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... :)