Japan Airlines was one of the best carriers I have flown. Efficient, attentive and the food was good (though not on the return flight). The crew was so much more pleasant than those witches on American Airlines!
The flight was long, but I was so dazed and confused, I cannot even remember it….just landing at Shanghai, getting in line with 100 other people for a taxi, and then watching the traffic from the backseat of the cab: NO ONE knows how to drive, bicycles and motorbikes everywhere & traffic lights are merely suggestions. Needless to say, it was probably the most terrifying part of my trip. Crossing the street was NEVER done alone, always in a huge group.
The Hostel in Shanghai was a wonderful place…..located on a little “Hutong” (alley) from the outside it looked really old and weather-beaten, but once you entered the lobby, it was a meandering place, filled with Koi ponds and little bridges and garden areas. There was a pool table, lounge and restaurant/bar. Every night they showed a free movie. The food was cheap & mostly very good. My room, although small had 12 foot ceilings, an antique mahogany bed, immaculate linens and duvet, desk & table, and a window looking out onto a green space, and a shared bathroom. I lucked out because the other single room was empty until my last night, when a lovely mid-aged woman from Scotland came in for the week-end. (she taught ESL in a southern province in China & was clothes shopping for the week-end in Shanghai). So I had a private bathroom all week. The next day was my birthday and I had plans to meet a gal, Lisa, from L.A. at her B & B for dinner in an area called The French Concession. Well, to make a long story short, I took public transportation, and got off in what I thought was the area. I then took a cab, and he could not find the B & B. I walked up and down the street, for an hour, address in hand, and no one knew where it was. There was no street # and no phone #. Need I say more? I tried to get a cab back to the Hostel, but it was a cold, windy night, and there were none available. I then found a line waiting in front of a large office building and joined it. A young Chinese woman was behind me and she spoke English well, since she worked for a U.S. company. The funniest thing was, it was also HER birthday. We both had a good laugh!
My Hostel was located across from People’s Park, and I went to the Contemporary Art Museum (free), which had some pretty unusual art. It reminded me of the Guggenheim. I walked in the Park and got the most wonderful dumplings for dirt cheap (4 large ones for $.90). This is what I pretty much lived on. The Shanghai Dept. Store had an interesting selection of clothes, but most too high style or too “teeny-bopper”. I did score some fab. slacks, very casual, almost like jeans, well tailored, which I would probably pay $150 for in USA, got for $27. Nice little shortie white trench coat, a steal at $40.00. The pollution in the city was obvious to me: hard to even see the Pearl Tower on The Bund, (the main road lined with shops along the river). I disliked that part. Crowds = everywhere and I mean crowds. And so many bicyclists: of all ages, wearing raincoats on rainy days. I have never seen so many humans in one place, all walking along peacefully, side by side. White Westerners were rare so of course, I got stared at a lot. But the teens and college kids looked just like American kids, with an absolute thirst for anything American, i.e. slogans on T-shirts, designer bags, jeans, “Hollywood”. They may not have known a word of English but they all knew “California”.
I met some very interesting people at the Hostel: mostly younger, many from the UK since the British pound is very strong now…. traveling for 5-6 months at a time. I met one young guy from Salt Lake City who was studying in China and spoke fluent Mandarin. He was so intelligent and fun to talk to and he even helped me fold my laundry. Another guy Kris, from Sweden who had just gotten off the Siberian Express, from St. Petersburg, stopped in Moscow, then to Beijing. He then took a 12 hour train to Shanghai. Oh to be 25 again!
I then left Shanghai for Suzhou, a 2 hour train ride NW of the city. I wanted to see what life was like in a small town. Population:5 million.
Getting to the wrong train station got me “shanghaied” in Shanghai (more on that later)…but I finally got on the train, & ended up in “steerage class”…hey it was only $2.25! I call it my 3rd world train journey. Souzhou is a “water-town” located on a canal…in fact the entire city is compared to Venice. The Hostel was gorgeous, (albeit unheated) but the people not as friendly as the ones in Shanghai. It was a 300 year old building (maybe a monastery), renovated very chic & upscale, but w/definite Chinese influences: open courtyards, wide mahogany stairways with lovely artwork and rooms furnished nicely. There was a free washing machine and small kitchen on the top floor, and the microwave came in handy for leftovers. Also free internet. The bar looked like it should have been in Manhattan, really swanky, the ceiling of which was an aquarium with goldfish in it! There were mostly families and couples there. The nice thing was the Hostel was located on a “Hutong” right on the canal…you could wander at night amongst the shops and street food stalls & there was no traffic & it was very, very safe. My dinner was usually from this wonderful little place, where a family made about 12 woks filled with amazing food and you could choose what you wanted. (I chose only what I could identify) They weighed it, and then charged accordingly. I got enough for 2 meals and it cost the equivalent of $.90 one time, and $1.90 another time. It was some of the best Chinese food I ever had! Suzhou was easier to navigate than Shanghai, and I took a lot of “pedi-cabs” from place to place. I saw the Silk Museum, an old Temple/Pagoda where they had a lovely ‘tea-house” and the Suzhou museum. One street in town was loaded with funky boutiques, local designer clothes, and interesting eateries. It reminded me of Chelsea in NYC.
The problems I encountered were ones of language (barely anyone could speak English) and street signs (sometimes not in English). Communications were difficult,i.e. I could not make an 800# phone call and had to use the business center of a large hotel, which cost $18.00), buying an airline ticket had to be in cash, via a delivery person sent by Mr. Wong at 2pm on a certain date), and bus tickets could only be gotten at the bus depot in person (taxi to pick them up). Getting lost was a daily occurrence. My original idea to hire a local guide was a good one, but the guide I wanted was unavailable on the dates I was in China. This would be a definite must next time I travel in Asia.
I spent 5 days in Suzhou, and it rained a lot. I got a head cold, which kind of slowed me down. The young waiter at the Hostel, a Chinese guy (who had a degree in Business English), made me an old Chinese concoction of really strong ginger tea. He explained to me he worked at the Hostel as a server, and he had room (4 guys in a dorm room) and board. When I mentioned my 3 BR/2BA house in California, he was astonished I lived alone. Space (to us), is not something the average working class has the luxury of in China.
I wanted to take the overnight train to Beijing,(12 hours) but all sleepers were sold out (holiday or something), so I had to fly. This is where Mr. Wong and the 2 p.m. ticket delivery came in). It is a 2+ hour flight from Shanghai to Beijing, so this will give you some idea of the distance. I had to get a bus from Suzhou to Shanghai,
Which would take me to the domestic airport to pick up my ~China Express~ flight. All sounds easy? Well, the morning of my departure, it was raining, I had a head cold and you can’t just “call a cab”. I had to walk ½ mile to the main street to hail a cab….where I stood for a full 30 minutes, since all the cabs were filled due to inclement weather. I was frantic. If I missed my bus to the airport, I could miss my flight! Finally, a “pedi-cab” stopped and after long negotiations by hand signals regarding the price, piled me and my luggage into the back of the bike, which was covered with a vinyl shower-curtain and we made it to the bus station.
I made it on time!
Beijing was indescribable. Imagine NYC, triple it, and add 10 times as many people. I was surprised at how immaculate the city was, how wide the streets were, and how blue the skies were. There was no pollution, air was crisp and people drove a little more sanely. There were loads of bikes, motorcycles and traffic. The Hostel I stayed at was located near a very convenient shopping district, Wangfujing, and Food Night Market. My room was huge, large bathroom with tile & glass shower and very clean, although there was a musty smell which was kind of annoying. I met 2 UK guys at my Hostel, Lak and Joe, who were in the Gaming business and quit their jobs to travel through Asia and eventually New Zealand for 5 months. We spent several evenings in the Hostel lounge, talking about politics and travel and getting lost in Beijing.
The next day I met Judy Wong, an Australian woman who I had met online. She was on a tour starting in a few days and had a few days alone in Beijing, so we met up at the Hostel. We took a cab to the Summer Palace, where the Royal Family spent their summers. It was a city in itself, on a lake, with hundreds of buildings, bridges, walkways, parks and places to buy “food”. A big snack was an entire spiced ear of corn on a stick, for $.25 It was a great deal. They sold warm soy milk, cookies and some other odd foods. Tea of course was sold everywhere. That night Judy needed a “Sim” card for her cell phone so she went out to a cell phone store. I stayed at the Hostel and waited for her. She came back with a gal named Barbara, who she had met at the store and had helped her figure out which “Sim” card she needed and how to set up her cell phone. Barbara was Slovenian and spoke fluent English and fluent Mandarin, since she had taught in Taiwan for 2 years. She was also hysterical, and Judy & I listened to her whacky adventures in China. The 3 of us then went to the night market where I ate some unusual items (stinky tofu, chicken hearts and whole crabs on skewers). I had gotten into a slight disagreement with one of the night market stall owners & he refused to return my money. Barbara, who is Caucasian, unbeknownst to the stall owner started to yell at him in Mandarin and threatened to call the police (this always ends the problem and the money is promptly returned). I noticed that Chinese tend to be confrontational in public, with no fear of arguing loudly if they feel cheated. But there is virtually no violent crime in China, and after the argument is settled (and your eardrums have a chance to heal), they go on their way like nothing happened.
Or the night we were in a Dept. store, and it was closing time. As we were on the escalator going down, the security guards switched them “off” since it was closing time….but they were full of people!( I can imagine that happening at Bloomingdale’s!! )One lady stumbled and almost fell and thus ensued a huge argument with the store security. A large group of Chinese encircled the yelling parties, but soon they quieted down, and the encounter was over.
The next day I walked to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and Sun Yat Sen Park. This is where a guide would have come in handy. There were about ½ million people there, no kidding. Tiananmen Square has seen centuries of violent history, riots, uprisings and history of China but also symbolizes the future promise of the younger generation. Mao Tse Tung’s body is in the mausoleum in Tiananmen Sq. a sight that I really didn’t need to see. Chinese come from all over to pay their respects. Kind of like when Jews see the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem,
Sun Yat Sen Park is just off the Square, and is a very nice family park with lakes and gorgeous plantings, I saw an older man fiddling a home made instrument and a random Chinese man singing , really loudly, like opera. They were in a gazebo. This was hysterical, all in Chinese, and done very solemnly. It just seemed odd to me that it was done in the open where people were just walking around. I think it was some kind of national anthem, since some other Chinese were singing along quietly.
On my last day I booked a day trip to the further most part of the Great Wall, Simitai but also the most difficult to climb. The reason I did this was because I heard it was less touristy and a good 3 hour bus drive out of Beijing. This way, I could at least see the country side and if the hike was too hard, I could always head back.
There are 2 other areas where you can walk on the Wall but it gets very crowded. The tours organized through the Hostels are a great value for the money. Transportation, breakfast and lunch, entrance fees etc. for around $40 U.S. The bus left Beijing at 6:30 a.m. and there were about 25 aboard. I spoke to one couple who had just spent a week in a yurt in Tibet. Another gal from Ireland was living in Melbourne as an IT Specialist and she was on the last leg of her 2 month journey.
I hiked with the 2 British guys, Lak and Joe and another guy Jordan from L.A. We all set out together, up a steep winding road which was about 2 miles…whew…and we hadn’t even gotten onto The Wall yet. But lo and behold, there it was…..twisting and winding in all its glory over barren hills. It was an amazing sight, even more breathtaking than all the photos I have seen! The day was cool and crisp with deep blue skies. The guards said we were lucky because the day before it was so windy, no one was allowed to climb. We started the trek. The part we chose had 12 towers. The “road” between the towers was the actual wall. I thought the roads, were, well, flat roads….but they were STAIRS, teeny-tiny little stairs at almost a 90 degree angle….the steepest stairs I have ever seen! As we ascended, you could feel your breathing getting faster and faster. At each tower, we rested and took pictures. Well, folks, after 4 towers and I was done, but my guy pals went on. Remember I still had to climb back DOWN….or I had a choice of a “zip-line” where they put you in a halter and suspend you from a cable over the lake (like a ski-lift except without the chair) and you zip to the bottom. No thanks. As I descended my leisurely walk down, I realized it was even harder on the knees than on the way up! But then shame took over as I spotted a 75+ year old Chinese couple outpacing me (no fair, they had walking sticks). I followed them down, because it was still rather easy to take a wrong turn down some side paths and stairwells, and even easier to break an ankle!
The group met at a designated parking lot where a shuttle picked us up and took us to the restaurant. We had a nice lunch, and then the bus took us back to the Hostel by 7 p.m.
I most definitely could have spent more time in Beijing. There was so much to do, that even a month would not have touched the surface. It is a classy, clean, beautiful city with a vibrant arts/music/restaurant scene, great public transportation, shopping and lots of opportunities.
This trip had cleared up so many misconceptions about China that I had: nowhere did I see the wrenching poverty and misery, rickshaws and starving children I thought would be all over the place. I am sure if I had traveled to the outer provinces, or 20 years ago, I would have found it, but that poverty can be found in our country also. The cultural differences were huge: I don’t take Western toilets for granted! It’s tough to use a squat toilet when you are a lady wearing pants. But I was told the Chinese food they eat is different than what we eat, but I didn’t find that to be true either…..it’s just more involved and a whole lot better!!
Guns are illegal to own in China. They have a virtually non-existent violent crime rate……….hmmm, I wonder if there is any correlation?