China was not at all what I expected. Admittedly, I let TV and movies mold my vision to a strict, conservative nation that loathes the United States.
From the moment I set foot on China soil I expected soldiers, guns, dogs and a collection of unfriendly bag searches (hopefully stopping at the bags). But it wasn’t like that at all. We walked through customs and I had to audibly ask, “Wait…that was it?” It was a bigger pain in the ass being a U.S. citizen and return through LAX customs, than it was being a U.S. citizen and walking through the doors of a socialist nation. America, the free.
The language barrier is pretty tough. Our hosts knew the language very well so for us non-speakers, it wasn’t so bad. But had I been in country without their help, it might have been rough, or frustrating. You learn, figure it out. Everyone knows times, dates and you can always draw pictures or whip out your handy phrase book. Tourist.
Shanghai drivers would think the streets of Los Angeles were slow and too safe. Even while riding high in a tour bus, I often found myself instinctively flinching and bracing for impact as cars and scooters meandered from lane to lane. But in eight days of in-city activity, we maybe saw two fender-benders. And never once did I see cars with trashed front ends or scraped bumpers. Nice cars too, tons of BMWs, Audis and Mercedes.
There is KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut. And Coldstone for dessert.
Everything is kinda dirty. Every car, building and statue has the thin layer of exhaust residue. Dirty streaks run down the high rise apartment complexes. Every scooter and bike looks like it’s been riding the roads heavy since the 1980′s. The smog is an issue. Cleaning your sinuses and spitting what nasty-globs you excavate onto the city streets and sidewalks, and even some historical monuments, is just accepted. The health masks are common, both to keep germs out (well, stop spitting then) and to keep the smog out of your lungs. The EPA doesn’t exist in China.
I read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter during the plane rides. It was exactly as I thought. Quick, fun read. Lincoln was a badass. Email me if you’d like to borrow.
I learned a lot more about DSLRs. Lens types, aperture priority, manual mode settings. While a smog filled city wasn’t the best subject, and I wasn’t really happy with any of my images, I learned a lot from a very patient teacher. While it’s fine to say, “make the best from what you’ve got,” sometimes a few extra zeros at the end of a DSLR price tag does actually made a difference in photo quality (Mom & Dad: Expect an expensive Christmas list).
The world was smaller than I thought. Having the internet and BBC News at my ready (most of the time) never made me feel like I was that far from home. News in America is a total joke. This morning I saw some Today Show piece about the world’s biggest rabbit. Meanwhile, BBC News was covering global economy issues, the riots in Thailand and airing clips of Obama speaking on nuclear policy that I’m sure never aired here. The rest of the world isn’t competing with YouTube. Or they don’t seem to care to. I watch more news out of the country than I do when I’m home.
The night we came home I stopped for dinner at Chipotle. The first thing I noticed, and was almost a little shocked and happy to see, was the variety of faces. All shapes and sizes and colors of skin. China is Chinese. What diversity there is comes from wayward ex-patriots doing business.
Would I go back? Maybe. It would probably have to be another perfect storm of being with Mandarin speakers and rumor is Hong Kong is great. Am I glad I went? Yes. You can’t travel across the world and expect to be disappointed. Every inch farther from home I get, I know there’s another inch after that. And no matter what, it’s a big ball. I’ll end up back home anyway.
Day nine was another travel day. From Beijing back to Shanghai. Nothing really too eventful this day. Hotel brunch, packed, back on board an Air China flight and headed out to The Bund area for a little more shopping. Dinner that night was one more round at Din Tai Fung. Headed home to pack, our flight out of Shanghai was at 9am the next morning (6am driver pick-up).
Day ten started before I was even really awake. Flight from Shanghai to Tokyo. Tokyo to Los Angeles. All said and done, about 19 total travel hours. The flight was less than smooth, and some little, elder Chinese lady had some sort of mid-flight freakout which led me to think we were going to have to land in Alaska. The flight featured some of the worst turbulence I’ve been flown through in a long time. With four hours left, I actually felt my face taking an aggressively pouty motion and temper-tantrum building. I just wanted to be home. In my own bed. We had some sleep-helpers with us, but I have this weird feeling that I’m that one guy who takes Ambien and mid-slumber gets out of my seat and tries to open then cockpit door thinking it’s a refrigerator. Then 10 hour later, I wake up in jail, and very hungry.
We flew out of Shanghai at 9am on Sunday and somehow arrived in Los Angeles at 10am on Sunday. 11 days later, I’m still messed up.
Our last real touristy day in China. Our last full day with “Bill” who I’m not sure liked us or not. Part of me thinks he enjoyed the fact that he had a semi-intelligent (I’m the curve killer there) and independent group, but I’m not sure if he thought we really cared because we were always wandering off and taking pictures of everything. And some of our group members literally took pictures of everything.
The morning stop was at the Ming Dynasty Tombs, about 30 miles outside Beijing. The site spread across the countryside and was the final resting place for thirteen of China’s deceased emperors. Excavation of one tomb began in 1956 and finished three years later. Of all thirteen tombs, only has been opened and excavated. “Bill” stated that the Chinese government at the time said they learned all they needed from opening one tomb and the other twelve will remain sealed, as they are to this day. Inside the tomb is nothing special. Most of the artifacts have been removed except for three marble thrones and a few porcelain vases. The coffins of the royal family have been replaced with replicas. So really, it’s just a hollow bomb shelter. It’s like someone wanted you to tour their empty basement with the floor taped off and the word COUCH in that space. Outside, a few small buildings house few artifacts from the tomb.
Forty-five minutes away was the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Chosen because it was supposedly the least tourist packed of the Wall entry points.
The ride to Mutianyu took us away from freeways and really away from proper roads and streets. We passed through small towns, if you can call them towns, where the road we were on seemed to be the only road in town. Concrete and brick houses were mashed together in a jumble, many of them with makeshift roofs and driveways. Most of the people in these towns probably knew very little about global current events. I doubt there was one television in each town, let alone internet, phone or even electricity. Most of the people seemed to live off the farms around the area and others would sell sucker tourists goods at the Wall (I do now own a “I climbed The Great Wall” t-shirt). It was fascinating to go from super-modern Shanghai to what I can only call third-world areas.
The climb to the Wall is cloaked in winter-bare trees and bushes. At the bottom of the climb, a few stops offer cable cars to help you up to the top. Being of able body, mostly, the group opted for the stairs.
Each time to look up, there’s just more stairs. That’s if you can see because the burn from your thighs and legs is filling your eyes with tears.
When we finally made it to the Wall, clouds covered the mountains in the distance. Later when they cleared, you get an a view of just how far the Wall goes. Near the “end” of our trail (“end” means, nature has taken over and destroyed safe walkways), we traced the remnants of the Wall away from where we were and easily another ten miles away plus up the side of another mountain top before it vanished. Being there, standing on that stone, was an amazing feeling. To be so far from home, and standing on something so great in size and resilient to thousands of years of weather an nature was something I never thought I would do.
Eventually you make your way to that end. Bushes and trees have pushed up from collected soil and the Wall temporarily disappears. The remain walls around us contained the names and home countries of others that had visited. I’m usually not prone to acts of vandilism, but I felt like I was taking piece of this wall away with me. The least I could do was leave a part of myself there. So I found a proper writing stone, a blank brick, and choose the very recognizable SLIOZIS as my name to leave. I wonder if it will be there if I ever go back.
After almost three hours of hiking, we headed back down the stairs. You can take the same cable cars down, but there’s also a sled-track of sorts that shoots you back down the hill in below-safety-standards carts. There were screams from the track, and the sounds of brake handles grinding along the metal. Maybe next time.
We made it back home by 5pm, found a dinner place near the hotel, then headed back to pack. Day nine, we fly back to Shanghai.
[Embarrassing side note: It occurred to me later that I was standing on the Great Wall of China. Years ago, this blog used to be named "Napkin Notes at the Empire Diner," full with ripped off image of Nighthawks (I won't link to what remains of the site, but if you know about the Wayback Machine, you can find it yourself). Even worse, the name of that blog was inspired by [gulp] Billy Joel’s song Great Wall of China. I know.]
The sun never came out on day seven. The high temperature never cracked forty-five degrees and the wind would cut across the open areas we’d visit. That might as well be freezing to the thin-blood, poorly packed, California residents.
Another early start. “Bill” was in our lobby, looking for his tourist-ducklings.
Walking distance from the Center is Tian’anmen Square. On one end of the square is the Tian’anmen Gate, which still proudly displays the image of Mao Zedong. To either side of the Gate, bleachers and seating stretch up and down Chang’an Avenue which historically has been a place for the Chinese Military to hold parades as a showing of strength. Far across the Square, thousands of people (and thousands daily) visit the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where the former leader’s body is entombed and visible to the public. Weeeee did not go there.
While making our way across the Square (looooong walk) a few groups of curious Chinese natives in other tour groups would stop our group to take photos of Dr. Larry and his daughter Jennie because they’ve “never seen people so tall!” Beijing is a historical tourist point for many people across China that may have never seen Westerner faces let alone had to look waaaay up to see them. This was not the first or last time we’d be stopped for this.
A few Chinese men approached me with their camera. I was excited and thought they wanted their picture with me. Instead, they just wanted me to take their picture. I’m not as popular in China as I am in America.
Through the Gate is the Forbidden City. Once a place where only the Emperor and the highest officials could visit, it is now wide open to the public. When you’re walking through, the walls are high and it was only later when I did a Google Maps satellite view that I really saw how huge the complex was and how little we actually walked through. I gave up on taking photos pretty early into the city. If you’ve seen one red wall, you’ve seen them all.
Hoping back into the Westerner-Wagon, “Bill” took us to the Summer Palace. The Palace was a long time summertime escape for the person in power at the time. While we were there, there was nothing summery about it. No combination of coats, scarves, gloves or hats were doing anything to keep from going numb. The Palace featured a man-made lake (again, huge) which left us wide open for gust-attacks of frozen air. I swear I saw snow.
To round off this action packed day, we stopped off at the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Beijing National Aquatics Center which housed many of the 2008 Olympic events. The smog was heavy and made for some poor tourist shots. By then, we were all giddy from frost and knew we were headed back to warm hotel rooms.
A morning flight took us out of Shanghai and into Beijing.
To know me is to know that I can passionately discuss the great flaws in airport security. How it’s organized, how it’s managed, how it’s certainly not helped by the masses. Airport security in America is reactionary, and taken as seriously as mall security. TSA agents are underpaid and the lengths we go through to get to our gate are over the top (it’s only a matter of time before someone weaves something into a shirt and we’re forced to fly naked). China on the other hand, inspirationally smooth.
First a handful of travelers are gathered in a roped off area then swabbed for explosive residue. Then onto passport and boarding pass check where while the gate agent looks over your papers the person in front of you has already moved through security (Chinese security looks at you like you’re crazy when you take your shoes off). Then you’re done. Off to your gate. If you were in America, you’d still be waiting for Uncle Midwest to be removing the handfuls of change out from his pockets and arguing why he has to take off his “These Colors Don’t Run” belt buckle. Thank you, China.
The flight time from Shanghai to Beijing is less than two hours. Because of the amount of people traveling, we were loaded on a 747 for what’s basically a commuter flight. And the width of the seats would never work in America. Clearly built for the slender, small Asian build. Mid-flight snack was a hot, hearty bread bun with shredded pork inside.
Upon landing the passengers were let off onto the tarmac, packed into a bus and shuttled to the main concourse. It’s a little weird standing next to a 747. Once freed from the bus we grabbed our luggage met up with our tour guide for the next three days. Again, he adopted an English name, “Bill.”
We quickly checked in then “Bill” and driver hauled us off to the Temple of Heaven. There are few monuments in America that can match the size of the temple grounds, let alone the history. You stand before ancient gates, trying to picture the vast grounds without the packs of wandering tourists, trying to imagine what it must have been like two-thousand years ago. And all of it was built without any of the tools we take for granted today.
And then you’re whisked back to reality when you’re cut off from the rest of your group by an endless parade of matching-hat tourists following someone shouting into a bullhorn and carrying a fish-shaped flag.
Lunch was famous Peking Duck. Which, while very good, led to one incident of late-night illness. Thankfully it was just one outburst and not a dreaded TKO.
That night, our driver took us to the Donghuamen Night Market. Famous for it’s bizarre items on-a-stick like scorpions, octopus, and endless varieties of bugs. We did a lot of polite “no thanks” waving to vendors. No eating. Also foiled one pick pocket attempt.
When you look at the photos below, also note the color of the sky. We never really saw true-blue. While smog in Los Angeles is a charming brown, the smog (MUCH heavier in Beijing than Shanghai) is a deceptive-white, making you wonder if the morning fog just hasn’t cleared or if you’re inhaling fumes.
By day five, my obsession with the 2010 World Expo’s mascot Haibao had reached an annoying frenzy. He’s plastered every where in the city and I began uncontrollably yelling out every time I saw him. That rascally toothpaste glob. All over Shanghai it seemed that if there was an open store space, then it was manifested by 2010 Expo shops. From passing glances, these stores carried Haibaos in variations of outfits (He’s a bear! He’s a flower! He’s holding a cake!), the usual Expo-type items like pins and pencils. But also snow globes and from what I could tell, jewelry with gems the same color as Haibao. And even beyond that, any available banner space had him playing among Expo centers and probably dozens of parks featured his shape in topiaries.
Day five was a free day. We piled into two cabs (a little stressful when you don’t have a native speaker in yours) and met up at the foot of Jin Mao Tower (near the Shanghai World Financial Center, constantly noted was, “seen in Mission Impossible 3″) to head up to the observation deck. Across the street, someone danced around in a full Haibao costume. I vowed to have my photo taken with him when we came back down from the top.
From the deck, you get the best view you can of Shanghai if you can focus your eyes through the white-smog in the distance. The shoving-culture doesn’t rest up here, and if you wait too long at a window, you’ll surely be forced out for someone else’s photo opportunity. Strangely, the gift shop sold Chicago Bears hats. The tower gift shop also featured Haibao merchandise.
[Little did I know, that gift shop was the last time I would have a chance to purchase my so-desired blue friend, forever missing a chance to remember him with a 5-inch vinyl figure.]
When we came back down to street level, Haibao was gone. If I knew the Mandarin phrase for “soul crushing moment” I would write it here.
The group cabbed back up and moved ourselves over to another shopping area for lunch. While wandering out of a Thai festival in a nearby park, there was a commotion. Haibao returned! I dragged Liz back down the street to make sure I got my picture with him. Stamped “ACCOMPLISHED” on that file.
That night, we went for drinks at Vue on top of the Hyatt overlooking The Bund. The top floor of the bar opens up over the river with deck chairs and a hot tub in the middle.
Maybe it’s that America is still a very new country compared to the epic histories of Europe and Asia, but I feel like the rest of the world is not a community that disposes of their history like America does. Somewhere through the history of China they have done a great job of preserving temples and gardens that I think we would have quickly bulldozed and built more Spanish-style apartments on.
Up early and headed out with our tour guide, “Michael,” (his chosen English name) to tour a few historic gardens. “Michael” cracked jokes about Shanghai girls being high maintenance and met with “You should date American girls” in reply.
The drive took us about ninety minutes outside of Shanghai proper to the town of Suzhou. “Michael” commented that Suzhou “is a small town, of about seven million residents.” We laughed. Once you’re clear of the downtown Shanghai skyscrapers you see the other side of life, but from a distance. It doesn’t appear that anything like suburbs exist, it’s straight from city to rural and the houses of farmers are built nearby scattered fish farms and rice fields.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden was our first stop and the larger of our two visits. While very beautiful already, we probably missed the Spring blooms by a few weeks. The second stop was at the Master of Nets Garden. Much smaller but still very beautiful. When you stop to look around these gardens it is easy to overlook the detail of tiled walkways and rows of windows, each different from the last.
The tour’s last stop was in the canal town of Zhouzhuang. While the gardens were separate from the public, Zhouzhuang was still a living town. Locals still live above its waters, wash vegetables in the canal and make what money they can from the tourists. Of course we opted for the boat ride around the village. You can get a peaceful look at what remains of the town, and drift back into local housing.
Correction about Day Three’s dinner (read), Day Four involved American snacks and passing out from massive headache pain.
Day three brought the rains and chill to the air. We would quickly learn that the pre-travel weather forecasts would betray our packing logic. Heavier coats and knit caps would have done wonders. Unfortunately, the only style of knit hat in the Shanghai area appeared to have been created in the image of a panda face.
First stop of the morning was a four-story “antique” market. Starting at the top floor, vendors sprawled across the floor, organizing their goods for bargin hunters to view. These vendors are said to line up as early as 3am to secure this valuable floor space. Cigarette smoke hangs against the ceilings, and you can’t help but notice the ignored no-smoking placards throughout. Vendors show collections of jade pieces, jewelry, coins, and kitch Maoist-era comics and clocks. Many items probably acquired through less than legal ways. Western faces stand out like beacons here, the locals don’t waste time on tourists. On the floors below, vendors upgrade to tables and even small rooms, all overflowing with mismatched goods.
Walking distance away is the Yuyuan Market. A collection of shops, mostly higher end versions of Chinese trinket stores crammed into the grounds of an old temple. With traditional stores, comes traditional foods. Inside, another dumpling store. We ordered soup dumplings so large, they were served with straws. While the ladies bargained in a pearl shop, I propped my camera on a nearby ledge to capture the sounds.
Warmth came briefly in a van as we headed to the 2010 World Expo grounds, with a special invite to view the nearly completed USA pavilion.
During the drive to the massive grounds, we could see the buildings around Shanghai (unseen so far since we landed at night, and the day one was primarily on foot in shopping districts). The skyline is littered with apartment buildings, far more than office structures. And each apartment building is massive. At least fourty-stories, people packed with people. There’s not cute, two story Spanish-style stucco here. Just hives. Heat and hot water is a luxury, and even if places have heat, the government controls the times of the year when the residents have access. The sides of the buildings are dotted with fan units, offering the only access to a breeze during the summer months.
Once our escorts jumped through the bureaucratic hoops to get us access passes to the site, a small group of us battled against winds and rain across an eerily desolate Expo entryway that would in a few weeks see millions of people at once. We entered a security checkpoint, manned by Chinese soldiers eagerly waiting for visitors to practice security protocol. Photos of the pavilion were prohibited, but photos outside of me wearing a hard hat was allowed.
That night, dinner was at Lynn’s (couldn’t find a website). Good eggplant.
I’m not sure if the slight burning in my throat is from the layer of smog coating the city, or the hot sweet pork soup from the lunch dumplings.
Early in the morning, I would have my language-barrier-battle. I needed a shirt and suit pressed for a charity event, and braved into a small dry cleaner attached to our hotel. Through a series of grand hand gestures and pointing at clocks and calendars, the sweet lady behind the desk and I were able to agree that I’d just have to iron it myself to have it in time for the event to night.
Note to self, need to learn the phrase, “Sorry. I’m American.” There’s something frustrating about the language barrier. It’s not that I expect them to understand anything I say, this is their home. Rather I feel rude not knowing and respecting their language. I’ve picked up a few phrases, but hesitate to say them, again out of respect and hope that I’m not butchering their language with the hint of a Midwest accent.
Walked down Nanjing Road, the Shanghai equivalent (and then some) of the Third Street Promenade and out to the historic Bund area overlooking the Huangpu river and the familiar cityscape of Shanghai’s business district. A haze lingers in front of the buildings in the distance, today a subtle reminder of the pollution in China cities.
While most of the noise down Nanjing Road is tourists shuffling about, or pushing salesmen offering you knock-off this or that, there was a pack of orange coat clad school children from Korea. Stray Americans to practice their [actually rather impressive] English skills on. When they asked for a group photo, I quickly passed off my camera to the group leader.
Traffic and drivers here (avoiding the stereotype) make the freeways of Los Angeles look tame. For the most part, the only rule of the road observed are the reds and greens of traffic lights. And even then, those rules are apparently wide open for interpretations. Taxis take on swarms of scooter jockeys. Moped drivers hover in the blindspots of tourist buses. Volunteers stand on street corners blowing their whistles and yelling at the brave, or stupid, pedestrians charging the crosswalks. As our host (Dr. Larry) pointed out, over the last few years, Shanghai natives have purchased approximately 10,000 cars a month, and that also means new drivers who may not exactly have anything resembling a license.
Lunch was devoured at the now legendary Din Tai Fung, where dumpling skins melt on your tongue and soy sauce covered snacks fight for their lives to stay off your chopsticks.
That evening, we were the guests at an American Chamber of Commerce charity event. Shook hands with the CEOs running the Chinese branches of companies like GM, DOW and Kraft. Sadly, there were no lost wallets on the dance floor. Reportedly, GM’s business in Shanghai and China is up 70%. The economy is booming here.