Besides the basic stuff (passport, photo, fee, application), we needed a round-trip plane ticket, at least one hotel reservation, and an itinerary. We're traveling over land, via Laos, so we presented a detailed itinerary instead of plane tickets. For the hotel reservation, I emailed hotels where we plan to stay. The hotels confirmed right back, no deposit or credit card required. See more visa details here.Vicki and I like Yunnan province in southwest China. I've written about the area before, suggesting that the capital city Kunming or old Dali would make fine retirement choices. "Start with weather," I wrote. "Central Yunnan comes close to eternal spring. The area suffers none of the hot and sticky farther south or the cold and icy farther north."Move on to cost of living. Central Yunnan offers real bargains. Vicki and I routinely eat a Chinese breakfast for a buck or two, and a full splurge dinner for two with beer in a family-run restaurant is US$4 to US$7. A cab across town costs a dollar or two."You can spend less if you work at it. You can also spend more, as the boom here offers more and more high-end choice."If you choose to spend time in the area you face, or faced, two problems: visa and language. Now the visa problem has largely disappeared, at least for Americans. Just pop over to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Mongolia, or even Hong Kong or Macao for a week or two. Every now and again you might fly to Europe or the United States for longer stays. Return to China and you're good to go for another two months. China offers competitive airfares, including low-cost Air Asia flights to many cities in the region. The second problem, language, remained a challenge last time we were in Yunnan. Desk clerks in Chinese hotels (as opposed to international hotels), cab drivers, bus drivers, waiters, and sales clerks spoke no English at all. But, increasingly, students approached us to chat. And big wigs around town often spoke English perfectly. We met them at construction sites—engineers, I'd guess, or the developers themselves—or in the international hotels or on airplanes.Do more Chinese speak English today? I'll let you know. We plan to be there by the end of the month. Paul TerhorstEditor's Note: This is the best time in our lifetimes to consider Asia. This beautiful and exotic region is more open today than ever, and it's possible for Westerners to travel almost anywhere they'd want to go. Our newDiscover Asia Kit is 12 components in total, including audio recordings and illustrated country guides, as well as an over-100-page full-color guide to the region in general. Click here to learn more about some of the world's most exotic and affordable places.
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Recently Black Friday ceded its top retail spot to Singles Day in China. Singles Day started in the 1990s, rather than 400 years ago. China has a huge population, and Alibaba promotes Singles Day as a way for Chinese singles to buy something special for themselves. They do, to the tune of US$9 billion this year.I had another memorable Thanksgiving in London. In 1992 I came into a small amount of extra money and on a lark headed off to London to spend Thanksgiving with friends there. I stuck around into the Christmas season and went to hear the Messiah sung at St. Paul's Cathedral.In the old days in Chiang Mai, before huge numbers of Westerners moved here, Americans celebrated at least some holidays at the American consulate. But as more and more Westerners poured in, the consulate grounds became too small to handle the crowds. The last holiday fete celebrated there was Independence Day six years ago.These days Halloween and Christmas have caught on big time in Thailand. But Thanksgiving gets some play, too, and many restaurants offer traditional turkey dinners for US$10 or so. Although a handful of Thais celebrate Thanksgiving, for the most part Americans and other Westerners jam into these places on turkey day.We often skip the turkey specials but always choose to celebrate and give thanks for the good things that happened during the year. For our Thanksgiving in Penang we chose an Indian feast. In Argentina we usually had lavish asados, or barbecues, with five or six meat courses. One year we invited a young Argentine couple that was moving to Texas. Now, in Houston, they report that Thanksgiving has become their favorite American holiday. And they stick with the menu, a big asado with friends.This year in Chiang Mai Vicki and I will celebrate Thanksgiving at our favorite French restaurant, La Fourchette. We'll go with new friends, just the four of us. I'll have duck instead of turkey.Vicki and I tend to downplay holidays that merely mark the passage of time—birthdays, for example, or anniversaries or New Years. We prefer holidays organized around a theme, like Thanksgiving, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, or Labor Day. In recent years we've gone a step further and for Thanksgiving try to celebrate with new friends. After all, on Thanksgiving we celebrate the good things that happened during the year. And one of the best things that happens to us, or anyone, ever, is to make new friends.So that's it: Our favorite French restaurant, new friends, and thanks. What a simple way to celebrate.Paul Terhorst
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Also, you care less about the overall cost of living than you do about your cost of living. Take transport, for example. In Paris and Bangkok most people live without the required-in-Los-Angeles car. What do you care what a car costs in Paris if you intend to live without a car? Similarly, good wine costs a fortune in Bangkok, because of 400% Thai taxes. California wines are way overpriced. In France, on the other hand, very good wine costs as little as US$5 or US$10 a bottle, especially if you visit the winery. Your personal cost of living depends overwhelmingly on what you like to do and how you like to do it. If you enjoy French wine and duck, culture and history, and the European change of seasons, you might be able to set up life in France outside Paris at reasonable cost. Even in Paris if you can find a place to stay, you can buy unlimited transportation on buses, subways, and intra-city trains for less than US$100 a month. And you're living in Paris, where walks around town cost nothing, where the local Monoprix sells duck confit for only 10 euro a can (serves four), where you can meditate in a Gothic church down the block. Remember, too, that you can move around from place to place, from high cost to low and back again. Your average cost of living comes down if you include cheaper places more often. Moving around also means you avoid daunting visa requirements. Many people hate to move once they've settled in. Still, consider making yourself at home in several places, including renting the same place for the same three months, again and again. Return to your two or three favorite cities every year, like snowbirds. You'll find many other expats doing the same in Chiang Mai, Fort Cochi, Paris, San Miquel de Allende, Valencia, and Buenos Aires. Make it a point to skip the expensive wine in Bangkok, the car in Paris, and the elective surgery in Los Angeles. Never, ever buy glasses in Paris, go to the hospital in Seattle, or buy a new English-language book in Bangkok. Instead practice a little arbitrage. Buy dental care in Chiang Mai, walking shoes in Portland, and cheese in Paris. Buy glasses in Pondicherry, wine in Mendoza, and a new hip in Bangkok. Finally, take advantage of your wealth, of what you've managed to save from the work years. We read about billionaires who pay US$300 million for sailboats or US$50 million for paintings. A Silicon Valley investor just bought a huge penthouse apartment in San Francisco with only one bedroom, for himself. He'll put up his guests in the Four Seasons next-door. What do these very rich people care about thousand-dollar hotel rooms? On the joke list of the world's thinnest books comes "Things I Can't Afford" by Bill Gates. So you have something less than a billion dollars. But you may have enough to live in Paris or other expensive cities for at least a few months each year. If you're so inclined, go for it. You want to die having lived the good life rather than having avoided expensive places. Paul Terhorst
When I was small, growing up in Los Angeles, adults often told me at one time or another they were going to move to Australia. Taxes too high? Move to Australia. Too many Mexicans? Move to Australia. Medical care too expensive, government too intrusive, lousy education? Move to Australia.Later on when I was at Occidental College in Los Angeles, troubled students told me they wanted to move to Australia. Can't find a job? Life lacks meaning? Weary, disillusioned, searching? Move to Australia. In all those years no one I knew actually moved to Australia. Just talking about it seemed to solve problems. After all, how seriously can you take the high national debt when you're about to move to Australia any day now?Fast forward 40 or 50 years or so, and Australia long ago lost its place as an imagined refuge from America's problems. Today, Australia finds itself firmly in Asia's orbit. Australia shares time zones with Asia, and Sydney and Tokyo financial markets trade first in the 24-hour cycle. Australians travel to Asia on vacation. Asians move to Australia to start businesses and buy houses. Asian immigrants are encouraged to blend in and become Australian rather than stay buried in a former identity. Australia exports natural resources—iron ore, metals, and so on—to China, Japan, and Indonesia, and imports cars and other manufactures. Vicki and I see Australia as a cultural refuge when living in Asia. We like to be able to talk shop in proper English, read the daily paper and road signs, and find our way on a bus map. We enjoy the largely English culture. Sure, Australians speak with an accent and use different words at times. But we remain at ease while talking or reading.Australia makes a perfect destination for perpetual travelers, house sitters, and those wanting to do a couple of months of hiking, sailing, diving, or driving. Australia has three fine cities, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, that offer the urban good life.Remember the seasons are reversed here. Snowbirds from the north can come to Australia to enjoy the hot summer months of December, January, and February.Australia makes great wine at reasonable cost. A very drinkable Shiraz or Cabernet-Merlot blend costs between US$10 and US$15. I like the pub grub—bangers and mash, beef and mushroom pies—and the steaks and cheese. But your dining choices are many. In Sydney, I saw Malaysian, Japanese, Lebanese, Greek, American, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Argentine, and French restaurants.On this trip Vicki and I used Airbnb for the first time. Take a look at airbnb.com, which connects travelers with homestays around the world. Instead of staying in a hotel, we bought three nights in an apartment in downtown Brisbane. Usually, we like to show up in a place and find somewhere to stay once we're on the scene. However, this time, because of the festival, we wanted to book ahead. We searched online for hotels without finding one that suited our needs. Airbnb made for a good alternative. Americans and most Europeans get 90 days in Australia with a simple electronic visa, available online. To obtain residency, you have to submit to a point system. The rules change every so often, but if you're young, educated, and have skills the country needs, you'll come up with the required points. If you're retired and living on a pension, forget it. Australia wants to avoid having to pay for your medical expenses. Or at least that's my guess. Bottom line, Australia makes it difficult for retirees to settle here. Australia's main drawback is its cost. It's expensive. The Australian dollar appreciated so much over the past decade that prices of everything from food to real estate shot up in U.S. dollar terms. Lately the Australian dollar has backed off a bit, mainly because of low commodity prices. Some experts see the local dollar going back to historical levels. But until the exchange rate moves, figure on US$25 fish and chips in a pub or US$35 three-hour parking in town. Housing prices rival those of New York. In Brisbane we paid US$6 each for a short ride on the city bus. Think Asia, think Australia. Include a trip Down Under as part of your itinerary to the region, do a holiday here to escape your daily life in Vietnam or Thailand, or come for relief from European winters. Just don't try to live here; they won't let you in.Paul Terhorst
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Ukraine uses a different alphabet. So besides a language barrier, we can't read menus, street signs, or posters for upcoming ballets or concerts. We got around the problem by asking for help. Educated young people—those with the stylish clothes doing the public-face jobs in the higher-end places—often spoke English. Our favorite barman spoke German, which we could guess. We ate at "bistro" places, that is, cafeterias with steam tables. We could look at the food itself rather than menus. We also ate at a fine microbrew house across from the Hotel Lviv that had an English-language menu and a few English-speaking staff. Finally, we carried a small calculator in case we wanted to ask what something cost or to show someone our shoe size or to check on a bus we wanted, say. A smartphone with a translator app would have been handy, too. As for housing costs, let's start with our hotel. We stayed in a luxury room at the center-city Hotel Lviv for a special weekly rate of US$280 (US$40 a night). That price included Wi-Fi, breakfast for both of us every day, maid service, the works. So a month in a hotel costs US$1,200, or even less if you can negotiate a monthly discount. Hotels offer a big advantage: You only pay when you're there. While you're traveling around Eastern Europe, you check out of the hotel and eliminate that cost. In Lviv's central plaza we ran into a Ukrainian American, a retired school teacher from Chicago, who comes to see relatives in Lviv every year or two. On this visit he rented a furnished studio apartment in center city for US$320 all in, including utilities and Wi-Fi. He lucked into the unit because a friend of a friend had just moved out. You and I, with neither contacts nor language skills, might have a tougher time getting that great price, at least at first. Still, we can get lucky, too. Lviv Today, a local English-expat magazine with both printed and online editions, advertised a furnished three-room apartment, renovated, great view, across from city hall, for US$900 a month. We also saw ads for an apart-hotel at about US$35 a night. A half-liter of draft beer in an outdoor cafe costs less than a dollar, lunch at one of the bistros maybe two or three dollars. (Girls attending the bistro counter tended to weigh the food over and over, as portions were often priced by weight.) A bus or tram ride costs 20 cents, ballet tickets US$8, a half-liter of local "cognac" US$7, and a bus to Poland US$2. Several places offered a two-course lunch deal for a couple of bucks, served from noon to 5 p.m. Eat a late lunch and you can segue directly from the blue-plate special into happy hour. We saw many locals who appeared to do exactly that. Lvivians love their vodka—something like US$6 a liter—and beer. Why so cheap? Recent political unrest in Kiev, followed by war in the east, tanked the currency. The exchange rate went from 8:1 a few years ago to 12:1 today. I was in Ukraine three years ago and found it cheap back then. Now it's dirt cheap. One final note: Center-city Lviv street signs show arrows pointing to Ukraine's capital, Kiev, several hundred miles away. In my experience Europeans refuse to use north, south, east, and west. Years ago a girl on a London sidewalk, after I'd asked if I was heading east, assured me, "We don't have east around here." So, consistent with European attitudes, Lviv signs showed "Kiev" as a surrogate for "east" or "northeast" or even "this way out of town." I got a kick out of the concept. Imagine someone trying to navigate Chicago's Loop, say, relying on helpful street signs that point to Washington, D.C. Paul Terhorst
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