Sunday, June 20, 2010

China craziness

The censorship in mainland China is fierce, with the "great firewall" blocking access to my blog! (cannot corrupt Chinese minds with dangerous traveler stories) Unfortunately this got me out of the habit of writing regularly, so I will do my best to recount the story of my 6 days in Shanghai.

Overall, Shanghai was a valuable place to visit. As the center of China's booming economy, this city is aiming to be a global capital for the 21st century, and it's vital for Americans to visit so we can appreciate the cultural nuances which separate us.

That said, I found Shanghai to be rough around the edges, the considerable language barrier at times bewildering, and a place with often vile standards of courtesy and cleanliness. For such a big city it's shocking that Shamghai displays a cosmopolitan flair comparable to Cincinnati. Though English thankfully appears on road signs and most tourist-centered attractions (including restaurant menus) the spoken level is quite low.

Queuing is a fiasco in China. People fight for every inch of space and will claw in front of you if need be. People do NOT wait for people to get off a packed subway car before entering...the Chinese always seem to be in a rush.

Drivers in China are NUTS! As a pedestrian you have no rights and vehicles will not yield, including cars making right turns on red and electric bikes on sidewalks. In Shanghai if you don't have your head on a swivel you're destined to become roadkill.

It's important to understand that Shanghai is MASSIVE, crammed with 20 million migrants from the poor inland provinces of China. The saying "everything is bigger in Texas" could be applied to Shanghai. Rome wasn't built in a day, but Shanghai may have been. This is a place that constructed EIGHT subway lines in the last TWO YEARS, has probably twice as many skyscrapers than New York City (none of which existed 20 years ago) and has construction work ongoing 24/7. It's a frenetic transformation for a place with extremely ambitious urban planning.

The city is extraordinarily proud to be the host of World Expo 2010, meant to serve as Shanghai's reintroduction to the world after decades of brutal communist repression. You can't walk more than a two blocks in the city without seeing an ad for the expo with the ubitiquous Gumby-like mascot Haibao and the slogan "Better City, Better Life". To a foreigner all the expo propaganda felt downright Orwellian.

My first day in Shanghai started at the prominent Jing'an Temple, located on one of the city's main streets. The Chinese almost had their religion beat out of them by Mao's Communist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, but this Buddhist temple remains standing. It felt strangely out of place in the skyscraper shopping district, but that's Shanghai for you...the old and ramshackle standing next to the glittering and modern.

I then headed for Shanghai's vibrant spiritual hub, People's Square. I walked past a most peculiar Saturday tradition, a marriage market! Middle aged Chinese parents gather to hawk their sons and daughters, bringing posters containing vital statistics (height, age, income, etc.) to negotiate dates. Interestingly, most of the ads did not contain photographs.

To grasp the heart of modern Shanghai I toured the Urban Planning Museum, which contained a tennis court-sized scale model of the expected Shanghai skyline in the year 2020. It's amazing to see how sprawling the metropolis will be, hundreds of square miles of endless skyscrapers. You feel so tiny. With endless money to burn and the complete ability to evict residents at a moment's notice, the government may get its wish.

From there I walked down the mobbed East Nanjing Road pedestrian mall to the Bund, the heart of colonial Shanghai. In the 1930s European banks competed to built the most extravagant headquarters along the banks of the Huangpu River, and this strip contains a feast of grand, stately Art Deco architecture. Rather ironically, these imperial-era buildings are Shanghai's best-preserved bit of a history that it is racing to send to the wrecking ball.

Today the Bund is better known for its stunning views across the water to the Pudong skyline, Shanghai's city center of the future. The skyline is impressive, though a bit spread out as Shanghai's urban masters seem to prefer sprawl to clustering. Nonetheless, the two mile walk along the Bund was pretty stunning, and in parts I was actually able to escape the mobs of Chinese people and breathe for once!

That evening I ate my best meal in mainland China at a hot pot restaurant near the home of my hosts Lisa and Palle. Quite delicious! You receive a pot of broth placed over a burner at your table, with a plain broth and a spicy broth. You then order a bunch of raw meats, vegetables and noodles, dump into the boiling broth, then once cooked you dig in with your chopsticks and mix with a sauce that you have created at a sauce buffet. Yum!

My Saturday night concluded with Palle taking me on a tour of the French Concession nightlife. We visited an outdoor "Mexican" bar with a fair number of expats, then to a throbbing music club with a group of Lady Gaga performers! Quite impressive and no cover charge...Shanghai is very inexpensive!

My next day started at the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai's "old city", the place where the Chinese were forced to live during the imperial era. The garden was impressive but not all that peaceful as it was brimming with Chinese tourists on a Sunday. Being in the middle of the city also meant you heard a fair bit of the incessant car honking from the Shanghai streets. However this place did offer a refuge for tired legs and a place to escape all the hawkers of "fake watch, fake handbag" that one finds outside.

From there I needed a view, so I headed to the impressive Jin Mao tower in Pudong, and the new area of Shanghai that exudes the dullness of walking around Hoboken, New Jersey. I paid 88 RMB ($13 USD) and was shot up to the lucky 88th floor. Unfortunately Shanghai suffers from a considerable smog problem, and by the time I reached the lookout point the daily afternoon haze had set in, making the view disappointing.

After successfully ordering a $4 meal of BBQ pork, rice, a vegetable, and tea from a Shanghai cafe, I headed back to the Bund for a night view of the skyline. Much more impressive at night! My camera was put through another heavy workout!

Monday I had slated for a full day at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. Most of you back home probably are not even aware that this is going on, but in Shanghai it rules the town. Walking around the city and you see the "Better City, Better Life" slogan EVERYWHERE. You can buy stuffed dolls of the mascot Haibao, or just admire the Haibao shrubberies cut around town! The subway video boards even display the daily expo attendance between ads. I needed to see what all the fuss was about.

Like everything else in Shanghai, the expo site is massive -- the Pudong section alone is roughly two square miles alone (I didn't even reach the section on the other side of the river). Between construction of all the pavilions and all the other infrastructure upgrades from years of planning (including those eight new subway lines) Shanghai spent roughly $50 billion USD on this event. Absolutely staggering.

The architecture at the expo is quite impressive. Perhaps 80 or 90 countries designed pavilions to present their countries to the Chinese people. My favorites were the pavilions for China (modern style pagoda), England (spike porcupine thing), and Brazil (covered in fake grass). Switzerland's had a working gondola ride! You really should go online and check out all the images, some very creative stuff.

Unfortunately about all I was able to do was walk around and take pictures as the queues were China-sized. Six hours for Saudi Arabia! Three hours for Germany! An hour for Turkmenistan! (seriously) There were even queues for the free filtered water stations as desperate Chinese fought to stay hydrated. Quite the fiasco. Not that the rest of Shanghai felt much different, but it was hard to forget that there are over a billion people in China while at the Expo (about a half million were at the park the day I visited).

Refusing to queue further after spending half an hour waiting for Monaco (that's right), I just walked around the site until I felt that my legs were going to fall off. In the Africa pavilion (no queue) I discovered what was driving this madness. After passing through each country's exhibition, a "passport" stamping station served to prove that one had passed through, and the Chinese were desperate to collect as many of these stamps as possible. Old men and women were even playing this child's game. Quick, run to get to Mali! Then we'll get stamped at Zimbabwe and Angola! Unbelievable.

By the end of my expo day, I thoroughly hated China and couldn't wait to return to the expat sanctuary of the French Concession. But I realize the expo serves an important purpose for China. Rather than encouraging foreigners to rediscover Shanghai, the expo's true purpose is to introduce the Chinese to the world they live in. It's only been 30 years or so since China reopened and most citizens seem barely familiar with the lands outside their borders. If the expo can get the Shanghaiese to look outward at the world rather than inward, in a generation the city may truly become the international cosmopolitan mecca it aspires to be.

The next day I needed to hunker down and recover. I walked into a fancy-looking massage place down the street and ordered a two hour foot and body massage for 188 RMB ($28 USD) -- so cheap! It was a little painful though mildly therapeutic, and for that price I was not complaining! I then took a 3 mile taxi ride ($2 USD!) to the electronics bazaar. Like everything else in Shanghai, massive and overwhelming. I think you get the theme. But the market had just the camera battery I was looking for, both Canon-brand (not cheap) and a generic China product, which I bought and works just great. Pricing wasn't spectacular, about $19 USD, but I didn't negotiate, and besides there really aren't any shops in the US anymore which sell that type of thing -- everything has migrated online back home.

Tuesday ended with dinner out with Lisa and her two kids. There's a saying that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs except for a table! This restaurant had a menu the size of a coffee table book with delicacies such as shredded ox's throat, pig brain, and duck heart. In China, the people believe that your organs will get stronger if you eat those of animals. For instance, if you eat the pig brain, they believe that your own brain would become stronger. We Westerners still weren't ready to be that adventerous. We also shunned the "Fried Jew's Ear with Chinese Yam", what appeared to be an olive dish, and instead ordered a Beijing duck with some vegetables and noodles. Yum.

Not having had my fill of the exasperating country of China, I spent my final full day on the mainland on a day trip to Suzhou, a 40 minute train ride west of the city. In contrast to Shanghai, Suzhou has retained much of its classical heritage, and used to be the silk capital of the Orient.

About a 20 minute walk from the train station I found the Beisi Ta (North Temple Pagoda), at 76 meters tall the tallest Buddhist pagoda south of the Yangtze River. I climbed to the top to take in the dismal view of the town below, but for once was enjoying some peace and quiet! This temple contained a wonderful little garden, with a monk feeding ducks swimming in a pond filled with turtles and big orange fish. I sat there for an hour with a pot of herbal tea.

I then walked to the I.M. Pei designed Suzhou museum (the starchitect's family comes from the city). It contained old Chinese relics made of porcelain, jade, gold, and ivory, including this impressively carved tusk!

I don't know exactly what I pointed to on the picture menu I was presented at my lunch restaurant, but it seemed to be chicken cartilage with a little bit of meat. Not too appetizing, and it left me feeling unsettled afterwards. In China you really can't go wrong when ordering vegetables, which are uniformly fresh and delicious, but with meats you're always taking chances.

Suzhou is also known as a city of gardens, and I only had time to visit the largest one, the Garden of the Humble Administrator. Legend has it that the garden was so named because it was, sadly, all the gardener could administer. It's very large and intricate, spanning several acres, and it's quite remarkable that one man could take care of it all! I got lost in this village of bridges and pagodas and trees. Pretty hard to describe a Chinese garden to someone who hasn't visited, but the intention is not to replicate nature but rather to achieve balance. This place was overcrowded with Chinese tour groups even on a Wednesday afternoon, but the garden still impressed.

And that ended my stay in mainland China. Overwhelming but worthwhile!

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