Friday, January 23, 2009

shanghai, aka the city in which I ate the same thing every day

I arrived in Shanghai at 7:20 am on a gray and foggy Thursday morning. My hostel was relatively easy to find from the train station via subway, and I was grateful for the hot shower and free breakfast. Thus fortified, I wandered out for a day of exploring.

Shanghai is... different from Beijing. My guidebook had warned me that this would be a different experience from my other travels in China. I mean, it's still CHINA - you have to carry your own t.p. and people still hawk loogies right by your feet every 3.2 seconds - but it has an entirely different vibe. It's a strange blend of the normal Chinese daily life of laundry-strewn alleys and tiny stores that sell a lot of one thing (lace, size negative three skinny jeans, packing supplies) with a much more cosmopolitan, ambitious attitude. The Chinglish signs that cracked me up in Beijing and Xi'An are few and far between, and the people are generally much more well-groomed and immensely coiffed.

Speaking of which, if I may, a brief note on vanity. Although my travels will eventually take me to the jungles of Thailand and the temples of wild Cambodia, thus far I've mostly been in large cities... and if I was visiting, say, New York back home, I would have come armed with the requisite riding boots and skinny jeans and cute winter coat. But here? I'm a hard core backpacker, man. My pants were puchased because they can hold multiple things and they dry fast when laundered, not because they make my butt look good. I've been wearing the same REI polar fleece nearly every day (with different layers underneath, of course... hygiene still matters... sort of). My hair is usually pinned back or pulled into a ponytail. My hostel costs $10/night!

In other words, I'm a total bum. And it is so messing with my head here, particularly in Shanghai, where so many of the women my age look like they stepped out of Vogue (albeit the Asian version). I almost feel like I need to wear a sign that says "hey, I don't always look like this!" The funny thing is, though, I'm finding that I really don't care all that much. The good thing about solo travel is that I'm completely anonymous. I don't know these people. I'm not going to any fancy restaurants or club-hopping. I'm just happy with the fact that I'm comfortable, since I'm walking miles and miles every day.

(still, I miss my riding boots.)

A quick comment on another totally random topic, since this post isn't really following any form. Related to the image issue, it's funny because since I (obviously) look Asian, I find that I'm treated differently from the other tourists here. We may both be wearing REI performance gear and toting a backpack, but since I'm Asian, everyone calls out to me in Mandarin instead of "hello! lady! you want to buy purse? nice purse!" When I look confused and reply apologetically that I'm sorry, I don't understand, they look all offended. WTF, dude? I'm not even Chinese! Can't you see my open copy of Lonely Planet and digital camera that screams "tourist?" And then I find that it's often a blessing in disguise... since they assume I'm Chinese, the asking price for souvenirs starts lower and I'm generally left alone when I'm walking through a crowded market.

It also helps that I've learned a few Mandarin phrases. I'm proud to report that I can now count, say hello and thank you and I'm sorry, summon the waiter, ask for the check, ask for a price and say "that's too expensive!" (so crucial), request the location of the nearest toilet, and, mostly importantly, order multiple steamer baskets of soup dumplings (the food that I ate twice yesterday and once today - the day is still young though) and rice. I also know the words for bus, train station and Korean (to explain why I can't speak Chinese).

Anyway, back to Shanghai. So far I've spent several awesome hours in the Shanghai Museum (during which I coveted nearly every single piece in their ceramic collection, but this is where being unemployed and homeless presents a slight problem), wandered along the Bund whilst contemplating the ambition that compels someone to build such riDICulously tall skyscrapers, watched local Shanghainese going about their lives, window-shopped along East Nanjing Road, perfected my xiaolongbai (soup dumpling) eating technique, had a drink with a Frenchman named Philippe on the 87th floor of the Jinmao Tower (China's tallest building and the fourth tallest in the world, I think) in Pudong, purchased the requisite jade necklace, gotten lost hunting for Internet cafes, purchased a $2 hat at Shanghai's H&M, and logged countless miles on my PUMA sneakers.

I owe you guys some more pictures but that will have to wait until I have a USB connection. My Great Wall experience was... hard to put into words. We went to a less-touristy section called Simatai, and were rewarded with a wall experience that went above and beyond my already-high expectations. We pretty much had the wall to ourselves and spent three or four hours hiking along the wall, climbing endless steps, soaking in the once-in-a-lifetime view, counting how many watch towers we could see, enjoying the rare day of sunshine and imagining the sheer number of people it must have taken to build the wall. I even went for a jog along the wall, just to say that I had.

I leave tomorrow morning for Hangzhou on my fourth Chinese train... more to come soon!

Oh, and I just heard from the English guy sitting next to me that apparently the Chinese government censored out part of Barack Obama's inauguration speech on Chinese TV channels and Internet connections, so now I'm dying to know what I may have missed out on. Time to go find the text!


  1. I think it is "xiao long bao".... so delicious.

    My guess is that your other favorite comment is "tai gui le"

  2. I stayed in the Jinmao Tower (the Grand Hyatt) when I was there last May. (Ah, the life of a consultant.) It's nice to see the different sides of China...