Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flying in and first full day
A 6 hr. flight and it’s raining, 80F when we land at 10p. It is a complicated airport; I have to take 3 different trains after landing. I’m unable to use my ATM card. (I find out later that BB&T blocked my card with my first foreign transaction. I had called, but that clearly wasn’t enough. Using them less in future. This is why you have to have a backup money system. Bring cash and a credit card too.) I exchange some cash and will concentrate on using my Visa (from a different bank), something I did not use in Seoul.
The taxi driver is chatty during 45 minute ride into city. A nice man. He was not sure where my hotel was but took me to the area and made me stay in car while he checked it out to make sure I would be safe. It was midnight before I got into room. Area and hotel is a bit dicey. But they had my reservation and it was clean enough. Ok clean-ish. Travel Life can be easier if you have low standards. No toilet paper, only a spray nozzle which took me awhile to figure out how to use. Actually I like it very much just want toilet paper to dry off with. No phone service on my cell but Internet works. Took me several minutes to figure out how to use the shower. It has an on-demand heater which needed to be reset to work. The control was not obvious so the first half of my shower was cold, but as hot as it is outside, it was not so bad. The air-conditioning has not been on for hours so the room is hot, the windows are not sealed well.
I slept we’ll and had to turn off the air conditioner it got so cold. In the morning I was able to call out to my friend Karen using the hotel phone (they charged me a few cents). I had a quick coffee to wake up, still have jet lag and really needed it to find directions to the mall she had me meet her at. Karen met me at a Starbucks in an hour and obviously made good time driving into the city. She spent the entire day driving me around– a true luxury for me. It’s obvious that this city is in constant motion and rebuilding itself. So much construction. Kuala Lumpur was a British territory and only became independent half a century ago. But you can see the influences. They drive on the left, fill the tank with petrol and have tea. But the national religion is Islam and there is a significant Chinese and Indian population in addition to the native Malay.
It is quite a mix here and unlike Seoul, I did not stand out so much. The area I’m in is a tad sketchy, but interesting and as long as I stay in lighted public places will be as safe as one can expect in any major city of the world (include Atlanta). There is a high petty crime, though the incidence of injury during a purse snatching is higher here than most places. Karen tells me they tend to cut the purse from you and women get sliced at the same time. (My mother is going to hate reading this.)
Karen took me to the mall at the Petronas Towers, which are the major feature of the KL skyline. We went to Little Penang a favorite restaurant inside the mall. We had wonderful noodle dishes, then stopped at another place for traditional sweets, heavy in coconut milk. Then she drove me to the KL tower where we went to the top. I took too many photos from the top, but am not sure what I’m looking at most of the time. We drove through the botanical garden and past the king’s palace—places she recommended I come back to. Malaysia has 14 states and most have a sultanate. The kingship is rotated between the sultans for 5 year terms. The royal families are not well loved by the people owing to their lavish lifestyle and that they seem to be above the law.
We make a photo stop at Merdeka Square (independence Square) where the British lowered their flag for the last time in 1957, granting independence to Malaysia. This is where the British influence can most easily be seen. There is a British fountain that dates to before 1900 and a large green lawn that once was for playing cricket. There are colonial buildings ringing the green. Two buildings across the street are lovely old Moorish designs. Karen recommends I come back to this area for a closer inspection. I realize from the map that they are fairly close to Chinatown, where I’m staying.
Karen took me to the cultural arts mall filled with handcrafted items and I found a few small gifts. Karen bought a beautiful hand carved stool for her mother in law, to match one she bought her earlier. Its ingenious design makes it easy to break down for travel. The prices were wonderful. I have little room for purchases so I cannot buy much.
Tomorrow Karen will help her mother prepare the big family meal for the day before Chinese New Year, then the next day she has extended family plans. I was so lucky that she would take time out to spend time with me. Such a gift. The traffic is difficult to negotiate and I could not have rented a car and seen half so much. And she explained so much as we drove around. She married an American and moved to The States with him a few years ago, but keeps her Malaysian citizenship and visits every year at this time. It must have been a huge decision to leave her country, but she seems to be thriving.
I wander this evening, replacing my flip flops (20RGH) buying a new memory card for my camera 25.90RGH. Exchange rate is roughly 3RGH to 1USD. I see live frogs and eels just waiting for someone to order them for dinner—talk about fresh! I stop at a street cafe, write up these notes then head for bed early.
Malay words: terima kasih– thank you
Selamat pagi–good morning
Selamat petang— good evening
KL, day 2
Malay word of the day: Keluar, exit.
Everyone calls Kuala Lumpur simply KL. It’s an easy shorthand and I quickly adopt it.
Saw a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl first thing this morning. Gave him some money and then took a photo. Monks are not allowed to own much more than their clothing and begging bowl.
Hot today, no rain expected. Sweltering by 9a. High temperature expected to be over 90F. The night market outside my hotel has completely transformed to a driving street, but sidewalk sales continue. These are mostly just a blanket thrown down and the merchandise arranged on top. They are doing a brisk business but it makes it impossible to be a pedestrian. You have to walk in the street as the sidewalks are simply too crowded.
I find a hop on/off bus (38RGH for 24 hours) before 9 and my first stop is Little India. A lovely elephant fountain in center but the neighborhood is small and quiet at this hour. Perhaps it comes alive at night. Women in lovely saris walk by. I see a bird with a bill too big for its body and a stripe of sky blue on the wings. So many birds, trees and flowers I’ve never seen. I wonder what the trees are. Banyan? Huge with air roots that stretch from upper limbs to the ground.
Crossing the street is tricky but not as bad as some countries and at major intersections there are walking signs.
I have been drinking only bottled water, though it seems like it would be OK to drink from the tap. Two bottles of water are supplied in my room each day as part of the price.
Next stop, new KL Central Train Station where you can check into an airline, even baggage. This is the only train station with an airline code, XKL. The old one is nearby and a real landmark. White building with Moorish arches and minarets built in 1911, to British standards. It includes an iron roof that can withstand 3ft of snow. Like that could ever happen here! This old building was replaced by the new one in 2001 that is state of the art.
National Museum: Of all the Asian tourists, I can usually pick out the Japanese. They look at nothing, run through exhibits taking pictures. A woman with 2 children is positively rude, pushing and walking in front of everyone to endlessly pose her children in front of every exhibit. Incongruously they flash a V sign in every photo. Nice 2 story museum only 5RGH. Prehistory, Malay kingdoms and colonial period. Called Muzim Negaea, housed in the reproduction of a traditional Malay palace.
If I were to collect something that had to be dusted, it would be teas pots and cups. I would be very tempted here, but don’t know how people carry such heavy, fragile things. I collect experiences and digital photographs. So much lighter to carry.
Stop at the king’s palace, but just for 10 minute photo op. You cannot go inside the huge gates, marked like the ones at Buckingham Palace. The king-ship is a five year rotating position among the 10 sultans in the country.
The Lake Garden area is part of an extensive green space and the unusual parliament building looks over it. Karen had driven me by this area and I knew I wanted to visit today. I spend an hour in the world’s largest aviary, 21 acres. I can only identify a few birds. Several unusual varieties of dove, stork, owl and raptor. To stay hydrated I have a young coconut water drink, served in an actual coconut. Then a bubble coffee (iced coffee with tapioca pearls and a large bore straw). I’ve already drank 3 bottles of water and it is only noon. My shirt is soaked through with sweat but if you can sit in the shade with a cool drink it is possible to get comfortable. I only hope I still have some sunscreen left. I am a pasty woman who burns easily.
Waiting for the bus at each stop is always too long. The brochure says 20 minutes. The drivers say 30, but 45 is more like it.
10 minute stop at Titiwanga. There is a large structure and it may be a temple. They really don’t explain it. Manicured grounds with man made lake. The sky is lovely with puffy clouds and a blue color. I get several good photos from the bus of the Petronas Twin Towers and skyline. They are among the largest twin towers in the world. There is a sky bridge that is free but they only allow 800 tickets a day.
Loved listening to the taxi drivers. At first I could not understand them but eventually I realized they were speaking “malenglish”. Or is it maglish?
KL is built on a river, and was a mining area for tin. Mining caused the river to be muddy and the name KL means “muddy confluence.”
KL Tower (Menara KL) is the 5th largest communication tower in the world. I went up yesterday with Karen. At the base is Malaysia’s oldest nature reserve, 27 acres, and the only green space remaining in the center of city. The tower building plan was changed to preserve the area and to avoid killing a rare 100 year old jelutong tree.
Stopped at a traditional craft center, Kompleks Budaya Kraf. Much pottery, batik cloth, woven baskets and silver. By now it is 2:40 and I’m beginning to get tired and hungry. I’ll soon be back in Chinatown (if the bus ever comes back) and will get something there.
I continue to be surprised at the types of dress–it is very hot but I see people wearing sweaters. And the women are very covered with long sleeves and head coverings. They must be burning up. But the official religion is Islam, so half the women have heavy scarves covering head, hair and neck. I see no veils or burkas. Few of the women are dressed in black as in Egypt, a sign of respect for a married woman.
Found temple Sri Maha Mariamman, near Chinatown. It is the private shrine of a Tamel family of Southern India, built in 1863, but moved to this site in 1885. Today it is KL’s main Hindu temple. Seems like it would have been in Little India.
Figured out why I keep Smelling aftershave in my room–it is the young Asian men next door. I passed them in the hall and they must have been bathing in it. Guess they plan on a hot night out!
At 3:30p I am back to my hotel for a quick rinse and let my clothes air out. It is the main reason I like a central hotel. While lying on the bed I notice the arrow marked “kiblat”. This tells you what direction to face Mecca when you say your prayers 5 times a day.
Also found Chan See Shu Yuen Temple, which I had stumbled on yesterday. It is not open today. Built around 1900, is one of finest examples of southern Chinese architecture in Malaysia. Elaborate pottery tiled roof with glasses ceramic statues. This Buddhist temple is devoted to clan worship, and I’m sorry I could not go inside. On the way there I hear the call to prayer. Am surprised this is the first time I’ve heard it.
I have dinner at a sidewalk cafe, a noodle dish with shrimp and tofu with vegetables. It is quite spicy. The bill has the first tax I’ve seen. Karen warned me not to tip. It is simply not done here.
Last day in KL
I slept 11 hours last night. I woke up occasionally to the sound of fireworks ringing in the Chinese New Year but was too exhausted to go out to see. All the travel and heat has gotten to me. But sleep heals and I was in the shower by 6 am. Not sure what I’m doing today so have packed up everything. Ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Checkout is noon, but if I can get a day tour I will have to be ready. All the tours I am interested in need a minimum of two, but I’ve arranged with the guy who books tours to be on standby. If not, there is a Taoist temple where I can get my fortune read and I may get a foot massage. My plane leaves at 10p and I need to allow an hour to get to the airport.
The street outside is mostly deserted at 7am, and the remains of firecrackers are everywhere. The street sweepers are doing a very poor job.
I have a huge breakfast. Have decided that I should eat heaviest in morning then focus on liquids for rest of day, after the heat sets in. I go to a nearby hotel that is slightly better than mine. They will not let me buy breakfast at my hotel. Not entirely sure why but I suppose that if you did not arrange it when you selected the hotel it is not an option later. The better hotel breakfast is extensive, 50 (about $15). Mostly Indians staying here. Lovely saris. Breakfast is like a fashion show.
I walk to the tourist office but it has a sign that they are closed for the New Year! I stop a bus driver and he shows me a back way into the office and says they are open. So silly not to let people know. The man I made arrangements with yesterday is nowhere to be found. I cannot take my first choice tour but am told I can get a half day tour out of the city to the Batu caves. Except they won’t let me book it. I stand there for 15 minutes and they won’t take my money. First they have some urgent paperwork to do so I must wait, though I am the only person at the counter. Then they take 3 people in front of me that they say need to leave immediately. Then, just as they finally are reaching for my card, 5 people rush in and they say they will wait on them first. So I leave. The man is yelling but I ask if he will take my reservation NOW. He says yes, just as soon as he has waited in these 5 others. I walk out. I have trouble doing business with Indians. Perhaps I don’t understand what they are thinking, or I don’t get the culture, but I often just throw up my hand and walk out. My most frustrating business dealings have all been with Indians. Maybe it is me? But I will not beg someone to do business with me. My theory is that if they are not organized enough to take my money in under 30 minutes, they probably aren’t organized enough to do business with.
I try to find the Taoist temple but can’t. My map seems clear so perhaps it is gone or marked wrong. I realize how close I am to the river and Merdeka Square. There is a lovely fountain there shaped like a huge tree with hanging pitcher plants. The architecture is very special here. One side English Colonial and the other Moorish.
I walk the Merdeka square and help a few people take photographs of their group. One family ask if I will pose with their family in front of the flagpole.
One of the most beautiful buildings is a Moorish style Textile Museum. It is free, has lovely examples of batik, embroidery and weaving. The gift shop has beautiful things though higher priced than at the two craft centers I’ve seen. But it does not matter because my bag is too full now.
I make it back to the hotel by 11a which gives me a chance to take a very quick rinse in the shower, charge my cell phone and send a final email to my mother before leaving for Thailand tonight. They agree to hold my bag for me.
I am beginning to learn how to get around. Quite by accident I find the Taoist temple and it is very busy with people burning incense, paper money, and praying. Very rowdy place. There is a metal pole that everyone takes turns lifting and dropping. It seems to be good luck to get it to bounce. There are statues to touch and prayer wheels to turn. No idea what is going on but as the first day of the New Year I imagine these are rituals to insure luck and prosperity in the Year of the Snake. The small temple is built at an awkward angle in accordance with the rules of Feng Shui (wind water). Built in 1864 by Yap Ah Loy, the 3rd Kaptain China, or Headman of the Chinese community. He was very influential and connected to the first British residents who arrived around 1873, mostly to mine tin. He is considered one of the founding fathers of modern KL.
I go to the Central Market again and am tempted by the painted wooden masks but have no room for them. I try to see Masjid Jamek, the Friday Mosque, the most important and oldest surviving mosque in the city. It is one of the few places with coconut trees in the city and sits at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Built in 1900, this is where the first settlers arrived. I cannot get inside the compound and only have photos over the wall and across the rivers. The water is muddy and smells quite polluted. From the looks of it, the river floods too.
Back to Merdeka Square. What my guide book identifies as the National Museum is now a restaurant, Restoran Warisan. But beside it is the new City Museum with a pictorial history. They also identify the banyan and raintrees for me. They give guided history walks and if I had known it I would have come here first thing to sign up for them. I have missed them all today, but it is hard to know everything and my guidebook is out of date. This is a nice, brand new museum. Oddly, they are playing Christmas music, odd in February.
I stop at the restaurant and have an iced coffee to get off my feet. I always stop in the ladies room of any decent restaurant I’m in. So lucky with clean bathrooms. Though most have both a “throne” and a hole (squatty potty) I have not had to use the latter, tho will if needed. The nozzle used to wash your bottom is also used to wash the feet before prayer, so the floors are always wet. Since this is done 5 times a day, the tile floors never dry.
I visit St Mary’ Cathedral, an English Gothic style, built in 1895. People were still milling around after the Sunday service so I was allowed inside the small building to take photographs.
I take a taxi (taksi, 10.20) to the largest Chinese temple, Thean Hou. Everyone is going and the roads are blocked with cars. My driver lets me off at the bottom of the hill, one of the highest in the city. It’s a long walk up and when I arrive it looks like a carnival. This is a three tier building and naturally the festivities are at the top of several flights of stairs. First I accept water from the Quan Yin fountain as a blessing. Then take a photo of my Chinese zodiac animal, the boar (please have the courtesy to act surprised that my animal is a pig!). I manage to pet the head of the dragon during the dragon dance which is very good luck.
Another taxi (7.90) takes me back to Chinatown, taking some back streets I did not know of. One had a huge sports stadium mostly for basketball!
Today the Chan See Shu Yuen temple is open! Several B&W photos honor members of the Chan clan. And another temple beside it that is not in my guidebook. All temples require you to remove your shoes before entering but ask no admission and no one minds if you take photos. There are many offerings, mostly of flowers and fruit, plus incense.
I recognized my first transvestite, and if he had not spoken I would not have realized. Karen told me that this is an accepted practice here. And he/she was really beautiful. My guidebook, however, says that gay and lesbian travelers are not encouraged.
On my way to the last two temples I took what I thought to be a shortcut, a narrow back alley. At first I was not concerned since there were lots of others there and it was broad daylight. Once in the middle of it I realized that I was the only woman and the men seemed surprised I was there. I got uncomfortable stares. These were local men, certainly not tourists. They were going in and out two narrow doors, obviously guarded and unmarked. The guards kept an eye on me, but they should not have been concerned. Nothing could have gotten me to go inside. At the side of the street were narrow tables. They seemed to be selling tobacco and pills. I didn’t stick around, just held my head high and walked with a purpose out of the area. Tried not to stare or make an expression. No one bothered me, but I was relieved to be out. Not quite sure what was going on. This situation is easier now that I am older and less appealing to young men—I attract less attention when I’m in a bad location. But it has a downside. I sit at a restaurant and no one notices me. I time it and am there for 10 minutes. Three couples come in and all are waited on. Since I really wanted service, I get up and leave. At the next place I make contact with the waiter as soon as I sit down and tell him what I want, so I’m not ignored. If I were not so honest I know I could walk away without paying my bill because no one usually checks on me.
I take a taxi to the airport, but I arrange the price first. He asks 90 and I say it was only 75 to get here. We agree on 80. Good thing I did this because I don’t see a meter in his cab. The rates posted on the window are old and illegible, what I can read does not match the last cab I was in. I can recognize nothing on the way back to the airport because I was so tired and it was dark and rainy.
The taxi is a Proton, a Malaysian made car. Imported cars are heavily taxed. Driving out I can see terraced fields beside wide highways. Despite the holiday the roads are almost empty. The cars are mostly taxis. The radio is an English station but I have never heard any of these songs. I notice the driver’s fingernails are manicured and the nails on the little fingers are very long. Most of the cars have air freshener, a bottle of liquid that fits into an air vent. These are advertised on the radio constantly as we drive alone.
We make good time to the airport, 40 minutes. I cannot check into Egypt Air for another hour because the counter isn’t open. That can’t be a good sign. But it all works out. Eventually.
Some assorted photos:
Seoul, Korea, one day layover on my way to Malaysia
The flight from Atlanta to Seoul is about 14 hours. It’s mostly uneventful. Thankfully.
I take the airport limo bus into the center of the city. Impressions: Mountains, terraced farms and a terraced cemetery. It is record cold in Seoul and never gets above 25F with a substantial wind chill. There is snow from a couple days before, but roads and sidewalks are mostly clear. Inchon airport is on an island off the coast of Korea. The ocean looks frozen and it takes an hour and a half to get to the center of the city, where my hotel is. We pass wind turbines just as we reach the coast. Trees in parks are pruned and staked, similar to Japan but not quite as rigid. I have 23 hours in this city. I’m here for two reasons: 1. I had to have a layover somewhere and I’ve never been to Korea and 2. This is an easy city to teach English in, something I may want to do in the future. I want to check out the culture and see if I think this is somewhere I want to land for a year.
You can’t help but compare what you are seeing now with what you’ve seen before. The mind understands categorizing. The city of Seoul reminds me of Shanghai. It is new and large with little of the old peeking through. The shops have roll up garage doors for security at night. Most of their doors are sliding glass. The traffic is heavy, though not as bad as Shanghai. They drive on the right and follow traffic signals (unlike Cairo). The few old style buildings so far look like those in the Forbidden City in Beijing. They are wooden structures, clay tile roofs with statues on the roof line corners to protect them.
The city also reminds me of Tokyo. The bushes are sculpted, the trees staked. Nature must be pruned and prodded. It is clean with no trash or graffiti and people obey the crossing lights even when traffic is light (though the occasional motorcycle will drive around standing cars which would not happen in Tokyo). On the street are elaborately packaged fruits for gifts. They are tied in large pieces of gold cloth when sold. The cloth serves as both a wrapping and convenient carrying case. Shoppers are preparing for Chinese New Year (here known as Spring Festival).
I find my hotel with little difficulty. It’s an hour and a half limousine bus ride from the airport. Cost 14,000 Korean won (roughly 14 USD). The bus driver pointed me toward the hotel and I only over shot it by a block. A young couple helped me when I realized I was lost. Looked up a map on their smart phones and directed me, excited to use their English. Did not see a taxi or might have gotten one.
My hotel room is clean and spare. It is almost large enough for an efficiency apartment with extensive closet space and a kitchenette (washer/dryer, fridge, cabinets, microwave, hot pot, but no stove). With the addition of a hot plate and a toaster oven, it would be as complete as mine at home. It has an electric kettle, almost exactly like the one I bought for my mother at Buford Highway Farmers Market. My room is stocked with Maxim brand coffee sachets available in the same market.
By the time I got checked into the hotel it was 8:30p and I’m tired. I explored for less than an hour but fell into bed, partly from travel exhaustion and partly just to warm up. I woke up about every hour but went back to sleep until 4:30a when the caffeine headache made worse by jet lag kicks in and won’t let me rest.
Before breakfast I walk to the Namdaemun Street Market across the street, mostly dried fish, seaweed, nuts, fruit and other food. It is well below zero with packed snow and the wind whipping right thru you. They are setting up their stalls. I am the only tourist, but get few stares. They are busy and ignore me.
Breakfast is the usual odd conglomeration I’ve seen in Asia. While you’ll find eggs, coffee, cereal, fruit and toast but also 4 kinds of soup, several salads and even French fries. Of course rice and seaweed. I try the water chestnut salad with dried bananas. And the Kim chi. I am the only non Asian. The room is decorated as in European style. Van Gough’s Sunflowers. Picasso. The Kiss by Klimt. Many guests make a sandwich on white Wonder Bread. People eat a very big breakfast, three plates and more even the young, tiny waist, well dressed women. This is not fair.
I have gloves, hat and winter coat but it is not enough to keep warm. I put on 3 shirts and wrap another around my neck like a scarf. Where is my scarf? I wear shorts under my one pair of long pants to help cut the wind. The high temps of the day are still below freezing and the wind is the real killer. But these improvised precautions help. And at least it is a sunny day. There is ice and snow, but it must have come a few days ago because most areas have narrow paths. I’m grateful the day turns out to be sunny, but this is unseasonably cold for Seoul and I had not quite prepared well enough.
At 8a I take a taxi to the palace, Deoksugung. I have a guide book that I show to the driver and he understands the characters. He makes a point of having me repeat the word to help me, not him. He is friendly and smiles. The 10 min trip costs 3600 won and I hand him 5000 ($5) as he smiles brightly. Americans tip. I think it’s partly because tipping is such an important part of our service industry in the US, but it’s also because it is tough to think of foreign currency as anything but Monopoly money. It does not seem real.
If it were warm I might have walked. If I had more than a just few hours to spend in the city, I would try to figure the subway. But taxis are inexpensive. Truly frugal travel takes time, often time to get lost. The palace is not open yet, so I walk about. They don’t open for 2 hours, so my guidebook is wrong. There is a permanent Rodin exhibit and a special Tim Burton at the nearby art museum. After only half an hour I am too cold and find a coffee shop.
There is another non-Asian, but her nose is in her phone and she does not notice me. I realize my caffeine headache is finally gone–5 cups of coffee later. Or maybe it was the ibuprofen kicking in. I started with my first cup before 5am. The young man running the coffee shop understands my coffee order in English. Fortunately the word “coffee” is understandable in most languages. Such an important beverage, so it’s no coincidence. You can say “tea” or “chai” and be understood in most languages too. The power of caffeine! Like Europe there are separate prices for sitting down or to-go–about 20% less to take the cup out. The china cup is colorful, lovely but I’m paying for heat. The bill arrives face down, taped to a piece of wood. It’s 4,000, more than my taxi tide. And a small price to pay to warm up.
Entrance to palace is 1000. It takes less than an hour to tour, very clean. Buildings very like the Forbidden City, Beijing, China– lattice work windows and open floor plans. Would be impossible to heat. The grounds are about the size of 2 city blocks. Little English signage, but I’ve been given a guidebook I can read. Frankly it’s too cold to do so now, so this will have to wait until I get home.
Then a walk to Daedaemun Gate–one of the original entrance gates to the city when it was walled. The wall is long gone. I’m headed to the shopping district behind it. Wholesale clothing and accessories, fair quality, good prices. I got what I thought was a cashmere scarf for 10,000. Later it turned out to be “Casmera,” 100% acrylic. Ah well, the cold makes it hard to concentrate on details. It was warm, which was all I really cared about. I replaced a lens cap for my camera that I lost and got a clear filter to cover the lens to keep from scratching it. Total 20,000 won. No sales tax.
And that’s all I have time for. I catch the airport limo bus back. It runs every 30 minutes and was exactly on time. I was the only person on the bus, just like last night, but riders joined the closer we got to the airport. I wish I had more time but got a surprising amount done for 23 hours plus jet lag. The ride to the airport takes about 2 hours.
Have decided the people’s attitude and reaction toward me is somewhere between Chinese and Japanese. They are not as surprised or aggressive as in China. They mostly ignore me, though not nearly as much as in Japan. If I smile, a man will acknowledge me with a slight head bow. The older women usually act as though I did not look at them. The young children are surprisingly rowdy and loud, though it seems to all be in good fun, not rudeness. A very homogeneous population. I only see Asians, and assume them all to be Korean, of course, but their skin tone, height, build and hair are almost exactly alike.
Thoughts as I ride the bus to the airport: Surprised by all the coffee houses. May see 2-4 on each block, mostly independent. Museum wedding hall? Few poor translations on signs. There is little English but enough. The elevators in the hotel talk to you and only spoke English. Lots of statues but all are modern art.
I have bulgogi for dinner before boarding plane for 6 hour flight. It’s like Korean BBQ, thinly sliced and spicy beef.
This is the first part of an extensive SE Asia trip. From here I fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia then I fly to Bangkok, which is broken into three posts: One Week in Thailand (2013) Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Some assorted photos:
This is the third part of my trip to China in February 2011
When we get to the airport at Shanghai we meet our city guide, Andy. All these made up American names seem wrong with these young Chinese guides. Andy is newly married and boasts that he and his wife can have 2 children if they choose. As we drive into the city Andy tells us about Shanghai, which is the New York of China. The skyline is tall buildings, but few of them were here 15 years ago. The city is near the ocean, though we never see it. It is built along the Huangpu River in an alluvial plain. The large buildings are a mistake, though. The city is sinking at 2 centimeters a year.
Our hotel is the Bund Riverside Hotel, located on Beijing Street and the canal. We have a glassed in elevator and I take a few city shots. At the other hotels, they kept all the “foreign devils” like us on the same floor, but here we are scattered about. There are at least 2 weddings going on (on a Monday!) and the elevators are very slow.
Before dinner I take a quick walk along the Nanjing (former Nan King) Road, now a pedestrian shopping area, with very high prices. The place is lighted up at night! I have to finally get really mean with some of the street sellers, peddling knock offs: Louis Vinton bags, Monte Blanc pens, silks, and gadgets. They are relentless. I’m surprised by the number of American fast food places when I travel. I see more KFCs abroad than at home. And McDonald’s is everywhere. The area is only 3 blocks from my hotel and there is a world of difference in the two streets between—clearly not a tourist area. And the hotel is in a metal working, engine parts area—odd.
We have an optional dinner and cruise along the Bund of the Huangpu River. Everyone opts in for a change. The dinner is fine, but I wish they would stop bringing so many dishes. I am full and find that we are only half done every time!
The cruise is lovely, though the boat is crowded and we were pushed badly. A few people were knocked down trying to get onto the boat. I have never seen such rudeness! The oldest member of our group is knocked to the ground and even Stone, a strong young man, is pushed into a bench and has the wind knocked out of him. Andy tells us this is common behavior in his country. Being first is very important. It is so cold and windy, but I stay on top long enough to take several pictures of the buildings, which are lighted from 9-11p. It costs $600,000 a day to light them! The Bund is the “concessions” area—between the great wars people were subject only to the laws of their own country, not China’s. The Bund was the British area, and nearby was the French Concession. Many of the parks and nice hotels would not allow Chinese to be in them, except to clean. This was the place to be in the 1920-30’s, wild and opulent. It has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world (second to Miami, Florida).
February 28, Walking the Bund
We start the morning with a walking tour of the Bund, along the side of the Huangpu River. This is where we sailed last night and in the daylight it is a different world. Andy, our city guide, explains how the traffic works in Shanghai. Students start class at 7am. Office workers start at about 9:30am, after getting their children off to school. Because traffic is so bad through the day, construction is done overnight—which explains why it is cloudy and dusty each morning. It’s hard to see the sun, though it clears by mid-morning. Construction is at a fast pace, nearly 5000 building and roadwork sites in Shanghai alone. Andy admits that this is government sponsored to keep people working—the recession has hit them as well as the rest of the world. He glumly reports that their unemployment has risen to 4.5% and is surprised to hear that in our country this is considered full employment.
He discourages us from buying the “knock off” purses, clothing and electronics. He says that the homework is so heavy, even starting in kindergarten, that it is physically impossible to do it all yourself. Even in the sandbox, children learn they have to copy to succeed. They are also taught to memorize and recite. But not to be creative, original, inventive. They expect there is one right answer to each thing and innovation is not encouraged. In this constantly changing world, they must find it very hard. But he explains this is why they copy the designs of others, not come up with something original.
Shanghai is like New York, and even has the Wall Street of China. There is even a “bull” statue along the Bund. Andy tells us that the latest greeting in Shanghai is no longer “how are you” or “have you eaten” but “how are your stocks?”
There is a fancy tourist tunnel going under the Bund, but it is very expensive. Andy says don’t bother. Take the subway or a ferry to get across if you want. We have some free time to walk around and see the park (a “whites only” park during the British Concession). As has happened virtually every day, Katie and Katherine are late coming back. Neither has a watch. Neither will take the clocks on the building seriously, nor will they check the time on their cell phones. Personally, I think it’s Katie who uses this as a way to get attention. Katie considers herself an expert on China and is constantly throwing out some erroneous “fact,” bossing someone around, and occasionally pushing and shoving. Let’s just say she is “hard to love.” Unfortunately, most every tour has a “Katie”. She is probably just a lonely, bossy woman whose grade school reports cards read “does not play well with others.”
From here we go to a “wet market,” a farmers market on steroids. Stone buys us some Chinese “pizza,” ingredients stuffed between two flakey crusts. Marco Polo is credited with bringing pizza to Italy, but Stone insists that this food was first in China. Polo “forgot” how to stuff the ingredients into the crust after he got back and simply put them on top of the flatbread. There are beautiful, fresh vegetables, fresh tofu, noodles, dumplings, beans and rice of every description. There are even blocks of congealed blood (cubed and used in soups). But the live poultry seems to upset some of the ladies. The couple from Wisconsin raises chickens and beef. They remind the ladies that if they eat meat they should remember where it comes from. I’m most fascinated by the varieties of fish—many of which are alive. The buckets of live eels and shrimp are simply bubbling! Frogs are netted together, a dozen to a bunch. I feel bad about the soft shell turtles, which are endangered. One of the food venders holds freshly baked bread out to me to buy saying, “I love you.” I doubt he knows what the words mean since he said them just like, “here is some fresh bread.”
We are taken to lunch at a Mongolian BBQ, with real Mongolians doing the cooking on a huge drum shaped cooking surface! You choose what you want from 4 types of meat, several vegetables (including lots of sliced lotus root) and toppings like garlic, ginger, sesame oil and hot peppers. Hand your bowl of ingredients through the window marked “put the food” and retrieve it 5 minutes later at the window marked “let the food.” But there is no way to know which bowl is yours in the end because the bowls look exactly alike and the contents all look like a brown mass. Hum, another missed opportunity for great presentation.
We also go to a silk carpet sales factory. No one buys anything. This is my third carpet sales stop (Turkey and Egypt) and I’m over carpets. These are amazing, well made, and lovely. But even a small floor carpet costs more than my entire trip to China. Not gonna happen.
From here we see the Yu Yuan Garden, which occupies about 5 acres and was built during the Ming Dynasty by a high ranking government official for his aging parents. The gardens are intricate, carefully landscaped. It features pavilions, ponds, cloisters, streams and six completely different “scene zones.”
There are several dragon walls, where a corner will have an elaborate dragon head and the top of the wall undulates to represent the snake-like body. It is clear that dragons have a completely different meaning to the Chinese than to us. Having the power of a dragon meant that you had control over water. This mean that you controlled the weather (rain), agriculture, and even fire (the biggest threat to wooden buildings). This is another place that we see these extensive “rockeries.” I appreciate them and understand just getting the rocks and transporting them, installing them must have been very expensive. But I do not find them attractive. This garden was lost at the gaming table by the high ranking official, and is one of the “cautionary tales” told to Shanghai school children to this day.
The Yu Yuan (Yu Gardens) are surrounded by dense shopping and a water front promenade between the Old Town and the Wusong River. We have free time to shop. I get a few silk scarves, my one buying folly. I also see a traditional picture show, with real painted pictures, sound effects, drums and a traditional street caller. No idea what the story was about, but very entertaining. Stone treats us to candied crab apples on a stick, a popular treat. There is one seller who has a badly translated sign called “Let Them Turtles.” If I understand his business plan, he captures small turtles (too small to eat) in the nearby pond, then sells them to you to release for good luck (improved karma). Then captures them again. Hummmm.
Back at the hotel we have some free time before an optional acrobatics dinner. While those are nice, I’ve seen several and opt out. My tour manager Stone actually seems unhappy about this. First he appeals to my safety. Surely I would not venture out by myself? You bet I will. Why would I want to be alone in a big city? He does not seem to even understand that I need some space from the group. He suggests that I eat at the hotel since that is the only “safe” food. Right. Suspect he gets quite a kickback from these optional tours (which have additional costs from the base tour price).
Naturally, being told that street food is not safe for me, I want it. I look over several options and choose some filled, steamed buns. It is clear that these are well cooked, in fact too hot to even touch with bare hands. The one I choose at (because I can’t guess what it might contain since I can’t read the signs) has yummy pork. But I don’t choose at random. I watch what everyone else is buying. Two are a meal. Each is less than 1.5yuan, about 23 cents. Dinner with change back from you dollar!
I go to the Nanjing Road and walk the length of it to the Peoples Park. I pull out my guidebook to see what else is in the area, but I barely get to the right page when two young women come up and ask if I am “American.” They want to practice their English. The younger identifies her American name as Kiki. She is from Xi’an, 22yr old, almost ready to graduate from college and visiting her older cousin in Shanghai on holiday. I never got the cousin’s name, who was only 2 years older and proudly identified herself as an “assistant in a factory,” but “not a worker.” She explained that she meets with European business contacts at the factory. The language of Business is English, I assume so that all parties are at an equal disadvantage? Both girls indicate their college major as English. Neither has ever left the country and none of their teachers have been native English speakers. I can understand them, but it is tough. After about 20 minutes they tell me that they are going to a teahouse and invite me to join them.
So I probably should have said no. But they seemed genuine and it turned out they really were. But I say yes, and simply follow these women in and out of alleys, doing my best to keep the direction of the two streets and one river in mind. I didn’t lose my way but easily could have. They took me into alleys because they needed to find a bathroom. Again, there are public toilets on most blocks, but several only have facilities for men. It takes three tries before we find one that the ladies can use. I realize the younger woman is in the toilet a long time and her friend explains she has “distress of stomach.” At one point I decide that I’m only standing here waiting one more minute and then I’m going to walk off, but they both appear. We go to a teahouse and get a private room. This is uncomfortable for me. I had expected to be going to a public place, but I don’t know the customs. This may be common or this could be a complete set up. I ask the prices and am relieved that they clearly state them. We sample 3 types of tea, along with explanation by the guide (her words are translated for me) and much ceremony, include ritual cup washing (OK, it was boiling water, so there was more than just ritual) and giving the first cup to the frog god. I like the frog god and really need to buy one (I find one after we get home). In the end we split the bill and it costs me about $20 US for an hour and a half of lovely conversation. It was great and I wish I had not been so wary since it all turned out to be legitimate. But you can’t be sure. I only had money with me that I could afford to lose (about $60 total cash in US and RMB). Violent crime is not common, but petty theft and trickery is. If cornered, I’d just hand over my money and hope for the best. Oh but I have been soooo lucky in my travels.
Feb 29, free day in Shanghai, and my last
Barbara is a very brave girl. Most people took an all day, optional excursion. When we found there was another “sales stop” AND a two hour bus ride, each way, we decided to opt out. And so we have a free day in Shanghai. She’s already told me she’s leery of the subway and I have to say I am also. The map is clear, it’s clean and safe, but I can’t figure out how to buy a pass and there was no attendant who spoke English. Given more time, I would have figured it out. Eventually. We are told Taxis are cheap, but opt for the Big Red Bus, the same company with Double Decker tourist busses all over the world. Last night I found them, closing down for the evening, at the Peoples Park and they explained the whole thing to me. The cost is 100yuan for all day (about $17), there are lines (Red, Green and Blue), they have a running commentary in English (via free headphones) and they go everywhere I want. Deal!
But Barbara and I get there and there is only a bus driver, no sales person. He let us into the bus since it is raining. He gives us a brochure/map and headphones. But pantomimes that he can’t take our money. I pantomime that we want the green line. He indicates we are on the red line, but not to worry. He takes off, eventually passes and flags down a green line driver and lets us switch busses. But that bus driver won’t take our money either. So we ride the bus expecting that eventually a ticket seller will get on. But we get to the temple stop we wanted to go to and get off. Later, after the visit to the temple, we wait for the bus, but it never shows up. If I’d known how cheap the taxis were, we would have started with them. Don’t think we ever paid more than 20RMB for a ride (about $3.20)
By accident we get off at the wrong temple. We think we are at the Jade Buddha Temple and in some ways they are very much alike, so we don’t suspect. We are actually at the Jing’an Temple. Later we see the Jade Temple, but not until we’ve been yelled at by a taxi driver when we had him bring us to the wrong temple. There are so few English signs that this is an easier mistake than you’d think. And somehow Barbara seems to think that because I have a guidebook and a map I know exactly where we are and can communicate with everyone. Oh, would that it were so! We also go back to the Yu Yuan (Market and Gardens) where we have lunch and shopping.
Temples are interesting, but I am clueless as to what is really going on. I remember a tour of Italy where I’d seen so many churches that they all melded into one. My guide told me it was the ABC phenomena: Another Beautiful Church. Temples are the same. Though ABT doesn’t have the same ring. I walk away with impressions more than understanding. Incense. Burning paper money. Kneeling with hands together. Statues.
Amazed at all the elephant motifs since I don’t think of elephants in China. But these are Buddhist, and that religion starting in India (where I hope to ride one someday). We see people burning incense, huge packs of it all and at once. My favorite is a mother, teaching her young daughter, maybe 4 years of age, how to worship. It is raining and they wear slick, bright raincoats and a cheery pink umbrella, their colors reflected in the wet pavement. Every corner smells of sandalwood. I’m shocked at how, just inches from a huge reclining jade Buddha with worshipers congregating and kneeling, there are sales stands and active bartering. Pretty sure there’s a scene about this in the New Testament. We see monks chanting, beating a drum, ringing a chime. I’ve no idea what it means or what they are doing. There are fancy dressed women burning envelopes. They are in 5 inch heeled boots, fur coats, and enough make up and jewelry to be high class whores. The envelopes contain “fake” money. They burn it so that the money will go to their loved ones who have died.
At one point we get into a cab to go back to the hotel. I hand the driver the card for the Bund Riverside Hotel because it has a map on one side and Chinese characters for the name and address of the hotel. The other side is English that I can read. The driver concentrates on the front of the card. Then turns the card to the back. THEN turns it upside down. This is not good. It occurs to me how many illiterate people live in China. He turns and explains as clearly as possible the situation. I, of course, don’t understand a word. Later I suspect he says something like, “look I’ve only been a driver for about 15 minutes and I have no idea where that is. Sorry I can’t help.” But I don’t know if I should get out of the cab or what. Then he hands me the card back and simply waves to me like I was a small child, “Bye, bye!” Well, that was clear!
When I travel, I carry virtually nothing in my pockets. I carry a purse with a strap long enough to wear across my body and I keep my hand on the top of the bag, over the zipper. This is my posture as I walk through a crowded area and it’s always kept me from pickpockets and petty theft. The Yu Yuan Garden Market is busy with tourists, though all but Barbara and I are Chinese, of course. At some point this little boy, perhaps 4 or 5 years old is separated from him mother. He calls, “Mama! Mama!” He is not upset or afraid, just calling to his mother. His head is about level with the top of my purse when he comes walking beside me and “recognizes” his mother’s bag. He slips his little hand into mine. He has a big smile on his face. His cherubic cheeks flushed with happiness as he turns his head toward me expecting to look into his mother’s familiar eyes. But what does he see? The face of a Foreign Devil! His eyes go wide with surprise and he screams, “Waaaaaaaa!” dropping my hand like it was on fire! His actual mother, fortunately, had seen the whole thing and was laughing so hard she was having difficulty standing. The child was inconsolable and I had to leave so that he would stop crying.
When we first get to the Yu Yuan, Barbara is cold and wet, so we dip into a McDonald’s at her request. I never frequent them at home, but find them interesting in other countries, since they serve different items. We get hot chocolate which seems to be cocoa and hot water, no milk. At least it is hot and the basement restaurant dry. The workers are wearing cowboy hats. Not a good look.
We later have lunch at a dumpling stand. I choose real Shanghai Dumplings—something I’ve been excited to try. They are soup dumplings—these contain crab soup, and are so large, they include a straw so you can drink the crab soup inside before eating the dumpling exterior. I’m had them in Atlanta, but they were the size that you pop into your mouth. Also get what I think is fried chicken on a stick. But there are claws in the first bite. Turns out to be crab.
This is our final day. It is all over so quickly. We must leave in the middle of the night to fly first to Beijing, then to the US. It’s a horrible flight getting home, the Crying Baby express. But I will miss this country. It is not a place I would want to live, but I would like to visit more.