Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bolivia for a Brief Moment.

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia July 2011.  

Untitled Untitled        Untitled

This was a really quick but nerve wracking adventure that happened at the last minute on our tour to Peru and Machu Picchu. Everyone else was going to continue to tour Peru for the next 2 weeks, while I had only 4 and a half days before returning to Lima for a day and then home. When we were wandering around Cusco one afternoon, I spotted a tour operator that offered short trips to Bolivia for a reasonable price. There are many many competing tour operators in the Cusco area; it seems as if the entire town's economy was redesigned to support tourists.

Extreme Fun Pub in Uyuni

While it might seem strange to want to visit Bolivia for only 4 days, and not stick around Cusco, Peru, it actually made a lot of sense to me. I was curious about Bolivia, the one country which has strained relations with the USA, a relatively closed economy and apparently the lowest living standard in all of Latin America. How did it contrast with Peru? What were the differences? Were they apparent on the surface as Bloomberg economists report?

Uyuni Sal Flats, Bolivia

These were all the questions I had in mind, as well as a strong desire to see the Uyuni Salt Flats which take the most amazing photos. 

I flew from Cusco to La Paz on a short flight. Then I was transferred to a bus that drove to Uyuni overnight. This bus was terribly cold and bumpy. There were few shock absorbers and no heating so, even though we had blankets it was extremely uncomfortable and a bit frightening. Drivers here will do a long haul shift, straight through the middle of the night and occasionally one might feel a lurch and a swivel, in the double decker bus. Sometimes it would feel as if the bus was ready to tip on its side. I did not want to look outside to see what the road conditions were like, but no matter; it was so cold the frost caked itself up on the glass and obscured the entire view.

I had brought my laptop with me on this trip and was a bit worried that the intense vibration from over 16 hrs of overnight bus would damage it, but it was a new macbook air and survived nicely. Hooray for solid state, as a laptop would never have survived such a trip years ago. :)

Downtown La Paz

I saw early dawn and morning in Uyuni, where I was transferred to a jeep tour of the flats. The flats are amazingly beautiful! and the water makes the salt look like a mirror. Although the driver spoke only spanish, a few friendly tourists in the jeep kindly translated for me. We visited a giant cactus island in the middle of the salt flats as well as tiny town that made salt sculptures and sold souvenirs.

Near the Presidential Palace, La Paz
In the evening I explored Uyuni, which is a small dusty town with a few pubs here, such as the Extreme Fun Pub and good local fare. The return bus trip was not as bad, as the weather had warmed up a bit. I arrived early in the AM in La Paz. We arrived at an ungodly hour of 4 am. From there I caught a cab to the hostel and we had to knock several times to get someone to open up and let us in. 

La Paz is a really interesting city, with a lot of character. Guidebooks will tell you that the city is one of the highest elevations in the world at nearly 10,000 feet. What I struck me was the city was in the shape of bowl, with the city center at the bottom of the bowl. There was a nice sense of layering on the drive into the city from the airport, because as you drove into La Paz, one would descend gradually, gradually until you reach the main streets. 

A street in La Paz

While I was only able to spend a little time wandering around for a day, I got a nice sense of the place. There are no large american companies visible anywhere. None of the US companies that had a strong presence in Peru appeared anywhere. No Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Kentucky Fried Chicken, no Citibank, nope, nada. Don't hope for it. The banks are owned by the state. The largest fast food chicken restaurant is owned by the state. It was really good chicken with really good mustard sauce, but manufactured and owned by the state. The only imported goods I could find were made in Canada or Brazil, and even shoes are made in Bolivia. Music, however can come from America; Selena Gomez is a big hit and posters of her are everywhere.

While traffic can be bad, there was something to watch: lovely young women entertained the traffic with color guard flag routines and at night fire spinning, sometimes asking for tips, other times, not at all. It seemed as if they were really proud of their skill and that was their motivation above anything else. They were really pretty, with unusually calm looking demeanors, and strong brows.

There was a street market up the hill from the downtown main boulevard that I visited. It was calm, nice, although not the cleanest. Some of the people chanted and sang in the markets. Climbing a hill, and then back down again can be pretty tiring here in La Paz. The altitude here puts a strain on any cardio, just like Cusco. On my way back to the hostel, I came across a street parade. I really wish I had more time to explore the city, there people are very pleasant here.

After a day in La Paz, I flew back to Cusco. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Photos from Peru

Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima

The 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu happened in July 2011. I did this short trip with friends. We packed a lot of activities into a short period of time but did get to see many ruins and sites in addition to the famous site.

Atop Apu Picchu, looking down on Machu Picchu

The Cusco region is high altitude and can be difficult to adjust to if you are a person who lives most of the year at sea level. One of the drinks the locals give you is coca tea to help acclimate. While we didn't do the 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, we saw some of the salt flats, and surrounding area ruins. One thing I did notice is that I did not keep as rigourous of journal on this trip and I kind of wish I did. 


The weather is beautiful in the Cusco region and heavily overcast in the Lima area during the summer. It was quite cold as well, since they were in the winter season. I'm told by the lodge owner in Urubama that 70% of glaciers have disappeared since 1970. In the frequently trod Cusco Tourist path, the roads are super clean even in rural areas. and on the streets even in the poorer districts. However this is definitely not the case outside the 'nice' areas and also in Lima.

Salt Flats

Some Brief Economic observations: 

In Cusco, a t-shirt store owner, said KFC opened in the plaza del armas a few weeks ago, there was a line around the block with local people who wanted to try it but never had. they have it in Lima. Also the Mcdonald's opened in 2010 in plaza del armas. The Peruvian sole is pegged to the US Dollar at approximately 2.7 Sole to the 1 USD. US and Foreign banks are everywhere, including HSBC, Citibank and Nova Scotia bank.

Some Llamas in Urubama

In Cusco, "The meeting place" is a church run volunteer cafe. The owner there told me that Alberto Fujimori's economic policies did the right thing for job creation, lifting people out of poverty. they are seriously concerned about the newly elect president because he may impose socialist and nationalistic policies on Direct Foreign Investment (DFI) which will shut down a lot of local businesses. There are also many people concerned about government policies that may turn the place into bolivia, where commerce and DFI are not welcome.  The cafe has a map where visitors can pin their home location. The majority of the pins are from USA and from Europe. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tokyo stopover

Tokyo Stopover. June 2011

I'm here in Tokyo for a few days right after the trip to Shanghai.

What a contrast.

The major difference I feel immediately is that Tokyo is all about the rules. Its not abut the clean, its about the culture.

Social rules. Social habits. Social norms.

Nobody jaywalks here. An old man waved a stick angrily at me when I did.

People look at me funny when I ate a candy bar on the train. I guess that is a big no-no.

Because I look north east Asian, I'm addressed in Japanese and then struggle to understand when I'm redirected to enter the train station the right way.

The metro is incredibly confusing and my friend Sydney has to map out every train change between stops. I assume it is easier once a person is fluent in Japanese but in some places, Tokyo is just downright hostile to the non-Japanese speaker.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Real Estate and Inflationary Prices in Shanghai

Real Estate

1 bedroom apartment in Shanghai in a new complex will go for anywhere between 2- 3+ Million RMB. That's about 300-500K USD. There are approx 63000 empty apartment units currently open in Shanghai unfilled.

The Cash in the bank is not keeping up with the real rate of inflation. It is fetching a Negative 4%. So real estate is the only way to go for appreciation.

Tech Sector -  this once again proves how there is no way to make any progress into the chinese market unless you are in bed with the communist party members. 

Interest rates in the banks for RMB is yielding negative returns so people are putting their money into real estate. However, he also says that more than 63000 apartments are standing empty unoccupied in shanghai.

People put their money into housing because they believe that's the only place where they can get real rate of return. Like many reports, the mainlanders are not buying housing in HK to stave off potential drops in the market.

iPad - credit, consumerism . his idea is that the consumerism elitist attitude is going to be 10x worse here in china than in HK. Also that China is going to become old before it becomes rich. unlike japan which became rich and then got old. There is a large demographic in china that is growing old rapidly. Also there aren't going to be enough workers to cover manufacturing because the female worker population will be dwindling. the 1990-boom was based on the population of working age that was born in 66-76 ; they needed to put all of these people to work, and so opened up the markets, and increased foreign investment and jobs.


Prices are inflationary.

The cost of Mcdonalds - a meal is 30-32 RMB in Shanghai, and 26-28 in Hong Kong.  1 USD = 6.48 RMB,  1 USD = 7.7HKD

2 people meal in Shanghai for 187 RMB at a local chinese restaurant, 4 dishes 2 drinks.  mid range.

Tipping is a foreign concept here.

Pacific coffee company - mocha blended drink - medium size is about 5.88 USD, with whipped cream was extra 5RMB, so total is 40 RMB, or 35 RMB


Costa coffee is a Starbucks look a like that is originally italian, and has significant retail space in Shanghai. It looks like a Starbucks copycat.

Joe says the government reports fudge the inflation numbers all the time. the real rate of inflation is about 8% but they're only doing 4% on the banks so people don't want to keep cash in the bank , its negative interest rate is really painful. they'd rather put it into real estate.

Alvin tells me that his Shanghai friend's family bought property about 1 year ago , it was 2/3 down and their mortgage has a whopping 20% interest on it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Too much, Too Fast, Too Soon? Commentary on China's Economy


Too much, Too Fast, Too Soon?

There is a massive gap between the super wealthy and the poor. Shanghai is very much a 2 speed economy . You have your Maserati, Porche, BMW dealers all lined up in brand spanking new office buildings. And then you turn the corner and there is a guy on a rusty bike hauling bales of hay and bamboo down the street wearing peasant clothes. In a June 13, WSJ article, "In China, Women begin Splurging" apparently 30% of the 400 Maserati's sold last year were to women who were self made billionaires!

I don't believe anything this government says to the world including what it tells its own people. What harmonious society? In a recent copy of the China Daily and the there have been bombings and riots in about 5 different locations around the entire country in the past month. The subways all have metal detectors in them.

Now while it sounds horribly pessimistic, there is a lot of "sweeping the dust under the rug" but the problem is that its not simply "dust"  - they sweeping massive amounts of social problems along with it. And eventually its going to heat up and blow up.

In general try to avoid shanghai in June - august. It is extremely hot and humid. It is also rainy season.

Comment from my friend Alex - " In China, its almost like complete obliteration of self in this city. In the serbia/ eastern europe - they hate each other but they're not out to erase all of their history their past their culture, like this complete razing to the ground of the old buildings in many parts of shanghai."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hackerspaces in Shanghai

Saturday -

we go to the hacker space - xianchijian - it is pretty central  - one stop down from the Jia'an temple on Jiansu Road.

They are trying to do the hackerspace noisebridge thing. It is located on Anhua road in an old factory where a lot of the local people are and its really nice to bump into a lot of shanghainese speakers. Many people in the space are american, canadian expats.



Xianchijian - went back to see their bamboo hydroponics workshop but it was cancelled. Heard Ricky really like Tianzifang, so I went to check it out.

On Jiangsu lu? there is a french owned store - china-africa fashion. About 1/2 a block down is one of the alleyway entrances to TianziFang. Old architecture has been preserved in this alleyway city. super easy to miss the sector if you didn't look down an alley

Tianzifang - is down an alleyway. I almost missed it the first time around. Even within the maze of old houses, its easy to miss the good spots. A must see place. The inside architecture in some buildings are gems. It was nice to find a place that maintained some of the old french concession character.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

China's Demographic Time Bomb

One of the issues that Joe discussed (US visiting professor of economics at Fudan, also sits on real estate investment boards) is what is going to happen with China's own IP when it starts having it? Because right now they are ripping off other people's patents and copyrights and copying books and tv shows and movies like they don't are about the licensing restrictions. In 5-10 years what is going to happen when they create their own IP? How are they going to protect it, if they don't respect other people's IP?

There is also a demographic time bomb waiting to happen, as the largest part of the working population severely declines starting in 2015, because of the one child policy, labor will soon be scare and expensive. Even if they dropped the one child policy today, there would be a gap between '15 and 2026 when the children come of age to work, at the age of 15. So a big part of the massive push for outside investment and manufacturing in china was because they had so many people who were in the working age range from 1990 until now that were born during the great leap forward.  

So we are likely to see a big slowdown after 2015 in the China's growth because there are fewer workers. It may also be the only chance it gets to transition to a service economy from a manufacturing economy, but it depends on the transition to the new party in 2012; we don't know if this new leadership is going to make a mess of things or if they are going to be able to handle the delicate transition. Especially with the amount of civil unrest going on and shifting the consumption away from real estate and toward a consumer market like the US.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Suzhou - Friday

It rained a ridiculous amount. 

Time to travel from Shanghai railway station to suzhou is approximately 22-24 minutes. The speed also depends on the time of day. Trains depart from 4am until 11:30 at night.
It was really difficult to get around in the rain. Suzhou does not have that many native speakers anymore.

Visited silk factory #2 and saw the worms. It is just a museum, not actual silk manufacturing. That is done in outer western provinces where it is cheaper.and also the printing.  After we left the silk museum, we went to the Temple across the street that had 8 floors and a  garden. There were buddist monks playing chinese chess and we joined them for a round.  The rules of chinese chess are slightly different from the kind we play in the west. There is a king, no queen, which can only move in a small range of squares. There is also a "bomb" piece that can hop over other pieces in a vertical or horizontal path. Some of the pieces have different movement restrictions.

High speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou hits about 300km/hr at max. Brand new Hong Qiao rail way station. train parts come from austria, and possibly french? company. Station is brand new, within the last year. There is a new Beijing to Shanghai train that is opening up this month, it will take about 4 hrs, and will compete with the flights , which have long delays at the airports between the two airports.

Joe says that they can't cover the cost of the new line that was built. also a lot of the existing railway traffic was cleared out to allow for the high speed rail . something about the selling of the bonds isn't going to be enough to cover?

The transit subway within the city is horrifically slow if you compare the distance and speed . It only takes about 25 minutes to go from Shanghai Hong Qiao station to Suzhou. At the suzhou train station we bump into a couple of americans who are on their way to go see the temple. They tell us that the 5 bus is the way to get around and also the 9.

Alex thinks the people who live in suzhou are happier than in the city.  It is pouring rain. we ride the 5 bus up and down the street so that we can get a glimpse of the town without getting wet.

I'm noticing that a lot of the people who now live in suzhou don't actually speak Shanghainese. There are a lot of putonghua only speakers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Internet and Tech in Shanghai

getting out of shanghai metro and Internet censorship


There are frequent rail lines to suzhou, similar accent to hangzhou, i'm told that i have.
hotel suggests to buy the train ticket to suzhou the day before departure as they get sold out fairly quickly.
Internet filtering makes it really difficult to access any sites outside of China. The service it intermittent. Gmail is really slow. This city is probably the most frustratingly difficult city to navigate in my recent experience. I think the reasons are a combined problem of a

1) really confusing map that combines both english and chinese characters.
2) metro system is not well laid out - there are now 13 metro lines and some of the lines seem haphazard and redundant.
3) the metro line is slower than taking a taxi during non-rush hours.
4) The size of the city is very large. The distance between metro rail stops fairly large.
5) There are many metro stops per line.  
6) Places with similar sounding names.

Subway - line 2 is old - the cars . line 10 is very new opened as recently as 2010 for the shanghai world expo.

Very much a 2 speed economy.  i thought they would have moved past this problem already but i am guessing that 10 years is too much to expect too soon.

Ricky said that - power brownouts  are expected this summer. especially with the number of air conditioning units coming online they need to restrict power usage.

In a way it feels like the government upgraded the infrastructure, the roads, the malls, the housing but they forgot to upgrade the people. English fluency is a rare commodity.  Students who have studied english speak it really poorly including those who work in tourist destinations, hotels, airports. I don't expect the average person to speak english well on the street, but after the 2008 olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, I would have expected a little better.  If I had to rename the country, it would be Infrastructure's Republic of China, not people's republic. :)

Tech Sector

We visited a mobile video company called Wondertek referred by Joe. They are looking to acquire new software technologies. We talked to their founder CEO. The problem with China Mobile phone service is that its is government controlled. You have to have a person filter words that are used in your application. Wondertek has managed to squeeze its competitor out of a large part of the market. The competitor was a french company located one floor down from their office and was recently acquired by an Israeli company. The competitor has shrunk its size and was mostly europeans who were working in the offices. The Wondertek guy says that europeans are lazier, but I have a hunch that the chinese guy 's close relationship with China Mobile is mostly because he has some relationship with party members that are controlling China Mobile. Like everything in China, you have to be in bed with the party in order to get large amounts of business. Square footage of office space is pretty high. more than $1/sq ft. This is on the pudong side, near the river.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shanghai for a week

Notes: 6/7-8/2011   - Shanghai

Shanghai is a really big metropolis. Does not have the claustrophobic crampiness of HK. However, it is so spread out, but the weather patterns make it difficult to tell how big it is from even high rises.  The haze - is it pollution or is it just dense haze all the time?

There are 13 subway rail lines , first line apparently built staring 1995 ? Need to double check the date on this . Subway rail line #2 is visibly older than line 10. were probably built in order of line number is my best guess.  The Line 10 subway cars approximate the new HK MTR rails in their electronic sophistication. The line 2 cars have a very loud and annoying buzzer for their door closing. The Shanghai subway system is one of the more difficult systems to navigate on arrival, mostly because there so many lines. The good part is that there is english/chinese on every rail station.

subway lines in the city close down at 11pm . The subway lights are also fairly dim. I'm not sure what the reasoning is behind the low wattage  lights. This is present in both new and old stations. Also i see a lot of fluorescent tubing

Bar manager at The Long bar, waldorf astoria restored from 1930s glamour is shanghainese, says that there is a lot of price inflation but not necessarily wage inflation. Says that he can make 10k rmb as a manager here in shanghai but in tokyo can make 10k as a regular bar tender, back in 2008. Prices are exceptionally high, for a diet coke beautifully presented cost 55RMB, which was about 9 USD! Current exchange rate is 6.47 RMB = 1 USD. The experience was worth it though. (pic here IMG_1257.jpg).

The Lights at the People's square are shut off 11pm??? I asked the cab driver if this was a just a weekday event or if this is was a regular case. He replied that it was a regular event, even on the weekends? that the lights were shut off. The photos show how dramatic the difference is. IMG_1290.jpg is about 10 min after the lights are shut off. IMG_1222, IMG_1278 , IMG_1283 is a little before 11pm.

see pictures here:

There is a very clear disparity between areas like the bund and the people's square and the spaces in between. Most interesting to note: If you go back 1 or 2 streets from the bund on a normal, not highway street, there is little traffic, mostly dominated by cyclists and motorbikes/mopeds.  There are many very grand neocolonial (style?)  historical buildings that are simply vacant or boarded up. Its as if they only opened up the front row of the bund to the public and "showcased it" in a hurry. for events like the 2008 olympics or 2010 expo?  Some of the buildings have windows boarded up with new international fashion brand names eager to occupy the new retail space. sometimes a view into the building is visible and you see old cabinets, perhaps rooms untouched since the 1940s?

The old and new simultaneously exists. Its almost like having an angst teenager? Sophisticated yet still immature in so many ways. Almost schizo in personality. How do the people manage here?

The significant gap of wealth is really obvious and extreme. Its as if the china of yesterday simultaneously coexists side by side with the new: the old with bicycles and tuk tuk style motorbike cabs mixed in with new wealth and high end brand names, the audis, bmws, japanese brand taxis, the pradas, guccis and so on.

Most of the purchasing activity seems centered around mid-level retail brands. I noticed a lot of activity in stores like the gap or mango, but hardly anyone walked into luxury boutiques, such as Dior, E. Zegna.  That's a lot of high end retail .

There is a McDonalds in People's square that is open 24hrs. The lights are strong and bright, assumingly all the lights in the square that are on after 11pm are paid by the tenants? and all the other lights are sponsored by the government? When the lights go off at 11pm, there is a large crew of cleaners that mop the tiled floors with soap and water.

It will be interesting to see if the bund's lights also go off at 11pm . I would be very curious to know. More on the bund : My grandfather and great grandfathers worked here at the old HSBC bank in the 1920-30s. Influenced by the west, my maternal grandmother is catholic. Both maternal and paternal grandparents left with their children ( my parents ) pre- 1949 revolution and ended up in Hong Kong because it was British Territory at the time and protected from the communists. Hong Kong is an extremely capitalistic market today, even though it is SAR, because of the 50 year hand over deal with the UK. More details on HK’s history:

The big difference between Hong Kong and the mainland is that most people don’t speak english even though there are signs that are bilingual. Hong Kong has the advantage of blending both east and west cultures. The majority of people who live in Shanghai today are not orignally from Shanghai. A lot of people have migrated from the city and only 40% speak the local dialect - Shanghainese. Nationwide, everyone is mandated to speak Putonghua , also known as Mandarin. I only understand and speak shanghainese, and although some of the words in Putonghua are similar, there are plenty of people who don’t understand Shanghainese. There is also a lot of confusion as to why I don’t understand Putonghua, but this is an extreme anomaly in China.

I’m also asked by local people - “ why would my family even want to leave China, because isn’t Shanghai the best city in the world?? “ (which in my opinion is not true based solely on the amount of pollution.)  Apparently a lot of the pre 1949 history was wiped out in the educational system, and people don’t really know the details before the red revolution. Hong Kong, is entirely different - its very westernized and people have a lot more freedom. The internet now is so choked off in China, its almost like we can’t breathe, and we have a difficult time accessing a lot of wikipedia web pages . Gmail is intermittent and so is google.

The bund, even with its historic buildings only, feels almost larger than life grand. Its interesting that the modern skyline counterpart is built directly opposite the bund. The river separates the old bund architecture from the space age modern pudong side.

Pudong is mostly comprised of financial buildings and the infamous space needle. The skyscrapers rival HKs and have no worry about running out of space.

A lot of the high end architecture in pudong , people's square, and Luwan has a "larger than life" , extremely dramatic feel to it.
The problem with the weather is that it is difficult to see of the skyline from a distance. So much of the cloudy haze blocks views from afar.  

We went up to the a round space bar in one of the hotels near the people's garden, hoping to get a better view of the city and pudong from 46 floors up, however, it was impossible to see much with the haze in the way, even at night. The lights do not penetrate