China Travelogue-5: Last day in Shanghai

Posted in Travel at 16:51 by RjZ

Upon returning from Suzhou, there are a couple of logistical matters to take care of. Tomorrow is the last day in Shanghai and we’re planning on the night train to Huang Shan. Night trains are great. I go for the ‘soft sleeper’ which offers a compartment with only four passengers and a lockable door. The ‘hard sleeper’ isn’t really harder, it just offers less privacy. The difference in price isn’t very dramatic and taking a night train saves the cost of a hotel room, so getting a comfortable rest is worth a few extra Yuan. The train station ticket office is row upon row of windows with long lines, but there is a foreigner window complete with English speaking clerks. No problem at all getting the ticket you’re looking for (so long as it’s available, of course.)

Taking the night train will create an extra challenge though. It’s better to leave town in the morning, otherwise, you’ve got to manage some place to leave your backpack, or be stuck lugging it around with you all day. A quick check at the train station confirms that they have a left luggage office there, which we’ll hit in the morning.

The rest of the night we spend walking around Pudong, the brand new town of bright lights and tall buildings across the river from the rest of Shanghai. The traffic moves slower than walking as people maneuver out of expensive hotels and to ritzy dinners and parties. If the drivers would even consider staying in a lane instead of crowding around like passengers on the subway, things might move a little faster. Instead, tourists wander among the slow moving cars looking straight up at the towering buildings and the Oriental Pearl Tower–symbol of the Shanghai skyline.

264 RMB: train ticket to Huang Shan town.

Next morning, after dropping luggage at the train station for later, it’s time to grab breakfast before visiting the museum. We end up in what is essentially a fast food restaurant where the manager notices the confused westerners looking at the pictures on the menu. She comes out with English menus and after some pointing and guessing, we’ve ordered. The ‘dumpling’ we ordered sure isn’t much like the dumplings we’ve had before. We call the server back for explanation of the stretched out vaguely meaty looking thing floating in the soup. It is, technically, boiled dough, so after a very confused server insists, in her best hand gestures, this is what we’ve ordered, we eat up, at least somewhat confident we didn’t get someone else’s order.

2 RMB: pre-breakfast snack of pancakes from a street vendor.
3 RMB: metro to the train station
20 RMB: left luggage
10 RMB: dumplings and fried bread

The Shanghai history museum has a fairly typical collection of artifacts and descriptions from throughout the country’s history. Here you can see early examples of money (from the country that invented money—not disputed) and early examples of pottery (from the country that invented pottery—actually, that’s probably Japan, but the Chinese definitely get credit for porcelain) or observe the history of writing (from the people who invented writing—or maybe that was the Sumerians; actually, it’s hard to say because writing wasn’t invented in a day—regardless, this is history in China.) Wonderfully laid out, in easy to follow galleries, with excellent handouts in both English and Chinese, (although most of the actual items only have Chinese descriptions) the museum will prepare the curious tourist to understand sites from around China and throughout its history. I also find it’s a great way to decide which of those funky souvenirs can tell an interesting Chinese story, and which is just a crazy idea from the local crafts people.

Just don’t expect a sleepy, lonely, museum experience. We lucked out and visited on a free day, but we definitely weren’t alone. The Chinese definitely patronize their museums and this one was quite full of people milling about and pushing right in front of the curious western tourists.
All the same, I’ve seen a few Chinese history museums during previous trips and the exhibits here were similar to elsewhere. Maybe the Propaganda Poster museum in the French Concession will be something new, so it’s back to the city streets.

Marx, Engels, and Tai Chi at Fu Xing park, Shanghai

Marx, Engels, and Tai Chi at Fu Xing park, Shanghai

The French Concession is, perhaps, the ritziest part of Shanghai. Here, among the stately sycamore trees and French colonial façades, are high-end designer clothing stores, and French bistros. What we can’t find, however, is the Propaganda Poster museum. Things change fast in China and the storekeeper at the museum’s address only shook her head trying to explain that the museum is no more. On the way back to the metro and train station we pass through Fu Xing park, today one of the more popular parks in Shanghai and surrounded by chic night clubs. Back when it opened in 1909, the park was closed to the Chinese. Since then, the Chinese have built a giant statue of the creators of communism, Marx and Engels, to tower over the groups practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing. There’s no time for either, though, as we’ve got a train to catch.

5 RMB: lunch
9 RMB: 3 metro tickets
10 RMB: groceries for the train ride

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150 years after the Origin of Species

Posted in at 17:49 by RjZ

It’s the anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Nothing else particularly exciting seems to have happened today, so CNN assembled some slightly dated videos and a few recent interviews with lightning rods of the evolution vs. religion debate.

Pro-Darwin consensus doesn’t rule out intelligent design

Darwin and the case for ‘militant atheism‘”

and finally,

Religion, evolution can live side by side

Comparing and contrasting these three views, and perhaps, more so, what each doesn’t say, is pretty thought provoking. I hope after reading them you’ll come back here to let us know what your takeaway is.

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Major Postal

Posted in Society at 16:29 by RjZ

The U.S. American slang term “going postal” refers to several cases, starting around 1986, where unassuming United States Postal Service workers showed up at work and opened fire on their colleagues. According to Wikipedia, ”more than 40 people have been killed in 20 incidents of workplace rage” between 1986 and 1997. (35 of them in post office shootings.)

The United States Postal Service employs some 656,000 workers while the U.S. military is estimated at some 2.3 million strong. The military takes much greater care in selecting and training its soldiers than, presumably, the U.S. Postal Service, and, even though numbers for both change over time, even if we only assume that one tenth of the folks who join the military crack under the understandable pressure, the carnage should still amount to something like 350 times the USPS’s contribution (that’d be over 12,000 casualties).

And yet, our congress, lead to a large part by independent Joe Lieberman, is looking for signs of terrorism in the acts of Major Nadal Hasan. If the attention seeking senator can’t find terrorism in his investigation, the media at least hopes to pin the blame on the military and the ignored warnings of Major Hasan’s superiors. The senseless killing of 13 people people is obviously a tragedy. Blaming the military for this one-in-a-million (more lilke one in 2.3 million, even 100s of millions if we look back over the decades) is just headline fodder.

The story has legs because Major Hasan is a Muslim, and worse, has some rather silly ideas that his religion could mean that he and his brothers should be excused from some service. The U.S. military is still a volunteer affair; there are no conscientious objectors in the military today. If you signed up, you may be asked to do something you don’t believe in. Your job will be to follow the orders of your superior officer. If that isn’t working for you, you might consider not joining, or if you discovered this unfortunate reality a little late, you can seek a dishonorable discharge.

Aside from Hasan’s misguided views, it seems, given what we know so far, that it is unlikely he represents a terrorist cell of one inside our military or that he, in any way, represents the views of other Muslims in the military. Even if he was influenced by others, it’s still a stretch to call him a terrorist. After all, weren’t the media reports saying that his superiors knew he might not be all there? Which is it?

The military might be doing the best it can with people who don’t work out as well as expected, but there are bound to be some folks who slip through the cracks. Not to say we should do nothing when we identify depressed and unstable people, certainly those folks who, by the nature of their work have, or have access to guns (!) or that we shouldn’t keep an eye on folks who reasonably raise suspicion and are having weekly tea with Bin Laden’s right hand man. The silly thing is believing that enough control, regulation, and blame can actually avoid such out of the ordinary acts. Sad as it is, eventually, even this is bound to happen.

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China Travelogue-4: 70% imagination

Posted in Travel at 10:09 by RjZ

While sightseeing in China you can occasionally hear tour guides pointing out a rock formation, or garden design and reminding their Western tourist charges that ‘in China, you must look not only with your eyes, but with your mind and heart. At least 70% of what you see is in your imagination.’

Maybe still a bit jetlagged, we got up at a leisurely hour and, after a breakfast of noodles and dumplings at “easygood” a local fast food chain (they were, indeed, easygood), we made our way to the metro and then bus station to take a jaunt to Suzhou. Only a couple of hours outside of Shanghai, the city is famous for its gardens and comes highly recommended, so it seemed worth a look.

Orienting yourself after emerging from a subway station is often difficult, more so when the signs outside aren’t in any language you can read. We struggled to make our way to a ticket office and wound up getting bus tickets just a few minutes before it was about to leave (not that we had seen a schedule before hand), and finding the bus before it actually left.

4.50 RMB: noodles and dumplings for two
3 RMB: metro ticket
35 RMB: bus to Suzhou

We were feeling pretty full of ourselves for navigating this far without a hitch. Suzhou is popular with Chinese tourists so, right along with them, we were mobbed upon our arrival by taxi drivers offering to take us to a garden for 20 RMB and others offering a variety of tourist maps (only in Chinese). The map in the guidebook showed at least one of the more interesting gardens at less than 2 km from the bus station, so paying a cab driver almost as much as it cost to drive an hour and a half in a bus just didn’t seem fair. Silly trade-off, of course. If you know where you’re going, 2 km isn’t very far. We didn’t actually get lost on the way to the garden, but it sure felt that way for the better part of an hour it took to make the short walk.

Zhuozheng (Humble Administrator’s) Garden was initially a private garden, completed during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), and is well preserved today. Unlike classical gardens in Europe or naturalistic gardens of England, Chinese gardens were designed to be lived in and are comprised not only of plants and water features, but also rockeries and a multitude of buildings, halls, bridges and arbors. The garden isn’t nearly as large as the palace gardens of Europe, but much more densely packed. Chinese garden designs revel in a heightened aesthetic of the natural world. Zig-zagging bridges cross over meandering streams which empty into tiny lakes filled with koi and gold-fish. Everything looks like a classic silk painting of a natural scene available in the shops just outside the garden walls, except, it ends up looking as if it were built by architects who, using those paintings as a guide, had, alas, never actually seen nature itself. Nothing is really as one might experience it in the real world.
Fanciful rocks, Administrator's Garden Suzhou

35 RMB: entrance to the Humble Administrators Garden

We wandered around the charming buildings, stopping in a gazebo to look out over the wood ducks or bamboo forest, or in a pavilion to admire the strange rocks collected and displayed for their unusual forms. Plaques described each of the buildings in both Chinese and also (some form of) English, but it was easy to grow tired of reading them.

I was always thankful whenever the Chinese were so kind as to include English translations, but I can’t say they were always helpful. The problem wasn’t always poor translations though. It’s just that reading about how this scene inspired that poet from the Ming dynasty to write some couplet, which, of course, is lost in translation, just isn’t very interesting. The gardens are lovely and charming. The collection of over 1000 bonsai trees (a Chinese invention, where it is known as pun-sai) alone is worth the trip. And yet, it was starting to become clear that without a Chinese cultural education, the real impact of these sights would be lost on me.

I’ll return to this theme later when we float down the Li-river or visit caves in Guilin, but even when I am able to identify the fanciful images of dragons and mythical warriors, it clearly isn’t resonating with me as well as it is with the oohing and aahing Chinese tourists around me. Of course, travelers are often faced with this problem of not relating, aggravated the further they travel from their home culture. Chinese tourists in the United States surely must marvel at how we could possibly be interested in Walden Pond or where George Washington may have slept. None of this erodes how beautiful the garden is, it’s just worth noting that the locals may have a greater appreciation and enthusiasm then you will about this sight or that one. Keep it in mind when deciding where to go. I loved the garden, but by the time the trip was ending, I lamented not spending more time in Shanghai.

1.50 RMB: Water at a grocery store
3.00 RMB: Water near the garden. Tourists drive the prices up!
0.70 RMB: oranges
3.00 RMB: Fried sweet fingers. Alright, I don’t know what they were called, but that’s my name for this snack.
12.50 RMB: Lunch of dumplings and eggplant, a beer, and tea.
1.50 RMB: more water
26 RMB: train back to Shanghai
2.50: dinner from a late night stand in the back streets of Shanghai
12 RMB: Taxi back from the hotel after going the wrong way from the metro station and getting lost. At least dinner was cheap.

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China Travelogue-3: After you…

Posted in Travel at 16:01 by RjZ

Late 2009 might not be the very best time to visit Shanghai. “Better City, Better Life” the banners proclaim as Shanghai prepares for the World Expo in 2010, but today, that means that there’s construction nearly everywhere, including the world famous riverfront embankment, “the Bund”. I hear it’s quite a sight. Too bad my view of it was never unobstructed by construction.

The first day in China was spent exploring what was still visible of the Bund and its charming 19th century European architecture, and contrasting them with the Jetson’s wonderland of ultra-modern skyscrapers in Pudong across the river. After fighting the crowds of (Chinese) tourists walking along Shanghai’s main shopping street, Nanjing Road I made my way to the old city and Yuyuan gardens. It’s not a long walk, but unfortunately, the otherwise convenient subway doesn’t take you there.Oriental Pearl Tower

I did take that subway quite a few times while in Shanghai. It’s a pretty efficient affair with automats for buying tickets that include English translations and fairly clear signage throughout. It’s noticeably more expensive than the Beijing subway and, owing perhaps to Shanghai’s spread-out geography, not quite as convenient. Another, less subtle, difference was apparent when trying to board or exit a train.

On the platform, lined up where the doors of the trains stop, are arrows. Pairs angled from the sides point off the platform and funnel passengers to where the doors will eventually open. Centered between these, are arrows directing exiting passengers out of the train and smoothly on to the platform.

Though, that’s not how it actually works. Instead, waiting passengers crowd around the arrows and all of them press simultaneously against the opening doors of the newly arrived train. Before the doors are completely opened, exiting passengers start pushing through the mob desperately swimming upstream and out of the train.

The arrows are there, and the Chinese are not stupid people. They understand what they mean. Young people seem slightly more willing to abide by the system that quite obviously improves the experience for everyone involved. Older Chinese, meanwhile, may find decades of pushing a hard habit to break and unfortunately, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the behavior of a whole batch of well meaning commuters. If he starts pushing, then if she doesn’t, she might not be able to get on or off the train.

So I find myself jumping into the fray with abandon, pushing through the onslaught to get on the train, just like everyone else. During one trip, my camera cover and lens cap were stripped off the camera and shuffled underneath the train by the press of the millipede crowd. I am glad the camera was around my neck.

Shanghai is not a new city. The architecture along the Bund hints at a past of opium trade and European settlement. The still older buildings of Yuyuan represent centuries of history. Pudong, the area just east of downtown Huangpu, and the subway that whisks citizens around the cityare new. Pudong was only rice paddies in 1993 when the Chinese government established a new economic zone and built the famous Oriental Pearl Tower. The metro is now China’s largest and fastest growing and was started only in 1995.

In Beijing and Hong Kong, the metros are just as full, but everyone seems to have noticed the arrows and figured out the simple task of how to board a subway train. Things are changing incredibly fast in China. Perhaps youth and inexperience might then explain why the Shanghainese haven’t yet realized that a pinch of politeness would actually speed things up. Instead everyone’s out for himself and the whole group is slowed down for it. It’s still new, they’ll probably get there. At least I hope so; I don’t want to lose anything else just boarding the metro.

150 RMB: Hotel deposit. Many hotels, especially mid-priced and higher, expect you to pay up front an take a deposit ahead of time. They don’t seem to be particularly organized on how they handle that deposit, but I’ve never failed to get my money back. Don’t lose your receipt!
1.50 RMB: Bottled water.
32.50 RMB: Lunch of tempura and udon soup.at Waya Udon, a Japanese/Shanghai fusion cuisine–hey, Shanghai has lots of choices!
40 RMB: Entrance to the Yuyuan gardens. Entrances would prove to be quite expensive. This was actually a cheap one.
60 RMB: Tea at the famous Huxinting teahouse in Yuyuan. It’s touristy and absurdly expensive, but come quail eggs and sweets were included!
83 RMB: Beer at Shanghai Bund brewery, Shanghai’s only microbrew. Not bad, authentic tasting German style beers. Bought a glass too.
14 RMB: Dinner of northern style dumplings. Most Chinese food in the United States is stir-fried, where as in China, steamed, boiled and grilled are at least as common.
2 RMB: More bottled water.

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China Travelogue-2: By taxi, bus, plane, bus and taxi.

Posted in Travel at 13:38 by RjZ

Flight from Denver to Shanghai: $868. Pretty great deal!
Denver RTD airport bus: $22

Cheap flights are great, but this one had two plane changes and in spite of regular checking, the airlines constantly change the flights from what you’ve carefully and sensibly booked to something that might barely work. Take the ample two hours to get from domestic arrivals in Los Angeles to International departures. The plane was only 30 minutes late and, lost, queried airport officials mutter something about Tom Bradley Terminal, like that means anything to me. The inter-airport transport bus takes its very sweet time getting to the terminal and, boarding tickets already in hand, but time rapidly slipping away, a mad dash to the Asiana desk is the only chance to make the connection. A desperate and out of breath plea convinces a helpful Asiana employee to escort us through security and on to the plane bound for Seoul. Last to board, but happy not to have to spend an extra night in LA. LAX isn’t exactly located in the best part of town….

It’s x-number of hours since Denver. I never keep track, because it just doesn’t matter. This little game we play: “it’s 5 am back home…” doesn’t amount to much as you’ve hardly had irregular sleep during the cramped flight and one or two sunrises later, you’re sort of on your way to being synch’d up by the time you arrive, except not really. I do know that the chance of bleary-eyed confusion certainly increases after crossing some ten time zones, so I’ve already got a hotel booked in Shanghai. Now it’s just a matter of getting there.

Shanghai is China’s largest city with a metropolitan area encompassing over 20 million people. It’s a pretty big place to throw a dart at and sleep there later. I hate having to pick a hotel over the internet. You’re guessing about the location; hoping that the picture online actually shows a room that is something like you’ll sleep in upon arrival; and you’ve already paid for it, so you’ve got to somehow find this thing, regardless of how tired you are or how little you speak the language. If you can get passed all that, you are, at least, assured you can put your head down somewhere at 12 in the morning in a far away place.

Hotel Shang Hai Kai En Ben Guan in Huangpu district booked over the internet: $21

It’s too late for the Maglev train into town, but the trusty Lonely Planet says there’s a city bus. The Maglev is an experimental train that carries passengers 30 km from the airport to the city in just over 7 minutes. The bus takes a little longer and, while you’re on it, it’s not exactly clear where it’s going to stop.

Bus to downtown: 22 RMB (at around 0.15 of the USD, busses are considerably cheaper in China than the U.S.)

Now in downtown, the subway might be open, or it might not, and it’s late (or early, not really sure anymore) so, fine, grab a cab. Except that I don’t have Chinese characters for the hotel and my rendition of the name isn’t ringing any bells for the drivers. A couple of them wave me on (that’ll come up again…) and finally one is bold enough to take the fare. I keep repeating the hotel name and pointing to a map. He repeats the name in what sounds a perfectly reasonable echo of what I just said. Much nodding ensues and we’re off…about 30 meters or so…where he stops again and consults the map I keep showing him. He’s pointing at his cellphone and the plackard on the seat offering tourist information. He wants me to call, but I’ve got no phone. (That’s a lie, I brought my iPhone and it works in China, but it costs a fortune.) Eventually he calls the number and hands me the phone.
An English speaker politely asks me what my trouble is and I explain the name of the hotel which she somehow interprets and explains to the cab driver. Impressive Shanghai, I hope I can call that number when I am lost in a village somewhere. We’re on our way; he’s repeating the name now with much satisfaction, even if, from my point of view, it seems to sound exactly as it did before.

Taxi about 3-4 km to the hotel: 26 RMB

The hotel and it looks just like the picture, but smells quite a bit more like sewage than I had imagined back in Colorado. Open the window to air it out, and get to sleep! Who knows what time it is!

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China Travelogue: Introduction

Posted in Travel at 16:28 by RjZ

Travel is as much about what you do as where you go. Visiting museums and restaurants in cities is dramatically different from backpacking through the wilderness. It’s hard to do both unless you enjoy looking like a grubby hiker in an upscale art gallery. Maybe it’s not so hard…. What you choose to do can change how much you’ll have to spend too. Even in locations where camping ins’t free, I’ll still bet it’s less expensive than hotels, and the food is cheaper too. Of course, if you go on an organized trek you might end up spending double or triple what you might have spent just walking around even the most expensive destination.

Many of us would like to see everything! Going from the recognition that seeing everything is impossible, to actually pairing down your schedule to reflect reality, can be what changes a trip from moving torture, to a relaxing, learning experience.

China is a very large country, boasting an impressive range of activities and sights. Over 50 minorities, each with a unique culture, compete with the over 5000 years of history. A long list of “-ests” can make a superlative trip that ranges from the highest mountains to the worlds longest escalator (check!). Enough to see that a guided tour with a translator makes good sense, but also enough that if you just get a visa and wing it, you’ll likely still wind up with enough stories to start your own blog. We chose the middle ground; trying to prioritize things we really wanted to see so that they’d still fit in just a three week trip. A fair bit of money would be spent, but still slightly less that a package tour. Recognize then, that this is just one version of China and that such a varied place may reveal its secrets differently depending on how you choose to experience it. Before we even start let me get one point out of the way:

“We” is my traveling companion and I. Only one of us is foolish, or egotistical, enough to think anyone cares and worse, write it down in a blog. I will frequently resort to “I” even if there were two of us. Rest assured, nearly all of the credit for planning the trip, finding the best deals and, essentially doing all the hard work, goes to my partner, but, in trade for anonymity, I’ll take all the credit from here on out. It’s not fair, but revealing details of your life on a blog isn’t something I need to force on others, right?

So why China? I spent over six weeks in China this year, although not all of it was vacation. My work brought me east to visit coal-fired power plants and see if the technology we offer could help them run more cleanly. I’ve now seen China in all four seasons and, while I’ve still only scratched the surface, I’ve made it to 11 of its 34 provinces. I’ve been to big cities like Shanghai and (relatively) small ones like…, well, I don’t really know, but there was a power plant there. I chose to return to China for a longer trip because a two week visit just won’t cut it! A week in Beijing will barely get you beyond the wall and the Forbidden Palace. Furthermore the visa for U.S. citizens is quite expensive. With quite adequate hotels costing as little as $10, spending $150 on a visa represents a significant cost. My company paid for the visa tax, so, what self-respecting budget traveller would ignore the opportunity?

Clean clear, Incheon Airport is the main airport for Seoul, Korea, (10.4 million people)

Clean and quiet. Only a few hours left before landing in Shanghai, after two flights from Denver to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to Seoul aboard United partner Asian Airlines.

This trip, which I’ll focus on here in blog-travelogue was not for business, but purely vacation. A self-guided trip through many of the most famous sites in mostly southern China. Staying in cheap hotels and carrying a small backpack. I landed in Shanghai, hiked Huang Shan, floated up the Li river, walked through Tiger Leaping Gorge and marveled at the Hong Kong skyline. What I learned, is that what ever you may think of China; whether it’s crowded and third world, exotic and exciting, a rich modern skyline, or a political backwater, it is constantly a conversation piece. Sights, sounds, people, politics, food, each asks another question, begs speculation, or offers a puzzle to solve.

It’s like the perfect travel-blog fodder! I just hope I can read all my notes.

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Jet lagged

Posted in Travel at 16:44 by RjZ

Sorry to disappoint my loyal readers…I know I’ve been away for over three weeks, but I’ve been away gathering new material. Three weeks in China mean I’ve spent about six weeks in the far east nation this year, and just about everything you see in China can start a conversation.

I usually face jet lag when traveling east, and this trip from Hong to Seoul to Los Angeles to Denver certainly did a number on me. I’ve been back for two days and can barely keep my eyes open, even though I can’t seem to close them for most of the night.

But I have big plans. I am putting together a complete travelogue of my three week trip. I hope to describe the ups and downs, the plans, the sites; mention all of the costs and hassles of the complete trip. So, stay tuned, for this China series and let me know what kind of information would be helpful for you to hear.

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