Monday, May 2, 2011

It’s the Little Things

I am out of here on Tuesday. In order to do that I needed to buy a train ticket, that meant finding the place that sells tickets, communicating with the ticket seller and buying one. Of course I could have paid the front desk 35RM to do it for me, but that’s the cost of a good meal. The man at the front desk gave me a piece of paper, written in Chinese, which had written on it where I was going and the date I was traveling as well as directions to the office.

Off I went and I only passed the ticket office once. In my defense the sign was in Chinese. Once I realized that I had gone too far, discovering another classic looking building along the way, I doubled back and found the office. Within minutes I left with a ticket for the date and time I wanted. Triumph!

Next up was to find a place to eat. I looked into a number of restaurants, but they all looked too hooky or upscale to me. I passed a pizza place, Thai food, Indonesian food, Japanese food, Hong Kong style food, and beef in a noodle place, none of them where that interesting’ As I started back on my way to the hostel, I spied a restaurant across the street and saw fire coming from a table. That looked interesting and I crossed the street to take a closer look.

Peering into the window of the place I saw little open air stoves on each table filled with burning charcoal and people grilling skewers filled with stuff like yakatori. I ventured in, got a table, hoped for an English menu but was willing to make do with walking around the restaurant and pointing out what I wanted. They produced a menu where someone has translated some of items; I was given another menu to check off the food I wanted to order. I scanned through the menu, doing my best to pick out the food I thought was correct and ordered a dozen skewers and a beer.

Most of what I got was what I thought I ordered. I started to cook the skewered meat. Shortly thereafter the owner came over and showed me how to season it as well, he ended up cooking most of the meal for me. The meal was wonderful, I had vegetables, tofu, chicken, fish, lamb, beef, kidney and banana. The cost : 28RM or less than $5!

I was walking back to the hostel, feeling like the canary that swallowed the mouse trying to make sense if the meal was Japanese or a local specialty when I passed one of the hawker places and saw that they made the skewers and also had a ton of shellfish for sale. Tomorrow night is my last night here; do I go back to the same place or try the other one? Or do I eat even more upscale? Or eat in another neighborhood? These are good decisions to have to make.

I am having a hard time uploading, therefore the pictures will come later. I have already taken over 800!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shanghai – “A Soulless City”

Traveling for two days on and off airplanes tends to leave me disoriented and exhausted. This time was no different.

None the less the trip here was filled with its own exciting adventures. I flew business class, which on International destinations is the way to go. Or as I say, there are times when a “princess” should travel like one.

The trip began on an auspicious note with Continental’s concierge presenting me a belated birthday card and a gift of 3,000 air miles.

Next to me on the plane was a twenty-something lady just flying to London for a few days to see the royal wedding (her boyfriend works for the airline.) She was beyond excitement at getting to see this event, as I say, good for her.

Continental’s airline food is still a bit sub-par compared with other airline's international offerings and as impressive as their flat sleeper seats are, my next flight would have better ones. The flight attendants are still terrific, I hope it stays that way.

In London, I switched over to Virgin Airlines. Their Upper Class lounge puts the others I have been in to shame. The spacious and airy lounge, had an extensive menu, table service, fully stocked bar, library, game room, and spa. I enjoyed my complimentary 15-minute massage, lots of bubbly, some great food, but best of all, the steam shower.

After a five-hour layover, I headed to my plane. Virgin Air’s Upper Class with its really flat seats looked like a ghost town. While we had a full crew, there were about ten passengers in all in our section. The flight attendants were practically tripping over each other, helping us out. They told me that this was highly unusual as the flights usually go out pretty full, but it was the Prince's wedding the next day, I assume people wanted to stay in town.

I met my neighbor, not an easy feat as no seat looked at each other and out out that she was politically consultant working out of Beijing, Marge and I hit it off and she invited me to join her for cocktails Saturday night. By the way, the flight attendant made up my bed, on a plane no less, which included a cozy down comforter and two pillows. I was so tired I never made it to changing into my complimentary pjs.

First impressions:

  • Shanghai is an urban and sophisticated city.
  • I was surprised the driver had American music playing on the radio.
  • Driving along the freeway, the high rise apartment buildings alongside the road reminded me of Queens, New York.

I see little that resembles my experiences in other Asian cities or from visiting China 20 years ago. There is little evidence of the gray, grittiness I recalled, but a city filled with blooming flowers, with women in high heels (with their men carrying their purses, what’s with that?), men in designer clothes, and not a bit of litter on the streets. Nor do I see any remnants of any religion in sight, except for a local Buddhist temple. There are Chinese/ English signs everywhere, making it somewhat easier to get around, or least to try to figure out where one is. The metro system, is clean and efficient and the announcements about stops in both Chinese and English. By the way, all children here learn to speak English in school these days, or so I have been told.

Comment: If China can transform itself like this in two decades, there is hope for the American school system as well, don’t you think?

Le Tour Traveler’s Inn, where I am staying, is a big hostel. I am in a four person dorm with a shared bathroom down the hall. It is one of the cleanest hostels I have ever seen and there are ample toilets, showers, and hot water. My bed consists of wooded slats with a half-inch mattress and I am grateful I am in the bottom bunk. The staff is friendly enough and while I have spied a few travelers around my age, mainly I see eye candy in their early twenties. I just want to shake them, and tell them that those looks fade if you don’t take care of yourself, but it is really none of my business. I hear there is some hard partying going on upstairs on the roof, but it is quiet and peaceful on the ground floor, where I am staying.

I have mainly eaten street food since I got here, such as dumplings stuffed with soup and meat, buns with vegetables or ground pork and these delightful snacks on sticks made of tofu, fish, and or meat. Today I had some lousy congee for breakfast and some passable beef soup. The food has been similar to what I eat in Asiatown in Houston. If I have the energy, I’ll try to go upscale tonight

I visited the Jung’An Temple, which was originally built in 247AD but was destroyed in 1851 and like most of Shanghai, destroyed some more during the Cultural Revolution. Its current incarnation lacks some heart and soul and the Buddha, although lovely, did little to move me. Where are the monks or the nuns, I have grown so accustom to seeing in Asia? Where are the gongs and the bells actually ringing, rather than being items on display? Certainly not around the Shanghai I have seen. I visited the temple’s nearby park and saw beautifully landscaped gardens. I enjoyed listening to a group of adults singing their hearts out.

I walked down Nanjung Rd heading towards the Bund and found the People’s Park, also beautifully landscaped. I continued walk along Nanjung making my first purchase a bright yellow plastic watch for 35RM or a little less than $6, bargained down from 130RM, I still think I paid too much.

Yesterday I returned to the People’s Park and met some Chinese tourists. We went to a tea ceremony. Fortunately since it was in Chinese, one of the men translated for me. It was interesting, but cost around $45, which I think was very expensive. After all my room is only about $10 a night. In the afternoon I toured the Shanghai Museum. It is four stories full of Chinese artifacts, that goes through an extensive history of China through, stone, bronze, textile, money and calligraphy.

Last night I met up with Marge, from whom I stole the soulless description in the title and a friend of hers from the Beijing Embassy for cocktails. We ate canapés and I drank martinis in a restored art deco cocktail lounge, complete with a Chinese woman singing. What fun! I hope to meet up with her again in Beijing.

I am not disappointed in Shanghai, just a bit confused. This town is quite Westernized and if the majority of faces were not Asian and the predominant language Chinese, I would think that I was in some urban American city.

Today I have spent planning the next leg of my trip and catching up on things, laundry, writing, etc. I am trying to upload pictures as well for you to see. I better get this post up before I run into more things to say.

--My connection to the internet for uploading is not that good, so hopefully the pictures with explanations will be up on Flickr soon: China 2011 Week 1.