Tag Archives: Travel

You totally CAN Twitter in China! Google, not so much.

By: Magda Walczak

I was having a mild case of separation anxiety on my flight over from Sydney to Hong Kong because I knew that Twitter was not allowed in China. My short stopover in Hong Kong on my way to Beijing was to be the last time I got to tweet for a week. *gasp*

Then when I did check Twitter in Hong Kong, a good Samaritan came to the rescue. @RichardMabey recommended I try CoTweet, which is essentially the same thing as Tweetfunnel (I feel a comparative blog coming on!). Duh!  Both must be set up before you leave for China, both post to Twitter and both can be used in China. Awesome! (Apologies if one of the 100,000 Chinese government web monitor people pick up this blog and start blocking CoTweet and Tweetfunnel. That would suck.)

Here’s the low-down on using Twitter in China:

Using a proxy – Tried that, didn’t work well. It was fine for about 5 minutes and then totally messed up my browser. Not sure if it’s just the one I tried (hot spot shield) but I didn’t like it.

Express VPN – @mmmichaelfox is also currently in China and told me about Express VPN. It’s $12.95 per month to use, but at least he’s happy with it (unlike me with my failed proxy attempt…). There’s a 30-day money back guarantee, so I guess you can’t go wrong!

Tweet Deck – Kinda works, but very slowly. It takes a good 5 minutes to post a tweet. Oh, and it just died as I’m typing this so I guess it’s not reliable. I hope it comes back to life because that how I’ve been reading tweets until now…

Tweetfunnel - Great to post to Twitter especially since it auto-shortens URLs, which is helpful because you can’t get to bit.ly without a proxy. The downside is that I seem to only be able to view the last 30 tweets from others.

Set up before you go – Whether you use Tweetfunnel or Cotweet or some other similar tool, set up before you go. All those tools redirect you to Twitter to authenticate so you won’t be able to do that in China.

Now Google is a whole different story. You can view all Google services if you’re on a proxy, but if a proxy’s not an option for you, you’ll be as confused with Google sites as I am right now. Here’s the Google story in China:

Gmail – Seems to be working just fine, all the time. No complaints here. Chat works well too.

Analytics/AdWords/Webmaster Tools – Also work, but slower than I’m used to.

Reader - Totally random! I can’t figure it out. A couple times I’ve logged on and Reader refreshed. Other times, I get an error inside Reader. Other times still I get a “connection lost” error. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Either way, I’m probably 800 blog posts behind in reading.

News - Now this is funny! Google News technically isn’t blocked because I was able to view it, search it and refresh it a few times. Then yesterday the headline story was on Obama’s visit to China. The page loaded and just as it finished, I got a “connection reset” error in my browser. This happened until another story replaced the Obama visit one. Coincidence? I think not!

All it all, it’s not as bad as I thought. I can still do 90% of the things I would normally do online. :)

How Chicago stacks up against other US cities

By: Magda Walczak

The beanTravel+Leisure just released their 2009 results of America’s favorite cities. Chicago didn’t come out on top but it did pretty damn well, as it should! I love living in Sydney but Chicago will always be home to me. I simply love it! It’s worth a visit for the hot dogs and pizza alone :). Anyways, here’s what the readers said about Chicago.

The good things about Chicago:

CULTURE – Chicago ranked 2nd for theater, 3rd for museums and 4th for classical music. Not too shabby!

SHOPPING – 2nd for luxury stores and 3rd for independent boutiques

NIGHTLIFE – We’re 5th for cocktail hour and 6th for both the singles bar scene and live music

FOOD – We do love to eat in the Windy City! We’re 2nd for big name restaurants, 3rd for ethnic food and 4th for neighbourhood joints.

QUALITY OF LIFE – Chicago outdid the whole country to get 1st place for its skyline. We also got 3rd for public transport and 6th for public parks.

TOURISM – Chicago scored no 1 for business hotels, 3rd for luxury hotels and 5th for boutique hotels. Readers consider Chicago 6th best for a wild weekend and 8th for cultural getaway.

The not so good things about Chicago

WEATHER – Chicago scored dead last for weather. Anyone who’s been there in the middle of winter will agree with this opinion.

AIRPORTS – O’Hare (and to a lesser extent Midway) is notorious for delays, mostly due to the weather. Our airports scored 29th for timeliness and our transport to/from airports was 23rd.

TOURISM – Related to the crappy winter weather and resulting flight delays, readers weren’t too keen on visiting Chicago at Christmas or Thanksgiving.

The big conclusion

Chicago rocks. You’ve heard me say it and now Travel+Leisure readers have confirmed it. You should probably avoid Chicago in the winter months, but otherwise it’s a diverse, fun, approachable city. So when are you coming for a visit?

You can read the full report on how Chicago did in the 2009 Travel+Leisure Favorite Cities surveys here.

Japengeselish

By: Magda Walczak

Or is it Jingrish? I’m not sure. Whatever the word for Japanified (is that one a word?) English words, I crack up big time whenever my sister tells me another phrase or word she used to hear when she was living in Japan. In true Magda form, I remember the ones mainly related to food. Sigh.

Here is a short Japengeselish (or Jingrish, if you like) dictionary:

Macudonarudo – McDonald’s

Hottodoggu – hot dog

Hambaga – hamburger

Sofutosauvu – soft serve (ice cream)

Fraidopotaiyto – french fries, or fried potatoes

Depato – department store

Cocacora – Coca Cola

Ranchi – lunch

Toirretto – toilet

Channeru – channel

Piersu – earrings (from the word “pierced”)

Great, aren’t they? And no, before someone inevitably gets offended, this is not meant to make fun of Japanese people. Quite the opposite – I find it very endearing and quite cool how you can totally change an English word and still know what it means even without translation. A lot of these words are pronounced like that because there’s no letter “l” in the Japanese language. For the other words, they do have Japanese translations but the Japanese just prefer to use these versions. Let me know if you heard others that you liked.

Sweltering Hong Kong

By: Magda Walczak

I still haven’t been to mainland Asia but at least I’m getting closer. This time I had a chance to spend a week in Hong Kong with my lovely boyfriend Blake. For the first time ever, I didn’t do my usual research and prep for the trip. The extent of my planning was to post a Tweet asking for restaurant recommendations (Which, but the way, worked very well and I had some awesome food in Hong Kong – see my Michelin Stars post.). So when I got to Hong Kong, the whole thing was a big surprise.

First of all, it was so humid it was hard to breathe. I was expecting hot, but I was not expecting sweltering and so humid that my sunglasses fogged up the second I stepped outside. The next surprise was the haze, which I’m told is a combination of the weather and pollution. The combination of the haze and humidity meant that I never made it up to the hotel’s pool as my top priority was seeking air conditioning and totally avoid being outside. The weather snafu aside, I had a great time. If you get a chance to go to Hong Kong, here’s the stuff I did and my ratings of each.

Giant Buddha

buddhaI love seeing landmarks and in Hong Kong, this is probably the main one outside of the Hong Kong skyline itself. It’s about 30 minutes by train and another 20 minutes by very scary (at least to me) cable car ride away from the city centre. The Buddha measures 34 metres (110 ft) in height, and weighs 250 metric tonnes. Prior to 2008, it was the biggest Buddha in the world, but Thailand completed their Buddha in Phuket since then and have taken away that honour (or so Wikipedia tells me). I think the Buddha is definitely worth the trip. It’s beautiful and it’s huge, and just those two characteristics alone make it pretty cool. The bonus is the cable ride which is stunning on even a crappy day that we had and must be even more beautiful in the winter.

Jade market

The Jade Market is on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour and showcases dozens of independent jade vendors. There’s jade of any quality, size and budget. You should definitely haggle but you don’t have to do it too much because the prices are already reasonable for a Western tourist. I got some really pretty things there and would definitely recommend checking this out. You can get there easily by train, but if you take the ferry over, I’d walk up Nathan Road so you can do some shopping on the way.

Nathan road

Speaking of Nathan Road, it’s a good road for shopping. You can find good tailors, shopping malls, jewelry shops and lots of clothing shops. Sadly, I didn’t buy anything since my butt and feet are too big for Hong Kong sizes. Oh, well.

Ladies’ market

ladies market I wasn’t thrilled with this market. Everyone talks about it, but I guess I’ve seen similar before which is why I didn’t like it too much. It’s your standard Chinese style clothes, Hello Kitty everything, bad knock-off purses and lots of souvenirs. I would check it out if you had time to kill, but I would definitely not sweat over it if you don’t make it. Instead, I would spend my time shopping on Nathan road, or checking out the big souvenir store on top of Jordan station. The name escapes me now but it’s literally on the corner of Nathan Road and Jordan Road, just above the station. I got some beautiful pillow cases there and you can get gorgeous vases and stone and jade carvings. There’s also a full floor of tea vendors. Very cool and reasonable prices.

Bespoke suits

It seems like there are more tailors than 7elevens in Hong Kong, and that really says a lot seeing as there’s a 7eleven on every corner! If you’re a Western tourist, you will be bothered by the endless Indian tailors following you down the street, trying to sell you a crappy, cheap suit. They’re like flies. You really want to just whack them in the face after a while because just shooing them away doesn’t work. So do your best to ignore them and make your way to Punjab House and get yourself a fabulous suit. We ended up spending a lot of money with these guys are we’re extremely happy with their quality and service. So much so that when they come for their annual visit to Sydney, we’ll be sending all our friends to them.

Queen’s road

escalator This is supposed to be a cool shopping area on the Hong Kong Island side, home to the world’s longest escalator. It was fine to visit since I had some time, but it’s nothing amazing. There’s the giant escalator, which is actually a bunch of shorter sections connected together in steps. It was built to help transport lazy expats to and from work. It runs down towards the business district in the morning and up for the rest of the day. It crosses Queens Road, which is why I’m talking about it here. If you make it out to the escalator, check out the various side streets for a yummy lunch or shopping. There’s pretty much any kind of food available there.

Hollywood road

antiquesHollywood road is famous for antique shopping. There are the super high end antique shops with just a few pieces on display, as well as specialty shops (for vases or jade for example) and small mom-and-pop type shops, which I found the most endearing. Even the cheap shops are quite expensive so come with a lot of cash and an idea of how you’re going to bring your treasures home. I really enjoyed the window shopping but found some of the shopkeepers very pushy, which consequently totally turned me off from buying anything.

Macau

macauMy boyfriend Blake has never been to a circus so I thought it would be nice to take him to Cirque du Soleil so he can see the awesome acrobatics I was used to seeing at other Cirque du Soleil performances. Since there’s a permanent Cirque du Soleil theatre at the Venetian in Macau, we decided to make a day of it and take the ferry over. Even though both Hong Kong and Macau are under the protectorate of China, we still had to go through customs at the ferry terminal, which took a while so plan accordingly. The ferry ride took about 70 minutes. Transport to casinos was easy – cheap taxis or frequent, free shuttles. Macau is often compared to Las Vegas, but it’s not even close to it in reality. It’s just way too quiet and the casinos are too spread out. Anyways, we went there to see Cirque du Soleil, which sucked big time. I’m soooo disappointed. I’ve loved every other performance I’ve seen but this one was a big waste of time and money. Skip it. Skip the Venetian altogether. It’s so crowded it’s suffocating. To be honest, the only cool thing about our excursion to Macau was dinner, which I wrote about in another blog. The food wasn’t amazing, but the overall experience of dining at a 3 Michelin Star restaurant was pretty neat. The annoying part was that after dinner we had to be on the water for an hour and then another 30 minutes going through customs (again!). If you do go to Macau (and I don’t think you should), make it an overnight trip to save yourself some frustration.

Symphony of lights

skylineI don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t great. You should see it only because everyone who goes to Hong Kong does and it’s on every night so it’s hard to find an excuse why you wouldn’t see it. Just make sure you’re by the water so you can hear the music. The light show looks pretty silly if you don’t hear the music that goes with it. The best way to see Hong Kong’s lights is from AquaRoma. You can have a drink or full dinner and enjoy the gorgeous skyline 39 floors up. I highly recommend dinner there.

Dining

I refer you yet again to my food post for a few recommendations, including T’ang Court, which was super fabulous. Otherwise, food is pretty hit or miss. You can find some great cheap eats, but you’ll probably need a local for the best ones. Best tip I can give you is get on Twitter, post something like “anyone can recommend good food in Hong Kong?” and undoubtedly someone local will pick up your Tweet and reply to you with some great places to try.

Lan Kwai Fong

Last, but not least on my list is the famous nightlife area frequented by expats. We had some great food there at Indochine and I hear that many other places on that strip are quite yummy. What really cracked me up was that it seemed every white single girl was out there looking for guys. Or maybe they weren’t, but they looked like they were. I guess it’s THE place to pick up as well as to eat!

Enjoy your trip to Hong Kong! I know I did! One final tip – don’t leave your hotel without an umbrella. 7eleven sells them so you can buy a cheapo one so just get one. You won’t regret it.

Chef Hats, Michelin Stars, Wine points, oh my!

By: Magda Walczak

In the past month my boyfriend and I have spent a small fortune on fine dining due to a series of special occasions. What I’ve learned through this experience of spending money I really shouldn’t have spent is that critics are very inconsistent. The ones who score wines haven’t been completely axed from my book, but they’re getting darn close too.

Without further ado, here’s my recent culinary journey, in chronological order…

Becasse, French, Sydney

Awarded two hats by Sydney Morning Herald for 2007, 2008 and 2009, Becasse is often described as modern French with slick service and outstanding food. To be honest, I don’t even remember all the dishes we ordered, mainly because they were not spectacular, partly because I was a little drunk (it was my birthday!). Two things were memorable: 1) butter + cream are supposed to equal fine dining, and 2) the chef “really wanted me to enjoy the full journey of my veal… a bit too much. My veal first arrived at the table after our starters, at which point it was still wrapped in cloth and clay. The waiter brought it out to tease me with it… excuse me – to let me experience the journey of my meal. I then waited a good 30 minutes to actually eat the thing, by which point it was overcooked and without much flavour. My verdict: Much ado about nothing. Skip this one.

Vin Cellar, Modern Australian, Melbourne

No hats, no stars, just good food and damn good wine. This is one of my and Blake’s favourite restaurants. It’s a fancy wine shop by day and a restaurant by night. What’s best is that when you dine, you can purchase wines from their extensive wine list at retail prices. That’s how we were introduced to Gaja’s Sangiovese, still the best wine I’ve ever had. The menu here is not spectacular but it’s inventive enough to suit most foodies. None of their pork dishes or deserts have ever failed me. My favourite thing about Vin Cellar is their lounge. After you mains, you can relocate to the back of the restaurant to one of the leather lounges, and have your desert by the fireplace. Super cozy and romantic. Bring your girlfriend.

Cafe di Stasio, Italian, Melbourne

During Blake’s last weekend in Melbourne (before moving up to Sydney) we wanted to try some of the top restaurants, if only to compare what we’ve had in Sydney. Cafe di Stasio was first on our list because its reviews described it as cozy and personable. When we got there we found out those words simply meant that it was small. Oh, well. At two chef’s hats, Cafe di Stasio was a mixed bag. We started off with absolutely killer oysters with horseradish and Parmesan. Those were phenomenal! Best oysters I’ve ever had. Next we had some expensive but unimpressive carpacio, which was drizzled with truffle oil, and I guess that’s why the chef thought he could get away with it. For main we two of the saltiest dishes I can ever remember having: suckling pig and truffled eye fillet. It’s hard to say anything else about those two since salt was the predominant flavour. I’d probably go back here to give them a second chance, but I’m not recommending this place yet.

Bistro Guillaume, French, Melbourne

At two hats and having won best new restaurant, I was expecting a lot. Maybe that’s where I went wrong. While the service was superb (if not a bit arrogant, but then again it was a French restaurant), the food was average. We had braised oxtail and grilled duck breast for mains, both nice, but nothing to write home about. The side dishes of carrots with cumin and rosemary garlic roast potatoes were the stars of the meal, which is a bit sad. My chocolate fondant was superb, however, but not impressive enough for me to go back again.

AquaRoma, Italian, Hong Kong

AquaRoma is actually one half of a restaurant. The other half is called AquaTokyo and when dining there, customers can mix and match Italian and Japanese menus, which sounds a bit weird so we didn’t try it. The restaurant was recommended by a good friend who’s been in Hong Kong many times and said we should go there if only for the view of the famous Hong Kong Symphony of Lights. The meal was quite pleasant with the standouts being snapper carpacio (Oh my god this was AMAZING! Smooth, fresh fish dressed in a slightly tangy vinaigrette. Beautiful.) and squid ink canneloni. One thing that I would frustrating was that they charged AUD$10 for a glass of Coke. That’s a bit excessive, even for a nice restaurant. I’d definitely go back there again and recommend it to anyone going to Hong Kong on holiday.

Robuchon a Galera, French, Macau

This was the most expensive meal of my life. We were already in Hong Kong and this restaurant was rated as the best so we thought, why not? It has three Michelin stars, numerous wine awards (largest wine list in the world!) and endorsements from who’s who of Hong Kong. Oh my lord was this place pretentious! I’m talking antiques, gold plates, one waiter per person. The service staff were literally hovering around us just in case we needed anything. Personally, I found that quite stressful.

As far as the food, some was fabulous and some was downright awful. We started with a refreshing sangria served in a smoking glass. Sounds weird, I know. It’s hard to describe but it was an experience for all senses and it was lovely. Our starters – soft shell crab ravioli and lobster appetizer set – were the highlight of the meal and were perfect. For mains, we had truffled beef filet which was basically tasteless and oily, and duck breast with foie gras, which would have been fine if the meal was balanced differently. As it were, there was so much foie gras compared to the breast that I felt sick when eating it. We finished off with dark chocolate mouse with something similar to Pop Rocks on top, which tickles your mouth as you eat it, and a perfect strawberry sorbet. If you could ignore the texture of the sorbet, you’d swear you were eating fresh strawberries. I don’t regret that we want as it was quite a unique experience and the presentation of the food was as inventive and beautiful as you can get, but I think I’m done with French food for a while…

T’ang Court, Cantonese, Hong Kong

I have two words for you – suckling pig. My mouth waters just thinking about it. T’ang Court nearly restored my faith in star system (it’s just one lovely restaurant among several disappointments, though). The service was superb, the food aromatic, diverse and delicious and even the ambiance worked. We started off with individual baked crabs, then had sweat and sour lobster soup and for main we had their award winning salmon filet as well as the aforementioned PERFECT suckling pig and duck. There was no need for desert as this was the most satisfying meal we’ve had in a long time. I would go back here in a heartbeat and I think this is a must for anyone visiting Hong Kong.