Friday, May 05, 2006

Quick update

It's Saturday morning in Tokyo. Our birthdays went rather well, and today Ed goes home and we go watch Japanese baseball. The weather has been better so that means that we haven't been in the room resting/changing nearly as much, so we're behind on our updates.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Peoria moment, of course

No matter where you go in the world, it seems you never can escape the long arm of Peoria. Tokyo is no exception.

Minutes after we checked in Wednesday, I was flipping through the TV channels when I saw a map. Not just any map, mind you, but a Rand McNally Road Atlas map of Central Illinois, focused on -- you guessed it. The camera then zeroed in on Chillicothe, which as most of you know is located just north of Peoria. The camera then faded to the "Welcome to Chillicothe" sign at the city limits, then showed some street scenes before it focused on the old Santa Fe railroad depot there.

Turns out the show was called "Big Train, Small Town," a documentary on NHK (a Japanese TV network) that followed the Santa Fe line through Illinois and Missouri and did mini-documentaries on some of the towns along the route. Chillicothe's segment focused on a restored caboose located next to the station. They interviewed a few people, none of whom I recognized (now THAT would have been nuts). The next stop was Galesburg, where they showed a Memorial Day parade down Main Street and had a lengthy segment on the Lincoln-Douglas debate that was held there.

I should come to expect things like this now when I travel, but after being associated with Peoria for a quarter-century, it never ceases to amaze me. I've never seen a similar-sized city with such lengthy tentacles. It's a small world, indeed, but an even-smaller one if you're from Peoria, evidently.

Cousin Nick breaks the bank in Macau

. . . Well, not really, but it was better than anything I've done in North America lately.

Sorry for the delay in posting, but Nick and I have been either too busy or too tired to formulate our thoughts. I decided to sleep in today (it's Friday morning as I write this) while Nick and his friend Ed are out on the town, so now's a good a time as any to catch up.

As I alluded in a previous post, I left Hong Kong briefly Tuesday and went to Macau, which is about a one-hour boat trip across the Pearl River delta. Macau is a former Portuguese colony that was handed back to China in 1999, just like HK was in 1997. Macau is a lot smaller than HK in population (about 500,000) and area (I don't know exactly how big it is, but let's just say "not very"). The city is more laid-back and less crowded than HK; the main square is full of colorful, colonial-style building that don't seem to exist in its bigger, British brother (maybe they have similar styles in Lisbon, I haven't been there). Macau is also a good place to get a Portuguese dinner and some Portuguese wine (I bought a bottle of port for about $10 US).

But Macau's main lure is its casinos. There are about 10 in the territory right now. Until about three years ago, all of them were owned and operated by one guy. Then the Chinese decided to allow competiton. (Funny that an allegedly "free" country like Portugal promoted monopoly while the communists opened the market.) The Las Vegas titans have invaded. The Sands opened a casino in Macau about a year ago, and the Venetian and Wynn Macau (which looks just like the Wynn Las Vegas) are under construction.

I started my casino blitz at the Casino Lisboa, one of the original casinos in the monopoly. It was unlike any casino I've been to. Instead of a big room, like most casinos have in the U.S., Casino Lisboa is subdivided into scores of smaller rooms, all very tastefully decorated -- no flashing lights or bells and whistles. Most of the tables are baccarat; there are a few blackjack tables, but no craps and no slot machines. Gambling there is a joyless experience. It was as quiet as a church; the dealers didn't encourage much conversation, aside from what was necessary. My few questions were met with curt responses, and I got waved off more than once from the casino cashier. Not a place I'd want to return to anytime soon.

The Sands, however, was a different story. You could have taken it straight out of Vegas and dropped it in Macau without missing a beat. All kinds of glitz -- and all kinds of noise and people on the expansive casino floor. I've never seen a casino so packed -- moving through the aisles was almost impossible in some places, and this was at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The pit bosses and cashiers were universally friendly. I enjoyed the Sands immensely, and if I ever get back to Macau, I'll return. I suspect that the Wynn and the Venetian will be the same way, and they'll increase pressure on the Lisboa and others of its ilk to change their ways or else.

Oh, how did I do? Well, once I figured out the intricasies of Macau-style blackjack, I managed to turn a stake of $1,000 Macau patacas (about $125 US) to $3,000. All those winnings came at the Lisboa. I guess I can overlook bad attitudes if I end up making a profit.

First batch of Hong Kong photos

Here are the first couple of days of Hong Kong photos:

link to Shutterfly

It's late Thursday night in Tokyo. I've only been online once in the last two days for about ten minutes to check some work email. We'll try to get caught up tomorrow. But Tokyo has been fun, in a very different way.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Paypal wins again

When I went to London this past February, I was surprised that Paypal gave me the best exchange rate. So, I tested it out again yesterday in Hong Kong:

Paypal: 7.765 HKD/1 USD
Bank of America ATM: 7.752
American Express: 7.601

That's a 2.16% spread between Paypal and AMEX. Even with an Starwood AMEX which returns about 2.5% worth of Starpoints, it's not worth it because Paypal returns 1% on credit card purchases. For ATM withdrawls, Paypal charges a flat rate of $1.

I'll run another test in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Attacking the Mid-Levels

When we got back to the base of the Peak, Cousin Nick went off to Kowloon, and Ed and I decided to hit the Mid-Levels again, this time from the base. We walked about ten blocks from the tram stop to the base of the escalators.

The ride up took about thirty minutes, and was a lot of fun. Each block we passed over was just slightly different. Some were shopping (Hollywood Road is full of antique stores), some like Staunton were ex-pat bar land, the ones at the top were more purely residential. But all the blocks had residences above the storefronts.

At this point, there wasn't much to do beside walk back down. We got about halfway down, and I called a halt. First off, my knee that I banged up when I fell in Singapore was beginning to hurt from all the stairs. But second, I was drenched in sweat. We flagged a cab, and went back to the Conrad. I went to take a second shower for the day, and I was going to meet Ed in the Lounge to figure out lunch plans.

I'm in the shower, and there's a knock on my door. Now, I had the Do Not Disturb light on, so who could this be? Turns out, it was Nick! He had been successful at Sam's Tailors (where Prince Phillip and Bill Clinton have shopped) and found a suit and shirt combination for US $450. He had to be back for his first fitting of two at 5:30pm, so Macau was out.

I finished cleaning up, we found Ed, and decided to check out the recommendations for the Pacific Place mall. We settled on Ye Shanghai, which was very difficult to find as it was tucked away in a corner of the mall with all the superfancy stores which couldn't be associated with the regular fancy stores. We were shown to a windowside table, and had a delicious lunch. I don't recall having had Shanghaiese food before, and it was a type of cooking which I will have to try and find in Chicago's Chinatown. I ordered a braised lamb dish that was excellent, Nick had a "crispy rice" with chicken and bay shrimp (think a savory bowl of Rice Krispies cereal), and Ed had a beancurd dish and some soup.

Ed and I decided that we wanted gelato from the grocery store in the Pacific Place basement, so Nick took off for some shopping in Kowloon. After the gelato, Ed went back to his room for a brief rest (which ended up being four hours...) and I headed off for my kitchy trip to Stanley.

My luck with Peaks

The mornings here in Hong Kong have been a little on the foggy side, and Monday morning was no exception. I met Ed in the Executive Lounge at 8am, and the fog looked to be at about 1500 feet. Since it wasn't raining, we decided to hit the peak (1250 feet) anyway and take our chances. Cousin Nick was going to join us, then he was going to go look for a suit and then go to Macau for the day.

The Peak Tram entrance is on the other side of Hong Kong Park from our hotel, so it was only a leisurely ten minute walk. The Tram is great - it was originally built in the 1880s, it's a dual reverse cable system. It costs HK$20 to go one way, or HK$30 (US $4.25) for a round trip. Some people go up on the tram, then take the #15 bus down to Central.

Of course, when we got up there, the fog had dropped... Fortunately, we could still see the bay, and a little bit of the Kowloon side; so we got the general idea. We snapped a few photos, wandered through the shopping center, and found a very nice-looking restuarant called the Peak Lookout. The restaurant had a beautiful view of the harbor. "Had" because the government is in the process of building a six-story tower right between the restaurant and the cliff. Doh! Anyway, we got a card, and if the weather is good we're going to go there for our getaway dinner on Tuesday night.

Thoughts about my new camera

I was really annoyed when I had to buy a new camera the night before the trip. But the Canon SD600 is fantastic. It's a significant upgrade over my S400. The 6 megapixel resolution means that I'll be able to crop and still end up with a resolution similar to the 4MP uncropped, which makes terrific 8x10 photos. It also handles much better: faster time to take the photo, better control of shaking, etc.

So THIS is where all the Caucasians are...

We returned to the hotel, got cleaned up, and met Ed in the Executive Lounge. After some beverages and snacks, we decided that dinner was a good option, but we didn't want anything significant. The plan was to go to the base of the Mid-Levels and take the escaltor to Staunton Street, where there were a couple of western choices.

Unfortunately, our cabbie misunderstood the street name and took us higher in the Mid-Levels than our destination. The Mid-Levels are a series of streets that are arranged on the hill that goes up to Victoria Peak. The gradiant in some places is as high as 15 percent, so the city planners built a series of escalators, the kind you would find in a department store, to take you up from street to street. There's only one escalator, so most of the day it goes uphill, and from 6-10am it goes downhill. It's a surprisingly efficient method, except when your cabbie deposits you three blocks above your destination. Fortunately, this is Hong Kong, where a short taxi ride costs US$2, so once we figured out what happened we were able to rectify the situation.

Staunton Street was incredibly funny. We could have easily been in some back street in London. Caucasians just everywhere, not one Asian food choice to be found. We settled on an Italian place where we could get the table overlooking the street. The food was ok (better than Olive Garden), the beer was cold, and the people-watching was fantastic. We paid our bill, took about three steps and hailed a taxi, and went back to the hotel. It was only 10pm, but we were all wiped out.

I decided that I needed just a little more exercise (I have a pedometer with me, and my goal is 40,000 steps every 3 days), so I walked through the Pacific Place mall under the hotel to the MRT station, where the ubiquitous 7-11 was still open. I bought myself a Diet Coke and some chocolate mini-cookies for dessert, and stumbled back to bed.

My Name is Tam.. your name means "dragon"

One of my friends spends a lot of time in Hong Kong, and she gave me about three pages of detailed notes for the trip. Several of the paragraphs were about food, and every single one has been on the money.

For lunch on Sunday, we went to Whampoa Place in Hung Hum on the Kowloon side, to Din Tai Fung. The concierge in the Executive Lounge wrote out the location in Mandarin on a hotel card, we gave it to the doorman, and the doorman explained to the cabbie where we wanted to go. Taxis are cheap in Hong Kong, so it only cost us about $10, including a harbor tunnel fee. Our direction was traffic free, but the opposite direction had a huge traffic jam.

We got to Din Tai Fung at 11:45, and the place was rather empty. I was a bit concerned for a couple of minutes, but the restaurant filled up as we dined. The food was terrific: steamed buns, potstickers, soup, fried pork chops, two kinds of noodles, and I'm probably forgetting something.

After lunch, we took the 8A bus back to the Kowloon Star Ferry port, and took the Star Ferry back to Central. Ed decided that he needed a nap, so he went back to the hotel. Cousin Nick and I decided that we didn't want to do anything too stressful either, and signed up for a HK$40 (US$5.50) one-hour harbor cruise by the Star Ferry people. The cruise started at Central, went east to Wai Chai and Causeway Bay, then crossed over to Hung Hum, back to Kowloon/TST, then out west a little bit before returning to Central.

On the boat, we met Mr. Tam. Mr. Tam was supposedly an artist, probably in his late 60s. He was amusing a little girl whose parents couldn't figure out to keep still. His schtick was to come by and ask your name, then tell you what your name means in Mandarin. Of course, everybody's name means a variation of "dragon." Mr. Tam was selling matted 5x7 watercolor drawings of Hong Kong for HK$100 each. When I asked him how long it took him to draw them, he said "3-4 days." Well, somehow I doubt that... I suspect that these are mass produced in a factory just over the border.

Because we're suckers and liked his act, we each bought one. Then as a thank you, he gave us each a nice postcard of HK. The photography on this was by his son, also Mr. Tam. Sure, whatever... :)

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Raw photos - Singapore 2nd Half

Here are the rest of the unedited photos from Singapore:

Link to Shutterfly

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sunday Morning Walk - Urban Gardens and Filipino Housekeepers

A quick note while I transfer 150 photos to my computer hard drive before we reconvene for lunch. Ed was up at 5:30, I was up at 6:30, so we ended up meeting in the lounge for breakfast at 7. Cousin Nick kept on sleeping, and had just woken up as we got back. He puttered around the room (and posted below) while Ed and I did a little exploring.

It worked out well, because there was a lot of climbing which I'm not sure Nick's knee would have liked. We took a taxi to Star Ferry - the cabbie gave me back change on my HK$17.4 (US$2.50) fare. We walked from there through City Hall plaza. Sunday is the only day off for most domestic helpers (mostly Filipino) and I think all of them were in the square. We're talking 99% females, all just sitting on benches and on the ground picnic style, extremely orderly, just having fun and socializing. One group was dancing, another group seemed to be doing some religious singing.

From there, we ascended into Hong Kong Park. It's truly amazing, as it's cut into the hillside and juxtaposed against the skyscrapers just blocks away. It turns out that the back of the park exits, of all places, right into the entrance to Pacific Place!! That makes the Conrad a fantastic location even for business travel, as you can get out and get some good exercise between your meetings.

I took a tremendous number of photos. Now that the files finished transfering to my hard drive, I'm going to load some of them into shutterfly, and meet Ed/Nick downstairs for our taxi-ride to lunch at Whampoa Place.

Thoughts from "The Other Nick"

Sorry it took so long for me to post, gang, but I've been busy trying to shuck the shells off all the seafood they serve around here (I've looked high and low but can't find a Red Lobster anywhere).

Seriously, this has been a great trip so far. Some general thoughts:

-- The plane trip was pretty painless, considering how far it was (14.5 hours to HK, then almost four more hours to Singapore). I was also astounded at the routing -- right over the North Pole. A few hours after we took off from Chicago, I looked at the map on the airplane to see where we were and I asked Nick, "Why the hell are we flying over Thunder Bay right now?" Not nearly as exotic as Russia and Mongolia, which we hit a few hours later.

-- Singapore is an absolute delight, once you get accustomed to the heat and humidity. It's unbelievably clean, and the people are unfailingly polite, contrary to what I've heard about Asians in general and their reactions to Americans in particular. The food is good, hearty and cheap. Public transportation is quick and convenient. I had been told three days there might be a little too much, but Nick and I agreed we could spend at least two more days there and not be bored (and maybe three, if you make sidetrips to Johor Bahru right next door in Malaysia and Bintan Island right next door in Indonesia). I definitely want to go back someday.

-- Singapore has four official languages (Chinese, Malay, Hindu and English), but English is the main language everybody speaks and also is the one on all the highway signs, advertisements, etc. There's an election going on there next week, and I saw a TV interview with the very Chinese-looking prime minister. He spoke English as if he just stepped out of Trafalgar Square, accent and all.

-- We've only been in Hong Kong less than a day, but I think I'm going to like this place, too. It's a pretty crazy city; imagine New York on steroids. But it's in a much more beautiful setting, with the harbor and the mountains. People here aren't as conversant in English as they were in Singapore (this in spite of English being an official language), but they are just as friendly. I tried my limited Cantonese on the cab driver last night on the way back from dinner -- simply "thank you" (pronounced "m'goy"). The guy reacted as if I'd just told him he won the lotto, high-fives and all.

-- I'm planning a sidetrip to Macau tomorrow. I've heard it's the Las Vegas of the East (and, in fact, will become busier than Vegas at some point next year, according to media accounts). Macau was a former Portuguese colony, so I'll be looking for some decent Port wine, as well as maybe a hot blackjack table. I'll let you guys know if I get comped for dinner.

-- One more thing -- Nick has (as usual) been an excellent traveling partner and has put up with me gracefully. His only problem is that he doesn't like to slam beers as much as I do, but Nick's friend Ed has arrived from Wichita (how many people, do you suppose, have flown from Wichita to Hong Kong over the years?) and seems to like a bit of the brew himself, so it's all good. :)

I'll probably be checking in again later. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogger.

A Study in Contrasts: Tiong Bahru and the Raffles Hotel

After the Fort Canning Hill tour, we struck out for one of the neighborhoods west of town. One of my friends had been taken their by one of her Singaporean friends. We got off at Tiong Bahru, and thought that we were following the signs to the local food center. But we couldn't find it...

It turns out that the food center is right in the middle of the BAO Crescent housing complex, and being just a little wary, I kept on leading us around the edge of it! Anyway, we made the food complex at 1pm, which was sub-optimal as a number of the stalls had closed. But enough were open for us to make some choices. We each picked a different noodle stall, and paid a combined S$5 (US $3.20) for our lunch! To put that in perspective, the four train rides (two there, two back), cost S$3.50... Lunch was excellent, although the portions were small by US standards. I had some noodles with pork with a side of wonton soup, and Cousin Nick had some other noodle dish.

After that, we headed back to the city. Cousin Nick went straight to the Raffles Hotel to rest his knee and get out of the heat, and I went to Chinatown. I was in search of a particular store, but the address system confused me a bit, the heat got to me, and after about 20 minutes of searching, I just didn't care enough! Instead, I walked to the Raffles from the Chinatown area. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the heat and humidity had kicked in, and I was dead by the time I got to the Long Bar.

The Long Bar is very nice, and given the atmosphere and history, reasonably priced. The beer was expensive, but all liquor in Singapore is heavily taxed. But they had free peanuts (well, not for me as I'm allergic), and we ordered some bacon rolls for a snack. Well, they brought out nine huge stuffed rolls! We gorged on our first and only western-style food in three days, and then walked to the mall across the street and took a taxi to the hotel. The taxi was a bit of an issue: there are over 40,000 taxis in Singapore, and they could probably use another 50,000. The line (about fifteen people in front of us) took twenty-five minutes.

The amazing thing to me was the contrast: In Tiong Bahru, we might have been the only Americans to have been there all year. From there cut to the Raffles, where the only locals were the ones serving us. People who visit who just stick to the comfortably safety of the 5* hotels and the massive shopping centers and the half-day bus tour... they're losing out.

We cleaned up and took a nap, and then met my friend Mark for dinner. Mark is an American who is going to graduate business school at INSEAD, split between Singapore and Fountainblue, France. We took a taxi (which was much easier to get from the hotel) for Indian food at Tandoor, in the Holiday Inn Parkview. We had a great meal and a great conversation. Afterward, taxis were too difficult to find, so we walked back to the nearest MRT stop and took the ten-minute trip back to the hotel. Our wakeup calls were for 4am, as we had a 6:45am flight to Hong Kong.

Fort Canning Hill Walk

The next day (Friday), we went on our second Signapore Walks tour. This time, we went to Fort Canning Hill, site of various incarnations of Sinaporean rulers. It was an incredibly bright sunny day, but the temperature stayed just under ninety degrees. Fortunately, the walk included a number of shaded areas. Savita was our guide again, although she was substituting another guide. The walk included a mix of information about the history of several sets of rulers over the centuries, as well as information about some of the nature of Singapore. The walk was not quite as enjoyable as the Kampong Glam walk, but that's an awfully high bar to clear... it's still a must-do for anybody in Singapore on a Friday morning.

Back to Thursday Night: The Night Safari

After resting up from our Kampong Glam walk and lunch at Zam Zam's, we headed out to the Night Safari. The Night Safari is part of the Singapore Zoo, and is possible because of the consistency in temperature and sunlight.

Getting there was incredibly easy: for S$8 (US$5), a shuttle bus picks you up from one of a half-dozen Orchard Road area hotels (including the Sheraton), takes you out to the Safari, and brings you back three hours later. The ride also includes an opportunity to save S$1 on the admission (S$28).

There are three parts to the safari, of which we did two:
- A 30-minute tram ride, with suitably hokey narration for the kids;
- A couple of walking trails, which we skipped as Nick's knee was killing him and I was just a bit tired; and
- A 30-minute animal show, which was a lot of fun.

There's also the obligatory souvenir and food stands (Ben and Jerry's, anyone?). The only downside was the incessant heavy-handed moral messages about conservation. Yes, we get it!! But again, I think for the kids, it's important, so I just shrugged it off.

Zam Zam's was so filling that we never ate dinner. When we got back at 11pm, we headed over to the Newton Food Market. But it's under renovation, and the temporary relocation site required climbing a high flight of stairs in each direction over a highway, so we decided to bag it and go back to the hotel. I dug into my stash of Blue Diamond Smokehouse Almonds, and called it a night.

So much to catch up on...

but Cousin Nick is asleep here in Hong Kong, so I'm going to take my laptop downstairs where there's no internet connection, do some writing there, and post a little later.

But we had a great remainder of our time in Singapore, and a great first day in Hong Kong. The view from the Executive Lounge at the Conrad HK is fantastic. We took the Star Ferry over to Kowloon, came back and crashed in the lounge for a few hours until Ed showed up from Wichita, and went out for dinner.

The evening ended with a late night drink at "Dan Ryan's Chicago Bar & Grill" (I kid you not...) in the mall under our hotel.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Orchard Road

After Kampong Glam, we took the MRT over to the Orchard Road area.

I don't shop. Cousin Nick shops less than I do.

It's very attractive, and can compete with 5th Avenue, Rodeo Drive, and the Champs- Elysees, but I just couldn't care less. We were out of there in less than an hour.

Having said that, the architecture of several of the buildings were stunning. The selection of stores was awe-inspiring in a "Sex and the City" kind of way. The road itself is great, with towering trees lining both sides of the street right at the curb, and a big broad promenade-style sidewalk for people-watching and being watched - even nicer than Las Ramblas in Barcelona, which is my standard for that kind of thing.

But in the grand scheme of things, you could close your eyes and open them and be in ten other cities in the world. If I had a fourth day, I'd probably spend more time people-watching. But we have more to do...

We're back in the hotel cleaning up, and heading out at 6:40pm to the Night Safari, with the Raffles hotel after that. I might not be online at all on Friday; internet access in the room is S$28 [US$18] for 24 hours), or what lunch cost at Zam Zam. There were several places on Stamford Road with internet access, so I think I'll at least check in for a few minutes. If not, I'll be back Saturday from the hotel in Hong Kong.

Kampong Glam walking tour and lunch at Zam Zam's

At 7am, it was a beautiful sunny day. At 8am, it was pouring. At 8:30am, it was back down to a light drizzle. All of this caused the turnout for the 9:30am Singapore Walks tour of Kampong Glam to have a very low turnout, just six of us. And did they miss out...

This was a three hour long tour that covered maybe a dozen blocks. It wasn't so much of a walking tour as a strolling tour - very easy to do even for the elderly and frail. Our tour guide was Savita, a Singaporean of Indian ancestry, who was full of energy and stories. The tour was an interesting mix of elements:

History: We learned the stories of not only how the British got their foot into Singapore, but how the foot eventually kicked out the Malay ruler Hussein. And how Hussein unfortunately got himself into both positions.
Malay culture: Savita took us into several shops in the district around the royal Mosque. This was not to sell us stuff, but instead to show us a representative sample of items from the Malay culture. This included some antique daggers, spices with medicinal purposes, sarongs, and gear for those heading on the Haj pilgramage to Mecca.
Islamic mosque and related culture:We spent probably a half hour in the mosque talking about the mosque and related issues.

And somehow, Savita never told us the story about how she managed to avoid getting stoned to death.

The tour added a depth of character to the city. Part of the discussion was about the soul of Singapore, or perhaps the lack thereof. Tours like this one are what help show a city's soul.

After that, we followed a recommendation of my friends Willie and Dave, and went to Zam Zam's. Upstairs at Zam Zam's is airconditioned, which was very welcome. We followed Willie's menu choices from his last visit: Two orders of Mutton Murtabak (mine without eggs), a side of Prawn Marsala (with prawns that had to be 3 oz. each), and a side of Biryani. Add in two cans of Coke Light for me and a bottle of water for Nick. Total bill: US$9 each. We are so full four hours later that we're skipping dinner.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Day 1 (Wednesday 4/26) in more detail

We didn't get started until about 10:30 because we got in late last night. I got up at 8:30 and got my backpack organized and stuff like that. We took the subway to Chinatown and spent about 90 minutes walking around and checking out the various markets as well as an interesting Hindu shrine. Then we walked about seven blocks to the financial district and had lunch at the "Lau Pau Sat" center. Think big open-air version of a US food court like the Ogilvy Center. I ended up not eating the first thing I ordered (a noodle soup) because there turned out to be a fried egg in it and I couldn't get the egg specks out of the broth. Oh well, a whole US$2.40 wasted. I ended up going back to the place where Nick got his lunch and got a pork
and potato dish with steamed rice that was pretty good. I wasn't incredibly hungry, so it was just enough to fill me up and I left most of the rice. (My blood sugar seems to be ok with the time change and the rice-heavy diet, probably because of all the walking.)

Then we walked north up to the Fullerton, which is one of the historical hotels, and to a statue of a mythical creature which guards the river. That's when I fell, trying to get a better photo. We walked about six blocks to a big downtown shopping center, where I bought the brace and sat for a while. (Finding the pharmacy was fun, because the pharmacy was in a basement annex of the shopping center and nobody could give us decent directions).

We then saw a former cathedral called Chijmes which had been coverted into a dining mall, and the outside of a new cathedral when the skies darkened. We decided to head back to the hotel early, and it started to rain while we were on the train. Rain isn't the word for it, it was a classic summer thunderstorm. We waited it out for about fifteen minutes at the train station three doors down from the hotel, and got back maybe an hour earlier than planned, and sat and talked for a while, then split up for an hour to go get ready for dinner.

Our dinner destination was No Signboard seafood in the Geylang district. Geylang is about 20 minutes away by train. It also happens to be where the semi-legalized prostitution is allowed to occur, which made for some interesting sights on the way to the restaurant. (There's a branch of No Signboard down in a city center mall for those who don't want to be around the locals). The customer mix was probably 85% local, 15% tourist. It is, to use the phrase my dad would use, "a factory." Tanks of huge live lobsters, an open-air kitchen, outdoor seating under a tent, and just a highly organized chaos.

We had been told by friends to try the chili crab and pepper crab, and since both of use are crab lovers, we had no problem with that. We also ordered some fried rice, which had much less egg in it than the US version. The crab was great, but I could have just had the chili sauce and a loaf of bread. The chili sauce had flecks of crabmeat in it, looked almost creamy with a tomato base. Of course, trying to crack crabs open with one good hand is a challenge! In retrospect, we should have gotten one crab dish and one prawn dish.

At this point, Cousin Nick's knee was killing him, as he had reaggravated an existing problem earlier in the day. So instead of going off to Orchard Road as originally planned, the walking wounded retreated to my suite for another hour of talking (and loading photos up to Shutterfly) before calling it a night.

More about the flights

There was a plug adapter right under the desk...

Our flights yesterday went by amazingly quickly. I attribute a lot of the reason for that to the fact that we were on the upper deck of a 747-400. With only 32 seats upstairs, it is an extremely comfortable and quiet environment. The Chicago-HK flight went out with just a few empty seats in Coach; it had been listed as sold out earlier in the morning. The HK-Singapore flight was half-full.

The food was very good on both flights. I had the filet with chitpotle sauce on the first flight, and the tandoori chicken wrap on the second. The service on the two flights, however, were diametrically opposed. The Chicago-HK flight's upper deck crew had the attitude of "we are not going to do more than minimally required" while the second crew was friendly and outgoing. The first crew wasn't mean or anything; I chatted with one of the flight attendents in the back at about the 10-hour mark for about ten minutes. But they didn't really try too hard, either.

Message to United Airlines: For a 15-hour flight, it'd be nice to give customers a glass that holds more than 10 ounces of liquid in it before ice. Even American gives out 16 ounce water bottles. Fortunately, we had bought four one-liter bottles of water from the pizza stand across from our gate. We should have bought six.

I have no idea what the entertainment options were, because I brought my own. I had my iPod nano, and a bunch of DVDs for my laptop. I watched about four episodes each of The Critic and Sports Night over the course of the first flight, and did a little review of my Singapore guidebook.

The Hong Kong airport is very nice, but they really should turn on the air conditioning a little higher. I felt very dehydrated while I was waiting in the Red Carpet Club, and used up some of the powdered Gatorade which I had brought with me. On the second flight, I was asleep before pushback, and woke up only to eat. I was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep at the hotel, but it only took me about 45 minutes to fall asleep, and I got six good hours in before waking up before the alarm. In retrospect, the sleep on the second flight was a really good thing, because I'd only slept seven hours in the previous forty-eight.

Raw photos from Tuesday/Wednesday

Shutterfly Photos

These photos are unedited from yesterday and today. The basic order is something along these lines:

- Hong Kong airport
- Singapore airport
- Singapore hotel room
- View from hotel
- Newton MRT (subway) station
- On MRT train
- Chinatown/Pagoda St.
- Chinatown/Chinatown Square
- Chinatown/Hindu Temple
- Chinatown/Islamic Mosque in Chinatown
- Lau Pau Sat hawker center
- Fullerton Hotel and Merllion
- Rainstorm from outside Newton MRT station
- Geylang streets
- No Signboard seafood, Geylang location

Day 1 summary

More later once I find a plug adapter that can do 3-pronged US to 3-pronged UK/Singapore. Highlights and lowlights of the first 18 hours:

Highlights
1. Chinatown is very interesting. We visited a cool Hindu shrine and a "wet market" with produce and fish.
2. The second dish I had at the Lau Pau Sat hawker market and Nick's first dish were both very good.
3. The touts for businesses are very polite. They don't argue with you if you say you're not interested, and
4. I was upgraded to a nice two-room suite at the Sheraton, and the Sheraton is only a block from the train station.
5. The heat and humidity are doing wonders for my bronchial system.
6. Everything is VERY clean.

Lowlights
1. While photographing a statue of a mythical creature that protects the Singapore River, I managed to miss a step and catch it with the corner of my shoe, go flying forward and land face-down on the concrete. I'll survive, but I have a big bruise on my left hand where the thumb and index finger meet. It's going to be sore for a few days, and i picked up a brace to immobilize the area. (Highlight: it was the same type of Futuro brace which I used when I had some wrist issues a few years ago)
2. The 60% chance of thunderstorms came through, and cut our sightseeing about an hour short.
3. My friend Mark from Flyertalk who is going to school here found out that he has a conflict for dinner Friday night. Hopefully we can reschedule for late on Thursday.
4. The first dish at Lau Pau Sat had an unadvertised egg in the soup. Bleh. Fortunately, I only wasted US$2.50 on it. :)


Anyway, we're off to No Signboard seafood in Geylang for dinner.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Arrival Hong Kong

We survived the 15.5 hour flight to Hong Kong, and are currently sitting in the Red Carpet Club on our 2.5 hour layover to Singapore. I didn't sleep much, as I had a bit of an upset stomach for the first third of the flight. I probably got about four hours total. Cousin Nick got closer to seven.

Just a few thoughts while we're both a bit dehydrated in the club lounge. We bought two 2L bottles of water each for the flight, but the flight attendant service was rather poor. They made no attempt to do much of anything between the end of the first lunch service and the beginning of the second lunch serice. No water bottles like American does in business, so you had to bother them every time you wanted ten more ounces of water. Also, no diet soda that was caffiene free (in the US, they have Diet Sierra Mist or sometimes Diet 7-Up).

HK Airport is not air-conditioned. That's probably not helping. But we have a table full of 16 oz. bottled waters here, so I suspect we'll be fine in a couple of minutes.

The upper deck of the 747-400 is wonderful. I hate window seats on most planes, but I absolutely fell in love with my seat (16A). It had about 4 extra inches of legroom compared to some of the downstairs seats, but the bigger thing is the ledge and storage bins. The combination makes getting access to your things during the flight insanely easy.

Blogger/Blogspot having troubles

Blogger and blogspot (the hosts of this site) seem to have a major database performance issue on Monday. I couldn't get any new posts to work from O'Hare. I hope that they have resolved the problem.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Mr. Chicken doesn't like us

For those of you who fly United a lot... United has moved almost all of its checkin to "Easy Check-in" or as it's semi-affectionate called by some passengers, "Mr. Chicken." The Business Class line had regular agents, but it also had everybody going to Japan and China on paper tickets, so the line was very long. So we jumped over to the regular frequent flyer line.

And Mr. Chicken got completely confused. See, my cousin and I have the same first and last names, different middle initial. Mr. Chicken couldn't figure out who's ticket was who's, even when I put in my United Mileage Plus number. (That's odd, since why do they ask if they can't validate against it?)

Fortunately, an agent came over and helped us, and now we're in the Red Carpet Club waiting out the last hour before boarding.

And we're off!

8:38am.. Taxi is due here at nine. Flight is at 12:23, and is completely sold out (F0C0Y0). Everything's packed, and I'm just now starting to fade from being up since 8:45pm.

Now the interesting thing is going to be what they'll offer us if the flight stays oversold. Right now, it's oversold to the point where they won't even sell a walk-up First Class seat at over $4000 one-way. There's only one Business class seat available via Tokyo, but there may be another one blocked off for an operational upgrade. If they make it worth our while... but neither of us is willing to delay the trip by a full day.