Saturday, November 24, 2007

Market Correction

Saturday, November 24: We headed for over to old town this morning to check out the markets and the Yu Gardens. From the moment we left the hotel, it was obvious that it was a weekend, as the streets were much more crowded than they had been our previous two mornings in Shanghai. As we approached old town, we came upon a run-down section of town where modern buildings gave way to garbage-strewn vacant lots and squalid apartment buildings. On the streets of this ghost slum, a crowded market that covered every square foot of street frontage in this several square block area was doing a brisk business in everything from live poultry and fowl to 1990s era personal electronics. None of the vendors were set up in stalls, they simply spread there wares out across blankets on the street. This market catered to locals, obviously, so we were spared from the fake designer watch and handbag sales pitches that await western tourists on nearly every street corner as
we strolled through this impromptu flea market. The market slowly blended into a food market located in the residential area abuting the vacant lots, which led into the antiques market.

The antiques market definitely caters to tourists. While there may be some bona fide antiques for sale, most of the stores sell replicas of Chinese art, clothing, and ceramics. Prices generally aren't marked, so haggling is the name of the game. I wound up only making a single purchase. I picked up a travel wallet for 45 Yuan (about 6 USD). It was at one of the stores that actually had prices marked on their items and it was in the discount bin, so I didn't wind up bargaining for it. I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to make a deal, but I decided to put off the rest of my purchases until Beijing since I didn't find anything at the market that really caught my eye.

After making our purchases, we toured the Yu Gardens. The gardens were very similar to the gardens we toured in Suzhou yesterday. Like the garden in Suzhou, they hail from the Ming dynasty. It wasn't quite as nice, but it was still a relatively serene oasis in the heart of Shanghai.

We planned on sampling Shanghai's famous steamed buns and dumplings for lunch. As it turned out, this was a very popular lunch plan, and the line at the restaurant in the market was out the door and down the stairs. Fortunately, Chinese resturants are at least as efficient over here as they are back in the US, so we only had to wait for about half and hour to get a table and food started coming shortly thereafter. After throughly stuffing ourselves on delicious steamed dumplings, we walked back over to the Bund to take in the northern part of the road, which we had neglected on our first visit to the area on Thursday. We spotted the Goodyear Blimp flying up and down the river, which seemed odd to say the least. We stayed out until sunset to watch the buildings on the Bund and the skyscrapers across the river in Pudong light up the night sky. The light show in Pudong is somewhat disappointing, as a number of prominent buildings did not turn on their
lights until it was already completely dark. The iconic TV tower never got it lights fully going before we left shortly after 6 pm. We walked back to our hotel along East Nanjing Road, which turns into a pedestrian walkway lined with neon lights, stores, and masses of people that seems to run for mile until it ends at People's Park.

I think the reason it took me a while to warm up to Shanghai is I didn't really see the human face of it until today. I saw the architecture and the museums and the skyscapers, but it wasn't until today that I went into the market and saw people who weren't rushing to and from work. Shanghai is obviously much different than Hong Kong. It's a huge, sprawling city and I really only saw a small chunk of it. I was surprised by the relative lack of construction activity going on, at least in the areas that I saw. I was surprised to see vacant storefronts and vacant lots within spitting distance of shiny new skyscrapers. Not that the tourist areas of Shanghai are full of empty buildings or bereft of construction activity, but from the way China is portrayed in western media, I sometimes get the picture that the entire country is a construction site that stretches as far as the eye can see. We head up to Beijing tomorrow morning, so this may be my last blog
entry from China as I doubt that our hotel room in Beijing will have a computer.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Silk Road

We decided to take a day trip away from Shanghai today. So far, I've found Shanghai somewhat underwhelming so I was hoping that getting away from the city might help. We arrived at the Shanghai Rail Station around 9 am. The station did nothing to improve my opinion of Shanghai. It's a dilapadated example of typical soul-crushing socialist architecture. We purchased our tickets for the historic city of Suzhou in the equally depressing ticket office next door and waited for the train.

Suzhou is a city of 5.7 million people, so it's kind of small by Chinese standards. It prospered as a center of trade throughout most of Chinese Imperial history due to its strategic location on China's Grand Canal. It was at one time (and perhaps, still is) the center of China's silk industry. Marco Polo even visited Suzhou on his travels through Asia, so it's not exactly your typical provincial city.

The train ride out was interesting. The countryside between Shanghai and Suzhou, which is about 50 miles to the west, is sparse and comprised of open fields, dingy apartment blocks, factories, and brand new roadways completely devoid of traffic. The train station in Suzhou is much nicer than Shanghai's, but the surrounding area is not very attractive. Once we got to the main street, Remin Lu (People's Street), things started looking a little better.

While looking for the Silk Museum, we were approached by a man with barely serviceable English skills who was trying to get us to take a tour of a silk factory. I was going to pass on it, but Michelle was interested so we decided to check it out. Upon entering, we were met by a young man in a suit who spoke English well and gave us a tour of the factory. The tour was very interesting; we learned a little bit about the lifecycle of the silkworm, handled silkworm cocoons, watched the workers operate the machinery and learned about the two kinds of silk they processed in the factory. The tour was ultimately a sales pitch, as it wound up in their factory store, but it was a very informative and low pressure sales pitch, more like a tour of a Napa Valley vineyard than the street vendors waiting outside of every train station and tourist attraction to accost any white person they see. We wound up purchasing a silk quilt before leaving.

After touring the factory, we headed up the street for the Silk Museum. The museum, like most museums in China, was not very impressive or interesting. The highlight was the live silkworms munching on mulberry leaves that they had on display. After breezing through the museum, we were standing on the street contemplating where to get lunch when we were approached by two young women, presumably from Suzhou. One of them was holding a camera so we first though they wanted us to take a picture for them, but we quickly figured out that they wanted to have their picture taken with us. Alan and I posed for the photo while Michelle took a picture of the girl taking a picture of her friend with us. We definitely got a lot more looks from the locals walking the streets of Suzhou than we have gotten in Shanghai or Hong Kong. I'm sure most people in Suzhou have encountered westerns before, but it's probably still not that common to see us on the streets. We weren't
the only western tourists in town today, but there were very few tourists in town from the west or the east who weren't there with a tour group.

After lunch, we visited one of the many gardens for which Suzhou is famous. We went to the largest and, at least according to our guidebook, most impressive - The Humble Administrator's Garden. The garden was quite nice, albeit quite crowded. Still, it was large enough that we occasionally had a small corner of it to ourselves, which was a welcome respite from the crowds and noise that have pervaded nearly every moment of our trip so far.

We then trudged our way back to the train station. When we arrived at 5pm, it was jam packed. The area outside of the station had the aura of a concert or some sort of large outdoor festival, with people gathered into small groups eating, talking, and playing games. We boarded the fast train at 6pm and were back in Shanghai by 6:30. We enjoyed another night of excellent Shanghainese cuisine at a restaurant called 1221. Unlike Wednesday's restaurant, this place was packed, mostly with expats and western tourists, but the food was excellent. After dinner drinks at an expat bar were a fitting end to my favorite day in (and around) Shanghai so far.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shanghai Nights

Wednesday, November 21, 2007: We left Hong Kong this morning. We took an express bus to the airport but we arrived a little later than we had planned due to heavy traffic. Still, we managed to check in, cash in the remaining balance on our Octopus cards (Hong Kong public transit cards), and exchange our leftover Hong Kong dollars for Chinese Yuan before boarding our flight. We weren't able to grab breakfast, but since we're in a part of the world where airlines still believe in serving meals on two-hour flights, that wasn't too big of a problem. Our two-hour flight wound up taking about three and a half hours. We were handed a slip of paper after boarding informing us that flights to China may be delayed without notice due to unexpected and unknowable Chinese ATC directives. Our flight wound up sitting on the ground for about 45 minutes due to one of these delays. Once we reached Shanghai, we were put into a holding pattern for about half and hour, and
then we had to taxi for what felt like at least 15 minutes. We finally parked on the apron and climbed down a flight of airstairs before boarding a bus to the terminal. This is apparently not usual at Pudong; there were at least 20 other airplanes parked on the airfield away from gates.

The differences between Hong Kong and mainland China are immediately visible upon arriving in Shanghai. There is a general drabness that pervaded the entire airport in Shanghai. Of course, few airports can compare to Hong Kong's, so that might not be a fair comparison. Pudong does feel a bit like old Detroit Metro in places. The bilingual signage that pervades in Hong Kong is nearly absent in Shanghai. This is understandable, of course, but I have still been a bit surprised. I have read that Beijing is pushing to get more bilingual singage in place for the Olympics, so perhaps it will be more like Hong Kong in that respect. The second obvious difference, which became visible on the eight-minute maglev train ride from the airport to the metro, is that mainland China is a lot larger than Hong Kong. Instead of high-rises as far as the eye can see, it's full of fields, forests, and modest apartment blocks until you reach the edge of the city, where the
buildings begin to rise, but the heights and densities never approach the scale of Hong Kong.

After checking into our hotel, we started walking over to the French Concession. Shanghai and Hong Kong are both fairly young cities in terms of their history and development, but Shanghai is the younger of the two. With the exception of the transit system, Shanghai's infrastructure definitely looks newer than Hong Kong's. Everything else, however, looks and feels older. The roads are jammed with people on bicycles and mopeds. Shanghai has its French Concession and art deco architecture while Hong Kong has demolished most of its historical structures.

We dined on some delicious Shanghainese food at the Restaurant Art Salon, a restaurant where all of the decorations and furiture are available for purchase. We were the only patrons in the restaurant, but the food was very good. We then headed over to the Blue Frog, a western-style chain of pub/club bars that caters to out-of-towners and ex-pats, I assume. After a couple pints of Tiger, we decided to call it a night and head back home.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Lonely Continent

If you've ever looked in the travel section at your local library or bookstore, you are probably familiar with Lonely Planet series of guidebooks. Unlike some travel guides that only focus on the most popular travel destinations, Lonely Planet tries to provide guidance to all travelers, perhaps to a fault. I remember flipping through their write-up of Kinshasa a while back, which offered many useful pieces of advice, such as how much to bribe the various characters you were likely to encounter on your way from the airport to the hotel and the hours of day during which it may be safe to leave the hotel. In spite of this, I was still somewhat shocked to find a copy of the Lonely Planet's guide to Antarctica when I was at the bookstore last week. According to this this article, Antarctic tourism is exploding, with an estimated 28,000 visitors in 2006. That's a lot more that I had figured, but unless a fairly large percentage of those visitors are buying a copy of the Lonely Planet's guide to Antarctica, I doubt it's a moneymaker. If nothing else, it cements their reputation as the go-to source for travel information for obscure destinations (at least, for Western, English-speaking travelers). I'm kind of surprised they haven't enlisted one of the Apollo astronauts to write a Lonely Planet guidebook for the Moon.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Links for People Who Enjoy Wasting Time

This post let me to this site. I scored a 78% on Cities of Rhode Island quiz, which is a decent score for a non-native, I think. I also tried the World Leaders quiz. I scored a 98%, but it took me about three minutes. The quiz is a bit out-of-date, showing the former Nigerian, British and French heads of state. They did manage to update Japan, whose Prime Minister has been on the job for just over a month.

I also found this site, which ranks the top 101 cities in the US according to all kinds of different criteria. Prepare to waste time.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dog Eat Dog

I just watched Dog Day Afternoon for the first time. I'm not much of a film critic, but I know what I like, and I really liked this movie. I'm obviously not the first person to express this sentiment, but I felt it was worth mentioning since it's been a while since I was that impressed with a movie. I've watched a number of films from Hollywood's so-called second golden age, and while I've appreciated almost all of them, I don't think I've ever enjoyed one as thoroughly as I enjoyed "Dog Day Afternoon". Perhaps Taxi Driver, but I watched that one was back when I was an angry teenager, so it may have seemed more poignant.

I'm not going to review the movie, but I will offer one observation. I found the depiction of the crowd and media circus surrounding the standoff to be one of the most interesting aspects of the film, both in the way that it reflected the spirit of the times and how it made me think about a similar situation would be depicted in the media today.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Panoramic shots are one of my favorite features of digital photography. Here's a panorama I took on our hike up Mt. Monadnock. It wasn't a great day for photography, but the panorama still looks nice.

We visited Paine Field in Everett, WA while we were out in Seattle. Paine Field is home to one of the two factories in the Seattle area where Boeing manufactures commercial airliners. Paine Field is home to Boeing's widebody assembly lines. They are currently churning out 747s and 777s and will soon be building 787s there. The factory tour left a lot to be desired. It was fairly short and didn't really get into too much detail. We weren't able to get very close to any of the aircraft either. I did snap a pretty neat panoramic shot of the field, however. The composite image shown below is made up of eight separate photographs. The aircraft visible, from left to right, are an unmarked 777, the modified 747 DreamLifter that is used for ferrying parts for the 787 from various assembly lines around the world to the facility in Everett for final assembly, two Air India 777s, a Cathay Pacific 777, three more unmarked 777s, a 737 (I think), and a China Cargo 747 freighter.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Summer Reading

Astute readers will notice a new set of links on the right-hand side of the page. I dropped in a widget from Google Reader that includes links to stories from around the web that I have decided are worth reading.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Pumpkin Cutter

Kudos bar to Michelle for the great job she did on the jack-o-lantern yesterday. She usually sweet talks me into carving the gourd by praising my carving skills, but I think this picture shows where the real pumpkin carving talent lies in this household.