Friday, October 21, 2005

I am a Tourist: Suzhou

It's turning into Fall, and I'm worried about the Shanghai Winter. People tell me it's just horrible, all cold and windy. So I'm trying to take full advantage of the good weather while I have it. Last Thursday was a nice day and I didn't have any work or school, so I decided to take a trip to Suzhou, a famous tourist city that's about sixty miles from Shanghai - it's no relation to the Suzhou River I mentioned earlier.

I decided to take the bus there, and the train back. The bus was no problem, no matter how much of a bother it was to get to the Jiading. The bus ride was about an hour long. The only real hassle was, right after the bus got going, I was called about going to a job interview later that day! I was able to schedule for Friday and I consoled myself by watching the oddball movie "Once a Thief" on the TV screens - we only got to the halfway mark, though.

Looking out the window on the way there, you notice that Shanghai doesn't have the extensive suburbs that California has, and almost immediately outside the city you come across farming villages. A lot of these small cities seem to be built around canals, even though Shanghai doesn't have much of that.

Suzhou has two million people, and six million people in the metropolis area, but it still felt more like these smaller towns to me. I walked a couple miles from the Southern bus station to the tourist area, and it was mostly smaller-scale buildings, with much fewer people on the streets than Shanghai. Canals and rivers are all about, the water generally seems pretty clean, and the houses are often built up right againt the water.

Suzhou is most known for the ancient Chinese Gardens. I decided to start at the Garden of the Master of Nets, which the Lonely Planet Guidebook and Chinese sources consider better than all Suzhou's other garderns, combined. Even though the garden was at the end of an alleyway, there was still the familar row of tourist stores.

The initial view of the garden was a small lake, looked over by traditional-looking buildings. It was small but everything felt very well-placed.

Also the garden had a cool collection of weirdly formed rocks. Some of the rocks here look like they're multiple rocks glued together or something. This and a similar sense of whimsy is common to Chinese gardens.

But I must admit I didn't so much care for the garden. Maybe it was too small, or maybe because all the internal halls don't hold much interest for me.

Compared with Shanghai, the streets of Suzhou look a lot more traditional and stereotypically Chinese, but perhaps the city is too large to be called charming. Like a US city, many parts of the main ways are dominated by car traffic, with pedestrians a little rare. It's a nice contrast to the international/post-modern look to Shanghai architecture, but it's not a city I'd want to live in. In fairness, though, there was a street scene around this massive Taoist temple.

From there I headed to the North End of the City. I had a look at another garden, the Garden of Harmony, which is a bit rococo in its multiple stylings. It was larger than the Master of Nets Garden, although there wasn't the sweet spot you look for in these gardens - points where you can stand, look around, and think the surroundings have been arranged, placed, and plotted with the care of a master painter. It did have plenty of nice smaller views, though.

I also thought the Guardian Lions were cool-looking. I guess I'm not the only one who thought so, as they don't just guard the gates, but various random points around the Garden.

And I'm a sucker for koi fish. Some of the fish here were incredibly large. This kid fed them some rice.

Anyway it was too short a day-trip and there's still a lot of things I didn't see in Suzhou - I'll leave that for some other time! I finished off my visit by wandering around a waterfront park, and then I took the train back to Shanghai. It's the first time I've taken a train in China, and I thought it was very convenient and cheap, although the train-station was a bit of a madhouse.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Street Dealers

China has the least effective Communism imaginable. In Shanghai, along with the abundance of people around you at any given moment, or the construction happening all around you, you're likely to be surrounded by commerce. This isn't just from the shops that line the streets in residential and commercial districts, but also from shops that overflow onto the street, or set up on the sidewalk, or stake a position inside the walls of my apartment complex (yes it does have walls - a concession to traditional architecture I guess).

All sorts of things are being sold. Some of it reminds you of what you'd buy on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, little trinkets like bead necklaces. The difference is that instead of being sold by hippies in Tibetan clothes, it's being sold by Tibetans in Tibetan clothes. In this case, though, I believe the lady on the far left is Uighur. They're Shanghai's most visible internal minority, Muslims hailing from North-Western China.

Other things couldn't be bought on Telegraph Avenue. It's currently Blue Crab season in Shanghai, and this dealer has staked out a position on a major street, not all that far from a subway station. The crabs are still alive and are constantly in motion, sometimes crawling out onto the street before he nabs them. When you buy one, he'll tie it up, still alive, for you to take home.

A lot of the dealers sell seasonal fruits. They're a popular snack, although a good percentage of the time I'm not so familiar with the fruit, or haven't even seen them before! Some of the time when I try them I realize I have had them before, but the Western versions are a little different. Some small green-skinned citruses looked vaguely like limes but turned out to be Tangerines, aka Mandarin Oranges. These dealers are everywhere and a lot of the times the stalls are portable, stopping off at a popular spot for a few minutes, and then going somewhere else when street traffic dies down or business slows. This lady, for instance, sells from the back of a bicycle cart.

To me it looks a little feudal, but you'll more commonly see people carry baskets of fruits on their shoulders, with the backets connected by a pole. This seller sells peaches - note that they're indivisually packaged, and tastier than anything you'll find at Albertson's. Usually, though, one basket will contain one kind of fruit, and the other basket another.

Some other popular snacks are kebabs, usually sold by Uighurs. They're more commonly sold from barbequeus on the street, not a shop-side-stall like this. This place is also selling Uighur-style breads. Side-stalls like this are the normal place to buy manapuas and various steamed breads. They'll also sell sweet Soy Milk, which is a Shanghai specialty.

Of course all kinds of things are being sold. Some popular items I won't show photographs of include newspaper stalls (there aren't newspaper boxes, like in the US), bootleg DVDs, and dealers selling fake Rolex watches - although they supposedly take you to a back alley-shop, and don't actually sell on the street.

A recent trend in Shanghai is pets of all kinds, with small dogs and cats being the most popular. I've heard the pets are often abandoned, people not knowing what's involved in raising a pet. It's true you see stray cats in parks or around the neighborhood. The pets I've seen have always seemed overly pampered, though.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

American Fast Food

Yes of course they have McDonald's over here.

I'm in China and I guess I'm supposed to be experiencing the famous cuisine as often as possible, but that hasn't quite happened. Going out to eat can be a little intimidating over here, where the menus and talking to the waiters are all entirely in Chinese, I don't know all the foods on the menu, and people expect you to order at right about the time you sit down. Also I must admit, it's very easy to find a good meal for $2, but I'm having a hard time finding a great meal no matter how much I pay. So in the end I'm settling for fast food a couple times a week.

Fast food is common to Shanghai. Depending where you go - around the city center or the Xujiahui shopping area, fast food is everywhere, literally one after the other. On the other hand, the crowded residential area I live in has plenty of restaurants and stores, but only one fast food restaurant, a KFC about a 10 or 15 minute walk fom my apartment.

KFC was supposedly the first to arrive in China, and is by far the most popular fast food over here. It costs about half as much as in the US. The emphasis is on the chicken burgers rather than fried chicken, and it has some traditional Shanghai breakfast congee or something, but it's mostly the same as KFC in the US. The portions aren't always the same size though - this cup of mashed potatoes isn't much larger than a shot glass. They don't serve Diet Coke, and I've lost my taste for normal Coke, so I'm forced to drop by a convenience store beforehand - life is hard.

McDonald's is #2 in popularity, and seems to have an almost exclusively teenage following. Depending which one you go to, it can feel something like crashing the junior prom. The concept is the same but the menu is about half different from the United States - among other things they serve shrimp mcnuggets and triangular sandwiches. I don't like McDonald's and my only reason for going is that they serve poi pie. Or at least I call it that, it's really Taro pie, slightly sweet and chunky. But it still has the pleasant purple-ish grey color. A value meal costs about $2.00. Update Jan 14, 2006 - these are now available at McDonald's in Hawai'i as well.

The other big chain is Pizza Hut, which I've never gone to. It markets itself as a somewhat upscale family chain restaurant, maybe the equivalent to an Olive Garden in the US. I've heard most Shanghainese think it's Italian, and maybe to play off this, the waiters dress in clothes that I guess are supposed to be traditional Italian clothes - really billowy pseudo-silk.

There's a few other chains that have recently put up stakes in Shanghai. They only have a couple branches but I assume they're testing the waters for more expansion. Taco Bell has gone the Pizza Hut route, and is the more upscale Taco Bell Grande over here. There's only a single location, but it's right near the City Center. It's actually a decent place, and pretty much the only game in town if you want passable Mexican food. The $7 price tag for lunch keeps me from going regularly, although it's almost worth it to see the Chinese waiters wear their goofy attempts at Mexican clothes (including brim-less sombreros), and greet customers with a friendly "Hola!"

Orange Julius/Dairy Queen has a couple of chains around town. I hadn't been to Orange Julius in years and years and forgot that they're actually pretty good. On the other hand, for the same $2.50 their Julius costs, I can get a 4-course meal at a local restaurant. So I only go when I'm feeling my most Capitalist. And Burger King opened in Shanghai just recently, and has two locations that are both pretty convenient, and exactly like the US versions. It's my favorite American fast food restaurant.

One surprise is that as popular as American fast food is, there isn't really a Chinese take at it, the way France has Quik Burger, or Japan has Mos Burger. There's plenty of local Chinese-food chains, I go to the Taiwanese chain Yong He Da Wang more than any burger place. I also have favorite crack seed chains and manapua chains. But If you want hamburgers, they're pretty much only sold at McDonald's. That's probably a good thing.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I am a Tourist: Jiading

I very much enjoy Shanghai. Really. I'm committed to living here, with no plans to leave. And I genuinely appreciate Shanghai's transportation system, where the subway is easy, and taxis are a cheap supplement when you're headed to the outskirts of town, or when you're just feeling lazy.

At the same time, three months of never venturing more than a mile from a Shanghai Subway Station was getting to me. From what I understand, there's more to China than just that. So with the week-long National Nationalist Holiday and all, I decided to make a quick day trip to a neighboring town. I decided against the booming neighboring cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, which are historically famous tourist destinations - they're a little too far, and probably far too packed with Holiday tourists. So I decided on visiting the city of Jiading, just 12 miles Northwest of Shanghai, along with my apartment-mate. Jiading is not particularly a tourist destination for either Chinese or foreigners, and that was part of the attraction.

It's my first time taking a bus in China, and I'd love to report it's vastly efficient and got us there in record time. Instead, it took about an hour and a half to reach the destination. A little arithmetic gives a speed of 8 miles an hour, or a pretty slow speed for an express bus. To be fair, it was during a holiday. But I think the problem is China doesn't quite share America's system of large highways going every which way. Most of our journey was on side streets (competing with the pedestrians in the road), or on stretches of farm road with a 25mph speed limit, where the older tractors on the road used a lever system to turn left or right, a little like a Model T. If the bus had actually stopped for red lights, it would have taken even longer - instead the driver just leaned on the horn and plowed through, without slowing down.

On the other hand, this transportation-isolation does allow Jiading to maintain its own identity, instead of being absorbed into Shanghai. Streets are wider, and have a more laid-back feel than anywhere in Shanghai, with enough space to accomodate pedestrians. This is particularly true in the historic center of town, which is cented around a large pagoda and bordered by a canal.

We ended up going to Wei restaurant, a Japanese-Korean place. Like every other good Korean restaurant I've been to, the service was slow and slightly odd - when I ordered some Katsu, they went down to the market to buy some pork! Afterwards we wandered the area. The Canals are criss-crossed by a number of bridges, and the whole area is host to a lot of restaurants, shops selling clothes, and street vendors selling jewelry or snacks.

A lot of the traditional architecture remains. This includes Shikumen, a traditional style of brick apartment complex centered around courtyards, placed right against the canals. To me it seems like the area should be prime real-estate, but a lot of the houses are poorly maintained.

Finally I wandered the Dragon Meeting Pond, a 450 year old Garden. Although we walked in to a couple taking their wedding photos, the garden seemed to be mostly empty. It has a central pool and is generally very likeable - Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai might be nicer, but all the tour groups there bug me. The people at Dragon Pond seemed to be taking it mellow, with some kids playing and adults fishing.

We took the long bus ride back, arriving at the Shanghai Stadium just in time to catch masses of teenage girls lining up to get into the "Super Girl" concert, which celebrates the top 12 competitor's of China's answer to "American Idol." I didn't go, but I enjoyed taunting the un-talented, un-cute winner.

All in all it was a fun trip. However, the moral of the story is, next time I travel outside of Shanghai, it'll be by train!

A few other issues: First, please realize that if you click the pictures on this blog you'll see a larger, full-size picture. Also, don't believe the hype about Chinese censorship - it exists and it's terrible, but it's not a hundredth as bad as US Newspapers make it sound. More political blogging can be found in China. Also, my 510 number is now much, much improved, plus it now auto-forwards to my home phone or cell. Let it ring five or six times, though. Hope to hear from y'all - from California or Hawai'i it's best to call me at night, or use World Clock to check the local time.