Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Shanghai Surprise

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
8 Comments
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Famous view from the Bund.

Famous view from the Bund.

Wow. Even though I had no idea what to expect in Shanghai, it wasn’t anything like it. It was loud. It was dirty. It smelled bad. It tasted good. It was Chinese. It was foreign. It was crowded. It was great. It was also the most international city in China. While getting to our hostel we saw more westerners, black people (current count for our entire trip so far was about six) and Chinese girls hanging on to the arms of scrawny white dudes then our entire time in China.

Not sure.

No caption.

Apartments next to the canal near the galleries.

Apartments next to the canal near the galleries.

Unlike Beijing, which has classic Chinese architecture, Shanghai doesn’t have much, if any. There was one building that had the classic Chinese tiled roof, but it was in the middle of a construction zone and might be slated for destruction. Yet one of the things I liked most about Shanghai was the diversity of its neighborhoods. The main sections in the heart of the town are: The Bund, Pudong, Old Town, and the French Concession. When you walked from one neighborhood to the next, it would change dramatically in a matter of blocks. There was also this air of possibility. That anything goes as long as you can make it work. Oh, and there are also around 22 million people.

Crazy modern Chinese art. Love the colors.

Crazy modern Chinese art. Love the colors.

Alleyway near the galleries.

Alleyway near the galleries.

Tina, Me, Lily and Steve with 1/2 the food we ended up eating.

Tina, Me, Lily and Steve with 1/2 the food we ended up eating.

We spent the first day walking around the Bund – the famous walkway along the water that looks across the river towards the new high rises. Tina wasn’t feeling that well so I ended up going out to eat with some English lads I met in the hostel that afternoon. We were all fed up with Chinese food so we decided on Indian food. They made for splendid company as we got lost looking for the restaurant (we found it) and added more validity to my theory that English people are the funniest on the planet. One guy said he would love to live in SF, and I said I’d love to live in London, so we tried thinking of a way to switch nationalities.

*     *     *

At the heart of Shanghai is Police Square, wait, I mean People’s Square. The square is divided by a HUGE police building who’s fencing forces you to walk all the way around to get to the other side of the park – so I always get the name wrong. People’s Square was like a mini Central Park – you could see the tops of the buildings poking out from behind the tree tops – and even had a few museums. We spent some time in the Shanghai Museum (it was free!) which had rooms full of ancient Chinese arts – bronze, sculpture, calligraphy, etc.

Alleyway in Old Town.

Alleyway in Old Town.

Shoe shine station.

Shoe shine station.

The sweet high culture in the museum was balanced nicely against the sour low culture out in the Square. When walking around, we must have been approached about six or seven times by different groups of young adults wanting to talk in English and inevitably invite us to tea. Each encounter followed the same format:

Old Town.

Old Town.

Sidewalk babershop & daycare.

Sidewalk barbershop & daycare.

1. They would ask where are we from, how long where we in China, etc.
2. They love America and would talk about something they liked – usually celebrities or basketball.
3. Some conversation took place about my beard and who I looked like: Karl Marx, Santa, Einstein.
4. Usually one person in the group would be from Shanghai, and the others “visiting”.
5. They just happened to be going to an “international tea festival”, and would like us to join them.

Wow! A kitchen sprayer nozzel hose thing!

Wow! A kitchen sprayer nozzle hose thing!

Cricket, cricket. Cricket, cricket.

Cricket, cricket. Cricket, cricket.

The hostel back in Beijing had notes posted by travelers warning of this scam – you go for tea and get stuck with a huge bill, of which the scammers get a commission – so we knew to not go. But they were relentless. We would walk about two minutes, get stuck in another 15 minute conversation, get out of the invite, then walk about two more minutes before it would happen again. We finally had to stop responding to anyone who said “hello”.

We got two of the Mao clocks (bottom right).

We got two of the Mao clocks (bottom right).

Tina and friends.

Tina celebrating the "good ole days".

After turning down all the invites for tea parties, we headed over to a section of town with art galleries – photography is big in Shanghai – where a good friend of mine has a photo gallery. He took us “backstage” and explained how they mounted the photos, organized the shows, found new artists, etc. Then that night we went out for dinner to a great Hunan place, then desert at a chocolate bar in the French Concession. The Concession was a totally different part of town then we had seen before. It had wide tree-lined streets and was much more commercial (read: cleaner). After desserts – which the chocolate bar wisely pointed out is “stressed” backwards – he took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood near his apartment.

*     *     *

Getting a late start the next day, we spent the afternoon in Old Town, which is just south of the Square. This was an entirely different part of town then the parts we had seen – narrow busy streets with laundry hanging everywhere. And each block had little alleys going through to the next street over. One street had a market that was packed with people but still allowed buses to travel down. And in construction zones, the scaffolding was all bamboo trees lashed together.

More Old Town.

More Old Town.

The metro station at night near our hostel.

Outside the metro station at night near our hostel.

Along one street there was a bird and insect market where you could by parakeets, crickets, lizards, fish, turtles, and even rabbits. When the men were perusing the crickets, they would put a little piece of straw into the box and poke the cricket with it, and watch how it responded, then closely examine the cricket. There must have been hundreds of crickets from which to choose, but I wasn’t sure what made them so different as to warrant a thorough inspection.

Pudong at night from the Bund.

Pudong at night from the Bund.

Construction zone near the Bund.

Construction zone near the Bund.

European style bulidings behind the Bund.

European style buildings behind the Bund.

Then on one corner I saw a group of men huddled together with some action going on in the middle. I pushed my way as best I could to see what was going on. I had just missed the action, but people were putting crickets back into their jars and then storing them in their jacket pocket while one man was boxing up what looked like a little hockey rink made of plastic – complete with the clear plastic walls. There must be some kind of cricket competition and the straws are used to “motivate” the crickets when needed.

*     *     *

Shanghai sits near the Grand Canal, a waterway built centuries ago linking the Yellow River with the Yangzi River, where there are several small watertowns that make for a good day trip for respite from the city. Tongli was recommended by a few people and seemed to offer the most without the crowds.

One of the main canals.

One of the main canals in Tongli.

The night before we left, I squared away all the details on how to get there – there was a tour bus company where you paid a small commission and they took care of getting you there, paying the entrance fee, and then you were on your own until it was time to come back. But when we asked again in the morning where we caught the bus, we were told something different – and that took us to the public bus station.

Life along the canal.

Eating along the canal.

There was someone there who spoke basic English, so we got on the right bus which left about five minutes later. Then when we got to the transfer station, someone there gave us a schedule of the buses back to Shanghai and explained how the shuttle buses to Tongli worked.

One of the palaces with its own system of canals.

One of the estates with its own system of canals.

The town was beautiful and not that touristy. Most of the people were townsfolk just going about their day. The canals were lined with narrow cobblestone walkways – on which people still rode their bikes and scooters – with little shops, restaurants and landings were people washed their laundry or cleaned off their mops. There were also a few estates filled with temples, ponds, pagodas and sculpted rock gardens.

One of the outer canals that led into Tongli.

One of the outer canals that led into Tongli.

After catching the buses back to Shanghai, we tried to get in touch with my friend to meet up for dinner but couldn’t get a hold of him. So we headed to the French Concession to Southern Barbarian, a Yunnan restaurant my friend had recommended. The food was good except for the peanut soup. We aren’t sure if it was a translation mistake, but there was nothing “peanut” about this soup. It tasted more like the water left over after rinsing vegetables.

*     *     *

Even though Tina had taken some stuff back with her, we needed to get rid of more things so we took a bunch of stuff to the post office and had it shipped home. If you send a package China Post, you take everything down to the post office and they inspect it before packing it for you. Everything went smoothly until they saw our Mao alarm clocks we had gotten on an antiques street. Evenhough these were plastic kitsch clocks, the worker took them to the back to get permission or something before letting us ship them.

The view from Pudong back towards the Bund.

The view from Pudong across to the Bund.

After getting the package shipped – it will arrive in Oakland in about three months since it’s literally on the slow boat from China! – we headed back to People’s Square to visit the Contemporary Art museum but found it was closed. So we took the metro over to Pudong, the fancy part of Shanghai across from the Bund – where you see all the modern towers. That night we ate Thai food then hit up a little cafe where I got a brownie and banana milkshake. I must have been pretty hungry that night.

Bye Bye, Beijing

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
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Our remaining time in Beijing, between taking care of the visa and going to Xi’an and Pingyao, was spent seeing more of the sites. There aren’t many stories to tell, so here are some photos with expanded captions instead.

Temple

Dongyue Temple.

guard

One of the guards in the main archway of Dongyue Temple.

15

Dongyue Temple had various Taoist departments with different functions. This was my favorite: Department For Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death.

Prayer things

Taoist prayer tags at Dongyue Temple.

Antiques market.

Panjaiyuan antiques market.

Cool poster.

Cool poster at the antiques market.

Statues.

Various “antique” statues.

You could by all kinds of mideval weapons!

You could by all kinds of medieval weapons!

Templle of heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven Park.

Temple of heaven

Temple of Heaven Park.

Hutong.

An hutong alleyway.

Beihi Park.

 Qianhai Lake, North of Beihai Park.

Forbidden City from Jinshan Park on another smoggy day.

Forbidden City viewed from Jingshan Park on another smoggy day.

Mao at night.

Gate of Heavenly Peace at night.

National Theater at night reflected in the surroudning pool.

The Grand National Theater at night mirrored in its reflecting pool. It’s shaped like half an egg with a reflecting pool around it. The reflection completes the shape. Truly stunning at night.

Lama Temple.

Rooftops of the Lama Temple.

One museum had a map of Beijing from centeries ago. The only part left is the Forbidden city - the square with the moat around it in the middle.

The Imperial City Museum had a diorama of Beijing at its zenith. The only parts left are the Forbidden City – the square with the moat around it – and some of the parks to the northwest.

Here we are at the National Aquatics Center (aka. Water Cube) built for the Olympic games all light up at night.

Here we are at the National Aquatics Center (aka. Water Cube) built for the 2008 Olympic Games which gets all lit up pretty at night.

The "Bird Cage" also lit up at night.

The “Bird’s Nest” also lit up at night. Might be one of the coolest structures I’ve ever seen.

Nine Dragon Gate from Beihi Park.

Nine Dragon Screen, Beihai Park.

A miserable gray day at the Sumer Palace.

A miserable gray day at the Summer Palace.

Pingyao

December 16, 2008
by Stuart
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Typical courtyard - with coal cyilanders for heating.

Courtyard with coal cylinders for heating.

Because Pingyao is a little town on the train line between Xi’an and Beijing, it’s hard to get tickets – especially on the day you want to travel. So when we got off the train we went back into the station to try and get tickets. When we were in line, a woman came up and said she was from a hostel and could help us get tickets if the agent couldn’t.

Kid's drawings on the side of a wall.

Kids draw the same thing around the world.

Doorway.

Doorway.

When we asked the agent, she looked at the woman from the hostel, then typed something into the computer and said she could only get standing tickets – no guarantee of a bed or seat. The woman from the hostel said the would give us a free ride to the hostel and she’d see about getting us a ticket. Having nothing to lose, we took the offer.

something.

something.

Little marketplace along the road.

Little marketplace along the road.

At the hostel she said it was impossible to get tickets for that night and suggested we try for a few days. I said we would be leaving that night regardless, even if we had to take a bus to another town and get a train or bus from that town. Once she knew we weren’t staying in the hostel no matter what, she said she’d make a call.

Rooftops seen from the Drum Tower.

Rooftops.

Building in a fancy courtyard.

Building in a fancy courtyard.

While checking in other guests, the owner came over and said it was hard to get tickets, and asked if we wanted breakfast. I said we had stuff to eat but if she could get us tickets, we’d order something. In about ten minutes, she came over and said we were in luck – should could get us tickets for that night and to come back at 5:30 and they would have them. And trying to be a man of my word, Tina and I ordered some pancakes and hot chocolate.

*     *     *

Pingyao is a small town that has kept it real. All the streets look like movie sets, but it’s authentic and untouched. However, to get into the courtyards and museums, you have to by a ticket for $20 that’s good for everything. So even if you just want to see one museum or go on the wall, you have to buy the ticket. But since we started walking around early, there weren’t people manning the entrances so we got into most stuff for free. Then later in the day we tried to get on the wall, but was told we needed the ticket.

Writing on the wall.

Writing on the wall.

Another fancy courtyard.

Another fancy courtyard.

Since we didn’t want to buy the ticket for just the wall, we tried to try a bribe. We walked around until we found another entrance to the wall and I got out 20Y bill and folded it up nice and small. I went up the guard house and said we wanted to get on the wall. He asked were our tickets was, and I said, “You mean this?” and slyly offered him the 20. He looked at it, and at me, and said we needed a ticked and closed the door in my face.

Archway.

Archway.

A typical resturaunt front.

A typical restaurant front.

We also tried to get into a museum without the ticket by saying we only wanted to enter that one museum, and didn’t want to buy the ticket for everything. The guards were funny about it and wanted to let us in, but then they pointed to the security camera and shrugged. Then a street vendor came over, and at this point there was a whole crowd around us, and started saying things that everyone thought was really funny. Then he led us over to his store.

More rooftops.

More rooftops.

Streetlife seen from the City Tower.

Street life seen from the City Tower.

Having had success with the breakfast-for-tickets deal, I offered to buy something if he could get us into the museum. So we haggled a bit for some stuff, it was going to be really expensive still and I would end up with some bronze piece of junk. So no deal.

*     *     *

When we arrived back at the hostel to get our tickets, we discovered that the two tickets were not just for different train cars, but for different departure cities! We were told that it didn’t matter what city was on the tickets, just as long as you area getting on after that city and not before. When I pressed him on it, he got huffy and said I needed to trust him. I almost went into how it’s been really hard to trust people in China when it comes to information and procedures – and because they see dollar signs and not people – but thought better of it. Good thing, too. Turns out he was right – we got on the train with no problems.

The City Tower.

The City Tower.

Chinese checkers?

Chinese checkers?

Alleyway with bike.

Alleyway with bikes.

Gratutus picture of Tina and me doing things.

Gratuitous picture of Tina and me doing things. Happy now?

Xi’an, Wal-Mart And The Terracotta Warriors

December 16, 2008
by Stuart
3 Comments
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Pit 1.

Pit 3.

While waiting for my visa extension, we went down to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors. After checking into the hostel we hopped a bus to the site of the warriors which was about an hour away.

The not-so-grand Pit 3.

Pit 1. The hype made it seem like there should be 10x as many warriors.

Every one has a different face.

Each one has a different face.

I have mixed feelings about the warriors. The warriors themselves are really fantastic. They have unearthed thousands and no two are the same. And the complex that houses the excavation sites is quite neat – very modern buildings and plaza. And there was even a unintentionally humorous film – in Chinese – about the events leading to the creation and discovery of the warriors. But this is a case where the parts is greater then the whole.

The Bell Tower in the heart of Xi'an.

The Bell Tower in the heart of Xi

Making filled pancakes at the night market.

Making filled pancakes at the night market.

A vendor selling chicken's feet and heads.
A vendor selling chicken’s feet and heads.

The complex is three main buildings containing the “pits” where the excavation is taking place. The first two pits don’t have much going on, and the third pit has the collection you see in all the photos. But when you read the information signs you learn that they have found over 6,000 warriors. So I kept wondering where they all had gone. Even though pit 3 had the collection, there must have been a couple thousand at the most.

I'm feeling lucky!
I’m feeling lucky!
Pagoda in the Great Mosque.

Pagoda in the Great Mosque.

The best part was when we walked out the gates, sellers of warrior statuettes and other kitsch descended on us who reeked of desperation. Prices fluctuated wildly. One guy even ran out of the woods and came up to me all panting hoping for my sale. I felt bad he’d come all that way for a rejection. Now that I think about it, there were more people selling things then warriors.

In the Great Mosque.

In the Great Mosque.

That night back in Xi’an we walked around the Muslim Quarter at the night market for dinner. The food was pretty similar to what the markets in Western China had – lots of kebabs, naan, pulled noodles. There was also fresh sugarcane juice. As a kid, at this Native American festival at home, I used to get sections of sugarcane to chew on – so I was excited to get some juice. They made it to order with some grinder that took the cane and shredded it and squeezed the juice from the pulp. There was also fresh plum juice that was good and more of that naan with the chili oil that I can’t get enough of.

*     *     *

We noticed on our map of Xi’an that there was a Wal-Mart in town not far from our hostel. So the next morning we went on a hunt getting briefly sidetracked by a smoothie place. Tina had seen a documentary about Wal-Marts in China that sold live chickens so we had to see it. It turned out to be buried in some mall, which as we got closer to the Wal-Mart, progressively replaced the shiny Madison Ave. stores for typical mall rat nests. Turned out that they didn’t sell live chickens – or like you taking pictures.

Neightboor hood next to the wall.

Neighborhood hood next to the wall.

After lunch at a street stall, we walked around the Muslim Quarter again, this time perusing at the street stalls and the Great Mosque – which looked much more like a Chinese temple and nothing like a mosque. There was a call to prayer while we where there so all the men showed up wearing white skullcaps and one brought a sheep which was taken around the the back and never heard from again.

Tina in front of one of the watchtowers on the wall.

Tina in front of one of the watchtowers on the wall.

Dubblement fun.

Dubblement fun.

Clowns.

I need to shave.

After lunch we rented a tandem bike and toured around the top of the wall surrounding the heart of the city. I knew the walls were long, but it took us over and hour to do the complete loop – including a break to eat a bag of Doritos Tina brought me from home.

*     *     *

Hankering for a pizza we headed over to Pizza Hut – the only pizza place in town. But this was no ordinary Pizza Hut. It was more like a Cheesecake Factory – big menus, fancy furniture and silverware. The pizza wasn’t as good as back home, but at least it was pizza.

The wall at dusk.

The wall at dusk.

Looking towards the Bell Tower from the wall.

Looking towards the Bell Tower from the wall.

Along the wall at night.

Along the wall at night.

We then headed to the Big Goose Pagoda for a light and water show. On the way, I though we had taken the bus too far so we got off and took one going the other way until I saw a street sign and realized that we hadn’t gone far enough the first time. So we got off and crossed the street to get back on the bus going the other way again.

At the hight of the water and light show.

At the height of the water and light show.

Big Goose Pagoda after the show.

Big Goose Pagoda after the show.

While crossing the street, a Russian woman started talking to us – she was a dentist and just moved form NYC back to Saint Petersburg. But she hadn’t been there in over 15 years and felt like she didn’t fit in anymore. While she was talking, I saw several buses we needed to be taking driving by, then I started checking my watch. After a few minutes she got the clue and asked where we were going. We told her about the show and she asked to join us. So we got on the next bus and arrived at the pagoda right as the show was starting.

China Visa Extension Tension

December 10, 2008
by Stuart
1 Comment
2,228 views

Once I got back to Beijing I headed over to the visa office to start the extension process. I had my passport, photo, application filled out and a receipt from the hotel proving I was staying in Beijing. But when I got up to the counter the woman helping me asked where my birth certificate was. Stunned, I repeated, “birth certificate”? She affirmed that was correct, so I asked where in the heck I get a copy of my birth certificate in Beijing?! From a bank, I was told. She then pointed to a sheet of paper that was a certificate of deposit from a bank. Turns out she was saying “bank” and not “birth”. When I asked if she wanted a “bank” certificate – accentuating the “k” – she gave me a glaring “yes” then moved to person next in line.

I went to the information officer and asked what the bank certificate was about. She said that in order for me to extend my visa, I needed to have $3,000 USD in a bank account in China – $100 a day for 30 days. This was to prove that I could support myself while in China. I tried to explain that currently I was living off of about $25 a day, but she didn’t seem impressed with my thrifty self.

There were so many problems with this bank business. 1) how was I going to get $3,000? You can only withdraw about $250 a day from an ATM, so it would take over a week to get the money. 2) wiring money internationally would be really expensive, plus I have no idea how that works. 3) can I even open a bank account in China? 4) I only had two more days left on my current visa.

So after calling my mom to ask if she could transfer money from my account to me if needed, I called Tina to come up with a game plan. We decided that Tina would bring over $3,000 in cash and I’d put it in a bank. Dang she’s smart.

Then I went to some banks to find out if I could open an account, and more importantly, get my money out without penalty and in a timely fashion. The only catch was that if I opened an account in Beijing, I’d have to close it here, too. That would mean at some point I’d have to come back here just to close my account. And I still was clear on things because I was never sure they understood what I was asking, and I kept being transferred to someone else.

After talking to the banks, I went online to the official site of the Beijing police and read that they also accept traveler’s cheques. Sweet! Tina thought this would be a safer option so we decided on that. But when she got here, and we went back to the police, they refused the cheques and demanded a statement from a bank.

So we went down the block and opened an account at the Bank of Beijing and asked to deposit the money. This took an hour. They said they would accept the cheques and asked me to sign them all in front of the cashier (I had 30 $100 cheques). Then she said I could only deposit $500 unless I had the receipt for the cheques – and if not, I could take the cheques around to other banks and resign them, get cash, then come back and deposit the money. Oh, and I needed to use the hotel’s address for my account.

After explaining that for security reasons you don’t carry the cheques and the reciept, and that since I signed them in front of her, I could only cash them with her, they let me deposit all the money as long as I returned the next day with the reciept. She then asked when I wanted to close the account. I remembered that the infromation officer at the police explained they need a certificate because during the approvial process, lots of people check to make sure I have the money, and if I took my money out too soon, I won’t get my visa extended. So I said I’d like to get my money out the same day I get my visa – in a week. She then informed me that until then, my account was frozen.