China - Shanghai and Wuhan
Last Updated: 13-May-03
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6-7 Oct. This is my first time to be on a real package tour. I was told that there were 40 people in the group (eek!), and the sizing-up started in the line onto the flight. Is the loud New Yorker on our tour? Ah, no, she has a nametag from another group. People we discussing the same itinerary as I have, but they also turned out to be part of another group, one which seems even larger than ours. When I got to the counter, the check-in clerk saw my China Focus nametag, and asked what number I was. Not expecting this question, I went scrambling through my paperwork, finding no number reference, of course. She came back from checking the list, and said that I had my own visa. Hey, I knew that - that's why I opened my passport to that page. This will likely be a problem throughout the trip…
The China Airlines flight was packed, and my kid magnet was functioning perfectly. I had an aisle seat, and right next to me was A Chinese woman with a newborn. In fact, this kid was so young that by the end of the flight, it was twice as old. And, so was I. Yet another airline with proprietary headphone plugs (and even an old pneumatic rubber tube headphone system!), I was limited to having only one working ear. It was impossible to block out the crying from the one kid in the cabin.
The food was uninspired. That's it; no more.
This was my first time through Shanghai's new Pudong airport. Huge (the biggest in China), modern, minimalistic, and cold, it was also reasonably efficient. Until, of course, we got to wait for the band to gather. I was the first out, and was met by a local guide (Vicky) and a CF (China Focus) national guide (Lucy) with the requisite flag on a stick. She granted my number: 40. Our group slowly assembled; I'd peg the average around the mid fifties. I'm not the youngest, but I'm certainly in the lowest quartile. We then dumped the luggage for a van to ferry, and walked enqueue to the bus. Once on the bus, we got our instructions:
Don't drink the water in the hotels unless you boil it. ("You're in China now.")
Watch out for pickpockets. ("I'm not saying China is unsafe, just be aware.")
Only change money at banks and hotels - it is the same official rate everywhere.
I'll show you how to spot counterfeit money in case you get change from a street vendor. ("I'm not saying China is unsafe, just be aware.")
Don't forget to pack toilet paper. ("You're in China now.")
Don't leave valuables on the bus. ("I'm not saying China is unsafe, just be aware.")
Make sure that you have copies of your passport and ticket, kept in a different place. ("I'm not saying…")
You're tired; we'll tell you more tomorrow.
Lucy said that she is our shepherd. That makes us…
The hotel is reasonable. It's clean, relatively modern, and big. That's about it. I walked around the area to find a battery charger, and stopped in a grocery to get some water, Cup Noodle, and yogurt.
8-Oct. I took an early morning walk around the hotel, and found Huo Shan Park, suggested by Vicky. Many people were exercising - Tai Chi', Shadow Boxing, and simply dancing. Men bring their birds out in little bamboo cages to sun and sing. The park also memorializes the 20,000 Jewish refugees who were in the Hongkou District 1937 to 1941. I was approached by Peng So Fu, who asked me the standard questions (age - he guessed I was 60 (!), number of children), and I asked him (70, one son, a taxi driver). He was a mechanical engineer. He remembers the Jewish refugees, and when they went to the Middle East. On the way back, I stopped to photograph the vendors cooking breakfast things. I had a fried pastry with egg, scallions, and hot sauce. Watching the woman roll it out, I did not see how she got from a round lump to a very good square.
The hotel breakfast was at the revolving restaurant at the top. We shared it with German tourists. Nice view through the haze.
Lucy reviewed the tip rules. Unlike the Western world, the tip is not optional. We must tip at least $4 (in US dollars) per day, or $56 for the trip. Payable up front. Although, if we want, we can pay half now and half at the end. Of course, we can also pay more if we want. BTW, in China, tipping is not common. Of course, $1 (in Dollars) for the bellboy is suggested.
Today's tour started at the Bund, Shanghai's old British waterfront with many old English-looking buildings. Then, misunderstanding the meeting instructions, I almost got left behind, but they found me. As I result, I either have to sing (!), or buy them all ice cream. I opted for the ice cream, which I never got the opportunity to buy.
We visited the Temple of the Jade Buddha, whose major relics were hidden from the Cultural Revolution. Unlike most other countries, the Chinese do not remove their shoes when entering the temple. Unfortuantely, we were not allowed to photograph the Jade Buddha, which is famous across China, and the largest jade Buddha in the world.
Lunch was in Pudong, with standard Shanghai fare. (Chopped spinach with almonds, Bok Choi in clear sauce, Chicken & veggies, BBQ pork, crispy fried fish, battered fish (fooled me at first), egg-drop soup, pickled cucumber, all with excessive MSG, and watermelon to signal the end.) The other 8 people at my table had never used chopsticks, which is surprising given that most of them live in California. I became the chopstick mentor, and they mostly did OK.
After lunch, we drove back across the Hanpu river to the Yu Yuan Happy Happy Joy Joy Gardens, built over 130 years ago by a rich merchant with Imperial aspirations. Very joyful, mild, beautiful, serene, happy…except for the hundreds of big-nose tourists crowding the place. The area surrounding it is a market square with lots of jade, silks, carvings, jewelry, and photo shops, but we had no time to stop. After getting back to the hotel, I took a taxi to hunt down 220v battery chargers. Without these, I'd be in deep doo-doo. The hotel suggested a taxi to Auchan (a French department store), and they had just the ticket. I had to argue with a sales lady over which one to get (she going on in Mandarin, and me saying in English that I know what I'm doing - since there was English NiMH printed on it.) After I pointed out the letters, and she stopped trying to steer me to the most expensive one, she finally gave me the thumbs up.
Dinner: Chinese food - Shark fin soup, shark sausage with onions, spinach with tofu, dates stuffed with sticky rice, vegetable soup, peanuts, gelatinized pork, fried chicken with rolled puffed rice, and end-signaling watermelon.
After dinner we attended a show of the Shanghai Acrobatic Circus. All of the usual acts, but fantastically done. Balance, timing, dexterity, flexibility, danger, skill. Most of the people in the group, jet-lagging, slept through one part or another.
9-Oct. We had to have our bags out by 8 AM, and we boarded the bus at 9. The Shanghai Museum has old Chinese art, bronzes, silks, calligraphy, ceramics, and is quite well done. A new building on People's Square houses the collection on 4 floors. They have ceramics, furniture, paintings, jade, bronze, chops, and more, dating from about 200 BC to the modern day.
After the museum (and a quick side trip to an Internet café), we drove to the Number 1 Silk Rug factory. The usual "tour" "educated" us about woof and warp, strings per foot and knots per square inch. We got to pocket a souvenir silkworm cocoon. (I asked if they had any worms to eat, but there were none - probably not the right tour group…) The weavers work about 10.5 months on a 200-thread 3' x 5' rug, and make around $150 per month. That rug then sells for $3200 (before the standard 10% discount), including shipping. (That means that the weavers actually make around 1/3 to ½ of the money - better than I'd expect. The weavers, almost always women, start around 11 years of age, and get no other education. Not surprisingly, they are a dwindling population. It is also clear that the tour organizer, China Focus, gets a kickback - they sell hard. We then had lunch at the company restaurant next door, a reasonable Dim Sum, although I could not convince them to give us chicken feet.
We were then herded back to the bus to go to the airport for the 1.5 hr. flight to Wuhan on China Southern Airlines. There were massage chairs in the waiting lounge; quite a hit with the tour group. It was mostly overcast, but as we descended into Wuhan, we could see extensive rice paddies.
After arriving and meeting Vivian (also know as Wrong Wei), we drove through Hanku (one third of Wuhan) to our first stop - dinner. Although it seemed that we had just eaten, and no one was hungry, most of the large spread was eaten. The restaurant clearly caters to the tour trade; only big noses were in the place, and the food was rather bland - I had to break out the Savina. It also had a fair trade in trite Chinese prints, jade, and bookmarks, but Lucy rushed the group out before too much money was dropped. The food was OK - battered & fried Yangtze river fish (Mandarin fish), fish sandwiched between two lotus roots and battered and fried, sautéed greens with garlic, fried cabbage, tomato fu yung, spicy veggies with chicken, steamed pork in rice, tomato/egg/tofu soup, fried chicken, and watermelon to signal the end.
Our hotel is the Holiday Inn Riverside, on the Yangtze, right by the confluence with the Han. Boats blow their horns all night.
10-Oct. I walked along the river in the morning, up to the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han. Out of the hotel, I found a dirt trail on the levee. A man sword fighting. Two men, not looking at each other, but having an animated discussion. The dirt path strolled among weeds and litter, and turned into a narrow tile path. People exercising. Korean tourists. The path moved uphill and became wider. A runner. People were walking their dogs, and several dogs were running free. A man beating his stomach to make it flatter, or to hurt less. A group practicing drumming and flag dancing. Tai chi'. A pair of women doing calisthenics. Kite fliers. The confluence comes to a broad point, and there is a large empty field. It seems to be potentially valuable, but lies littered, dirty, and ignored, except for the people taking their morning exercise. Including me.
After a standard breakfast, we were reminded of our "big day," and drove across the No. 1 Yangtze bridge - born the same year as me. (This was the first bridge built across the navigable Yangtze. We went to the Wuhan (Hubei) Provincial Museum, which is stuffed with artifacts from the Zenghouyi Tomb, dating from 433 BC. It contains jade, bronzes (including the ancient predecessor of the jackelope), arrowheads, caskets, and, most amazingly, a huge two-tone, seven-note scale of bronze bells. We attended a concert played on a replica, as did a group of government officials, who got in the way of my photos.
From the Wuhan Provincial Museum, we drove to the Yellow Crane Tower, which sits high above the river, a once ancient watchtower, but now reconstructed. It has a great view of the haze above Wuhan, and is decorated with the kitschiest crap.
Lunch (near the tower) was excellent, with some more Chinese food, including a dish which looked like a flock of Peeps, and ended with watermelon.
From the Yellow Crane Tower, we went, for some obscure reason, to a rock and bonsai (penzai - "small pot") museum. Its highlight was the 20 m2 SuPermarket (sic) across the parking lot where we bought bottled water, high-priced M and Ms, and wine for the boat. I'm sure that CF must get a kickback. A drive of 3.5 hours took us to a roadside rest stop (where I got to try charred lotus seeds), and then to our boat, the Star Dipper. Said to be seven years old, it looks older, but is not too bad.
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