For all the tequila in China

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The last few days I’ve been wandering in and around Shanghai. A’s been pretty busy with her conference, so I’ve been pounding the pavement on my own most of the time.

A typical day goes like this: Up around 6:30ish, wander up to the 31st floor for the breakfast that’s included with our room. It’s not very good (despite the nearly $20 pricetag they’d charge for it normally), so we usually just have some fruit. Then I get some scallion pancakes and sometimes dumplings from a food stand on the street for under a dollar.

Then I have to figure out what to do with myself, never having made an actual plan the night before. The first couple of days, I explored neighborhoods within walking distance of the hotel. I don’t really enjoy pushy salespeople or bargaining with them to get to a fair price, so I haven’t done much shopping, just looking. I’ve been keeping my eye out for a souvenir shot glass, but haven’t seen a single one. I wonder if shots are taken from teacups…

After having gotten a decent feel for the nearby areas in Shanghai, I started looking at options for day trips a bit farther out. I considered trying to go to Yellow Mountain or to see the terra cotta warriors, but both of those really would’ve required at least one night and therefore more advance planning. Next time.

Yesterday, I wound up taking the metro out to a suburb area, to see Guyi garden & restaurant for “the home of xiaolongbao” soup dumplings. The only English I saw there was the “no smoking” sign. The staff didn’t speak any English and there were no picture menus, so after looking lost for a bit, I pulled out my dictionary app and pointed to “recommend” and then waved at the menu of 4 options and got pointed in the right direction. I wound up with 20 of the top listed dumplings for 25yuan (a little under $5). Everyone else I saw had some sort of soup as well, but 20 dumplings were pretty filling.

At one point, a waitress came over to my table, picked up the teapot, and poured some into a plastic bag. She then tied it closed and added it to someone’s to-go order. A few minutes later, I saw the guy who’d sat down across the big round table from me pour some into a soy sauce dish and dip a dumpling in it. I followed suit. Not soy sauce — vinegar! I’m glad I hadn’t asked for a teacup for it (which I’d thought about doing!)

After lunch, I came back to the city center. It was raining so I had some overpriced coffee and then went to the Shanghai Museum, which was free and not crowded despite the rain. Lots of impressive bronzes from hundreds of years BC, plus a bunch of Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics (vases, etc), and giant stone Buddha sculptures.

Today’s adventure took me farther out of town, on muliple buses without numbers (just destinations written in Chinese!). I’d had the hotel concierge write down the name of the town in Chinese, so I had a slip of paper to show people when asking directions, which was very helpful. Attempting to follow the directions I’d found online, I took the metro to the South Shanghai train station and then tried to find the bus, but it wasn’t the direct one. I took it to some town (end of the line) and then had to transfer. These buses had 2 people working on them — the driver and a money taker for tickets. The ticket taker on the first bus walked me over to the 2nd bus I needed. Very helpful!

When I finally wound up at Zhujiajiao, I think it was nearly 3 hours after I’d set out. Oof! When I got off the bus, though, a girl who also got off at that stop said, “follow me.” She and her friend (who I thought at first was her little brother, but who turned out to be her 19 year old classmate) seemed friendly. They kept breaking into giggling fits when trying to think of English words. I wandered around the water town with them for awhile, accompanying them to buy some dried turnip, and taking pictures of the canals and bridges along the way. I asked if I could take their picture but “we shy!” followed by more giggles. They asked if I was hungry. I was. “KFC?” “um…” “rice noodles?” “yes!”

They weren’t hungry, I guess, so they wandered off on their own after they’d made sure I was squared away with ordering food. I figured they were tired of me following them around, but when I was about half done with my soup, they came back and hung out some more. “we don’t have to go back until 3” (it was a bit after 2). We chatted a bit, shopped a bit (the boy bought a beaded necklace, then the girl saw some drawings for 10yuan and asked if I liked any of them). I tried to say no, that she didn’t need to buy me one, but she bought one anyway. Then it was 3pm and she handed me the picture and the boy gave me the necklace (putting it on my wrist) “for remembering.” I thanked them and asked if I could buy them some ice cream or something. They laughed and smiled and then they were off. The guide books warn about scams of people wanting to practice their English and then leaving you with a bill for an expensive meal, or trying to get you to buy art. They didn’t prepare me for this.

After the kids took off, I wandered around on my own for a bit, doing some shopping of my own. The shop clerks weren’t pushy, so it was nice to be able to browse.

Around 5, I decided I should figure out how to get “home.” I backtracked to where we’d gotten off the bus and saw a bus/train station across the street (I think that’s what the boy had meant by “upstairs”) As I was trying to figure out which bus I might need, a ticket-taker woman leaned out of a bus that was pulling out of the station, smiled, yelled, “Shanghai?” and waved for me to jump in as it slowed down a bit. So I did. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to stand out as a tourist!

The bus was direct to people’s square (walking diatance from my hotel), was only 12yuan, and took under an hour even with rush hour traffic. The metro + 2 buses I’d taken out there had added up to 14yuan and 3 hours. All in all, a good day!

Tomorrow A and I will head to Hangzhou, and then Sunday we fly home. Hard to believe the trip is almost over. I really wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy China, but I really have!

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Hoofin’ it in old town

Days after climbing the wall, my calves still killing me, I fortify myself with sesame scallion pancakes from a food stall and keep walking.

The weather was perfect — mostly sunny with scattered clouds, low 70s, with a light breeze.

Shanghai is a fun city to walk around, especially in the old parts of the city where you see people washing dishes in the alley, laundry hanging overhead.

Some things I saw on my walk: A market street without any other tourists that I could see. It was a traffic jam of pedestrians and bike carts. On this street were all manner of edibles, dead and alive. I saw chickens and a plucker (the squawking made me think they were being plucked, live). I saw live fish in tubs, beside another tub with wriggling water snakes/eels. Meat hanging from hooks or sitting out on a table (no refrigeration, of course). Many fruit and vegetable stalls. A stall with dentures (or, rather, individual teeth pieces), where girls were digging into old men’s mouths to install the teeth, right there in the street.

A bit further, I saw a crowd gathered in an intersection. Between the crowd’s feet, all I could see was what looked like a man’s arm (him lying on the ground?) but I didn’t stop to look closely. I suspect a cyclist was hit by a car. I hope he was okay, but I haven’t seen any bike helmets, and the arm hadn’t been moving. I saw the police on their way, and I kept going.

Just a block or two further, I passed a street food cart where someone was making fried rice to order in a wok. It looked good, but I didn’t get any.

Then I got to the waterfront and walked along a rather industrial section south of “the bund.” I saw an elevated platform with benches, so I went up there to rest a minute. I couldn’t figure out where the music was coming from, but as I was leaving, I looked down over the edge of the staircase and saw a man playing what looked like a wooden flute.

I walked on up to the bund, headed away from the river for lunch (a disappointing soup and some milk tea), and then back to the hotel since my feet were tired. I hung out on the top floor, enjoying the view and wifi, then made an appointment for a foot massage in the evening and headed out for some window shopping and dinner. I attempted to order some dumplings, but after what I thought was a simple question (how many dumplings do you get for the price listed?) things got very confusing very fast. Ultimately, I was given to understand that you had to order 32 dumplings, and although I was hungry, that seemed a bit much. At least the menu was entertaining.

After dinner, I went for my foot massage (intense, but therapeutic), and then met up with A after her conference reception. Her talk had gone well, so we celebrated with hot and spicy fish soup flavored potato chips, Chinese beer, and mochi.

Posterous keeps crashing, so I’ll try uploading the pictures in a separate post.

Not Forbidden anymore

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Waking up hungry, and intent to eat more than one real meal per day, we packed our things and sought breakfast. The hotel staff was no help (we didn’t come to China to eat at McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, thanks!) We only had to walk a few blocks AWAY from the shiny storefronts to find a place with rice porridge and dumplings, though. No menus, just A’s “vegetarian” card and pointing.

Afterwards, we walked to the Forbidden City. Like the Great Wall, I was impressed by the scale of it. I was also impressed (negatively) by the crowds. We didn’t have much time, since we needed to catch our train, but we got to walk through from South to North. Due to the crowds and the possibility that we’d want to take pictures of different things, A and I split up, with plans to reconvene at the hotel. I would’ve liked to see the clock & watch exhibit but it was back near the South end and it wasn’t clear how to get there.

At the exit, I made my way past the guys trying to sell books (when I say I don’t want it, the correct answer is NOT a repeated cycle of “how much?” followed by lower and lower prices) and bike taxi rides (ditto). Next came the sad spectacle of deformed men sitting on the sidewalk, singing karaoke for change. Many of them were missing their left arms from the shoulder, with their shirts off to show their scars.

After the forbidden city (now called the “Palace Museum”), I wound up heading back to the hotel, wandering again through the Hutongs. It’s fascinating to see how different things look just 2 blocks off the main drags.

A had made it back a few minutes before me to finish packing, and we checked out and took a taxi to the Beijing south station. There, we got some food to go (with the help of a girl from New Jersey who spoke Chinese), and took the train back to Shanghai.

We found our hotel with no problem, and enjoyed the walk down a smaller street with lots of street food venders and small kiosk shops. For dinner (3rd real meal of the day!), we popped into one of the places with a picture menu and some “English” descriptions (some of which were helpful), and then went back to the hotel so A could spend some time polishing her presentation.

Great doesn’t begin to cover it

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Sunday, we got up early to meet our driver at 6:30am. We failed to find real breakfast (again), but the hotel had some coffee and dry croissants to nibble on in the lobby. Our driver spoke a little English, and we asked what he had eaten for breakfast (rice porridge).

Our drive to Mutianyu gave us a chance to see a bit more of Beijing (like the Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini dealerships a few blocks up from our hotel, and the massive apartment blocks a bit further up). We drove through a couple of small towns, too, and passed giant flower and fruit sculptures on the side of the road.

Once there, our driver took us into a shop where we could buy some overpriced snacks (we decided to make do with what we had), use the toilet (not auto-flushing, just a button on the floor that was easy to accidentally step on) before buying tickets for the tram.

And then we were there. And it was…wow. Jaw-dropping, breath-taking, amazing. A wanted to climb up a ways in the opposite direction of the hike to where we’d go down, and I’m glad we did. We climbed up, up, up. Hundreds of stairs, some steep as a ladder, some only a couple of inches high. No railings but the walls. To think of the effort it took to build it, so long ago. Incredible. And that’s all I’ll say about it, except to say that pictures don’t do it justice, it’s definitely worth seeing, and worth seeing when you’re young enough to hike and climb a bit.

We’d arranged to meet our driver at 11:30, but opted to push it a bit and hike over to the top of a different tramway and giant “slide” to head down. We had to watch our step, but didn’t dilly-dally, and despite the line for the slide, rode our toboggans down and got to our meeting place by noon. We were worried the driver would be upset, but we found him playing ping pong and in good spirits. Whew!

On the drive back, we ran into a bit of traffic, but still got back to our hotel by 2pm. We had lunch at a restaurant at the top of a fancy shopping center. We wanted to eat at “Spicy Grandma’s” but it was still under construction. Regular “Grandma’s” was popular, but when we tried to ask about a table, the girl out front just pointed at a sign– apparently they were on a “break” (like Ross and Rachel?) so that was out. We wound up at a place that specialized in fish, where the guy out front spoke English and was eager to help us. It wound up being very expensive, but was tasty, and our waiter reminded us of Jackie Chan.

After we ate, we arranged our train tickets back to Shanghai through the hotel and then went out to see more of the city. We wandered through the Hutongs (side streets) and along a canal, then down to a lake area where there were lots of people, paddleboats, and bars.

We were pretty tired from all our walking, and took a taxi back to the hotel, where we again called it a night pretty early, and after just one “real” meal.

The kindness of strangers

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Saturday was all about logistics. Our hotel in Shanghai hadn’t been able to help us with train tickets on Friday evening, and the travel agent they worked with wasn’t open until 8:30am. Since we were hoping to catch the 8am train, we just headed to the station early. Unfortunately, once we got there, it was not clear where we could buy tickets. We saw one ticket counter on the ground floor with really long lines, but the times listed on the big board were much later in the day. The couple of people we’d tried to ask to see if we were in the right place for the bullet trains spoke no English. We stopped for a minute and A pulled out her laptop which still had the train schedules up, and we wrote down a few of the train numbers and times. She also found a little language card that had train related words in English and Chinese so we could point at “bullet train” and “Beijing” We found a cool interactive touch screen information kiosk, which showed us how to get to the track for the train we wanted, and even printed out a little slip of paper with directions for us, but didn’t indicate where we could buy tickets. Finally, we found an “international” travel agent desk with an attendant who spoke a little English, and she directed us upstairs. Once there, we saw another ticket counter with long lines, but which listed at least some of the trains we were looking for. We asked the young guy behind us if we were in the right line and he laughed. Each counter line was for a different purpose and these silly girls couldn’t read! He pointed us to lines 74 and 75, which were apparently for “today’s trains.” Once in that line, a friendly girl behind us who spoke really great English asked if we needed help, and confirmed that we were in the right line. Whew! We’d given ourselves 45 minutes to find and buy tickets, but 8am came and went while we waited in line. Finally, when our turn came, we bought tickets for the 9am train. That gave us a few minutes to look for food before boarding. We passed on KFC and instead bought a few snacks from a little kiosk (which turned out to be 3 separate vendors).

The ticket check machines confirmed that we were at the right track and we boarded successfully. The 5 hour train ride itself was smooth and fast, and uneventful with the exception of the people watching an American sitcom with a loud laugh track from somewhere behind us. A tall and sleazy guy was trying to practice his English with us and wanted to introduce us to his wife/”lover,” but after we didn’t respond with any interest, he backed off.

When we got to Beijing, we bought metro tickets like pros, navigated the transfer between lines with a minimum of confusion (but a lot of stairs), and got to the stop closest to our hotel on the map. We used my offline maps app and got to our destination, but…what?? No hotel. We asked a security guard who spoke no English, and he had no idea what we were talking about. We walked a bit further and saw a bunch of tour buses waiting for their tourists, so I asked a woman who was inside one. She also didn’t speak English, but as she was trying to explain where the hotel was (in Chinese), a well-dressed man with a briefcase walked up and asked if he could help. We explained what we were looking for and he whipped out his cellphone, called the hotel and asked for clarification on their address. He then told us to follow him, and led us until we could see the hotel, then waved and was on his way.

By the time we checked in, we were exhausted from lugging our bags in the heat, and it was really too late to visit the forbidden city, so we just wandered a bit in search of food. We wound up not far from our swanky hotel, but a world away nonetheless, in a restaurant that seemed more targeted at locals than tourists. We were looking over the English-less picture menu, trying to clarify which of the vegetarian dishes we actually wanted (not sure what the waiter had been writing down), when a woman eating there came over and not only helped sort out what we wanted with the waiter, but also recommended a delicious dish involving julienned sweet potatoes, lots of garlic, and hot peppers. After the helpful woman left, we realized we needed something to drink. When I walked over to the fridge and pointed at one water and one beer (both to share), some confusion ensued when we wanted 4 glasses. After narrowly avoiding getting second bottles of beer and water, A successfully pantomimed the act of pouring and we got the glasses.

After our delicious and filling “brunner,” we arranged for a driver to take us to the great wall the next day, picked up some water and snacks for our trip, and went to bed early.

No sightseeing, a bit of smog, but the kindness of helpful Beijingers left us with a good impression nonetheless. Sure, there were some who just wanted to make a quick buck (like the “tour guide” standing in wait outside the subway station) but they were pretty easy to spot and it was nice to meet people who were genuinely helpful.