Beijing Underground

The Chinese real estate bubble has affected nearly everyone. One little known consequence has been people living underground. Many of the people that one has to interact with on a daily basis such as waiters, hairdressers, cooks, cleaners, and supermarket employees live underground. With salaries of $150-$300 per month, they cannot afford to rent a house in a place like Beijing and can only dream of buying.

There is another housing option. Under the towers of each apartment building are usually two levels of parking. Surrounding the parking are rooms that appear to be meant for storage. These windowless, vent-less cells are where many people live. These can be dormitories filled with bunk beds and only a single toilet down the hall. There is no heating in the winter. People hang their clothes from the pipes in the dark hallways. These residents can be seen coming and going from the entrances and exits meant for cars.

The sad thing is many of the apartments above their heads sit empty. In this area of Beijing, I estimate there is a 70% occupancy rate just by looking through the windows of a building.  The real estate bubble is driven by speculation. The apartments sit empty because they are seen as only an investment to sell later. They are normally bare concrete walls, no plumbing or electrical. So they can be sold as new.

Many have profited from the real estate bubble. There is no property tax in China. I know some families have been able to provide a good college education to their child because they sold a house at the right time. But this really shows the divide between rich and poor in China.

Of course, not everyone has to live underground. Construction workers get temporary housing. It is also possible to live in a normal apartment. I was told one story of a two-bedroom apartment in a central location with 30 people living inside. It costs about $3/day if you pay by the day to live in such a place.

The state of the Internet and PCs in China

Given that China has the greatest number of Internet users in the world; it is interesting to see how things differ here. In most countries, people use similar software and websites, but in China it is like going to an alien planet. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Due to the great firewall of China, speeds to foreign websites are slow from inside the country. Also the speed to web hosts inside of China are slow to users outside of the country. However, I have heard the firewall only can filter IPv4 traffic for now. Some universities have IPv6 which bypass everything.
  • Many foreign websites are filtered entirely.
    • Facebook (#2 ranked site). Replaced by renren.com
    • YouTube (#3 ranked site). Replaced by tudou.com and youku.com
    • Twitter (#8 ranked site). Replaced by weibo.com
    • Blogspot (#11 ranked site). Replaced by sina.com and others
  • DNS poisoning. In addition to blocking traffic to a certain IP, an additional layer of security is added for some sites such as Youtube.com. Chinese nameservers will point YouTube to a host that doesn’t exist.
  • Quality of Service used to degrade certain websites. For example, making a Google search usually results in a long delay initializing the connection. But do the same search on Bing or Baidu and there is no delay. This tactic is also used on Gmail and many other foreign websites. This has resulted in many Chinese users giving up on foreign Internet companies.
  • Reliance on Internet Explorer 6. According to Microsoft, China has the highest usage of IE6 out of any country in the world. Many foreign websites have dropped support for this 11 year old browser. Many Chinese websites work best or require IE6. This is creating a big divide in the web.
  • The typical PC setup in China:
    • Pirated version of Windows XP possibly re-skinned to look like Vista or Windows 7.
    • Hard drive split into four partitions because Windows has to be reinstalled so often on the first parition.
    • Microsoft Windows Updates disabled. Any updates are through a Chinese service.
    • Heavy reliance on Chinese QQ apps (instant messaging, games, music).
    • 44% of Chinese users are running 360 Secure Browser as their primary web browser. It is based off IE6 rendering engine and makes browsing many foreign websites impossible.
    • Antivirus Software is always from a Chinese company.
  • E-commerce. China is mostly a cash based society. Using credit cards is not very popular. However, many homegrown e-commerce systems have become popular for spending money online such as alipay.com. No foreign online payment systems have taken root here.
  • Average age of user. Chinese Internet users average much younger than elsewhere. This leads to different habits.
    • Streaming video. Many young people do not own a TV. They will stream TV shows and movies from websites.
    • Streaming music. People rarely download music anymore, let alone buy it. Instead they stream it from a website such as xiami.com.
    • Online games. Game consoles are technically banned here. Plus not many people can afford a gaming PC; so it is simple online games that fill in the gaps.
    • Income is low, so micro-transactions are popular.
  • Language and cultural barriers.

I talked to a young Chinese person one day and mentioned I was using YouTube. They had never heard of YouTube before. State owned Chinese companies are the big winners here. They don’t have to worry about any foreign competition. Too bad the losers are freedom of speech and competition.

Shanghai, China

After my trip to Japan, my plane landed at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and this finally gave me a chance to try the only commercial high speed Maglev train in the world. Unlike a normal train, they don’t allow anyone to get on the platform before it arrives. I’m not sure exactly why. I did get to hear it arrive, however. When it was slowing down there was a strange pulsing sound in the building. After I boarded my seat and the doors closed, I think I felt a subtle shift indicating the levitation activated. The train doesn’t levitate very high, maybe only 1 or 2 mm. The train eventually made it to the top speed of 268 mph (431 km/h) after about three minutes. It didn’t stay at the top speed for very long because it had to begin slowing down again. It takes 7 minutes and 20 seconds to go on the 19 mile track.

At the terminal of the train there is a museum about the Maglev train. One chart in the exhibit explained that Maglev gets more efficient over a normal wheeled train as speed increases.

I had an opportunity to try a lot of new subway lines in Shanghai. I was particularly impressed with Century Avenue Station. Four subway lines come together here and to transfer to any other line requires just a minimal amount of walking. Three lines are run parallel and one line runs perpendicular. The Shanghai Metro is now considered the longest metro system in the world with 264 miles of track. Very impressive when you consider the first line opened in 1995. This surpasses NYC’s 209 miles, opened in 1904, and London’s 250 miles, opened in 1863.

Something else I’ve never seen before was a bus labeled “Supercapacitor Bus.” I found out this is also called a Capa Vehicle which is a electric vehicle without batteries. It will only go a few miles after the capacitor is charged, but it only takes a minute or two to charge again.

After a couple days in Shanghai, I was excited to use the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail which opened last year. This is the longest line of high speed rail in the world and the first and second longest bridges in the world. For $87, I got a ticket that took me from Shanghai to Beijing with only one stop arriving 4 hours and 48 minutes later with a total of 811 miles.

Japan 2012 (Tokyo)

I did get some sleep on my night bus to Tokyo, luckily. I arrived outside Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world according to Wikipedia. So it was appropriate to take most used metro system in the world from here to find a hotel. For $9, I got a day pass for the Tokyo Metro and I could ride it as much as I wanted. Just like my plan in Osaka, I headed to the area of Tokyo with the most homeless people near Minami-Senju station. The Wikipedia page gives a clue why only homeless people and backpackers. It used to be the location of an execution ground and over 100,000 people were executed here over 223 years.

I had no reservation, so I tried asking at a few hotels if I could stay. All said no except for Juyoh Hotel which happens to be the same hotel I stayed in five years ago. $36 for a private room is about as low as you can go in Tokyo. You have to keep in mind the room is smaller than most bathrooms.

I went to see the new Tokyo Skytree, currently the second tallest structure in the world and a replacement for Tokyo Tower. It opened to the public a month after I visited. I walked across the river to Asakusa. The cherry blossoms were falling away. The park next to the river was covered in pedals. I walked to Asakusa shrine and afterward saw something that is only in Japan:  An escalator for bicycles. The bicycle parking in underground, so to help get the bikes back out to the street, you put them on a narrow escalator wide enough for the tires, press a button and it pulls the bike up while you walk beside it.

Next I visited Toto Super Space, the most famous maker of toilets. They have a showroom on the 26th & 27th floors of Shinjuku L Tower, very prime real estate. A lot of model bathrooms and kitchens to look at there. Oh and the hand dryers are double sided, drying both sides of your hands simultaneously.

Next was Kabukicho, an area featured in the Yakuza video game series. In the game, they recreated this district of Tokyo so closely, I felt like I was in The Matrix when I got there for real.  Taxis parked in the same place, entrance leading to underground shopping mall level, and then parking level below that (first car I saw had a V12 badge on the side), Club Sega in the same place with Sega UFO Catcher inside, I even think convenience stores were in the same locations.

Later I spent some time in the Akihabara electric town, but then it started raining a lot. The next day I left right away from my hotel to catch a bus to Ibaraki Airport and my flight on Spring Airlines to Shanghai, China.

A note on change machines in Japan. They are everywhere. Even in buses, no need to have exact change. Some buses are a flat fee, so simply dump whatever money you have into the top and your ticket and change comes out. Other buses have a distance based fee, so you get a ticket out of one machine when you board and then put the ticket in another machine when you exit. A display will say how much you need to pay. I noticed supermarkets have a similar machine. At the checkout counter, the clerk inserts all my money into a machine and the correct change comes out. And then vending machines are ubiquitous, requiring no people, and you can get everything from food, coffee, beer to cigarettes from them. Personally, I think it is nice not having to rely on people so much.

 

Japan 2012 (Nara and Kyoto)

Leaving Osaka, I took the Kintetsu Nara Line eastwards to Yamatosaidaiji station. This station had a lot of choices for Japanese food inside. I chose the cheapest plate of curry rice for $5. I put $3.75 in a coin operated locker to keep my heavy bag while I looked around the ancient capital of Nara. I changed to the Kintetsu Kashihara Line and got off at Nishinokyo station. Here it was a short walk to the world heritage site Yakushi-ji Temple. Across the street was a memorial to Chinese traveler monk Xuanzang.

Walking north, I noticed a new Japanese style house being built. Interesting to get a peek at how it is built including a concrete foundation with a one foot high crawl space. Everything above that is wood except for the roof tiles and a few metal brackets. Next to the new house was another very old temple calls Toshodai-ji. It was interesting to see how they rebuilt one of the structures over ten years.

After some walking and another train, I made it to downtown Nara. I was here five years ago and noted the Kofuku-ji temple had a plan to rebuild but maybe it would take 50 years. That was an exaggeration. They are making progress and have a schedule posted. Started construction in 2010 and will finish in 2018. Still quite a long time for a building with a single floor.  This time I made sure to visit the Kofuku-ji treasure house, which is a museum holding a lot of unique artifacts. The most famous is the statue of an Ashura. Then I went to Todai-ji temple (also visited here five years ago), the biggest wooding building in the world and still very impressive to me.

After sightseeing in Nara, I picked up my bag and took a train to Kyoto. An interesting note is the parking structures at train stations. I saw a three level parking structure, but it held spots for cars. All for motorcycles and bicycles. I remember China was famous for bicycles, but I think not anymore. Japan is more serious.

In Kyoto, I walked around Nishikujo Toriiguchicho shopping mall. There was one store where kids were playing card battles. Another store with N scale model railroad products; so small but looks like the standard here. I also found two buffet restaurants. One was $23 and the other had one price for men ($21) and women ($20). Too bad the food didn’t look too great. No sushi or anything special. The buffet also has a time limit of 90 minutes. I was interested to see the Yoshoku or western style food. This is very common in Japan, but almost never found in Japanese restaurants outside of the country. I decided to try omurice, an omelet filled with fried rice. It tasted fine, but it was $6 for something that seemed so simple.

I’m convinced Kyoto Station is the strangest train station in the world. I spent hours walking around the station waiting for my bus later that night. At 15-stories tall, this building has a hotel, shopping malls, a skywalk, public roof areas, escalators and dark hallways that seemingly go nowhere important. What it doesn’t have is a waiting area with seats.

I had a bus scheduled at 10:30PM from Kyoto Station to Tokyo. At $50 for an eight hour bus, this was the cheapest way of getting to Tokyo short of hitchhiking. The bus companies had no physical office. I had bought the ticket online and wrote down my reservation number. At night, some employees setup a temporary table outside and checked in passengers. Most of the passengers turned out to be foreigners. All the foreigners kept talking and talking. Finally, a bus employee told them to be quiet since this is a night bus and people are trying to sleep. A reminder of how polite Japanese are in comparison to the rest of the world.

Japan 2012 (Kyoto and Osaka)

After two nights in Kyoto, I had to leave my hostel and find somewhere else to stay. I decided to head for the slums of Osaka to find one of the cheapest rooms in the country. But first I did a bit more sightseeing in Kyoto. I walked to the nearby Chion-in Temple. I noticed construction workers erecting a heavy duty steel structure on each side of one of the old wooden buildings. It looks like they are going to do some restoration work, but their temporary structure looks more permanent than the thing they are saving.

I was lucky to see all the famous cherry blossoms in full bloom while I was in Kyoto. There are only a few days of the year when it is possible to see the peak time. I also had a chance to see one of the biggest bells in the world. The Chion-in Temple Bell weighs 74 tons, cast in 1633 and I had to wonder how they moved it up the hill where it is located now.

I checked out of my eight person dormitory and got on a train to Osaka. A $4.85 ticket on the Hankyo Kyoto Limited Express gets me to Osaka in 47 minutes.  Then I had to change to a subway line four stops away for $2.85. I’m too used to Beijing’s flat rate of $0.32 to get anywhere on the subway system.

By the time I emerged, it was raining hard. Good thing I had been studying the area so I had some idea where to go. I found Hotel Kaga and got a private room for $20 which is really good for Japan. I saw some signs around for as low as $10 but I’m not sure they accept foreigners and not sure what you get for that price. The reason for all the low prices is because this is the area where most the homeless people stay and it is kind of depressing. A lot of disabled old men wander the streets and a lot of bars. I didn’t see anyone eating but I did see a lot of people drinking. The name of this area (Kamagasaki or Airin) doesn’t appear on maps because I think it has been such an embarrassment they changed the names. I saw some second hand clothes shops, a rare thing in a country where people prefer to be the first owner. I found a store that sold some old food for a discount, so I tried some of that. Most of the day was rain, so I took a break.

Photos

Japan 2012 (Mt. Hiei)

I woke up from my $27 per night 10 person dormitory room and started heading for Mt. Hiei on the northeast side of Kyoto. Since I had no JR Pass this time in Japan, I was free to take any public, private, or subway line I wished. My plan was to take some trains to the trail head and then walk up the mountain. This is when I started realizing how expensive Japan is. Taking a subway just a few stops cost over $2. These little trips can really add up. I decided to get some food since I haven’t eaten in nearly 24 hours. In 7 Eleven, I found a single slice of bread with butter already on it for a little over $1 and a rice ball for around the same price. Wow, if a little bit of bread or rice costs this much, what about a real meal?

I walked along side a river and started going up the mountain. I didn’t see any signs pointing the right way, but I studied a map before I started. After a while, the trail stopped. I looked around but couldn’t go any further. I had to retreat back to the train station.

I did have a nice walk through a neighborhood. I noticed each home takes great care with what little space they have. They will fill the entryway up with flowers and they would take their tiny yard and turn it into a great garden with huge varieties of trees.

Since walking didn’t work out so great, I did have another option which was the tram. I took a cable car most of the way up the mountain and continued to walk. Mt. Hiei is known for its marathon monks. The mountain also has a lot of large old trees, ancient temples, and a nice atmosphere.

After looking around, I decided to walk down the other side of the mountain to Sakamoto. This took a little over an hour. This town is pretty interesting too. A lot of old houses and temple are at the base of Mt. Hiei. I decided to try the Japanese traditional green tea called matcha. At $4 for a little bit at the bottom of a cup, it isn’t exactly good if you’re thirsty.

I got on a train and headed back to Kyoto. In the middle, I had to change trains, so I got out and tried some restaurants. First I had some gyoza which is fried dumplings. Taste the same as the Chinese version. Then I had some soba noodles which I had to order by a machine that worked just like the train ticket machine. Then I took one more subway line back to the Gion district of Kyoto, where my hostel was located. Just a couple days later I learned of a traffic accident that involved 16 people in the same district of Kyoto. I always say crossing the street is the most dangerous thing when traveling.

Japan 2012 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kyoto, Japan)

I decided to go back to Japan since I found some cheap tickets from Air Asia (Kuala Lumpur -> Osaka) and Spring Airlines (Tokyo -> Shanghai). The only problem is due to deflation in Japan and inflation in the US, everything costs 50% more than when I was here in 2007. Five years ago, I stayed three weeks. This time, only five days. This meant I had to plan quite a bit and schedule a lot into a few days.

Currency exchange rates aren’t the only thing that changed. I almost didn’t make it on the airplane to get into the country because I needed to prove I had an onward ticket. At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I showed the woman a piece of paper where I wrote down my booking number and flight information but she didn’t believe it. Then I showed her the email on my phone and she said “hardcopy!” I looked around and asked where can I print it? The plane is boarding in a few minutes. She said go to the premium passenger lounge and print it and then she would let me on the flight. So I go there and they say they have no printer. I decide to try my luck with someone else. I ask a man to check my documents and after some questions he believes the electronic documents. Then at the gate, another man asks similar questions about what I’m doing there, how long I’m staying.  I got through both checks and made it on the plane just in time.

Arriving in Japan immigration, there was another change. Forced fingerprint scanning. The only other time this happened to me was when I was leaving Singapore a few years ago. After immigration, I had to pass through customs. Another change here was hand searching of the luggage of every foreigner. I thought the USA was the only country that would do this, but not anymore. I’m not sure what happened.

My next step was to get some cash. I tried a Japanese ATM. I quickly realized there is no English option and it must not accept international cards. I asked the information desk and they said there is a Citibank ATM, so at least that one worked well.

Next, I had to figure out how to get to Kyoto where I had a reservation. There are a lot of options. There is the state owned Japan Rail (JR) line and there is a private rail line. I knew JR had the fastest train (1.5 hours), but I would need a rail pass to make it a reasonable price. I didn’t have a pass, but there was an office that sold them. I stood in line and waited. When I got to the counter I had the same trouble as before with proving an onward air ticket. No one trusts me. Email is no good, but email on paper is good? I had to walk away.

Next I tried the private Nankai Electric Railyway line since they had a good price. The man in some very broken English said it would take 3 hours and I’d have to change trains two more times. I said I’d think about it.

The last option is to buy a normal ticket from the ticket machines. These machines had 53 buttons and I would try pressing a button and nothing would happen. I gave up and then tried a couple more times. No response and no English. Finally, I found a sign explaining how to use it in English. My mistake was the first step. I wasn’t supposed to touch anything but instead insert money first. Once I put in money, the buttons lit up. They were prices like 230 Yen, 450 Yen, 900 Yen, 1160 Yen. There was a map above the machines showing the ticket price to each station, so I pressed the button with the price that matched where I wanted to go. Once I did, my ticket and change appeared. At least the ticket machines don’t say “no” to me.

My plan was to take the train from the artificial island created for the Kansai Airport to the main train station in Osaka. From there, I could change to another train to Kyoto. It would be cheaper than the direct train. After a few minutes on the train, it stopped. I’ve heard that Japanese trains are very punctual. In fact, I noticed the driver of the train had a sheet of paper showing the exact times he must stop at each station at eye level. The train was delayed about 30 minutes. I’m not sure what caused this delay, but I’ve heard one big cause in Japan is train suicides.

I did make it all the way to Kyoto and my reserved bed was still there. Right now is the worst time of year to find a place to stay in Kyoto because the cherry blossoms are blooming. I was lucky I made a reservation a month ahead of time.

Thailand and Malaysia Notes

Malaysia Notes

The bus stations have made some great improvements in the years since I got my wallet stolen at one in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago. The new station called Terminal Bersepadu Selatan is the best bus station I’ve seen. It is designed like an airport. Separate areas for departures and arrivals, clean and modern, and connections to all the important transit lines.

I noticed quite a few blind people in the area I was staying in and I noticed them outside crossing streets alone. I realized I’ve never seen this in China because I think they would be murdered quickly by a Chinese driver.

One man who looked like he was of Indian decent in Kuala Lumpur told me he hates Obama after I told him I was from America. I asked him why. He said it was better in the days of Bush and Cheney since they started wars. He wishes someone would start a war with Iran. Not often I hear people around the world critical of the US for not dropping enough bombs on foreign countries.

I visited two old cities in Malaysia. One was Georgetown (on the island of Penang). The town is a former British colony and is supposed to have the best food in the country. The other was Malacca, which has a history going back to the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He who used this port 600 years ago with his massive fleets of hundreds of ships.

Price of gas in Malaysia: 95 Octane = $2.34/gal (Recorded by me on March 26, 2012)

Thailand Notes

The Mo Chit Mai bus station in Bangkok was interesting. There were over 100 ticket sellers and none had any English signs. I guess this is why most people go through a travel agency. But I had to get some help from a school teacher to be able to get a ticket. I ended up getting on a first class bus. This bus had everything. A lot of room, a touch screen entertainment center with a lot of Nicolas Cage films, some food and drink, a Sega Master System emulator built into a game controller with about 15 games, an electrical outlet, and a simple massage seat.

In Bangkok, I found a guesthouse near the subway line. For a city of 8 million people, I’ve never seen a subway so empty. It is a nice modern system so maybe after the next extension there will be more passengers.

I’ve noticed Thais do not like bicycles or any electric scooters. I haven’t seen any stores selling them and see very few people using them. What they do like are two cycle gasoline motorcycles. These loud, dirty bikes are everywhere and it makes sleeping a little difficult.

I think it was a mistake to go to Thailand in March because March/April is the hottest time of year. It was an experience without air conditioning. I felt like I was dying or at least like having a fever constantly.

Price of has in Thailand: 95 Octane = $5.00/gal (Recorded by me on March 19, 2012)