Archive for December, 2008

90% packet loss!?!

December 29, 2008

I’ve been staying in the scary hostel in Hong Kong for a few days now, and I have to say that the reviews were spot on. The building is a little scarry, but once you get to your room, it feels secure. The room itself is small, but the bed is large enough, and there is a in room bathroom. The overall size is 7X8 feet. It’s still larger that a birth on a sailboat.
For those of you wondering about the lack of updates, boy do I have a story for you. When I booked this place online, they said that there was in room wifi. Well, it turns out that there is no wifi at all, but each room has a network jack. So I started wondering if it was possible to build an adaptor for my phone. Not on the trip, but in general, because I’ve had this problem in other places. Well, I’m in Hong Kong, land of cheap computer equipment, I thought, I wonder what a wireless access point sells for.
$175 HKD, or $22 USD. That’s pretty cheap. I chose a smaller portable unit for $250 HKD, but haggeled down to $225, about $29 USD.
So I took my new ethernet to wifi adaptor back to my place and set it up. The good news is that it was simple to get working. The bad news is that when I try to ping (test the network) I get 90% packet loss. This makes it basically impossible to send email, as 90% of the message doesn’t make it to the server and has to be resent. There is no way I can upload pictures like this. In fact, I can only send short emails. Grrr. I’d like to see what the network looks like here, but my guess is that it would make me cry. I’ll bet someone has created a loop in the system somewhere, but that no one is actively managing the network, so the problem remains unresolved.
I’ll try to get more posts uploaded soon.


December 27, 2008

I mentioned earlier that one of my goals was to try a durian. In one of my previous posts there was a sign (found in the subway) which forbids durians from being take on the train system. The picture is below, and it’s the lower right pictograph.
The reason that durians are forbidden is that they have a particularly strong odor. Ok, perhaps putrid, nasty, retch-causing stench would better describe the smell. Depending on who you ask, the smell is good, to tollerable, to what I’ve described above. Having never tried one, I looked them up on the Internet, and read one highly amusing review by a man who claimed that he still could not get the foul taste out of his mouth, and to run screaming if ever durians were mentioned. After a review like this, I had to try one.
My first adventure into durian territory was with durian pudding. My tireless guide suggested that we try it when we stumbled upon it in a store in chinatown. The pudding definitly smelled bad, that’s for sure. If you can ignore the smell, though, the taste was, well, pudding like. My friend, and tireless guide said that it didn’t taste like durian at all, and that the fruity chunks were not durian either. At this point I stopped eating. Why bother eating something with a horrible smell, and no redeeming qualities, like being a new experence, when I could fill my stomich with something else that was either yummy, or new, or both?
Two days later, it was time to try again. We went to a market, ate lunch, and then bought a durian. Durians, fresh from the tree, have a very sharp and spikey outer shell, and a soft meat around large seeds on the inside. In stores, they do you the favor of husking the durian, so all you have is the meat and seeds. Even though they are wrapped in plastic, you can smell the durians from across the room.
We bought the middle grade durian, at $8 (Singaporian dollars), instead of the low grade $5, or high priced $12. I was told that taste varies between different varieties, so, having only tried the mid-grade option, I suggest that you not cheap-out on your durian experence, or you may end up not enjoying it.
The meat is soft and mushy, with a light skin. Perhaps it was because we had a strong breeze blowing across the table, but the smell wasn’t as noticible. The taste was exactly as the positive reviews described it, like custard. I would highly recommend it.
I was warned that it could cause stomich aches and a slight fever if eaten on an empty stomich. It wasn’t clear to me why.
So if you ever find yourself somewhere where you can buy a durian, I suggest you try it, just watch out for the smell.

Tree Top Safari

December 27, 2008

At the hostel, I met an interesting guy from South Africa who was living in Thailand and traveled to Singapore often. He told me that there was a nature walk in the tree tops of Singapore’s rain forrest which not even the locals knew about. I set out in search of this hiking opertunity a day later.
Sure enough, not even the cab driver knew where it was, although he had heard of it.. I was, however, armed with directions, and was able to navigate us there.
The hike starts out at the country club. It really is “the” country club, as there is only one. From there you walk deeper into the rain forrest until you reach the HSBC Tree Top Trail.
In an effort to preserve the environment, the entire trail is elevated above the ground. The idea of the trail is that most of the rain forrest action is up in the top of the canopy, not down on the ground. To view the tops of the trees, a giant suspension bridge was erected across a canyon. The bridge looks like something out of an Indiana Jones move, long and narrow. Fortunately, there were no natives hacking away at cables.
And then, at this moment, the battery in my camera died. So once again, dear reader, you get the benefit of many rain forrest photos taken with my handy iPhone.

Of course, the fun of the day wasn’t ove yet, there was still more jungle action to be had at the Night Safari.
The Night Safari is an attraction put on by the Singapore Zoo which opperates at night and allows you to see the nocturnal animals doing something other that sleeping.
I grew up in San Diego, home of the world’s largest zoo, so I tend to ignore zoos, but I had never been to one at night, so I had to go. Besides, this is one of Singapore’s star attractions!
It was actually quite neat, we saw flying squrrels and tigers and elephants. The night creatures are pretty interesting. Although you can pretty much see them all during the day, you get a better appriciation for them at night. For example, in the tiger area, where we could hardly see the tiger, it was clear that he was keenly aware of us. At night, according to the signs, tigers can see 20 times better than humans.
Having a dead camera didn’t bother me because it would have wanted to fire the flash, which was not allowed on the tour. The iPhone doesn’t take very good night photos either, so if you want to see it you’ll have to visit the Night Safari.

A river from nowhere.

December 26, 2008

While others were getting stuck on the Singapore Flyer, I went for a walk up the Singapore River. The river is the source of the history of Singapore. This is where it was turned from a tiny tropical island to a central hub of commerce. Along the river are signs noting which buildings are places are important. The river is also home to major hotels and resorts, and shops, cafes and resturants catering to tourists. I’m not a huge fan of tourist areas. I mean, do you really need to install a bungie slingshot ride and a giant swing ride on the historic river walk? Also, it’s not like I couldn’t go to the “Outback Steakhouse” back home, to say nothing of “Hooters”.

Singapore as a city is very cosmopolitian. There are at least four major ethnic groups, and most people seem to speak English, Chinese, or both. The people seem very tollerant of eachother, seem to work together well. Of course, picking up on these details requires more than just a few days of visiting, but I’m impressed by how much variety there is.
However, as a tourist destiation, Singapore seems to be trying to find itself. Many people have told me that I would see everything in 3 days. I was sure that there was more than 3 days worth, and have been on a mission to prove it.

I followed the river up to it’s “head waters”. It seems that the river dead-ends into a contstruction zone and then dissappears under some buildings, never to be seen again. It was unclear if the construction project was to clear out the river, or fill it in.
The cheesy tourist map I have doesn’t bother to show much more of the island than the tourist traps, so I dead reconed my way back to familiar ground and met my friend for a trip to Little India.
After exploring Little India, we headed back to the tourist area for dinner, and decided to retire early because she had to work the following day.

A fine city

December 26, 2008

There is a joke in Singapore: Singapore is a fine city.

When I arrived in Singapore (actually, before I had landed) I was greeted by big red letters proclaiming: WARNING DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW

I imagine that between the death sentence and cainings, Singapore looses its appeal to some travlers. It isn’t that I engage in illegal activities, it’s that the penalties are so high. You start to wonder, if they’ll cain you for spitting gum on the sidewalk, what do they do if you J-walk or sneeze in public. I’m told not to worry, most punishments come in the form of fines; huge fines.

So I’ve gone around taking pictures of some of the signs. I wish I had this idea earilier because there was one sign “Courtesy is our way of life”, which really amused me. There seem to be two themes to the signs, “this is how you should behave”, and “don’t do that, the punishment is this.” What amuses me about the latter is that the punishment is included more often than not. Rather than saying “No Smoking”, signs will say “No Smoking. Fine $5000”. I can’t decide which is better. On one hand, if you shouldn’t be doing it, then you shouldn’t have to worry about what the punishment is, but on the other hand, it’s nice to know what the punishment is rather than be surprised by it in a situation where you didn’t notice the sign.
My understanding of the court system here is that you get a judge, and then you and your accuser argue your case, and a decission is made on the spot, followed by a punishment if you’re found quilty. They like the efficency.
Anyway, not to worry, because I have no intention of exploring the legal system.


December 22, 2008

I landed in Singapore last night. It was a bumpy trip. I got hasseled by the security people because of my soldering iron when leaving Taiwan, and then again in Hong Kong when I transfered planes. They made me throw it away at that point. Oh well, I was kind of surprised that I had no problems with it when leaving Japan. Besides, I wasn’t in much of a mood to argue. I was in pretty bad shape after having spent the previous night celebrating the second birthday of the hostel I was staying at. At least clearing immagration and customs was the usual breeze, and I was one of the first out of the airport.
I followed my routine to the ATM. The first ATM didn’t like my card, but the one next to it did. I don’t know why there was a problem, it had all the right logos. The next thing I did was buy a SIM card for my phone. I should have done this when I arrived in Japan, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be handy.
At this point, however, it was midnight, and the rail system had shut down. I took a taxi to my hostel and discovered that the reception door was chained shut. This was a moment of panic for me because while I had booked a reservation in advance, and sent them a seperate email, explaining in both that I would be arriving late, I had received no confirmation back from them.
However, I did see that there was a note, and upon exiting the cab, the manager, waiting at the next door cafe called my name. So at least I got to spend the night in relative comfort.
But man is it hot. We’re at 5 degrees north latitude, which is basically on the equator, and is the farthest south I’ve ever been. Actually, the temperature isn’t bad at all, it’s the humidity. It would merely be a warm day back home, but if you move any faster than a stroll, you start to break a sweat. The bottle of chilled water I’ve been drinking while writing this post has created a pool on the metal table from just the condensation.
Most buildings are air conditioned, so I look forward to entering malls and the MTR trains. I actually got cold once, something I didn’t think would happen.
I feel constantly dehydrated. The convinence stores seem to carry only soda or tea, no water, and the tea has just as much sugar as the soda. I discovered this the hard way when I bought some green tea, which lacks sugar in Taiwan and Japan. “Oh, it’s sweet, I thought, I guess I can live with that… and holy hell! What is that after taste?!” Oh, it’s laced with Jasmine. I guess that’s the Indian influence. I couldn’t stomich the stuff and chucked the bottle in the trash and got some crappy sticky orage soda instead. At least I knew what it was going to taste like.
But, over all I’m still having a good time. Today I went to see the Esplanade building, which looks like a gaint durian (look up this fruit, it is on my TODO list of things I must try while I’m here (though I may need to amputate my tounge to get rid of the taste)). This building houses a concert hall, library, and art space. Next, it was off to see the country’s mascot, a merge of lion and fish which sprays a continious jet of water into the river. Then, it was off to see the world’s largest fountain, and finally a ride on the (over hyped) Singapore Flyer, a gaint ferris wheel. It gives a great view of the city, but the price was a little steep, and they keep trying to convince you that you are bording an aircraft, I’m sorry, it’s not “a flight” unless you leave the ground. Anyway, I had a good time and got some good night shots of the city.

Here are some photos of the fountain of wealth, the largest fountain in the world (so they claim). Actually, I’m kind of surprised someone hasn’t built a bigger one, this one isn’t so large that someone couldn’t build a larger one just for the bragging rights. On the other hand, they’ve done a lot with it, there is a laser light show, and a ritual which is supposed to bring you wealth if you hold your hand in the fountain and walk around it three times clockwise. This is only possible during some parts of the day when they turn off the larger cascading part of the fountain.

Night Markets

December 22, 2008

One of the lesser known features of Taiwan is the Night Market. I made sure to go out every night and experence this event.
It’s pretty much what you are thinking, a series of store fronts with stalls set up by vendors in front of closed store fronts. Food and clothing are sold to the people in the crowded streets. It’s a place to see and be seen, so it is usually a pretty young crowd. The streets are qutite narrow, so the people flow like a river. Unlike back home, the street isn’t closed, most traffic avoids the area, but it’s not uncommon to have to dodge the occational scooter.
During the day, the market area isn’t too busy, there are a few store fronts which are open, but it seems that most of them wait until after dark to open up. It really gives a different character to the street, in fact, it’s as if they are two different parts of town.
There are all kinds of venders, some of them are popular, and some of them are not. In one market, I saw a vendor pack up and move to a new location, probably angeling for a better catch in the sea of people.
One place caught my attention, they would be super busy, then dead, and then super busy again. I discovered that they were baking bread, somthing like a huge dinner roll, and they would run out of product until the next batch was done. The bread was ok, but I think that they were popular because they stuffed a generous helping of butter into the roll before serving it.
Juice shops are also very popular. They combine various fruits together for you. Some shops are a one juice shop, while others offer quite a selection.
There is something which I will call Taiwanese Pizza, It starts off with a pancake like disk of bread which the chef beats to death with a couple of spatulas on top of the grittel. Amazingly, it still maintains its disk shape. Added to this is egg, and various toppings, then it is folded in half and served hot.
Another treat you won’t find elsewhere, or at least I have yet to see it elsewhere, is the fruit kabab. I don’t know what they call it, but they take fruit, say strawberries, and slide them over a skewer. Then they add a candy coating, which is hard and crunchy, but melts in your mouth almost instantly. One of the favorite fruits is the cherry tomato, and yes, technically, tomatos are fruits. I tried one of these and it was really good.
By far, my favorite food is the dumpling. At every night market I go in search of the dumpling place. Sometimes they are easy to find, sometimes impossible (they are there, but I am not yet a seasoned dumpling hound). My favorites are actually more like buns than doublings. The dough is steamed and turns into a nice fluffy bread, and inside is a meaty surprise.


December 19, 2008

Taiwan isn’t a huge island, but it’s large enough that seeing the whole thing in one week isn’t really possible. After spending a two days in Taipei, I headed out to Huanlien to visit Toroko Gorge.
Toroko park is located quite a way outside of town, so walking isn’t possible. Most people take tour busses, but since the option was available to me, I rented a scooter.
I mean, with all the scooters running around town, I just had to try it myself.
You might be interested to know the amount of paperwork required to rent one of these things in Taiwan. I guess that the legal climate here requires that you write your name on the form and hand them $500. So much for initialing seven pages of legal crap.
Learning to drive a scooter wasn’t too bad. It’s kind of like a bicycle. Since it was my first time, I was kind of worried about crashing, but after an hour of riding there, I was ready to dodge huge tour buses on the narrow twisty roads of the gorge.
The place is really beautiful, but unfortunately, I forgot my camera at the hostel! But my loss is your gain, because I took a lot of photos with my iPhone. So while the quality isn’t that great, I at least have quantity.

Welcome to Taiwan

December 18, 2008

Upon arrival in Taiwan, I did the new country routine. First pass through Immigrations, then by-pass the bagage pickup because my bag is small enough to pass as carry-on luggage, and walk directly through customs. Even though I was nearly the last person off the plane, I was seemingly the first to enter the airport arrival area. My routine is money, map, hotel. It took me a while to figure out the ATM, but once I discovered the exchange rate and the correct ATM network to use (yeah, they let you choose! Check out the back side of your ATM card and you will see a bunch of logos like “Plus” and “Cirrus”.), I was able to get some cash. The map was easily obtained from the visitors information center. According to the map, the airport is not linked to the MTR subway system, so a short bus ride looked to be in order. It looked walkable, but with no scale on the map, I couldn’t be sure. I refused the overly eager taxi driver, and for $125 (Taiwan dollars, at about 33 to 1 US), I was able to take a bus to the main MTR station. And I’m glad I did.
Something I didn’t realize is that the airport on the map is not the airport I arrived at, it was a 45 minute ride into town, and I would have been very unhappy wandering around in the middle of the night looking for the non-existant MTR station.
In order to get the most affordable flight, I booked one which arrived at 22:00 local time, which meant that it was 23:30 by the time I arrived at the hostel. Hostels very in their hours and how they are managed. I had booked a bed in this one only that morning, and was unable to find any information, one way or the other, about when reception would close. I rang the doorbell hoping that I would not be stuck without a place to stay at midnight.
As it turns out, I was far from waking anyone up, everyone was up watching a movie on HBO.
I went to the nearest convience store, 7-11, and bought some green tea and orange juice. I guess this was my first “your not in Japan anymore” moment. The OJ tasted like sweetened grape fruit juice. I checked the label, nope, it says orange juice… ah, 20%. Now I ask you, if it’s less than half orange juice, can you really still call it orange juice? Isn’t really more like water with orange flavoring? I guess that explains the $20 price tag. In Japan, it costs closer to 200 yen for the same volume of orange juice, but at least there it’s 100% juice. The tea seemed to be of lower quality too.

Last Night in Japan

December 14, 2008

It’s gone by so quickly. I can’t believe that I’m leaving already. The last few days just flew by, and now I’m here thinking that maybe I should have spent the entire trip here. Too bad the tickets are not refundable. Besides, if I tried to stay, I would be stranded because my rail pass expires tomorrow.
I’ve had so much fun here, met some fantastic people, and learned enough of the language to bump along that I don’t want to leave. It seems like it could get so much better with a few more weeks.
Oh well, Japan isn’t going anywhere, I can come back and visit it again, and I know I will.
Today I went to Kyoto, in the last minute dash to see a three day city in half a day. I saw the one thing that I wanted to see, the shrines at Inariyama. These are the ones you see in every document on Japan, with hundreds of shrine gates placed together to form a tunnel. The walk is pretty long, and it is impressive that there are so many gates. I think I walked about 2 miles, all of which was under these gates spaced two feet apart center to center. If you do the math, that makes about 5000+ gates, which seems a tad high, but I’m sure that someone out there can look up the exact number of gates, post it as a comment, and put the matter to rest.
What doesn’t seem to be in any of the photos is that this is the front view. From the back, each gate has an inscription on the pillars. Each is different. Also, traditionally, when you pass through a gate, after praying, you are supposed to turn back, face the shrine, and bow again. Strictly speaking, it appears that you would really have to be really devoted to visit this place. Everyone I saw bowed at the end of each tunnel.
I tried to see the Kyoto Castle, but I arrived there at 16:06, and they stopped selling tickets at 16:00. This is my fault for staying up too late doing laundry (1:30am!), consequently oversleeping an hour, and then having difficulty finding the hostel I’m staying in tonight (hey, at least you’re getting updates because of it).
I’ll have to come back to Kyoto again, which might happen sooner than you think.
Here is a picture of the shrine, better ones exist, but this one is mine.