with my company as they put their employees at really nice hotels. This time they put me at the Beijing Crowne Plaza Zhongguancun.

The next week before I got my visa were pretty hectic. I was doing everything I could at work to learn about the MSP430 modules involved with the business of the trip. I wanted to do as much as possible before I landed in China. My visa was scheduled to arrive at my apartment on Friday morning and I was scheduled to fly out on Friday afternoon (so it was pretty tight).

Friday morning came, my visa arrived, and I was off to the airport in a taxi. My flight to Beijing was pretty straight forward with no insane layovers (Dallas->Tokyo, Tokyo->Beijing) with the same trip on the flight back. Regardless, it was a long flight. I flew American Airlines on the DFW->Tokyo leg. I was fortunate and got into an exit row seat, but unfortunately I was stuck next to an armrest hog. I flew Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Beijing and that was awesome (Haagen Dazs ice cream!). On the Beijing leg I was completely out of it. I cannot sleep on airplanes and was more or less like a zombie when I got to Beijing. We flew over Seoul and Dalian which was pretty neat.

I arrived in Beijing around 9pm on Saturday and quickly moved through customs/immigration. After a small monorail ride over to the airport entrance, I waited in line for the taxi queue. I am convinced that there is no stress-free way to get into a taxi in Beijing. The way the taxi queue worked is that a bunch of taxis would drive up to the line and they would let people through the line in chunks. This means when it is your chunk’s turn it is absolute chaos trying to find an open taxi. Some way or another I did and showed the taxi the hotel address in Chinese from my iPad.

The taxi ride over to the hotel was definitely an experience. I am convinced that I picked the “Fast and the Furious” taxi. He was literally going 180kmh(120 mph) only to slow down for the speed trap cameras. At first I thought that it was just how taxis drove in Beijing, but then I realized that we were the only taxi going this fast. In any case, I eventually arrived at the hotel and checked in. Since it was a last minute hotel reservation, they put my in the “club” level. The club level has a slightly bigger room, free breakfast (which I found about a couple of days in), and various other amenities.

View from hotel (17F) next morning

Hotel Lobby – Very Fancy!

Pretty standard room.

Rubber duck!

Since I arrived on a Saturday, the first opportunity I had to work was Sunday. The hardware at work wasn’t ready on Sunday so I had the day to get over jet lag and explore Beijing. I have a friend that lives in Beijing that I knew from Dallas. She wasn’t able to meet until later in the afternoon so I took the opportunity to explore the area around my hotel by myself. I was able to find a Chinese Walmart within walking distance.

Building next to hotel

Glorious Chinese Walmart

Stinky Durians

Smoked meats

After Walmart, I returned for the hotel and bummed around in my room a while until my friend arrived. We hopped into a taxi and headed to Tienanmen Square. This is where I caught my first experience of Beijing traffic. I am used to Dallas traffic- and in all honesty compared to Dallas rush hour the Beijing traffic wasn’t too bad, but the traffic made a 20 minute taxi trip into a one hour ride.

Tienanmen Square was peaceful. There were a lot of Chinese soldiers everywhere, but it was pretty interesting to see a place that had so much history. Walking around the square today you would have never known about the dark history that happened (and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it there to avoid conflict). I saw the picture of Chairman Mao and I saw The Forbidden City (from the outside, got there too late to go in).

Hello Chairman Mao

Me in front of “Long Peace Street”

Tienanmen Square

Next, my friend and I hopped on a bus and headed towards a popular shopping/snacking area of Beijing called Donghuamen, Wangfujing (东华门王府井). I can only describe this area of Beijing as the “Times Square” of Beijing. There were a lot of lights, a certain energy energy in the air, and overall showcased the “big city” feel of Beijing. In this district, there is a special street that is devoted almost entirely to Chinese street food. I only sampled the “tanghulu” (糖葫芦), which is a sort of candy-marbled set of crab apples on a stick. They are sweet and sour but very delicious.

Crowded Donghuamen

Chinese treat “tanghulu”

Live scorpions. I was told later that the sign says, “no pictures”. Opps!

After we got back to my hotel area it was already night. We went to eat at a Peking Duck restaurant and then called it a night.

Beijing duck!

The next few days were the stressful “business” days. Luckily, by Thursday, I (along with a magnitude of support from the team back in Dallas and the FAEs in China) were able to sort out the majority of business that we had with the customer. One of the nights I went out with the FAEs to a Chinese restaurant. One FAE ordered a couple bottles of 白酒 (baijou). This is Chinese white liquor which is about 50% ABV.

Tastes like a milder vodka– but still packs the same punch.

On Thursday, I woke up, caught up on emails/calls, and then headed to The Great Wall. My friend told me that you aren’t considered a real man until you visit The Great Wall. Another friend told me that it is a sin to go to Beijing and not visit The Great Wall. Since I was fortunate enough to have everything sorted with work, I felt that it would be shame if I didn’t go.

From my hotel there were two “sights” of The Great Wall that I could go to: Badaling and Mutianyu. Badaling is apparently closer to Beijing and has more smog so I opted to go to Mutianyu. The concierge at the hotel arranged a taxi to pick me up and take me to The Great Wall. He said the taxi driver would wait for me while I visited the wall and take me back after a few hours. The round trip taxi cost was 900 rmb ($143 USD). The taxi took me out of Beijing, onto the highway, and through the rural Chinese countryside. The ride alone was very interesting and I got to see a lot of rural China.

Once we got to Mutianyu, it was pretty breathtaking. Honestly words and pictures can’t do The Great Wall justice.The wall is just so massive and impressive- it’s hard to put in words. As an engineer I guess I was amazed at how something so massive was built (considering it was started over a thousand years ago). At the base of the wall were a bunch of touristy souvenir shops and food stands. I paid for the entry ticket and chair lift to the top of the wall with a toboggan ride down (which round trip was 120rmb). This was definitely the defining point of my visit to Beijing.

On top of the wall.

I went all the way to the end station in this picture and back.

Wonderful!

Want to know if you are in shape or not? Go spend 30 minutes walking on The Great Wall.

I definitely found out that I was not in the best shape by walking on The Great Wall. From the chair lift, I walked to the end point of the portion that was open to tourists and back to the chair lift station. I had to stop multiple times along the way to catch my breath and went through a couple of bottles of water. It was an awesome experience though and I am so glad that I was lucky enough to have the time to visit.

For the ride down I bought a “toboggan” ticket. I was a little worried about the safety of the toboggan, but convinced myself to do it anyways. I am a pretty tall guy, but nonetheless I was able to fit into the toboggan without a problem. I wizzed down the mountain side next to The Great Wall to the base station in about five minutes.

Toboggan!

After getting to the bottom of The Great Wall, I bought a few touristy souvenirs, found my taxi driver, and then headed back to the hotel. Back at the hotel, I caught up on emails/work, and then met the FAEs and my friend in the hotel lounge to go out to dinner.

We went out to a “Nanking” style restaurant. In this restaurant, we had our own private room with a table. It was a very nice “common” restaurant and the food was very delicious. After ordering a pitcher of beer and saying cheers, we dug into the food.

Restaurant entrance

A lot of food… including my favorite “stinky tofu”

Chinese crawfish

I was stuffed after this meal. I would have had more beer, but considering I had to wake up at 5am the next day to catch my flight back to The States I refrained. We caught a taxi back to the hotel, I packed, and then I passed out in the comfy king bed.

The trip back was pretty uneventful. I had a six hour layover in Tokyo (I got some delicious ramen and Kirin beer), but it was just a normal trip. I was lucky enough to get a seat with an empty seat next to me. I could stretch my legs and even managed to go into a half “sleep” state for about an hour. This trip did bump me into Gold status with American Airlines and give me copious airline miles that I will use for a vacation down the line.

Ramen!

All in all, it was a productive trip. Of course it was extremely stressful getting all of the work done, but the day or so that I got to visit the sites made it all worth the stress. I’d like to go back to China someday on vacation and have a little bit more relaxed schedule. Everyone I met was very friendly and I am glad I got to experience Chinese culture.

Picasa Pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/103789651382123312406/BeijingBusinessTrip

On a side note, I also went on two business trips to Taiwan earlier this year. I was too busy and involved in the project that I didn’t have time to blog, but here are the Picasa albums from them:
https://picasaweb.google.com/103789651382123312406/TaiwanBusinessTrip
https://photos.google.com/album/AF1QipM1TJHbWo95d_KkfKwRoTzr8hGAjwfRXamDufE2

英国の休み

先週、私はイギリスとスコットランドの休みから戻りました。すごく楽しかったですが、今疲れています。

イギリス:
初めにロンドンに行きました。ロンドンはすごく賑やかな町です。ロンドンにプレーを見に行きました。「Les Miserables」というプレーを見ました。このプレーは素晴らしいです!プレーの音楽は超強力ですよ~ 翌日、ロンドンで観光をしました。 Westminster Abbeyにいきました。この教会でロイヤル・ウエディングがありました。Buckingham Palaceにも行きました。イギリスの女王はこの場所 に住んでいます。

次に友達とオックスフォードに行きました。オックスフォードには有名な大学があります。この大学でHARRY POTTERの映画を撮影しました。超綺麗です。建築はすごいです~

スコットランド:
翌日に友達と飛行機でスコットランドに行きました。スコットランドの空港でレンタカーを借りました。アメリカで道の右側で走りますが、スコットランドで左 側で走ります。私はちょっと緊張でしたが、何とか衝突しませんでした。初日GlasgowとEdinburghに行きました。綺麗な教会に行きました。た くさん写真を撮りました。「STERLING」という城にも行きました。この城は印象的です~

次に北に運転しました。スコットランドの道はすごく綺麗です~ 風景は素晴らしいです。Fort Williamという町で滞在しました。この町の湖は素敵ですよ。

朝に車でLoch Nessに行きました。この町で有名な湖があります。この湖で化け物があるそうですが、見ませんでした。素晴らしいホテルに泊まりました。このホテルのレストランはすごく美味しかったです。

翌日、Glasgowに行ってロンドンに戻りました。あの夜にロンドンのホステルに泊まりました。次の日に帰国しました。

休みはすごく楽しかったです~ でも、帰航に風 をひいてしまいました。今、元気ですが、あの風は悪かったです。

海外旅行は楽しいです。次回、中国に行きたいです~

写真:
https://photos.google.com/album/AF1QipM0xLKh4idP9fdl0oKA3t_CRnoG06vWAotXnVZw

Tennessee Vacation

For Thanksgiving Break I am visiting some family that I have in Tennessee.


Tennessee is a fairly rural state that has a bunch or beautiful hills and nice country roads. A lot of my family grew up in Tennessee so I though I would visit it for the few days that I get off from university. I have been spending the last couple of days at my Grandma’s house in Columbia, TN. It is about an hour away from Nashville and is a very quiet country town.

The other day I went to my uncle’s house to have some steaks. He lives in a very very small town called Santa Fe, TN. He has a huge yard and also a very nice house. The lot where his house is on is about 17 acres (~70 sq meters) and seems like a very quiet and relaxing place.

We grilled up some steaks and had a nice dinner with sweet corn from Amish Country and green beans.

The next day I went to the Jack Daniel’s whiskey distillery. Jack Daniel’s is popular all over the world and every drop of it is made in a small town called Lynchburg, TN. It was really interesting to see the distilling processes. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures of the distilling process, but I could take pictures outside.

I will post some more pictures once I get back to Lubbock. I have been hanging out with the Japanese exchange students lately and have really been enjoying myself. I sent off all of the application material for a few different Japan programs, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for a reply. 🙂

Pattaya and Trip Overview

Well I am back in Japan. I didn’t have a chance to talk about Pattaya when I was there as it was just too crazy, but I am going to sumarize it right here.

In short, Pattaya is crazy. The beach there is very nice to just sit around and chill and the nightlife is almost surreal. The first day we got to Pattaya we took a cab from our hostel in Bangkok to Pattaya that cost about 1800 baht. Once there we checked into our hotel. The hotel in Pattaya was something else. King sized bed, fully stocked kitchen, emaculate bathroom… by far the best hotel I have ever stayed at.

After we checked in we just ate at this local restaraunt (which we ended up eating at for the next three days) and then proceeded to walk around. Pattaya is crazy in the sense that so many “ladies of the night” will just be out in the open trying to get you to go to their bar. Just walking down the sea street you have to be careful. There are many shops in Pattaya along the sea and you can find some pretty decent souveniers.

The next day we decided to go jetsking. After taking the free hotel taxi to the beach we decided to shop around. Eventually we found a place that offered jetsking for 650 baht per half hour. It was really dun and the jetskis went very very fast. Afterwards we all just sat by the beach and had a beer. Many people came by selling stuff and we even had a cheap massage. That night again we walked around quite a bit enjoying the night life before going back to the hotel.

The last day was pretty uneventful. We went to the mall to look around (I tried to find shoes my size, but couldn’t), and then just walked around Pattaya again. We went to a amateur Thai boxing match which was really fun. A few American stepped in the ring to challenge the Thai guy and everyone had a good time.

The next day we caught an early cab back to Bangkok, hung out with our friends from before for a while, and then went to the airport. We had to wait about 7 hours for our plane and just walked around the airport. After passing out on the flight we went straight from the airport in Japan to Atsugi via bus and the straight to work via cab. All in all the trip was very fun but I am glad to get back to Japan. Thailand is a great country but nowhere near as developed as Japan or the US. I would definitely recommend anyone to go.

Picture Highlights:

It Started When:

Our first day in Thailand eating at some random restaraunt.

Defining Moment:

Relaxing by the beach.

Most Fun:

Me before jetsking.

Most Embarrassing Thing I Will Admit:


Picture of me with a ladyboy.

It Was Over When:


Sitting at the bus terminal at Nari

Facebook Albums:
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https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.596765071018.2270363.16720765&type=1&l=84196dd824

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.596766353448.2270364.16720765&type=1&l=7e49f44a21

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.596767431288.2270365.16720765&type=1&l=bc10c8ae53

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.596768109928.2270366.16720765&type=1&l=556f757e4e

Arrival in Thailand

Well I have arrived in Thailand. I am writing this post from the free internet in the hostel that I am staying at.

We caught the plane just in time. We took the wrong train from Niigata and ended up in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE in Japan, but somehow managed to get to Narita Airport just in time to get on our plane (we had to go through the staff security checkpoint because we were late). We took a taxi from Narita station to the airport, but unfortunately we were dropped off at Terminal 1. We departed from Terminal 2. At this time it was mass chaos as we more or less ran to catch the bus to Terminal 2.

The flight itself was pretty uneventful. I sat in the back row far away from Juan and watched Ironman and the new Indiana Jones. Towards the end I talked in Japanese to the guy sitting next to me and we talked about Thailand. He seems to work for a civil engineering firm and said that Thailand is actually pretty safe for foreigners. Whenever they made an announcement on the PA they said it in Japanese, English, and Thai. I don’t know any Thai.

I have the weirdest habit in Thailand also. I tend to try to speak in Japanese. I suppose it is the fact that I have never been to a foreign country other than Japan, so my default foreign language is Japanese, but I can only say “Hello” in Thai. Juan and I have something going where if we are saying something that we don’t want anyone around us to understand, we speak in Japanese. That way the only people that would understand us are Japanese people (it is very rare for a Thai person to speak Japanese).

Anyways, after we arrived we passed through customs with no problems and then proceded to exchange currency. I only traded 20000 yen at the airport (63000 baht) and will probably trade the rest in as I go along. We went out to the Taxi line and Juan showed the driver the hostel that we were staying at. At first, the Taxi driver tried to rip us off. He said 500 baht, which is way more than it should be. Juan, being attentive as ever, said just to use the meter. After about a 20 minute drive during which we saw a nice view of the Bangkok skyline, we arrived at the hostel. Again, the Taxi driver tried to charge us significantly more than what the meter said, but we were able to bargain it down to 385 baht.

The hostel is really nice. The AC is huge and Juan and I share our own rooms (bunk beds). The bathrooms/showers are also suspiciously clean. Well worth the $10 a night we paid.

Anyways Juan and I decided to go out to eat. We walked around a little while and then it started pouring rain. After a while we made our way to a 7-11 where we both bought an umbrella for 99 baht. You see some pretty interesting stuff on the street. There were a lot of beggars, suspiciously looking “massage” parlors, and even an elephant on the street next to the swanky looking hotel.

After walking around a little bit we decided to eat at this upscale looking restaurant called “Sillom Village”. It was a little bit more expensive than Juan wanted, but in the end we spend about 800 baht total for both of us (1 entree and 2 beers each). I had this very spicy Thai beef and Juan had this Duck curry. We shared our food and it was really good. The beef definitely had authentic Thai spice.

Anyways that leaves me where I am now. Going to go to sleep soon so I can rest up for tomorrow. I will definitely keep this blog updated though.