Getting connected on the go in Russia

If you’re staying in Russia for longer than a week, you’re probably going to want phone or mobile Internet service (or both). Setting these up in Russia has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, but there are still a few things to note about the way Russia does phone/Internet service.

Woven Phone

Buying a phone

Your first task in the search for phone service is, of course, getting a phone! If you have a GSM 900/1800 American phone, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use it by just buying a Russian SIM card. Otherwise, you’ll have to get a phone in Russia.

If you’re feeling adventurous and want a fancy phone, visiting a tech market (such as Gorbushka in Moscow) is the best way to buy one. It also gives you a real chance to practice your Russian (this is the part where you haggle). Otherwise, your best bet is to buy a cheap-o dumb phone to use for the duration of your stay. Most phone service providers will have some basic phones/SIM cards in stock.

If you have a smart phone, especially a super nice iPhone, Android, etc., don’t keep it in a back pocket where it can get stolen, and DO NOT take it out on the metro/in the street/etc. Muggings can happen over expensive tech.

Getting phone service

Russia currently has three major phone service providers: MTS, Megafon, and Beeline. They have kiosks positioned throughout all the major cities, although service isn’t always great/available in more rural areas. Setting up a plan is as easy as choosing a tier you like, giving the phone to the shop assistant, and letting her do her thing… but this might not be the cheapest way, especially if you intend on making international calls.

Phone pay machine

A better way is to ask for a pre-paid plan (предоплата). For these plans, you have to periodically go to a kiosk or pay booth (which can be found in most shopping complexes) to charge up your phone, but it’s well worth it.

One unfortunate thing about using a cell phone in Russia is that if you buy your phone service in one city and then travel to another city and use it there, your roaming charges will be insanely high. In these situations, the cheapest way to make calls is just to use pre-paid phone cards rather than any sort of plan.

Getting mobile Internet service

MTS, Megafon, and Beeline all provide mobile Internet plans, usually through mobile hot-spots. Because this is Russia, their plans are not particularly fast, cheap, or reliable. If you don’t want to pay high fees for mediocre service, you could use a nearby Internet cafe or coffee shop. Кофе Хауз (Coffee House) is almost as ubiquitous as our Starbucks, and has free wi-fi (although it’s polite to buy something, and their coffee is expensive). If you don’t mind the noise, McDonald’s also has free wi-fi, and you can stay however long you want without buying anything.

5 Minutes to Get Excited About Taipei

You’re going to travel to Taipei. Plane tickets purchased, hotel rooms booked, Do’s and Dont’s memorized. But are you excited yet? If not, you’ll be pumped after watching this video of Taipei from film artist Salvo Severino.

While watching the video, keep an eye out for:

Serge Gainsbourg Would Totally Hate This Sing-Along

Singing is a great way to improve your accent. That’s because there’s more to accent than just your pronunciation. Inflection – the rising and falling pitches of the voice – also has a big impact on accent. In other words, don’t worry if you can’t roll your “R”s. Rhythm and pitch are more important.

I know you can see it coming. Time for a sing-along.

Caution:

If you’re not alone, then you have two choices:
1 – Wait until you’re alone.
2 – Pull up a chair and make your wife/brother/dog sing along. (Think of yourselves as the French Johnny Cash and June Carter.)

How to win:

You can win by…. Just kidding. You’re only a winner inside. (But we’ll give you bonus points for sending a video of yourself singing along.)

A big fat piece of advice:

Do not worry if you can’t understand. Curious? Here’s the scoop: Bonnie and Clyde did some bad stuff. The police wanted them. They died. Now get your hand off your dictionary and start singing!

Vous avez lu l’histoire
De Jesse James
Comment il vecut
Comment il est mort
Ca vous a plus hein
Vous en d’mandez encore
Et bien
Ecoutez l’histoire
De Bonnie and Clyde

Alors voila
Clyde a une petite amie
Elle est belle et son prenom
C’est Bonnie
A eux deux ils forment
Le gang Barrow
Leurs noms
Bonnie Parker et Clyde Barrow

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Moi lorsque j’ai connu Clyde
Autrefois
C’etait un gars loyal
Honnete et droit
Il faut croire
Que c’est la societe
Qui m’a definitivement abime

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Qu’est c’ qu’on a pas ecrit
Sur elle et moi
On pretend que nous tuons
De sang froid
C’est pas drol’
Mais on est bien oblige
De fair’ tair’
Celui qui s’met a gueuler

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Chaqu’fois qu’un polic’man
Se fait buter
Qu’un garage ou qu’un’ banque
Se fait braquer
Pour la polic’
Ca ne fait pas d’myster
C’est signe Clyde Barrow
Bonnie Parker

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Maint’nant chaq’fois
Qu’on essaie d’se ranger
De s’installer tranquill’s
Dans un meuble
Dans les trois jours
Voila le tac tac tac
Des mitraillett’s
Qui revienn’t a l’attaqu’

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Un de ces quatr’
Nous tomberons ensemble
Moi j’m’en fous
C’est pour Bonnie que je tremble
Qu’elle importanc’
Qu’ils me fassent la peau
Moi Bonnie
Je tremble pour Clyde Barrow

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

D’tout’ facon
Ils n’pouvaient plus s’en sortir
La seule solution
C’etait mourir
Mais plus d’un les a suivis
En enfer
Quand sont morts
Barrow et Bonnie Parker

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Effective way to learn Chinese characters

Screenshot of Skritter interface

If you are serious about learning Chinese, you already know that you’re in for a big challenge. Students of Chinese need to learn about 1,500 characters to be able to read the newspaper. Writing holds a high place in Chinese culture, which puts an emphasis not only on the shape of the character but also on the stroke order for each line. That’s a serious undertaking!

Luckily, there are modern tools that can help you study. Our favorite: Skritter.

Calling itself “the write way to learn Chinese and Japanese,” Skritter lets you draw characters onscreen. As you learn, it gives feedback and keeps track of your word list. Can’t quite remember that character? Ask for a hint, and you’ll see a faint shadow of the correct character. As you begin to draw, the outline fades away, forcing you to hold the image in your mind.

Screenshot of Skritter interface

Right kind of feedback

Feedback is a critical part of the language learning process. When you make a mistake, you need feedback to set you straight. But, too much feedback can be frustrating and actually slow down learning.

Skritter gives subtle feedback as you draw the characters, but doesn’t overwhelm you with info. The gentle prompts keep you tuned-in to the details.

They’re nerds, too

If we’ve made Skritter sound simple so far, that’s just because it’s easy to use. Actually, it satisfies all of our geeky cravings with its loads of features. Want to integrate with a dictionary? Check. Play audio clips to reinforce learning? Check. Add your own mnemonic clues? Check. Integrate with other Chinese-learning software? Check. (We could go on.)

These guys got it right. Computer-assisted language learning that is simple, friendly, and focused–all on top of a solid pedagogical foundation.

Way to go, Skritter. We think you’re awesome.

Taiwanese Night Markets

Night markets (夜市, ye4 shi4) are an essential part of Taiwanese culture. When visiting one of the many night markets, expect to experience a huge mix of Taiwan culture and people, all in one place. These are groups of stalls set up to sell food, drinks, clothing, and other random items, and though a few are permanent, most are set up on streets that are used normally during the day.

Even though they’re called night markets, the larger ones often start in the late afternoon, and begin to close up around midnight or 1AM.

Particularly famous (and recommended!) is ShiLin Night Market (士林夜市 shi4lin2 ye4shi4), which is one of the largest night markets in Taiwan and has a wide selection of food and clothing.

Food in Taiwan

Night markets sell every kind of Taiwanese food you could think of–and many you couldn’t. Some of the best include fried potato balls, oyster omelets, and any kind of fruit juice you could imagine. Some of the most unusual and unexpected include snails (boiled in giant pots; you pick the meat out with a toothpick), snake soup, blood sausage, and the infamous “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐, chou4 dou4fu). However strange or unappetizing these sound, they’re all worth a try—even something that smells and looks disgusting, like stinky tofu, can turn out to be delicious! Try bringing a Taiwanese buddy, who can point out the best foods, best prices and give you advice on ordering.

Fashion

Night-markets also showcase Taiwanese fashion styles. Taiwanese fashion is extremely different from American fashion, but that’s half the fun—you can revamp your wardrobe with clothes you’d never be able to get in America! Plus, Taiwanese clothes are made to fit the weather, with light colors and thin fabrics in the summer, usually not skin-tight since that can be sweaty and uncomfortable in humid climates. This means you’ll be even more prepared for the weather in Taiwan, as well as experiencing the varying styles in Taiwan.

A warning travel tip for women: although Taiwanese people do dress for the weather, they do so with light, thin fabrics—NOT by exposing more skin. Extremely low-cut shirts and other skimpy clothing is likely to be frowned upon, and may scandalize your Taiwanese hosts. Similarly, many public pools don’t allow bikinis or two-piece swimsuits, and do require swim caps for both men and women.

Fun in Night Markets!

Although many night markets are split into food and clothing areas, which I’ve discussed, the best advice I can give you is to explore! There are usually small stalls with trinkets, toys and souvenirs, as well as stalls featuring games with prizes. However, take the crowds seriously—night markets are literally packed with people, so be careful and don’t get lost! Keep track of the people you’re with, and hold onto each other when in large crowds because it’s easy to get separated. If you get overwhelmed or tired, there are often lounges, bars, or other sit-down areas in the very middle of the markets, where you can get a drink and relax.

Nightlife in Taiwan

Because weather in Taiwan in the summer is generally very hot, many people go out at night, when it’s cooler and a little less humid. This is also a great time for tourists to go out and explore the city, but being in a strange country at night can often be intimidating, and it’s better to know where you want to go and what you want to do before venturing out after dark. Here’s a sneak peek and a few words to the wise.

Film artist Salvo Severino combines beautiful footage from Taipei’s night markets with some downright food porn. The soundtrack–Yumenji’s Theme–was also used Wong Kar Wai’s classic drama/romance “In the Mood for Love.”

Don’t Get Stranded!

First of all, one important thing to note: The MRT lines run until around midnight, and bus lines often keep similar hours, so if you stay out after that it’s best to have a phone or ask a nearby Family Mart to call a taxi. Fortunately, this is sometimes unnecessary; many taxis drive around areas with an active nightlife and are easy to flag down, but it’s best to have a back-up plan just in case. If you’re out late, call Taiwan Taxi.

Check out a Night-Market

One of the most popular things to do at night is go to a night market. (See above.) Aside from visiting night markets specifically to explore and shop, they are often a good option if you’re just in the neighborhood and feel like grabbing a quick snack on your way to somewhere else.

Karaoke (KTV)

Another option for nighttime fun is going to do karaoke, or as the Taiwanese call it, KTV (Karaoke TV). For those who have never tried Asian-style karaoke, it’s quite different (and much less embarrassing) from American-style, which often takes place on a stage in a bar. When you go to a KTV (Holiday KTV is one cheap, easy-to-find, and high-quality example), you and your group of friends are assigned a usually soundproof room with couches around the walls facing a TV, along with several microphones. There is also a remote or a touch-screen that you can use to find and choose songs; most larger KTVs in Taiwan have a large selection of the most popular English, Korean, and Japanese songs in addition to Mandarin music, so you’ll definitely have many songs to choose from. A menu is also available from which you’ll be able to order snacks and drinks, which will be added to your tab to be paid when you leave. KTV is hugely popular among younger Taiwanese people, and a great thing for visitors to try!

Clubs, Bars, and Lounges

Taiwan has a large selection of clubs, bars, and lounges to choose from, some of which are geared toward international visitors. Some clubs (for example, Luxy in Taipei) have a so-called “Ladies’ Night,” when women get in free of charge. Other clubs (Lava and Wax, also in Taipei) have a general NT$300 cover charge (around US$10) with an all-you-can drink policy as long as you keep the wristband that comes with the cover charge. Bars and lounges are great places for those over 18 to relax and chat with friends after a long, hot day spent working or exploring the area.