A Warning about Internet Booking of Airline Tickets in Developing Countries

Booking airlines tickets for my recent trip to Singapore was a headache. Though everything worked out okay in the end, I was frustrated and stressed for a week as I repeatedly tried to book tickets listed as available on travel aggregator websites (e.g., kayak/sidestep, orbitz), only to find those flights were not priced as promised or didn't exist at all.

This is my tale. I wrote this a few weeks after the incident--after my blood stopped boiling. My memory may be wrong: I may be confusing airline names or the details of the situation. Regardless, this tale captures my sentiments.

When I began planning for my trip, there were many round-trip tickets available with one stop in each direction in the four hundred dollar range, and some non-stop round-trip tickets for six hundred and something dollars. Many of these flights were at absurd times (e.g., take-off before 8am, red-eyes); I knew I had some work cut out for me to sort through the flights and find decent ones.

China Eastern, for instance, had good flights to Singapore. Though the return flights left at uncomfortable times (7am), I eventually convinced myself this was the best I could get at a reasonable price (under six hundred, which was my target given these had stops), but when I tried to book the flight the aggregator websites said they did not exist and the China Eastern website itself listed the round-trip itinerary at eight hundred dollars.

I looked at more flights and spent a night thinking about my next best option.

My next try involved selecting a direct flight. The only round-trip direct flights were on Malaysia Airlines. The return flight left at a god-awful 6:45am, but it was the best of a bad lot of flight times for <$700. However, when I tried booking these flights, the aggregator said the flights were no longer available. Checking Malaysia Airlines' website, I couldn't find these 6:45am return flights listed. The only returns they had were red-eye flights leaving around midnight, even worse than an early-morning flight.

I looked at more flights and spent another night thinking about the next best option.

China Southern seemed to have okay flights listed by the aggregator websites. However, one couldn't book through the aggregator websites, but only through China Southern's website, and, as it turns out, the English interface to China Southern's website--meant for international travelers--only allowed booking of international flights to a particular set of Western airports (NY, Paris, etc.). I couldn't book the flights I wanted on the English website. In contrast, on the Chinese website--meant for Chinese citizens/flights originating in China--, I couldn't book tickets using an international credit card. Only cards issued within China are accepted.

More flights, more thinking.

Air China was the next airline I tried, and, as I recall, the aggregator websites refused to book the flights ("the fare you want is no longer available") and the Air China website itself priced the tickets several hundred dollars higher.

More flights, another night of thinking.

I tried a multiple-carrier itinerary, but again the fares were no longer available.

I tried another airline.

More thinking, more searching for flights.

It's important to note that by now five days have passed, yet all the prices and flights listed on travel search web sites were exactly the same as when I began searching for flights. The travel search results were packed with flights that when you attempted to book them, you'd find they no longer existed at that price or the flight didn't exist at all. I started internalizing a set of rules: for this airline, round-trips that involve flights that leave at this time are actually priced at this cost, three hundred dollars higher than listed; for this other airline, any non-redeye flight is erroneously listed at prices the same as the redeye flights on the same day, but they can't be booked at this price; for one airline, this particular flight does not exist; for yet another airline, all prices are wrong.

Eventually, I selected a multi-carrier itinerary that involved a direct flight to Singapore and a one-stop flight back to Shanghai. One travel aggregator would actually allow me to book the ticket at the price quoted (a bit under seven hundred). As is my habit, I tried to cut out the middleman and book the two one-way tickets directly on the two airlines' web sites. Naturally (as you should've expected by now), I couldn't book the two tickets together (despite the airlines being entirely unrelated) for anywhere near the price the aggregator was offering. I found this surprising, as I'd learned that the aggregators listed countless flights and prices the airlines wouldn't honor. Now I'd found a set of tickets the aggregator would allow but the airlines wouldn't provide directly. Nonetheless, after all this frustration hunting for a passable flight, I had finally found a reasonably plausible flight and I wasn't going to pass it up.

I booked the ticket with more than a little angst, wondering how it would be issued given that the airlines didn't seem like they would honor it for the given price. However, now that the trip is over, I can happily report that there were no unpleasant surprises at the airport.

What's the take-home message? Regardless of the final success of one aggregator, the horrors of the multiple attempted (and failed) bookings over the week make me say one shouldn't use travel aggregator websites when looking for / booking an itinerary on an airline based in a developing (i.e., non-web-savvy) country. Judging by this experience, the feeds given to travel aggregators by this class of airlines are just plain wrong.

Addendum: Later, I learned that english.ctrip.com is useful for travel in China and neighboring countries and doesn't have any of these problems. By mid-February 2010, I researched and booked tickets for three separate trips using ctrip, with none of the frustrations I previously had.

Singapore: Jan 2: Returning to Shanghai

Saturday was uneventful. We awoke before dawn, caught our pre-arranged taxi to the airport, and checked-in. I had a breakfast of kaya toast, remembering the kaya I had the last time I left Singapore. Security in Singapore's airport was in an unusual location -- it guarded the individual gate we were to use. I recall my previous flight out of Singapore had the same setup, though in that case I thought it was because the destination was the United States.

We needed two flights to get home, first a long flight to Beijing then a short one doubling back to Shanghai. This time we flew China Air. We enjoyed the long first leg. The seats were more spacious and comfortable than China Eastern (which brought us to Singapore). Our lunch was also acceptable.

From Beijing airport's windows, the landscape looked cold and frosty. A dusting of snow (or ice?) covered the ground. The mid-afternoon temperature was -5 C (23 F), quite a contrast to the 30 C (86 F) we experienced in Singapore. Happily, the airport was comfortable (actually probably warmer than Shanghai's), and the short train that took us between terminals was quite well heated. By the way, it was a good thing we made it through Beijing this day, as that evening they reported heavy snowfall that delayed and canceled flights.

The short flight to Shanghai wasn't as nice as our earlier flight this day or our flight to Singapore. The seats were still comfortable like our first flight. However, unlike how on those two flights we had a row of two to ourselves, on this flight we were in a full row of three. Furthermore, the dinner they served was so bad as to be inedible. Nevertheless, everything else was fine. Customs was easy. Our planes arrived and departed on time. Our baggage arrived safely (though Di Yin's was slightly damaged, but the airline reimbursed her a value that was actually more than the cost of the bag).

I knew I was back in Shanghai when, while waiting for our baggage, I hear someone loudly hawk a loogie. Because it was in the airport, he was kind enough to do it into the garbage, a courtesy not normally exercised outdoors.

Singapore: Jan 1: New Year's Day Party and Katong

On New Year's Day, we were obliged to stay at our host's place for a family reunion potluck lunch. Our host's/friend's parents have seven siblings each, so even though only one side of the family came to this reunion event (and not all of them from that side), it was still a crowded, lively party. All of our friend's relatives were friendly; we were made to feel very welcome, as if we belonged there. Our friend's father made his famous dish, a Portuguese stew called curry devil. Another relative made kueh kosui (the coconut rice cake dessert we previously tried and somewhat liked) (this one was a bit better) and even gave us instructions on how to make it for ourselves. There was also roasted ham, pasta salad, delicious fried prawns, and more.

Because of the party, we didn't make it out of the house until mid-afternoon. I had hoped to leave earlier because we had planned to explore the Katong/Joo Chiat neighborhood of Singapore this day, and I wanted enough time to make sure we could see it all. When we were finally heading out, one of the family members (who was also leaving around that time) realized he was already driving in the same direction and offered to give us a lift in his convertible. On the way to Katong, he showed us around Singapore, including driving past Dempsey Hill (military barracks converted to shops). Also, he owns a catering business and a couple restaurants, so he detoured to stop by the catering area to give us a brief tour. He also owns the restaurant where the prison officers eat. (This isn't near the prison but rather part of a complex reserved for recreational activities for the prison workers.) He brought us there too. Finally, we made it to Katong, where he drove us past the highlights before we convinced him that we actually wanted to walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for it and to see the sights without being hurried by other cars behind us.

Starting with this last segment (driving through Katong), I began to take pictures. Di Yin took many pictures this day, including some from the party and from our drive around Singapore. The link goes to the first picture from this day in her Singapore album (picture #272). When you see a picture of me shaking a container of milk (picture #331), you're done with her pictures from the trip. (She took that one after we got home.)

Once afoot in Katong along Joo Chiat, we explored the Joo Chiat complex mall, then walked down Joo Chiat. We found many pretty shophouses nearby. We also noticed most of the restaurants on one block of Joo Chiat Road are Vietnamese: interesting, as the Vietnamese population in Singapore is minuscule. Much the middle of Joo Chiat is comprised of bars.

Due to our late start, we had to call off our exploration of Katong for darkness when only a third done. As it turned out, Di Yin and I would get to finish exploring Katong on our next trip to Singapore. As we headed back to the main road to catch a bus, we spotted a lively street west of Geylang Serai, including a supermarket, a hawker center with some 24 hour stands, and, in general, lots of people. We'd spend more time in here in Katong on our next trip to Singapore.

For dinner, we returned to Food Republic on Orchard Road, where we also ate on Monday night (Dec 28).

Singapore: Dec 31: Botanic Gardens, Singapore Flyer, Sentosa, and the Quays

These pictures, though not extensive, represent everything I did during this day, New Years Eve 2009-2010. Di Yin took many more pictures, and her pictures are more fun, prettier, and even better quality than usual, and also include more pictures of yours truly than usual. The link goes to the first picture from this day in her Singapore album (picture #185). When you hit a picture of a "backyard garden" (#272), you're done with the pictures for the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

Due to my activities the previous day (much walking in the sun, a late night), I needed lots of sleep so we had a late start this day. Eventually, we made it down to the Clementi town center / hawker centre for a late breakfast, finishing at noon, then boarded a bus to the Botanic Gardens. I'd previously explored part of them, so today I used my re-visit (with Di Yin) to see the rest.

On this visit, we walked through the marsh garden (ick), by the swan lake, through the ginger garden (which I've previously visited), along palm valley, through the rainforest section, by the bandstand, and through the fern garden. Our route took 1.5 hours. It was a nice (though hot) stroll; sorry, I didn't take many pictures.

From the Botanic Gardens, we took a bus down Orchard Road to City Hall, then walked underground most of the way to the Singapore Flyer. Along the way we stopped for a late lunch at a food court in Marina Square Mall. The Singapore Flyer is the world's largest ferris/observation wheel. Each pod holds 28 people, sitting and standing with room to walk around, and goes more than 500 feet high. The Flyer ride was alright. The view straight down was precarious, but it didn't feel as high as it actually was. The free audio guide was acceptable to tourists, pointing out all the obvious sights.

When we left the Flyer (after 5pm), we began to see the New Years Eve holiday crowds out and about. We walked to the metro station, and rode the metro to the monorail to Sentosa, a resort island minutes from Singapore city centre. We made it just in time to go in the water before the guards closed the beaches due to darkness. The ocean water, though up to international cleanliness standards, made me nervous due to the many industrial ships we could see parked offshore.

Leaving Sentosa, we passed many people coming, likely for a large exclusive beach party and for an elaborate sound and water show that we caught glimpses of (see the movies I took).

A monorail, a confusing mall, and two subway rides later, we were strolling down the lively waterfront promenade that is Boat Quay. Though with beautiful views and dense with restaurants, I forgot how pushy its restaurateurs are. After dinner, we continued down Boat Quay, crossed the river, and went through Clark Quay. Despite how lovely the river views were and how pleasant the temperature (a nice change for Singapore), we found the density of the crowds and activities (even a costumed parade) overwhelming. We crossed the river again near the other end of Clark Quay, and headed back to a subway station. A subway ride and a transfer later, we found ourselves headed home at 10:45pm in a subway car full of other psychologically old fogies. We stopped by our metro station's late-night hawker centre for some more food--we didn't order enough at dinner--and were home a bit after midnight. (Yes, 2010 started on our walk home.) We decided the temperature in which we walked home was perfect.

Singapore: Dec 30: Jurong Bird Park, and more

On Wednesday, both Di Yin and our friend were occupied. (Di Yin was meeting a friend I didn't know.) Thus, I had most of the day to myself. I mainly spent it at the Jurong Bird Park, where I took a ton of pictures and videos. There was a long line (with lots of kids) for tickets, probably because school was out for the holidays. The park was impressively extensive; I can believe it's the world's largest bird park. The pictures document it well. After nearly four hours I'd had enough and seen pretty much everything, so I left.

Although I took a taxi to the bird park (because it was close to the place we were staying and public transit would simply be too complicated to be worthwhile given the distance), I took a bus when I left. The bus took me to the Boon Lay metro station, where I spent a while wandering around the large mall (or malls?) and the outside storefronts nearby (protected from the sun by covered pedestrian walkways). I found a few separate food areas and bought a number of things, as lunch didn't fill me up in the least, and, on top of that, I was rather thirsty because I didn't drink anything at lunch. I found the food court within the mall rather impressive, covering a range of cuisines (various chinese regions, including Shanghai, to korean, indonesian, thai, hot pot, wonton soups, claypot specialists, western, and more). Incidentally, I later learned the Boon Lay Bus Interchange reopened after renovation the previous Sunday; I'm not sure what part of what I saw was new.

With a bit more time to kill, I took the metro to my company's offices to hang out and also print some things. Then, I left to meet up with Di Yin and our friend, and we taxied across the island to East Coast Park to meet some of our friend's friends. Di Yin took a few pictures. The link goes to her first picture from this day after I met up with her (picture #179). When you hit a picture of people looking through plastic bins of fish (#184), you're done with the pictures for the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

In East Coast Park, we walked a bit along the shore, passing the twinkling lights of countless large cargo ships, a reservoir for waterskiing, and lots of restaurants whose names I recognized as being good, before finally reaching the East Coast Lagoon Food Village (hawker centre). There we found the friends we were seeking. Our host and her friend caught up. Listening to the conversation over our tasty dinner, I learned about Singapore military service in Australia (brush fires, racial violence), areas of prostitution in Singapore, Singaporean fickleness in terms of what clubs/hangouts are cool, and the government's social development program (getting people of similar backgrounds to meet and marry / social engineering / caste encouragement), among other things. Interestingly, I found all of our host's friends reflected a great desire to pursue success (often measured on financial terms), perhaps illuminating a feature of Singaporean culture.

Oh, and it's neat the hawker centre we ate at stays open until midnight. (This is uncommon.)

Singapore: Dec 29: Bugis and Arab Quarter

We spent most of Tuesday in the Arab Quarter (Kampong Glam). These pictures briefly document pieces of the day. Di Yin also took some pictures. The link goes to the first picture from this day in her Singapore album (picture #114). When you hit a picture of "K.J. and Lisa at dinner" (#142), you're done with the pictures for the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

Again, Di Yin, I, and our friend ventured out. First, though, we stopped for breakfast at the Clementi hawker (food) centre, near the MRT (metro) stop near our friend's place. When we stopped by briefly the day before, I saw only ten stalls. Today, I saw its real extent, which is an order of magnitude larger, plus an adjacent green market.

Once downtown, we explored Bugis Junction (a mall) and Bugis Street (a series of long, narrow covered shopping streets). Di Yin was as little impressed with these as me on my first visit (and on this visit). We then walked to the Arab Quarter, where we wandered through many dress and fabric shops and she looked for textiles and gifts for friends and family. We stopped for lunch at a Malaysian place, then returned to Clementi.

Finally, we returned to our friend's place to change for dinner with another friend (a friend I also visited on my previous trip to Singapore). We took a taxi to his place near Clark Quay and had dinner with him and his family.

Singapore: Dec 28: Misc Downtown and Orchard Road

I took these pictures this day. Di Yin, as usual, took more. The link goes to the first picture from this day in her Singapore album (picture #13). When you hit a picture of "Clementi hawker center soy milk" (#114), you're done with the pictures for the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

Our first full day in Singapore was warm and comfortable. Di Yin, I, and our friend ventured downtown. First we stopped by my company's offices; I wanted to pick up my new cell phone, which I tried to have delivered there. Sadly, it hadn't arrived. Regardless, we discovered the office is on the 38th floor of an office tower in a good location. My company occupies most of the floor so we got to see tremendous views in most directions. Even our local friend was impressed and took pictures. Also, the office's micro-kitchen has good snacks.

Next we hit up nearby Maxwell's Hawker Centre for lunch. Some stalls (sliced fish soup, rice porridge, chicken rice) had long lines. I think it's funny to see twenty people lined up at some stalls and none at others. Later, however, as this scene is common in Singapore, I ceased being surprised by it. I began considering it normal.

After lunch, I showed Di Yin and her friend the models in the Urban Redevelopment Authority's centre that impressed me on my last visit to Singapore (old pics). Illustrated by huge models, the centre explores how Singapore plans its development. It was as great as I remembered.

Di Yin's friend had other obligations, so she left us at this point. Di Yin and I walked across the street to the Red Dot Design Museum. It's a fairly neat museum showcasing well-designed products ranging from Japanese toilets, computer mice, chairs, and watches to humidors and all-carbon ping-pong paddles. I liked the Tupperware exhibit. Heck, I never knew there was a guy named Tupper.

Di Yin wanted to see Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping street, so there we went after the museum. It was as I remembered: lots of malls and lots of trees (enough to make Di Yin sneezy). Many of these malls extend deep underground, sometimes four-levels deep. These underground passages (with stores of course) connect malls to each other and to the metro system. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was later told that some of the malls I walked through/past were new since my last visit. (It was hard to tell which ones, as everything looks new and modern!)

A few malls had tall outdoor escalators, escalators that scaled multiple stories at once. We saw one series of escalators that went extraordinarily high -- we had to take them. Soon we were seven stories up yet still in the open air. A couple escalators later and we were eleven (?) stories high, though now separated from the street and the air by a glass wall. Looking down was scary! Also, I'm amazed one can build escalators outdoors, which requires them to be weather resistant.

We walked down Orchard Road. I detoured to show Di Yin Emerald Hill's old shophouses. We also stopped in one mall to browse a large bookstore, Kinokuniya, and found it surprisingly expensive (US$40 for a hardcover). We later found a Borders which confirmed that these high prices were the going rate. In all, we walked the length of Orchard Road, passing a Prada shop, countless versions of Armani shops, and three Marks & Spencers!

Walking outside, Orchard Road is pretty and leafy during the daytime but, with all its lighted decorations, it's stunning at night.

We ate a snack in the 11-story tall escalator mall, dinner in a hawker food court (Food Republic)--here we rode a four-story escalator to its entrance--in Wisma Atria (another mall on Orchard Road), and post-dinner snacks in other Orchard Road malls.

After Orchard Road, we took the metro back to Clementi and had a long, balmy walk home.

Singapore: Dec 27: Getting to Singapore

The Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2009, we awoke at dawn to begin our trip to Singapore. Because of Singapore's equatorial climate, we didn't pack heavy coats or gloves. Consequently, I worried we'd be freezing to death while looking for a taxi in the morning in Shanghai. I needn't have been; it wasn't unpleasantly cold. (While walking outside that morning, I even decided we should be waking up and doing stuff earlier in the mornings in Shanghai. The temperature wasn't bad.) And, besides, we found a taxi amazingly quickly. A short ride later, we boarded the long-distance bus that brought us to the airport, and, from there, check-in, customs, and security were a breeze. We had tons of time to wander the terminal; the best store was one selling stuffed-animal pandas. See the picture.

We landed and headed to our friend's place where we'd be staying the whole week. Though I didn't photograph it, the house is clearly a rich place, ornately decorated. It has a study, a koi pond, workout equipment, Persian carpets, pendulum clocks, and, as we discovered another day, bats that visit in the evening. They fly in the open windows, circle several times, and leave.

After a bit of confusion regarding meeting/not-meeting at the airport, we finally found our friend/host and headed out for dinner. We stopped for dinner by the small part of the Clementi hawker centre--a hawker near our friend's place--adjacent to the bus stop (we'd explore the rest of the centre another day), walked through the small nearby mall, then headed to Little India to meet a friend of Di Yin's. We met at Mustafa, a crazy huge 24-hour department store. It sells everything! After Mustafa, we stopped for a snack at a South Indian joint nearby.

Sorry I wasn't yet in a picture taking mood this day. Di Yin, on the other hand, was. She took some. That link goes to the first picture in the album; when you see a picture of me having just woken up (picture #12), you've reached the next day's pictures. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

Singapore Overview

I spent Sunday, December 27, 2009, through Saturday, January 2, 2010, in Singapore. Nominally, Di Yin and I were there to cheer up a friend going through relationship troubles. Really, I was happy to use any excuse possible to return to one of my favorite cities.

I'm happy to report that I liked Singapore as much on my second visit as on my first. I took the opportunity to visit a few sights I missed last time, tried some dishes I didn't get the opportunity to eat last time (darn limited number of meals in a day!) and enjoyed the food and eating at hawker centres in general, and exploited the freshly squeezed / freshly blended juices much more than on my first visit. I will certainly miss these ever-present refreshing juices when I'm back in Shanghai.

The rest of this entry reports a motley assortment of my observations from this trip to Singapore.

Singapore is warm, comfortably so at times. Within in a few days, I forgot what it was like being cold.

It's also a green city: lots of grass and trees. Furthermore, in contrast to Shanghai, though Singapore also has construction, it has no dust issue at all. I have a theory that it's the vegetation that keeps down the dust. Oddly, I can't remember hearing construction noise in Singapore either; maybe it's heavily regulated to be quiet?

The government creates incentives / uses capitalism to achieve its policies. The most interesting two such goals I learned about on this trip are that the government provides money to people who have kids when they're young (i.e., encourages people to become parents early in life) and that the government requires people to be married to live in most public housing complexes (i.e., encourages people to get married). (Note: the vast majority of the population lives in publicly built housing complexes.)

It's also a capitalism/shopping-intensive city. During this trip, at some point I noticed how many ATMs there are. Once I started paying attention I realized: they're everywhere! Nevertheless, they often have lines.

Staying with a friend a wee bit away from city centre, I got to see more of Singapore's suburban architecture than I'd previously seen. Many apartment complexes are raised on pillars. When walking from place to place, one can walk under the buildings (i.e., through these shelters), enjoying the shade and an unobstructed breeze. Also, I recall that, at least in Britain, ground floor apartments are considered less desirable. With this Singaporean design, no one has to live at ground level. In addition, many buildings are connected by covered walkways, saving everyone from having to walk in the sun. In many areas, one can walk a long way in the shade using these ground floor areas and covered walkways. Obviously, this isn't true downtown, but the design isn't needed there because indoor air-conditioned malls connect buildings.

The rest of my impressions of Singpoare (as expressed in my original blog post, linked above) still hold.

One other observation of Singapore: the naming of streets is logical. When we arrived on Sunday, we headed straight for our friend's place on Sunset Vale. Sunset Vale is near Sunset Avenue, Sunset Drive, Sunset Road, Sunset Lane, ... Every street in the country/city with Sunset in the name is in the same neighborhood (except one: a mistake), making it easy to give rough directions. Other neighborhoods in Singapore have the same property: Commonwealth, Springleaf, West Coast, Pasir Ris, Telok Blangah, Choa Chu Kang, and many more.

Incidentally, in the process of preparing for this trip to Singapore, I sought out high-quality government-published walking tour booklets. (On my last visit, I used and enjoyed various publications by the Singapore Tourism Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.) Though I had trouble finding physical copies at the tourist information desk, I found them online: one large booklet briefly covering many neighborhoods in Singapore and many walking tour guides for some of these neighborhoods. Though I only ended up doing part of one walking tour this trip, I'm posting these links here because they're hard to find on the web and may be helpful for other visitors to Singapore.

Interesting Articles: Q4 2009

I'm sorry to offer only a small selection of interesting articles this quarter, and a bit disappointed to notice they all come from the same source.

* Online and Isolated? (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). New research suggests internet use doesn't increase social isolation.
* TV's Unlikely Ally (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). A little-publicized story about how a new technology the television industry once decried--the DVR--has turned out to help it. Makes one think about, say, the newspaper industry and the web.
* News Ex Machina (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). A portrait of a large company that generates content at low cost and tries to get the content to rank highly on search engines in order to run automatically-targeted internet ads against it. This is a side of the search engine / online advertising market that I never previously had seen reported on.

Shanghai Expat: December 2009

Getting Settled
In December, we got more comfortable in our apartment as Di Yin acquired handy household items.

We got two pretty white furry sheep-fur on sheep-skin mats that we used as seat cushions. Sitting on a chair with one of these was much warmer than sitting on an uncovered chair. Also, I simply liked the luxurious, sensuous feeling of sticking my fingers in the fur and feeling its softness. However, I still feel a bit unsettled when I look at the outline of the sheep-skin and can see where the sheep's legs attached to its body. It does remind one that an animal died to give us these seat pads.

I couldn't imagine a sheep having thicker, fluffier, or softer fur than those examples... -- that is, until Di Yin returned one day with an even larger, thicker, brown fur sheep-skin mat. The fur was so thick it could swallow your hand. We used it to warm the foot of our bed then, later, as a cover/cushion on the couch.

The largest single improvement to our happiness in the apartment, however, was a mattress. Our bed, as you may recall, didn't have one. Rather than ordering a Chinese mattress (which is typically hard), we ordered a "mattress topper" which was six inches thick and made of latex foam. It's nice. You wouldn't believe our smiles when we lay on it for the first time.

The additional, big, warm blankets Di Yin acquired at various times also made the bed more comfortable. (For a while we were trying to keep warm on a queen-size bed under blankets meant for a double-size bed, which didn't quite work.)

The second largest improvement was the rearranging we did after Di Yin's mom left, in particular stealing the couch from her former room and moving it into the office cum entertainment room (complete with large iMac screen). The couch, more comfortable than it appeared, was a good size both for lying down and for sitting at with a laptop. Later in the process, we moved the desk into the bedroom so it could get lots of light during the day--the office only had a small window and didn't receive much light anyway--but left the iMac behind so the (now ex-)office was truly purely an entertainment room. Now we have an entertainment room with a nice couch and a bedroom/office. Working in the bedroom (now with a desk) during the daytime (especially in the morning!) is great! It positively glows, and the light heats it a bit too.

Di Yin also made herself happy by buying many other households goods: three tablecloths, extra sheets (handy when one set is hung up to dry (we have no drier)), another set of extra sheets (okay...), an extra quilt, new natural-light light bulbs, eight (!) new pillowcases, etc.

I started taking more pictures this month, including many that show scenes from my daily life in Shanghai, and others from various dinner outings (when I remembered my camera) as well as my company's holiday party. The dinner outings ones accompany parts of the narrative in the "food outings" sections below.

Now is also an appropriate time to link to Di Yin's pictures from our stay in Shanghai. After all, my pictures this month cover pictures from our neighborhood and our everyday life in Shanghai. This album of her pictures from Shanghai generally has the same theme (even though not all of her pictures were taken this month). My pictures (for a change) provide more extensive documentation of the Shanghai experience than hers.

I got to celebrate Hannukah! One of my co-workers, an American expat who, though not Jewish, grew up celebrating Hannukah, organized a Hannukah-themed TGIF. We tried to teach our Chinese co-workers a bit about Hannukah. We gave a little background, lit a menorah (I did it), and said prayers in English (me) and Hebrew (an Israeli who's a friend of a co-worker). We ordered latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts, a tradition neither of us American jews had seen before). (Yes, I'm amazed there's a place in Shanghai that caters this stuff.) We even had gelt and dreidels. My co-worker who planned everything--I was sick--wrote up the rules for dreidel in two forms, first regular English and then, realizing who the audience would likely be, in computer code (python-y pseudo-code). The latter went over very well. :) At one point, we had four tables of dreidel games going at once.

This is more than I've usually done for Hannukah in the states in recent years.

Digression: around Christmas, co-workers often asked me what I was doing to celebrate. (By the way, neither Christmas Eve nor Christmas Day are holidays in China.) I gradually learned they didn't want a long explanation about being Jewish and celebrating Hannukah a few weeks before; rather, they simply wanted to wish someone a merry Christmas and find out what westerners do on the holiday, whether spend it with friends or family, and go out or stay in or travel.

Holiday Party
My company's Shanghai's holiday party was on the Monday (!) before Christmas. A Vegas-themed party, most men wore suits and women wore risque dresses. There was gambling--men crowded around blackjack, roulette, etc. tables--and even a cabaret show. For money, we used paper printed with faces of the company's founders, the CEO, and the Shanghai office director. Each represented a different denomination. The food was good and also varied: a nice mix of Chinese (e.g., dumplings) and Western (e.g., pasta, pizza, ceviche) and desserts (e.g. blueberry custard tart, truffles, lots of melons). But perhaps the best feature--that is, besides meeting some expats in the office (people who speak English, yay!) and getting along well with them--was the setting. Held on the 65th floor of a fancy hotel (Le Royal Meridien) by People's Square, the views in all directions of Shanghai's skyline were stunning. I took a ton of pictures. I'm amazed I somehow missed seeing during my trip in June the expansive bright beauty of Shanghai's skyline at night. I was also planning to take some pictures inside of the party but forgot. (Di Yin says it was perhaps good I forgot, as some of the clothing was lascivious, maybe even a tad bit raunchy.)

Fun Stories / Oddities
One weekend morning, walking by the school at the end of our block, I was overcome with music, and not just any music. Every little kid had his or her own accordion! Heh. Accordions in China. Each was doing his or her own thing with it.

Everyone in Shanghai wears slippers in their house and keeps extra pairs around for guests. During the summer, I thought this was simply to prevent the ever-present dust and dirt from making its way into one's home. (If you take your shoes off before entering someone's house, you're less able to track dirt in.) This winter, however, I realized another feature of the slippers: warmth. Even though they're mostly open-topped (and so don't retain heat), I found myself wearing slippers at home more often than the flip-flops I brought: the flip-flops have a thinner sole; the slippers kept my feet farther from the floor and therefore warmer.

One weekend morning I ventured out (as usual) to our local fry-bread stand for breakfast. On our block, there's a large vacant lot undergoing construction. Judging from the size of the pit and foundation, they're building something tall. Anyway, as I passed it, I noticed a cement truck doing its thing. Then, at the end of the block, I found a line of more than half a dozen additional cement trucks, idling, waiting their turn to go down the one lane street to drops their loads. As I walked by I tried not to breathe because the smell of exhaust was so strong. While I thought this was an absurd sight, I was even more surprised to walk by in the afternoon and see another cement truck waiting, and see three more lined up when I passed yet again in the evening.

You'll notice I decided to write down addresses of restaurants when the name doesn't mean anything in Chinese (i.e., couldn't be semantically translated into English) and there is no authoritative way to romanize/transliterate it. (Sure, I could do my best to convert it to pinyin and figure out proper spacing, but I don't think my romanization would be useful if no one else writes the restaurant name in roman characters.)

Random Observations
Amusements: the woman with the megaphone who drives down the alleys and the roads around 8pm reminding everyone to shut off the gas in their kitchen.

Yes, many people smoke. Nearly everywhere (except subways).

Most buses and elevator cars and some subway cars have televisions. Usually these play advertisements.

Food & Sightseeing Outings
The rest of this post is devoted to food outings, some of which also involve sightseeing or other entertaining stories.

Food Stories: Goji Berry Shoots
One evening that Di Yin's mom made dinner--she always makes too much / too many dishes, but who can complain when they're all good--, she made a vegetable dish from goji berry shoots. Neat! They're very thin leafy green stalks, much like kang kung or slightly-stiffer-than-usual pea sprouts, and are ever so slightly bitter in flavor, in the same manner as bitter greens (though not as assertive).

Food Stories: Ruby's Cake
In November, Di Yin and I spotted a bakery, Ruby's (sp?), on Urumqi Road with a crowd inside and tons of identical white cakes in the windows. We looked it up online and discovered the place is crazy popular. One day this month we managed to get some pieces before they sold out, which, despite the amount they bake, happens well before they close at 8pm. The cake was good, with not-dry white cake-flour cake and a light whipped-cream-like frosting: a much airier cake than most.

Food Outing: Bo Do One Hong Kong
One day for lunch I returned to Bo Do One and tried the fried pork and cucumber dish that looked so good last time. In fact, it tasted every bit as good as it looked: delicious! Thin, succulent slices of pork tossed with cucumber (and a couple of other peppers) and flavored with XO sauce, which I'm never sure what it is but it sure worked well here. I should return to eat it again.

Food Outing: Jing'an Temple (Banana Leaf Curry House)
For dinner the following day, we trekked to the Jing'an Temple area for dinner, planning to eat in the food court in the neighboring fancy Japanese mall. The food court is filled with a disproportionate number of ramen joints, an udon joint, a Japanese curry house, a very Chinese-style Thai restaurant, an American restaurant, and assorted others. We ended up getting some take-out sushi which was surprisingly fresh from the attached supermarket and eating it along with dinner in a Singaporean-style restaurant: Banana Leaf Curry House. Good sauteed kang kong (a green vegetable like pea shoots), decent, potent char kway teow (powerfully spiced fried noodles), and a refreshing watermelon juice. The latter was good enough that I decided to order another juice, but the pineapple juice I got was so syrupy and sweet that I couldn't take more than a sip.

Food Outing: How Way
As I've mentioned before, Di Yin's mom spent the last month in China, much of it in Shanghai staying in the other bedroom in our apartment. In return for the many good dinners she'd cooked us at home and just as a natural show of affection, we took her to dinner on her penultimate evening in town. For this event, we elected to return to How Way Restaurant. It was a good choice -- probably the best (non-dumpling) dinner we've had outside the apartment since coming to Shanghai. I've put details on the meal elsewhere.

Food Outing: Jing'an Temple (ramen shop)
After Hannukah TGIF (see above), I met Di Yin for dinner at the Japanese mall by Jing'an Temple. It was more decorated than last time, with more Christmas trees and flashing lights in addition to the tall one we saw last time. Again, I wish I had my camera but I keep forgetting to carry it with me. :( (Note: I'm happy to report I brought my camera with me on one of my visits to the area a few weeks later (actually on Christmas Day).)

For dinner we selected one of the Japanese noodles shops in the mall's basement. It serves many varieties of ramen, each modeled after the style of ramen made in a particular city in Japan. How cool! Di Yin seemed pleased with her bowl. I had a very good dish of thick udon noodles tossed with kimchi and sliced pork and onions and served sizzling in oil on a cast iron skillet. Delicious, especially the bits I got to last that ended up crispy from being stuck to the hot metal for so long.

Outing: West Nanjing Road (sights, plus Pho 26, Krispy Kreme)
The following Sunday evening, we took a taxi to West Nanjing Road and in particular its eponymous subway station. There, we walked part of the Wujian Road pedestrian street. It's a ritzy, snazzy, pretty street, filled with foreign eateries and high-end shops. Neon lights that change color are embedded in the sidewalk. Again, I wish I brought my camera. For dinner, Di Yin had selected Pho 26, supposedly one of the best pho places in the city. Indeed, it was good. Her pho had a rich, meaty, tasty broth, along with meat, noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, green onions, lemongrass, and more. It was definitely one of the best phos I've had. The broth was so flavorful (from beef fat I think) that it reminded me more of ramen than most past phos. My dish, in contrast, was merely okay: a bulky mass of vermicelli noodles drizzled with a sweet vinegar-based sauce and tossed with peanuts, roasted garlic, basil, shredded carrots, slivered cucumbers, and more, and topped with slices of a grilled pork chop, appealingly sweetened. The restaurant's space was stylish and comfortable, definitely a high-class restaurant. (Don't think cheap pho joints as in the states.)

Pho 26 apparently was established in 1926. Maybe that's why they know what they're doing in terms of pho. I only wish all those numbered pho joints in the states had so much history / know so much.

Along the street is a major British department store, Marks & Spencer. We walked around it for a while, looking at clothes and foodstuffs but mostly enjoying the Western atmosphere (quiet, no salespeople hassling, items nicely arranged, clear labels, lots of English, etc.). After M&S, we stopped by the Krispy Kreme that was to open in a few days. The first Krispy Kreme in Shanghai, in a pre-opening promotion, they were giving away boxes of donuts in exchange for names and phone numbers. I took a box. :)

The taxi home drove along Nanjing Road, said to be Shanghai's main shopping street. Having not walked down this road this trip (if ever), it's remarkable, reminding me as we passed mall after mall and brightly lit storefront after brightly lit storefront how Shanghai is a truly modern city in places.

Food Outing: Xintiandi (Pizza Marzano)
One Tuesday, I had dinner with B, my only friend in Shanghai (besides Di Yin and the people I know at work). We ate at Pizza Marzano in an expensive, renovated area (Xintiandi) where wealthy people like to eat and shop. I got a fairly good thin-crust (Neapolitan) pizza (marzano pizza: sausage and red onions) of the quality that an Italian restaurant in San Francisco might produce. I was pleased to discover I can get decent Western food in Shanghai (at Western prices: US$14 for a personal-sized pizza). I also had nice garlic cheese bread, and a beer.

It was nice seeing my friend, both to connect to a familiar face and because, as a long-time Shanghai resident, he can give me eating tips for more good restaurants of a type I wouldn't expect to find.

Outing: Xujiahui (sights, Pankoo Korean, ice cream)
One Friday, to celebrate our good health, we ventured out to dinner. We selected an instance of a chain of Korean restaurants, Pankoo, that allegedly serve the best Korean in Shanghai. The location we selected is in a mall (Grand Gateway Plaza / Ganghui Guangchang) in Xujiahui, Shanghai's most expansive shopping district, a twenty or twenty-five minute walk from our apartment. The large and modern mall has two floors devoted to restaurants, and these are good ones, not like typical American mall food courts. The food at Pankoo was decent; details are in the pictures.

After dinner we strolled through the mall, then stopped for dessert first at Cold Stone Creamery (very stretchy ice cream) (we had banana) then at Haagen-Dazs (definitely better quality) (I had cookies and cream). Interestingly, throughout Shanghai, Cold Stones and Haagen-Dazs always seem to be co-located at high-end malls.

Haagen-Dazs did the most remarkable thing when we bought a pint of ice cream to bring home. (Di Yin really likes the green tea flavor.) (Incidentally, ice cream is expensive in Shanghai; the pint was about US$12.) Well, when we bought the pint, the staff-person asked us how far away we lived and used that to decide how much ice to put in the bag with the ice cream to keep it cold on the way home.

Fifteen minutes later, I found the whole question of quantity of ice ironic. As we walked home in 0 degrees C weather (I put it that way because it sounds colder than saying freezing), I wasn't worried in the least about the ice cream melting; I was more worried about keeping feeling in my fingers.

Food Outing: Yanagiya
Another evening, we went to a Japanese restaurant near our local subway station. It was casual, had good food, and also had great service. The details are in the pictures. We felt comfortable there and liked it enough that we might meet there when I'm on my way home from work.

Food Outing: Japanese BBQ
On Christmas Eve, Di Yin and I met a friend of mine, B, and his girlfriend, K, for dinner at a Japanese barbecue joint. (The name doesn't translate; the address is 2007 West Nanjing Road.) Dinner was great fun: for a reasonable price we had all-we-can-eat meat, which we grilled ourselves over charcoal, sashimi, drinks (yes, alcohol), and more. We ate a lot of meat (various cuts of short ribs, ox tongue), broiled eel (they cooked this for us), assorted sashimi plate (arctic clam, tuna, octopus, sweet shrimp, ...), multiple plates of salmon sashimi, two plates of raw beef and egg sashimi, and many plates of very good salad. There were also a bunch of dipping sauces for the meat; we ignored them all except for the sweet ginger one for some of the meats and the soy sauce for some of the sashimi. We also had unlimited sake and, in my case, lots of very good plum wine. It was a fun evening, drinking and trading stories about Shanghai, food, and how we all met.

After dinner, Di Yin and I walked home because, at 50 degrees, it was an unusually warm evening. We had a pleasant thirty minute stroll.

Food Outing: Another Japanese BBQ, plus Charmant
On the evening of Christmas Day, Di Yin and I met up for dinner with two ex-Harvard grad students, D and S, (both in a similar field as Di Yin, now faculty members elsewhere) who happened to be in Shanghai for two weeks doing research. We ate at a restaurant (in our own private room!) (at 768 Julu) that again called itself Japanese-style barbecue, though this time turned out to also have a mix a substantial Korean influence, as exemplified by the kimchi and the rice-and-vegetable dish we had at the end of the meal. D and S are interesting people, and our dinner lasted nearly three hours without it feeling that long. For details, see the pictures.

After dinner, we took a taxi to Charmant. Though a restaurant, we were there for its extensive dessert menu, and, though the menu was lengthy, we didn't look at it much, instead simply ordering the specialty: chua bing, a Taiwanese shaved ice dessert topped with red bean, azuki beans, pineapple, grass jelly, and some kind of berry, and drizzled with condensed milk. It was good. The restaurant's located close to home (I pass a block and a half away from it on the way to the subway everyday); I may have to return for real food. (The restaurant has an extensive menu that looks good and emphasizes the quality of its ingredients and the lack of MSG.)

Food Outing: Lost Heaven Yunnanese
The following evening, the 26th, our last evening in Shanghai before our trip to Singapore, we ventured out again for dinner. We went to a Yunnanese restaurant, Lost Heaven, that I've wanted to go since doing my restaurant research for my first trip to Shanghai. Funnily (and unintentionally), it happens to be surprisingly close to our apartment. We liked the restaurant. It clearly targets westerners: it has a non-smoking section; everything on the menu is translated; even the hip music has lyrics in English. We also liked the food, and got too into the sauces/garnishes and ate too much of them, even to the point of eating them straight. This was a mistake, as they had a goodly amount of oil and we felt a little ill afterward. More details are in the pictures.

Incidentally, though the restaurant is only about three blocks from our apartment, as we walked there, I spotted a small park I'd never passed before. Too bad it's too cold to enjoy sitting in a park.