Shanghai – First Night (you’ll be reading this post backwards in time, most recent – and weird – first)
Oct. 22, 2010 – Friday
I start the day feeling like a Mac truck has hit me. Amy and I sleep in, and I call Beijing’s Shi Cha Hai Sports School to tell the coach we will be one hour later, and fall back to sleep.
While at the last gymnastics training, we give little American presents (Lindt Mint Chocolate and Beef Jerky) to the coordinator, Qi shen sen, and the coach, Cheng lao shi. The Indonesian Rhythmic team is training again – it’s also their last day after five days at Shi Cha Hai. ‘Their coach, Negaka, calls me over and asks a favor: would I help her translate to Li lao shi, Shi Cha Hai’s rhythmic coach? Afterwards, I learn more than I ever about Rythmic gymnastics competition in SE Asia. We are invited to see the team at Jakarta when we visit Indonesia!
Amy and I meet Chris, and I feel really terrible, so I take a nap. Two hours plus later, Amy has fallen asleep, too, and Chris is out returning the bike loaned by Ines. The night before, we had a great late dinner with Ines and her boyfriend, Julian, a fellow from France who fell in love with Beijing four years ago, and with Ines about a year ago. He sells air refreshers that clean the air immediately around one. Appropro for air polluted Beijing!
By 5 pm, we are packed and ready to head to the airport for our evening flight. It’s a terrible time to catch a taxi, but we find one quickly. We still get stuck in traffic – the majority of Beijing heads OUT of Beijing after work apparently! We are lucky and get to the airport in less than 45 minutes – normally a one hour drive in traffic. We tip the driver, and he’s surprised.
At 6 pm, we are too early to check in! Our flight is really at 9:30 pm, not 8:30 pm as I’d thought. So, we head to a coffee shop, the kids order spaghetti, and I walk around and discover a massage salon. Amy and I reserve for a 30-minute massage since our shoulders and backs hurt, while Chris watches our luggage. The massage takes the knots out of my neck and shoulders! The young woman who worked on me is amazing – and has strong fingers and hands from 5 years of massage work. It only cost us Y198 and a Y20 tip (about $32 for both of us)!
We go through security, and wait. The flight was uneventful. Landing in the pleasantly warm but slightly muggy night, we were herded onto a transit bus that drove forEVER to unload us for our baggage claim. That also took forEVER. When we finally got outside, we were hounded by taxi services hawkers, quoting us prices ranging from Y400 to Y150. Chris and I play “Good cop, bad cop” with the vendors and, we opted to stand in the fast-moving line instead. We got a taxi cab driver after a 10-minute wait though the line was amazingly long. Of course, the driver didn’t speak English, seemed a bit deaf (“Eh!?” all the time), and didn’t know where to take us. Great. We finally find the phone # of the hostel and he gets directions.
25 minutes and Y85 ($16) later, we find the dark alley where the Shanghai Hidden Garden hostel is. It’s aptly named.
We changed from the hostel because they lost our reservation, it was overbooked, and the place is TERRIBLE! Here’s why: though it’s past 1 am, the place is hopping with several groups of 20-somethings from Hong Kong or thereabouts. There’s a group by the bar in the back, others watching a movie on the flatscreen TV, and many more milling around the lounge and patio areas, talking like it’s daytime! We try to check in, but we discover that our reservation change got lost by one of the owners somehow.
We are offered a sofa in the lounge or glasshouse livingroom cushions to sleep on for free, and guaranteed a room for the next day. Chris opts for a sofa in the lounge where the party is, then changes his mind and finds a couch on the upstairs balcony, under an awning. The young woman at the reception desk shows Amy and me to the glass-enclosed garden room in the patio – it is like a fishbowl where all can look inside. We see a sheet-covered sofa (a body is underneath we discover later), and two couches with a guy on each, sleeping. There are three single setees and a rattan circular low chair which we use to form a full-sized-ish bed, layered with clean sheets and quilt covers.
It’s muggy, someone has stinky feet, and is snoring. It’s the guy on the sofa next to us, who slaps himself once in awhile to swat mosquitos. Amy and I are on “high alert” as we are Mosquito Catnip. We spread anti-bug lotion on our faces and hands, and don’t even change, and try to go to sleep. However, the party is still going on, it’s really warm and humid inside, and voices in the lounge are amplified.
At 2 am, though Amy’s given up and konked out, I forget about trying to sleep though I am exhausted. I spark up the netbook to find us another place – a REAL place to sleep. It takes more than an hour – slow internet – and I book us a room at the Ramada Plaza Pudong, quite a ways away from the Hidden Garden. At 3:30 am, I turn in, and the party begins to break up and go to sleep. A handful of folks are asleep in the lounge somehow. It begins to rain.
The mosquitos keep me paranoidly awake, as well as the guy next to us slapping, talking and singing in his sleep. I drank too much water and have go to the awful bathroom almost every two hours (AKA “stinky potty” as Chris called it when he was 5-years-old). It is located on the 2nd floor, like an outdoor setup. One toilet is western, the other is the eastern squat – and it is beyond AWFUL! I almost fainted when I mistakenly first entered the squat WC! These two toilets service all the dorm rooms and one dorm room houses at least 10 bunk beds! There are at least two of these dorm rooms.
Let me be the firs to announce that three young women can fit into one of the shower stalls, and shower at the same time. This was confirmed at one of my 2 am bathroom trips, hearing them and afterwards seeing them all come out.
By the 5 am dawn light, I see that the mosquitos DO have a flight pattern. The repellent has worked and neither Amy nor I have bites! Yay! At the same time, some idiot is awake and carries on a loud conversation with the young woman receptionist who checked us in. He’s from Hong Kong, based on his accented conversation. His Mandarin is terrible. Mercifully, his and her English are better. At 6 am, more people are awake, checking out, breakfasting, and noisy as they lug downstairs their luggage. They look into our fishbowl room as they come down the stairs or eat.
Somehow I DO sleep and it’s 9 am when I wake up. The guy next to us is also awake and is crazy. He talks to us and we have a totally disjointed conversation flow. As soon as I can, I leave this guy and check with the front desk for them to write in Chinese our destination – my plan to get there for breakfast by 9:30 am, and wait at the hotel until we can check in.
However, there is a frenzy at the front desk while I am being helped when a young woman runs inside and excitedly says something about her friend being cold and not moving in their room. The young man at the desk distractedly calls their 9-11 equivalent figuring it’s a medical emergency. He’s told it will be about 10-30 minutes before an ambulance will be there. When the clerk returns from seeing the cold guest, she asks if someone is a doctor and can help. Thinking maybe she’d fainted, I volunteer Chris as he’d just had First Aid and CPR training before school ended. He goes up with them.
Chris came back rather pale and shocked. It sounded worse, and he wasn’t sure what to do. So, he and I went back up (Amy wanted to go, too, but I ominously didn’t think it a good idea). We found two guys (an American and a Chinese) doing CPR, though Chris said she was not only cold, but very stiff and that he felt rigor mortis had set in. She was lying on her back on the floor, with her arms at her sides, legs bowed as the wall pushed against her feet, though originally Chris said he saw her on the bed. She stared straight up, and was not moving at all (I will describe what we saw later, not to be morbid, but more to dispel the wild imaginings of most people’s creative minds.) It looked way too late to do anything to bring her back to life. Probably heart attack though she was only 30 something! Poor girl. Her friend was still in shock and the realization beginning to impact her senses. The American guy stood up and rinsed his mouth out in the sink after Chris told him how he found her and that she’d probably been dead for over an hour. The Chinese guy tried ineffectively to pump her chest, but got little movement. We left them. There was nothing else we could do to help. And, I felt the sooner we could leave this dreadful place the better. The constant rain did not help the mood either.
Amy was full of curiosity and wanted to go see the girl, but we didn’t think that a good idea, for sure now.
Ten minutes later, as the ambulance crew arrived, and we left. My last vision was of the gurney at the base of the stairs filling up with rain water. What a way to begin a visit to Shanghai! Chris was awfully brave, somewhat creeped out for awhile, but calm. Later, he talked with Alison, his girlfriend and felt better.
So, we are now at the Ramada Plaza Pudong, way far away from the Shanghai’s busy center, but at a 4 star hotel. What a difference!
At 11 am, we finally have breakfast. It’s doubly good, as we don’t have to worry if the sanitation is up to par! We hadn’t eaten a real meal since 5 pm the day before, when we boarded the flight from Beijing to Shanghai! We’re almost too tired to eat. The kids and I crash out for some justified shut-eye afterwards.
The grace note being at the Ramada was having a clean shower that didn’t smell of mold, mildew or urine. What a blessing. We’re on the 11th floor of a 28-floor 5-star hotel. What else can I say?
Beijing – youth hostel and folks we’ve met
Oct. 18, 2010 – Monday
Amy and I go shopping or to lunch most of the days after gymnastics.
Today, Renaud from Marseilles, who has only traveled outside his country once before and works for a North Korean gaming programming company, joined us. It is drizzling, so getting underground was NOT my first choice normally, but the subway surprises me. We go to the Hong Qiao (red bridge) Pearl Market (AKA Pearl Market), located southeast of the Forbidden City – pretty closeby actually. Renaud shows us how to ride the subway! It is amazingly clean, only costs Y2 / person no matter where we go, and at 12:30 pm is relatively empty.
OK, so I don’t mind bargaining back and forth for a few things when shopping in an open marketplace, but after three hours, I am tired, and want to just pay the correct amount without feeling cheated!
Our final purchase was helping Renaud buy some jewelry for his girlfriend at a 4th floor pearl counter. The saleswoman explains in great detail to me about the pearls being real pearls and not fakes with a coating over glass beads. She had scraped one set of large pearls with a pair of scissors to prove they were entirely real pearls. Renaud immediately covered his ears as the sound from the scraping was too painful!
For his purchase, the pricing begins at Y500, but she immediately gives us a discount of Y100. We chat in English a bit, and he says that he does not want to pay more than Y200. So, in Mandarin, I explain that Y400 is still too high, and she gives us another price of Y380. Wow. This is going to take some time! She’s a pleasant woman, so we work a bit with her. She begins again to explain to me the authenticity of the pearls, and grabs the scissors to scrape one of Renaud’s necklaces, and he instantly tells her that he believes her to avoid that sound again! I talk to her about seeing if I can raise his price up a bit, and would she consider Y220, as I know he had countered at Y200. It’s a compromise, and Renaud and I chat a bit about things, and I mention that he could probably get the purchase at Y220. He’s amenable, and in a few minutes, the woman has packaged his purchases in little purple boxes, and silk bags (a color she noticed he like since he was wearing purple), and also gave a little pearl bracelet to Amy.
We meet up Chris, Emma and Martin (fellow roommates) at the hostel, wait as long as we can to find out if we’re going to meet Kyle and Julia for dinner, and then head out at 8:30 pm for dinner at the Wang Fujing Street shopping area. It’s drizzling again, and Chris has brought back from Ines Brun’s bike shop a GIANT unicycle! He and Renaud ride around the alley – another reason dinner had a late start – as well as the juggling fun in the lounge, entertaining the hostel guests and staff.
The dinner at Chamate restaurant at a shopping center is just – okay. Really expensive and mixed up. We close down the shop, the shopping center kicks us out, and the workers begin ripping up some marble tiles between shops! There’s only one exit, and we finally find it in the maze.
NOTES: KFC – one of America’s first imports to China, even before MacDonalds! – has rather clean bathrooms for emergencies. The prices aren’t bad either for what they offer, though nothing like the chicken in the States. Apparently, white meat isn’t that valued in Asia, but the dark meat, especially the wings, are. It was the same in Japan, where I was able to buy large chicken breasts for less than the thigh or wing meat! Plus, KFC delivers in China!
Oct. 17, 2010 – Sunday
Chris has found a workaround for the YouTube and Facebook block from the Chinese internet – sort of – a VPN, virtual private network. It involves some sleuthing online to find a way to lease a VPN and then setup the software. Glad he’s that desparate to get F’book and YouTube access to learn how to do this!
Have met a really funny group of people here while on the Great Wall tour. Foreigners visiting a country can be so funny in the way they see things and in the context of their own experiences from their own country.
One fellow is in the same hostel as we, and was the one who held the tour up for 30 minutes as he was told the tour began at 8 am while we were told to be ready at 7;30 am. He’s from Marseilles, and works for a company that sells or works with a North Korean software company for games. Anyway, also have met a Canadian couple from Toronto who are on a 6-month tour of the SE Asian countries down to Australia. Another is an
Indian fellow originally from Bangalore, but is now working for a bank in NYC, and is in Beijing for business meetings. Carrie is a woman from Hong Kong working for a water bureau in conjunction with the Beijing government for water rights and sales. Another older couple is from England, and are sightseeing the world.
We got new roommates in our 8-person dormitory at the hostel, a pleasant young missionary couple from Manchester (well, just north of it), who have been traveling for 9 months now, and started in Africa! They are also on their way to Vietnam and will finish their yearlong trip in Australia before heading back home.
The kids and I had a blast at dinner with the guy from Marseilles, eating boiled dumplings with various fillings (pork & celery, mutton, 3 types of spices, and beef), as well as some side dishes, dumpling broth, and a round of drinks (sodas). It all cost us Y104 (~$15) for all four of us.
Well, we miss Japan, especially Osaka!
Oct. 16, 2010 – Saturday
China is good. Very inexpensive, so we have to be careful as we pay full price when we really don’t have to. Got some bargaining tips from Brita, one of the tour coordinators at the hostel. I asked her where do they buy clothes, for example, and she said Shanghai! Anyway, she recommended we go to the
place where foreigners buy (probably a bit cleaner), and bargain down to 1/3 the price (eg. Y300 > Y100) and work upwards to about half or less. Funny…
Chris is feeling better, and has been going on his own – brave soul. But, he doesn’t eat anything as he can’t speak the language, so he eats dinner with us. The youth hostel is okay – VERY low price and basic comfortable (Y50 / person /night = about $16 / person / night). The staff is semi-friendly, but really overstaffed and only seems one girl does most of the work. The ones at the front are young, whereas the daytime hard workers are older women.
One young fellow is the cook; he’s from Sichuan. We have met many people traveling from Scotland, Ireland, England, Israel, France, Philipines, Singapore, Sichuan, Korea. No Japanese yet!
Amy is now sick with the cold from Chris. She also lost her tooth last night, got bitten twice by a mosquito, and lost her voice. Poor kid. She’s still so funny and conscientious about her cold, she’s wearing a mask that Chris hated wearing while in public.
We hope to tour the Great Wall tomorrow – begins at 7:30 am. I’d say, “Ugh!” but we’ve been waking up early these days for some reason. Probably because Beijing is one hour earlier than Tokyo.
We were supposed to tour Beijing today, but w Amy sick, we stayed inside. Chris rode on a bike he borrowed from a friend we know from the Busycle (Ines Brun! The bike acrobat), and headed to the Olympic Village, but got just over halfway when he decided to return. The day was overcast, cooling down.
While Amy stayed with Emma and Martin, Chris and I went out to a very late lunch at the Korean BBQ place we went to last week. Unbelievable how much we ate! He must have been starving!
Colder nowadays, and may have to buy more clothes. It’s amazingly pleasant here – a bit nippy, cool, but sunny.
Beijing, itself is amazing, too, and entirely 180 degrees from Japan in many respects. Physically, ethically, viewpoints, and approaches. Attitude toward life, too, and self-expressiveness. Quite different. Japanese are more demure, quiet, self-introspective, whereas Chinese seem to imbue a sense of community, gregariousness, noisily shared. One is organized and orderly, the other haphazardously creative.
Of all the places we’ve been in Japan, I’d say Osaka is the closest to being Chinese in the gregarious sense. Kyoto, Tokyo, and even Fukuoka are definitely more reserved, and introspective, quiet. Well-mannered to the point of stillness – a calm in the storm! The Chinese are the storm! ‘C)
Anyway, I just can’t seem to write fast enough… though I type faster. Have the ol’ fashioned thing – in my journal, jotted down, but the ideas, experiences run through my head, and would come out too jumbled to try and explain right now.
Great Wall and other parts Sunday – starts 7 am! Yikes! Olympic Village and parts of Beijing Saturday, tomorrow. Maybe.
Have been meeting a variety of people, and remembering my Mandarin well. Amy’s been doing well with her Mandarin, too, though way more shy about speaking it. Sun Lao Shi has done a very good job teaching her Mandarin in Palo Alto! She reads the characters well enough to keep me out of trouble.
Too many smokers around here, more so than in Japan. Apparently, the tobacco companies have made cigarettes very cheap here, and many are picking up the unhealthy habit in the hopes of image improvement. It’s a conspiracy! And a darn good business a carton of cigarettes cost about $2 equivalent, so the habit is easy and cheap to acquire. Like Vodka to the Russians?
Since the advent of Western influence, it’s like stirring dye into clean water, the Chinese are mixing up what was acceptable before and accepting new ideals. It’ll take a while to have it meld and some form of style and image become acceptable. Probably the usual mix of both good and bad habits… from both cultures!
The hostel is a bit of a back alley place, but it has character. We are definitely located at a dumpier part of town, though it’s hard to tell where one hutong ends and another part begins… Intriguingly, the walls that line the alleys open through ornate double or plain single doors into … quite another world it seems. As one enters and crosses the threshold, the path diverges and several other buildings can be seen, like a miniature walled-in town!
Also, annoyingly, street names start and end by a system we haven’t figured out yet. There is a pervasive smell of sewer, rancid oil, and fumes from cars, mixed with fragrant smells of fried foods, steamed buns, sweet bakery items along the streets.
The hostel has similar smells but most of it is covered by the smell of smoke from the many smokers from the visitors, and the natives. Smoking is allowed in the hostel. That brings the place down to a negative one star at this rate!
Having seen the kitchen, too, I would pass on anything cooked there, though the cook is good. The facilities are on the unsanitary and unsavory side. Cleaning isn’t the high or mid-point for Saga youth hostel. Still, the linens are cleaned and smell good, so that’s worth a half star, since it’s expected to have clean linens. The bathrooms are on the cleaner side, too, though the shared bathroom and showers upstairs are better torn up and redone. One shower handle kept falling off and had a hole worn through it. Ironically, next door is an appliance fixtures shop selling handles for pretty cheap. I considered purchasing one and donating it to the hostel. Of course, I didn’t take pictures of the decrepit stuff… not pretty. ‘C)
Oct. 14, 2010 – Friday
I just learned that we cannot access YouTube and Facebook, and some topics in Google while visiting China. Amusing. Even had a bit of a time accessing my own blog site. Could also be the substandard internet access (QOS – quality of service – being low).
China is definitely NOT Japan! We’ve been so spoiled by the superb Customer Service of Japan, and the “instantaneousness” of Wifi of Silicon Valley. Sigh::
But, China has many other surprises to offer …
Like people who juggle, eat scorpions, climb steep steps on walls, give tips on where to visit and when in India, and how governments deal with water resources! People who share the secrets of Chinese dickering, places to visit, change our barbeque grills, figure out how to serve us their best dishes, and smile with the pleasure of meeting us!