Sunday, May 24, 2015



The Chicago to Shanghai flight is over 14 hours nonstop.  We flew business class which was comfortable, but you can't walk very far and must keep your mind active.  American Airlines provides an entertainment channel with music, games and movies.  I decided to watch a series of documentaries.

The first was  movie about the late film critic Roger Ebert.  I knew Roger in college.  When I was a freshman at the University of Illinois, I worked in the newsroom at the Daily Illini newspaper.  Roger was the editor and gave me assignments proofreading stories, rewriting dispatches from the Associated Press and composing headlines.  I had no contact with him after college and I was not mentioned in the movie--not a big surprise. 

The other two movies I watched were astronomy related, and I'll make them the subject of a future article.  Suffice to say, one movie spent an hour and a half explaining what occurred in the first second after the Big Bang.


After hours of lecture class, we eventually got to Shanghai in the early afternoon on a nice sunny day.  Last time we were in Shanghai was four years ago in a freak snowstorm which shut down the airport.  We had to land anyway  because the plane was running out of gas.  This time, the landing was uneventful. 

We wended our way through the Pudong Airport--customs and baggage, and we were relieved to see a young man holding up a card with our name on it.   We were booked at the Waldorf Astoria, so we were going in style.  The limo took us there, in the central part of the city on the Bund.  The Bund is the riverfront or as we would say the levee.  The word "bund" comes from the Persian word for embankment.

Shanghai sits on the banks of the Huang Pu, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River.  While not directly on the seacoast, Shanghai is built on the coastal plain in the delta of the Yangtze.  In the Chinese language, shang means "above' and hai means "sea".   Thus, "above the sea".

Our hotel room, on the 18th floor of the Waldorf, opened to a million dollar view of the riverfront and the iconic buildings of the new financial district on the opposite side of the river.  Every evening we were treated to a spectacular light show on the buildings.  The buildings were lit up in multiple shades of red, blue, green and purple.  Back home, people pay big money to watch that. The famous Pearl Tower was lit up in every color of the rainbow.  The same for the 88 story Jin Mao Tower, the 101 story Shanghai World Financial Center (which looks like a giant bottle opener), and the 128 story Shanghai Tower, which are all located on the same block.  This was the Chinese version of keeping up with the Changs. 

We settled in at the Waldorf, a grand old hotel, with history draping from every fixture.  In our travels, we have stayed in other historic hotels, the Pera Palace in Istanbul, the Mena in Cairo, the Raffles in Singapore.    The Waldorf is right up there.

We stopped in the famous Long Bar for a drink.  If you were a secret agent in China, this is where you would go.  I'm guessing that many spy novels were written here.  Across the hall is a metal grate elevator dating to Victorian times.  The halls are graced with huge sparkling chandeliers.  The bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is also called the Long Bar.  Needless to say, they are both long.

It was too early to go to bed, so we went outside to enjoy the Spring weather.  We crossed the boulevard to the Bund which is a large promenade or boardwalk stretching for several miles along he riverbank.  It is a magnet for tourists from all over the world, and especially for Chinese people from the provinces.  We saw several tour groups of Chinese gaping at the skyscrapers as well as the Art Deco buildings (mostly banks) facing the waterfront.  They all wore red caps so they wouldn't get lost.  It reminded me of tourists from Iowa visiting New York for the first time. 

We wanted to absorb the true experience or flavor of China.  The Chinese saw us a curiosities and asked us to pose in photographs of them.  Shanghai doesn't have a Chinatown, so maybe they thought they were visiting America Town.    They were friendly, and we engaged with them, mostly in pantomime. 

The street signs are in Chinese of course, but they also have translations on the bottom.  Not French, not Spanish,  not even Russian, but English translations.  Even with the translations, when we rode on the many elevated roads (expressways), I couldn't understand where we were going.   I wouldn't dare drive myself in China.  Many of the English translations are in fractured syntax--some are even funny--at least to us Americans.

Dozens of young and old on motor scooters weaved through the crowds.  One lady had a two year old STANDING on the handlebars as she was driving.  Most of the locals especially those driving motor scooters, pay no attention to traffic signals.  It's a game of pedestrian polo.  We pedestrians walk the streets at our own peril. 

It is expensive to own a car in Shanghai.  One must bid on permits and these can cost over $10,000.  The purpose is to keep traffic more manageable.  Then, of course, we experienced road construction delays.    Streets are blocked off for infrastructure projects.  The economy is buzzing along, and there are many projects underway.  Taxis and public transportation are relatively cheap.  They gas up at the Sinopec stations.

Street food is affordable.  The money is exchangeable at approximately 6 RMB to the dollar.  We would walk around with about $200 in yuan (Chinese money).  Stands selling watermelons, coconuts chicken on a stick, dim sum dumplings, roasted chestnuts, candy and flavored ices are very popular at reasonable cost. 

On our first evening in China, we were suffering from jet lag and returned to our room to relax.  The hotel delivered the English language South China Morning Post each day.  I like to scan through the local newspapers to see what people are doing.  One article caught my eye, and I'm not making this up.  "Funerals Stripped to Their Bare Essentials".  "The Ministry of Culture's latest anti vice campaign is to halt the hiring of strippers at funerals," which has apparently become common in rural areas.  "Xinhua said strippers were typically used to draw a larger crowd to last rites."  They investigated and punished those involved.    The other article explained that Uber is expanding its service to include helicopters in Shanghai--at $500 per person.   Just make the call and avoid rush hour traffic. 

Each morning we ate breakfast at our hotel.  They serve both English breakfast and Chinese breakfast.  Dianne favored their Eggs Benedict and cereal.   To me, you can get English breakfast anywhere. I ate the Chinese breakfast.  I enjoyed  red bean steamed buns.  These are soft but compact doughy buns, the size of a cupcake, filled with sweet red bean jam.  The bun has the consistency of jello when you bite into it. They also serve sesame balls with red bean filling.  The shrimp dumplings were delicious.  The dumplings are called shao mai, and they are filled with meat, shrimps, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and/or onions--they change them every day.   You dip them in chili sauce or hot mustard. 


We hired a guide to drive us 50 miles out in the country to Zhou Zhuang which I best known as one of the "Water Villages".  It was an hour and a half trip on mostly superhighways.  It costs 100 RMB (about $16) admission, but it is worth it.  The water villages are described as the Venice of the Far East, and although there are sidewalks between the shops, goods are transported by the unique Chinese junks instead of gondolas.  The gondoliers are all women.  We took a half hour boat ride through the maze of canals and ancient stone bridges.  The junk wasn't junky at all; it was quite comfortable. 

The village has been around for 900 years, and some of the bridges are that old.  They are picturesque, and many artists make their livings depicting them on canvas.  The people who live in the village are small shopkeepers who sell to the throngs of tourists out of the fronts of their well preserved ancient houses.   The different stands sell silks, wove tapestries, paintings, candy, fruit and cuisine.  The local food favorites are Wansan barbecued pork hocks and glutinous rice balls.   For the handicrafts and silks, tourists are expected to negotiate for the best price.

The houses go back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties.  We toured the Zhang house, built in the 1400's.  The house has 70 rooms and all have thresholds to step over.   The more important the citizen, the higher the thresholds.  There is no provision for the handicapped. 

As in Shanghai, the majority of the tourists appear to be Asian.  I don't now the Asian languages well enough to distinguish between Mandarin, Cantonese, Korea or Vietnamese.  Once again, as Americans, we were a curiosity, and many tourists badgered us to be photographed with them. 


We returned to our hotel after a long day, and we asked the concierge to make us a reservation at the Lost Heaven, a Chinese (didja think?) restaurant, a block or two away.  We walked up and down the street looking for it and finally found it on a different street than where the concierge directed us.  Our concierge was a young Italian girl--she was sweet but directionally challenged.   We told the host that we had reservations but would eat there anyway.  It didn't matter--the restaurant lost our reservations but they quickly found us a table.  It was Saturday night, and the room was crowded, noisy and full of energy. 

We later found out the restaurant was recommended in Lonely Planet's guidebook.   Shanghai has 12,000 restaurants, but we found a good one which caters to tourists, but, hey, it's Chinese food.  More specifically, the food was the tribal cuisine of Yunnan Province.

The menu was written in Chinese of course, but it had English subtitles.  I didn't see chop suey on the menu, or even egg rolls.  They are called spring rolls.  I ordered seven spice chicken, and it was delicious.  Dianne ordered the Number 2, which turned out to be a chicken dish with onions and peanuts.   The appetizer was shrimp spring rolls with fresh vegetables and some type of brown chili sauce on the side for dipping.  The menu also featured stir fried fish, egg fried rice, prawns in hot and sour sauce, and Chicken Burmese curry.  The food was reasonably prices and outstanding.  The bottle of water cost $13 U.S., more than the main course. 

The waiters kept looking at their watches, apparently priding themselves on their quick service.  Patience is a Chinese virtue but not an American one.


On our last full day in Shanghai, we took a taxi to the silk factory and to the Old Town market, both within a mile or two from our hotel.   The silk factory is, well, a factory!  You walk in and see open boxes of silkworms in piles of mulberry leaves.   They take the cocoons and unravel them on looms, add colors  and then make the cloth into clothes, scarves, etc.  The attached factory store has a whole department devoted to duvets and bedspreads.  Other departments sell scarves, ties, blouses and other clothing.  Hanging on the walls are numerous design to choose from.  We bought some scarves and a silk tie which I wore that evening. 

The Old Town market in Shanghai is an uplifting experience.  Thousands of tourists mill about in the streets.  It was lunchtime, and we went into McDonald's for a burger and coke.  It was wall to wall people in there, and I had to fight through the line to get served.

Young men skated through the crowd, selling toys.  We made eye contact with a "new friend" and got Shanghaied into a mall.   Like the markets in many countries, the Chinese employ agents on the street to confront tourists and drag them inside.  The mall was a large warehouse type building with many small merchants, each with his own stall, peddling goods which hung from the rafters.   The ground floor was mostly jewelry shops.  Dianne told the agent she wanted to see purses or handbags.  The man took us up a back elevator to the top floor.  We wandered through dark warrens past empty shops.  We weren't sure if we would get out alive.  I was looking for the "Exit" sign, but I can't read Chinese. 

We finally came to a shop filled with Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags, cheap!  The shopkeeper gave us the hard sell as if he were selling timeshares.  We didn't buy.  Dianne suggested scarves.  Our new friend and agent led us down the elevator to a merchant on the third floor. In a small shop, we brushed our way through the Burberry and Louis Vuitton cashmere scarves to the back of the store.  We negotiated with the manager and purchased several for a good price.  They would quote us the price for one and I asked "How much for two--three--five?"  We were happy with out purchase.

We walked back to our hotel past the many street vendors selling their arts and crafts spread out on blankets on the sidewalks.  Shanghai has many other tourist attractions like Yuyuan Gardens, the Tea House, the Jade Buddhist Temple, Shanghai Museum, the Chinese Communist Museum (the Party started in Shanghai) and the Aquarium.  We saw those 4 years ago on our last trip.  (see KENSUSKINREPORT, Feb. 15, 2011)


A short distance across the East China Sea is Jeju Island, in the Korea Strait, and one of the nine provinces of South Korea.  We spent an afternoon there.

The culture of Jeju is distinct from the rest of Korea.  For example, one sees hundreds of carved basalt stone statues all over the island.  They are called hareubang ("stone grandfathers").  Legend has it that women who want to get pregnant rub the noses of the statues.  They seem to have shiny noses. 

Jeju is a resort area favored by Koreans because of the balmy climate.  We didn't book a tour but instead hired a taxi to drive us around Jeju City for an hour or so for $20, which is about 20,000 won in Korean money.   The exchange rate is about 1000 won to the dollar.  So almost everyone in South Korea is a millionaire.   We could have taken the Jeju Golden Bus, a get on, get off sightseeing bus which covers the whole city.  The problem with that is once you get off you can't get back on until the next bus comes an hour later.   So the taxi was the right choice. 

The guidebook described the attractions.  There weren't a lot of them although there is some nice scenery on the other side of this volcanic island.   The guidebooks mention a Teddy Bear Museum, but we didn't go.  We asked our driver (who spoke only Korean) to take us to the Dragon Rock.  Actually, we pointed to a photo of the rock, and driver figured out what we wanted.  Yongduam Rock is a lava rock resembling a dragon's head, assuming anyone really knows what a dragon looks like.  It is on the shore, and I stumbled across large black lava rocks on the beach to reach it.   The rock and the waterfront backdrop make this a popular spot for Koreans to get married.

We then asked the driver to drop us off at the bustling Dongmun Market where the locals eat.  We wanted to see how Koreans really live.   They eat a lot of fish and seafood.  Octopus, abalone, hairtail, eels.  The market stalls displayed these many varieties of raw fish on open wooden racks.   Ladies tend steaming savory pots of fish soup.  Other stalls sell meat, fresh vegetables, tangerines, canned goods and clothes.  Chocolate candy is very popular, especially tangerine  flavored.  They sell them in lots of 10 boxes tied together. 

We crossed the street from the market and posed on an interesting bridge with carved stone figures instead of columns holding up the bridge.