Monday, November 19, 2012

China - Part 3 of 3

Shanghai - This was the last city on our tour and it was much more relaxed. It felt like we had more time to see the sites and there was almost no rushing around. Our guide Rocky was a younger guy (28), had good knowledge of the city and his English was good. We had emailed Yan Ban about the bad restaurant experience in Xi’an so she contacted him and informed him about our expectations. He was very flexible about the restaurants and picked local ones as well as letting up pick a few. We stayed at the Howard Johnson Plaza Shanghai, which is just south of E Nanjing Road and is within walking distance of the Bund and the People's Square/Park.

The order in which the cities on the tour were visited, we went from classic China to modern China. Shanghai is a massive metropolitan city. The population is pushing 25,000,000 people, which is more than 70% of all of Canada.

Our first day was pretty mellow and we started the day going up the Oriental Pearl Tower, which has a clear floor viewing platform, and then took a Huangpu River Cruise. On the flight from Xi'an to Shanghai, my wife was skimming a newspaper and read a review of a seafood noodle restaurant on Changle in the Old French Concession so we went for lunch there. It was a small place but very good. We then cruised through Xintiandi, which is a neat pedestrian area of the Old French Concession that used to be stone Shikumen housing and now contains restaurants of all nationalities and a shopping center. There was so much variety, we ended up coming back here to eat several times. While we were there, we saw a Caucasian lady get hit by a bike, which seemed sort of ironic seeing as it is a pedestrian area. He was biking the wrong way on a one way alley.

The last stop of the day was the Yuyuan Garden, which is surrounded by shops housed in classic Chinese architecture. One of the coolest is a teahouse on an island that is only accessible via zigzag walkways. The garden itself has lots of rockeries as well as the three-toed dragon wall. The artist carved the dragon with five toes, which is reserved for Imperial dragons only. Supposedly the Emperor heard about this dragon and sent his people to inspect it and punish the carver but when they arrived, the carver removed two toes.

The next day was spent in Hangzhou. I didn't know what to expect but on the driver there, I was really surprised. You could see lots of houses along the way with a little solarium on the rooftop as well as a spire with various balls skewered on it. The former is something to do with feng shui and the latter is some sort of symbol of the wealth of the family. Our guide was telling us there are lots of factories in the area (making items such as lighters) and the owners live comfortably.

When we got close to the city, I was shocked that it was as big as it was. We had to cut through lots of traffic on the highway to get to the West Lake area. When we arrived, we had lunch at a hot pot restaurant. They bring out a big metal bowl filled with broth and heat it up in the center of the table. Then you cook your vegetables, noodles etc in it. Super tasty. A cruise on West Lake was the first tourist activity. Sometimes it's hard to get a good view and photos in China because it's so hazy. It wasn't that impressive to me. We then went to the Six Harmonies Pagoda, which has lots of nice sculptures on the grounds as well as 10% to scale copies of over a hundred of China's pagodas. We could have spent a lot more time there than the hour or so that we did.

The next part of our tour was the best part of Hangzhou. We were driving to the Ling Yin Temple and on the way, we drove by a bunch of Dragon Well tea plantations. We knew this region was famous for it but we never expected to see fields and fields of it. The temple was pretty cool with lots of caves and mountain side carvings. Our guide was telling us that many Buddhist temples were saved from the Cultural Revolution by either boarding up and closing or by putting up Mao pictures and sculptures. On the drive out, we got to visit a Dragon Well tea plantation and have a tasting, which was a cool experience.

By the time we drove back to Shanghai, it was close to 9pm and we ate dinner near the hotel. Rocky picked the place out and it totally sucked. We ordered ahrimp dish and when it came, it had no shrimp. We sent it back and when they returned with it, they came back with the exact same dish and a separate tiny dish with a single chopped up shrimp. Definite WTF moment.

The next day was spent exploring some other Shanghai sites like the Jade Buddha Temple, which contains, of course, a big ass jade Buddha. I was surprised that there were so many active Monks there. Rocky was telling us that Monks are well off financially due to many rich Chinese donating to the temples for good fortune. We visited the Shanghai Museum and also went to Tianzifang, which is a series of narrow alleys that were former Shikumen and was converted into artist workshops, storefronts and cafes. It was sort of like an art version of Xintiandi in narrower stone alleys.

The last site we saw was the water town of Zhouzhuang. There are several water towns around Shanghai and we just happen to pick this one. It's kind of weird... it's set up sort of like a theme park. You pay your entrance fee and then go through a turn style and you're in a strange little village/town that feels like Chinese Venice. I got the feeling that no one even lives there and they're all just employees of the "theme park". Regardless, it's a really cool experience. There's lots of great looking architecture with the narrow waterways and bridges. We mostly just cruised around the alleys, visited a few of the old style homes and took a private boat ride.

Rocky had said the restaurants there were not great and we should wait to eat lunch back in Shanghai. He picked a great one for us that he eats at regularly and it was by far the coolest restaurant we ate at. Hai Di Lao is a Szechuan hot pot restaurant that has many franchises around China. The restaurant is so popular that they provide services for people waiting in the line up that includes manicures, board games, drinks, snacks and a play area for kids. The eating experience was super fun. You order all your meat and vegetables uncooked and you cook them yourself in a broth of your choice. There is a buffet of sauces where you mix and create your own flavour.

So all in all, that pretty much sums up my trip to China with my folks. Here are a few anecdotal tidbits I learned from the tour guides on this trip:

1. Lots of websites are blocked in China including facebook and youtube, the former because of the potential of an uprising (like what happened in Egypt) and the latter because the government is embarrassed about occurrences in the past (Tienanmen Square, Lhasa riots etc).

2. Higher percent men in most area due to the one child policy gives more power to women as they get the pick of the litter. I never knew the one child policy varied and also that ultrasound is illegal in China.

3. Government jobs pay great in China.

4. Saw this article before I left for China. It's so true. The majority of public washrooms in China are terrible by North American standards. It's surprising seeing as they have the man power and technology to be able to fix and maintain a toilet of all things. For a country and people as proud as they are, it seems pretty strange.

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