Man, I could not design a place more different from Japan if you paid me. China has been amazing, and while I pretty much knew what to expect from friends and tour books, I guess you just can’t fully comprehend what a place is like until you go there.
The differences between the two Asian countries were apparent from the moment that David and I stepped off the boat from Kobe. Although Shanghai is very much a modern city, I was shocked at how dilapidated it seemed at first – buildings were crumbling everywhere, you could see holes in the walls, and men were sleeping shirtless all over the streets. We passed two armless beggars and one man urinating in a small alley before hopping into a cab to our hostel. After nearly plowing over two pedestrians along the way home, the driver tried to short-change us upon our arrival. I was definitely in for some culture shock.
But then, I suppose everything has its price. I’ve been told again and again how cheap life in China is, but somehow it’s hard to imagine being able to live like a king for a few bucks a day. Trust me, it’s possible. In Osaka a taxi ride from one metro station to the next runs you somewhere around $20. The same distance in Shanghai can be traveled for under $3. Metro tickets start at less than 30 cents rather than the $2 that I’ve grown so accustomed to. That’s the price I pay for the bows and courtesy for which Japan has grown so famous.
The first meal David and I ate in Shanghai was an extravagant Indian one in a restaurant so nice that it made the two of us a little uncomfortable. We had three waiters for the two of us, ready to refill our waters before we could place them back on the table. The meal cost just under $10 total.
And at only $6 a night, our hostel was the nicest we’d stayed at so far. We quickly made friends with our two roommates, a German girl and a former UCLA student, as well as a one month old kitten who lived in the lobby before heading out to visit a nearby temple housing a giant Jade Buddha.
But because both of us were pretty tired from all of the recent traveling, after only a few hours of roaming we decided to head back and recharge. I still wasn’t completely recovered from the previous week in Tokyo and didn’t want to push myself into further sickness. We treated ourselves to 640ml beers (at a cost of around 40 cents each) followed by a $7 hour-long full-body massage, concluding our first day in China. I’ll tell ya, I could sure get used to this lifestyle.
When we woke up on the second day it was lightly drizzling, but as most of Shanghai’s sights are outdoors we decided to do our best with the tiny umbrellas we bought off of an old woman on the street. David, myself, and Jose (our hostel roommate) walked all around Pudong, the new finance headquarters, as well as Nan Jing Road, or as I like to call it “The Tokyo of China.” Every now and then we were forced into a phone booth or subway station when the rain suddenly turned from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour. The extreme humidity accompanied by soggy clothes didn’t make for the most pleasant traveling situation, but looking back on it the day was still pretty interesting.
You know, somehow the name “Shanghai” always used to remind me of that scene at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t doubt that the city once looked like that, but it’s pretty hard to imagine it like that nowadays. With one fourth of the world’s construction cranes, Shanghai is one of the most rapidly changing cities out there. And even though much of it looks like what you’d expect any third-world country to look like (the average per capita income in China is less than $2,000 US), much of it looks like a snapshot right out of a science fiction movie, built in advance to save some trouble for when the year 3000 finally rolls around.
We explored the city until the bug bites on our feet covered more area than the unaffected skin, finally putting a perfect cap on our “future day” with a brief ride on the Maglev Train. Sorry, Japanese Shinakansen – you’ve been one-upped by a 431kph (267mph) hover-train making the ride from the airport into the city take less than six minutes each way.
For day number three we headed to the French Concession, a section of Shanghai that’s nearly indistinguishable from many of the European countries I visited last summer…just one more look for this city of so many different faces. Since we’re trying to travel on as tight a budget as possible, David and I were hesitant to go into such upper-class and expensive-looking restaurants, but we figured that it would be alright to splurge every now and then. I guess we still haven’t quite accepted the fact that we’re in China. “Splurging” turned out to mean a fantastic all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ identical in every way to the $50 restaurant in San Diego, except for the fact that it cost less than $8. With guts stretched to their limits, we continued our walk through a nearby communist propaganda museum and park.
But our inability to exercise self-control in the face of all-you-can-eat meat forced us to take a short siesta on one of the park benches – providing the setting for our first wacky China encounter. Apparently Japan isn’t the only place in Asia where the locals show an eerily deep interest in the affairs of foreigners.
But wait, before I describe this little encounter I should mention that so far I’ve seen significantly less foreigners in China than in Japan. With the exception of our hostel, David and I often go six hours or more without encountering a single non-Chinese person. I’m sure you can imagine how many stares and surprised looks we get – particularly because David is 6’4″, towering over 99% of the locals.
These stares are something I’ve grown rather accustomed to since moving to Japan eight months ago, and pretty much stopped noticing…until coming to China. The big difference is that in Japan, politeness is so important that people try as hard as they can to hide their interest; maybe they’ll peek out of the corner of their eye, or discuss my presence quietly with a friend (falsely assuming that I can’t understand them).
Apparently no such requirement exists here in China, as time and time again David and I will be intensely stared at by a nearby pedestrian, customer, tourist, etc. They’ll simply stare at us with the most bewildered look on their face, never breaking the gaze. Returning their stare has no effect, nor does our inability to maintain straight faces. When we walk by shops people don’t hide a quiet giggle like in Japan, but shout out “HELLO!!” as loud as they possibly can and then start cracking up when we look their direction.
But every once in awhile, something truly memorable happens. This park was the setting for one such encounter.
“Justin, I think you should look at this” David said to me as I lay with my eyes closed on the quiet park bench. I rolled over and opened my eyes to see an old Chinese woman standing awkwardly about ten feet in front of the bench, staring directly at us. “Just ignore her, maybe she’ll go away” I said. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them thirty seconds later she was five feet away, standing all by herself directly in front of us, staring directly at us, saying nothing. “This is very strange,” David commented. “Yes,” I agreed. “Where are you from?” The old lady asked.
We lied. We told her we were from Canada, as I’ve learned that thanks to the recent choices made by just over half of the USA, Americans are strongly disliked throughout much of the world. She told us she was glad, because China has a good relationship with Canada…and that she was glad we weren’t Americans because she despises the current American government. David and I just smirked at each other.
She invited herself to sit with us. She asked if I was lying on the bench because I was sick, telling me that she was a doctor and could heal me. I told her that there was no need for her to be touching my face, and that I was just tired from walking around all day. She then began to unravel the history of China, its relationship with many foreign governments, the significance of the various areas of Shanghai, and so forth. We listened for a bit and then excused ourselves. Interesting.
Next we headed up to the top of Jin Mao Tower (the fourth tallest building in the world) for a panoramic view of Shanghai, followed by a two-hour search for a spectacular teahouse seated in the middle of an illuminated pond. The conclusion of our two-hour search yielded not a teahouse but another humorous story. What we found was an under-construction structure seated in a drained pond filled with piles of bricks and lumber. Simply gorgeous!
And since our search brought us well into the evening, we decided to pay Nan Jing Road one last visit on the way home – our previous visit was during a rainy day, and I really wanted to see what the place looked like all lit up, especially on a Saturday night. We weren’t even there for five minutes before the day’s next humorous encounter. After wandering away from David for no more than 30 seconds to shoot a picture of the street lights, I returned to find him accompanied by two Chinese girls. He said they just came up to him and asked where he was from and who he was traveling with. It seemed pretty shady, but we had nothing better to do so we talked to them as we made our way down the street and towards the next subway station.
Soon after they invited us to go drinking at a nearby bar. “Oh, so they’re working for that place” I thought to myself, “trying to hustle in foreign customers.” We said that after a long day of walking, we really needed to head home for a shower. They followed us for several blocks, begging that we take them drinking each time we passed a different bar or even coffee shop. “I know what this is,” David whispered to me. “I read about this. These are Shanghai Drinking Girls. They just want to drink for free, so they try to get foreigners all excited about being hit on and then rack up a nice bar tab for themselves.” Their persistence was astonishing. We kept on telling them “we’ll meet up with you later, we just have to go home and shower first” and they kept on saying “But we’re so tired, we don’t want to be out late…let’s just go and hang out for twenty minutes! Just twenty minutes!” Eventually we took down their phone number (yeah, right) and got on a subway home.
So let’s see…yesterday was the day of the future, and today has thus far been the day of funny stories. I believe we should end it with one more funny story. Over the past week I’ve been e-mailing with some college buddies who’ve spent time living in Shanghai trying to locate the best place to go out at night. While the original plan was to get the “party” leg of the trip out of the way in Tokyo, David and I just couldn’t resist at least one night out in China. So we started chugging 30cent beers in our room, and took a $2 cab across town to a club called Pegasus. Stoked for our first taste of Shanghai nightlife, we paid the entrance fee and rushed inside. What did we find? Five people…including the two bartenders. Sweeet.
But the night was not a total loss, because the doorman graciously refunded our money and after a short cab ride back to the hostel David, myself, and Giannina (the German girl from our room) found ourselves roaming the streets in search of a late-night foot massage. “It’s as if the entire country ate asparagus and then took a leak all over itself,” David so eloquently described the evening air of Shanghai. I couldn’t really disagree, but I still loved seeing the city by night. It really puts a whole new spin on things. Perhaps the most interesting things we saw were the countless card tables set up on the streets, crowded around by as many as fifteen men, all in their underwear, shouting in Chinese as their friends played games of Majong or cards, horns still blazing as motorscooters zoom by recklessly on the street behind us.
Eventually we did find a massage parlor where we enjoyed an hour of foot-rubbing for just over $3. According to Giannina (who spoke a bit of Chinese) the women spent the bulk of the time discussing how David is “big” and how I am “beautiful” (something that we would hear exactly six more times over the course of the next two days).
For day four we woke up around 11:00, had a quick breakfast of steamed buns from a street stall (at under three cents apiece) and took a cab to the outskirts of town for a day of snowboarding. In the summer. In an insanely hot and humid part of the world. How? Indoors!
It was pretty crazy to see an entire ski slope built into a warehouse, and apparently pretty crazy for the locals to see two white people with snowboards (the picture to the left is a guy who asked to have is picture taken with us after we asked him to take a picture of us. He smelled like whisky.) But we got tired of the same kiddy hill after an hour and headed out on foot to see what we could find.
What we found was a touristed-out “traditional town,” but because there wasn’t a single other foreign tourist – only Chinese – it still felt pretty cool to us. I guess because this place wasn’t listed in Lonely Planet and it’s quite a distance outside of the city it still remains distinctly Chinese, touristy as it may be. We got to see a few performances (including a man dressed up as two men fighting each other), a shopping arcade with some delicious looking inside-out animal carcasses in the restaurant windows, and even an eight-story pagoda…that we were able to climb up inside!
And once again, we ended the day with none other than a massage…this time, a head massage. But in honor of Giannina’s last night at the hostel we decided to splurge and add on an additional foot massage…something that turned into one of the most fun nights yet.
The three of us were placed in the same room for simultaneous foot massages. Neither David nor I had met our masseuses before (most of our massages were at the same parlor, just down the street from our hostel, so we were getting to know some of the staff…as well as one can without being able to communicate a single word). Giannina’s masseur was a 20-year old Chinese guy who spent as much time telling her how beautiful she was and how she needed a Chinese boyfriend if she wanted to fully learn the language as he did actually rubbing her feet.
Although I couldn’t understand a thing that was going on in the conversation, I decided to try to have as much fun with it as I could. I started mimicking words and phrases in Chinese, speaking slow/simple English, telling jokes, doing whatever I could to get a rise out of them. By her reactions, I’m pretty sure that David’s masseur understood English a lot better than she let on (she refused to say even a single word). But after a full hour of laughing so loud that the rest of the staff had to come in to see what was going on (and a few stares from the one random Chinese guy in the room) we were all ready for one last good night’s sleep in Shanghai before heading out to…
Hang Zhou, “One of the most beautiful places in China”!
But I’ll save that for next time.