Shanghai: June 21: Flying Home

On Sunday I flew home. I don't have anything to add that's not in the pictures.

Shanghai: June 20: Lu Xun Park and more

On my last full day in Shanghai, some friends, D and B, who were living at the time in Beijing, came to visit. Oddly, we ended up staying close to my apartment, perhaps because it was a soggy, rainy day. (The following day Di Yin took them to some famous Shanghai sites.)

Though I didn't think we did much this day, somehow D took a large number of pictures. I, in contrast, took very few (perhaps because most of the neighborhoods we were walking through I see regularly). D's pictures continue from that first one (to which I linked) through to this one (the tire kitty). You might as well stop browsing the album when you see the tire kitty; the rest of the album covers the rest of D's visit to Shanghai, but I wasn't there for any of it, as by then I'd flown out of town.

They arrived before lunch, so we brought them to Shanghai Restaurant, a local decent Shanghainese restaurant we visited before.

On the way to and back from the restaurant, we stopped by our local cultural street and its museums/galleries as well as our local park. Lu Xun Park, which Di Yin went running in regularly but I'd never walked through previously, is large, with multiple bridges, a large pond, and an amusement park. It had big, loud groups of people; one played blues; others karaoked.

Near Duolun Road Cultural Street, we stopped by the Osage Shanghai Gallery. One of the artists in the gallery had an interesting shtick: he would paint in trade for deals. For instance, if you "bought him the highest point in Shanghai" (whatever that means), he'd make you a painting. Also, if you wanted, you could buy everything he'd make in the year 2019 for 300k RMB (44,000 USD). He guarantees he'll produce at least six pieces that year. It's a good but not extravagant salary; I wonder if he got any takers.

We also stopped by Duolun Museum. It had a motley assortment of student work and felt like a party; I think it was the day of the show's opening.

Otherwise, Duolun Road wasn't an exciting street. Nearby, however, we found a market street.

On the way home, we got soaked, then spent a few hours relaxing and drying off.

For dinner, we headed to a Yunnanese restaurant, Southern Barbarian, that was on my list of places to try in Shanghai. Because we had a sizable group, we took a taxi there, a nice trip because we got to drive by the Bund and see Pudong at twilight. There, we were joined by one of Di Yin's friends. Though the food was good overall and everyone had his or her own favorite dishes, nothing in particular was awesome and I left disappointed that I still didn't have a great idea of what Yunnanese food is.

Incidentally, the restaurant's beer list is impressive.

Shanghai: June 19: Urban Planning Exhibition Center and more

This day I hit the final site that I thought I would regret missing in Shanghai if I didn't get to see it.

As with the previous day, the sky was crystal clear.

I took a handful of photos.

The morning started off with steamed buns as usual. For lunch, I met a friend, B, that I hadn't seen in years because he now lives in Beijing. We had Japanese food near his office.

After lunch, since I had more time than I required to get to my next destination, I decided to attempt taking a bus. This is quite a challenge because none of the signs are in English or even pinyin (Romanized Chinese) and none of the drivers speak English. Without having done prior research, I managed to board a bus which took me to a metro station I was familiar with. Naturally, it took substantially longer than the taxi I took to get to B's office, but I'm nevertheless proud I managed to navigate the bus system on my own.

I had to go to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center because I liked the analogous center in Singapore so much. Shanghai's center, like Singapore's, has a huge model of the city. However, though sizable and decent, it's not as good because, for instance, there are no labels or street names. I can't even find where I live because neither the small creek that runs by the apartment nor the nearby train station are represented. The model lack other distinctive city landmarks (e.g., yuyuan garden). In short, they lack character.

Shanghai's model is also a little misleading because they put trees where some buildings should be, thereby making the model city look more green. It's also misleading because it doesn't include the walls protecting old residences from the road, thereby making the model city appear less claustrophobic than the city actually is.

A room next to the model has an audio/visual version of it: the room, with a 360-degree screen, displays fly-throughs of various parts of the city. If you can't go to a city, I think this type of movie is a great way to see it.

Besides the models, the center displays Shanghai's plans for the future (e.g., environment improvements, redevelopment), but these lack details and are only there to reflect philosophy. Contrast this vagueness with Singapore's center, which actively calls for public comment on detailed plans.

In addition, the center has many old photographs of Shanghai, mostly of famous buildings and statues. Some photographs are in massive books, by which I mean books that, though not thick, are tall and wide, with pages 3 feet by 2 feet.

There's also a special exhibit on the changes for the 2010 expo. I like how the exhibits displayed models of all the design proposals Shanghai received from architectural firms, not only the ones they selected.

In the evening, Di Yin and I went to Jishi (Jesse), an old-school Shanghainese restaurant. What we got turned out to be good, though ordering was a comedy. They were out of the fish we tried to order, and also out of eel, and also out of moppet's cabbage, and also out of bamboo shoots.

Incidentally, when I moved to Shanghai in November, it turned out my apartment is three blocks from this restaurant.

Shanghai: June 18: South Shanghai and Xujiahui

On Thursday, a shockingly clear day, I rode the metro across town to explore the neighborhoods of South Shanghai and Xujiahui. I took a variety of pictures this day.

In the morning, I walked this route. Note: the map is misaligned; mentally shift the lines to the points labeled actual start and actual end.

I first explored the Longhua Temple and Pagoda, the largest (and oldest) temple complex in Shanghai. Within the temples, I could see the interchange between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Next came the sizable Longhua Park. Besides exploring it, I visited within it the Martyrs' Memorial Museum, which presented an unabashedly patriotic look at the Chinese Communist revolution, mainly through photographs of or publications written by men who lost their lives in the revolution, or who were executed by the previous government. Also, near the museum is the old detention complex where these prisoners were kept, as well as the execution ground.

Several blocks from the park, I tried to stop by a gallery that turned out not to exist anymore -- it had moved to one of Shanghai's two main art complexes.

To save some walking under the heat of an unobscured sun, I grabbed a train to Xujiahui, which I planned to spend the afternoon exploring. Xujiahui is Shanghai's shopping district; it has shopping galore! As I observed over the afternoon, perhaps because this area lacks distinctive architecture, it felt like it could be in any city.

I found lunch in a large mall with lots of sit-down restaurants covering many cuisines. The western ones were often at American prices (US$10, plus or minus). I selected a vegetarian Chinese one; as the third such restaurant I've eaten at on this trip to Shanghai, I decided I could become Buddhist Chinese (i.e., eat Buddhist Chinese food every day).

After lunch, I walked this route around Xujiahui. First, I walked through the nearby, decent, medium-sized Xujiahui Park, with a large pond and several channels of water.

Next I wandered onto the campus of Shanghai's Jiao Tong University to visit its C. Y. Tung Maritime Museum. It's a decent museum with four galleries. Although it doesn't have many artifacts (but it does have more than a few model ships), it's made interesting by the density of information on shipping trade and ship design.

I tried to stop by a famous old library, the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei, but it's only open to tourists for two hours each week. At least I got to browse the good Wan Fung Art Gallery on its ground floor. There, I found I liked how Dong Xianzhou layered so much oil on his paintings that they acquired depth. The leaves literally extruded from the canvas. Sorry, no pictures.

I stopped by the Saint Ignatius Cathedral, which was also closed. (It's open only during mass.)

As the last item on my list for the area, I wandered through the cute Guangqi Park.

For dinner, I met Di Yin to go to another Hunanese restaurant, Guyi Hunan. Recall how much we liked Di Shui Dong, another Hunanese restaurant we previously visited? Well, I'm happy to report our dinner at Guyi was also all good.

Shanghai: June 17: Lazy Day

This day, I stayed at home, and took merely three pictures (all of meals) over the course of the day.

Shanghai: June 16: Qibao

On Tuesday, I visited Qibao, a historic canal-town near Shanghai that's now been converted into a tourist attraction. I took these pictures.

After a long train ride and much searching (there were no directions in English to the town from the train station), I found it and its narrow streets.

The town's bridges, water, and streets are picturesque. It was fun to wander for an hour or two. There was enough of a slight breeze to make walking around in the heat okay. By the way, the town has a few small museums, but none that I was in the mood for, and none that I trusted would have enough English to bother entering.

The town's shops aren't limited to your normal tourist stuff; rather, it includes, for example, clothes, jewelry, and musical instruments. The shops feel like the stores in the middle ring around Yuyuan Garden: not the expensive outer ones, nor the touristy inner ones.

Leaving Qibao, since I was already in outer Shanghai I decided to stop by some other sites nearby. I first visited the Liu Haisu Art Museum/Gallery. Its four galleries included displays of spartan ink drawings (of people) and chalk (black only) paintings (mostly impressionist or modern). There was nothing I particularly liked. The museum wasn't worth the 2km walk from the metro station.

After the museum, I went, via a roundabout route, to the Song Qingling Mausoleum. I'd planned to visit it on the way to the museum but was too far past it before I realized it was marked on the wrong place on my map. The park surrounding the mausoleum and its attached museum was in a pleasant green space happily walled off from the surrounding roads. It was, however, disappointing: a small exhibit comprised entirely of photographs, and all labeled in Chinese. I guess all the real artifacts were moved to yesterday's renovated former residence/museum. This also certainly wasn't worth the walk.

Shanghai: June 15: French Concession (Part 3)

My goal this day was to finish exploring the French concession. I took these photos this day. I walked this route through the remaining part of the French concession. (As usual, the lines on the map are misaligned; mentally shift them as instructed.) The area had a nice, quiet, neighborhood feel to it. As it turned out, when I later moved to Shanghai, though I didn't have a choice in the matter, this area ended up being the area my apartment was in.

My first destination was the Shanghai Propaganda Museum (a.k.a., the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre). It's hard to find, hidden in the basement of a building in a gated apartment complex. The guard at the gate gave me a small card with a map showing how to navigate the buildings in the apartment complex in order to arrive at the museum.

The museum, housed in one large room, was lots of fun. The guy who enthusiastically runs the museum came out to explain the posters to me, describing more than the English text accompanying the displays. He also told me about himself and the museum, including, interestingly, that he mostly gets American visitors. The posters' topics ranged from warning against Taiwan, Korean, and American imperialism, promoting sending a child to the army, supporting the free right to marry, endorsing knowledge as power, suggesting using nuclear power/knowledge peacefully, encouraging steel production, and publicizing the one-child policy and birth control. Sorry, no pictures were allowed (but the web site has many images).

I also visited the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Museum, a medium-sized museum (three floors). Though a diverse museum, I took only a few photos at the museum as a representative sample of what impressed me. Also, the museum felt like a cross between a gift shop and a museum -- I couldn't guess by glancing from afar at a room whether it would be part of the gift shop (with prices) or part of the museum. There were artists throughout the museum: many at work; others asleep. (What they produced is what the museum sold.) I felt some items were overpriced: a bookmark--even a hand-painted one--shouldn't cost US$10.

Walking further, I found on Dongping Road many restaurants whose names I recognized from my research as being good. On the next street, I saw lots of restaurants with English signs, serving cuisines from western countries. Perhaps this isn't surprising given that I found myself walking by the American consulate one block over.

My final stop was Song Qingling's Former Residence & Museum. Song Qingling was a prominent female political figure during the first three decades of Communist Party's rule of China. I went in not really caring, but found the story of her life held my attention. The small museum nicely presented documents, and everything was in English. As a bonus, the residence's grounds were pretty.

Dinner, at one of Di Yin's parents' friends' places, was good, though exhausting as usual (due to language issues and how much I have to exercise my skills at observation and inference to compensate for not speaking Chinese). We ate too many dishes: drunken shrimp, sweetened glazed warm shrimp, velvet beef, asparagus, tripe salad, cucumber salad, duck with dipping sauce, fish congee, noodle dumplings filled with zong-zi-style red rice, and, for dessert, watermelon and lychee. She shouldn't have cooked or did take-out so much for just the six (?) of us.

Xi'an: Day 2: Shaanxi Museum, Buddhist Temple, Great Mosque, Han Yangling Museum

In contrast to Saturday, on Sunday we had an early start, leaving the hotel at 8:30am.

I took these pictures this day. Again, my friend D took many more. The latter link goes to the first picture in her set for the day; the day's pictures end with three pictures in a row of our tour group. If you hit people in a sleeper car in a train, you've gone too far.

Our first destination was the Shaanxi History Museum. It mostly contained bronze and clay artifacts (vessels, statues, etc.) from five dynasties. Interestingly, some of the images I saw represented on Tang Dynasty pieces looked familiar to things I saw in the show the previous night (e.g., the sleeve dancers). I spent about an hour in the museum. Because we arrived at the same time as a bunch of tour groups, upon entering I skipped and started the museum in the middle in order to do things in a less crowded fashion.

Our group next went to visit the Buddhist Temple and Bell Tower and Wild Goose Pagoda and Drum Tower. The temple had a big gilded buddha, surrounded by 50 small buddhas and bas reliefs of monks on each side. All the rafters had intricate, gilded carvings. Pretty impressive.

The courtyard was decorated with many birds in cages, chirping, and also wild roosters.

On the way to lunch, we stopped to watch a massive water show. Nice.

Xi'an is reportedly famous for dumplings. At our lunch restaurant, we got to try a ton! It was fun. :)

After lunch we stopped by the 13-centuries-old Great Mosque, then visited the nearby bazaar. The mosque had no domes, no traditional minarets -- the architecture was completely Chinese. The bazaar had lots of dried fruit, shelled nuts (especially walnuts), and other stuff for sale. I was tempted to buy a jade comb, which I think was the first time a toiletry product tempted me. I picked up a present for my parents: a miniature terracotta officer. 2 RMB = about 25 cents. And, yes, I over-paid; I could've gotten it cheaper. I also bought myself chopsticks, a set of four for 65 RMB. I probably could've gotten them for less than 50, but it's a decent price. At the bazaar by Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai I'd likely end up paying 100+ RMB for ones I like. I was picky: I wanted wood chopsticks that were carved, not painted, and with an appealing taper. (By the way, I was similarly picky about the material, size, and coloring of my gift for my parents.) Most vendors here, incidentally, had the same selection of goods.

The final stop on our tour was the Han Yangling Museum. It's entirely underground, built above the tomb of a Han Dynasty emperor. We donned shoe covers and got to walk on a glass floor above the unearthed relics.

Then back to Shanghai I went.

Xi'an: Day 1: City Walls, Terracotta Warriors, Tang Dynasty Show

Our tour group got a late start this morning, leaving the hotel, the Grand Mercure, at 10:30am. Too bad, as I wanted to start earlier to pack in a full day exploring.

I took many picture and movies this day. My friend D, however, took even more. The latter link goes to the first picture in her set for the day; the day's pictures end with a series of blurry pictures of people roller-skating at night. When you hit a day-time picture of Shaanxi History Museum, you've gone too far. (That picture begins Xi'an day two, which I'll link to in my next post.)

After breakfast at the hotel (a pretty extensive buffet), we went to see Xi'an's ancient city walls. The current walls, one of China's oldest surviving city walls, were built mainly in the 14th century using clay, glutinous rice (!), lime, and more.

From the city walls, we drove on new roads past a shiny university to our lunch place, which happened to be near the tombs we'd visit in the afternoon. Tall mountains were in the distance. On the way, I saw a downed electrical line across the road.

Our lunch restaurant was nicely decorated (attractive alcohol bottles, pretty lanterns) and the food was good, though overwhelming in quantity.

After lunch, we headed to the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, made famous because of the numerous roughly-life-sized statues of warriors buried with him. I've already written about how impressive his terracotta army is. At the site, we first went to a minor tomb / museum, then moved to the major mausoleum and display. In the first tomb, I learned that some of the mausoleum remains unexcavated; the Chinese are waiting until preservation techniques improve before opening additional warriors to the air. The guide also had a little fun here, saying that because some of the tomb remains unexcavated, some of the legends about the tomb may still be true; for instance, the tomb is supposed to have a river of mercury.

I also learned that researchers found, in a old kiln nearby, the molds for the general body shapes of the terracotta warriors.

Properly anticipating excitement, we entered the major mausoleum. We really did save the best for last. It's an aircraft-hangar-like space that's filled with an unfathomable array of terracotta warriors. There's freaken' lots of them. (Okay, it's fathomable -- I looked it up: there are over ten thousand of them.) See the pictures.

We visited the gift shop. It sells replicates of the warriors in various sizes, up to and including full-size. Imagine having one of those in your house! The gift shop also had as a guest one of the farmers who discovered the tomb back in 1974. (Yes, it's a relatively recent discovery.) He signs books (about 3000/day I'm told) for 1 RMB each (about 15 cents), thus making the daily wage of 450 USD, which makes him quite wealthy by Chinese standards. (If he only worked five days a week and took vacations, he'd make around 90 thousand US dollars a year.) Though 80 years old, he looked happy and jaunty. Maybe that's caused by how much money he's earning?

Incidentally, on the way into the mausoleum, someone in my group (D?) observed the crowds and the ticket booths and the heat and commented this was "like a historic Disneyland". (The day was sunny and toasty, just like one gets in Florida in the summer.) This Disneyland observation turned out to be even more apt than I thought at the time. Later we found a set of warriors (presumably replicates) that you pose in the middle of and get your picture taken as a warrior. Sounds like some places in Disneyland. Also, on the way out, we passed through a wide-open tourism gauntlet of people selling miniature warriors, terracotta lighters, etc.

We then headed back to our hotel for some relaxation time before dinner. D and I wandered the hotel's grounds and found an art gallery in the basement. It had an assortment of good quality art: traditional paintings, silk embroidery (sometimes of paintings), impressionist paintings, lacquered wood carvings. The cross-hatching on some embroidery pieces made it feel as if the tree leaves were in motion.

For dinner, we had another excessive meal. I guess this is becoming the usual -- group tours have to over-order because they don't want anyone to go hungry, not even picky eaters.

After dinner, we went to Tang Dynasty Show (Tang Yue Gong), celebrating China's supposedly most prosperous dynasty. The show was like the opening to the Beijing Olympics, with similarly elaborate costumes and choreography, but just constrained by the size of the stage / number of people. It was a good show. I especially liked the backgrounds, especially the animated image of the moon. I also particularly appreciated the show's use of colored filters -- each performance had a different mood because of this. For details, see the pictures. (Cameras were allowed.)

The audience in China wasn't like audiences in the United States. People often talked during the performance and, at the end during the curtain call, no one clapped. Half the audience got up and left during the curtain call. Others waved. After the call, you could pay to go on the stage to be photographed with the performers.

Because it was a warm, comfortable evening and we weren't far from our hotel, D and I decided to walk back rather than take the bus. (Although we were outside the city walls and our hotel was in the center of the city, it wasn't a large distance, certainly less than two miles.) Our route took us past the flower district, the sign district, a line of barber shops, and maybe other groups of businesses as well.

We found a square park filled with roller-bladers, ripstik-ers, and more. Neat. There was a stand for renting these items. We were passed by trains of skaters. In general, it was filled with kids having fun.

Xi'an Overview

Saturday, June 13, 2009, was the first full day of my two-day tour of Xi'an, arranged by the China Culture Center, which commonly produces events for expats. My tour group included Brits, Scots, South Africans, Canadians, and more. It was mostly women (eight), as opposed to three men.

Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi province in China, a former (ancient) capital of China, and famous for its tombs containing thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers. As an indication of the city's history, consider that construction of the subway has been repeatedly delayed as the construction crews discover buried tombs.

The terracotta army was astounding, easily worth the trip to Xi'an. It's enormous, and each figure feels real, as if modeled off a particular person. Nevertheless, each of over ten thousand figures is unique. (Yes, they used molds, but the faces, eyes, hair, etc. were all finished by hand.) Creating them all is an almost unfathomably large undertaking.

Other things I noticed about Xi'an:

The first thing I noticed about Xi'an is that the air is very fresh and clean, compared to Shanghai at least.

I also observed a surprising number of people on the streets at night. I say this without, in retrospect, ever being on the streets of Shanghai after 10pm. (Maybe I should try that?) I wonder if this has to do with different sunrise/sunset cycles: Xi'an is a 2.5 hour flight west of Shanghai but in the same time zone, which I think means the sun rises over an hour later there.

Oh, and Xi'an is hot in mid-June, certainly substantially hotter than Shanghai at the time. (Xi'an's average high is 90 F / 32 C.)

By the way, our tour guide/trip leader was great. She had many stories of Chinese history to tell, e.g., about concubines. She also always seemed to know the answers to any questions we had. But perhaps because everything was arranged well, and because I mainly interacted with the tour guide and other people in our tour group (all of whom spoke English), I wrote in my notes at the end that "traveling as a group like this doesn't make things seem foreign enough."

Shanghai: June 12: Heading to Xi'an

I flew to Xi'an in the evening for a two-day trip.

To ensure I didn't get caught in quarantine on the way to Xi'an, I didn't do anything this day: no exercise, nothing to raise my body temperature.

I took a few pictures this day.

For lunch, Di Yin and I went to Jia Jia Tang Bao, a small shop that specializes in xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings). Our dumplings, which contained liquid and either pork or pork-and-crab, were good. They were moist, though not extensively soupy inside. The wrappers were thin and the dumplings were light in general. I'd thought our three baskets would be too heavy, too fatty, too much, but this was not the case. Also, unlike many xiao long bao, these could be eaten in one bite, partially because they're smaller than most and partially because the soup wasn't scaldingly hot. (There was no need for a small bite at the top to release the steam.)

While we ate, Di Yin talked with an extremely friendly Shanghai man sitting at our table. He was exceptionally interested in America. We dispelled some of his myths, and he told us about the nice benefits of Shanghai: health care, perpetual unemployment benefits, etc. When we dispelled his belief that the U.S. government pays for child care through age five, he asked where does all the U.S. money go? Di Yin answered, "Uh... private wealth?"

Also while we ate, one of the chefs kept pacing around the small (eight table) restaurant, inspecting how we were eating the dumplings. I felt as if I was being tested.

In the late afternoon, I headed off to Xi'an! To get to the airport, I took the metro to the maglev. The high-speed maglev, which travels 40 feet above the ground, passes above poverty/blight then, seconds later, a well-maintained eight-lane highway: quite a contrast. The only time I realized how fast we were traveling--200 mph--was when we raced man-made objects at close range, not when we passed trees and streams. (The train's sound, a simple hum, was not a clue.) The cars on the highway looked like they were motionless; that was the clue.

My flight was uneventful. There was no quarantine inspection (i.e., no guys with infrared lasers to detect body temperature). :)

After meeting up with my tour group and my friend, D, on the same tour, we headed to our hotel, a four-star place called the Grand Mercure.

Shanghai: June 11: Lazy French Concession

Today ended up being a short day with correspondingly few pictures. To make up for this lack, here's a picture from a friend that captures some of the feel of our neighborhood's street scene.

I awoke feeling a little sick, possibly my body reacting to all my bug bites. After breakfast, I commuted to the Police Museum (a.k.a. the Museum of Public Security), which took me some work to find -- I had to walk up and down the same stretch of a polluted 8-lane road multiple times. The museum included artifacts and documents. Although the room descriptions were translated, item labels were not. This made the museum less than educational.

For lunch, I stopped by Vegetarian Lifestyle and had two small, light, pleasing dishes.

I tried and failed to find the fashionable alley Lane 248, but did spot many boutiques anyway (though I'm not sure if that's worth mentioning in the French concession). While on the topic, I want to say: one nice thing (to me) about the heart of the concession is the amount of Roman (English) characters I see. It's somehow comforting.

I stopped by Spin, a ceramics shop specializing in stuff for contemporary/modern/hip/avante-garde/fusion restaurants. Their style is novel: rectilinear or ovoid shapes, some cubist pieces (e.g., cups that look like they shouldn't balance), and even some items that look chipped yet look good.

I'd planned to finish exploring the French concession today, but decided after lunch it'd be better if I rested. I went home and took a nap.

We went to our local dependable restaurant, 1+1, for dinner, and had two good dishes.

China: June 10: Suzhou

We spent most of Wednesday walking around Suzhou. My behavior, however, could be better described as dragging my tired and bug-bitten self around Suzhou. On the plus side, the weather was nice all day.

I took a good amount of pictures this day. Di Yin took many more. The link goes to a picture of breakfast, the first picture she took this day. A picture of me enjoying air conditioning and then a picture of soft cake desserts ends the set for the day. (If you see a picture of me packing, you've cycled to the beginning of her Suzhou pictures.) I think she took many more pictures than I because I was exhausted and unhappy (due to bug bites). For proof, consider this picture she took of my bug bites.

After breakfast at the B&B, we reversed our path to get to Suzhou: a short rickshaw ride, a slightly longer boat ride, and finally a 1.5 hour bus ride to Suzhou. Once there, we walked the major (pedestrian) shopping streets. These felt much like East Nanjing Road in Shanghai. As Suzhou is known for its local candies, we browsed a number of candy stores. Most candies were made from seeds or nuts and were wrapped in plastic (to preserve freshness for traveling). I tried one specialty hard candy: nothing special. We also bought some cakes to bring home.

We had lunch at Deyue Lou. Aside from an okay eggplant dish and the hedgehog-shaped buns (which looked pretty but didn't taste like much), everything was good. Also, everything was nicely presented, with carved roses on each plate.

I advocated for us to go to the Master of Nets garden, arguably Suzhou's most famous garden. Grabbing a pair of bicycle rickshaws (one per two people), we tried to go but found it closed for renovation. Instead, we directed them to go to the Panmen (Pan Gate) Scenic Area. We found it large and pretty. See the pictures for details. At one point I lay down in the park to rest or even nap, but all that ended up happening was that I got more bug bites. Maybe it was the bugs, maybe it was my allergies, but I didn't get any rest. :(

We left the Panmen park, wandered through a local neighborhood market, then ventured into a fancy 8-story shopping mall. (The malls in Shanghai and vicinity tend to grow up rather than out.) We also walked some downtown streets again: they're good streets for strolling, and prettily lit at night. For dinner, we went to Songhelou, a relatively-famous 100-year-old restaurant that specializes in Suzhou cuisine. We then took a taxi to the train station, passing some canals en route.

China: June 9: Three Hill Island (Sanshan Island)

Tuesday was the start of a two-day adventure that, though I liked the sights, was one of the most unpleasant two days I've ever had in my life.

Di Yin took many pictures this day; they should be considered the primary reference point for this entry. The link points to the first picture from this day; please stop browsing when you see the last picture from this day (captioned "dinner with locally raised food"). The remaining pictures are from the next day's activities; I'll link to them in the following post.

I took only a few pictures, and those omit parts of the day's activities (that are described in text in this entry and also in photographs by Di Yin).

Di Yin told me we were going to meet friends of her parents to travel and stay with them at a their favorite retreat near Suzhou. Suzhou, a city a bit outside Shanghai, is famous for stone bridges and pretty gardens.

Little did I know, we weren't going to stay by Suzhou at all. Di Yin and I took the subway early in the morning to the train station, where we met Di Yin's parents' friends. From there, we took a 40 minute express train to Suzhou, boarded a bus and rode it for about an hour, arrived at docks, commissioned a boat and rode it for fifteen minutes, then, disembarking, hired a rickshaw to take us on the two minute trip to the house where we'd be staying (basically a bed-and-breakfast). Luckily, though it was raining on-and-off all day (mostly on), it wasn't raining when we were in the speedboat.

And thus, two hours after we boarded the train, we ended up on a sparsely populated island (Sanshan Island = Three Hill Island) on Lake Tai.

On the train, we had a breakfast of muffins & bananas brought by Di Yin's parents' friends.

Once at the B&B, we had a lunch prepared by the owners.

In spite of the rain, after lunch we walked and took a rickshaw around the island. The part of the island near our B&B is farm-like, with one-lane roads, and geese, chickens, and ducks wandering around. Di Yin's parents' friends picked a chicken to have killed so we could eat it for dinner.

Elsewhere on the island, Di Yin's parents' friends brought us to a temple, the old town, a hill (for us to hike up for the views), another old temple, and a boat ride along part of the shore. The boat was traditional: first the captain pushed it with a bamboo pole, then started the hand-cranked engine. We tried to ignore the rain during the ride, instead focusing on the distant statues and strange rock formulations to which boatmen gave imaginative interpretations.

We returned to the B&B. I was wet and unhappy and tired of being nice (I wrote that in my notes, but don't know what it means anymore) and sick of not being able to participate in conversations (because Di Yin's family friends don't speak English).

We had dinner: homey, decent/good. The pictures have details as always.

Tuesday night was hell. Damn the mosquitoes! I used a blanket to cover/hide, but it didn't entirely work and I ended up hot and sweating. I used my DEET insect repellent as much as I was willing to. (It's scary stuff, with very prominent warnings about not to apply to one's face or hands.) At the sound of a mosquito around my head, I'd wake up, slapping. Worse yet, I couldn't breathe through my nose due to my cat allergy. Sometime during the night, I sat up by the open window. That helped. After dawn, the mosquitoes left and I could sleep peacefully for an hour until breakfast, my only decent sleep of the night.

Though I knew I got bit a few times, I didn't yet itch the next morning. Nevertheless, even ignoring my lack of sleep, I didn't get off easy. (More details will come in later posts.)

Shanghai: June 8: Lazy Pudong

Monday was another day I didn't do much: I spent only 2.5 hours exploring. I planned to hit a few scattered one-off sights I'd missed in areas I previously visited. Here are the pictures.

I grabbed lunch in my neighborhood at 1+1 Restaurant. I've been there a few times before (1, 2, 3).

Grabbing the metro to Pudong, I went to the Century Avenue area (farther into Pudong than I've ventured before). There, I went to the Qinci Yangdian Temple, the largest Taoist temple in Shanghai.

On my way out of Pudong, I tried to see a small exhibit hall (the Lujiazui Development Showroom), but it was closed while its building was being restored.

Next, I stopped by the French Concession to visit a small glass museum (the Liuligonfang Museum), but it was closed while the museum was being moved.

I went home.

Once again, we had dinner at home: zongzi and watermelon.

Shanghai: June 7: Lazy Day

Sunday, June 7, 2009, was a lazy day. The few pictures from the day (all from meals) are available.

For lunch, we returned to the local Shanghainese restaurant that we went to earlier for dinner. It was having a buffet, which Di Yin described as Hong Kong style, with lots of baked goods. I tried many items (see the current day's pictures) and my overall impression was that it was passable / fine enough.

On the way back from lunch, we wandered through some shops including some extensive dried food shops (fruit, mushrooms, sweets, seafood, meats, ...). Yes, you can dry them all.

We ate a tasty dinner at home of leftovers.

By now, you're getting the feel of my life in Shanghai (e.g., steamed buns from our local market in the morning). To complete the picture, here are pictures from Di Yin of life in our apartment. The link goes to the first picture in the set; the last picture is of bicycles and a wagon. When you see a picture with a caption that references Yuyuan Garden, you've made it to the end of pictures of street scenes by our apartment. Incidentally, in my post about Yuyuan Garden, I already linked to Di Yin's pictures from Yuyuan Garden.

Shanghai: June 6: Old Town (inc. Yuyuan Garden)

On Saturday, we got up early to make it to Yuyuan Garden, one of Shanghai's biggest tourist attractions, before the heat and the crowds arrived. Besides Yuyuan Garden, I planned to (and did) see the surrounding bazaar as well as the other sights in Shanghai's Old Town.

I took an enormous number of pictures this day. Di Yin took even more pictures, including many of me. The link to her pictures points to the first picture she took on this day (the day we visited Yuyuan Garden); the following pictures are all pictures from this day. Note: if you're in slideshow mode when viewing the album, you'll cycle from the end of the album back to the beginning and begin to see irrelevant pictures (i.e., a picture of Heathrow airport). You might as well stop the slideshow then.

We took a bus to Old Town, as no metro lines run very close to it, then walked down some back streets to the garden. I had my GPS record my route starting from where the bus dropped us off. It recorded my route until its batteries died at around 4pm. Note: the route is mis-aligned on the map. Please mentally shift the lines to the "actual start" and "actual end." The jumble in the middle of the route should be over Yuyuan Garden.

The garden was pretty--perhaps the most classically beautiful sight I saw in Shanghai (see the pictures)--and pleasantly uncrowded, though it did get crowded by the time we left at 10:50am. Incidentally, this area has the most white tourists I've seen during my trip.

The garden is surrounded by a huge bazaar. When I say huge, I mean it: the commercial areas must spread over 50+ square blocks! We walked through part of it before the garden (it was just setting up), we browsed many parts after the garden (both before and after lunch), and I detoured to walk through it again in the later afternoon. There are many different styles of markets here. We found traditional, dense commercial streets (Olde Fashion Street has high quality stuff); we found warehouse-like spaces that feel like flea markets; we found pretty, tourist-focused shops (these were closest to the garden; in addition to souvenirs, some sold interesting snacks); we found high-end/ritzy-goods malls.

Near the garden, I visited the Temple of the Town Gods. After lunch, as I left the area, I skipped another Buddhist temple (Chenxiangge Nunnery) because I've seen enough of them and it looked like nothing special. I stopped by a non-descript mosque (Peach Garden Mosque), mainly to prove they exist, then headed to a Confucian Temple via Wenmiao Road (which Google Maps labels as "Confucian Temple Road"). Aside from being better paved than the area near our apartment building, Wenmiao has the same neighborhood feel as our neighborhood.

The Shanghai Confucian Temple was quiet and peaceful. I enjoyed getting off the streets for a time, and also liked browsing the sometimes funky teapots in its small Teapot Museum.

I next visited the clearly recently restored Fazangjiang Temple. Wandering around this multi-level temple complex was awkward because of the narrow walkways running along the perimeter of the temple's buildings -- I kept getting in the way of lines of chanting, black-robed monks.

My GPS's batteries died around now. I recorded by hand my rough walking route for the rest of the day. It's correct; it needs no mental shifting of lines.

From these temples and another market, I walked down Shouning Road between South Xizang Road and Renmin Road, passing tons of food booths, zig-zagged through the enormous Yuyuan bazaar, and trekked back to a metro station. I emerged from the metro at the South Shaanxi Road station to meet Di Yin for dinner. Di Yin said this area by the South Shaanxi Road station feels American: modern, decorated buildings, international companies/brands, and less crowded streets. I agree. As for dinner, we went to a Hunanese place, Di Shui Dong, and were very pleased.

Shanghai: June 5: Pudong

I spent the afternoon on Friday, June 5, 2009, exploring the touristy part of Pudong. Pudong is across the river from Puxi (Shanghai proper) and was developed much more recently. It's filled with skyscrapers. Because it was developed recently, virtually nothing in Pudong was under renovation--quite a contrast to the other side. (Yes, things were being built, but I didn't want to visit those things; everything I wanted to see had already been built and didn't need renovation.)

These pictures accompany the day's narrative.

In the morning, Di Yin and I took a long walk, all the way to Lu Xun Park, doing (mostly unsuccessful) errands. The park's vicinity, including Sichuan Road, is a relatively nice shopping district, complete with women on the sidewalk handing out menus. On the way home, we stopped by a fancy supermarket, Fresh Mart, that carried American goods (at American prices).

After an early lunch, I headed to Pudong.

My first stop there was the Shanghai History Museum, in the basement of the recognizable Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The museum was mostly composed of plastic life-size or half-life-size displays of shops, model buildings, etc. I'd normally think such a museum was crappy (there were few historic artifacts), but the number of these displays wore me down and I got into it. I'd call the museum passable after all.

In intermittent drizzle, I explored Pudong. I saw some of it before an impressive thunderstorm--so dark that it almost looked like night--arrived and I retreated into the Jinmao Tower. The Jinmao Tower is one of the world's tallest buildings, as is the nearby (taller) Shanghai World Financial Center. To kill time, I paid the entry fee to ride to the top to see the view and to browse the small museum. I learned the tower was designed to withstand a 7 richter scale earthquake and a grade 12 typhoon. I took some pictures too, but overall I thought the trip to the top wasn't worth the money (not surprisingly), but I needed to use up some time while it was raining.

Shanghai: June 4: French Concession (Part 1)

On Thursday, June 4, 2009, I began exploring the formerly French Concession. The concession had little construction, fresher air, and less haze in general than the rest of Shanghai. Though I had a lazy day and didn't see much of it, I already concluded and wrote in my notes that "I think the French Concession is the nicest part of Shanghai, and I don't expect this impression to change." Indeed, at the end of the trip, I continue to stand by my impression.

I took these pictures this day.

I had a slow morning, staying home after breakfast until nearly lunchtime. I ate a good lunch at a joint near our apartment, then took the metro and began my tour.

I first explored Xintiandi. It's a three-square block area designed and built to look old and mimic the way people think buildings previously looked in China. But, being newly built, everything has modern facilities and the whole complex is filled with high-end shops and restaurants and is designed for walking, seeing, and being seen. This area feels more like Singapore than the rest of Shanghai: it's better maintained, newer, cleaner, and with more foliage.

In Xintiandi, I explored the Shikumen Open House Museum. Shikumen are a style of stone house found in China, often found along lilong/longtangs. The museum is a furnished and decorated shikumen. As I looked around, I found a tingzijian room: a wedge-shaped room on the landing between the first and second floors. Neat. I also saw really high v-shaped ceilings on the second floor. Finally, I appreciated the interior light-well/skylight (tianjing).

Also in Xintiandi, I visited the Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. (Incidentally, the first Congress was in 1921, not, say, 1949.) The museum covered the founding of the CCP and the history of the building. The first sentence one sees upon entering the museum is fervent:

"Since the British invaders launched the opium war in 1840, the Western capitalist powers came one after another to China, and China was thus reduced gradually to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal state."
However, aside from that sentence, the museum was generally a low-passion display of artifacts from attempted revolutions in the 19th century, and of political writings through the start of communism.

I also stuck my head in the Xintiandi outpost of the Postal Museum.

From Xintiandi, I wound my way through the neighborhood to the shady, pleasant Fuxing Park. Many people were doing tai chi in Fuxing Park: standing still as a statue, rocking on one's heels, rotating one's head, jiggling one's body like a snake slithering, or walking backwards. By the way, often, when looking out our apartment window early in the morning, we'd see women doing the walking-backward form of tai chi.

From Fuxing Park, I wandered through more of the French Concession, passing various nice areas as well as old houses in various stages of restoration, then headed home.

Shanghai: June 3: The Bund, E. Nanjing Road, and Jing'an Temple District

On Wednesday, I did a long walking tour, starting near the Bund (the river-front stripe where many other countries placed important buildings when they all owned pieces of Shanghai) and proceeding roughly westward down Nanjing Road (Shanghai's main street, in some sense). I finished the day with visits to a number of art galleries.

On the way, especially at East Nanjing Road and near the Jade Buddha Temple, I had to deal with aggressive people selling things (mostly watches, bags, and DVDs), and wouldn't easily be turned away.

I took these pictures along the way.

In the morning, I walked this route.

Guidebooks more than a year or two old recommend a stroll along the Huangpu River waterfront (especially Huangpu Park) as one of the highlights of a visit to Shanghai. However, the whole waterfront and many of the buildings facing it were closed for renovation in preparation for the World Expo. Indeed, due to the tons of construction, this area was even hazier than the rest of the city. It was not a pleasant area to walk around.

Nevertheless, some of the historic colonial buildings on the Bund were open, and I entered and saw the nice ceiling mosaics, carved marble, etc.

I learned that Bund buildings, being on the river, were built expecting that, over the course of construction as the concrete foundation was added, they'd sink several meters into the soft ground.

I also learned from my guidebook that, in parts of Shanghai ceded to colonial powers (i.e., part of the "international settlement"), the street names were appropriate for the occupying country. The British concession had English street names; the French, French ones. When the colonial powers left, these streets were renamed to fit the pattern in the rest of the city: East-West streets are named after Chinese cities; North-South streets are named about Chinese provinces. Thus, Edward VII Avenue became East Ya'nan Road and Columbia Road became Fanyu Road. Neat! This could be the core of a great Game clue.

From the Bund, I headed inland toward People's Square. I walked down the pedestrianized East Nanjing Road, a surprisingly nice shopping street, given my lower expectations from earlier in the morning. I stopped by a fancy chopstick store. I was looking for chopsticks to bring home as a memento, and I'd be browsing chopstick stands and shops whenever I had the chance over the next few weeks to get an idea of what was available.

I took a subway one stop to People's Square for lunch. I selected the most famous (and one of the oldest) vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai, known for its imitation/fake meats.

After lunch, a short subway ride brought me down West Nanjing Road to the Jing'an Temple district. I walked this route, following my guidebook's walking tour of this neighborhood, with some additional sightseeing tacked on at the end. The neighborhoods I walked through this afternoon felt like an ordinary city.

After exploring some of the lilong alleys in this part of town, I stopped by the big Jing'an Temple and then visited Jing'an Park. Jing'an Park was a pleasant retreat from Shanghai's ever-present construction noise.

I continued exploring the district. Eventually, I made it to the Jade Buddha Temple, and found it as commercialized as the Jing'an Temple. Whereas the Jing'an Temple used the ground floor of its outer buildings to house retail establishments (which, at least, didn't open into the temple itself), the Jade Buddha Temple had a few shops inside. In more pleasant news, however, I got to watch several dozen monks in their saffron colored robes at prayers.

Next on my itinerary was the 50 Moganshan Road Art Centre. With Taikang Road, these two art centres comprise the focal points of Shanghai's current art scene. 50 Moganshan Road is a warren-like maze of warehouses and alleys containing countless art galleries. The art is high quality and widely varying, ranging from traditional paintings to abstract, conceptual, sculptural, and functional art, and to photography. Some pieces I saw I think have staying power and will be in museums in a few decades. I explored half a dozen galleries, peeked in two dozen more, but got tired before I could explore more than two of the seven or so buildings in the complex. One could spend many hours here.

Seeing all this high quality art reminded me of something someone said to me earlier in the day. In the morning, someone tried to run a gallery scam on me, in the process asking the provoking question of whether I could name a single Chinese artist. I could not. :( Sadly, even while writing this blog entry many months later, no name comes to mind even though I've now seen a bunch of Chinese art.

Di Yin and I ate a dinner of leftovers at home: stuffed lotuses, a bullfrog dish, a pork & winter melon dish (which mellowed a lot), duck rice, and watermelon.

Shanghai: June 2: Museums Galore

On Tuesday, June 2, 2009, I spent the day on my feet hitting Shanghai's major museums, taking these pictures on the way.

After breakfast at home (which Di Yin bought at the market half a block away from our apartment complex), I headed out. Taking the subway, I transferred trains in the Shanghai Railway Station. Like many large interchanges, it's composed of the usual long corridors with booths selling low-end stuff. My second train let me off at the even larger People's Square (Renmin Square) exchange in the center of downtown. This exchange had lots of real shops and higher-end stuff. A sign of how big this station is: it has 20 different exits!

Once downtown, I first explored People's Park (Renmin Park), then entered the small Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. (The "square" is more park than square/plaza.) Its exhibit, Merging Emerging Art, Utopia and Virtual Reality, was decent and not as new-age-y as I worried it would be. I spent 30 minutes there.

I visited the Shanghai Art Museum next. Of note: I saw well-done drawings on scrolls. I especially liked the impressive landscapes. I also saw an exhibit by Kimura Ihei of realistic Japanese photography. In addition, there was an exhibit of artwork from Antwerp. While I liked most of the old art (a la old masters), I didn't like most of the new, modern stuff. I spent 60 minutes in this museum.

After grabbing lunch at a famous sheng jian bao (dumpling) shop, I went to Shanghai's most famous museum, the Shanghai Museum. It was a good museum: though I've never been curious about old artifacts when I saw them in other museums, this museum managed to present and explain them in a way that kept my interest. Furthermore, the museum provided a good quality audio tour, handy educational handouts, and lots of detailed descriptions by each item, always with an English translation. The stars of the museums collection are its ancient bronzes (mostly used to stored liquids) and its ancient sculptures (mostly Buddhist), but it also included exhibits on ceramics/porcelain (it's neat seeing how Chinese ceramics evolved over the millennia), calligraphy, Chinese painting (a display comparable to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts), seals (meh), jade carvings (eh), furniture (I like the incredible detail of Qing dynasty pieces), and coins (eh, but the key- and spade-shaped coins were neat). I spent a bit over three hours there.

Returning home, I met Di Yin and walked to a Shanghainese place for dinner. We had one very good dish; the others were merely fine.

Shanghai: June 1: North Shanghai (Hongkou)

On Monday, June 1, 2009, my first full day in Shanghai, I hung around the apartment in the morning while getting over my jetlag, and ventured out in the afternoon to explore the old Jewish neighborhood, a.k.a. Little Vienna.

I chose this destination not because it was a big or important site but rather because it was a small one relatively close to the apartment so I could get there and back and not take very long. Our apartment was located in a working class neighborhood in North Shanghai, not on any radial subway lines, making it bit time consuming to make it to downtown proper (that is, without taking a bus, which are difficult for non-locals to navigate).

I knew I wanted to leave the apartment this day in spite of my horrible experience navigating Shanghai the previous day. There's an expression, if you fall off a horse, be sure to get right back on. So I did.

I took these pictures this day. I should note that the pictures from this day's outing may make Shanghai look ugly, but recall I didn't do standard tourist destinations this day, instead exploring places not too far from my apartment.

I followed this route to walk around the old Jewish neighborhood. Note: the map is mis-aligned. My path begins at the intersection of Changyang Road and Dalian Road (near the metro station), about three blocks southeast and one block northeast of where the route appears to begin. I put a placemarker "Actual Start of Walking Tour" on the map to indicate where the route actually begins. I began walking southwest down Changyang Road. I'm sorry that the GPS is so misaligned with the map. (This actually confused me the times I was lost in Shanghai until I finally consistently remembered GPS-map connection was always off by about one or two blocks south-east.)

While walking, I skipped entering the Ohel Moishe Synagogue / Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum because it didn't seem worth the ~$7US entrance fee. I did, however, pick up a handout from the museum describing a walking tour around the neighborhood. But, besides the museum, without the handout and my guidebook, I never would have guessed that this neighborhood was previously Jewish. No obvious indications remain.

After exploring this neighborhood, I took the metro to another place in North Shanghai and walked toward the city center. I followed this route suggested by my guidebook. Again, it is mis-aligned and I put a corrected beginning and ending placemarkers on the map. I ended the walk downtown at the East Nanjing Road metro station, above which is a modern mall.

For dinner, we walked to a commercial area near our apartment.

Sorry the day sounds unexciting; again, I emphasize that I didn't intend to see anything important/noteworthy.

Shanghai: May 30-31: Flying to Shanghai

As I didn't want a mess on the way to Shanghai like the one that happened on the way to Cleveland the previous week, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to kill: 2.5 hours. (The bus arrived on time and everything went smoothly.) Once it was time, I boarded the plane, finding my seat in the 777 (enormous!). (The economy section is nine seats across, 3-3-3.)

I took these pictures during this day's travel.

As the first example of good service on All Nippon Air, the woman checking me in suggested changing my seat; I'd forgotten to ask whether better seats had become available after I bought my ticket. She remembered. She got me the seat I want on long-haul flights: an aisle seat with an empty middle seat next to me, meaning I can get up to stretch whenever I want and never have to get up for anyone else.

The second example of good service came when I awoke. (To get on Chinese time, I attempted and succeeded in sleeping at the beginning of the flight, in total sleeping the first fourty percent of the trip.) Within ten minutes of waking up, a stewardess came to me and offered me drinks and a meal. (I'd slept through the first meal service.)

As a third example, before meal service, the stewardesses brought everyone warm, moist towelettes to help people clean up.

Incidentally, the magazine and entertainment programming are multilingual.

When I arrived in Tokyo, even after a thirty-minute health inspection/quarantine on the plane, I still had another 2.5 hours to waste. Some people in the airport wore surgical masks; I'm not sure if this is related to the health inspection or whether some people donned them out of precaution. Anyway, I spent the time walking the perimeter of the international terminal, gazing at funky-looking Japanese sweets, elegant sake bottles, and plastic displays of food (in front of each restaurant), all scattered among the countless duty-free shops. A surprising number of these shops sold jewelry/watches or cosmetics. I found a shop selling pretty lacquered boxes. I also found a cool origami museum, an outpost of a larger museum elsewhere in Japan. Although the individual pieces weren't that good, I enjoyed the scale of some displays. Given the terminal's large size (60 gates), walking it fully used most of the time I had to kill.

When I landed in China, I had to go through quarantine again, though the Chinese were clearly more paranoid about it than the Japanese. While the Japanese inspectors wore masks and what looked like surgical aprons and talked to only a fraction of the people and took even fewer temperatures, the Chinese inspectors wore bio-hazard gear, including masks over their eyes, and took everyone's temperature using an infra-red laser.

The trip from the airport to where I was staying was long, convoluted, and frustrating. Language was confusing. Train stations shutting down threw a wrench into my plans. An unknowledgeable taxi driver was a problem. Poor signage was an issue.

Shanghai Overview

I visited China for three weeks, from May 31, 2009, through June 21, 2009. Aside from two short overnight trips, I spent my time entirely in Shanghai.

Even if I disregarded the language issues, I don't think I would like Shanghai. It's hard for me to say, though, because language was such a large issue. I guess I didn't really understand how much I depended on my rudimentary Spanish in Barcelona until I had to get along without knowing how to say, "Where is the bus stop for the bus that goes to the airport," "Can I borrow your phone to make a local call," and "I'm just browsing; I don't need any help." I could manage in restaurants pretty well because most restaurants in Shanghai, even if they don't have an English menu, have many pictures. I know these example problems don't sound bad, but it makes a city less interesting if you're walking around and can't read anything. Furthermore, it's immensely frustrating not be able to say something simple. I got good at pantomiming (while smiling to make the other person more forgiving that I couldn't speak his language).

My main complaint about Shanghai is that it's under construction. It feels like the majority of the city is being torn down, renovated, or rebuilt. A sizable portion of this construction is because Shanghai's the site of the 2010 expo (a.k.a. world's fair). A part of it, Shanghai's riverside promenade known as The Bund, is entirely closed as new buildings are erected: fancy, distinctive buildings, often designed by and sponsored by particular countries. Tourist sites are being renovated. Subway lines are being furiously expanded. The cute gumby expo 2010 logo is reflected in posters and statues throughout the city. I imagine the 2010 expo is doing for Shanghai what the 2008 Olympics did for Beijing.

(Perhaps the city selected the 2010 expo motto "Better City, Better Life" because it realized the people's irritation with construction and its associated negative effects. I read the motto as an appeal to put up with the city until the expo because life will be better after it.)

Naturally, with all this development, some expo-related, some not (a friend told me Shanghai's been developing a ton over the last several years -- it's not all last-minute expo stuff), comes construction noise (car horns, traffic, drills, sledgehammers) and construction dust, a.k.a. haze. These bothered me more than the construction itself. Despite the temperature, I wore pants to help keep clean. Some women wore pollution masks. I didn't notice any explicit negative health effects on myself other than my nose being stuffed more than usual, but the haze had a substantial psychological impact. I'd look out the window and simply not be very excited to go out to walk around and explore the city. Maybe part of this was because the apartment I stayed in faced south, meaning it got warm--outside temperatures were usually in the 80s--and necessitated air conditioning, also making me less inclined to go outside. Usually, however, when I did venture out, it wasn't as bad as I imagined from within the confines of the apartment. I guess that's a positive.

One other thing that bothered me is that I never found a place to relax outside of my apartment. In nearly every city I've visited, I could either find a pleasant park where I'd like to sit and read, or, when I must be indoors, a comfortable library or bookstore. Here, I didn't want to sit outside, and I never found an indoor place with comfortable seating where I felt comfortable. I guess in a place as crowded as Shanghai, anyplace offering indoor seating is likely to be overrun.

Honestly, I think if the temperature were cooler during this visit, I might've liked the city more. How much more is hard to say. (Note: when visiting Singapore, I looked past its weather, which was certainly worse than Shanghai's during this visit, and liked that city a lot anyway.)

Thus, the city lacked one feature that's important to me: the ability to / desire to walk around. I lacked the motivation because of the haze, because I couldn't read the signs (so things were less interesting), and because I disliked the constant honking of cars.

Transportation
Shifting gears a bit, I'm happy to report the city has a reasonable transportation system. The train system is fast and relatively easy to use (even for someone with no knowledge of Chinese), though it doesn't stay open late. (It begins to shut down after 10pm.) I enjoyed that the trains have mobile phone coverage everywhere, including tunnels.

Navigating the city on foot isn't bad either. Virtually every street sign has Romanized characters (i.e., English letters), making signs easy to read for us non-Chinese. Plus, I like that every street sign tells which way is north. One needs to be a little careful at intersections, as Chinese drivers take right turns on red at high speed, but all big intersections have a traffic cop or two or help control the flow and tell pedestrians when to cross. In addition, enormous intersections usually have overpasses.

The bus system is not for foreigners: no signs are Romanized (i.e., destinations are listed only in Chinese characters), no stations have route maps, and the drivers don't speak English. The bus system is effectively incomprehensible.

I didn't ride in a car much in Shanghai, so I can't say much about traffic except that it sometimes looks bad. I did ride occasionally in taxis. Taxis are surprisingly cheap. Often, if you have four people, it's cheaper to take a taxi than public transit (regardless of the distance you want to go), a fact not true in the states. Taxi drivers, however, can be a mixed bag. Some don't know the city very well, to the extent that they can't even get you to a particular metro station. Also, most don't speak a word of English.

Street Scene
All that said, something about the feel of Shanghai's street scene (especially that found in lower-class neighborhoods) appeals to me, whether it's people doing tai chi (freezing in strange poses, or rocking their heads, or walking backwards, etc.), guys walking around in their pajamas because they live right across the street and needed to pick up something at the market, or people hanging out by the vegetable carts on the street in the morning.

By the way, I visited many neighborhoods in the city and not one made me feel unsafe.

Tourist Sights
Shanghai doesn't seem have to many great / can't-miss tourist sights. Of the places I visited, I'd have to say I liked Yuyuan Garden the most. I also must compliment the Shanghai Museum, which managed to pique my interest in ancient Chinese artifacts. Despite seeing these items presented in many other museums, I'd never found myself interested in them. Thus, I was surprised that I found I like the museum and how it described its pieces.

By the way, given that I stayed in Shanghai for three weeks, I visited sights in a haphazard order. I certainly didn't go from best / most promising to least promising. i.e., don't judge things by what I happened to see first.

Architecture
Much of Shanghai's architecture is unremarkable. The new, modern skyscrapers by People's Square and in Pudong are cool. The colonial-era buildings on The Bund are neat too, but the rest of the city was unexciting, with the notable exception of one common design feature: longtang (long4 tang2) / lilong (li3 long4). Longtang/lilong are long alleys packed with townhouses and short apartment buildings, often with branches into small courtyards surrounded by even more residential buildings. They usually branch off of commercial streets. Many people live in this form of back alley housing. The alleys are easy to miss but they form the gateway to a community and thus are one way Shanghai manages to pack so many people in. Although they're mostly gone from the center of downtown, they're common throughout the rest of the city, especially the older neighborhoods. I think it's a cute, intelligent design, a nice way of combining residential and retail.

Food
I was generally pleased with Shanghainese food. What I want to mention about food is the habits the Shanghainese have. One, many people drink few liquids (perhaps because the tap water isn't safe to drink), and seemingly instead get their liquids by ordering a clear, light soup as part of their meal. Two, there's no notion of a sweet dessert; restaurants almost universally provide watermelon slices at the end of a meal. Three, when in need of something sweet, it's possible to find bready things with sweetened red bean paste or cakes made from sweetened glutinous rice flour almost anywhere. (Note: when I returned to Shanghai in late fall/winter, I had trouble finding steamed sweetened rice cakes. Bready things with bean paste were still easy to locate.) Four, I rarely saw an overweight Chinese person, and I can't recall ever seeing anyone actually obese. I'm not going to attempt to figure out the cause (culture, diet, smoking, genetics, etc.).

One more interesting feature of the food is that chicken tastes different here: it's better, more chicken-y. It might be the size, it might be what they're fed, but, regardless, you can taste the difference in dishes such as steamed chicken and certainly in the chicken soup.

As for Western food, there are some restaurants around, though I'm told they're not particularly good. (I didn't try any.) There certainly are international chains such as McDonalds, Starbucks, and Burger King; the one I saw most frequently was KFC, which even delivers (by bicycle).

The biggest food-related issue I had didn't involve food but rather smoking. Smoking is commonplace, and there's no special section in restaurants for smokers. Every time we ate out, we scouted the restaurant for smokers and ventilation systems and then decided where to sit.

Being White
I can't complete this entry without mentioning how an obviously foreign person is treated. Generally, people looked at me as a curiosity, but rarely did people care about me / feel the need to interact with me. Once or twice a week someone would ask if they could have their picture taken with me. Also, unlike how I often felt in India, people didn't look at me as a meal ticket. Sure, in some particular areas (the pedestrianized part of E. Nanjing Road, and W. Nanjing Road near the Jing'an Temple, and Huaihai Road west of Shaanxi Road) I was repeated offered watches or DVDs, but it wasn't a general (i.e., city-wide) irritation.

Near Renmin/People's Square and The Bund, I'd run into friendly Chinese people, possibly locals, possibly domestic tourists (usually a local showing two visiting friends around), possibly scammers. I've been asked to take people's pictures. Regardless, they'd always want to chat (they'd always speak English), and I'd always get invited along to wherever they were going, or they'd try to get invited along to where I was going. Sometimes these invitations were to a international tea culture festival or some such thing. As my research said nothing of the sort was happening, I think these were part of the infamous tea ceremony scam. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe all the friendly people I ran into were trying to run a scam.

I was amused that two people in one group I met seemed to be infatuated with America. One knew most U.S. cities by what movies they were featured in. Another knew the tallest peak in California (and, I imagine other states) and what California's state flower is. (I don't know it.)

Wealth Disparities
I feel this entry wouldn't be complete with talking about money. Things in Shanghai cost roughly a quarter of things in the bay area, but this isn't universally true: it's easy to find shops and neighborhoods that charge prices more typical for the bay area.

Regardless, unlike in India, I rarely saw someone truly impoverished. Even the local street-side tailor seemed to be getting by. Virtually everyone seemed to walk and hold themselves as if they were employed and, if not comfortable, then at least not worried about their next meal. (Obviously, my assessment may depend on the particular areas I visited.) I wonder if this is because government provides a large number of jobs. Given the number of traffic cops at most major intersections, they must employ a hundred thousand people. Also, the sidewalks are kept very clean (aside from torn-up sidewalks and the like due to construction) by countless government employees armed with brooms. (The streets are certainly cleaner than those I saw in India, despite, if I recall correctly, seeing more people littering in Shanghai than in India.)

Miscellaneous
Many of the new apartment buildings complexes are extensive, featuring dozens of copies of identical buildings. I guess if the Chinese decide to design and build one building, they might as well (given the population) build a lot of them at the same time.

I'm told the Chinese have dates in Ikea, and love Swedish meatballs.

Neat facts:

  • Shanghai has a huge population (18 million, plus or minus).
  • The legal marriage age is 22 for men and 20 for women.
  • There is no minimum drinking age.