Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Trains, Plains, and Paninis - A tale of Shanghai

The city of Shanghai is a bustling metropolis; fast paced, crowded, beautiful at times, skeezy (a combination of sketchy and sleezy, we'll say) at others. On the whole it makes for an amazing place to visit, due in part to the magnificent tourist attractions, the existence of a nightlife (something Qufu is in desperate need of), and a wonderful selection of western products such as sandwiches and wine. I also felt however, that part of what made Shanghai so fun to experience this past week was the "skeezier" side - the back alley behind our hostel, the kabab vendors who quietly whisper in a questioning manner "hashish? hashish?" as you walk past, and the knock off goods market (well, some are knock offs, some look like originals that "fell off the truck...") located in the subway stop underneath the Science and Technology Museum. Sticking with my recent theme of "the contrast," a.k.a. the giant two sided coin I have found China to be, I have found myself seeking out the contrasts in the few places I have visited - I feel it's good to find oneself somewhere in the middle of the two extremes a place like Shanghai has to offer. Stick with just the tourist traps and sightseeing and, while enjoyable, one feels like an ignorant American who is unwilling to see the "real" China; however spend too much time shopping in back alleys and sneaking around the streets of Shanghai late at night and the cheap shoes you couldn't resist buying will fall apart right after you get food poisoning - both literally and metaphorically. In part I feel it's almost that I simply enjoy seeing that these places really exist - almost to marvel at them; relishing in the experience of a world dissimilar to one I am all too comfortable with. But a delicious tuna panini with a glass of freshly made apple juice (the woman literally had a juicer and some apples - I almost peed myself) on the side doesn't hurt at all. In fact, after a month of almost nothing familiar to eat and over sweetened half-juice, it's kind of like the first time you hear The Beatles (to quote Superbad).

Random Wednesday evening musings aside, I will do my best to share with all of you out there in blog-land last weeks adventure to Shanghai. The six of us left Qufu on Monday the 29th, or the week of the national holiday (celebrated October 1st). Lucy and Eliza arranged through Andy at Qushida to purchase our train tickets, and we were lucky enough to get afternoon tickets on the express train (a very comfortable ride - the seats where similar to an airplane but with more leg room), which, with a group of six traveling during the national holiday, was great. Not wishing to leave Eliza and Lucy to do all of the planning for our trip (Lucy had booked the hostel as well) Karrin, with the help of Kathy (another English teacher here at Xintan College), graciously arranged for a van taxi to take us to the train station in Yanzhou, about 30 to 35 minutes away. Unfortunately, the driver arrived almost 20 minutes late, drove a broken down pill-box of a van, and was somewhere in the realm of a Will Farrell in that movie about race car driving yelling "I WANNA GO FAST!" (what else is new). Kathy explained that we were in a hurry, so Rachel, Olivia, Karrin and I all piled in and were quickly at the front gates of Qushida where Lucy and Eliza met us, and off we went to Yanzhou; all the while desperately trying to breathe something other than the nauseating stench of exhaust mixed with the acrid taste of burnt oil quickly filling the back of the van. Knowing we were short on time, our driver took us on a frantic tear through downtown Qufu traffic, causing us to wonder if we were, in addition to missing our train, in fact destined to die horrifically in a head on collision with the smog monster brewing in the back of the van which I was convinced would take beastly form and lunge out in front of the van. Standard driving jitters aside, all seemed to be going according to plan - until of course the van broke down in the tollbooth... What would the trip be without some crazy travel adventure (Don't worry, more of that to come)? We were half way to bailing on the guy (there happened to be several other cabs waiting nearby) when he finally got the van started again after adding several gallons of oil to the tank underneath his seat, and we managed to make it to the train station without further incident. As a side note, up until the hair razing cab ride I had not been on pins and needles in anticipation for Shanghai - not that I didn't want to go, I just hadn't gotten overly excited yet. The cab ride did it for me - I was ready to go. call me a sucker for action. Despite the lack luster service provided by the driver and his young daughter who accompanied us, I smiled a little bit as we were leaving because he did in fact seem like a very nice man, and the overall impression that I got from him was that he was happy to have the passengers (I'm still unclear whether he was a full time driver or if it was a side gig he has set up because he owns a van). Hopefully he wasn't stuck at the train station with a dead van all afternoon.

Our hostel was located in the north-eastern section of the city, a few blocks above The Bund, and, just far enough out of town to really get a good feel for back street Shanghai. The location I actually thought was very neat, as we could walk two blocks and be at a Starbucks and the local metro stop (The Shanghai subway system is a model for any city: immaculately clean, on time, and well thought out) which daily stole us away to visit all that Shanghai had to offer; while at the same time walk 30 seconds to the street behind the hostel and buy just about anything anyone would ever want to purchase for anywhere from 5 to 50 quai. to the left is a picture of the intersection of two streets. My favorite was the vendor who simply pushed a cart with his computer with a random assortment of USB, IPOD, and Flash Memory reader connections out to the middle of the intersection and put up a sign advertising MP3's and MP4's. Apparently this is a standard way to purchase music.

That first night Karrin, Olivia, Rachel, and Lucy all went in search of a nightlife (I'll let them tell you that story) while Eliza and I stayed back in the hostel and talked with some other people staying for the week. There was a group of Canadian English teachers from Shenzhen (or Guangzhou? Near Hong Kong, anyway), some other random groups of people whom I can't remember, and Tom, a very relaxed Brit who, after recently graduating university was taking the better part of a year to travel to China, South Korea, Japan, and finally to spend six months as a snowboard bum in Whistler, B.C. He reminded me a bit of my cousin Zach. The six of us ended up traveling around with Tom for the better part of the trip, and he made a welcome addition to the group (not that, you know, I don't love spending every waking minute traveling for a year with five girls).

The next day we attempted to purchase return tickets to Qufu, which ended up being a completely ridiculous adventure. We returned to the train station where we had arrived the night before, and went in search of the ticketing window. After wandering aimlessly into buildings, rooms, standing in the wrong line for a while, and in general walking around without any idea of where we were going, we finally asked for directions and slowly but surely made our way to the ticketing building. A completely separate complex with some of the most massive lines I have ever seen (with the exception of the museum we tried to visit later). The good news was that there was an English speaking counter - however it also was the window that had a special statement explaining that soldiers in the PLA could cut the rest of the line. This didn't happen until we were almost at the counter - the polite American tourists disappeared, and we delicately explained that they should all go to the end of the *>!$ing line. When we finally did get to the counter, we were faced with an exceptionally lame outcome to our morning of searching - sold out. All that remained as standing room only tickets on a 9 hour overnight train Saturday evening. Afraid we would lose even that option if we waited, we purchased the tickets and decided to sort it out later.

That afternoon we headed into the city and explored a bit around the museums and People's Park, as well as East Nanjing Road. The museums we were unable to visit that day because we failed to get there soon enough - the national holiday marked a "Golden Week" on the Chinese travel calendar and in celebration almost all of the museums were free for the week. This of course meant MASSIVE lines, so we opted to postpone the Shanghai Museum until the following day rather than stand for an hour and a half waiting to get in. East Nanjing Road proved to be a giant tourist trap. A complete sea of people, (see photo) in order to stay together we were forced to walk at a relatively slow pace and even stop at times. The only problem with this was that, whenever we were walking, let alone even thought about stopping, the barbarian hordes of the cheap goods underworld would accost us with little laminated cards advertising their shitty wares while all the while shouting some variation of "HELLO! HEY HELLO! WATCH? BAG? BELT? YOU WANT TO BUY WATCH?" The pushy ones even followed us after we began moving again, even though we very obviously were completely ignoring the fact that they were standing so close to us it was very obvious that they placed little value on toothpaste. The urge to throw the occasional elbow was not far from the surface, especially near the end of the first day. Later on in the week Tom and I returned to East Nanjing Lu (street) and toyed with the idea of walking into the middle of the crowded square and shouting, "FOR GOD SAKES WHY CAN'T I FIND A WATCH?!?" Just to see what would happen, but we were never brave enough.

That night we all went out to a bar near Xintandi (the trendy section of the French Concession, a mesmerizing neighborhood on the south western side of Shanghai proper). Eliza, Karrin, Rachel and myself decided to call it a night after a while, as we had plans to get up early for the museums the following day, leaving Olivia, Lucy and Tom to their own devices with nothing but the nightlife of Shanghai in front of them. Karrin found them giggling in the hall at 6 am the next morning. Apparently they had gone to a hip-hop dance club which stayed open until seven. They also, oddly enough, happened to run into recent Skidmore grads Ben Gallagher and John Wolfberg. You know, country of 1.3 billion - you're bound to run into somebody you know.

The next day Rachel, Karrin, and Eliza headed off to the museums and I was left to my own devices, as Lucy and Olivia were sound asleep from their long night, so I rode the metro across town to the back side of the french concession in search of a burrito restaurant/bar I had read about. Alas, it was too good to be true - I located the place with little trouble, however either because it was October 1st or simply because they decided to not serve lunch tat day, they were closed. Desperately hungry, I wandered the French Concession in search of something resembling a western meal until after about an hour I stumbled upon a magnificent coffee shop named "Saturday Coffee." A menu completely in English, options for spaghetti, sandwiches, cheesecake - yes cheesecake - and freshly made juice. Jackpot. I sat and enjoyed my sandwich in a dream like state, savoring every bight.

Still on a mild high from my lunch I continued my aimless meander through the French Concession, completely losing myself in the process. This was actually very fun, and after a while I simply started heading north and east, and after finding an amazing DVD store which I spent a good amount of time in, I finally made my way back to the subway station in peoples park, via another french bakery which sold RASPBERRY cheesecake (which I promptly purchased) and a wonderful garden oasis where I sat by a quiet pond and enjoyed my dessert. That night we all went back to the same club where Lucy and Olivia had met Ben and John the next night and had a grand time (there are some interesting pictures of me dancing, but what else is new), although I didn't stay out until 6 am (Lucy, Olivia, and Rachel took care of that for the rest of us).

Somewhere in all of this the girls had been able to locate plane tickets from Shanghai back to Jinan, and decided that instead of taking their chances on the standing only train (we had heard some horror stories about not being able to use the bathroom, or really move at all for that matter), it was better to shell out the 400 yuan to fly home. Being unable to purchase anything costing more than a few dollars without having given a solid month to consider it(I blame this character trait on my dad), and half thinking it sounded like an adventure (like I said, I'm a sucker for action), I decided to take my chances with the Saturday evening, standing only, all night, nine hour train ride. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Shanghai.

The next day was Thursday and I slept in a bit while Karrin, Rachel, Eliza, and Tom went off to explore the french concession. Olivia and Lucy wanted to see it as well, so the three of us set out to do the same. Despite being a repeat of the previous day I had a very nice afternoon walking around with Olivia and Lucy - and wouldn't you know it, we miraculously ended up back at Saturday Coffee! Oh hell, I guess we'll just have to settle for sandwiches and fresh squeezed juice again won't we...

That night we ate on the street. This is a good time I feel to mention some of the amazing Chinese food we found in Shanghai... While Karrin I felt was most fond of the "soupy dumplings" (pork dumplings with a delicious broth inside, oddly resembling the experience of eating a gusher), I personally was all about these personal soup hot pot style vendors we located on the first night. basically, you pick out skewers of vegetables, tofu, and meat (if you dare), combine with dried noodles of your choice, and put it all in a basket which they cook in this DELICIOUS broth and hand to you in a bowl. Amazing. Other big favorites was the morning fry-bred (if only we had cinnamon and sugar with us), and SATSUMAS! It took me a while to realize what exactly they were, but am now convinced they are a very close relative of the Satsuma oranges which you can get on the west coast around the holidays. They are also available now on the streets of Qufu, and have made our daily lunches ten times better.

The next day was Friday, and while the girls all packed up and prepared for their afternoon flight, Tom and I took to the city. First we traveled to the Shanghai Urban Planning and Exhibition Museum - an absolutely stunning five story exhibit of the city of Shanghai, past, present, and future. In 2010 the city of Shanghai hosts something called the "World Exhibition," and it looks simply amazing. The city is in the process of completing a completely new section of the city near the Pudong area of Shanghai - complete urban planning from the ground up. Tom and I agreed that it will be exciting to visit in 2010 and see some of these buildings which look to develop into just behemoth structures of modern urban architecture. Tom was looking to buy a sweater, so after spending the morning and part of the afternoon in the museum we went in search of a "cheap goods" market which we thought was located underneath the Urban Planning Museum. We of course were confused - the market we were looking for was located under the "Shanghai Science and Technology Museum," located across the water in a completely different part of the city. We spent the rest of the afternoon wondering around on a wild goose chase for the market, although I did almost buy a sweet coat (complete with belt buckle neck) in a store we found. That night Tom headed off as well, and I was left to myself in Shanghai for the evening and remaining day. That night on a whim I walked down the street until I found a beautiful little park on the water overlooking Pudong (where all the tall well lit buildings are - it made for an incredible night scene), and after enjoying the view for a while wandered back to the hostel, but not before purchasing a murse (man purse... it's really just a messenger bag) - an item I had been in search of all week.

I actually really enjoyed exploring Shanghai on my own for the better part of Saturday. I located the cheap good market Tom and I were in search of the day before (It was insane - you could buy everything from camera accessories to Chinese souvenirs to tailored suits to north face down jackets... some of the stuff total fakes, other stuff real, which just made you wonder how they were managing to sell authentic north face down jackets for insane, bargainable, prices), I sat and watched people fly kites near century park, took alot of really artsy fartsy photos of the steel structure located on the walk up to the Science and Technology Museum, bought a journal, and sat and considered the obnoxious train ride I had ahead of me.

I returned to the hostel, prepared, ate a quick dinner, wrote, and headed out. The train left from Shanghai South Station which was a good 45 minute subway ride away (I ended up standing for the subway ride as well, which I was less than thrilled about), but I arrived with plenty of time. The train itself could have been a lot worse - when the group of us had heard the description previously in the week, we were all (myself included) imagining a cattle car filled to the brim with people. In actuality, it was a normal train car with seats - the only difference were people located in the isles. I spent the first four hours or so leaning against a seat, writing off and on and listening to music. It actually went by quickly. Around midnight a string of three different students, all from Shandong University in Jinan approached me to have conversations (always the same conversation; always awkward, never interesting) with me, and that took me up to about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. One of them gave me a teapot "so we could be friends." Such is China. At around 4, after the Zhaozhuang train station, some seats opened up and I spent the last 45 minutes passed out.

I'm very happy to be back in Qufu - I think a city like Shanghai, filled with excitement and nightlife and many of the comforts of home I had been missing here in the Shandong countryside, is made all the more enjoyable to visit when you have a city like Qufu to return to. On the same coin, I'm very happy with Qufu and the quieter life I lead here, having experienced the fast paced China. Well that's all for now. I'm not going to apologize for a long post, I think they are quickly becoming the norm. One of these days I promise I'll get around to writing about the haphazard experiences/daily adventures of being a first time teacher - there are no travel plans in order for the near future, so have hope!

1 comment:

ccvg said...

Hey! Travis bought a Murse over "Golden Week" as well. You silly boys! I'm glad you guys enjoyed Shanghai, I really wish we could have been there. Hopefully we'll see you in January!