Sunday, September 18, 2011

China -- Day 10

Subtitled: Peanut butter, (More) Retail Therapy, Oh What a Skyline and Solving the Baggage Crisis

After nearly 10 ½ hours of sleep last night, I hit the breakfast buffet and was excited to see cereal on the menu here, as well as peanut butter. Peanut butter is something I’d started craving about 2 days ago and I made sure to indulge. After a large glass of OJ and two cups of coffee, we were off for a very long day in Shanghai.

Our first stop was the French Concession. Here we saw the spot where the Chinese Communist Party first met and walked around to enjoy the very quiet (hey, it was 8:30 a.m.) tree-lined neighborhood. Who knew that such pretty trees were grown in the center of a large city? The architecture seemed to be a sort of fusion of a bit western and asian. We walked through some narrow streets and areas with shops and restaurants. I indulged in a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. I figured I’d made it this far with my digestive system in tact, might as well risk it all on the last day.

Our next stop was a silk factory. I’d been a bit indifferent about the silk stop, and I think many can attest to the fact that I had no interest in buying anything. Well, my Bank of America Mastercard was left a puddle of melted plastic there. After looking at all the hard work that goes into harvesting the cocoon and how they meld the single threads into eight more more to get something durable, and how the cocoons are stretched, well, who wouldn’t want to support all that effort? In the end, I bought a silk comforter and duvet set, a silk jacket and a silk blouse, plus a couple of table runners for home. Good lord, my luggage crisis (you might remember I was 6 pounds over coming from Chengdu) just went into DEFCON 3. But I’d worry about that later.

After I bounced the Chinese economy further through the roof, we moved on to The Bund. Driving in from the airport last night I could see that Shanghai was different than any place else we had been so far. Despite being utterly exhausted, I was sort of excited by the fact that I was in another of the world’s greatest cities. Stanley said that Beijing is China’s history and Shanghai is its future. That much is pretty obvious. This area is notable because the buildings on one side of the river are all old and established, and face the slap in the face contrast of the financial district across the river, all flashy brand new skyscrapers that seem to all have once been the tallest buildings in the world. I love this. I love big cities. I love gorgeous skylines. I love nice, sunny, warm autumn day. So today I was hitting the jackpot on all counts. The skyline here is incredible. It is also less than 30 years old and because it was built on farmland is also already sinking. But that won’t stop the Chinese, who are actively building what will be (when it is done) the world’s tallest building. Until another is built to top that.

A side note about all this construction: I mentioned earlier all the cranes I was seeing. As we left the hotel this morning and drove down a block nearby that tended to be mostly residential and light commercial, Stanley said that the entire block was being taken for new construction. “Come back in two years and this will all be very tall buildings,” he said. I have to wonder what that does to the morale of citizens to constantly be displaced for things like Olympic stadiums, river gorges and skyscrapers.

Anyway, my favorite buildings were the tv tower, which looks like three fuschia colored pearls stuck on an upright pole, if that makes sense and one building they call the bottle opener, because it has an opening at the top that looks like could pop the cap off a beer.

Our next stop would be lunch. This would be the most accessible meal we’ve had so far, with either dishes we’ve had several times and tolerated well on this trip, or actual dishes we’ve had in Chinese restaurants at home. I wish I could remember specifics, I know the tomato and egg dish returned, which we all devoured. But after a while one lazy susan filled with 20 dishes starts to blend in with another. I ate happily, but Linda and I still found room for a Magnum ice cream bar afterwards.

After the Jinsha Museum experience in Chengdu, which was right after lunch and left most of us in a coma, we were afraid we would suffer the same fate at the Shanghai Museum. To the contrary, this ended up being one of the most amazing museums I have visited. It is logically split into sections for paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, coins. As Ping Ping, our local guide (who was with us for the first three stops then disappeared at the museum never to be seen again) suggested, I started at the top floor and worked down. We were given only 75 minutes on our own, so I made a point to see the Chinese painting and calligraphy first, and that ate up nearly 40 minutes. I could easily have spent a half day here, but instead had to speed walk through the porcelain (I loved the Ming dynasty porcelain) and the bronze work. I absolutely adored the calligraphy section though, which traced how the art of writing Chinese characters changed with each dynasty. There were actually artists who were considered masters of this art and it showed. It was all just beautiful.

Next we moved on to the Yuyuan Garden, which is the best example of southern Chinese style gardens. Stanley did a great job explaining to us the elements of feng shui here, like putting a large stone in between the entrance and the courtyard to keep the energy in; making foot bridges zig and zag “to keep things interesting”, how rocks were meant to look like clouds or mountains or both, so that visitors could feel like they are escaping to a different part of the world when they visited the garden. It really did evoke a peaceful atmosphere, but for the throngs of crowds parading through it. I think I’d go back early in the day to try to see it less crowded. If I were staying here and had more time, that is…

Stanley surprised us next and took us to a Chinese tea tasting ceremony. This was in a small teahouse upstairs in the neighborhood near the garden and it had a spectacular view of the skyline from up there. The tea ceremony was nice because we got to sample about 6 teas we hadn’t had, and it was all prepared by a tea master who knew how to properly steep and pour the tea. Personally I liked the lychee black tea the best but I’m not really a tea drinker to begin with, so I didn’t know what was “good” and what wasn’t. It was a nice surprise from Stanley and I think we all enjoyed it.

We were allowed to roam around for about an hour before dinner. This was sort of unusual because I felt like we’d really been kept on a short leash most of the tour. What was funny was that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t really want to shop, was running low on batteries for the camera (seriously, about 1500 shots this trip!) and was just mentally on overload. So I did what any other girl in my situation would do, I went to Starbucks and bought an iced hibiscus mango tea and then to McDonald’s and ate a cheeseburger. In one day, all food cravings were satisfied!

That snack did not stop me, however, from eating with the group at our farewell dinner. The restaurant was right outside the garden and we knew we were in for a good meal when we saw photos that proved that both Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton ate there. Now there’s a pair of fascinating diners! This would be our last lazy susan meal and it was quite good. Now that the best part of the trip is over, I got a little more risky in what I ate, so I tried some seafood in the form of crystal shrimp and sweet and sour fish. I’d purposely avoided seafood and meat most of the trip just in case it made me sick, so now was the time to catch up. There was a spicy chicken and cashew dish that was great and a smokey sweet bean dumpling that was interesting. Stanley bought us another bottle of red wine, this one a bit sweeter than the last, and it was delicious.

Stanley rounded us up and piled us on the bus for one last time. He told us sincerely that we were a great group and he enjoyed his time with us. He says he doesn’t say that to every group, but who knows. I think for the most part we were a great group. I had fun and learned something from everyone and certainly enjoyed mucking out cages and snarking it up with them. Some of us hit the bar in the hotel for one more drink, but not before I stopped in the lobby shop and paid $35 for a second checked bag. There was no way I was going to make it with all this stuff and one suitcase without either paying serious overage or doing the “redistribute and rebalance your dirty laundry at the check-in counter” dance. This way it’s all going home, I’ll just have to pay to check a second bag.

So now I’m packed and ready to go, except for what I’ll be throwing out tomorrow and the electronics that are charging.  But damn, I just looked it up and an extra checked bag on United is $200?  Maybe this expense will curb my trip shopping in the future!!

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