Sunday, January 29, 2012

China 2011 - Day 1: Shanghai - The Bund

You can't say you have been to Shanghai if you have never visited the Bund, then how can I miss it?  After lunch, I walked along Fuzhou Road, admiring, together with many many tourists from around the world, all the old colonial era, western style old buildings.  This area was previously the Shanghai International Settlement area, put it bluntly, colonial enclaves during the 1920s-30s.

As I was at the Bund in the afternoon, the sun was shining from the west, the old bund is cast in the shadows, looked dark and gloomy.  In contrast, the east side of the Huangpu River, is immersed in the golden sunshine.

It is ironic, but at the same time, natural.  Pudong used to be an area for the city poor, while Puxi is for the rich and influential, now Pudong is in modern glory, while the Bund looks like an old man living beyond his time.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

World Airline Safety Ranking 2012

Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre, an aviation institution based in Germany, released the ranking for world's airline safety.  The top 10 safest airlines are:

1. ANA
2. Finnair
3. Cathay Pacific
4. Etihad Airways
5. Hainan Airlines
6. Jet Blue
7. Emirates
8. Virgin Blue
9. Air Berlin
10. Air New Zealand

Big shots in the aviation industry, Qantas is ranked 11th place, while our beloved Singapore Airlines is at an appalling 27th.

Malaysia Airlines comes at 32nd, one spot behind Air Asia.  For more details, you can download the report in pdf format at this link.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The World’s Top 10 Retirement Havens

According to this link, the top 10 retirement havens in the world are:

1. Ecuador 
2. Panama
3. Mexico
4. Malaysia
5. Colombia
6. New Zealand
7. Nicaragua
8. Spain
9. Thailand
10. Honduras

Out of the 10 countries, I have only been to three of them, our neighbours Malaysia & Thailand, and the beautiful New Zealand.  

For retirement, I am not so sure Malaysia is a good choice.  The country's crime rate is high, especially in the wonderful JB.  KL is not much better.  

Thailand is a nice country, but if you live in the cities, especially Bangkok, then air pollution is a problem.  Medical care is another.  Language barrier is another factor for consideration.

New Zealand is the best of the lot, as far as I know.  It has very beautiful natural environment, but then it also has natural disasters, earthquake is common.

For you, where is your ideal retirement country?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

China 2011 - Day 1: Shanghai Museum

Immediately after I settled down at the youth hostel, I went to visit Shanghai Museum, which is just 10 minutes walk away from the hostel.

Shanghai Museum is the top 3 museums in China, and claims one of the best collection of Chinese antiques.  It is new building right in the center of People's Park, is of the shape of a Chinese Ding 鼎, an ancient container for food, and the subsequently, became the symbol of imperial power.   Here below you can see a small one, just to give you some idea of what it is.  This is also an exhibit at the Shanghai Museum.

The museum has a total of 6 stories, and divided into many galleries, based on theme, including Chinese bronzeware, jade, Chinese calligraphy, paintings, etc.  If you are an antique, then you can spend the whole day in it.  

 Of the many wonderful artifacts, visitors' attentions were drawn to this particular Buddha's statue.  All 3 photographs are of the same statue, but from left, front and right.  From different angle, the Buddha image looks different, although maybe just slightly.  Our ancestors were great craft men who created such wonderful piece of work.  To tell you the truth:  Why did our ancestors can do it?  They didn't have TV nor Internet :)

In the Chinese calligraphy gallery, you can have the honour to admire great works from famous Chinese literals such as Dong Qichang 董其昌, Su Dongpo 苏东坡.

Chinese love jade.  A fine Chinese should have the same qualities as jade, which are仁,义,智,勇,洁.

And do you find this artifact look very familiar?

A similar artifact is on display at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Arts Museum (You can find the previous post here).  That bowl was found in a merchant shipwreck off Indonesia, carrying many Chinese goods probably on its way to the Middle East.

Shanghai Museum is such a great place to spend a whole day, exchanging ideas with many great minds in the past.  In addition, admission is free!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

China 2011 - Day 1: Arriving in Shanghai

Wow... Finally I set off for my 3-week trip to China on 11 Dec 2011.  My flight from Singapore to Shanghai by SIA is at the wee hours of 1.20am.  It is a RED EYE flight, but yet they still charge so much for the air ticket.

I arrived at PuDong International Airport at around 5 plus in the morning.  Hardly anyone in the airport.  By the time I managed to go through immigration and took my luggage, it was already 6 plus.  Just nice the Shanghai Metro starts its first trip for the day.

Heyhey, here is a video I took on the metro from the airport to downtown Shanghai.  Ample space for every passenger, you can do whatever you like.  I didn't know at the time, but later after staying in Shanghai for a couple of days, such an empty train is something to be greatly appreciated.  Shanghai metro is worse than Singapore, they have to pack even more people.

I got off at People's Park station, and started searching for the youth hostel I had booked.

People's Park area is the city center, and very close to the most famous landmark - the Bund.

And I spotted our Capitaland's Raffles Place right at the People's Park metro station, along Fuzhou Road.  It is almost identical to what you have in Singapore, the shops are the same, so it is quite boring for me :)

After quite a while of searching, I finally found my youth hostel, which is quite a bit of distance from People's Park.  It is tucked in one small lane, right next to a wet market.

The place is actually not bad, it is modern and clean, except the room is a bit small, and there is forever a smell in stairs well.  As it is next to the wet market, so sometimes it is quite noisy.  My first night of stay was quite terrible, lots of noise from humans and cars, but then the following night was all quiet and peaceful.

Here is a video of the room.  It is reasonably sized, with attached bath room.  The price is 180 yuan/night, no breakfast or anything else.

Ok, that's for the first part of the day.  Next posts I will bring you to the Shanghai Museum and the Bund, the most famous landmark of Shanghai.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Singapore's Savings Account Interest Rates

As we ushered in the new year, we also ushered in a new low in savings account interest rates in Singapore.  A check on the 3 major local banks, DBS, OCBC & UOB, the interest rates for savings accounts are uniformly low at 0.05%, this is down from last year's 0.15%.  This is when SIBOR is at 0.3%!

Considering inflation of 5%, and ~3% if you exclude private transport and housing, the 0.05% savings account interest rate is still way too low for any meaningful preservation of purchasing power.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lao Ban Zhai 老半斋

Lao Ban Zhai is a famous restaurant for Shanghainese food in Fuzhou Road, Shanghai.  During my recent visit to Shanghai, I paid them a visit in the evening.  Lao Ban Zhai is famous for their Chai Fan, basically it means vegie and rice.  What really is it?  I have no idea, as they only sell Chai Fan for lunch.

I ordered a fried eel noodle and mutton as a cold dish.

Here is the fried eel noodle.  The eel had been first deep fried, and the it is mixed with the noodle in the soup. The eel was quite crispy due to the deep fry.  Overall, I think it was just so so, not very outstanding.  The portion of noodle is small, just 100g.

The mutton cold dish was ok, but again it was not outstanding.  Average is the best that I can say of this dish.

The total cost for these two dishes was close to 50 yuan.  The lady at the cashier was aghast by the amount of food I ordered as if it were too much.  However, it was just as I had guessed, the food was not enough for me :(

At Lao Ban Zhai, you have to first order your dishes at the cashier, pay up, then you will get your 'tickets'.  Pass the tickets to the waitress there then they will bring the food to you.  For cold dishes, you have to go and get them yourself.

Lao Ban Zhai is recommended by some travel guide books, but I personally don't really like it.  Over priced.

My Train Experiences in China

During my recent visit to China, I took an over night train from Tulufan吐鲁番 (Turpan) to LiuYuan (柳园).  At Tulufan Railway Station, they don't sell any sleeper train tickets within 10 days.  Our only option was to get a non-sleeper train ticket.  To make it worse, there was no more seats available, we could only get no-seat tickets, at the same price as tickets with a seat!

I was naively thinking that there might not be many people in the train as it was low season for travelers, not realising that in Xinjiang, workers from other provinces in China usually start to go back to their home town 1 month before Chinese New Year.  As 2012's Chinese New Year came in on 23 Jan, so Christmas time is already the beginning of ChunYun(春运), meaning workers going home in large numbers for Chinese New Year.

The train was to depart Tulufan station at 11pm, but having nothing to do, we arrived at around 7pm.  There was some unrest in Xinjiang, and as a result, people coming into train stations and bus terminals, have to go through security check.

The station building itself is quite run down and it is small.  People crowded in the waiting room.  Some had seats, some didn't and sat on the floor.  The station itself is supposed to be smoke free, but people still smoked discretely in the waiting hall.  At the male toilet, then it was a different story.  There is a loud speaker right outside the male toilet, announcing no smoking is allowed in the male toilet.  But the reality is you can smell the smoke outside the toilet.  Going inside, many people were smoking there.

The male toilet is still the old style public toilet.  This means there are no doors.  People shit right in front of others who pass by.  It is like a parade of buttocks.

30 minutes before our train departure, we started to go to the platform.  Before that, we need get our tickets checked by the railway staff.  It was a nightmare.  There was no queue, and everybody just pushed ahead.  Some railway staff attempted to restore orderly, but their efforts are in vain.  They are out-numbered.

Boarding the train is another nightmare.  The carts were crowded and you could hardly moved.  And people with very big luggage, blocking the passageway in the cart.

I quickly found a vacant seat to sit down.  At Tulufan, it was still not so bad, there were still some vacant seats available, but after the train reached Hami, all the seats were taken by their rightful owners.  We really had to stand.  I was really lucky that out of the 8.5 hours train journey, I only had to stand for around 4 hours.

In the train, the temperature was high at around 27C, while outside temperature was at -16C!  People were sweating in the train.  The train was a smoke free train, but then nobody enforces this rule.  Sitting next to me there were two railway staff members.  They were smoking non-stop, one cigarette after another.  They didn't stop smoking for even a minute from Tulufan to Shanshan, where alighted.

It was a small society in the train, there were many kinds of people there.

There was a young lady, who was going to somewhere I couldn't remember, but she had to spend 3 days 3 nights in the train, without a seat!  She is young and at least average looking, and she was aware of that.  Using her charm to men, especially the older men, she managed to get some sympathy from men, occasionally got a seat for a while, or at least a small stool from someone for her to sit.

There are also two types of people in the train.  Some people have their rightful seats, and they are willing to share their seat with those who don't for some time.  Some people are more territory conscious.  They claimed their seats, and their territory, like animals peeing to show who is the boss.

I am most afraid of the train reaching a station.  When the train reaches a station, means more passengers will board the train.   That means at least one hour of chaos, with people fighting, arguing for seats, and space for luggage storage.  With more passengers, the temperature will rise further, and more people smoking.  The air quality in the cart became more and more unbearable.

I had a conversation with a young man who was traveling with his father, to go back to his hometown of Shuzhou from Shanshan, Xinjiang.  He is working at a construction company in Xinjiang.  He told me that in Xinjiang, they can only work 10 out of 12 months in a year, as the temperature is too low to do any work for the two coldest months.  For these two months without work, they will just go home and relax, without pay of course.  He and his father had traveled on this route a number of times, and always taking the train without sleeper.  I was very surprised.  I asked him why he didn't travel by air?  Especially his father is already old, and there is no way to get some good rest in a non-sleeper train.  He said they couldn't afford it.  The air ticket costs around 3000-4000 yuan return.  It is like his one month pay, 10% of what he earns in a year.

Then there was a non-Han Chinese young man.  He looked very young, probably just 20 years old, yet he had been working for 3 years.  He had also traveled this route a number of times.  This young man reminded me about the restaurant we went to in Tulufan.  In that small restaurant, from waitress to the cook, everybody was very young, probably late teens to early 20s.  People seem to start work early in this part of the country.

I must also mention a group of workers who were sitting opposite to me for a period of time.  They blasted loud music from their handphones, talked loudly at the wee hours of the day, played cards on the seats loudly, and walked around half naked.  It is a loud reminder that China is still a developing country.  There is still a lot of work to do in terms of education.  The way to become a developed & gracious nation is long and full of obstacles.

Another group of people I must mention are the railway staff.  They pushed their sales carts back and forth from time to time, causing lots of disturbances to the passengers.  Can you imagine their sales cart had to pass through a path full of people, sitting, sleeping, and standing?  The railway staff care about nothing, but their sales.  The comfort level of the passengers is basically none of their business.

The 8.5 hours long journey was a torture to me, and it felt like a century.  However, many more people in that train had to live in the train for a couple of days.  That's their yearly routine.  The government has not offered them any other alternatives.

I am lucky, I only had to go through their torture probably just once, it is not my yearly routine.  I wish in the near future, those people don't have to go through this torture either.