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Monthly Archives: September 2008

30/09/08: Power Walking Day 

In modern China it is escalators that bring you to the temple.

In modern China it is escalators that bring you to the temple.

The breakfast of the business hotel we were staying at was very different from whatever I had seen before. Besides that it was a huge buffet, it was a funny mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Western food. In the Western section there were cereals and toast, the Japanese section had miso soup and sushi on offer. The Chinese section was indescribable. There was congee, a slimy rice soup which you could spice up with pickled weirdness. There were 1000 year old eggs, which are of course not 1000 years old, but ‘only’ about 100 days. I really wanted to try them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it, especially so early in the morning. There were all kinds of Chinese dishes, which we’d rather eat for lunch or dinner, not necessarily for breakfast, like fried rice / noodles with fried vegetables / chicken / fish or flabby pork. There were all sorts of dim sum, but none of them tasted similar to what I’ve had in London. There was a selection of sweet breads, but they were just like the dim sum dough. With so much choice at hand, I obviously had to try a little bit of everything which still added up to a lot. But with a long day ahead, it was just the proper foundation for what was coming.

Luckily Christian’s colleague managed to buy us bus tickets from Jiashan to Hangzhou. As it was Golden Week, it wasn’t easy to come by tickets for any form of transport. And as we didn’t speak Chinese, it wasn’t easy for us to buy any kind of tickets.

We were picked up by the factory’s driver and helped by Christian colleagues to find the right bus. I tried to figure out what the system was to identify the correct bus, but there simply wasn’t any. Not a clue. No bus no, no indication which platform. I wondered how we’d make our way back.

But when we got to Hangzhou, a Chinese couple who could speak a bit of English helped us buying the return tickets for pm. That meant we had easily 7 hours for the day.

After having managed the first task successfully, we entered the city life and were quite overwhelmed by the busy traffic and masses of people. We decided to go to a near by hotel to ask for help. The first hotel was a true Chinese hotel where no-one spoke English. But at the second hotel we got lucky. Whereas locals had tried to sell us maps and guides just outside, here we got our maps and guidance for free.

The concierge told us to take bus no 56, which ran all the way from the East bus station to the West Lake. Unfortunately that meant a 45 min journey. That meant our 7 hours time for the day shrunk to 5 hours, as we had to calculate in the way back. All the way we wondered when we’d get off and asked the locals several times if our stop was coming up. When the bus took a turn to go back, it was time for us to get off.

The map we had picked up from the hotel showed the West Lake and all the surrounding attractions. So after establishing where we actually were, I kept on telling Christian what to watch out for.

We started off in an easy walk, but soon realised that we’d never make it around the lake at this pace. So we increased our speed to a brisk London walk. I watched out what distance we covered in one hour to estimate how long we’d need to get back to the bus stop.

I thought I had a good idea, but obviously then things were not as straight forward as I had hoped.

We wanted to go to the Silk Museum, but it was a bit further south, away from the lake. The map turned out to be not 100% true and we got kind of lost with no-one around who’d know where we wanted to go.

At some point we asked a group of officials and got a fright when the woman started shouting and sounded quite upset. We wondered if we were completely wrong, as this woman was quite worked up and also the others around her sounded distressed. This went on for a while until I had enough and shoved the map back into their faces. Abruptly they went quiet and simply pointed into the direction to go. What they had discussed so vividly, we’ll never know.

The Silk Museum was worth the trouble though and turned out to have some surprises: We saw real silk worms, a woman weaving silk cloths and a fashion show.

On our way back we walked through an eco-park with beautiful ponds and flower arrangements.

As we came back to the lake, we walked right up to the big Leifeng Pagoda and Christian wanted to get up. We really didn’t have much time left, so it was more of a marathon up the pagoda. But of course even those ancient buildings catered for lazy people and you could take a giant escalator up to the hill where the pagoda was placed on. Elevators lead up to the top of the pagoda, but the queues were crazy, so we walked up the stairs. The view on top rewarded us for our efforts.

Back down on the ground however, we realised we’d spent too much time and too much money to get back to the East bus station. Christian had no cash left for a taxi and we had about one hour left to make it around the remaining half of the lake for which we had taken two hours to get here.

With not much of an alternative on our hands, we simply had to make the rest of the lake in half the time, meaning a power walk was needed.

Off we went, overtaking the Chinese like some crazy Westerners with ants in their pants.

I couldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for Christian gripping my hand tightly, determined to walk around the lake at bullet speed.

Surprisingly, we made it. While Christian was looking for an ATM machine to withdraw cash, I tried flagging down a taxi, but to no avail. It was full-on rush hour and all taxis were taken. We started walking back to the bus stop where we’d gotten off and luckily saw bus no 56. It took a different route back and we were in a state of nail biting tension if we’d make it back to catch our bus. We weren’t sure if we could exchange our bus ticket to a later one and with Golden Week and all it could very well be that there are no more free seats left to return to Shanghai.

We voiced our worries to one of the passengers who spoke English and he was positive we could make it. When the driver however seemed to fall asleep behind the wheel, he said something to him and interestingly enough, the driver turned up the speed a notch, dodging his way through rush hour traffic.

We just about made it to East bus station and were relieved we now could get back to Shanghai save and sound. They showed some Chinese Kung-Fu movie on the bus, which was fun to watch, but we both fell asleep at some point after such a long day of sightseeing and exercise.

See the photos:

29/09/08:  Cruise Day 

These doors are like 1000 years old. But why not stick a Hello Kitty on it?

These doors are like 1000 years old. But why not stick a Hello Kitty on it?

Christian had arranged for us to visit one of the factories he’s working with.

We had a car coming to Shanghai to pick us up. To make it easier for the driver, we agreed to meet at Shanghai airport, which meant we’d be using the Maglev train, the transrapid, again.

It is quite an experience riding on the bullet train. 30km in 7 minutes with top speeds at 415 km/h. And it runs smoothly like on ice cream. No bumps from the track, no noise from the wheels or breaks. Instead of turning left or right, the whole train leans into the curve, like a giant rollercoaster. It’s over quicker than you expect.

After a pleasant ride like that, representing latest high tech development, we took on a less impressive ride on the Chinese expressway.

Here you’re confronted with people who can’t actually drive and have never heard of a highway code. Priority has who owns the more expensive car. They will drive on the fast lane, even if they only make 80 km/h. To make everybody aware of their presence, flashing warning lights or constant blinking ads to the aggravation. Slow cars on the fast lane are usually overtaken on the slow lane, or if that’s full, on the emergency break lane, which conveniently is called ‘parking lane’. As such it is used by mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians. As there are no real rules, everybody warns other drivers that they’re coming by humping the horn. But it’s not a short make-aware beep, it’s a long lasting annoying trumpet blast that only ends after the vehicle in question has been overtaken.

Luckily there are still not many cars around in China and with toll fees not necessarily on the expressway, so most of the time you can enjoy an almost normal drive. The highways are relatively new, too, so it’s an ok smooth ride.

After about 1 1/2 hours we arrived at Jiashan and drove up to the factory. They were producing chairs and tables and had an impressive portfolio of designs. The oriental influence just brings an interesting uniqueness to it. Like chairs that look like they have been woven together from wood panels. Or forms that flow like the dragon’s back.

The factory’s manufacture hall was big and impressive and rather busy considering it was Golden Week, a national holiday in China.

We had lunch with the factory owner in his flat atop of the office building.

After that the driver picked us up to go to Xitang, the ancient water town. Unfortunately, it’s now more famous for Tom Cruise having made one of the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies over there.

It could be a quaint little place with old buildings by the river, terraces and seating adjacent to the water. Even that the shops are filled with touristy souvenirs is understandable. But some shops play loud techno music and you find posters of Tom Cruise plastered around. Ah well, I guess that’s modern life, which doesn’t shy away from World Heritage sites.

We spent about 2 hours walking along the river, over bridges, into small shops, watching birds, craftspeople and candy makers at work, trying different foods and taking in novel smells.

Xitang is like an open air museum with people actually living there, sometimes in the old traditional way, sometimes in a modern and high-tech way. You could walk along the narrow little alleyways to which all shops opened up and suddenly look into someone’s kitchen or living room. You could marvel at the ancient building in traditional Chinese style and then see someone with their laptop in there. Or you could step into a brand new restaurant where all the foods are made by hand. A circle of women would stand around a pot with filling and make spring rolls or dumplings.

At the back of the shops you could only imagine the real life going on behind the scenes. But you could also get an impression on the streets, as Xitang is mainly a Chinese tourist destination. As it was Golden Week a lot of Chinese came for the day it seemed, to have a stroll or some tea by the river.

Such it was a very relaxing atmosphere and nice to just let the ancient town built along the water some thousand years ago leave its impression to get an idea how it must have been like during those ancient times.

View the photos:

28/09/08: Sightseeing Day

The fantastic skyline of Shanghai

The fantastic skyline of Shanghai

Our first day of sightseeing! We have a lot planned to see during these holidays, so it was great to get started.

As I had needed some time to catch up on my jet lag, we took it easy on my day of arrival. I struggled not to go to bed too early, but I probably should have, as today I only woke up by 10am.

We’re staying at my cousin Simone’s place, who lives with her family in Shanghai. What a great start to a big holiday, it’s just a good feeling to have a place to go first thing when you land up in a foreign country.

So after a day of relaxation, we felt excited to go out and about.

Obviously with the prospect of a lovely German breakfast with muesli, broetchen, jams and cheeses, we didn’t hurry too much, but enjoyed a slow start to the day.

As a result we only managed to get going close around midday, but for that the breakfast we had enjoyed would be long-lasting, saving us the time to look for lunch.

We encountered the first moment of difficulty already when it was about buying tickets for the subway. Even though we could switch the language to English, at first those automatic ticket machines were tricky to handle.

We had decided to go to People’s Square first, which had been a horse racing course before the communist government took over.

People’s Park has a speaker’s corner similar to Hyde Park, where Chinese meet and exchange views and discuss. What we could obviously not know, but statements were put down on the floor or pinned up to trees.

It’s nice for a stroll in the park and see what Chinese people do on a Sunday afternoon.

A word of warning however: There is a popular scam taking place around that area: It’s either the tea-ceremony-scam or the artist-student-scam. I had read about the artist-student-scam where an artist student sells you their work for a horrendous price. But we were unfamiliar with the tea-ceremony-scam and had difficulty detecting it at first: Seemingly randomly you get involved in a conversation with Chinese people. We had this happen to us three times and from offering help in finding directions to commenting on you / your equipment / your clothes in a flattering manner to asking you to take a picture of what looks like a group of friends, the approach varies. Once you get talking, these people turn out to be overly friendly, telling you about what there is to see and offer you to take you along to a tea ceremony. We kindly refused, thank god, as the scam is that in the end you have to pay for the tea ceremony an outrageous price.

So if Chinese people approach you, speaking fluent English and being extraordinarily friendly, beware: this is too good to be true. Most likely, the average Chinese will not speak English or only very little and they are usually not bothered about others at all.

If you want to buy Chinese art, buy it because you like it and accept that it could be fake. Negotiate the price, starting from 70% less than the initial offer.

If you want to experience a tea ceremony, go to any tea shop and ask for tasting the tea before you buy it. They will gladly invite you to experience their tea the Chinese way.

Not falling for any scam, we could enjoy People’s Square without much hassle. Amazing is the architecture around, but obviously more impressive should be the skyscrapers by the river so that’s where we headed off next.

We walked to the Bund, which is a promenade by the river with lots of touristy gimmicks on offer. We bought some nut cake, negotiating the price down substantially and a kite with a face mask printed on it. Christian had once more negotiated the price down considerably, but just when he’d bought it, he got offered the same kite for half that price by another person.

This shows you should never think in the currency you use. Chinese prices are much lower and you need to quickly start thinking in Yuan. As what might seem cheap in Pounds / Euros / Dollars is extortionate in Yuan.

We walked on in direction of Yuyuan Gardens and the scenery changed very drastically. Shanghai is very much about keeping the facade impressive and spotless, but once you look behind it, you get quite a surprise. Shanghai in particular is full of construction sites. So where you walk along the immaculate river promenade, as soon as you want to get off it you land up in chaos and dirt, as roads are not finished, pedestrian walkways non-existent and rush hour a constant phenomenon.

We stumbled upon Gucheng Park, which had nicely designed garden architecture with the famous Shanghai skyscrapers in the background.

Coming out of it, we ended directly in the old part of Shanghai, where life is happening on the street: Food, trade, meet-ups.

We walked around Yuyuan Gardens which turned out to be basically a shopping centre for souvenirs made up in the old Chinese style of architecture. I’m very interested in those dragons, as Dragon is my Chinese star sign, and there are plenty around at Yuyuan Gardens.

We didn’t make it to the actual garden, as last entry is 4.30pm and we had simply taken too easy a stroll to make it in time.

From Yuyuan Gardens we made our way back to People’s Park subway station, passing some interesting back streets, which give you an insight that not all is shiny steel and glass in Shanghai.

As the light grew darker, Shanghai became more colourful with all those advertising lights. It seems, life really starts to pick up when it comes to dinner time.

But after an eventful and adventurous day of sightseeing we were ready to go home for a nice home cooked meal.

Take a look at the photos:

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