WHAT I LEARNED FROM THIS SOJOURN: CHINA EDITION

 

Very old koi fish at Yu Gardens

 

The image of these koi fish continues to resonate with me as I reflect on our trip three years later.  Like this pond, China as a nation is huge, crowded, determined, busy, but her people are also kind, curious, friendly, and hospitable.  I wrote quite a bit here about the fact that we did indeed stick out in China, and  that that was a “fishbowl” experience that took getting used to, but we were never made to  feel ill-at-ease.  Most people acknowledged that we were unusual but not one person suggested that we were unwelcome.  We can only hope that our picture-posing diplomacy has left them with an equally positive impression of us.  

Visiting China was an incredibly edifying and wonderful experience that reinforces why we make travel such a priority. It is the ultimate course in the Humanities. Once you’ve been somewhere, and walked its streets, eaten its food, learned its history, culture, point of view, and smiled with its people and at their children, you are personally connected, and that place can no longer be exotic, foreign, nor reduced to a distorted sound byte on the evening news.

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: SHANGHAI IS FOR SHOPPING

Travel Dates: July 19 – 20, 2011

Shanghai’s Museum of Science and Technology has wonderful exhibits, but its real treasures are underground… . Image Source:http://www.shanghai.gov.cn/uploads/oldpic/objpic/00019643.jpg

 After diligently avoiding the relentless calls of the “watches, bags, shoes” solicitors on the streets, I decided that while I didn’t want to follow some greasy type down a back alley and end up like Carrie and Co. in Sex and The City 2, I most definitely was not going to leave one of the knock-off capitals of the world without some loot. Thanks to some searching on the www, I found out where the two best and biggest fake markets were, and off we went. The first one we were directed to was at 580 W. Nanjing Rd, which we eventually found after realizing that there was an East Nanjing Rd. It certainly didn’t help that we were looking for a 4-5 story building and both 580s matched that description. 580 East though was a legitimate dept. store, and I suspect we looked pretty shady, checking out their back entrances for hidden passageways. When we finally did get to the right place, there was no mistaking it; I picked up its scent the moment I saw happy women walking past in the opposite direction, laden with huge, black nondescript shopping bags.

The hilarity begins the moment you enter the market. First of all, there are prominent signs condemning the theft of intellectual property, and others citing a cease and desist order against selling the very names everyone’s there to buy: Gucci, Louis, Prada, etc. The whole cease and desist thing is easily dealt with in two ways: one, put a dead-ringer for a product on prominent display without identifying tags or labels, or sell the labeled stuff (especially the Guccis and Louis) in your shop’s secret back room/hidden wall, speak-easy style. I kid you not. In the end, we decide to steer clear of the blatant knock-offs, favoring high quality custom-made items, but transactions can be a little intimidating for the faint of heart. For example, both my guidebook and the blogs I’d read recommended offering just 10 percent of whatever the initial quoted price was, because apparently it’s hard to bid too low in Shanghai, but we Americans find this tough, so it takes practice. After a couple of days and a couple of markets though, I had NO problem offering that 10 percent (or something just slightly higher) and getting what I wanted. The trick is to keep a straight face, even as the vendor acts shocked, dismayed, or even insulted by your measly offer, and to be willing to walk away, even from a product you want badly. More often than not, the vendor chases you down, grabbing your arm and negotiating the whole time, but if you stick to your guns, you get your price. It’s pure theater, can be great fun, and ultimately, everybody wins no matter how much the vendor pouts. BTW, if you want to see Black folks in Shanghai, the markets are the place to go.  Lots and lots of West Africans shopping away.

The second fake market is located in the subway underneath Shanghai’s Museum of Science and Technology. This one practically runs the length and breadth of this huge subway station and is remarkable not only for its fake designer products, but for its huge collection of custom tailoring shops. Yes, couture clothing for the common man, for pennies on the dollar. A custom-fitted Chanel style suit or Burberry-esque plaid raincoat can be had for prices you’d pay for clothes at TJMaxx or Marshalls. T. got a long wool cashmere blend coat custom-made (in just 24hrs) for $78!! .  As noted above, this is where we did the most damage.

I’ve gone on and on about the shopping, but there’s more to Shanghai than that; it’s just a great city. It’s got everything from the most magnificent Buddhas in the Jade Buddha Temple, to the Maglev, the world’s fastest train, to the most delicious street drink (green tea and kumquat limeade) I’ve ever had. As New Yorkers, we are nothing if not jaded, and we can judge “lesser” cities pretty harshly, but there are some (Paris, Rome, Philadelphia, Rio, New Orleans to name a few) that really live up to their hype in terms of pure flavor; Shanghai is definitely one of these. We’d love to come back some time.

Jade Buddha Temple Gallery: A Buddha for Everybody

 

 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: SHANGHAI– DISCOVERING THE OTHER CHINA

Travel Dates: July 16 through 18, 2011

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 Shanghai is part sprawling, Jetsons style uber-metropolis and part retro-chic former European outpost. It is about as un-China as one can get, and still be in mainland China. Our tour-sponsored hotel for the first two nights, The Crowne Plaza Fudan, is in the Pudong section, the sleeker, more modern side of the Huangpu River, but we’re transferring to The Salvo Hotel across the river and near The Bund for our final three nights. It’s worth mentioning that the former hotel is a four star worthy Crowne Plaza — it’s kept in pristine condition, and the rooms and public areas are spectacularly decorated. It is, though, off the beaten path for what visitors to Shanghai really want to see/experience.

Mr. Wu, our guide for this leg is nowhere near as helpful or as enthusiastic as the ones we’ve had so far; I suspect our flat-out refusal to visit the “very popular” silk “museum” may have contributed to his surliness. After picking us up at the airport Saturday night in a comfortable, air-conditioned coach, he showed up Sunday morning to escort us to the Shanghai Museum in a dirty, tiny, Montessori school cheese bus with temperamental AC. There was a curious, hand-written sign on the “bus” (a van, really) to assure us that “THIS BUS HAS BEEN DISINFECTED”, we suspect from lice.

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Upon arrival at the museum, Mr. Personality hustled us through the entrance gate and metal detectors, told us we had 90 minutes of free time, and he disappeared. So much for our guided tour.  The museum was lovely though, both inside and out, as these pictures will attest.

Mr. Wu returned at the appointed time with news that the AC had been fixed, probably because we were all shooting him with hate stares and because Dick, who felt by now like our collective “Dad” demanded he get us a better bus. Mercifully, T. and I only had to deal with him for half a day, after which the organized tour part of our trip came to a close. We made sure to take a group picture, and then parted at the Yu Gardens Bazaar in the Old City.

The Yu Gardens Bazaar is pure sensory overload.  Yes, it’s at once a garden, at its peaceful inner perimeter, and a bustling bazaar on the outside.  It’s super-crowded, very touristy, and jam-packed with everything everyone’s been trying to sell us in China so far. Want pearls and jade? Check. Silk scarves, bangles, Buddhas? Check. And of course, that knock-off Gucci, Prada, or Louis Vuitton bag is yours for a fraction of the cost of the real McCoy, not to mention iPhones, iPods, and Rolex watches. These wares are not sold out in the open though, since the recent promised gov’t crackdown. For these items, you have to be willing to follow one of the many guys with pictures or flyers depicting their “high quality” designer goods, or those simply sporting this season’s must have Burberry satchel on their shoulders, looking perfectly natural. We’ve not been brave enough to follow the knock-off scent yet, but I can feel my resistance ebbing away.

Anyway, after making a few purchases at The Bazaar, sharpening our haggling skills in the process, we jumped on the subway back to Pudong. The Shanghai subway is gorgeous, clean, well-lit, air-conditioned, and cheap. It’s about a twenty minute ride back to the Crowne Plaza, but then we proceed to misread the map and walk about a mile in the opposite direction. Eventually we make it back by taxi, I konk out, and my beloved goes foraging for food.