Saturday, February 03, 2007

OT: Shanghai

I recently returned from Shanghai, where I spent nearly two weeks. I wasn't anxious to go. The thought of going to a communist country never appealed to me. Much to my surprise, I found it to be a marvelous place. It's a beautiful city, especially at night. If there was ever a city of lights, this is it. In any place that dealt regularly with westerners, they always took an English first name. Jack Dong, Judy, Shawn, and Diane were the receptionist at the hotel. At breakfast, our servers were Alex, Evan, and Coco. The restaurants were the same way. There was just as much variety in names as one might find in the States. A lot of people spoke English and weren't shy about trying to speak it. Even at that, we sometimes had minor difficulties in communicating. One of my colleagues asked for a coffee to go at breakfast. They were puzzled so he told them coffee in a paper cup. He got a glass of paper napkins. The people were friendly everywhere, from the folks at the hotel to the people at work to the common person on the street. They were always quick with a smile. Sometimes I had to think that Americans have more in common with the Chinese than with the Europeans.

The markets were an adventure. My colleagues were interested in the knock-off products such as Coach purses and Oakly sunglasses and Rolex watches. The main market in Shanghai was recently closed, but there are many others. There are street hustlers everywhere in the markets. We were lead down back alleys, narrow, dimly lit passage ways, up wooden ladders and through trap doors. One always ended up in a well lit room filled with merchandise. The
best stuff was always hidden away in boxes with secret compartments. The women merchants could be aggressive. I was negotiating the price of some silk Chinese table cloths in one place. As usual, she started out way too high. When she wouldn't come down to the price I wanted to pay, I walked off. She and another woman came after me, each grabbing me by an arm dragging me back, where we began bargaining again. We got to the point to where she called me "Crazy", so I walked off again, going ten or twelve steps before they reeled me back in. And so it began again. We finally agreed to a price. In the end, she told me I wasn't "Crazy'; I was "Big Crazy!". But she gave me her card and invited me back. My colleague found some silver jewelry that he
liked. The proprietor told him that she would give him her very best price and there would be no negotiation. It would be take it or leave it. My colleague declined, so then she asked how much he would give her. My colleague said, "I thought it was non negotiable." At that point, she gave him an Elaine style shove (if you have ever seen Seinfeld, you know what I mean), about knocking him over. Anyway, they eventually reached a deal. Then another colleague was negotiating for several pairs of sunglasses with this terminally cute gal. He offered a price, and she would jump up and down, shouting, "No, No, No!" He would say, "Yes. Yes. Yes." And it went on and on like that for a while before the agreed upon price was reached. She was quite colorful. The men were always polite, never physical, always persistent. It was incredibly fun but very draining. There was shop after shop after shop, with each proprietor approaching you, wanting you to come in and look.

We did the tourist thing as well, going down to the Pudong District to see the Pearl Tower. One got a good view of the city from there, at least what could be seen through the smog. There was a market near there as well, in the older part of town.

The two colleagues with me are typical Americans, quite content to eat at McDonalds everyday. Fortunately, a couple of local colleagues were with us on the weekend and were able to convince them, reluctantly, to go to a Chinese restaurant. We went to the Grape Restaurant located inside an old Russian Orthodox church. We had some choice in what we ordered, some was ordered for us. It was all good. We started with bean curd with some sort of wild vegetation in it. Then there was a sweet and spicy shrimp dish, which was excellent. Then there was fried chicken and beef strips, not unlike one might find in an American Chinese restaurant. The specialty of the day was duck skin served over what appeared to be a bed of pork rinds. One put a couple of strips of two vegetables (cucumber and celery, I think) and put it on a fajita type shell, then dipped a piece of the duck skin in a special source and put in onto the shell and rolled in all up. It was excellent. Then the last night that we were there, our colleagues from the plant took us out to a traditional Chinese restaurant. They ordered everything for us. It was good, but I wasn't crazy about everything. There was eel, jellyfish, duck tongue, spicy pork, beef, lobster, crab, carp, and some other things that I probably don't want to know what it was. It was served with jasmine and crysantheum tea and, of course, beer. I found it interesting that they didn't eat rice with the meal. However, the end of the meal was followed by non-Chinese, fried rice, rather than a sweet dessert.

On the way to the Grape Restaurant, we slide into a small shop just off the main street. One of the guys that lives there wanted to buy some DVD's. We went into this small room, where the proprietor was watching Stalin on the tube. That was the only sign of communism that I saw while there. I thought it just a little ironic. One could find just about any of the latest movies there with the going price from about a buck to a buck and a quarter per DVD, depending on how recent it was.

We stayed downtown in the People's Square in a hotel called the Citadines. It was right in the thick of things, but we found this out too late. Just around the corner were walk up restaurants where one could buy squid on a stick. Sometimes there were street performers there. There was a near toothless old man always there. He had a stool in front of him. He would throw these "objects" down on the stool, which would go splat on the stool. Then it would gather itself up into the original shape like something out of the Terminator movie. I bought a few. Just across the street was one of the main shopping districts. It was very colorful, beautiful sight, with throngs of people everywhere and street trolleys running back and forth. There were the street hustlers as well, soliciting you to eat at restaurants; to buy watches, skates with lights, etc.; or to entice you into a "messagee".

After having been there, I wouldn't mind living there for a while. It is an enchanting place. And if one ever missed western culture, there is plenty of that there too. We went to the Big Bamboo twice. It is something of a cross between an English pub and an American bar. The center of activity is the pool table up front. There is any kind of western food you might desire on the menu: French, German, Mexican, English, and American. The first time I have a pork chimichanga. The second time I had a Bamboo burger with cheddar and bacon. It is the best burger that I have ever had, bar none.

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw there was this collection of jets, helicopters, and a missile launcher in the mist of several apartment complexes. Perhaps it was an exhibition of some sort. It wasn't far from an amusement park with a giant Ferris wheel. It almost appears to be a garage of some sort in the background. The rocket launcher (which appeared to have a rocket in it) was to the left in the photo below. I never could capture it in a photo. There is also a river just to the left. I suppose that it is possible that one could disassemble the jet and put it on the river. I saw something similar in a small town in France. They were towing a full size jet down the street with the wings and elevator removed.

I will be going back two or three more times this year. I am looking forward to it. This past flight was amazingly cheap. The NWA round trip price was $850. Can't beat that. It is well worth it, if you get a chance.

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