Category: Travel Guides

VPN Access in China: August 2019

I spent last week in China and wanted to share the latest information about what is and is not accessible on the Internet, and how I fared using a VPN.

Background
There are many wonderful things about traveling in China, but the heavily restricted Internet is not one of them. The “Great Firewall” of China blocks access to sites considered indispensable in the West, such as Google and Facebook, along with anything the government finds objectionable.

What is accessible without a VPN
I was in Shanghai, and understand that available content can vary based on region of the country, so please keep that in mind! Also, the only rule about China’s Internet censorship is that there are no rules, so things can change at any time. However, with that somewhat lengthy disclaimer out of the way, this is what I found:

Via hotel wifi:
Google (including Google Maps) = no
Facebook = no
Instagram = no
eBay = no
….I think you get the idea.

Via 4G data roaming:
Same as above, except Google (including Google Maps) was accessible! Which is handy when you’re out and about trying to find your way.

VPN
OK, but the point is, Western sites are heavily restricted. So, what to do? The answer is a VPN, which allows you to access the net via another country, while also providing online privacy. VPNs run on both wifi or 4G networks and should – when they work – allow you to bypass China’s restrictions.

My online research led me to the conclusion that the best VPN for use in China is ExpressVPN (this is *not* a sponsored post and there are no VPN affiliate links on our site). So, I downloaded their iOS app prior to going to China, signed up for their 7 day free trial and felt prepared!

ExpressVPN results in Shanghai (August 2019)  
When you connect to ExpressVPN, you have to select a server – there are lots around the world to choose from. The app recommended I select “Hong Kong – 5”. Results were poor to mediocre at best – it took a good minute to connect and often did not connect at all. When it did work, it connected me for 2-3 minutes on average before disconnecting.

Hmm. So, I tried other servers. I had some slightly better luck with Japan and (oddly) “Italy – Cosenza.” They were easier to connect to but cut me off after 5 minutes or so.

After a couple days of this, I sent ExpressVPN a chat message and asked for assistance. They responded promptly and were helpful, recommending I try to connect to to the below locations (in the order listed):

Automatic – Los Angeles 4
Automatic – Hong Kong 4
Automatic – UK Wembley
Automatic – USA Santa Monica
Automatic – Australia Melbourne

OK! Now we’re making progress – “Los Angeles 4” was by far the best of the bunch and would connect me relatively reliably for good 30 minute or 1 hour blocks at a time.

While connected to the VPN (via any server) the internet experience was exactly equivalent to being at home – restriction-free.

As a side note, the VPN I usually use, PIA (Private Internet Access), which works like a dream at home in Japan, was useless in Shanghai.

Summary
Before going to China, download a VPN app. My experience with ExpressVPN was spotty at first, but connecting to “Los Angeles 4” was by far the best approach for reasonably reliable VPN access.

Bonus Tip – the “Uber” of China
Didi is the Chinese equivalent of Uber. I downloaded their “Didi Greater China” app too before departing for China, as I had read it was the largest taxi/ride-sharing app in the country, and also the only one with an English interface. It also technically works with foreign credit cards…although I had to try multiple cards to find one it would accept. In the end, oddly, it took my US-issued American Express card. Your mileage may vary…but wanted to share that too! The app itself works well, and has a cool auto-translate function which allows you to chat with the driver in Chinese before they arrive, even if you don’t speak a word of the language. I suggest proactively sending a “my location is correct, please pick me up” message to the driver right away, as they have a tendency to call to confirm that right after you make the booking…which is quite challenging as someone who doesn’t speak Chinese!

Enjoy your trip!

Exploring Ethiopia’s Fabulous Sights

by Alex Skinner for letsg.ooo.

Ethiopia is one of those countries which you rarely hear very much about, which is a shame as it is home to TONS of incredible sights! The good thing about it flying under the radar however, is that you’ll often find yourself visiting a jaw-droppingly beautiful landscape or astonishing UNESCO World Heritage Site with absolutely no other tourists around.

What to expect:

One of the oldest countries in the world, Ethiopia is often described as the ‘cradle of mankind’ and so on your journey you’ll come across ancient monasteries, impressive castles and mysterious rock-hewn churches while the scenery is not too bad either!

Add in its rich cultural heritage, delicious food and…feeding hyenas with your mouth (?!!) and, well, you’ve got quite the package!

All in all, it is a very affordable country to visit with some amazing sights which you can’t see anywhere else in the world.

Getting around:

To get around, you can either opt to take a short, comfortable flight or a series of long and uncomfortable (but scenic!) bus journeys. Strangely enough, I’d actually recommend the latter as you nearly always end up making friends on the bus and, well, getting there is part of the experience!

That being said, if you’re pressed for time then you’re probably better off taking a flight and Ethiopia’s numerous cities are very well-connected.

Where to head to:

There are a number of places which you just have to make sure you visit when in Ethiopia and I can almost be certain that you’ll come away awestruck at what you’ve just seen.

Photo by Trevor Cole.

First up is Lalibela. Now, it is almost impossible to convey how impressive Lalibela is but if it were in the US or Europe, the site would undoubtedly be teeming with visitors and there would be a queue to enter. As it is you’ll find yourself almost alone and this makes visiting even more memorable.

Ok, so Lalibela is a complex of eleven monolithic churches that are hidden away amongst some remote mountains in Ethiopia. Built between the seventh and thirteenth century, the architecture on show is absolutely incredible and they are remarkably still in use to this day. The churches were designed to be the ‘New Jerusalem’ and lots of underground tunnels snake their way between the different churches which are built deep into mountainside.

Another place which is well worth visiting is Gondar. Nicknamed ‘the Camelot of Africa’, the city is home to some amazing fairytale castles which are very well-preserved and the surrounding area also has some centuries-old churches and monasteries for you to enjoy. While in Gondar, try and give learning the local dance a go. You will probably have to ask someone from the city to teach you as it mostly involves using your neck, shoulders and head!

Not far from Gondar lies yet another must-see sight: the stunning Simien Mountains. This breathtaking mountain range lies mostly 3,000 metres above sea-level and is so beautiful that it has been nicknamed ‘the Chess Pieces of God’. Trekking through its sweeping valleys and along its plummeting cliff faces is an awe-inspiring experience – just remember to bring some suncream as the sun is stronger at this altitude! While passing through the spectacular scenery, you may be invited into a local home to eat some injera – Ethiopia’s national dish. Although this is certainly a kind gesture, by this point on your trip around the country you may be a bit fed up of it as you’ll have been eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Now you may remember that I mentioned something about feeding hyenas with your mouth. Outside the walled-city of Harar, hyenas congregate every evening and feeding them is now a popular (if hair-raising!) thing to do. Simply spear some meat on a stick, hold that in your mouth and in no time at all you’ll have a hyena eating off of it! Besides this, Harar is a beautiful city to explore with lots of lovely old mosques and ancient buildings for you to enjoy.

Very much off the beaten path, Ethiopia is definitely worth visiting if you have the chance and Lalibela, Gondar, the Simien Mountains and Harar are just some of its fabulous sights. To not ruin the surprise, I’ll leave it up to you to discover the rest of what Ethiopia has to offer!

The letsg.ooo Tokyo Guide

I originally posted this in 2017, but try to keep it updated. Last edit: August 2019.


Welcome to the highly biased, but hopefully vaguely useful letsg.ooo Tokyo Guide!

I have lived in Tokyo for years and spent a ridiculous amount of time exploring the twists and turns of its ever-beating heart. I love Tokyo like no other city on earth, because it is like no other city on earth.

Where to Stay

If you want to drop yourself in the heart of it upon arrival, where the neon is endless, I would recommend staying in Shibuya or Shinjuku. Regardless of where you stay though, it’s worth noting that Japan is in the middle of the biggest tourism boom the country has ever experienced…so hotels are running at almost full occupancy. In other words, if you see a room you want to book, grab it while you can!

Shibuya:

Cerulean Tower (high end tower)

Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu (mid-range standard)

Hotel Granbell (lower mid-range designer)

Shinjuku:

You’ll find all the big Western chain hotel names here. Note that most of them are located on the West side of Shinjuku station, which is fine, but it’s a business district so not very exciting in its own right. You have to walk 15 minutes-ish to get to the East side of the station from most of those hotels, where things are more lively. All that said – the Park Hyatt is just as beautiful as you’d expect it to be. And, access is absolutely incredible from Shinjuku – Shinjuku station is literally the busiest train station in the world so you can go anywhere you need to.

Meguro:

Meguro? Not really on the tourist radar, this part of town is home to Hotel Claska. Located on a quiet street in this upscale neighborhood, this was one of the first boutique hotels built in Tokyo, and its charm has not faded. Brilliant place.

Where to Go

I’d say all of these areas are worth a visit:

Section 1: in the guidebooks, but here we go anyway:

  • Shibuya: This is a must. Japan’s hub of youth (20-something and up) culture and it overflows with energy. Have you seen “Lost in Translation”? The insanely busy crosswalk that features in that film is here. You don’t really need a destination – just have a wander. There’s a great shop called “Loft” with 8 floors of things you didn’t know you needed, but definitely do.
Tokyo Guide - Shinjuku

If you don’t like neon, don’t go to Shinjuku

  • Shinjuku: East side of the station. It’s a blur of neon…if Shibuya didn’t overstimulate your brain, this area will. One caveat: part of this area is also Tokyo’s red light district (called Kabukicho) and Japanese people will tell you it’s “not safe.” It’s only not safe by Japanese standards, so you’ll be absolutely fine if you want to have a walk around in the evening. If you are approached by (likely foreign) touts, just brush them off and keep walking.
  • Harajuku / Ometesando: There’s two main reasons this is on the tourist maps: one is a street called “Takeshita Dori” that, especially on Sundays, is full of crazy teenagers wearing insane fashion. If you ever wanted a shirt that looks like a stuffed bunny, this is the place for you. The other is “Meiji Jingu” which is a beautiful Shinto Shrine, buried in a mini-forest in the middle of the city. Well worth a visit. Walk a little further and the teenage kitsch of Takeshita Dori turns into refined Omotesando, which is where you’ll find international brand flagships, great restaurants and a popular souvenir shop (there aren’t many in Tokyo) called Oriental Bazaar.
  • Asakusa: You will be surrounded by tourists here, because of Sensoji, which is a very popular and impressive Buddhist temple. The area around it is “old Tokyo” and it has a totally different feel vs. the more modern areas. Worth a look, despite the hordes of tourists. Strongly recommend wandering down the little side streets and getting intentionally lost in this area – there are some great tiny restaurants and shops waiting to be discovered.

Section 2: skipped by some guidebooks, which is a shame:

  • Daikanyama & Ebisu: Both are next to Shibuya, but worlds away. These are high-end areas (especially Daikanyama) but not stuffy, and excellent to have a stroll through. Ebisu is heavy on great restaurants & bars, Daikanyama is heavy on independent boutiques and gorgeous women walking their tiny dogs. There’s also a place called “T-Site” which includes an amazing branch of Tsutaya Books (including English titles) if you’re in the mood for a break.
  • Kagurazaka: I often take visitors to this area when they’re tired of the hustle and bustle that is so much of Tokyo. Sometimes called “Little Paris,” here things are slower, and it’s just a great area to walk around and soak up. I’m not a fan of “walking tours” usually, but I actually vaguely followed this one last year, and it was great.
  • Nippori: One criticism I occasionally hear leveled at Tokyo is that it is too “buttoned-up” and doesn’t have any dirt around the edges. Those who think that have never been to Nippori! A great way to take in a slice of old, non-shiny Tokyo is a wander around the area, specifically the beautifully ramshackle shopping street that is “Yanaka Ginza.” There are great food vendors, interesting independent shops and down towards the end of the street, a liquor store that has plastic crates you can sit on outside and enjoy an Yebisu in the sun. Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for a local craft beer, it’s hard to beat August Yanaka Beer Hall, which also makes a great dinner spot.

Places to eat

This section could quickly become a book, so I’ll try to just hit some highlights. Maps included…if you take a taxi, I recommend printing the map out and giving it to them, since taxi drivers rarely a) speak English or b) know where anything is. Sorry…it’s true.

  • Tempura: Tempura Abe. Fantastic, hidden tempura restaurant in the swanky Ginza neighborhood (oh, that’s another area worth a look!). It’s a tiny place in the basement, down a side street…might be worth a taxi to this one! Best to ask the concierge for a reservation here. Likely around US $50 a person for dinner, half that for lunch. Map.
  • Japanese variety: Sacra. Reasonably priced (perhaps US $30 a person), delicious Japanese place in Ebisu – great place for dinner. Large menu that spans everything from standards like raw fish, grilled chicken skewers, etc. to more unusual, progressive dishes. All small plates, so I recommend ordering a variety of dishes and sharing. Bilingual menu. Map.
  • Tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet): Tonki. Classic restaurant in Meguro. About US $20 a person, with English menu available…though there are only two things ON the menu. 1) Rosu (fatty cutlet) tonkatsu or 2) Hire (lean cutlet) tonkatsu. Both are tasty, but “hire” (pronounced “hee-leh”) is my recommendation. Fiendishly popular, and they don’t take reservations, so go early, and be prepared to wait a bit. Map.
Tokyo Guide - Tsukemen

This is Yasubee. Oh yes.

  • Ramen / tsukemen: difficult to pick one place here – there is so much good ramen and tsukemen (which is like ramen, but with usually cold noodles on a plate that you dip into a separate bowl of broth and then eat) here. For tsukemen, Yasubee is amazing and they have branches in Shibuya and Shinjuku among other places. For ramen…just pick somewhere busy and you won’t be disappointed! You may need to order from a ticket machine when you walk in, then hand the ticket to the staff (the idea is they never have to touch money this way). The vending machine is unlikely to have English explanations, but the staff should help you.
  • Sushi: if you like sushi, clearly you should have some in Tokyo…but where to go depends greatly on how much you want to spend. You can spend hundreds on a single meal if you want to…and yes the quality is there to match. If you saw the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi and want to try it out, here’s the website. Note that reservations are required far in advance AND can only be made via a 5 star hotel that you have a reservation at (yes, it’s gotten totally ridiculous at this point). A solid mid-range option is Tsukiji Sushiko – they have locations in quite a few areas of the city and are consistently very good. If you want to go one level higher, I recommend heading to the old Tsukiji fish market area – it’s full of exceptional sushi places, like Sushidai Bekkan – suggest asking your hotel concierge to make a reservation for you.

Places to drink

  • Shinjuku:
    Tokyo Guide - Bars

    My not-very-good photo of Eagle.

    • I strongly recommend strolling over to “Golden Gai.” It’s a maze of 200-ish tiny tiny bars, all huddled together, each big enough for about 5-10 patrons max. High end it is not, and tourists have certainly discovered it in recent years, but it’s still a very unique slice of Tokyo that always makes for a fun night out.
    • Eagle. Chandelier-lit, classic cocktail bar. Don’t let the garish sign outside fool you – this is a classy place. It’s a bit like stepping back in time, actually. Descend down the stairs into this basement enclave and let the attentive bartenders do their thing. I went back and forth about putting this in the “eat” or “drink” section, since they have a very good menu as well. Reservations recommended.
  • Ebisu:
    • Did you have dinner at Sacra? If so, there are two great bars literally across the street from it. One is the easy to spot “恵比寿BAR” (Ebisu Bar) – they are part restaurant, part bar, and have a really nice selection of sake and shochu (sake’s delicious & evil cousin). A little harder to immediately spot but still literally across the street is a traditional, classy whiskey/cocktail bar called “Bar 五”. The sign is small and looks like this. It’s in the basement, and the tie & vest wearing bartenders will take care of you. Japanese bartenders are famous for being precise and obsessive about details – this is a good place to watch. Bring your wallet though – cheap it is not.
  • Shibuya:
    • Tired of the unfamiliar and just want to sip a Guinness in an Irish Pub for a bit? Fair enough. I’d recommend Dubliner’s, which is on the 2nd floor overlooking a main street and even has a little outdoor patio (rare in Tokyo).

A few random tips:

  • Cash is king, and while lots of places will take credit cards, smaller shops and restaurants usually won’t. So, recommend you get some money out when you land at the airport. To make things difficult, the only ATMs that accept foreign cards are 7-Bank (their ATMs are in all 7-11 convenience stores, and free-standing at the airport) and the “Japan Post” post office ATMs. They accept most but not all foreign cards, so wise to bring a couple just in case one isn’t accepted. The largest bill is 10,000 yen, which is a lot. But, don’t worry about carrying lots of cash, or using the biggest bill to pay for an inexpensive item – it’s absolutely normal and no one will blink an eye.
  • Japan is extremely safe, so if you see an interesting looking side street, go down it! Even in the middle of the night, you can walk anywhere, and many of the best things are off the main streets anyway.
  • This is an odd one, but don’t forget to look up. Especially in the busiest districts, restaurants, bars and shops are piled on top of one another, on the 7th, 8th, 12th floors. So if you keep your eyes at ground level, you can miss out!
  • Strongly recommend you pick up a “Suica” train card (available at any Japan Rail station) as soon as you can – Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s Oyster card. Buying individual tickets for the trains/subways etc is very confusing as a first time visitor – just load up your Suica and off you go. It requires a 500 yen deposit. The train/subway system is huge and very efficient, but also confusing at first – I recommend downloading the free “Japan Transit Planner” app (it’s in English) before you arrive, to assist.
  • Trains stop running around midnight and start up again about 5am. And taxis are expensive. Uber exists but no one has ever heard of it here and it costs more than a normal taxi…so not your best option. Uber Eats (food delivery) is very useful in Tokyo though…and if you use code “eats-justinb8965ue” you can save some money on your order.
  • Consider visiting a 100 yen shop ($1 store)! It’s amazing what you can get for 100 yen, and they’re full of oddities.
  • Video game arcades (“game centres” as they are called here) are an experience to behold…even if you wouldn’t normally go to one in your home country. They also have photo booths in them, almost all of which will make your skin look whiter and your eyes look bigger in the photos, like it or not…because that’s just what they do. Bizarre and interesting.

I could go on, but I should probably stop – this is getting quite long. Hope you enjoyed our Tokyo Guide…have a great trip! And if you have any questions before you go, feel free to drop me a line via the “contact” link at the top of the page and I’ll do my best to help. Cheers!