I am officially in China, there’s no doubt about it. My stomach told me so. Take my advice if you ever come here: don’t mess with the drinking water. Trust me. Please. I beg you.
The morning after our late-night massage parlor party, David, Giannina and I woke up for a breakfast of beef soup and goose. It’s interesting, but I never really noticed how much I take for granted the simple ability to walk into a restaurant in Japan, read the menu, and order. My knowledge of kanji often gives me hints as to the contents of a dish here in China, but even so you never really know what you’re going to get – one time I pointed at a dish that I recognized to contain “chicken” and what I got was fried chicken chunks, each containing gigantic pieces of bone that were impossible to eat around.
To get around the city we’ve been having the guy at our hostel write an address on paper so that we can show it to a cab driver. It works well enough, but if we want to make even the slightest change in plans – “drop us off around the corner so we can buy a drink,” for example – we can’t. There have been more than a few situations where we were starving but unable to find a place where we could order without fear of…worsening the problem that arises from accidentally ingesting Chinese tap water.
Anyways, after breakfast we said goodbye to Giannina and headed to Shanghai Central Railway Station to hop on a train for Hang Zhou. On the way I had a brief conversation with a group of Chinese kids who approached us on the subway. They were friendly until they learned that I live in Japan, at which point they quickly changed their tune, telling me that Japan sucks, Japanese people are jerks, Japanese is a useless language and I should’ve learned Chinese instead. I guess three generations wasn’t quite enough to “forgive and forget…”
The train ride to Hang Zhou was amusing to say the least…exactly what I expected a train in China to be like. Dirty. Very dirty. Our booth had six seats occupied by myself, David, four adults, and one young Chinese girl sitting on a paint bucket on the floor right next to David’s leg. In fact, her head was on his leg for most of the trip due to lack of space. I pushed the tray of spit-out sunflower seeds aside and spent most of the trip preparing my previous blog update while people yelled back and forth through the train and vendors walked up and down the aisles trying to sell various foods and toys. One of them got us. We bought two pairs of magic socks.
“Is that woman selling socks on a train? Why the hell would I want to buy socks on a train?” David asked. I personally thought it was a pretty weird thing to be selling, and couldn’t understand how she made enough money to support herself with such a strange profession. That is, until she came by our seats. These were no ordinary socks. They were magic, indestructible socks.
First, she allowed one of the passengers to pull and stretch them as much as they could, proving that they could not be ripped. “Big deal,” I thought. Then she pierced the sock with a nail and dragged the nail through the length of the fabric, tearing it…only…it didn’t tear. It made a sound like it was tearing, but when she pulled the nail out the sock was perfect. After that little stunt she had quite a few passengers pulling out their cameras. No one could figure it out. I asked to be allowed to try, and sure enough my efforts left the magical cloth unharmed. Next she held the sock over a lighter. It didn’t burn, but the flame passed right through it as if it wasn’t even there.
Fine, I’ll buy your magic socks!
The only thing is, when I tried to show them off to some people we met at a hostel later on…the lighter burned a hole in one of them. Oh well.
Within minutes of getting off the train in Hang Zhou we were approached by a German couple who were also looking for a place to stay. “Perfect,” we said. “We don’t have any reservations either, we can look together!” We took a bus and a cab to an area listed in their guidebook, David and I quietly laughing among ourselves when the German guy announced to someone, “We are looking for the youth hostel!” “youth” being pronounced “yao-th.” But soon the girl became too whiny for any of us to handle so the guy suggested that we separate and search at our own pace. Moments later were approached by the most stereotypically nerdy Chinese guy you could possibly imagine. His strange behavior and mannerisms gave both David and I a total flashback to the old woman from the park in Shanghai, but since he claimed to know where the yao-th hostel was we gave him the 10 yuan tip (later increased to 20) that he was asking for in exchange for guidance.
This hostel was the best hostel I’ve ever been to, better even than the one I stayed at in Barcelona (my previous favorite – if your name is Noz, Jeff D, or Shahin you’ll know exactly what I mean). For just under $7 a night it offered a huge common room, big screen TV, Playstation 2, DVD’s, free internet, restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, guest kitchen, kittens, couches, window seats, bicycles, comfortable rooms, a view of the lake, and a cute staff. Plus it’s located exactly in the middle of the city’s nightlife, literally right next door to two huge clubs. Highly, highly recommended.
Since we arrived fairly late in the evening we didn’t have time to go out and do any sightseeing, instead we just spent a few hours sipping beers and chatting with a few British travelers who we saw playing drinking games in one of the smaller common rooms. One of the guys invited us out with him and a bunch of his stripper friends in Shanghai two nights later. D’oh. We’ll already be on a train to Beijing by then.
The next day it took me about three seconds to realize how much better I like Hang Zhou than Shanghai. If Shanghai is China’s Tokyo, then Hang Zhou has got to be China’s Kyoto. The air doesn’t smell of pollution, there’s no garbage in the streets, nobody’s passed out all over the sidewalk, there’s tons of greenery and trees, a beautiful lake, plenty of gardens, temples, pagodas, and all of the other fun stuff I like to see when I’m traveling. I mean don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in Shanghai, but the constant cutting in lines/horns blaring/garbage piles/rotten fruit on the streets get a bit tedious after awhile. I like a place where I don’t have to worry about stepping in urine while walking around in flip-flops. I’ve found one.
First thing in the morning we rented bikes and headed out without any real plans. According to our guidebook there’s too much here to see in one day, so rather than forming an overly optimistic and specific plan we simply started riding around the lake and hoped for the best. I’m not sure if the best is what we got, but whatever it was it seemed pretty close to me.
Before making our complete loop around the lake we stumbled on three gardens, two temples, two pagodas each with a fantastic outlook of the lake, and even some caves. Deep ones, with ancient Buddhist carvings in them. I love caves. And what was nice about these is that somehow they weren’t touristy at all – they were actually quite a distance away from the lake, and seemed to have been rarely visited. At some points they became so pitch black that we had to use the night vision on my camcorder to see what was in front of us (Which will it be, the safe passageway or one with a gigantic spider sitting on the ceiling directly overhead?)
We also found our way to Hupao, aka “Tiger Dream Spring.”
Nestled on the slope of Daci Hill, Hangzou, Hupao takes its name from the legend of a monk called Xing Kong during the reign of Yuanhi (806-820AD) of the Tang Dynasty. Being the first Buddhist practitioner settled here, Xing Kong found that there was no drinking water and thought that he’d soon be forced to leave. On the night before his planned departure, however, he had a dream in which a celestial told him that two tigers would be sent to his aid. When he awoke the following morning, he saw two tigers clawing at the ground revealing a bubbling spring.
We continued our random exploration until we realized a potential problem back in Shanghai. It was already September 6th, and we weren’t sure how long we’d reserved the hostel for (because Hang Zhou was an unplanned excursion, and because hotels are so incredibly cheap, we left the bulk of our luggage in our Shanghai hostel). A phone call revealed that we were supposed to have checked out that morning. They told us it would be alright to add one more night but that we needed to come back to pay for the room, so rather than spending a second night in Hang Zhou we hopped on a two-hour bus back to the city.
And when we got back…we slept. And slept. Until 2:00pm, two hours after checkout time. It looks like we’ll be adding two more days in Shanghai instead of one. Just one more chance to find some of that quality Shanghai nightlife we’ve been hearing so much about!
But first, a two-hour Chinese acrobatic show! Some of the stuff these guys did was astonishing, but it was pretty funny how often they messed up, especially because every time they made a mistake they would attempt the same stunt endlessly until they got it right. The stunt pictured here literally took them five tries to get right. Pretty cool, but pretty silly. Those guys actually climbed up the chairs below them and were handed the next chair on a long pole, which they’d have to balance while allowing the next guy to climb on their back…after which they’d one at a time invert to their handstands.
And afterwards…party time. Only this time we made a special point of asking as many people as possible specifically where is fun on a Wednesday. Apparently each venue in this city is very day-specific; a place that’s packed on Thursdays will be absolutely deserted on Saturdays. We ended up at a foreigner-packed bar called Zapatas, where we coincidentally ran into the British guy we met in Hang Zhou!
After the bar (which was packed right up until we left sometime after 4:00am) we roamed the city in search of one last Shanghai massage, emerging afterwards to an already risen sun. We had a quick “breakfast” of steamed buns and knocked out just before 7:00. And at 11:00, with less than four hours of sleep, we checked out of the hostel and headed out…for Go-Karts.
According to our Fodor’s guidebook there’s a place in Shanghai with super-fast karts and a huge indoor track, more like a destruction derby than a race on busy days. It probably sounds stupid to do something like Go-Karting while traveling in China, but we were both far too exhausted to put the effort into leaving the city for another day trip, and felt like we’d seen everything we set out to see in Shanghai.
Plus Go-Karts rule.
But wait, before I continue I feel that I should offer a warning to all fellow travelers out there. Do not ever use a Fodor’s guidebook…they’re horrible. The price categories are way off (for instance, the cheapest category for a hotel in China, represented with a “cents” symbol, starts at $90 a night. We’ve been staying for no more than $7. We went to a restaurant listed under the cheapest category and paid over $12 apiece, still cheap, but when you can get absolutely stuffed for under $3 it’s not really reasonable that they’d list that as the “cheapest.”) It’s also very non-specific with regards to directions, doesn’t use any Chinese characters for place names (so cab drivers won’t understand where you want to go), and the maps only show names for the biggest streets in the city. None of the places we stayed at were even listed. No business hours are listed, even when they’re unusual.
Anyways, back to the go-karts. We arrived at the place at 1:00pm to find a beautiful, full-color banner showing the most futuristic Go-Karts I’ve ever seen. The only problem was that nothing in the area looked like such a thing was remotely possible. The actual sign for the place had fallen mostly apart, the paint on the building was peeling so bad that I could barely make it out, and all around there was scrap metal and overturned garbage cans. We found what looked like the entrance, but inside was only a small alley with two stray dogs and two Chinese kids chasing each other in circles. When they saw us they screamed at the top of their lungs and ran back into the house at full-speed. We made the motion of “driving” to a few nearby people, but no one seemed to have any idea what we were talking about. The place looked completely abandoned.
But just as we were about to give up and head home, a nearby guard told us that the place still does in fact exist, and that it opens at 2:00pm. He told us this by pointing at the wall clock in his little guard booth. His next step was to send a small female friend out of the booth to sell us some fake Rolex’s. They are in ample supply here in China.
So we killed an hour walking around the neighborhood until we could climb aboard our little racecars. Wow. These things were awesome. It may sound cheesy, but if you ever find yourself in Shanghai I highly recommend checking out “Disc Kart;” the track is huge, the karts are insanely fast (powersliding around the turns is ridiculously fun) and unlike in the US, the staff doesn’t run out and yell at you no matter how hard you ram into the other drivers. I’m sure you can imagine that David and I had our fair share of fun with this.
After we finished up we agreed that we were too tired from lack of sleep, too hungover, and believe it or not sweating from the adrenaline of driving those beastly carts to start a new area of sightseeing so we just took it easy for the rest of the day, splitting a cab to the train station with a fellow hosteller. Thanks to the efforts of our not so law abiding cab driver, we made through rush-hour traffic to the overnight cross-country train with one minute and thirty seconds to spare.
This leads me to one more piece of advice for future China travelers: if you ever decide to train across the country, pay the extra cash for a Soft Sleeper. It’s as comfortable and clean as any hotel room, and even includes a free meal.
So, there you have it, the Shanghai portion of my insane summer vacation. Next up: Beijing and the Great Wall.