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.