Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Hangzhou Day 2

I took these pictures this day. Di Yin also took even more. The latter link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #85). If you're in slideshow mode and see a picture of our local kindergarten, you've cycled back to the beginning of the album and are seeing pictures I already linked to.

We began the day walking through one of Hangzhou's old neighborhoods on the way back to Zhiweiguan to breakfast. This time we ate at the cafeteria-like place on the first floor.

From there, we walked along the West Lake for a bit, enjoyed the fountain show, then took a smooth boat ride to Three Pools Mirroring the Moon island (Xiaoying Island). It was as similarly pretty and kept up as the parks along the lake that we visited the previous day. Though we didn't see everything on the island, everything was I'm sure the same as what we've seen. Indeed, the same could probably be said of the parks and promenades that we walked the previous day east of the lake; we saw only a fraction of the space, but what we saw was probably representative.

Another smooth boat trip brought us to Gushan Island, where we wandered through Zhongshan Park.

We walked across the bridge to the mainland, then walked along the north-west side of the lake, eventually venturing inland. During this time we hunted for food, a futile effort because there were so few buildings around. It was all parks and gardens and water and attractive nature in general. Eventually we found a place, Emerald Villa. Eating there felt like dining in a forest with a river nearby. Looking out the large windows, we could see a glimpse of blue past all the green.

We tried to find a walk I wanted to do near a temple but couldn't. Instead, we found tea plantations. (Hangzhou is famous for tea.) When we decided to begin returning to the correct side of the lake, we took a crowded bus back to the vicinity of Gushan Island, and walked across the island then down the beautiful Bai Causeway (a long, narrow, pedestrian-only land bridge) and back into town.

We ended up having dinner at a well regarded (mainly noodle soup) place, Kui Yuan Guan, near our hotel, picked up our bags, headed to the train station, and made our way home.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Hangzhou Day 1

Getting to Hangzhou was easy. Unlike for Suzhou, we left from the South Shanghai Railway station, which is much more pleasant than the regular one. This station is above ground, with a sleek and modern open design much like an airport. Again, our express train averaged 170 kilometers per hour (105 mph). Like Suzhou, we traveled along canals, occasionally crossed them too, but the views on this trip were nicer.

Between the overview of Hangzhou and my pictures, the day is pretty well described. Di Yin also took a lot of pictures. The latter link goes to the first picture from this trip, starting the instant we left the door of our apartment. When you see a picture of me buying a pumpkin cake as a late-night snack (picture #83), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

We arrived in Hangzhou, headed straight for our hotel, the West Lake Golden Plaza, to drop our stuff off. The hotel room was nice. The coolest thing: the battery powered clock on the nightstand that lights up when you lift it, making it easy to read at night. We headed out, hunting for food and eventually finding it, and in the process exploring some of Hangzhou's historic and tourist streets. It was a nice day, with no need for a jacket. Having seen a good part of town, we made it to the lake and the greenery surrounding it. There I went camera crazy, yet, in retrospect, I wish I took even more pictures. It's just that pretty.

Having failed at finding a filling lunch, we had an early dinner at Zhiweiguan Restaurant, one of Hangzhou's most famous and oldest restaurants. With four stories, it's a big place. As with everything else this day, the details are in the pictures.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Hangzhou Overview

Di Yin and I visited Hangzhou and its famous West Lake on Friday and Saturday, April 23-24, 2010.

Hangzhou is incredible! Or, more precisely, the parks/gardens surrounding the West Lake (and the islands and land bridges within) are incredible. They're fabulously green, lush, and gorgeous -- nicer than any park I can remember in a long time, including St. James Park in London. There were many people taking wedding pictures around the lake. I can see why.

Better yet, these grounds are enormous. We spent two days walking them yet walked only a fraction. It's amazing the sheer quantity of land that has been landscaped/sculpted to such a high standard of beauty. There are countless nice places to walk, and tons of bridges (in various architectural styles) to cross and to simply enjoy seeing. These parks are so expansive that they can absorb the tourist crowds. We often found ourselves walking on less crowded paths or even, at times, in entirely tranquil areas with nary a soul in sight.

It's no wonder that we saw a lot of people picnicking and many others playing cards/Chinese chess/whatever. Basically, any excuse to spend more time in this area.

People in Shanghai make a big deal about the Bund, but this is an order of magnitude better and I think even saying Hangzhou and the Bund in the same sentence is insulting to Hangzhou. It's a different caliber.

All that said, Hangzhou the city is pretty nice too. Hangzhou (at least the part I saw near the West Lake) is like Shanghai's downtown but less crowded, more modern, and with many more trees (on both medians and sidewalks), and with dedicated bike/bus lanes. (Yes, unlike Shanghai, Hangzhou has enough space to frequently have medians in the middle of their roads.) Furthermore, even though it's much more of a tourist-centered city than Shanghai, I was never offered anything to buy, nothing like Shanghai's touts suggesting "watch, watch, shoes?"

I feel I should mention a bit of background about Hangzhou. It's got a long history, though most relics have been destroyed by fires, wars, and the cultural revolution. It's long been known as a home for Chinese literati. In addition, it's got its own style of cuisine, which also has a long history (longer than Shanghai's style by a substantial margin). These last two sentences are probably related: educated people with cultured hobbies likely have sophisticated tastes.

As for the West Lake--although you wouldn't believe it from its size--it's actually man-made by various emperors over the years. (That's why it's so shallow: it's on average 2 meters deep.) It began as a lagoon. Different rulers added islands (which they then artistically gardened), land bridges, and various estates near the lake. It was very developed by the time Marco Polo made it to Hangzhou in the 13th century and marveled at its beauty and thousands of bridges. Usually when I hear guidebooks describing what an ancient traveler said about a place, I find the description not particularly accurate or representative. In this case, however, Marco Polo was right. It is a splendid place and there are lots of bridges.

By the way, the weather was great during our visit to Hangzhou, and our experience was further enhanced by the diminished pollution compared Shanghai.

Incidentally, there are other sites in Hangzhou I want to see and other places near and on the West Lake where I want to walk. On this trip, we only got to sample some of the Hangzhou's attractions.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Botanic Garden

On Saturday, April 17, 2010, I took advantage of an unusually nice day to visit the Shanghai Botanical Garden. I wasn't alone: the park was crowded, there was traffic control near the park itself, and the bus to the park from my apartment hit a lot of traffic and took almost an hour. (The return ride was only half an hour.)

The botanic gardens are nice, and a good number of streams and lakes make it more picturesque than most. Judging from the crowd, it's clearly a date and family destination. It's also a large space: I spent more than two hours there before I got satiated with it, but had seen only half of it at that point (though I'd at least visited the main conservatory). Some of the gardens were still under construction -- they hadn't moved the plants in yet (probably because it's still sometimes cold in Shanghai). Also, a flower show was going on this month at the gardens; I only made it to that part of the park on my way out, glancing briefly at it as I passed.

I took pictures on this excursion.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Suzhou

On Friday, April 16, 2010, I took the day off of work to visit Suzhou with Di Yin and S, a friend of mine who was in town. Although I had visited Suzhou once before, on that trip I didn't manage to see any of its famous gardens. Suzhou is renowned for having many attractive, classically Chinese, carefully landscaped, meditative gardens, built in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

I took over one hundred pictures on this trip; they document the journey rather well. Di Yin also took similarly many pictures, including a few of things I didn't get to photograph (such as a tea pot with an incredibly long sprout).

I enjoyed our visit to Suzhou. The gardens are pretty, and I liked walking around downtown more than in Shanghai. It's less hectic, less crowded, and the people seem nicer. It's easier to breathe (less pollution). Also, the city's outlined by wide canals, with a few small ones criss-crossing the center. Although I didn't see enough of them for them to significantly impact my impression of the city, S thinks it looks like Venice. Frankly, I'd hope Venice has more waterways, but he's been there and I haven't so I'll let his comment stand.

Judging by the quiet offers of goods for sale on the streets, Suzhou's more upscale than Shanghai. That is, in the pedestrian downtown street in Shanghai I hear "watch, watch, bag" and in Suzhou I heard "watch, iphone".

Incidentally, for background: Suzhou has a long history and was more famous and larger than Shanghai in the middle of the last millennium. Suzhou even had a foreign concession.

The Day
Di Yin and I met S at 8am then (oops!) got on the subway in the wrong direction. We noticed about ten minutes later and switched line. When we finally arrived at the main train station, we ran. This caused us to breathe hard, which made my throat not feel right. I now believe I was right to not go running outside during my stay in Shanghai. In the end, however, the twenty minute detour caused us to miss our train. Happily, the station attendant allowed us to exchange our tickets for later ones. We hung around near the train station.

The express train we took to Suzhou was pleasant. And fast: at times we were going between 150 and 200 kilometers per hour (90-120 mph). In contrast, our evening train traveled slower. I think it's because our train back was delayed and I guess we therefore hit congestion on the tracks.

Upon arrival in Suzhou, we braved the swarms of touts, rickshaw drivers, etc.--this area is more like India than any other place I've been in China--and, after a few misdirections, managed to grab a crowded bus to our first destination. (The bus was likely crowded because the good weather made many people visit Suzhou this day.)

Our first garden was the Master-of-Nets Garden. It's the most famous garden in Suzhou, judging by the multiple (English) guidebooks I consulted. It was compact, pretty, and cozy, and had many courtyards. Indeed, the "garden" is architecturally dense, more focused on its many elegant halls than nature.

After the garden, we took the bus downtown, ate a late lunch, walked the main downtown pedestrian streets, and tried a ton of snacks. (Suzhou's famous for them.) Much of them are documented in the pictures.

Come mid-afternoon, we took a bus to the Lion Forest Garden. This garden is the most famous garden in Suzhou according to the Di Yin and the Chinese web. My guidebooks give it only a little mention. Given that most tourists in China are Chinese, it's not surprising it was very crowded.

I found Lion Forest Garden much more beautiful than the Master-of-Nets Garden. This garden's all about rocks. It's a big garden, with many convoluted paths and winding tunnels through and around rocks (often slippery and dangerous) and strange, natural rock statues.

After the garden we had an early dinner, then made our way to the train station and home.

Although I'd hoped to go to the silk museum--Suzhou's famous for silk--I didn't get the chance. We spent the time that we could have allocated to it instead wandering around downtown and eating snacks. I'm comfortable with this choice: we had a full day, and I'm happy with what we chose to do and the speed with which we did it.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Shopping Outing

On Saturday, April 10, 2010, as one of Di Yin's presents, I let her drag me shopping. It was a nice day for Shanghai, warm and with clear blue skies, though I still miss being able to see the unobscured sun (as I can in most of the rest of the world). But, I think this is the nicest Shanghai gets.

We glanced in a couple of stores in Huashan Road, but really only spent time in one, the same one in which our guest J on his visit managed to find some clothes that looked good on him. I tried on a bunch of stuff and we ended up walking out with one decent shirt. Di Yin was elated.

Since it was her birthday outing, I let Di Yin pick the place, and, likely because we were in the Jing'an Temple area, we ended up at How Way, a regular destination of ours. As we entered the restaurant, we were engulfed in the smell of spicy oil. (This makes sense, as we, like everyone else, often order the bowl of fish in spicy chili oil, though we didn't order it this time.) See the pictures for details. Due to the strength of the flavors of How Way's dishes, when we left we still had room in our stomachs. We stopped eating because our taste buds were exhausted.

After lunch, we stopped by three Chinese bakeries on the way home, gazing at the wide variety of unusual baked goods China has to offer. Bakeries are expensive by Chinese standards, and one bakery had a day-old/damaged bread line in the back that was crazy crowded! From these bakeries, we ended up with an eclectic assortment: a cream horn (a horn-shaped bread (yes bread, not pastry dough) filled with cream), a potato roll (yes, a roll filled with mashed sweet potatoes), a coffee roll/muffin, a ham loaf (a loaf of bread with chunks of ham inside), and perhaps more that I'm forgetting.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010: The Bund

Wednesday, April 7, 2010, was an uncommonly nice day in Shanghai. It was warm(-ish), the sky was relatively clear, and there was no chance of rain. I took advantage of the opportunity to play hooky from work in the afternoon to see the newly reopened Bund. The Bund, Shanghai's famous waterfront promenade, had been closed for construction for as long as I've been here. (It was under renovations in preparation for the expo.) In fact, the area was under so much construction last summer and the dust and pollution were so bad, after a quick visit one day to see the mess, I never returned. At the end of May, the Bund reopened.

I'm surprised to report that the Bund is actually nice, and disappointed that I realized I'd expected otherwise. Nevertheless, the restoration of the buildings surrounding the Bund hasn't finished yet, and I felt my eyes water slightly as I approached.

I met Di Yin at the Shanghai Archive, and she decided to walk the Bund with me. I took these pictures on or near the Bund. The Bund is a nice, open space, complete with regularly-spaced speakers playing decent music. Today there was a good number of people, enough to be lively and to be able to people-watch, but not enough to feel crowded.

On the way back from the Bund, we walked down East Nanjing Road. I declined offers to buy watches or shoes. I saw a few places serving sweetened steamed rice cakes; I guess it's the season again. We stuck our heads in the #1 Food Store, one of the more well-known foodstuff shops, and gazed, impressed, at its huge assortment of snacks and dried ingredients (meats, vegetables, etc.), among other things.

Near my office, we stopped by a sheng jian bao and fried rice joint, Shucaiji, that I visited in November (but never took pictures) and Di Yin has visited countless times. The dumplings were great, in the style of sheng jian bao that I get from Flushing. And now I have pictures.

Shanghai Expat: April 2010

April was a new month, and with it came both spring weather (intermittently) and two friends from the states. One moved to Shanghai; the other came for three weeks to see how it felt and to decide if he wanted to move to China.

For me, April was an introspective month that I spent figuring out where I wanted to be during the rest of the year and mulling over my feelings about leaving Shanghai. (I was scheduled to be in the bay area for the month of May). I looked forward to returning to California. I won't list here the things I don't like about Shanghai because that would be depressing. However, there is one thing I'll miss upon leaving Shanghai: the food (aside from the food my company serves at lunch, which I don't like much). There are many great, reasonably priced restaurants in Shanghai; I don't eat as well as consistently when I go out in other cities.

In April, I did day and overnight trips to places near Shanghai. I'll report these in other posts. The rest of this post will be mostly little reports of smaller outings. I also took pictures this month. Some of my outings are only reported in the pictures; others are only reported in this entry. Refer to them both.

On April 1, I went to B and K's engagement party. It was large and fancy; many of B's relatives came to town. They rented out four tables in one of the best-known Shanghainese restaurants, Fu1039. Thus, it felt much like a wedding reception (complete with gifts), not an engagement dinner, but quite a dinner it was: a tasty full-scale Chinese banquet with numerous famous Shanghainese dishes and followed by a Tiffany wedding cake. I've never seen one of these before: it really looks like a present box (complete with a bow) but is actually a cake with layers of cool cream.

The night before Di Yin's dad's flight back to the states, the four of us ate dinner together at home. We ordered take-out from Jishi (Jesse), which we ate at once before and really liked. For details on the food, see the pictures.

Di Yin's birthday was on April 8th. Her mom was still in town (scheduled to fly out the next day) and made Di Yin a birthday dinner. One of Di Yin's mom's friends and Di Yin's mom arranged to get her a cake as well. Fancy! Details are in the pictures.

One Saturday, Di Yin and I took the train farther north in Shanghai than I'd ever previously gone in order to have lunch with one of my co-workers/friends, D, and his wife. They live in a quiet neighborhood (strikingly quiet compared with elsewhere in Shanghai). I liked the look of their main street: bustling with many small shops and, above, hanging clothes. As for lunch, although we'd agreed that each couple would cook/provide two dishes, they went overboard and we ended up with quite a spread: fish in hot oil (take-out), duck (take-out), dumplings (frozen), chicken soup (take-out), sliced tofu (take-out), sliced ham (take-out), sauteed mushrooms (us-made), cucumber salad (us-made), and much, much more. We planned to make a noodle dish but were convinced otherwise upon seeing the spread. We had two plates of tasty northern-style dumplings (from the wife's region). When I innocently inquired whether the two plates were the same (I could reach only one), they said yes and then made two more plates of other types of dumplings, just so I could try them all. (They could not be persuaded otherwise.) Goodness. And they bought three different types of thousand-layer cake, just because they wanted me to try those too. (I don't understand how they could've thought I lived in Shanghai for four months and yet not had some thousand-layer cakes.) Then post-lunch was crazy too. They had bananas, longan, oranges, pork floss sandwiches, plum cakes, potato chips, nuts, and more, just because they were worried about having something I'd like. How's that for overwhelming Chinese hospitality?

After Di Yin's dad returned to the states, Di Yin's mom came to stay with us for a week until she too returned to the states. One night, Di Yin decided we should take her mom to a fancy Japanese restaurant because she likes Japanese food but does not get the opportunity to eat it. (Di Yin's dad does not like it.) We took her to Koyama, one of the fanciest sushi joints you could imagine. We've been there before. Details on this trip are in the pictures.

Passover occurred at the end of March this year and, though Shanghai's Jewish Community Center was holding a seder, I didn't manage to attend. However, a friend from work decided to host his own seder a week later, and I got to attend that! Although I don't have pictures, I have stories. I was one of half a dozen jews in a crowd of about thirty people, nearly all expats (mostly ethnically Chinese). With this assortment of people, we did the bulk of a passover service. I was surprised how respectful everyone was. They seemed interested and actually listened as, through the seder, we told the story of the jews' exodus from Egypt, which took more than an hour. We did all the usual seder activities: asking the four questions (appropriate for such a new audience), counting out the plagues using drops of wine, hiding the afikoman, etc. Before the seder, some people made yamakas by cutting paper into a circle, removing a wedge, then taping it together so it stuck up a little. It worked; I wore mine all night.

We also had traditional passover fare. My friend acquired passover wine and matzah and even, with a friend of his, made matzah ball soup from scratch -- more authentic than any seder I've attended in the states! (All my friends and relatives use a mix.) Another friend made charoset, in ample amounts to prevent running out. (I and he always hate when that happens. He swore it wouldn't happen that night, and it didn't.) Beside the charoset, people brought less traditional toppings for matzah: hummus, baba ghanoush, cream cheese, guacamole. I was assigned the simple task of bringing wasabi. Why wasabi? Because we couldn't acquire any horseradish, the traditional bitter herb (maror) used in the seder, we used wasabi, which is roughly Japanese horseradish. As for the main course, we cheated: my friend ordered food from a Hunanese joint: tasty cumin lamb popsicles and eggplant.

Some other cute tidbits about the evening: because there were so many of us, we sat on the floor, reclining, which is said to be the traditional way seders were held in the distant past. We also gave up on the service (aside from finding the afikoman) after dinner, which usually happens in my relatives' households as well. Finally, the host called his dad using skype to have him participate in the service and answer some questions. It was a nice gesture.

On Saturday, April 17, 2010, Di Yin and I met a bunch of friends of mine (B, K, A, S, and K's dog coco) in honor of their comings and goings in Shanghai. We ate at Duofuyuan, a restaurant owned by one K's relatives (that's why she could bring the dog). It was a good meal; I didn't take pictures so I'll omit the details other than the list of things we ate: jellyfish, deep-fried little fish (that you could eat bones and all), steamed chicken, marinated rare meat, fatty red-cooked pork, noodles, drunken crab, sauteed pea shoots, watermelon.

Other Remarks
The big building being constructed on my block must be behind schedule -- they wake me up with their construction every day at around 6:30am. After about three weeks, I started getting more used to it. However, that's around the time my allergies began kicking it. (I don't have them in California but I have them in China.) I imagine I have allergies indoors because, as I mentioned before, the apartment was poorly insulated. My somewhat stuffed nose interfered with my breathing just enough to disrupt my sleep so the construction noise continued to wake me up. Incidentally, the construction must've fallen more behind schedule: by the last week of April, they were starting before 6am.

Recall the sweetened steamed rice cakes that I found often last summer? Ever since moving to China, I had trouble finding them. I finally learned why: they're seasonal! Maybe it has something to do with rice production, maybe not, but, regardless, it seems they only show up during the warmer months of the year. Huh.

Often, when taking subways during rush hour, I'm amazed I get on and off at my stop. It involves a lot of wiggling and pushing, yet nevertheless I manage to pop out of the subway cars every time.

Also, I think the way people push and cut in lines is Darwinian. There are just so many people in China that if you don't do that, you wouldn't get anywhere quickly.

I think Bashi Fen may be the card game I often saw people playing in parks.