Long time no Blog

It’s been a long time since I have written a blog post. In that time- I have returned back to the USA, married, and also have a baby boy coming in November. I am writing this while sitting in the Freising Marriott waiting for my room to be cleaned. I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past couple of years since my blog post and have been unfortunately lazy on updating the blog. If no reason other than to give myself something to look back at in 10 years I am going to make more of an active effort writing my blog. In the past month I have traveled to New York, Israel, India, and now Germany. It takes a bit of time time to write a proper blog post (which is why I’ve been so lazy), however I do enjoy it and I do like chronicling my travel. Look for an update soon!

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

Chinese Movie Theater Experience – Part Two

Well it looks like I didn’t learn. After my abysmal experience with the Chinese movie theater before, I decided to give the movie theater experience in China another chance. What made me do this? Well, the fact that The Avengers: Age of Ultron looked so badass was the main driving factor. Seriously- I love these Marvel movies and will relentlessly throw my money at them as long as they get released. Another driving factor was the thought that the time I saw Cinderella could have been a fluke. Maybe princess-laden Disney movies tended to attract rude/obnoxious moviegoers in China. Maybe I was being too harsh and just had a bad experience with the movie theater. In any case, I gave China the benefit of the doubt and tried to go to a movie theater again- turned out it was a bad idea.

This time I chose to go to the movie solo- “masturdate” if you will. I didn’t put too much thought into it this time. I picked the movie theater close to my apartment (in the pristine Raffles Mall in People’s Square) and bought an IMAX 3D ticket a day before hand. I bought a later show at 8:40PM on a Monday to hopefully deter some of the rift raft. Turns out it did not make too much of a difference.

The theater layout was a bit counter intuitive. Despite the box office being located on the first floor, the actual movie theaters were scattered between the second and sixth floor. Luckily, having an IMAX 3D ticket, my theater was easy to find on the second floor.  I got there a bit early and lounged around in the concession area for about fifteen minutes. Other people had got to the movie early too. From the looks of the crowd, it was mainly younger couples on a date with a few otaku/nerdy looking comic book enthusiasts scattered in the mix. There were only two other foreigners in the mix (a couple of guys that vaguely had the Australian surfer) look going for them.

After we entered the theater I took my seat on row number five right in the middle of the theater. I was actually a bit close to the screen- but nothing unmanageable. There were only a couple of people in all of the rows ahead of me so I thought this would “mask” any talking or cell phone usage- but boy was I wrong. Before the previews, everyone was talking. When the previews started, everyone was talking. When the movie started, everyone was talking. Talking Talking Talking. Not whispering (which is bad enough), but talking in a normal speaking voice. Add people regularly checking their phones and texting through the mix and you got a perfect recipe for a shitty movie experience. For a quasi-accurate visualization of what the movie theater experience was like, refer to the dome in this Oatmeal comic.

Again, the actual movie theater was an awesome movie theater. The screen was big, the sound system was booming, and there was everything needed to provide a great movie theater experience- the audience was just bad. The movie was awesome too. It had great special effects and further enhanced the infinity stone story arc that Marvel has been building with all of their films.

Talking with colleagues/friends, they don’t seem to share my frustrations with this experience. All I can deduce is that if you don’t know what the problem is- you are the problem. If you open your mouth during the movie for reasons other than eating/breathing/drinking/(reasonably)laughing, you shouldn’t be in the movie theater. Stay at home! Halfway through the movie I fantasized about taking the guy’s cellphone beside me and bashing his skull in with it. I thought, “Yeah, I’d end up in some Chinese black site medical prison for the rest of my life, but it would be pretty satisfying.” Alas, the sanity inside me convinced me that it wasn’t worth it. In any case, the whole experience reminded me of the classic Mastodon song from the Aqua Team Hunger Force movie:

It has to be something in the culture of mainland China. I’ve seen movies in Japan, USA, and Taiwan and never had this sort of experience. Maybe in a couple of generations when the education level of China catches up to that of the first world the movie theater experience will be enjoyable, but I doubt I will ever go back to a movie theater in mainland China.

Venue: Peace Cinema Shanghai (IMAX)
English Friendliness: No Chinese Ability Required
Cost: 180RMB per ticket for IMAX 3D
Recommended? Not if you like movies

Public Transportation in Shanghai

If you are a foreigner coming to Shanghai, chances are that you will need to take some form of public transportation. Many companies will include a car/driver as part of their expat packages- but for us with normal average Joe salaries we have to resort to taking public transportation. I wanted to highlight some of my experiences and insights with various forms of public transportation in Shanghai.

The Subway

The metro in Shanghai is huge and you can really go just about anywhere on it. It opens around 6am and shuts down around 11pm. As far as the actual experience- it’s hit or miss. Sometimes it is no problem (dare I say enjoyable) and not crowded at all while other times it is borderline unusable due to the crowds and pushing. Let me preface this by comparing it to the Tokyo subway. In Tokyo, the subway was definitely crowded- however the people there had decency. There was no pushing, cutting in line, and everyone waited until everyone else safely exited the train before trying to get on. Inside the subway everyone was considerate, quiet, and mindful to the fellow passengers. Even if the Tokyo metro is packed full- it’s still endurable.

In Shanghai- there are no rules. People push (violently sometimes) in order to get ahead of the line. When a train comes, instead of waiting for people to safely exit the train, people quickly try to jump on and throw people out of the way just so they can get a seat. People yell in the subway and shout at the top of their lungs on their cellphones. People cough up their lungs and spit on the floor of the train. I’ve also seen a couple of instances where parents will actually let their babies defecate on the train. Now I take the metro (Line 2 between Peoples’ Square and Jinke Rd.) every day to go to work, however my rule is that I have to ride before 7:30am or after 9:00am in order to avoid the crowd. During this time I am usually lucky enough to find a seat and blast music in my headphones while I read a book. It is the cheapest way of transport (only about 60 cents one way)- but depending on when you go it can be flat out hazardous.

Packed train- there was so much pushing.

Packed train- there was so much pushing.

The Bus

I’ve only taken the bus twice: once in Beijing and once when I went to Chongming Island. Since the Chongming trip was a little long distance, I consider the Beijing experience more relevant experience. It was crowded, smelly, and everyone pushed. I get the impression it is like the subway and depends when you take it, however I tend to stay away.

Normal Taxis

Normal taxis are hit or miss. Sometimes they will be perfectly fine while other times they will be a somewhat fleeting experience. My biggest beef with the taxis here is that they will often ask “Where are you going?” and deny you a ride based on that. Supposedly this is illegal, however it seems to happen to me quite often. For foreigners I suppose they just think that the chance of me actually reporting them is slim so they can discriminate based off destination. They never have functional seat belts and very rarely have any English ability. Your best chance is to have your destination printed out in large Chinese font (some of them have bad eyes for reading).

One good thing about normal taxis is that they will often know the streets a lot better than Uber drivers. Uber drivers tends to use GPS while the regular taxi drivers tend to rely on their street knowledge. They drive very aggressively (sometimes dangerously), however they always tend to know where to go. This turns into a bit of double edged sword as they will take the long way- however it still seems to be considerably cheap (especially compared to western standards) if you can catch a normal cab. For the base fare it is about $2 and slowly goes up from there.

An important thing to be careful for is what color taxi you catch. Avoid the dark red taxis at all costs as they have a terrible reputation and are normally from smaller companies. You’ll have a higher chance of getting ripped off in these and some of them don’t drive with insurance. Always make sure that the taxi uses the meter and have a general idea of how much it should cost and how far away your destination is. If you feel you are being ripped off, take a picture of the taxi/license (as well as his ID number) and get a Chinese friend to call in a complaint and get you a refund. When going to/from the airport- the taxi is the best bet, but make sure you get a legit taxi. From Peoples’ Square to Pudong Airport normally runs me about 170RMB (about $27). They do not take credit cards, but will take the Shanghai metro card that you use in the subway. When coming from the airport make sure that you go to the official taxi queue. There will be a lot of scam limo services that try to solicit you, however make sure you go to the official line in the airport. Finally, when catching a cab from the Maglev, be very careful as it is a known scam for taxis to ripoff unsuspecting foreigners who are coming from the airport.

Uber

Uber has been in China for about a year or so and is honestly one of my favorite forms of transportation. They never reject you based of destination, always have seat belts, normally have free water, and sometimes the drivers will have some degree of English communication skills. There are different levels of Uber from Uber Black (expensive, but you will get at least an Audi A6) to Peoples’ Uber (cheaper than normal taxis). The only disadvantage here is that coverage is hit or miss. Sometimes you will only have to wait for a minute or so before they pick you up while other times there will be no availability at all. Depending on the level it is considerably more expensive- however the cheapest level is on the same par (if not cheaper) than normal taxis. They have some interesting cars as well. There have been a couple of times when I had a Tesla Model S pick me up. As it tends to be a bit more expensive than normal taxis- usually the locals shy away from it. This makes availability during peak times (rain, concerts, etc.) a bit more reliable compared to normal taxis. It is all credit card based too which adds a certain level of convenience. It’s definitely worth having this app on your phone.

The Tesla I got from Uber

The Tesla I got from Uber

Maglev

The Maglev (magnetic levitation train) is a high speed train that runs from Longyang Rd. Station to Pudong Airport. It’s awesome. It goes at about 430km/h during peak times and is super impressive. As of writing this, it’s the fastest public train currently in service on the planet. It’s about 40RMB for a 10 minute or so ride. It’s not super convenient unless you live by the terminal station at Longyang Rd. If I am going to the airport from work (I work near Jinke Rd.) it is great, however from my apartment in Peoples’ Square it is a bit far.

Max speed on the Maglev

Max speed on the Maglev

Walking
Shanghai definitely is a walking city. Compared to Dallas where virtually no one walks out of necessity, it’s quite easy to walk just about anywhere in the city. You have to deal with garbage, spit, people blowing cigarette smoke, and a host of other annoyances, but sometimes walking even a far distance is the best choice.

Typical Shanghai Sidewalk

Typical Shanghai Sidewalk

Notice how I did not mention anything about riding a bicycle. There certainly are people who do it in Shanghai, however these people are a lot more brave than myself. Having to weave in and out of traffic is a bit more than I want to endure on my daily commute. I don’t think it is particularly safe for the health of my heart.

Public transportation in Shanghai definitely takes some getting used to, but once you learn the goods and the bads it definitely provides a pretty high level of convenience. Having a flexible position as a software engineer definitely allows for a better experience. I can go to and leave work at times that will help me avoid the rush. I hope this post will help any prospective Shanghai visitor navigate their way around Shanghai.