Monday, May 20, 2013
So yesterday (Monday) was my first real day in the city proper of Shanghai. Until then, I have been staying with my friend Lloyd in the hinterland of Qinpu District. Though staying at the end of the line has been challenging, it has has its own rewards, and breakfast yesterday was one in them. Bruce and I returned to the meat in a stick restaurant in the village and enjoyed a typical breakfast of the hard working folks of Qinpu, most of whom come from other parts of China looking for work.
We had scallion pancakes (imagine my surprise when learned they are real, xialongbao or soup dumplings for which Shanghai is famous, and tea eggs (hard boiled eggs done in tea, instead of plain water). Simple but incredibly delicious, we shared a table with a couple of locals and devoured this authentic breakfast.
Sunday in Zhiujaijaio I visited the Temple of the Town God where I was told by a seer (or a guy employed the the state) that I would have much luck, and the bigger the donation I made, the more luck I would have. I gave the temple 50 RMB, and chalked it up to a restoration fee. Well today on the bus into Shanghai and again on the Metro, I got a seat to sit down. Indeed, my luck was very good. Maybe I should become a Taoist.
The morning I spent at the Shanghai Museum, which tells the story of China through art--bronze, calligraphy, pottery, painting, statuary, jade, and coins. There is even a nod to China's minority groups with an exhibit on native dress and other handicrafts including Tibetan masks. (Interesting sleight of hand claiming Tibetans as a minority group within greater China and not an occupied country.) The Ming and Qing vases were as wonderful and delicate as you could imagine. It is amazing to see such incredible artisanal workmanship preserved for hundreds and even thousands of years in the case of the bronze works and Buddhist statues.
After a quick visit to the No. 1 Department Store and then Starbucks to wet my whistle with a green tea frappuccino (did I mention it has been near 90 every day and I feel like I'm in Florida again?), I headed off to Donghua University where I had been invited to speak to a class of international students there to study conversational English and Chinese. These students were from South Korea, and we had a nice discussion of the US Constitution and American democracy. They also told me what they liked and didn't like about Shanghai. Everyone recommended that I visit Korea next.
After class, it was off to the Yu Garden and Bazaar. The gardens are very formal with trees and koi ponds, buildings and rock formations, all meant for contemplation. Part of the Temple of the Town God, the garden is meant to help you in your contemplation. Built during the Ming dynasty, Yu Yuan is one of the places in Shanghai to become acquainted with old China. There is also a tea house set in the middle of a pond which is approach by a zigzag bridge to protect the structure from evil spirits, which cannot turn corners. The bazaar, like every bazaar in the world, has been taken over has been taken over for the express purpose of selling cheap junk to foreign tourists. At least here, when something says made in China, you can honestly say it was made by the locals.
After a poor excuse for a dinner, my new friend Wendy, who managed to order an inexpensive travel tripod and have it delivered in one day, took me to the Bund promenade on the Huangpu River so I could take pictures of the famous skyline of skyscrapers featured in Skyfall. There is a terrible one from my IPhone on my Facebook page, but the ones with my new Canon on the tripod look incredible. Those will have to wait till I return to the states and can upload them to Flickr. Suffice it to say they have the potential to make me look like I know what I'm doing (when in fact the camera and the tripod are doing all the heavy lifting.)
To close out the day, we walked from the Bund to People's Square all Nanjing Road, the pedestrianized shopping road that is Shanghai's answer to Las Ramblas and the Champs-Elysées all in one. Here there is karaoke on the street, middle age ladies line dancing, opera singing, and tango and more shopping than you can stand. The greatest job in the world, I'm convinced, has to be a neon light artist in Shanghai, for not only are their literally hundreds of neon signs along Nanjing, but the Chinese characters lend themselves to forming truly artistic works, especially to the eyes of one who can only identify the one character that means men's room.
It was a great day, and my feet still hurt, even after a good nights sleep. More adventure awaits though.
I think today's post will be brief. Long days of exploration and travel in and out of downtown are starting to take their toll. Did I mention that it has been in the 90s since I arrived? Normally May is gorgeous spring weather; this year, just for me, they decided to skip spring and go directly to the dog days of summer. It feels like Florida in August. Ok, that unfair. Nothing feels like Florida in August, except maybe hell. Below is the house in Qingpu where I am staying.
Bruce and I went to the train station first thing in the morning (a journey that meant a mile walk to the bus and a half hour ride to the Metro, then one stop to the train station) where I sorted out my travel to Beijing for Thursday, when I will take one of China's famous bullet trains traveling over 200 mph. From that point forward, I was on my own until lunch. I thought it was important to explore Shanghai without a native speaker to sort out all the difficulties. Bruce and Wendy have been great, but I need to know that even in a place where I have no discernible language skills, I can still make my way. Bruce did write out the names of the places I planned to visit for the morning, just in case.
BTW, my luck continues to hold as I found seats on the bus and Metro all day. My first journey was to Jing'an Temple, know as Shanghai's richest temple, it is still in the midst of a major renovation. It is magnificent, and I apologize for not having a picture. (I was so busy taking photos with the Canon, I forgot to grab one for the blog with the iPhone.) Suffice it to say the temple is monumental in scale, with gilt roofing and lions and the Buddha is massive. In fact, the ancient Greeks' statue of Zeus came to mind immediately. The courtyard was filled with supplicants burning incense who then approached the Buddha himself. The temple itself sits in the middle of a very busy business district that has grown up around it.
On my way down to the Metro, I happened upon a lovely upscale grocery store that could give Wegman's a run for their money. They had French macaroons, and strange individually vacuum-packed shrimp and other odd bits and bobs (I imagine I should return for stocking stuffers), as well as a bakery with croissants and Danish. Weirdest, might have been the curry donut I purchased. I thought I was getting a sweet curried cement a valise or something. Oh no, this was a curried meat of some sort, in a sweet pastry. Needless to say, I was shocked! The sugar toast and Vienna sausage were tasty snacks though, and the store was filled with more American products for the Chinese market.
Next was the Jade Buddha Temple, a very different experience. Much poorer and just getting ready for its major renovation, the Jade Buddha is the center of attention here. Brought from Burma a long time ago, it was originally one of five. Unfortunately, you are not able to approach the Jade Buddha, and when I was there it was blocked by a gaggle of temple workers that made it impossible to even look in from the doorway. I did catch a glimpse, and it is beautiful, but the experience was a bit disappointing. I did purchase a set of mahogany prayer beads that double as a bracelet that are very popular in China.
For lunch I met Lloyd in Xintiandi, a high end collections of shops and restaurants set in renovated housing known a shikumen. We were joined at lunch by his student Sammy, who was supposed to join us for the outing to Zhujiajiao but for the crazy run away truck that hit her. Her husband Wesley was unable to join us as he works more than an hour from downtown. We had a wonderful time talking about favorite places we have traveled, including Barcelona and Venice, Seattle and San Francisco. Sammy and Wesley are planning a trip to the the US, and I hope they opt to venture to the East Coast. She presented me with a gift, the clay thermos above, which is famous in China for its properties to make tea even mor wonderful. I look forward to using it.
After our extended lunch (a salad and smoothie I might add, as I was in desperate need of some vegetables, Lloyd and I visits the Memorial of the Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which took place in a house here in Shanghai. Mao was very young then, as it was the mid-1920s, but even then he was the force behind the Party. From there we ventured to visit the former resident of Soong Ching Ling, wife of Dr. Sun Yet-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, and honorary member of the government of the People's Republic of China. With her sisters, Soong Ai-ling (married to the wealthiest man in China) and Mei-ling (married to Nationalist leader Cheng Kai-shek), Soong Ching-ling was part of the most important and powerful female triumvirate in Chinese history. Chairman Mao described them thusly: "One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country"
Afterwards, I returned to the Yu Yuan Bazaar to do a little shopping (I found two gifts, which wasn't bad) and sampled the famous steamed buns from Nanxiang, next to the tea house on the koi pond with the zig zag bridge. This restaurant was founded over a century ago during the late Qing dynasty. They are famous for their version of xialongbao, the soup dumplings. Theirs are made with pork and crab meat, and you get something like a dozen for 20 RMB, about $3 and change. The line is excruciatingly long, but moves quickly and is definitely worth trying. Of course, I was amazed and people who complained on Fur Square about the wait for a $3 meal. People suck.
Tomorrow (or today as I write this), the dumping tour with Untour Sanghai!
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Friday I took a private car and guide, recommended by the Marriott, to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. There is actually one wall built on top of another here. The original wall, constructed during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 - 557 AD). The second wall is from the early Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD), built to keep out the Mongols, whose dynasty had just fallen. In 1989 this section of the wall was restored again for the tourists that come by the millions.
Mutianyu sits on top of the mountain, making it the steepest and most challenging section of the wall near Beijing. There is a cable car that runs to the top, from which you can explore the twenty-three watchtowers which housed soldiers and arms and could be used for signal fires. Troops even moved across the Great Wall quickly in times of crisis. Mutianyu is surrounded by lush forest, giving this section of the Wall a natural beauty second to none. It also poses an immediate question, how did workman transport the materials for the Wall to the top of the mountain without the aid of today's Swiss built cable car? Here is another engineering feat accomplished without modern machinery, like the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or the Coliseum in Rome. I stand in awe, truly.
Climbing Mutianyu was a workout, even with the cable car doing most of the work. Dripping sweat, choking on Beijing's infamous smog (that is NOT a foggy early morning in the photo, it was about 11 AM and hot as blazes), I hiked through a half dozen or so of the watch towers, crossing paths with the Lehigh women's volleyball team along the way. The nicest part about Mutianyu, apart from the beauty is the lack of tourists. Being so steep and further removed from Beijing, fewer people visit, making it a less crowded experience, which is China is really saying something.
Returning from the Wall (after stops in a jade factory, a tea house, and a cloisonné factory to make the requisite purchases of gifts), I relaxed at the hotel, watched Liverpool beat Fulham, then headed to the culinary highlight of the week, dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen. This innovative project is part culinary school, part private dining, part restaurant. I was there for their regular dinner, which is a ten course meal composed of traditional Chinese dishes, cooked with quality ingredients by deft hands. Dinner is served at one of two communal tables, ours included four kiwis, a couple from Boston, two women from Purdue University, and a young couple from Canterbury, who were returning for a second time they so loved it.
I can say without hesitation this was a meal I will remember for a long time to come. Nine of the ten dishes were outstanding. The tenth was broccoli, enough said. Generous pours of Austailian Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz washed it all down nicely.
It was a delightful with excellent company. Thank goodness for TripAdvisor where we all learned about Black Sesame Kitchen. Next time I venture to Beijing, I'm taking the cooking class!
Taxis, unlike the Wall and Black Sesame kitchen, are not so great. First was the driver who, upon realizing I spoke no Chinese, decided to transform from a decent driver to someone playing with his phone (to the point of other drivers honking and passing as we sat unmoving), eating, and in general being very unpleasant. When we finally arrived at my destination, he tried to cheat me, attempting to take 10 RMB more than the fare, until I pointed to the meter. He just smiled like the proverbial ki with his hand in the cookie jar and kinda shrugged like 'Well I tried.'
As bad as that was, the second driver of the evening, picked me up after dinner. I presented the card the hotel had given me with instructions in Chinese for taxi drivers. This driver could not seem to comprehend the instructions. He pulled over, about a kilometer from where he had picked me up, to get me to explain, which I couldn't, where I was going. A lovely local couple, waiting for their own cab, observed my predicament and offered to help. I showed her the card, and she told him where I was going. He did not understand. I told her if he could get me to Tiananmen Square, I could walk from there. Everyone in Beijing knows how to get to the central square from which the People's Republic was proclaimed by Chairman Mao. Everyone except this guy! It seems he was a new driver not from Beijing.
I exited the cab and chose to walk in the direction I thought my hotel was in. Not a single free cab passed in more than an hour of walking. Finally I gave up and allowed a rickshaw driver to take to to the hotel. Powered by an electric/human-powered bike unlike the rickshaws of bygone days. Finally, I crashed, realizing Beijing was off my list of cities in which I would want to live.
My last two days were bit of a mad dash to see things, at lest until I hit a brick wall, and decided I ended a break. It all started off so enthusiastically though.
Saturday morning I started early, heading to Tian Tan Park, where the Temple of Heaven is located, just south of Tiananmen Square. I had read that like all parks in China, tai chi practitioners use the park first thing in the morning. Tai chi, it turns out, was the least of it. Of all the places I have visited, the Chinese people are the ones most likely to use their public parks both for communal gatherings and exercise, and this is not mommies pushing strollers or watching the kids play.
There were middle aged ladies line dancing (in more than one places, in fact probably half a dozen or more), lots of badminton and other impromptu racket sports, and a hacky sack like game (with a bean bag with feathers played by the very acrobatic. In addition to the line dancers, Mao love them, there were ballroom dancers (at least a dozen couples), a band of retirees playing traditional Chinese music with traditional instruments, and to top it all off was the Beijing Tibetan Dance group with easily a hundred dancers, some costumed, some not, dancing their traditional folk dances. One after another they danced, celebrating their identity through the Terpsichordian art.
Finally, their were card games galore, with small groups leaning on any flat surface available to play unknown games punctuated by outbursts of laughter. As I was leaving, after exploring the Temple itself, I found six or so water calligraphers, who use brushes and sponges to write beautiful Chinese characters on the side. It is written language as ephemeral as spoken words, for soon the characters are gone. Some seemed to tell entire stories in their many small characters, while one man's script was Massive, each symbol approximately three feet square.
The Temple of Heaven is the imperial altar completed in 1420 where the emperor would pray for abundant harvests and intercede on behalf of his people as the son of heaven. It is in fact a complex of buildings and platforms, each with a specific purpose. The emperor would offer wine and grain and an entire ox among other things like music. The showpiece of this temple mount is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It has a three tiered roof, built without a single nail of Cyprus wood, and is covered in painted tiles of cobalt blue, free, and red accented in gold. Filled with symbolism like the dragon (emperor), the phoenix (empress), and plenty of squares (earth) and circles (heaven). It reminds me greatly of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with its garish and gorgeous colors and monumental scale. The draw back in Beijing is the lack of blue sky to serve as a backdrop and the layer of grime already collecting, even though it was fully restored for the 2008 OLympic Games.
From the Temple of Heaven, I hopped in a taxi for the Lama Temple, Yunhe Gong, an imperial palace turned lamasery for the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which twice served as the official religion of China. This is a huge complex, which lacks the money and gilding of the Jing an Temple in Shanghai but offers five halls in which to worship the Buddha, including on dedicated to my favorite, the Smiling Buddha, the reclining paunchy monk, happy and content. In the fifth hall stands a statue of the Maitreya or Future Buddha. It stands 60 feet high and is carved from a single sandalwood tree, even holding a Guinness World Record.
After the Lama Temple, time was running short and so I only walked by the Confucius Temple, peaking in to see the statue of the Chinese philosopher. Then it was off to Maison Boulud, the Bejing outpost of New York based French chef Daniel Boulud. Housed in the old American Embassy, a beautiful grand old mansion of bygone days, it was fun to imagine what it would have been like as the diplomatic legation in China. Brunch was a wonderfully relaxing respite from the frantic touring, but typical of brunch, the food was only good, nothing spectacular. The service, though, was impeccable, and the mango jam I would have purchased by the jar if they had it. The escargot were delicious as always.
After brunch, I returned to the hotel to enjoy the expensive room my Marriott points had purchased. I noticed that the smog was starting to get to me, and I was feeling a bit run down. I decided to stay in, which meant I never made it for Peking Duck or more exploration of night life in Beijing. Instead, a Chinese foot massage in the hotel spa and Cantonese Wonton Chicken Noodle Soup and "Game of Thrones" on HBO made for a relaxing evening.
Sunday morning before heading to the airport for my four o'clock flight to Vancouver, I finally had the chance to explore the Forbidden City also known as the Palace Museum. This is where the Ming and Qing emperors lived in isolation in the capital, with their court, eunuchs, concubines, and extended family. It is said to contain 9,999 rooms (for 10,000 would be inauspicious). The Forbidden City is daunting in its scale, certainly a place designed for someone being carried in a sedan chair (which would have been nice by day ten).
It is hard to describe the decay of the palace where the outside has been better preserved than the inside. Most interiors were not well lit, yet were open, at least partially to Beijing's smog, coating everything. Every case containing a display was covered in grime. For all I know they were washed last week, but I doubt that. The Treasury contains what ought to be spectacular imperial pieces from rituals devices to personal jewelry to jade carvings second to none, but they are so poorly displayed, it was hard to appreciate them as they deserve. One of the highlights though was the Nine Dragon Screen, carved for the emperor. (Ignore the angry countenance...too many people kept walking into my photo.
The state workers once again proved, at least to the outside observer, to have little incentive to do more than the minimum. One room watcher (I won't call them guards) was talking on her phone the entire time, paying little attention to the tourists streaming into the room. At one ticket office, i counted a dozen workers, but only one at the window helping customers, and this was minutes after the official opening. the rest were chatting away without a care in the world. The audio guide was quite good for only 40 RMB. It was keyed to GPS locator beacons, so it would play automatically when you entered a space where a description was recorded.
All in all, China was an amazing experience. If I must choose, I prefer Shanghai, but Beijing does have lots to recommend it. The air quality, which I have mentioned repeatedly, is a massive issue. Shanghai is less buttoned down with an energy that I admire. Truth be told, there is much more of China to explore, including Xian with its Terracotta Warriors, Hong Kong with its dim sum houses, Macao and its casinos, and so very much more. Plus there is the rest of the Far East, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Vietnam, and much more. I will be back!
Friday, May 17, 2013
Thursday was a travel day. I to the high speed rail from Shanghai to Beijing, which took just about fur and a half hours to cover a little over 600 miles. The train was clean and comfortable, incredibly fast, and a great way to see the countryside. Before coming to China, I had heard about empty cities built either by the government or entrepreneurial construction companies. Well, they entirely dot the landscape of this massive nation. Everywhere are these tall apartment complexes, sometimes a dozen group together, enough housing for thousands if not tens of thousands of people to live. Yet there is no infrastructure, few roads, no public transportation, no stores, no entertainment. It is obviously unfinished, few of these projects look like work to finish them is continuing. It is like the money ran out, and the project just abandoned. Maybe this is a jobs program. (The picture below is a much more active construction site in Qingpu near the train station.)
It became immediately obvious upon arrival at the train station that Beijing is not Shanghai. It is the capital, run by the Party, and its presence permeates society in little yet noticeable ways. For instance, people queue for taxis and traffic regulations are followed. I have yet to see someone run a red light or drive the wrong way up a street. There is a much great military and police presence here, which makes sense.
Beijing is also filled with people ready to serve (or better yet scam) the tourists who visit. Not ten minutes into my walk to Tiananmen Square I was approached by a young women who "just wanted to practice her English" and then suggested we have a cup of coffee. The moment I said no she turned away, but her friend then interjected to ask if I like art and want to go to an art show. Finally, as I was heading back to the hotel later in the evening, I was definitely propositioned right in the middle of a pedestrian shopping district.
Shanghai has a frenetic energy about it, but the economic freedom that its people enjoy is evident in lots of little ways. For instance, I could not get a single government employed worker in the Tiananmen Square souvenir shop to pay any attention to me. They flat out ignored me and my money. Rarely was that the case in Shanghai. I will say the touts in Beijing will give their international brethren a run for their money. Do not look at that statue of Mao at a street stall, for you will be swarmed.
So I ventured to the Dong Hua Men Night Market for some adventurous eating. Known for its bizarre selection of food on a stick, I learned quickly I am less adventurous than some people might think. I skipped the scorpions (life and dead), baby sparrows, crickets, and all manner of offal including kidney, testicle, and other tasty tidbits. In a soup or topped with a sauce is one thing, but grilled on a skewer proved to be too much. I did venture to try stinky tofu (the blue cheese of tofu, as it is fermented with bacteria) which was not bad considering there were three different sauces and coriander to bury the pungency. It was not nearly as good as the bamboo tofu the day before.
I had some lovely vegetable lo mein noodles with chili sauce and a Chinese cheese grilled on a stick with a sweet tamarind like sauce brushed on it. The cheese actually became crispy like toasted bread, but its flavor was definitely cheesy. For dessert I had some steamed cakes made from chestnut, corn, pea, and a fruit I did not recognize. Sweet desserts like Americans and Europeans enjoy are pretty unusual in China, so this was the best I was getting. I try one Beijing street food delicacy, silkworms in the cocoons. Grilled with a spice mixture sprinkled on top, these babies were crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside with a definite bug-like quality to them. I recommend them, because everyone needs to eat something totally gross every now and again.
Finally, the Marriott rocks, wherever you are in the world. I stayed with them in Istanbul and now in Beijing. Their service is impeccable, the rooms are huge, and the concierge service is beyond helpful. Last night the turn down service provided slippers, a glass and 'free' bottle of water on the night stand, and the weather report hand written on a card for the next day. Free wifi in the lobby is great too. Tonight when I return from dinner I shall enjoy a drink and tell you all about the Great Wall and Black Sesame.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Once upon a time, many years ago, half a world away, I was visiting New Orleans for the first time. On this new fangled thing called the Internet, I discovered a culinary tour of the Big Easy that explored some of the classics for which the French Quarter is duly famous. As it turns out, there is no better way to learn about a new place. This last autumn, when I was doing ridiculous amounts of research preparing for my trip to Istanbul, I discovered Istanbul Eats, a food blog that had recently started offering culinary tours. Their network of food blogs, Culinary Backstreets, led me to UnTour Shanghai, and their Dumping Delights Tour that explores the French Concession.
We began with potstickers. I knew they would be good the moment we arrived, because this was the only item this chef served from a tiny stall with no seating, an immediate sign that he knows what he is doing. Secondly, he insisted on making a knew wok full of potstickers for us, refusing to gives us the last of the previous batch that had been sitting longer than chef liked. (Nothing is wasted though, a local bought them.) Of course, anything fried is delicious, but this little pork pillows were heavenly--crispy, juicy, and not greasy at all.
Shanghai style dumplings eating requires vinegar, that hit of acid that brightens the flavor and keeps things from getting to heavy. We followed the potstickers with Shanghai's specialty, soup dumplings at Nanjing Soup Dumplings. We had two kinds, pork and pork with crab roe. Unlike those I had sampled previously, the wrappers on these were nearly translucent, with a perfect hit of soup and meatball. The crab roe dumplings were ridiculously delicious, reminding you why seafood and pork maybe God's greatest gifts to man.
Next we sampled boiled dumplings at Harbin Dumpling House which were filled with a mix of pork and veggies, celery and various greens. (Obviously I can hardly be bothered to pay attention to vegetables.) in all honesty, these were my least favorite style of dumplings, though the preparation at Harbin was excellent, there's just something about these that leave me flat. At the same time, my favorite discovery of the day came at this same restaurant, and believe it or not, it was tofu! This particular style of tofu is not your typical squishy, jiggly mass of blah that is most store bought tofu in America (nor is it stinky tofu that tofu connoisseurs relish.) this is bamboo tofu, made from the skin that forms while making tofu. When the skin is removed it, it is gathered up in long rods that resemble bamboo. The tofu hardens much like dried pasta. Reconstituted by soaking in water, broken into bit size pieces, and tossed with sesame oil and a bit of celery, this was like the healthiest pasta salad ever. It was so good I purchased some to bring home.
Next was my favorite stop of the tour, Hang Yue Xuan Dim Sum. This was the very opposite of street food and tiny store fronts we had been exploring. This is Hong Kong style dim sum served in a hotel cafe with white linen table cloths, porcelain china, and wait staff that would make the Four Seasons proud. It was a perfect respite from the honking horns and suicidal bikers, and the chrysanthemum tea was a delightful start. The dumplings here were made with wrappers of gelatinous rice, and included a traditional style dumpling with golden shrimp as well as a long flat dumpling filled with a bit of meat accented with soy sauce and chives and hint of ginger. Each was delicious, and I would happily feast on these any day of the week. We also sampled pork buns and the sesame coated sweets that are often filled with sweet bean paste. These had banana, a change from the norm.
Walking off all the dumplings through one of Shanghai's much used parks, we headed for a local wet market where locals shops for everything from vegetables, noodles, meat, fish, tofu, rice, beans, and more. This is where you shop for the ingredients for tonight's dinner. Everything is incredibly fresh...the fish are alive until you by it (one customer was buying a fish head for soup). Almost every vegetable hawker had fresh spring fava beans for sale, as they are in season right now, and they will happily do all the work shelling these beauties. Normally there is a live chicken market here too, but with the outbreak of the newest avian flu, authorities in Shanghai have closed down all the live poultry markets to prevent contact and thus transmission. Though western media love a dramatic story, the avian flu seems to be pretty well contained. The strangest items at the wet market were the soft shell turtles, frogs, and the salted and fermented eggs. An acquired taste I'm told.
Our final stop was Qin Huai Fang, where we had dumpling soup (as opposed to soup dumplings). The chef here make his own fresh broth every day, a far cry from the bullion that forms the base for many soups around the city. The depth of flavor was exquisite, and the dumplings were so delicious. I wish I had had room for the ample serving, but next time I have a cold I want a galling of this to restore me to health. The dumpling tour was a delightful way to explore Shanghai. Food connects people, in a multitude of ways, not just the act of sharing a meal, but in a more ethereal way, connecting people across the city and through the years when they partake of something traditional like a dumpling. Thanks to UnTour Shanghai, I feel a part of this great city, if only a tiny bit.
Though I did see a Lamborghini up close on my way to the Metro, the rest of the day was a little disappointing as the fog that rolled in before the rain blocked my view of the financial district's skyscrapers. Because of the coming rain, the Peace Hotel was not opening it's rooftop lounge where I had planned to relax with my friend Lloyd and share a cocktail or three. Instead we ended up at the run down Art Deco jewel the Metropole Hotel where we had the bar to ourselves. It was a a good way to end my last day in Shanghai. Tomorrow Beijing.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
So let me start by saying I have not yet made it to downtown Shanghai; that come tomorrow. I have been in Qinpu districts, all the way at the end of the line of what is really the state of Shanghai. It has really afforded me the opportunity to see how average Chinese people live. These are my thoughts after a day and a half.
Woke up at 3 am after and early turn in, so I spent my time finding holes in the Great Firewall of Chine with my VPN service, which allowed me to find Facebook and the BBC among other blocked sites. Bruce kindly took my to Our Lady of China Church at She Shan. It is a pretty mountaintop church with what should be a great view of the area, but alas the miasma (fog or smog, I know not) made that impossible. May is a pilgrimage time for this church, and people come from all over China by the bus load to pray the stations of the cross laid out on the hill side in a bamboo grove and attend Mass. I have never seen a church so packed, with people crammed into the wiles while altar servers paraded around throughout with signs reminded people to be quiet. The signs were less than effective, but the singing of the congregation and devotion of these Catholics in a communist country was worth the climb and the lack of personal space.
A note on driving. It would seem that traffic laws here in China are but advisory. Cars will go anywhere, at any time. Drivers honk constantly, namely telling others on the road to get out of the way, even if those others are quietly minding their business. Motor scooters and electric bikes rule the roads, complicating everything even further. Tonight after dinner the taxi driver drove up the curb separated bike-only lane in order to avoid making a u-turn. Friends Sammy and Wesley who took us to visit Zhujiajiao, could not stay because on the way to pick us up, their car was struck by an uninsured truck driver who was flying through a blind intersection.
We rounded out the day, as mentioned, at Zhujiajiao an ancient water city built on a series of canals during the Ming dynasty (about 500 years ago). Renovated and filled with restaurants and little shops, it was an echo of Venice without the grandeur. Like Venice though, it seems to owe its continued existence to tourism, as its narrow paths and thirty-six stone bridges are filled with jostling tourists seeking out tasty treats, jade beads, and hand carved wooden puzzles and others objects. I did enjoy visiting the Taoist Temple of the Town God and the Buddhist Temple as well. (That's a religious trifecta by the way.)
A couple of last thoughts to close. First, construction is the name of the game in China today. Every where you go in this area, something is being built, much of it housing. Interestingly, there is a real question of who all this construction is for, but it certainly is a great government jobs program. Second, I want to know why American companies are making way cooler snack items for the Chinese market that are not available at home. I picked up strawberry Oreos, birthday cake Oreos, hot pot and lobster flavored Lay's potato chips, and there was much more. I guess a market of over a billion and a half potential customers has its advantages.
Monday, May 06, 2013
|The Shanghai Financial District Skyline|
In three days I will be on my way to China, where I will be visiting Shanghai and Beijing. It's my first time to the Far East and the furthest I have ever traveled (18 hours of flying time). Though there is much that draws me East—ancient cultures permeated by art, religion, and food far different from that of the Western world I have been exploring for the last quarter century—I have never really put much effort into planning a trip. I certainly never expected China to be my first trip to Asia.
The size of China in terms of both population and geography as well as the language barrier were impediments significantly greater than those offered by European travel. The idea of traveling alone (my preferred mode of travel) always seemed a bridge too far, and the idea of traveling with a prepackaged tour group was too depressing and not worth the effort. The cost of flying halfway around the world and staying in hotels was prohibitive too.
Of course, when a friend says 'I'm living in Shanghai and you should come visit,' every thing changes. So now, in three days, I am on my way to spend five days in Shanghai, the Paris of the Orient, and three days in the capital Beijing. So, after months of preparation on both Trip Advisor and Nile Guide (cause I'm that much of a travel geek), here are the highlights of my trip.
|The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu|
Shanghai: The Bund, Old French Concession, UnTour Shanghai's Dumpling Tour, Zhujiajiao Water Town, Shanghai Museum, Yu Yuan Bazaar, Jing'an Temple, Jade Buddha Temple, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Former Residence, Soong Ching-ling's Former Residence, Site of First National Congress of Communist Party of China, and the Huangpu River.
Beijing: Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, Dong Hua Men Night Market, Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu, Forbidden City, Black Sesame Kitchen, Temple of Heaven, Confucian Temple, Maison Boulud, Lama Temple, and Peking Duck.
Needless to say, I am excited beyond belief. There is so much to do and see and experience. I have my new Canon T4i ready to take a million pictures, and I can't wait to share them with everyone.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Over the weekend, listening to NPR as I am wont to do, I learned that Newbery Medal-winning children's author E.L. Konigsburg dies at the age of eighty-three. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was probably the most important book I read in elementary school. The story of Claudia Kincaid and her kid brother Jamie running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while solving the mystery of the Michelangelo angel explains so much, if you know me.
I won't go so far as to say Konigsburg's novel made me the person I am, but it certainly piqued my curiosity about a much bigger world. Mine was not a family steeped in art or music, so Mixed up Files was an escape to a place of which I had not even dreamed. Knowing this new world existed, I wanted to explore it. I became infatuated by museums and took every opportunity offered to travel and have visited the greatest art collections the world over, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time in New York at the Met.
My love of reading I owe to Konigsburg, I suspect. And my love of mysteries too. I
Good writers create characters that either describe the person a reader wants to be or the person the reader already is. The best writers do both,and Konigsburg certainly did for me. In honor of this wonderful author whom I owe such a debt, I think it is time to re-read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Soon I will be able to share it with my Godsons too.