Tag Archives: China

A Little Reputation Would Go A Long Way

22 May

While I will never cease to shop at big box stores (Target is my jam!), I also like supporting small businesses. Often Jerry and I prefer to eat at hole-in-the-walls over chains. I enjoy looking for one-of-a-kind gifts at events such as Unique LA. But while traveling, we don’t feel all that inclined to support a certain subset of small businesses, i.e. drivers, shopkeepers, restaurants etc.

It’s not that we don’t want to support them. We do. But we feel uncomfortable in doing so because in many of the countries we’ve been to, the reputation is less than stellar. Examples:

If the driver tells you that the hotel is full/closed/under repair, don’t trust the driver because touts (drivers in India) at the airport copy your name on their placards and cheat, so never trust anyone until you arrive at the hotel.

In that vein, don’t get into a taxi unless you’ve agreed upon a price. Drivers will often take you on a circuitous route and your bill will be doubled or even tripled, or you may even be taken to a strange place and their buddies will rob you.

Bargain hard, upwards of 30%-50% because shopkeepers won’t hesitate to start very high.

Don’t eat at restaurants that don’t list prices on the menu, because you’ll end up with a really high bill.

Speaking of high bills, don’t trust anyone in China that wants to strike up a conversation with you under the pretense of wanting to improve their English. They’ll sweet talk you into going to a tea house, and leave you with a $300 bill.

Ridiculous but not surprising, yes? None of us are born yesterday, we can see through all these tricks. We sympathize with the fact that everyone needs to make a living, and of course tourists are a gold mine that should be tapped into, it would be very unbusiness-like to not take advantage of that. But taking advantage should only go so far. And while there are many honest business folk out there, unfortunate a few bad apples ruins it all.

We would most likely choose the first decent looking taxi company we saw if they were all cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, I don’t relish the the fact that we’d be at the mercy of the driver at any given time, and we have no choice but to decline rides from numerous taxis and only ride with ones that have a good reputation. So FYI, if you’re in Vietnam, go with the Mai Linh or Taxi Group because they actually use their meters accurately. And be careful, there’s a taxi group out there that mimics the logo of Mai Linh and instead spells it as M Linh. Yep, counterfeit taxis, the nerve of them! Because they have the reputation of ripping us off even a few cents, they lose dollars in potential fares.

To us, it’s not the amount of getting ripped off on, but the principle of it. We’ll spend $5 more in your shop, but if you try to rip us off 50 cents, it makes us feel like spending zero, and instead we’d give our money to someone else more honest, which unfortunately may be a big box store that lists prices.

Speaking of spending money, Jer and I, we hate bargaining. We really have no interest in playing games to see how low we can go. After all, the shopkeeper has to make a living as well! So our tactic has been to just name a price that we think is fair, and to stick to it. We don’t like going back and forth. Ultimately it’s just a matter of pennies or dollars, and to us it doesn’t feel good to achieve some sort of moral victory or whatnot that we saved fifty cents. So be it if the price we think is fair still ends up being more than what it’s worth. This tactic backfired on us once in Hong Kong when we got thrown out of a few stalls in Mongkok for bargaining too low on a cell phone case, but otherwise it’s been working for the most part!

Getting ripped off is just one of the aspects of traveling, and we’re okay with that when things are out of our hands or if the situation calls for it, i.e. that $4 we spent on 600ml bottle of Fanta because it was 100 degrees at Iguazu Falls and we were desperate. And sometimes we’ll just buy that Taj Mahal souvenir for a buck more because it’s our last opportunity or because it saves us time, and because it’s not worth it to haggle over fifty cents. But certainly when we do have opportunity and choice, we’ll make sure to go with our gut, even if it means giving our business to chains over mom and pops. A little reputation goes a long way!

Beijing

10 May

Beijing has changed a lot since I last visited in 1994 and Jeannie in 1999. Beijing has transformed from a traditional Chinese city of bicycles, hutongs, small markets and street vendors, to a large metropolitian city of cars and huge shopping malls everywhere. Alongside this unchecked massive growth comes smog: thick heavy smog that blankets the city and reduces visibility down to 500 yards on any given day. You can’t go to Beijing without immediately noticing it in your throat and lungs. A stay-indoors bad air day is declared in the US when the smog index hits 100. During our time in Beijing the smog index averaged 350! Now I understand why all Chinese people are hocking loogies and spitting on the street.

In spite of this, we managed to visit the main sights of the city and eat at some really great (and cheap) restaurants!

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Da Dong peking duck restaurant. Probably the best peking duck restaurant in the city. The duck is lean, crispy, and juicy. Great reputation among tourists and locals alike. We actually ate peking duck 3 times over a course of of 11 days. We dine at a Peking duck restaurant called Jin Zun, twice, because it was across the street from our hotel. Generally we wouldn’t gorge like that, but we hadn’t had Peking duck in years, and we weren’t really fans of the northern style Beijing food. In nearly every Beijing restaurant we ate at, each veggie dish was incredibly oily and greasy. Da Dong was the only place in Beijing we ate at that didn’t serve veggies dripping in oil. FYI, if you want to eat at a Peking duck place, call ahead and make reservations! If you just show up the wait might be long for getting seated, and you’d also have to wait longer for your duck.

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Water Cube. Half of the cube has been turned into an indoor water park. The competition swimming side is under construction as well, but we don’t know what it’s turning into.

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Bird’s Nest. See that fog? It’s not fog. You can barely see from one side of the stadium to the other. In only 4 years, you can already tell the National Olympic Stadium is already suffering from neglect. Paint is peeling everywhere, rust is showing, and the roof is dirty. There’s rumors of turning part of it into a shopping complex.

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The Forbidden City remains unchanged since who-knows when. It’s sad that even the Chinese citizens have little respect for their crown jewel. I witnessed a woman toss a corn-on-the-cob right on the ground here, when a garbage can was 50 feet away. I also saw a family let their 4 year old kid pee right on the sidewalk in front of Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. The rest of the grounds are littered with corn cobs and a variety of trash.

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Wangfujing shopping street. A mix of modern mega-malls lining the street, with traditional style vendors less than a block away.

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Summer Palace

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Acrobatics show. We bought tickets off a scalper and saved 40%, and got prime seats.

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Temple of Heaven

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We tried Din Tai Fung in Beijing. A different dining experience than the one in Arcadia; these dumplings tasted better and the prices were cheaper.

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Mango shaved ice from a dessert place down the hall from Din Tai Fung.

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iTea. The purple drink was kind of gross but the mango pudding was good.

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Beef noodle soup and pork noodle soup from the food court at Raffles City, a department store.

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We drank Happy Lemon quite a bit to soothe our throats during the day. It’s a boba/pearl/tapioca/bubble chain with a great selection of drinks. The QQ Brilliant Fruit Tea was a winner, we must have had it like 4 times!

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Our Great Wall Adventure

9 May

There’s no shortage of tours to various sections of the Great Wall that leave from Beijing, but we decided to try to get there ourselves via the public transportation. And against all odds/despite information of varying accuracy, we actually did it!

First, we had to decide which section of the wall to visit. Our friends gave us a heads up and told us to visit Mutianyu over Badaling because although Badaling is closer, it is much more crowded. The difficulty in seeing Mutianyu is finding transportation to take you there; if you take the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop, you’ll be stranded a long ways away from Beijing.

After quite a bit of conflicting research, we chose bus 867 leaving from the Dongzhimen bus terminal, which is a 10 minute walk from the subway station. We arrived early for the 8:30 bus and were relieved to see a few other tourists in line too. It’s a good idea we arrived 15 minutes early because the bus ride ended up being 2.5 hours, and quickly filled up to standing room only! The actual mileage is not that far, it’s just that the bus makes frequent stops.

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After getting to Mutianyu, we took the ski lift up.
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We then hiked up to three towers. The terrain is so steep that some of the stair sections look like sheer walls right in front of you! You have to essentially climb them using your hands as well as your feet.
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After walking/climbing for an hour, we turned back and took the toboggan back down. This was the highlight of our day. The toboggan is a sliding cart that rides on a stainless steel bobsled track, complete with banked turns. All you have to do is release the brake and gravity takes care of the rest. We ignored the various slow down signs waved by the flag men and zoomed down to the bottom of the mile-long track.

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After getting to the bottom, we saw the 867 bus leaving so we ran to it and barely got on. Buses only run at 2pm and 4pm back to Beijing. It ended up being a 3 hour ride on the way back on a packed public bus! We unfortunately didn’t get a seat at first, but about 15 minutes later a couple people got off at the next stop and we got seats. Whew!

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All in all, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is a great place to see, but only if you have some time to spare and don’t mind riding the bus for six hours. Otherwise hire a private driver or join a tour group. We saved some money but we certainly didn’t save any time!

The part where the guy uses his hands to propel himself is hilarious. FYI, speaking of cutting in line, the couple in front of us let 4 of their friends cut in line, and he was one of them. Not cool! Lucky for them we were in a good mood and didn’t feel like calling them out on it. However, we cannot confirm or deny if the *ahem* bump at the end was intentional or not. *wink*

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game?

6 May

After being on the road for over 2 months now, we’ve learned to either embrace, adapt, or at the very least, accept customs of cities that we visit. But in Beijing, when it came to situations where we had to 1) stand in line, 2) ride a train or bus, or 3) cross a street, we found ourselves in situations where we’d have to act accordingly or 1) get cut in front of, 2) get crushed or pushed off the subway, 3) get injured by a moving vehicle.

Examples:
People freely cut in line whether it was to buy subway tickets, ask for directions, or see Mao’s body at the mausoleum. In other places such behavior would be considered rude but in Beijing it seems to be the norm.

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See the woman in the pink? She was originally behind us in line. She managed to elbow her way that far up. Probably in the 1.5 hours we were in line maybe 4 dozen folks cut their way in front of us.

Sure, we could cut back, but as being overly aggressive is not a skill we practice day to day, it didn’t feel comfortable or right to continually reciprocate the behavior. It’s also tiring!

What is also tiring is also the amount of concentration it takes to cross a street. Beijingers seem to treat the art of crossing the street/driving as a game of chicken. Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Which brings me to the next image.

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See the shoe wedged under the tire? Now, I don’t know what really happened here as we showed up after the incident happened. Either party could have been at fault. But I do know cars/bikes and pedestrians alike don’t obey traffic lights here. Cars will turn, or even go straight even when they have a red light, even when people are in the intersection. What’s sad is that the lack of yielding to pedestrians has nothing to do with road rage (not that I’m condoning road rage as an excuse to drive recklessly), but rather the behavior is deemed normal.

No doubt we hate the game.

Has anyone experienced anything similar to us or have differing experiences to share?

Lesson Learned: Visas

13 Feb

Woohoo! Our final visa from the Indian Embassy in San Francisco just came in the mail. This one ended up being a little too close for comfort because we didn’t calculate all the time required to sequentially process each visa. On the other hand, we didn’t want to apply too early because some of the visas start the clock immediately after issue. The Indian visa in particular, expires 6 months from date of issue, and we’re not planning on being there for another 3-4 months.

Here’s a rundown of the four visas which we had to send our passport in for processing. Many other countries require fees upon entry and/or exit, but no official visa is required.

China – 1 year from date of issue, $140 pp. Apply in person, one week processing time, they take your passport. The Los Angeles visa office is reminiscent of the DMV, but with cute old Chinese ladies. “B203, go to window #2, G319, go to window #5.”

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Brazil – 10 years from date of issue, $140 pp. Must apply in person, one week processing time, they take your passport. The most colorful and cheerful visa office ever! ┬áBeing that we’re only going to be in Brazil for 5.5 days, we’ll have to come back sometime in the next decade to make it worth it!

Vietnam – 1 month from date of arrival specified, $80 pp. Can either be loose-leaf (don’t need passport) or passport sticker (you mail in the passport to Washington DC embassy). The website is ultra confusing, and does not list prices. You have to call or email the embassy in DC for prices. In Jeannie’s family’s experiences, the visa paperwork is taken care of by the travel agent who books the flights.

India – 6 months from date of issue, $76 pp. Must mail your passport to the Travisa office in San Francisco. I’ve heard some hit-and-miss things about the Indian embassy on the internet, but (thankfully) our visas were processed in 2 days, and was 7 days total door-to-door. Others have reported taking several weeks for their visas.

Here’s a tip- we went the DIY passport photo route and made a whole stack of passport-sized photos. That way, we could just grab as we went along without having to stop and print extras. This was extra handy for the Vietnam visa, since they required 2 copies of the passport photo.

Lesson learned: next time, we will apply a week or two earlier!

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