China


Going green is quite trendy these days. Local and organic farmers are being glorified (most recently by me, as I spent a blissful Saturday on an off-the-grid dairy farm), solar panels seem to be popping up everywhere, and mainstream magazines are splashing “Green Living!” articles across their glossy non-recycled covers.

Sorry my fellow Western tree-huggers. Chinese people SO have us beat.

Yeah, I’m talking about that China: The polluted, industrial, skyscraper haven that’s pumping out fossil fuels faster than doctors can diagnose new cases of asthma. It may be the most polluted country on Earth, but its citizens are greener then NPR, Al Gore, and my Mom put together.  

Let’s start with food. During a recent trip to Inner Mongolia all I was served was lamb, milk tea and celery. Why? Well, celery was in season and based on all the sheep and cows I saw roaming through the streets I’m guessing that they are always in season. Throughout the rest of China I had watermelon after every single breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? It’s local. Chinese people don’t go to farmers markets for the “atmosphere” or because Martha Stewart does. That’s just where the food is.

 

And the Chinese get to those watermelon stalls on bikes. Although the car market is growing at an exponential rate, bikes are still a major form of transportation. The wealthy city of Hangzhou is embracing and encouraging this green method of transport by providing bikes practically for free. Fully stocked bike shelters are positioned at every corner so riders can pick up and drop off bikes all over the city. With a quick swipe of a card, you can unlock and use a bike for an hour before fees start accumulating. As long as you remember to switch bikes every 59 minutes you can ride all day for free. In addition to limiting drivers’ licenses, this is one method of the fast-growing city’s attempt to keep the traffic in check while the subway is being installed.

 

And subways! You Chinese and Europeans don’t know how good you have it. If you say “subway” to someone in America, they immediately start salivating for a sandwich. Then they drive their SUV to the nearest sub shop for a tasty meal. The subway (as in the transportation device, not the sandwich) was my best friend in Shanghai. It allowed me to stay in a nicer yet cheaper hotel and still explore every inch of this Paris-of-the-East without consuming any gas. I have lofty dreams of subway lines connecting all my favorite American cities, but my Republican countrymen seem to enjoy their Ford pickups a little too much for this to be a reality.

And while subways are green, convenient, and modern, much of China’s green living is due to their status as a not-quite-developed country. Hand washing clothes is a vestige of limited means, although many parents buy their only child an expensive phone and iPad without even considering buying a washer or dryer. Laundry is hung out to dry in every building in every city throughout China. My daily jog took me past a community of mansions that all featured clotheslines in their expansive yards. The lawn maintenance staff would step around their client’s sequined tops and lacy bras as they planted expensive flowerbeds around the house.

So here we are. The Communist Chinese government chugs on towards a capitalistic modernity as Michelle Obama plots out vegetable gardens for the White House. The Chinese masses pedal their way to the supermarket as urbanites drive to co-op farms. And into a climatically challenged world we all head.

I fork over the equivalent of $6 and hop on the bike. It’s mine for the day. For the first time in weeks I have my own ride. This rusty contraption that holds two wheels together gives me an exhilarating rush of freedom. I grin like a mad woman for the first two miles. I’m so happy to be off my feet that I don’t even mind the motorcycles, cars and buses that come within inches of grazing my handlebars.

 

I could really get used to this biking thing. Slightly delusional images of myself biking through the San Juan islandsand completing triathlons in 8-panal bike shorts fill my mind as I roll down the streets of Suzhou on my pink one-speed.

Then the self doubt starts. I remind myself that this is a one-off. I wouldn’t be able to change a flat tire and I’d be screwed if a hill popped up. Who am I kidding? I’m not a biker! Then I think back fifteen years. That stops the negativity.

Because a decade and a half ago, I wasn’t a runner either.

In middle school I HATED running. With a passion. I used to conjure up every excuse in the book in attempt to get out of the 1/2 a mile “fun run” around the school. When the excuses didn’t work I’d make it about forty steps before slowing to a walk, red faced with over-exertion and shame.   

But in high school I was jealous of the track team with their cool sweatshirts and their close-knit team bond. A friend talked me into joining the team on the false pretense that I could throw or jump – no running required!

It was a season of humiliation and misery. Throwing and jumping did not turn out to be my great hidden talents. But by the end of May, I could run a mile. Barely, but I could. I kept running all summer and something finally clicked. I joined the cross country team in the fall and to everyone’s amazement I somehow made varsity.

 The rest of my high school days were filled with team dinners, mile repeats, races in the rain, captains patches on my letter jacket, and the finishing chute of a marathon. Since then, running has given me an excuse to travel. It’s been a cornerstone of friendships. It’s an escape from cancer diagnoses and the end of relationships. Plus running has kept my thighs in check. (Well, kind of). I don’t know who I’d be today if I wasn’t a runner.

So maybe I could be a biker. I power up the hill and avoid hitting a family of Chinese people on a scooter. I’m pedaling fast and smiling again. Who knows what great new things biking could give me? This ride through the smoggy streets of Suzhoumay be the start of something great. 

To rent bikes in Suzhou, find the new Suzhou art museum on Renmin Lu (road.) Turn into the alley just past the museum (towards town). The alley is behind shot #2061. There will be a bike rental sign (in English!) pointing you in the right direction. Look for this guy:

He’ll hand you an explanation of his policies, which basically state that the bike is your until 6:00pm and you have to give him 200 yuan (about $30) as a deposit. The rental fee is another 60 yuan. The bike comes with a lock as well.

The shop is near the tallest pagoda in town, which is handy when you are finding your way back. That pagoda is on 1918 Renmin Lu.

The people of Suzhou are helpful almost to a fault. Every time I stepped to check out my map it wouldn’t take two seconds for someone to ask:

“May I help you?” Everyone would ask me this, even if that line is the only English they know. I started making up questions to ask people, because it was easier than declining or refusing any help.

“North?” I’d ask the helpful person, pointing in a random direction.

“North.” The helpful person would confirm.

We’d nod our heads at each other, satisfied with our mutual geographic knowledge and then head our separate ways.

I’m not really a museum person, which I learned after dragging myself to every art museum in Venice before remembering that, oh yeah, I don’t really love art. However, whenever it started pouring down rain in Shanghai I would quickly find the nearest museum to seek shelter in. It rained a lot.

The Shanghai Museum

Billed as “the best museum in China,” by various guidebooks, I actually planned on going to this one. It was okay. I explored the four floors under the guidance of my English audio guide which was 40 yuan (about $7) plus a 400 yuan deposit. Because it didn’t cost too much, the audio guide was worth it. However, it’s not a necessity because all captions are translated into English. The museum featured:

  • The Bronze Galley: Mildly boring except I did like the section that showed how one went about making a bronze item back in the day. The Chinese would create molds out of clay and then pour molten bronze into the molds, waiting until things hardened up before breaking the clay mold.
  • The Sculpture Gallery: Essentially a gallery or Buddhas and Bodeshatvas. It was a bit more interesting, mainly because I like looking people more than things.
  • The Maori artifacts Gallery: A special exhibit that will be in Shanghai until October. I especially liked the bird trapping devices featured here.
  • The Ceramics Gallery: It’s interesting how much our normal chinaware of today resembles ceramics and china from centuries ago. Talk about lasting art!
  • Coin Gallery: The initial six rooms of coins can be sped through, but the last exhibit on Silk Road currency was pretty interesting.
  • Jade Gallery: Lots of jade. It’s green. What else can I say?
  • Furniture Gallery: This is pretty interesting, but if you’ve been to any museums that are former residences of rich guys, you’ve already seen it. I liked the fact that not only were folding chairs were around in the eighteenth century, but to sit in one was a seat of honor. At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table, my parents sit in the folding chairs and save the nice seats for our guests.
  • Chinese Minority Gallery: This was the most interesting exhibit, and sadly the last one I went to. By the time I’d reached the top floor I was running out of museum patience. I wish I would have started here. On display were various costumes and traditional dress of the people from the outer reaches of China (Tibet, Inner Mongolia, the Uighur Muslims, etc).    

The Shanghai Museum is free. It’s open Monday through Friday from 9-5. To get there, take metro line 1 to the People’s Square. Inside the immense metro station, follow the signs to exit 1 (there are 19 exits). The address is 201 Renmin Ave, but the entrance is on West Yan’an Rd.

MOCA: The Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai

I blew into this museum absolutely drenched, despite the fact that I had an umbrella. The museum was heavily air conditioned. Plus, as previously mentioned, I’m not a huge art fan. So I was prepared to be irritated.

Luckily for me, the featured exhibit was Disney’s PIXAR. How can you be unhappy when surrounded with Toy Story and Ratatouille characters? I didn’t learn anything about China, but I did enjoy watching the animation process come to life. There is no permanent exhibit at this museum, but I hear that things are usually laid out pretty well here. That was certainly the case with the PIXAR exhibit.

MOCA is in the middle of People’s Square, at 231 Nanjing West Road. Take metro line 1 to People’s Square and follow the signs. The PIXAR exhibit will be featured until the end of October. The MOCA fees change depending on the exhibit. I paid 80 yuan (about $10). The museum is open daily from 10 to 6.  

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and Ohel Moishe Synagogue:

I LOVED this museum! It was only two rooms plus the synagogue, but I spent more time here then at the entire Shanghai Museum. This was probably because I was taking pictures of every artifact as I planning lessons (whole units, actually) for my non-existent students. I am really going to miss teaching next year.

Unbeknownst to me, as the rest of the world was shutting its doors to Jewish immigration during the 1930’s Shanghai became one of the few places where fleeing Jews could go. The Chinese explanation on this is that the Chinese people/government is just that much more caring than the rest of the world. However, I suspect that the lack of visa regulations and laws in Shanghai (which was an international city at the time) might have a little do to with things as well. Jewish refugees congregated near what is today the museum and built a life of sorts in Shanghai. The museum houses many of their stories and artifacts. Inside the synagogue is a database of the Jewish refugees and a continuously running TV program (one hour long) about some of the Jews that have returned to Shanghai for nostalgic purposes.

The Jewish Refugees Museum and Synagogue is 50 yuan. It is open daily from 9-5. They have free tours every 45 minutes, which seemed a little unnecessary since I was one of three patrons and everything was in English. The museum is at 62 Changyang Road. Take metro line 4 to the Dalian road station and head east for about three blocks. You can check out Huoshan Park on your way there, also a Jewish site. I didn’t linger due to the thunder, lightening, and rain pouring sideways, but it looked nice.

Site of the 1st National Congress of the CPC:

This museum is the old house of one of the first champions of communism, and one of the sites were meetings were taking place. When the police were tipped off on the location of the underground group, Mao and his men finished up their plans in a tourist boat on a nearby lake. The crowded museum was not super interesting. The two or three rooms featured mostly pictures of Mao and his cohorts. At the end of the museum is a 3D model of the revolutionaries at a table, drinking tea and sorting out their red plans.

The site of the 1st National Congress of the CPC is open daily from 9-5. It is located in the middle of Xintiandi, an upscale shopping center in the middle of the French concessions, which is kinda funny. Admission is free, naturally. No sense in having a Communist museum if the bourgeoisies are the only people who can afford to frequent it. You do have to collect your free ticket before entering the museum. Take metro line 1 to the Xintiandi station and head into the shopping quarters. Maps (in English) are all over the place and can direct you to the museum. 

Shanghai Urban Planning Museum

This vestige of last years Shanghai Expo is a geography teachers dream. The museum uses old maps, pictures and 3D models to show off the city’s past and hopes for the future. The entire third floor of the museum is a model lay-out of the city. Shanghai apparently has a “leave no space un-skyscrapered” approach to urban planning.

The museum also features

  • A photography exhibit glorifying construction workers
  • A laughable “Green Living” section
  • A kids section where little ones can design their own Expo site on touch screen computers
  • Models of metro station hubs and computer simulations of people living in houses during different historical periods
  • The 5th floor is a “photo story” of the rise of the Communist Party. It doesn’t really match the rest of the museum, and is the only exhibit not translated into English

The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum is open daily from 9-5 (Friday – Sunday until 6). Ticket prices start at 30 yuan, with discounts for seniors, students, and children. The museum is located on the west side of the People’s Park. To get there, take metro line 1 to the People’s Square and take exit #2 out of the station.

While there is a LOT to do in Shanghai, shopping remains king. I met a gal here from Beijing who came with an empty suitcase and one purpose. To fill it. Her attempt to close the bag at the end of her two days in Shanghai was testament to sheer shopping options in Shanghai. Whether you want high end merchandise, fake high end merchandise, cheap souvenirs, or a cool window shopping experience: Shanghai has you covered.

Old Town

For souviners that scream “China,” the place to go is Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai’s rapidly disappearing Old Town. I remember Yu Gardens from when I was here six years ago. It was loud, crowded, dirty, and most of all: smelly. I was kinda sad when I returned. Yu Gardens (like all of Shanghai) has cleaned up. The sewer smell was almost non-existent and the din of the crowd seemed calmer too. This is still the place for Chinese-y souvenirs though. Jade Buddha’s, China dolls, silk in any form, chopsticks, and toys spill out from store fronts into the streets. Yu Gardens is all about bargaining – you can usually get whatever you want for at least ½ (if not ¼) of the initial asking price. Bargaining is done via calculator. The salesclerk will type in a ridiculous price, you’ll type in a fourth of that price and then she looks hurt, as if she’d have to live in a cardboard box for the rest of her life if that’s all you’re willing to pay. However if you shrug and walk away she’ll most likely chase you down the street, accepting that price after all. Yu Gardens isn’t really a place to spend a day – it’s kinda tacky. For some ambiance with your shopping, head uptown.

The French Concessions

There are two main shopping centers in the French Concessions, Xintiandi and Taikang. Taikang was my favorite by far. You know how trendy boutique places in America try to create an “old world” feel by creating fake old building and putting up strings of lights? The Taikang Road Art Centre accomplishes that feel without even trying. The narrow alleys, cobblestone walkways and tiny cafes create an endless maze of shops and wine bars. Chinese people live in or above the shops, thus solidifying that this place is “real,” not created. The prices vary here. I got a dress for the equivalent of $15, although most stores were offering merchandise at ten times the price. The restaurant options at Taikang are plentiful, whether you want Tibetan dumplings, New York pizza, Spanish tapas, Tandori chicken, Japanese sushi, or Swiss fondue. Most restaurants have just a few tables and a tiny bar area so prepare to get cozy with the people around you. I ate at a little Italian place (I missed cheese, what can I say?) and watched my waiter/cook make my fettuccini carbonara from my perch at the bar. Taikang Road is right across the street from the Dapuqiao station on metro line 9.

Xintiandi is the other cluster of shops in the French concessions. This place had a decidedly more “French” feel (as opposed to Taikang, which was more international) and was a little more boring. There were some cute stores, but the big restaurants and open courtyards felt a little too close to a shopping mall for my taste. Many of the restaurants were American chains – Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks (of course), and even California Pizza Kitchen. The Xintiandi metro station is on line 10.     

Nanjing Road

For brand name shopping amongst crowds and crowds of people, head to the pedestrian-only Nanjing Road. This has been the fashion mecca of Shanghai for nearly one hundred years and is centrally located between People’s Square and the Bund. Hundreds of stores, hotels, and McDonalds can be found along this shopper’s haven. While taking in the crowds and stores along Nanjing Road, be prepared for numerous “salesmen” to come up to you with laminated pictures of Rolex watches and Gucci bags. If you show the slightest bit of interest (a millisecond of eye contact for example), they’ll lead you just off the main drag to a room full of (illegal) fakes. On a **ahem** totally unrelated note, I am the proud owner of a new “Coach” purse. To get to the heart of Nanjing Road, head for the East Nanjing Road station (not the West) on metro line 2.

 

Faking it under the Science and Technology Museum

If you have a long shopping list from your girlfriends that includes Coach, Gucci, Prada, head across the river to Pudong. You’ll find the mother of all fake markets under the Science and Technology Museum. Be sure to bargain here as well. If you can’t find the exact thing you are looking for, the storekeepers will pull extra stock for you out of hidden nooks and crannies, behind false walls or in another location. To get to the fake markets, take metro line 2 to the Science and Technology Museum, and there you are.    

Be aware that fakes are technically illegal. On your way back to the states you are asked to declare purchases and customs people can inspect your luggage. If they find twenty “Prada” bags you might find yourself in a bit of trouble.

After sleeping in a non-mattressed dorm room, this place was the Hilton to me. It wasn’t quite the best hostel ever, but it’s up there. The main drawback to the Shanghai City Central is that it is NOT in the center of the city. It’s located quite north of Shanghai. However, if you have an affinity for local noodle shops and taking the metro everywhere, then this is the place for you. I had planned on only staying a couple of nights and then moving closer into the city, but the metro was so convenient that I ended up staying here for my entire trip. There was quite a mix of people at the hostel. In addition to the usual backpackers, there were families, people working temporarily in the city, and guests staying here for several weeks.  

Because of its non0central location, the hostel knows that it has to compensate in other ways. Therefore amenities are abundant. A free breakfast buffet (soup, dumplings, toast w/jam and cereal) from 7:30 – 9:30 is included. A fancier breakfast is available for a little extra. Food and drinks are available for purchase during breakfast hours and again from 7pm until 2:30 at night. The place has a pretty good vibe at night with a pool table, televisions, music, and low strobe lights completing the ambiance. A variety of drinks are available. I had a couple Tequila Sunrises for 20 yuan each.

Other amenities include computers which are available for a 10 yuan per 15 minute interval. Free and reliable WiFi is available downstairs. The hostel also has laundry facilities. You can do your own laundry (10 yuan for use of the washing machine, about 5 yuan for the dryer – which will take about three hours) or drop it off at the front desk for a fee of 15 yuan per kilo of laundry. A pretty good library and a ping-pong table on the front deck round out the lobby.

Room options are plentiful. A family suite goes for 460 yuan. You can also rent a double, single, or dorm style room for 250, 150, and 70, respectively. A female only dorm can be requested for no additional charge. Consistently clean bathrooms and showers are shared at the end of each hallway. When checking in, be prepared to put down a 100 yuan deposit for your room key. This hotel is also one of the few places in Shanghai with an elevator and a ramp to get into the hotel. Because of the step down to the dining room and the lip on the showers, I’m not going to go on record saying this hostel is completely accessible, but a few guests here had mobility issues, so I’m guessing it’s one of the better options in Shanghai for the disabled.  

The directions on the hostel’s website suck, so here you go:

From the train station or the airport take metro line 3 or 4 to Caoyang Road. Once disembarking your subway, exit Caoyang Station at exit #6, near the McDonalds (don’t follow the crowd to metro line 11). Turn right out of the metro station, heading east on Kaizuan road (not like there will be a sign). You will be walking under the metro tracks. If you hit Caoyang road, you’re going the wrong direction – turn around. After about a five minute walk, you’ll hit Wuning road (the first cross street you come to). Cross the street and turn right (heading south on Wunin road). You’ll pass about three storefronts before seeing this façade:

Turn left into the neighborhood and you’ll see the hostel on your right in about 100m. The address is 300 Wuning Road.

The 1933 building: Packing Meat No Longer

Who knew meat processing plants used to be so cool looking? This old abattoir (a new word for me too) in Northern Shanghai has been preserved from its carnivorous days and now functions as housing for boutique shops. Little has been done to alter the building, which is a good thing. A purse store hangs its merchandise along the brick walls. Extra stock is kept behind a tiny door that I image pig’s feet must have been stored. A jewelry store is holed up in a cylindrical space in the center of the building, spiral staircases surrounding it. A few cafes and restaurants have sprung up in the bigger areas.

But there is still retail space to be had. It’ll be interesting to hear what comes of the 1933 building, which had the misfortune of turning into a retail outlet just as the recession hit. Not helping is the fact that it’s in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Shanghai. I liked this becuase it was mostly empty and I got to wander freely through its slightly creepy low-ceilinged rooms, but I was trying to ignore the feeling of impending doom for the building. There’s nothing the Shanghainese like better than bulldozers and shiny new high-rises.

To check out the 1933 building for yourself, take metro line 10 to Hailun Road. Head south for about 1/3 of a mile. It is on the corner of Shajing and Zhoujiazui (10 Shajing). Come right before sunset and climb to the top of the building for views of Shanghai. The surrounding area is also pretty fun. Wuzhou road (east of, or behind the 1933 building) features rows of live-in stores selling produce, live chickens, meat and fish. The fish are also live. In the picture below that man’s arm is retrieving a little guy who tried to hop to freedom down the gutter. He didn’t make it.

Moller House: A Mini Winchester Mansion

You know the story of Sarah Winchester? Eccentric widow and heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah believed that she needed to move out west and commission a house to be built continuously. If construction was stopped, something really bad would happen. The result is the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, CA.

Swede Eric Moller of Shanghai apparently had a similar vision. His house is much smaller than the Winchester place, but features similar turrets and general craziness. The Moller house is now a hotel and popular wedding destination among the Shanghai elite. If you follow the walkway along the western gardens, there are tables enclosed in individual glass pagodas for evening dining.

To get to the Moller house, take metro line 1 to South Shaanxi Road. Head north. It’ll be on your left in about ½ a mile. It’s at 30 Sough Shaanxi Road. If you get to the Yan’an overpass you’ve gone too far. If you feel the need to watch old people exercise (including the high stepped backwards walk), take a detour through Xiangyang Park. It’s just west of the metro station.

Shanghai’s most famous walkway should only be done at night. I learned this the hard way, traipsing along the Huangpu River in the middle of the day, getting sunburned and wondering how I’d found the only stretch of real estate in China that doesn’t sell ice cream bars. On the other hand, if you ever want to escape Chinese mid-day crowds, the Bund is a good place to be.

At night things come alive. I returned after sunset and happily dodged kids flinging light-up slingshots, friends taking peace-sign-flashing photos, and couples strolling hand in hand. (Side note: A lot of Chinese guys carry their girlfriend’s purses. I don’t see this catching on in America.)

To get to the Bund, I would suggest heading there via Nanjing Road. Get to this road on metro line 10 or 2 and exit at East Nanjing Road (or if you want a longer walk, get off at the People’s Square station instead – metro lines 2, 8, or 1) and head east. Nanjing Road has long been the fashion mecca of China. This pedestrian only thoroughfare is the only place in China where you don’t stand the risk of being run over by a motorcycle. By day, Nanjing road is just the place to move from one store to another. In the evening you can see impromptu dance performances, donate money to living statues, or join in on a sing along fest.

At the corner of Nanjing and Zhongshan roads is the famous Peace Hotel, which has housed many a famous celebrity and revolutionary rabble rouser. Back in the day (pre-1956) it was named the Cathay Hotel.

If you cross Zhongshan road and take the staircase, you’ll be on the Bund. The lit-up scene before you features the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. After taking the obligatory photos, head north. The Bund comes to an end where the Huangpu rives curves left into Suzhou Creek. Huangpu Park is squished between the Bund and Zhongshan Road, and provides a pleasant place during the day to walk among lilies and pagodas while counting the number of Chinese men engaged in what appears to be the national pastime – sleeping. The benches are packed with families at night.

Back up on the Bund is the tri-towered Monument to the People’s Heroes. There’s also museum here about the history of the Bund which I did not frequent. I probably should have though, because admission is free. Anyways, from the park you can take a short walk across the Waibaidu Bridge to check out the Broadway Mansions and expensive hotels on the other side of Suzhou Creek.

While it wasn’t my favorite water-side walkway, or my favorite thing to do in Shanghai, strolling the Bund is something you just have to do while in the city. At night when the neon skyscrapers are pulsating and the well dressed crowds are flowing around you, it’s easy to understand why Shanghai is Asia’s Manhattan, the Paris of the East, and the city that just might help China take over the world

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