Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tokyo and my final days in Asia...

I’m coming to the end of my last full day in Asia.  I spent the day tackling the subway and train system here in Tokyo.  The task is not for the feint of heart.  Becky and I have mastered the New York City subway system, and when we did that, we were quite proud of ourselves.  Trying to master the Tokyo system is a little like trying to get your arms around brain surgery.

Each and every line in this picture represents a train or subway line.  There’s the Tokyo Metro System, and then there are a whole bunch of private company lines.  They’re all using the same tracks, and they share many of the same stations.

My intention was to get up early and head out to find a certain Harley Davidson store I was given the address for.  That trip required two transfers and moving from the Tokyo Metro onto another private train line.  BTW… did I mention that the stations and signage within them has very limited English available?  All of maps on the walls are in Japanese, and it’s only one printed brochure that gives you this information with some English on it.

So on my trip up to the HD store, I wound up getting some bad information and was sent in the wrong direction on one of the train lines.  I finally figured it out when I was almost halfway to the end of that current line I was on.  I got off that train, crossed over to the tracks heading in the opposite direction, and made my way back to my starting point.  Ultimately, I was only two stops away from my destination, but I had wound up going through at least 15 to get there.

When I finally got through with my HD store quest, I headed to an area of Tokyo called Asakusa.  It’s a bit older, and it has one of the earliest temples in the Tokyo area.  The temple dates back to 628.  I visited the temple itself as well as walked through the multiple shopping areas around the temple.

I found Tokyo to be a real unique place to visit.  At the risk of being cliché, it really is a place where east meets west, and old and new collide. As I traveled around, I saw plenty of people dressed in very traditional Kimono’s with slipper type shoes, as well as a large share of ultrachic young kids with spikey and dyed hair.  Respect and politeness still seem to be a major theme though for the country.  Everyone was extremely polite and respectful of everyone else.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Taipei Taiwan - Museums, Temples, and expanding waistlines...

23 January 2011 – Taipei Taiwan – Tourist Weekend Three

You know, there are a number of things in my life that I’m eternally grateful and thankful for.  My daughter, my family, the love and companionship of my girlfriend, my personal successes and accomplishments, my time served in the Navy.  All of these things and so much more have made my life a blessed event.

Another thing that I’m extremely grateful for is the strength of American Capitalism, and the power of “The Brand”.  Now, you’re probably wondering what the hell that has to do with a travel blog, but I can assure you, it has direct impact on me and my travels.  You see, I’m currently on day 16 of a 23 day trip to Asia.  Having spent 20 years traveling the world with the US Navy, one thing I pride myself for is my flexibility, and my willingness to try new things, and immerse myself within the current cultural experiences I’m exposed to.  In other words, when in China, eat like the Chinese. (Especially when taken out to eat by Chinese colleagues.) But today, I’m on my own.  And I didn’t feel much like having steamed dumplings for breakfast, or rice and fish for lunch.  As a  matter of fact, I had a Cinnamon Roll at Dunkin’ Doughnuts this morning, and in lieu of a lunch, I purchased a can of Pringle Potato Chips from the local 7-Eleven store next to my hotel.  And I’m here to tell you, that while the coffee at Dunkin’ Doughnuts was a tad bit stronger than at home, the Cinnamon Roll was EXACTLY like the one I get at Dunkin’ Doughnuts at the corner of 47th and Cicero in Chicago.  And while the Pringles can had Chinese characters all over the can, the contents of the can were EXACTLY like a can of Pringles I can buy at my local Jewel.  This "sameness" is something I'm very grateful for.

National Palace Museum
So… Yesterday I wound up doing two major tourist things. One was visit the National Palace Museum here in Taipei, and the other was to roam around the Shilin Night Market just a couple of train stops down from my hotel.  You can view pictures of my day at mine and Becky’s SmugMug site.  A word of warning. The pictures at this site are the accumulation of ALL of my Asia trip pictures.  So if you’re interested in seeing the Taipei pictures only, you may want to consider starting from the end and working you’re way back.

Today was spent in only one tourist pursuit.  I took the train to the Taipei Zoo where I took a gondola ride up into the local mountain side to Moakong Station.  

Sanxuan Temple - Moakong Taiwan

From the station, it was a 20 or 30 minute walk to the Sanxuan Temple.  Not to be glib, but this temple didn’t stand out in any particular way to me.  I thought the Po Lin Monastery temple in Hong Kong was much grander to view.  I don’t regret the trip though.  Taiwan this time of year is wet but mild.  From what I’ve read, coming here in the Spring or Summer can be a brutally hot experience, so I’m thankful for being here in January.

After I got to the temple and finished looking around, I started to head back to the Gondola station, when the clouds rolled in, and a dense fog pretty much covered the area.  Consequently the ride back down the mountain was pretty gray.  All in all though, I enjoyed the two day tourist visit immensely.  Now I’m preparing to go into the office tomorrow to meet and network with more of my business and IT colleagues from the Taipei office.

From a professional point of view, this trip has been absolutely marvelous.  I’ve gained such a better understanding of the point of view of our Asian counterparts.  I’ve experienced firsthand the frustration they go through when trying to access databases that reside back in Northbrook.  I’ve also had an opportunity to talk with many of them, and they have been surprisingly upfront about how they feel.  I’m going to go back to my job in the states armed with lots of ideas about how we can do some fundamental things differently that in the long run will benefit our business and IT colleagues from the Asian regions.

On a more general note, I have some observations from Taiwan.  There are a LOT more American companies that have a presence here.  The number of 7-Elevens alone is pretty surprising.  ColdStone, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds all have a presence here.  (BTW… A double cheeseburger from McDonalds in Taipei is EXACTLY like a double cheeseburger from Chicago.)  I’m not sure if there’s a correlation here or not, but I’ve also noticed that there are a significantly larger number of overweight people here than any other Asian location I’ve visited so far.  By no means do they come close to the weight problems we have in the US, but there are more overweight folks walking around here than in Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Hong Kong.  I can’t help but wonder…

Enough for now… I’m here in Taipei till Wednesday, and then it’s off to Tokyo for the last stop of this trip.  Next Sunday I’ll be heading back home.  My last tourist visit will be either in Tokyo or something nearby next Saturday.  I’m looking forward to that, but I’m especially looking forward to getting home.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Taipei Taiwan - The beginning of another weekend.

21 January 2011 – Taipei Taiwan

Left Shanghai early this afternoon, and headed to Taipei Taiwan.  Upon arriving I was glad to see that my luggage streak hadn’t been broken yet.  You see, each time I’ve arrived in a new city, and have gone to retrieve my luggage, I am inevitably close to being the last man standing waiting for my bags.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I was incapable of leaving Chicago for a 3.5 week trip to Asia with less than two pieces of checked luggage.  In total, I’m traveling with 4 bags.  One large suitcase, one good size gym/duffel bag, my laptop backpack, and a smallish camera bag where I’m carrying my Nikon and the Flip Video camera I brought with me.  So, I have to check bags, which means I have to retrieve bags, and for some reason, all of the airlines I’ve flown on so far feel compelled to hold my luggage until everyone else gets theirs.

My current accommodations in Taipei are probably the oldest hotel I’ve stayed in so far.  The furniture looks like something that came out of the 60s, and there’s even a full size deep TV in the sleeping area.  The sitting area of the room does have a flat screen on the wall, but even that looks first generation.  I’m really not complaining. The room is clean, there doesn’t seem to be anything foreign crawling along the baseboards, and the bed looks comfortable.  What else can a guy ask for?

So… My host and IT Colleague in Shanghai, Brant Li, was kind enough to take time last night away from his family, and took me out to dinner, and some night time sightseeing.  It’s important to note that in Shanghai last night, the temp was just below freezing.  I of course didn’t pack clothes for freezing weather, since I was under the impression that the coldest temps I would see might be in the low 40s. (Silly me)  But I digress… So Brant took me to an area that was the location of an old Tao Temple.  The entire area around that looked like it came out of the movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  The architecture was absolutely beautiful.

After looking around the temple area, Brant and I had dinner together.  He took me to a restaurant in the same area as the temple, and made a point of ordering food that was very Shanghai centric.  Brant had met me, and accompanied me since I arrived in Guangzhou from Hong Kong.  We had been going to lunch and dinner together for a couple of days, and were always with other folks from different regions. Consequently we ordered various regional type foods. This was Brant’s opportunity to educate me in Shanghai culture, architecture, and cuisine.  All are extremely interesting, and as to the food, very good.   

After dinner, we walked over the river front to an area of town called The Bund.   

Words can’t do justice to the grandeur of the night time view of The Bund.  The buildings are all strategically lit up to make them all look spectacular.  Of course, me being me, I took lots of pictures and you can view them here. (Warning; this is an accumulation of my entire trip, so it starts with pictures from Hong Kong, and works its way to Shanghai.  If you just want to see the Shanghai photos, I would suggest viewing the gallery from the end and move backwards.)

I am now trying to prepare to start a weekend in Taipei.  Not sure yet what I’m going to go see, but according to a pamphlet I picked up at the front desk, there is apparently plenty to go see.  I’ll report after the weekend, and tell you folks what I wound up seeing.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Weekend Number Two....

Weekend Number Two…

The continuation of jet lag has kept me slightly off my game this week.  I’ve had all the best intentions to put up blog posts through the week, but after coming back to the hotel from a day in the office, I wind up watching just enough TV to put me to sleep, which hasn’t taken more than 15 minutes each night.  I continue to find myself waking up anywhere between 2:30 AM and 5:00 AM, but I’ve been forcing myself to stay in bed to acclimate to the time zones.

In all honesty, it’s probably good that I haven’t posted blogs all week since the greater portion of my week has been spent in meetings with various business and IT colleagues from the AP region.  From a work point of view, this trip is definitely reaping rewards, and is proving to be well worth the effort and cost.  I’ve gained some valuable insight into the challenges and frustrations that my colleagues here in Hong Kong deal with on a daily basis.  From an entertainment point of view, blog postings would have turned out pretty unentertaining for the one or two of you taking the time to read this.

The major highlights of the past week at work though continue to focus around lunches.  My IT colleagues have taken pleasure in making sure I get a well-rounded feel for the various cuisines that are available here in Hong Kong.  Some business colleagues took me to a marvelous Thai Restaurant (Called, Simply Thai, in Sha Tin) on Friday, while my IT cohorts continued to bring me to local eating establishments with much more regular day to day type menus.

The Director if AP IT Operations, Patrick Chiu, hosted an IT Luncheon in my honor on Thursday afternoon in a very nice restaurant.  It was another Dim Sum lunch experience, sans chicken feet, and it was marvelous.  And then on Friday night, after work, Patrick was kind enough to drive me back out to Victoria Peak for dinner, which allowed me to experience the Hong Kong skyline at night.  Patrick explained that the weather shift during this time of year brings winds into Hong Kong from mainland China, and consequently it causes the perpetual haze that lies over the Island.

Saturday – 15 January 2011

I grabbed my camera, my MTR train map, and I headed off to Lan Tao Island.  The MTR takes you all the way there, and drops you about .5 block away from the Cable Car that transports you out to the Po Lin Monastery.  It is at this monastery that they have built the world’s largest statue of the Buddha, called the Tian Tan (Giant) Buddha. MAP LOCATION HERE It’s impossible to explain the grandeur of it all.  The cable car ride is an experience all in itself. Especially with the wind whipping as it was this past Saturday.  IT wasn’t enough to close down the cable cars, but it was enough to get the cars to sway slightly.  The cars hold up to ten people, and many of my fellow riders were a lot more squeamish than I over the heights as well as the swaying.  While traveling out to the Monastery, we were quite surprised when we saw a maintenance guy riding back in the opposite direction.  While I'm not afraid of heights, I don't think there's enough money in the world to get me to ride that cable system in an open basket like that.
Once I made it to Po Lin, I immediately felt things slow down ever so slightly.  Hong Kong with its dense population seems to always be buzzing with activity, while here on the other side of the hill on Lan Tao, things were much quieter, calmer, and much less busy.  You could say serene, although that would be a bit of a stretch for any place in the Hong Kong area.
As I wandered around the Po Lin Monastery area, taking in the sights and reading about the teachings of the Buddha I couldn’t help but think about my own spiritual journey through life so far.  Born, bred, and raised in the Catholic Church and the Christian faith I was of course taught about the “one” way to salvation.  As I’ve grown older, and have been exposed to different teachings, philosophies, and religions I’ve moved away from the “one” way, and have gained faith that there are many ways.  During one of the presentations on the life of Buddha, I experienced a brief moment of calm, and clarity, and I feel as if I’ve been exposed to validation of my own personal spiritual beliefs. (Enough religion…)


I had to put this away for a while to finish packing and prepare for my train trip into mainland China, and the city of Guangzhou.  I’m currently writing this during my trip there.  I’m in a First Class train coach with maybe another 4 or 5 people.  Two gentlemen from somewhere in Germany and the remainder being either people local from Hong Kong or from China.  Being in First Class, I was presented with a small bottle of distilled water.  Cha-Ching! I LOVE bottled water here.  Only because I’ve experienced what most Americans experience when they travel abroad and take in the local flavor and delicacies.  I won’t go into any gory details; suffice it to say that I’ve become quite “regular” during my trip to Asia.

Back to yesterday in Hong Kong.  After finishing at the Po Lin Monastery, I made my way back via the cable car to the MTR station and navigated my way back to my hotel.  A quick bio break, and a shedding of some of the tourist trappings I had (camera bag, maps, etc.), and I headed back out again for a trip to an area called the Temple Street Night Market.  If you read my previous post where I discuss the Stanley Market, this is almost identical in offerings but it’s in the heart of what’s called the Jordan area, and it all happens at night.  There’s lots of hawking going on, and as I walked through the market area, I quickly got the sense that there were some real serious negotiations going on.  What’s interesting, and humorous all at the same time is that these people are bartering, and at times, rather loudly and with great vigor over something that is labeled at $20 HKD.  They don’t want to pay more than $15.  They wind up settling on $18 HKD.  For my American readers, we’re talking about a product that was labeled at the equivalent of $2.57. They only wanted to pay $1.92, and they wind up paying $2.31.  And they’re damn happy to have made the deal!

My dinner last night was once again in one of the very local establishments where I ordered my dinner from the picture on the menu.  I wound up getting sizzling Prawns on a bed of fried noodles.  That and a cup of hot Lemon, Tangerine, Honey Tea, and the cost of dinner was about $10.00 USD.  They’ve got great seafood here in Hong Kong.

This coming week, I’m going to be Guangzhou China on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.  Tuesday evening, I’m flying to Shanghai, and then on Friday, I fly to Taipei Taiwan.  To the best of my knowledge, my IT counterparts here in China have my days filled with various meetings with IT folks, business colleagues, and some local IT training vendors.  I anticipate to be kept very busy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chicken Feet and Other Delicacies...

So, it's 5:30 in the morning, and I've been trying to force myself to sleep since about 2:30 this morning.  My alarm is set for 6:00, but for some reason (jet lag) I can't seem to stay asleep that long.

Yesterday was Day One in the office for me, and while I was pretty apprehensive about it going into the day, by the end of the day most of my fears were put aside, and I finished the day feeling pretty good about the whole experience. 

My fellow IT Associates were positively gracious and generous with their time, and patience.  (Being the non-Chinese speaking visitor, I had plenty of questions.)  By the end of the day, I came away with some new found respect for my Asian colleagues.

All of the people in the office make it to work by around 9:00 AM.  Since Hong Kong is so very crowded, public transportation is the primary means of getting around.  There's a very substantial Shuttle Bus service that seems to transport people around at the right time to all the right places.  I had a Shuttle Bus from my hotel to the office I'm working in.  There's a Shuttle Bus that comes around at lunch to take people to the nearby shopping area where eating establishments are plentiful.  And then at the end of the day, starting at 5:00 PM, there's a shuttle bus that takes you from the office to the Sha Tin train station which is just block or so from my hotel.  It's interesting to note that the evening shuttle runs from 5 till 8 PM, and most of the IT folks wind up working till around 7, and sometimes even later.

So, for lunch, my colleagues took me to a very local eating establishment where English was not even a choice.  Menus were in Chinese, and there weren't any pictures to make my choices from, so I relied solely on my colleagues to order our food.  We had a Dim Sum lunch, which is not unlike ordering Tapas from a Spanish Restaurant.  Small plates of food, and lots of them, give the diner plenty of options to choose from.  There were lots of steamed, meat and vegetable filled dumplings that were all quite tasty.  Along with that we had the Chinese version of sticky rice (not my favorite), and a couple of different soft, fluffy, dough filled items that were really good.  One was filled with meat and veggies, while another was reminiscent of an egg.  White fluffy dough outside, with a bright yellow liquid center that was absolutely marvelous tasting. It was sweet, and most likely a desert type dish.  The highlight of the meal, (to the unsuspecting American guy) was the barbecued chicken feet.  It was obvious to me that this was going to be the good natured entertainment for the afternoon, so I obliged by giving the feet dish a taste.

While I found the chicken feet to be tasty, I also found it to be extremely fatty.  Under the skin of the feet, there's a layer of fat, that surrounds the bone and knuckle type parts. This fatty part is what wound up not sitting well with me.  Although the effects weren't immediate, but rather more of a time bomb effect.   I spent last night in my room, passing on dinner, and sort of regretting my culinary bravado.

So, it's off to day two of work... I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hong Kong Tourist Action - Day 1

So I spent the day playing tourist in Hong Kong.  The high level overview of the day was a trip to Victoria Peak.  The mode of transportation was the "tram" from the bottom to the top, and return after doing the expected touristy things at the top.

After the Peak, it was bus trip to the other side of the island to visit the Stanley Market.  The bus trip was almost as enjoyable as the market itself.

Now for some of the details...

The trip out to Victoria Peak was my first foray into the Hong Kong area in general.  Luckily, there's a pretty substantial train system that can get you to all of the major points of interest.  Having previously mastered the NY City Subway system, I found the "MTR" System to be pretty simple in comparison.  There's just enough signs in English to keep me from getting lost.

The trip had me navigate three separate train lines, and about a .5 mile walk to the Tram station.  The tram ride itself to the top was pretty breath taking.  It also is VERY steep ride up and back, and you feel pretty pushed into your seat during the trips.  You can't help but wonder what mayhem it would be if the Tram was to lose it's cable connection, and it was left to free fall down that hill.  Not a pretty picture indeed.

The Peak itself was a great outlook over much of Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, the smog was pretty heavy today, so the photos I shot are not as clear as I would have liked them.  But I think it gives you an idea of how breathtaking it could be if it were clear outside.

After the Peak, it was back down to the Central Station Area to catch a bus to the other side of the Island so I could walk through Stanley Market.  When you think about "stuff" from China, then Stanley Market is probably similar to what your thinking about.  Knick Knacks, trinkets, cheap goods, knock offs, etc. etc, etc...  But Stanley is actually right on a bay, and there's a pretty interesting walk the waterfront along with  people watching that can be done there.

There are some interesting things I noticed in Hong Kong that I can't exactly explain.  For one, I noticed that there are a LARGE population of women who congregate near the main HSBC Bank area, as well as near Central Station.  From the way they're gathered, you'd think that they might be homeless, but at the same time, I saw my fair share of cell phones, and what could be considered some really trendy clothing.  Yet they're sitting around on broken down cardboard boxes, or taped down throw blankets.  Generally they were mostly eating rice or noodles.  I'll be investigating this further, and if I find out the answer, I'll post in a future blog.

For today's photos, click HERE.  Stay tuned for more.