Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia: Sleepwalking the Mekong

After visiting Siam Reap and the Angkor Wat, I rode a small wooden boat to the city of Battambang. I was taken by surprise: I basically didn't know anything about the Mekong or the people who live on it, and found the journey completely fascinating. The Mekong is a river that also flows through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In Cambodia, the water level varies immensely depending on the time of the year, routinely flooding vast areas in shallow water. So small villages and houses are built on stilts, or more commonly floats, to accommodate the change in water level.

While the river was pretty continuously populated, there were parts that, as far as I could tell, had absolutely no land anywhere in site. There was a fair amount of green from brush and trees and water-plants, but no solid land at all, the only place to set foot would be the small groups of floating houses.

In fact, there were small boats just for the livestock to live on. Usually this was chicken, although I saw pigs as well, with special floating pigpens.

As could be imagined, there were boats everywhere, usually just small hand-paddled canoes. While it may not look it from the small picture up top, the boat to Battambang was about half tourists, half river people. Our boat didn't dock for these river people, or even come to a full stop. Instead, their family would pull up a canoe alongside the boat, and they then hopped overboard. It all happened surprisingly quickly.

It's impossible for me to fully imagine living like this. For one thing, there's not going to be much to eat besides fish, and maybe water-vegetables? Actually there were a number of trader-boats going up the river, selling oil, bananas, and basic staples – it can be seen a little in the following picture:

Also, life there must be so immensely boring. Basically every single kid waved at our boat as it passed by, there was a lot of mutual gawking going on. I imagine that larger boats passing by is about as eventful as things get:

The river changed character as it got closer to Battambang, narrowing substantially. Much of this area was the center of village life, with small shacks on both sides of the river.

There were still constant small boats going from one side to the other, and a lot of people in boats were net-fishing or going about other business:

So, that's an amazing journey that everybody should do sometime in their life. Battambang itself isn't a highlight of Cambodia, and basically the whole town is lights out by 8:30 pm, but there's things to enjoy. For one, a few nice temples:

And there's a very interesting wet market, in the center of town, they also sell snack foods and the blended fruit drinks I love. After a positive experience in Chiang Mai with a one-day cooking school, I tried one again, from a restaurant called The Smoking Pot – it wasn't nearly as good a school, but it gave a fun chance to explore the market, and I'd recommend it. Here's some vegetables, very colorful:

And here's a lady skinning frogs, for our class! The secret is to cut the head off first, then just peel the skin back.

That's all I'll have to say about Cambodia for now, but visiting was a great experience. I really hope to go back and explore the country more thoroughly.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Red Town

Red Town is the name of an art-park/museum/shopping area immediately off Hongqiao Subway Station, at 568 Huaihai Xi Lu. Hongqiao is a district in the Western part of town, it's a popular area for expats to live, particularly expats from Japan or Korea – many Japanese like to live in gated, Japanese-only communities! I haven't been to the area very often, mostly because there's nothing much exciting to the area except the airport and some expat-oriented restaurants, and Shanghai's expat restaurants are a total joke. Furthermore, the subway doesn't go to the most interesting food streets of Hongqiao, and I'm not motivated enough to take a taxi.

Red Town, by contrast, is located just a couple minute's walk west of the Subway station. As I mentioned, there's an art-park, one of several art-parks located around Shanghai, mostly in expat areas. Basically, they're parks with outdoor sculptures set up. I'm not a great judge of sculpture, but I find these to be lightweight fun:

These sculptures continue on in a free sculpture museum adjoining the park. The sculptures there are in much the same whimsical vein, maybe they're a little more fragile and couldn't be kept outside:

There's a couple of cafes in the complex, as well as small shops selling things like art supplies or art books. There's also a club called Sugar, I've never been a visitor, but I went inside and had a look while they were shooting cheesecake promotional pictures:

Red Town can't be called a highlight of Shanghai, but it's convenient to get to and it's worth dropping by the sculpture museum, which is open 10-5 every day but Monday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fude Xiaolong

I'm on a spiritual quest to find the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai, and like all spiritual quests, it never really ends. I started out thinking Fu Chun was the best xiaolongbao to be found in Shanghai, but ever since first visiting Delongguan, I sort of waver between which of the two has the best xiaolongbao. Well, for now I have a new favorite, and that would be Fude Xiaolong, in the east side of the Hongkou District.

That wouldn't be the most central of locations. But really, it's just a ten minute walk from line #4's Dalian Station to get there – walk three blocks northwest of the Station, to Dongyuhang Lu, then walk four blocks southwest, a little past Gongping Lu, to 862 Dongyuhang Lu – it's maybe a little quicker, walking south from #4's Linping Lu Station. But that would require skipping Dongyuhang Lu - east of Fude Xiaolong, the road is totally crazy, a packed super-local market street that I love. Also nearby are the old Jewish ghetto, a bunch of old houses, and Xia Hai Temple, they're OK and I'll probably have a later update about them, but they just can't compare to this:

The restaurant is definitely on the hole-in-the-wall side of things, in a hole-in-the-wall sort of area. But given that, it's actually pretty spacious, large, and clean. In addition to the xiaolongbao, at six for four kuai (about sixty cents), it serves noodles and won-tons and the like. There's no drinks, so get them at the convenience store on the nearby corner.

The xiaolongbao are my current favorite, and I've had more than my fair share of xiaolongbao! The skin, if not delicate, isn't spongy, and dissolves in the mouth. The meat inside, while more substantial than I usually prefer, is still so very smoothly ground and so very tasty. And best of all, the insides are totally swimming in soup! There's no sweetness to any of it, and the vinegar is of a good strength.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia: Angkor Wat

While I wasn't in Cambodia for as long as I'd have liked, of course I had to visit Angkor – with the famous stone temples that are the only remnant of the sprawling capital city of the powerful Khmer Empire, from a thousand years ago. It was a bizarre but interesting bus ride from the capital city of Phnom Penh. Two lanes the whole way through, the road seemed to be some kind of center to Cambodian village life – it passed through village centers, frequently punctuated by wedding ceremonies held directly against the road. Also noteable were all the water buffaloes, even directly across the river from Phnom Penh's city center. There were occasional rest-stops, which were just big dirt fields with local bazaars set up, for all the busses.

I won't have much to say about the actual temple complexes. They were stone and beautiful. The scale of it all was crazy - in particular, the central Angkor Wat is amazingly large, and furthermore is surrounded by a quarter-mile-wide moat. They're located somewhat apart from each other, maybe a five minute to half-hour drive from one to the next. The thing to do is to rent a tuk-tuk driver for the day. Anyway, here's a few favorite pictures – it was really dark and grey for most of my time there, which certainly didn't help for photographing old stone temples that tended to be dark and grey.

Siam Reap is a city nearby to all these temples, it's evolved as the jumping-off point. It's obviously a total tourist spot, and usually I hate that sort of thing, but maybe having been in Shanghai for so long I appreciated the conveniences – there were great import groceries, foreign bookstores, foreigner bars, and a selection of both foreign and Cambodian restaurants, aimed at clueless foreigners. One I went to had a free dance show. I'm sure it was totally cheesy if you knew anything about Cambodian dance, but as a casual tourist I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jinxian Lu

Jinxian Lu is a short street in downtown Shanghai that, all things considered, is the best street in Shanghai. It's located a few blocks north of the Huangpi Nan Lu Subway station. I suppose it's also possible to get there by walking south along Maoming Lu from the Nanjing Xi Lu train station, for ten or fifteen minutes.

The quite obvious highlight of the street is the food. Some of the restaurants I've talked about before, like the homestyle Shanghainese restaurants Chun and Lan Xin, which are two of my favorite restaurants in Shanghai. And some other restaurants I hope to talk about in the future – say, the Shanghainese restaurant Hai Jin Zi, or the foreigner favorite Southern Barbarian, a Yunanese restaurant tucked inside a strange art mall. However I imagine there's others I'll never get around to. I'll mention them briefly, but really I recommend people go to this street whenever they feel they might be hungry, and just try everything.

At a quick look, the street isn't entirely impressive. There's lots of hanging laundry, and older medium-grade apartment buildings. While there is an art mall, for the most part the buildings are underwhelming, and the storefronts are small & recessed, occupying the first story.

I've heard the bottom dropped out of China's art scene recently, and maybe that explains why currently about half the stores in the street's art mall seem to be vacant - or maybe not, the art always seemed so cheesy, I have a hard time believing it was ever a part of any genuine art scene. Southern Barbarian is tucked away inside this mall. Surpringly enough, there's also a store which openly sells a lot of marijuana pipes, and there's a mysterious smell...these people are begging to get sent off to a re-education camp!

While I mention the restaurants, there's also a large number of fashion design boutiques along Jinxian Lu. They look whimsical, and perhaps it's not the most prestigious address for clothes, but I'm guessing they're worth a browse. Personally, I'm too tall to seriously consider buying clothes in China, and it kind of falls outside my radar, anyway they're mostly for women.

A number of stores sell old Shanghai antiques, mostly furniture. It would be really fun, if really expensive, to have a house decorated like some 1930s movie set:

There's a few European-type restaurants: the OK café/restaurant Bliss, the well-reviewed but expensive Italian restaurant Osteria, and the café/restaurant Citizen. I go to Citizen occasionally for a drink before or after a meal. The drinks aren't anything special, but it's a pleasant place to get a coffee or a cocktail, with a kind of lounge-ish atmosphere. They also serve Italian food, which I haven't tried.

Pier 39 sells food of a reasonably authentic North-Californian variety. It competes with Hai Jin Zi as the best-rated (by taste) restaurant on the street, according to Chinese foodie website Personally I think that's crazy, but I won't deny that the sandwiches are good, I particularly like the different breads which can be chosen from. They also have very good pastas and salads, and a clam chowder which is a little weak, but comes in a lunch special, alongside a sandwich, for around sixty kuai. It's a small restaurant, and I've heard that recently it's become extremely difficult to get a table.

Qing Mai Heaven describes itself as Thai food, and similarly, a pizza with ham and pineapple on it might be called Hawaiian food. But despite having almost no relationship to the sort of food found in Thailand (I'd call it "whimsical Chinese"), I still think the food manages to be decent. Additionally, the service is friendly, and the interior is incredibly packed but attractive. For a group of people wanting a good meal, they'd be crazy to pass over Chun or Lan Xin, just across the street. But for an individual diner, the lunch specials are about 30 kuai and worth checking out, although unfortunately the lunch specials menu is only in Chinese. This place will often have a line of Chinese customers.

While Lan Xin, Chun, and Hai Ji Zi are, once again, three of the very best restaurants in Shanghai, there's three more small home-style Shanghainese restaurants, in the 50-100 kuai range: Mao Long, at #134, Rui Fu Yuan, at #221, and One Family, at #128.

Finally, there's a branch of Lomography at #126, it's a company that produces or promotes toy cameras (called “idiot cameras” in Chinese), and then sells them at inflated prices – it's cheaper to buy off the Internet, or at Snaps Shop. The idiot cameras they sell are still a lot of fun, with the Holga N being the pick of the litter. There's a small gallery upstairs, and sometimes I'll have a look around. They also sell ISO 800 film, which is very difficult to find in Shanghai.

Just around the corner from all this food, on Changle Lu near Shaanxi Nan Lu, is foreign-language bookstore, Garden Books & Cafe. It's a good place to browse, and their excellent ice cream & sorbets sell at nine kuai, as a takeaway price. Mysteriously enough, it's much more expensive if you want to eat inside. Sometimes I'll get a scoop after a nice meal. There's twenty flavors or so, my favorite is when they have the ginger ice cream!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ruan Lingyu's Home

Ruan Lingyu was a silent-movie star from Shanghai's 1930 cinema - she's the most well-known actress from the era. She injected drama into roles that were honestly usually very silly and slight, and she stood up to the task when she starred in "The Goddess," generally recognized as one of the best films of early Chinese cinema. She's also well known for her sad life, which led to her eventual suicide at the age of 24 - really a lot of actresses from the era ended up as tragic figures.

I've brought up "The Goddess" before - it can be watched freely off the Internet, I think it's worth a look. Still, while I think she was a good actress and I enjoy watching older Shanghai movies, I never considered myself an obsessive fan. At the least, I'd never considered making a pilgramage to sights associated with Ruan Lingyu. Still, that's exactly what I did recently, and I'll post a few pictures.

The site was her old house at #9 Xinzha Lu, it's inside the Qinyuan Village apartments. Ruan Lingyu lived there from early on in her stardom, until her eventual suicide. The apartment is nothing spectacular now, certainly it doesn't look like the residence of a film star, or of the many other prominent artists who lives there. However, it must have been more impressive back in the day - for one, the apartment has since been sub-divided into multiple living spaces, like a lot of older Shanghai residences.

It's still an interesting, if unspectacular, place to look around, with a few architectual flourishes.

Getting there isn't too difficult: It's a five or ten minute walk north from the Plaza 66 mall, on the north side of Xinzha Lu, between Changhua Lu and Jiangning Lu. Despite being very central towards downtown development, there's a number of other older-style buildings in the area: