China is behind us now. Funny, but our last two days in Beijing felt very comfortable. We were beginning to figure out how to navigate the city. We only scratched the surface of China, but as it turns out it was not as daunting as I had feared coming into the country. Much of Beijing felt quite normal. We cruised through the subway system. It could have been Paris or Singapore. Gigi was enjoying practicing the art of bargaining. She always kept her smile and did quite well knocking off 50% on a pedicab ride in the Hutongs near the Bell and Drum Towers. We knew where to find good restaurants just a short walk from our hotel. In spite of this surprising ease in the city, we were all ready to leave China.
Gigi and I simply have travel fatigue. The last two weeks have been tourism, hotels and restaurant food. We smell Hawaii, now just two weeks away. Hawaii is ‘home’, even if it is not California. It is the USA. It is home cooked meals with ingredients we know and packaged items whose labels we can read. We have also spent so much time on the Big Island that we feel it is not foreign or new, and that will be a feeling in a place we have not had for quite a long time.
I find it interesting how the boys are talking about China. They are definitely ready to leave the country, and frequently voice this opinion. They say they do not like China. They don’t say this with any venom in their voice or crinkled noses or furrowed brows, however. When we ask them what they liked about China, their replies contradict their negative blanket statements. “I liked biking on the wall in Xi’an.” “I liked the terra cotta warriors.” “I liked the Great Wall and all the forest around it.” “I liked the dumplings.” “I liked the pandas.” They found many positive things to say about China, or should I say Xi’an and Beijing. They did not like Shanghai. Apparently it was too urban, too dirty, and simply not kid friendly. They liked the koi ponds at YuYuan park and the soupy dumpling restaurants, but these things apparently just did not make the visit worthwhile. Gigi and I were impressed with Shanghai but felt that everything there was on a large scale. It would take weeks to explore that city.
Even though Beijing was an equally huge city compared to Shanghai, we seemed to feel that it was a more manageable city. Perhaps our hotel in Beijing was simply situated better for exploring than the one in Shanghai. In Beijing, we could walk to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Wangfujing Street. Beijing was also less vertical than Shanghai. Many of the neighborhoods, the hutongs, were only one or two story neighborhoods. We walked on tree-lined, shady streets in Beijing. This made the city feel more intimate and scaled to a size that matched our own hometown of San Carlos and the San Francisco peninsula. I think more service sector/tourism workers spoke English in Beijing than in either Shanghai or Xi’an, which also was very helpful to us.
When we first arrived in China, we began discussing with Jordan what foreign language he would want to study in High School. Mandarin will be an option for him. The other language options besides Mandarin are French and Spanish. He did take two years of French in Middle School, but he came away with very little French. He barely spoke any French the four months we were in France. Of course, Spanish would be the most practical in California, but you don’t need to speak it. There is no clear language front-runner in our minds. Well, at the beginning of the trip there was a bit of excitement around the idea of taking Mandarin. We could not help Jordan at all with the language, of course, but Jordan does have some first generation Chinese-American friends who could help him out in learning Mandarin. In our discussions around this, Gigi and I kept stating that, “China is the future.” That definitely left an impression on Jordan. We will have to see in a few months how this trip to China has influenced Jordan’s view of the world and if he decides that he wants to learn Mandarin. That choice may be the ultimate verdict on how he truly felt about his trip to China.
One of the ‘Must Do’ tourist activities in Beijing is to take a pedicab tour in one of the hutong areas. There are hutongs found everywhere, even in the neighborhood around our hotel, Hotel Kapok. The more touristy hutongs are found near the Drum and Bell Towers and Lake Houhai. We took the subway to Nanluoguxiang Street to find a pedicab. We walked past the first gauntlet of pedicab drivers calling out to us and strolled the very touristy Nanluoguxiang. Two or three blocks up a middle aged, portly pedicab driver called out to us. His pedicab actually did not have pedals, it was a nice, sturdy electric motor three wheeler. It was a sweet ride. We politely told him we needed two pedicabs. He smiled and we walked on. Half a block later, he showed up with a buddy who had a combo electric/pedal pedicab. The buddy was taller, leaner, older, and a smoker. He spoke English and began pitching us his deal. All the pedicab drivers have the same laminated card showing prices and places to visit. Gigi ignored the card and began her hard bargain of 40 yuan for a pedicab, which she had read was the price in TripAdvisor. It must have been a good starting position, because the man vigorously shook his head ‘no’ and stabbed at the card. He wanted 150 yuan, not sure if that was for the cab or per person. We countered for 40 yuan a person, which was 80 per driver. Happy cabbie started talking in Chinese with his buddy, and we could tell he wanted to agree. I liked this guy already. Grumpy cabbie looked very dejected and did not want to take the deal, but finally with hunched shoulders and downcast eyes he caved in. We hopped into the pedicabs, Gigi and Jordan with Happy and Justin and I with Grumpy. Grumpy shook off his bargaining defeat, took the lead and acted as tour guide since he spoke English. We saw the doorways and walls of the homes of many famous people: the wife of the last Chinese emperor Puyi anda residence of Chiang Kai Shek among them. Those were the only famous names we recognized out of the 6 or so hi-lighted on the tour. We all enjoyed the hour of wandering the neighborhood in the shaded leisure of a pedicab. When we got back to Nanluoguxiang Street our tour was over. We asked where the Drum and Bell Towers were located and Grumpy explained it was a five minute walk away. Happy started talking in Chinese again, and we could tell he was trying to convince Grumpy to take us there, but Grumpy was having none of it. We ended up walking. We tipped the guys an extra 20 yuan each to make the deal an even hundred. I wish only the happiest thoughts for Happy. I could have spent the whole day with him. With his black rimmed glasses, round hat, ready smile and belly, I kept envisioning Po from Kung Fu Panda whenever I looked at him.
If you want to make sure you are eating in a clean restaurant, just head to a mall for a meal. Just down the street from us is the APM Mall on Wangfujing Street. You can’t miss it because it has a large Apple store right on the corner. There are many restaurants on the 5th and 6th floor, both upscale dining and more mall food court-style eateries. For lunch we chose the food court-style restaurant FoodRepublic. At one of the food stations, we ordered pork dumpling noodle soup. The noodles were cooked fresh and the soup put together in front of us. The next station over people were queueing up for fresh hand made boiled dumplings. The soup was excellent and we ate lunch for only $4 a
Tonight we went across the street from the Kapok Hotel where we were staying to have some Peking duck (or Beijing Duck as it is called here) in a local restaurant. I had found the restaurant the day before when taking Justin for a Subway sandwich. A nice gentlemen started speaking with me about the best duck on the street and told us to come back and try. Well, we did come back later that evening and we all loved it!
We ordered a whole duck and two vegetable side dishes. The boys went crazy over the little pancakes and enjoyed slathering the hoisin sauce all over everything.
After dinner, we took a 5-minute walk down Donghuamen Street to get to the pedestrian walk on Wangfujing Street. We wanted to check out this pedestrian shopping district to see how it compared to Nanjing Street in Shanghai. On the way there, we were surprised to find a night food stall market on Donghuamen selling all sorts of bizarre street food. The stalls that really surprised us were selling deep fried silkworm cocoons, crickets, snakes, and scorpions. While Jordan was munching on pot stickers, Justin told me he wanted to try the scorpions. Seriously? Ok, I ordered a skewer with two scorpions; the man deep-fried them and I munched the first one down. Hmmm, it simply tasted salty and crunchy. Justin did not hesitate and munched his scorpion down. Granted, they were pretty tiny, but they were scorpions! We ate scorpions! We both had big smiles on our faces and knocked knuckles. This was real father-son bonding.
Later, we found another street food area in a small alley off Wangfujing Street, and here the scorpions were wiggling on the sticks. They were impaled, but still alive. Justin asked if we could have another round of scorpion!
This kid will not eat tomato sauce on his spaghetti or anything spicy, but here he is begging for scorpions after one taste. I told him we could come back tomorrow night and eat them. He also wants to try the grasshoppers and crickets. Besides the scorpions, there looked to be plenty of tasty food on skewers to try out. I am still contemptating trying the silkworm cocoons. Maybe not
For our first day in Beijing we decided to knock the Beijing Zoo off our ‘To Do’ list. Justin has been repeatedly talking about pandas this whole week, so we thought finally seeing the pandas would quiet him. Getting to the Zoo on public transportation was easy. We had a 15 minute walk down a shady street to Tiananmen Square East Station where we went into the subway. Tickets were only two yuan (.30) a person to travel anywhere on the subway. Signs were clearly marked in English and we had no trouble navigating the subway.
We wanted to get to the zoo by 9 AM because we had read on Trip Advisor that the pandas were fed between 9 and 10 AM. We got into the zoo just after 9 AM and immediately went to the pandas. As reported, they were munching contentedly on their bamboo. We saw four pandas in different enclosures. Almost exactly at 10 AM two of the pandas stopped eating and went to sleep. It was a good thing we had gotten to the zoo early. Besides seeing pandas, we discovered that the visitors are allowed to feed the zoo animals. We watched people throwing bok choy and apples to the elephants. At the zebra enclosure, the zebras were munching veggies right at the fence. There was no barrier or ditch to separate the animals from the people on the other side of the horizontal wire fence, so Jordan and Justin got to touch a zebra. No zoo attendants around to say otherwise. Visitors could also pay a 10 yuan fee to get into a special area to feed the giraffes apple slices, which we did without hesitation. Coaxing the giraffes’ long blue tongues out to their full extent to grab an apple slice was quite cool.
Also, on display at the zoo was China’s one child policy. Once we got away from the panda section of the zoo, we were pretty much the only westerners around. As our visit was on a Friday, a school day, the only kids were younger than 5 years old. There were a lot of toddlers running around, but there was only one per family. We were the only family with two children, and boys to boot. Sometimes here I think the Chinese must think I feel like a king for having two boys.
China is, of course, a huge country with numerous major tourist attractions, and you can’t see many in just 13 days, although we have met a few other westerners in tour groups or with private guides who are making a go at it. For us, seeing the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an and the Great Wall were the two ‘must see’ cultural icons of China. We knew nothing about the city of Xi’an itself, we were flying in to see the warriors, and everything else would be gravy. What else did Xi’an have to offer? We were only going to be there for two days and three nights, so we would not need much to take up the other 1½ days we were not going to be seeing the warriors. As it turned out, we really enjoyed our time in Xi’an.
We went and saw the terra cotta warriors our first morning in Xi’an, which the boys are blogging about. We got back to the Ramada Bell Tower hotel in the afternoon and chilled for a few hours. The hotel concierge, David, who spoke excellent English, advised us to visit Huímín Jiē – the ‘Muslim street’ – located behind the Drum Tower. This was only a 5-minute walk from the hotel. The street is pedestrian only and about 500 meters long. We were glad that we decided to make this an evening visit because the street was lit up with small, colorful neon signs and strings of light bulbs, and light streamed out from the open front businesses. There were Muslim men in skullcaps and women with headscarves; this street was not just Muslim in name. Stores alternated between tourist knick-knack shops, restaurants, and food stores. The restaurants had food cooking on the sidewalks: meat skewers over charcoals, simmering pots of pigs trotters, savory pancakes, fresh sesame flatbread from round ovens. The food stores primary offerings were fresh roasted walnuts, dried dates and dried persimmons. Gigi could not resist buying some silk scarves for 10 yuan ($1.50) each and some bracelets made from jade beads for only 15 yuan each ($2.50). Xi’an is one of the ancient eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and I imagined that in some small way this street still provided a flavor of what the city might have felt like several hundred years ago – the smells of the roasting meat and walnuts, the shops selling silks and jades, the jostling in the narrow side lanes.
Dinnertime rolled around. Most of the restaurants looked a bit too ‘local’ for us on this street and we were discussing going back to the modern mall just one street over to look for a restaurant, but a sudden rain shower motivated us to go inside what looked to be one of the nicer restaurants. It had a menu with pictures so we could order. To our surprise, there were many vegetable plates offered. It is hard to get enough vegetables when eating in restaurants! Gigi and I ordered only vegetables, and the boys ordered noodle soup and soupy dumplings. The food was quite good, and cheap. We struck up a conversation with the only other westerners in the place, a father and son from Germany who are touring solo like us.
Outside afterwards, some Chinese ladies fawned over Justin. We don’t know if it is his light colored skin, his eyelids or nose, or the whole western facial package, but he, and Jordan too, get stopped by people who want to take their picture with them. They are polite and we just wonder how few Westerners these Chinese have seen in real life. Gigi and I do not get the same attention as the boys. Jordan’s ego was getting a boost from this attention while Justin just smiled sheepishly and wished they would go away.
Our second day in Xi’an was the ‘gravy’ day, and it turned out to be a very packed day. Xi’an has a 600-year-old rectangular stone wall encircling the old part of the city. You have to pay an entrance fee to get up on top of the wall. The wall is at least 10 meters high and wide enough on top for 3 car lanes. It is 13 kilometers in length. We rented bicycles and rode around the wall. This was a great activity for the boys to burn off some energy. There were barely any people on the wall because of the 40 yuan charge. It took us 90 minutes to ride once around. In Lucca, Italy, we had also ridden bikes on the city’s defensive walls. Those walls were as impressive at Xi’an’s, but much smaller in length, and much more crowded because it was free to go up on the wall in Lucca. After we descended the wall, we took a walk through an old brick building neighborhood close to the East Gate whose shops specialized in artist paintbrushes and paper. This looked to be the oldest preserved section of the city. Besides wondering at the diverse, and often huge, Chinese paintbrushes in the store windows, we were serenaded by songbirds in cages and street vendors playing round clay flutes that they were trying to sell.
That evening, we had a date to visit a local family’s home and go out to dinner with them. Jordan has a Chinese friend back in San Carlos whose parents were born in China. The mother, Sally, has been following Gigi’s Facebook page, and when she realized we were going to China she emailed Gigi with the offer of some contacts in China. One old high school friend of Sally’s was now living in Xi’an. This man’s wife answered our email, her husband was in Munich on business, but she would be delighted to invite us over. She has a 7-year-old son. They lived in the High Tech Development District of the city, which was a 20-minute taxi ride from our hotel. Just getting a taxi turned out to be a 30-minute ordeal, but we found one and made it out to her neighborhood. Looking at all the high rise apartments, we really did not think we would find her building, let alone her apartment, but right when we got out of the taxi, Grace came running over to us. She had been waiting out on the street for us for 40 minutes. Of course, we were easy to spot.
Grace took us into her neighborhood. She said 10,000 families lived in this neighborhood of high-rise apartments. First thing that struck me was that the entrance was gated and guarded. How very un-socialist, I thought, this is a gated community like we have back home. Once inside, the exterior grey bleakness of all the buildings faded to the background. Between the buildings were meandering pedestrian lanes in a park-like setting. Lots of kids were laughing and playing, the most we had seen since being in China. Grace’s apartment was on the 26th floor. When we got inside we were greeted by her son, his friend, and his friend’s mother, Abbey. Wow, 4 boys in one little condo. Justin immediately started playing with the boys who were building with plastic train tracks. Grace and Abbey both spoke English quite well. Abbey is a document translater who studied English at University. We chatted for a while about California, our trip, condo prices in Xi’an and air pollution. The boys got to hold and pet the pygmy hamster.
We went to a local restaurant for dinner and found that Grace had reserved a private room for us. Abbey’s husband joined us for dinner as he had just gotten off work (He is the editor of the local newspaper and wants to interview us for an article.) Almost immediately the food started to arrive. We stuffed ourselves on Chinese food, some of which we recognized from restaurants at home. One dish was wok-fried Chinese yams. We also had wok fried-lotus root with bacon. We appreciated, however, the different variety of ingredients from California Chinese food and the complete lack of cornstarch that is so commonly added to the sauces of the dishes at home. We were complimented on our proficiency with chopsticks. Jordan and Justin went wild on the soupy dumplings. Our group of 9 people polished off 60 dumplings, a mixture of beef, pork and shrimp, which was 10 separate orders. We had brought a chocolate mousse cake from the hotel as a gift, and we ate it for dessert. Our hosts, who we had just met, refused to let us pay our share of the meal. That was quite unexpected, and we thanked them and told them we would repay the courtesy when they come to visit California. It might happen. Grace and her husband have vacationed in California once already.
Our third and final morning in Xi’an was getting up and out of the hotel and off to the airport. When we had arrived we had taken a taxi ride from the airport. This was almost an hour drive. To go back, we took an airport shuttle bus whose city stop was a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We were the only Westerners on the bus. It was an easy trip and cost half the price of the taxi. Oh, what a difference a few days makes in a place. We were travelling like the locals.
Xi’an is a huge city, but we got a good feel for the place after only a few days. We were ready to leave, but also happy that we did not simply come for the terra cotta warriors.
We are finishing up our first leg in China today. For me, Shanghai has been quite surprising. ‘Seeing is believing’ is an apt phrase for experiencing the capitalist economic miracle of this city in a Socialist country. We had done very little ‘homework’ preparing for China. The only Chinese words we came prepared with were ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ In the waiting lounge at the Singapore airport, we were madly downloading information on the cost of the taxi ride from Pudong airport into Shanghai, the dollar-yuan exchange rate, and ’10 things to do in Shanghai’ lists so that we could read about them during the plane ride to Shanghai. We knew Shanghai’s reputation as a city of skyscrapers, the European influence from the ‘concessions’, and that it had 20 million inhabitants. Our friend Stuart in England said Shanghai was his favorite city in Asia. Our friend Pearl in Singapore said that Shanghai was like Singapore, just dirtier. This about sums up our preparation for Shanghai.
Maybe it was because of this shallow preparation I experienced a very brief panic attack in the plane coming here. China was so outside my comfort zone. These things kept running through my head: ‘nobody will speak English’, ‘communist country’, ‘air pollution’, ‘dead pigs floating in river’, ‘rat meat passed off as muton meat’, ‘people spit everywhere’, ‘lead paint in children’s toys.’ Western newspaper headlines are generally do not paint China in a positive light. The rat meat-as-mutton story broke just days before we left Singapore. The air pollution in Beijing story hit a few months back, and in comparison it made Los Angeles air quality sound pristine. Two articles in the paper I was reading on the plane talked about the ban on communist party members hosting banquets and a university student who was not arrested for suspicion of murder because her grandfather was a communist party official. Those article topics really would not affect our travels, but they did put the seed of worry into my mind about being in a one party state. I must say, too, that for most of my life my image of the Peoples Republic of China was a closed country, populated by people wearing Mao caps riding bikes, a country diametrically opposed to American values. This was a pretty deeply rooted prejudice in my psyche. How did the western media and my own indoctrination fare against what we have experienced so far?
When we got off the airplane at Pudong airport, we breezed through passport control. Whew! First gauntlet of the police state cleared. Cash machine was 10 meters past the passport control and our bank card worked! Electronic connection with international banking system no problem! (does the Chinese government now have my PIN number? Paranoia!). Big, clean, and empty airport. Where are the hordes of people? First billboards seen advertised Lancome, Bulgari, Brad Pitt pitching Cadillac. This is a Socialist Workers’ State? Taxi ride into city took 45 minutes on a freeway, cost $40, and the driver took us straight to our hotel. Check-in, up to the 7th floor to our two bedroom ‘service apartment.’ Safe! Apartment clean and roomy, two flat screens with cable providing ESPN, CNN and HBO; beds a little firm, but comfy. Dinner in hotel restaurant was a mix of hamburgers, wonton soup and crispy duck. We cruised through our first day’s challenge of navigating China. Let’s see… Language barrier did not prevent communication for basic needs of transport, food, and shelter. ‘Dirty’ did not exist to our hotel. Food was good. Tsingtao beer was cheap. We are connected to the outside world with wifi connection in the hotel lobby. Gigi can even use our VPN to access Facebook. Feeling pretty normal so far. We went to sleep at ease.
On our first morning, we decided to walk to YuYuan garden and forage for breakfast along the way. Within two blocks from our hotel we found a Chinese run French style bakery and had croissants and muffins for about $3.50. We were on Jinling Street, which had several music stores, which was very cool. Jordan went in and played on a Gibson Les Paul. He was hoping the guitar prices in Shanghai would be cheap and he could buy a Gibson, but he was disappointed. YuYuan garden was quite beautiful. Outside the garden was a large pond with giant koi that Justin just loved. An elderly French man offered to take a family photo of us on the zig zag bridge. We started talking and found they lived in Paris and were doing a 21 day guided tour of China. The wife got to hold a baby panda in Chengdu, which really had Justin jealous. He is still mad that we did not put Chengdu on our travel itinerary so that we could visit a panda reserve. He will just have to wait until the Beijing zoo to see a panda. Another small world anecdote came about when we told the couple we had stayed in Grimaud for 3 months. They vacationed last summer for two weeks in Port Grimaud, so we had that to talk about as we stood surrounded by tourists and koi.
Outside the garden, we saw a long line of people waiting to buy shanghai soupy dumplings from a take out window. We went into the restaurant and sat down for a meal of these dumplings. Yum! The boys are now dim sum fans. After lunch, we walked Fang Bang/Old Shanghai road. Gigi bought name seals for the boys. We wandered through and old neighborhood of single story buildings on our way back to the hotel. Right next to this neighborhood was a giant hole that would soon be a high rise. I imagine in 5 years that neighborhood will meet the same fate.
We had decided that for China we would not be tourist warriors. We were going to take it easy on the sightseeing and just see how we would feel in China. Thus, we spent quite a bit of time in the hotel, the New Harbour Service Apartments, perhaps half of each day. The apartment was quite roomy and comfortable. With ESPN, CNN and HBO available, we watched a few movies and sports, including two Tottenham football games, one against Chelsea, the other against Stoke. Tottenham is trying to qualify for the Champions League and these games were crucial. Why do we care? Jordan ha a poster of Gareth Bale on his bedroom wall at home. The wifi in the lobby had us going downstairs often to sit in the poofy leather couches and get on the Internet. Perhaps best of all was the pool and exercise room. The pool was a large oval about 17 meters in length, so you could swim laps. At most, we had one other person in the pool with us. There was also a dry sauna and a Jacuzzi tub, which we again always had to ourselves. We exercised in the equally empty exercise room to a workout video called ‘Insane Home Fat Loss’ that we have on the laptop. Hey, Hawaii is only a month away and I need to get swimsuit ready. J
We took a 50 minute boat cruise on the Huangpu river our second day. The other boat passengers included a tour group of Quebecoise, which had Gigi very excited. We chatted with one couple, mostly in French, and found they came from Sherbrooke, which is where many of Gigi’s relatives live. We visited Sherbrooke a few summers back, so another small world story finds itself here. After the boat ride, we headed for Nanjing Road, and here we found the hordes of Chinese crowding the Bund waterfront and strolling the pedestrian section of Nanjing in the early evening. We ate dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant on the 5th floor of a mall building. It was modern and rather elegant. We were the only foreigners in the restaurant, and it was packed. The boys loved cooking the fresh meat on the real charcoal heated griddle in the middle of the table. Justin said he was getting a cooking lesson. We had a fantastic meal for only $40, probably a good sum for the Chinese, but a similar Korean BBQ meal in California for four would easily be $100.
On our last full day in Shanghai, we went to the Shanghai museum and walked over to the old French Concession part of town. The museum was a 4-story building with a central atrium. We visited the bronze, jade, and painting sections of the museum and learned quite a bit about these Chinese art forms. Our stroll through the Xintiandi area was not so successful. Truly, trying to walk for walking’s sake while discovering neighborhoods and their architecture is very difficult with the boys. They have absolutely no interest in this type of tourism and regularly let us know how they feel about it. We did not find the French architecture or boutique stores were hoping to find. We did cut through Fuxing park, and if we had had more time I would have loved to just hang out in that park. It was cool and shady and vibrant with both locals and expats. Frisbees, American footballs, rugby balls and kites were flying around the open field. A lady was singing opera under a tree, a man was playing a violin-like instrument, and kids were trying to net small fish in the pond. We found our lunchtime meal again in a mall, this one very upscale on Huaihai Road. The boys were excited because we had stumbled upon a Crystal Jade restaurant. We ate at this restaurant chain twice in Singapore, and the boys loved the fresh noodles and soupy dumplings. This was yet another high class dining experience in Shanghai for about $50 for a family of four.
We finished the day with an acrobatics show at the Shanghai Circus World. The show was called ‘ERA.’ This troupe has to have ties with Cirque du Soleil; the production had all the elements of a Cirque show. The acrobats were 100% Chinese, though. While the transitions and costumes did not quite match the flair of a Cirque show, the acrobats were fantastic. The finale, and absolute best part of the show, was the motorcycle riders inside the spherical metal cage.
The final ‘To Do’ thing on our Shanghai list was to take the MagLev train to the airport. Jordan was most excited to do this. A tourist brochure stated that the train could go up to 450 km/hr. This was the fastest train on the planet. The ride from town to the airport lasts only 8 minutes. The taxi ride into town had taken us 50 minutes with no traffic. The train only reached 300 km/hr on the journey, but it was still quite thrilling. You could feel the speed of the train, and the tracks are actually banked on the turns.
Getting back to my ‘seeing is believing’ comment, I would say that as a tourist I had no idea that I have been visiting a one party socialist worker’s party state. Seeing Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royce on the roads, seeing the billboards for upscale designer fashions as well as Beyonce promoting H&M, seeing all the Chinese dressed very individually and quite chic, spending time in the packed Apple store on Nanjing Road; and peeking down the side alleys and seeing quite grey and Spartan living conditions, all this speaks of a society plugged into the world capitalist economic model. I did not find Shanghai seductive, and thus would not really consider coming back to the city, but I sure am glad that we got outside our comfort zone and took the chance of travelling here. My preconceptions of China are past history. Our boys, too, now have a firsthand view of the present and future China.
Feeling very lucky and grateful that I had the presence of mind this morning to click the “Travel Documents May Be Required” button as I was printing our tickets for China. After all the countries we visited this year, HOW could it not occur to us that we needed a visa to enter China! So, three hours later after filling out over 30 pages of forms and printing copies of all of our passports, hotels, flights, contacts, etc..we rush down to the Embassy and prayed we could get an “urgent” order – we leave on Thursday! We had been warned that the China Embassy was very disorganized and we could wait for hours. To the contrary! We were greeted at the entrance where our documents were reviewed for completeness, given a computer generated queue number, and showed to the waiting area. We were number 3 in line and out of there in 20 mins. And, our visa would be ready at 9am in the morning! Downside…urgent processing fee cost an extra $100 per visa – ouch! I guess it could be worse…loss of all the deposits and air fair costs if we couldn’t get to China. So, Bob and I breathed a sigh of relief and did a little “high 5″ as we left the building. Great team work even if our brains were on autopilot.