Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Being Shanghaied

Before I continue, I got rightly called out for my first blog entry. That somebody who suggested I start a blog was Goldenchild. If you all don't like what I have to write, then you can blame him!

Upon arrival to Hong Kong, I learned that some of the students who couldn't go home for the holiday break (yes despite starting classes before Christmas, the school did throw us a bone and give us the week between Christmas and New Years off) were travelling to Shanghai. Anyways, I had only been here 1 week and my innate wanderlust kicked in, so I joined them on the trip. It was 3 Germans, a Spaniard, and me all traveling through China, so it was quite the collision of cultures. English was of course the common language, but I took the opportunity to practice my Spanish. I have to admit, I never thought I would be using Spanish in China, but I'm not complaining.

It was pretty cheap too for such a last minute decision. $380 for flight + 3 nights hotel. I guess Shanghai isn't a popular holiday destination. In fact, when I told somebody I was doing "Christmas in Shanghai" they said it sounded like the title to a bad B movie. . .

We visited Shanghai, Hangzhou (2 hours from Shanghai) and Suzhou (1 hour from Shanghai). All in all it was a great trip. We visited tons of Pagodas, gardens, parks, and just did a lot of walking and exploring of the 3 cities. I say cities, because that is what all 3 of them were. Before arrival I had never heard of Suzhou or Hangzhou, so I thought they were just small towns. Nope, this is China, so while "smaller" they are huge cities in their own right. I mean both have populations of around 6 million people. . . About the size of Chicago and nobody has ever heard of them! Well any westerner that is, every Chinese person I told said they were both beautiful cities, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Hangzhou especially which is centered around a really pretty lake. It also has quite a bit of money, we saw Bentley, Masarati, and Ferrari dealerships and tons of luxury boutiques. . . Apparently Hangzhou is a popular domestic vacation destination for the Chinese . . .

The sites were fun, but the best part of the trip were the only in China experiences we had. . .

First, getting around was extremely difficult without knowing Chinese. I've travelled through non-English speaking countries before, but the language barrier here is on a whole other level. It's just hard to navigate a place which uses a completely different writing style as you.

We would have the hotel write our destination in Chinese characters so we could hand it to a cab driver. However, if there were any hiccups or detours we were toast. . . One time after a particular disastrous time trying to find a bus to take us to the island of Putoshan (which got dropped from the itinerary since we could never find the bus to take us to the ferry), our Spanish friend had to resort to writing "HELP" on a piece of paper and walking through the streets. Although, it did work it took a while to find an English speaker. Once we found her, we did not want to let her leave.

Hopefully this shows you our dilemma:

Second, the rate of progress in at least the major coastal cities is astonishing. Part of the reason we couldn't find the bus to Putoshan was because the bus station was moved to make way for another development. Frankly, in Shanghai, every other block was a construction site. There were so many skyscrapers being built at every turn. However, there does seem to be an element of haste in all the building so it makes you wonder if bad investment decisions are being made. . . Case in point, the maglev to the airport. Awesome train ride, it went 300+ km/hr and travelled 30km in like 5-6. However it was still a 20 minute cab ride to get to downtown from the city terminal. Cool to say I've taken a maglev, but not ultra convenient. Additionally the development is causing so much pollution. Again what you hear is true. We went to the top of the tallest building in the city(4th tallest in the world after the Sears Tower) on a clear day and couldn't see very far due to all the haze.

Third, while in Hangzhou we met up with a German classmate of one of the Germans on our trip who was interning there. He took us to a Chinese club, run by the city government, where we were the Lao wei(gweilo in Cantonese or foreigner in English). Because we were such a novelty, we didn't pay any cover and were ushered to a table in a private room. Although the funniest thing was the dance floor, it was on springs so it bounced under the weight of all the dancing. Plus, the place was teeming with cops who were there to make sure the partiers were having fun, but not too much fun. We saw multiple forced evictions from the dance floor for infractions such as kissing, dancing too wildly, or standing on the platform with the cops(which my friend was allowed to do because he was lao wei). I think it was a pretty good metaphor, the government letting the population have fun but keeping a close eye to make sure it didn't get too out of hand...that being said we found plenty of people finding ways to do what they wanted.

Fourth, while in Hangzhou we became the center of attention again. The group of us was trying to figure out what to do when an old man approached me and started speaking to me in English. Turns out, he learned English by working with all the foreigners in Shanghai back in the 1940s. His English was pretty good, and we started chatting. Next thing I knew there was a crowd of 100 Chinese surrounding us watching our conversation. For some reason they found us more interesting than the singer a few steps away. Then the old man suggested we sing for the crowd some English songs. It took some cajoling, but eventually he got us to sing Jingle Bells and Auld Land Syne (which for some reason he had the English lyrics in his pocket). We butchered the songs, but for some reason the crowd loved it. The old man said that if we waited or returned later he would get us coverage in the Hangzhou newspaper. We didn't take him up on the offer, but it struck us as funny. Why would the paper want to cover us, were we that much of a novelty? This is the type of thing you hear about in a small Kansas town, not a 6MM person city. Plus, this was a pretty major city close to the coast. . . what would happen if we went to a smaller town in the interior? That's not even metnioning the fact that one of the Germans, who is blond and over 6 foot tall, kept getting asked to take pictures with the locals.

Fifth, our package included a 3 night stay at a Shanghai Holiday Inn which was pretty nice. Much better than any Holiday Inn in the USA. In the hotel, we stumbled into the hotel "sauna" when looking for the gym. It turned out to be a massage parlor that asked us if we wanted "special" services here or in our room. Let's just say it boggled our mind that a Western hotel chain would offer such services to us. . .

Sixth, copying is rampant in China. We were constantly asked if we wanted Handbags, watches, DVDs which were all pirated. Even when not outright copied, there are plenty of firms that have been "inspired" by western companies. Case in point:

Finally, I will leave you with additional proof as to why dining in China is always an adventure:


Eric said...

Did you discover 885074 while you were in SH? Might have helped you navigate and direct cabbies.

Anyway, let me know if you return there. I can probably point you in the right direction or put you in touch with some more helpful people.

Le Voyageur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Le Voyageur said...

The story about you singing to the general public is hilarious. Just think if you had performed your infamous "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, you would have had the Chinese girls screaming... ;)