Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One Day in Bangkok - Chao Phraya River

I've had a lot of posts about India. That wasn't the end of the trip though. I had a connecting flight in Thailand, so I opted to drop by and check out the city for a day and a half. I loved it, and thought it was amazingly photogenic, despite the intermittent gloomy skies. I'll have a few posts about what I saw there.

This first post is about the Chao Phraya River. It winds its way through Bangkok, acting as a tourist, historic, religious, and commercial center to the city. There's a series of river taxis, which are full of tourists, working class, and a few Buddhist monks (who get free transport). There's also private tourist boats, large and small, here's a small one:

There's about fifteen stops along the river, it's a pretty convenient system. The inconvenience is that the boats are few and far between. I waited more than twenty minutes, it wouldn't be so bad except for the hot sun coming out, while I waited on the pier. This station has a little roof, they aren't all so Thai looking. I expect the nice new building gets a nice new station:

I don't know about tides, or what's normal, but some of the stations I used were flooded. There was a pathway of sandbags to cross, which kept my feet partially dry. Some of the houses I passed by were similar, with their ground level half-flooded. I saw people standing out back of their houses, hanging clothes or whatever, in six inches of water!

I walked alongside the river for a while - in fairness, only a very few houses were flooded like this. It was mostly older style of houses, nothing fancy, I found the area very charming.

Here's another picture of that:

I mentioned the Buddhist monks get free transportation on the river taxis. That especially comes into play because of all the large old Buddhist temples alongside the river. I'll have more to say about that later, these temples are among the most amazing I've ever seen, and there's one after the other. In the meantime, check out both the beautiful high-roofed temple in the background, and the cargo ship in the foreground:

Obviously the boats aren't very big, and lot of the bridges across the river have a very, very low clearing. But the sheer quantity of the boats is dizzying, the immediate reaction is wondering how they go more than five minutes without crashing into each other.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Email Fashion Plaza

Email Fashion Plaza is an underground shopping mall near my apartment. I don't want to focus on the name, but there's no getting around that it's very strange. It's not like there's an Internet Cafe right at the hub of the shopping center. Maybe the shopping center was opened at a time when the concept of e-mail seemed high-tech and cool?

This photo shows just of part of its great location: across the street from Jing'an Temple and the foreigner grocery story next door, near a bunch of office buildings, adjoining a subway station, next to a park. On the other hand, getting there from the street involves going down a bunch of stairs. It's not a big deal, but it discourages casual street traffic.

A discovery, New York Style Pizza! I went to another branch of the same chain once, it's pretty forgettable, and only vaguely in a New York style. A bummer - when I briefly lived in NYC I was pretty down on the food, pizza was a notable exception. I'll give it another chance someday. There's also a series of booths and tables at the base of the plaza, people stop and have a soda or a snack from the outside booths. In warmer weather it can be fairly crowded, even now there's a fair number of people.

For a fashionable young woman, I get the idea this would be a very fun place to stroll the aisles. It's one little boutique store after the next, one crowded against the other, in a long series of passageways. I gather some of these are part of smaller fashion chains, and others are the retail centers for independent designers. When I took these photos, it was still Spring Festival time, and were closed for the holiday:

It's not exclusively small boutiques, a lot of stores just sold chintzy knick-knack accessories, same as anywhere else in Shanghai:

There's also a few inside stores that don't have to do with fashion. I don't think I've seen Nutcracker Men anywhere else in the city, but this place has an awesome selection!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The People's Square

People's Square is a large park in the center of Shanghai.

It's not as grand or as large as Central Park in NYC, but that's the obvious comparison. It's bordered on the North by the central shopping street of Nanjing Lu, the Bund is just a little to the East, and the large offices and shopping district on Huaihai Lu is just a little to the South.

It's mostly shops and hotels surrounding the park, including the occasional mega-mall. With the picture on the left, they like to stage a jazz band in front of the New World Mall. The People's Square area was once a rectrack at the center of the concession-era city. Some of the buildings date from that that time, especially alongside Nanjing Lu, where the new and old co-exist quite well. It's about the only place in Shanghai the new and old co-exist quite well.

That picture was taken from a corner of the square, known as the People's Park, just like in Berkeley! It's more paved than the rest of the square, there's crazy statues and sometimes art exhibitions. Below can be seen a kid rollerblading around, I'm proud because it's the first picture I've ever taken with decent panning technique:

There's a few businesses on site, including a second branch of Mac Dog - another Berkeley connection. Its mascot is a blatant rip off of Top Dog, a hot dog shack right off the UC Berkeley campus. But it not longer sells the fancy hot dogs, aside from having a choice of chicken, pork, or beef. It now specializes in sweet dessert drinks. There's also a Starbuck's, it's hard to see the sign in the picture below. But it's worth searching out, the rooftop tables have great views of the park. There's about five Starbuck's within a 1 block radius of the park.

To me the park is defined by pathways, often with benches alongside. It's a place for families and couples to walk around and chill. That's as opposed to Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, which is one massive, flat, concrete pavilion. Or a Western Park, where usually patrons are allowed on the grass, maybe kids can run around and play games. Actually this is the only case I've seen of people on the grass, it must have to do with being Chinese New Year's, and that the grass looks entirely dead anyway.

My old Lonely Planet has an interesting story about that, that the landscaping was done in reaction to the massive rallies held during the Cultural Revolution, making it impossible to have such large demonstrations on the site. Maybe the ralliers wouldn't want to trample the pretty flowers?

There's two buildings that can be seen in the above picture - there's a few large buildings inside the park, all with weird (if complimentary) architecture. The building on the left is for productions of musicals, they had a production of Disney's Lion Kind last year. The building on the right is the city government heaquarters. It's hidden by a tree, but really there's not much to see. Here's another building, a great location and I kind of like the weird looks. However the museum is incredibly boring - it's a Shanghai city planning exhibit!

There's also the Shanghai Museum, I went when I first came to Shanghai, I'll have to go again. I've heard it described as the best history museum in China. There's a fountain in front for kids to play in, on warmer days. People fly kites in the area, just as common is hawkers flying kites, and then trying to sell the kites to people walking by. Also when I first lived in Shanghai, I stayed in a hotel around the corner. I'd cut through the park at night, some of the pathways were evidently sleazy gay pick up spots. I'd get Chinese guys using English pick-up lines like "I like you, you like me?" as I walked through.

Huh, there's also an area which is more designed for the kids. Sometimes there's hosted arts & crafts outside, like painting. There's also carnival type rides, the same as could be seen in the US, such as these bumper cars:

As it's a busy area, there's lots of small shacks for the commuters and the passerbys, like newspapers stands, or small shacks selling quick drinks and food.

Finally, the park has a few bottlenecks, where crossing the road or entering the subway requires using underground tunnels that are too small:

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chinese New Year's TV Spectacular!

Something I've never been subject to, but hear a lot of complaining about, is the Chinese New Year's TV special. From what I understand, essentially every single person in China with access to a TV will spend New Year's at home with family, watching the show. Everybody tells me it's incredibly stupid, but it's a modern tradition, very strange! Maybe because Chinese New Year's is the one time a year the entire family gets together - nobody knows what else to do?

Anyway, the program takes the form of a four hour variety show. It's a little bit of everything, all done live on one big stage, vaguely like the Muppet Show. It's hosted by a man and a woman, the man apparently stole the Puffy Shirt from that Seinfeld episode, although they change costumes every 10 minutes.

The program mostly consisted of two things. First was Broadyway-like stagings of traditional dances, often from Chinese ethnic minorities. I think these costumes shown underneath are takes on Tibetan clothing:

Musical shows put on by ethnic minorities are wildly popular in China. To me the whole phenomena reeks of minstrel shows, but it's probably a pretty non-destructive way to interact with a minority culture, and I'm guessing the singers are tops of their game. There's 55 official ethnic minorities to China, also including Mongolians, Hmong, Koreans, and Eastern Turks. Here's another, it's some more Tibetan clothing:

The second main element was comedy acts. These scenes dragged on and on, or at least they would if I didn't just skip past them. With no commercial breaks to the program, I suspect that was the time everybody got up to get their snacks.

What else? Well there was even more singing and dancing. I had heard about the big pop stars who had signed up, but there wasn't so much of that actually. Here's one:

There was an umbrella dance done by women in qipaos (think "In the Mood for Love"), with a background that I guess is supposed to represent Suzhou, or maybe Hangzhou? Anyway I thought the dance was pretty impressive, if fairly typical of the rest of the program. Here's a Youtube video:

There was a patriotic song, with a bunch of women in camouflage, and a woman with what I'll call a reverse mullet:

That was one of several patriotic songs, there was also a song with gap-toothed children singing about how great China was. That one sucked, and so did the kid's second song...but the second song left both the announcers and the audience in tears! Huh, from the subtitles the song has to do with going to school, but that doesn't sound all that sad to me. Maybe Chinese people hate school?

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous Da Shan, this Canadian who supposedly is the standard token white guy trotted out for Holiday Shows like this. I've actually never seen the guy on TV, I've only heard about him second hand. But he wasn't on the show, the only foreigner was from this odd little bit:

At twelve o' clock a clock came on screen, not-so-subtly imposed with the logo for Midea, a Chinese electronics firm.

There was still half an hour left to the program, it was just as inane as the rest of the show! Well, it did have a go at Beijing Opera:

All in all the program didn't seem as bad as I had anticipated. I can't imagine watching it for four hours straight, though. If for some reason this write up has made you curious to see more, you can watch it the same way as me, as a Bittorrent download. BitComet is a program needed to download a Bittorrent stream. Then the file is encoded as a Real Player file (which I find strange, but is common with Chinese downloads), so you need to either have Realplayer or Real Alternative installed on your computer. All in all, it's probably not worth the hassle!

Oh, and finally, here's an amusing video I came across on Youtube, of Shanghai, one hour after New Year's. Be sure to have sound turned up before playing this video!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Scenes from Delhi

This will be my final talk about India. Actually I won't be talking that much: I wasn't in Delhi that long, and I was still recovering from an illness, and my sister had previously lived in Delhi. So I ended up just being led around the city, snapping pictures as I went.

First is a Hindu temple:

No pictures were allowed inside, of course I can understand. What was strange was that a lot of the attractions allowed photography but charged a drastically higher rate if you wanted to use a video-camera!

Here is an interesting astro-lab, an outdoor structure where astronomical phenomena could be measured by the angles of shadows and so-forth, like that scene where Indiana Jones sees the scale model of the city, but without the lasers. If that sounds dry, it involved a lot of M.C. Escher-esque architectures:

My favorite attraction was the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, now more than eight hundred years old and largely in ruins. Here's a few pictures:

I took this spy shot of a couple walking about the grounds (I've resolved to stop taking spy shots, but in the mean-time I like this one):

And also, there were some brightly-colored tropical birds, I've never seen them outside before! There was also a number of mynah birds to be seen.

It was kind of a bummer, but a lot of the attractions to Delhi were closed when I visited. The government had decided to close unlicensed stores, and in retaliation the entire private sector held a strike. On the other hand, the government runs a sizable percentage of Delhi's businesses,they remained open. It also kept down traffic, Delhi's traffic jams are notorious.

So I didn't get to see everywhere I wanted, but I did end up seeing the beautiful Bahá'í Lotus Temple:

And I ended off the night's explorations by going to Chandni Chowk, a large outdoor shopping area that was mostly open, despite the general strike going on in the city. There was lots of women's clothing to be found, my sister ended up buying some silver jewelries for her wedding!