What I’m going to write about in the next string of posts, will be the story of more or less the coolest thing I’ve done so far. Of course, there are other entries in my list of enthusiastic attempts at infinite awesomeness, and some of them might even be interesting and wink-inducing, they’ll remain hidden for the moment (Also most of them are not travel-related, so who cares). So I went to China last December, and if you’re reading this in the distant future, it means 2014, for a month-long trip with my dear dear friends. For those who don’t know me, I’m Hungarian, from the very centre of Europe, so that really is a big deal around here, and for me anyway. Before I get into the Sino-specific storytelling, let’s just give you a bit of a background of this trip. With two very ’special’ friends of mine, we’ve been planning a trip to Australia for quite some time, 3-4 years that is, and after a couple of postponements due to some marginal issues like work/career, university studies, saving up money, childbirth, we finally reached the time when everything got together, and our trip finally got the green-light. Nothing was going to stop us from finally going to Australia China!. At this point, you’re getting confused, but no worries. Thing is, after months of planning, consideration, financial and scientific research, we had to conclude that it’s just not going to work out with the resources we had at hand. Especially not in October, when we were planning to go in mid-December. Upon realising this fact, we figured it’s not the end of the world, and decided to look for other possible destinations. Which was hard, because let’s face it, we’re horrible people who can’t accept anything the other says, so after 40 minutes of vicious arguing and knife fights, we just found the perfect choice: China. It was one of those moments where the Godlike shining strikes through the windows, gloriously showing us the one true path. Flight tickets to Shanghai through Moscow.
So we booked them, and got ready, and by the time 17th of December came, I wasn’t ready at all. But at least my stuff was packed and even told people at work I’m gonna be away, so did most I could. Now, the planning was going pretty well, mainly because it was more or less done by one guy. Have to admit he was doing a brilliant job, and even though we didn’t follow his route strictly, we still managed to see some of the most amazing stuff in our lives. Beside of course craploads of random, surprising, and downright weird stuff, but it all made up to be a fantastic trip. I’m praising him so much because he only managed to spend 8 days on this trip, but more of that later.
The trip we finally completed is the following: Arrival in Shanghai, then (deep breath) Suzhou-Hangzhou – Huangshan, Yellow Mountains – Fuzhou – Xiamen – Hong Kong – Guilin/Yangshuo – Beijing – Shanghai, and then back home, all in 30 days. This is not the trip the full crew did, for some days we got separated to one boys-only and one girls-only club. Another label you could give these pairings is Team Chinese-speaker and Team doesn’t-know-a-damn-word-in-Chinese. Obviously, I was in the latter. Another part is that there are two locations on this route we didn’t intend to take at first, and were as much the cause of irresponsible timing and coordination as the inevitable need to alter the plans, but I’m not going to tell which were these so early. In this post, I’m only going to concentrate on Shanghai. This also means, that this will be a series of posts, which I’m going to upload as I have time. This is mostly because it’s going to be pretty long, with backround info and advice about the locations, beside the stories of our adventures. So, without further ado, I’m presenting you part 1…
Let’s start with some background and history of the City. What you need to know, and probably reckon, is that it’s incredibly huge, one of the biggest cities in the world. The City proper itself is 1st in the world, for example. The metropolitan area has a population of 34 million people. To put this to perspective, the entire population of my home nation, Hungary, is 10 million. You can put every Hungarian person in the world, together with those living in the outer areas in the neighboring countries and anywhere else in the world, and also people who claim Hungarian ancestry going as high up as their grandparents (including celebrities like Ben Affleck, and Zsazsa Gábor), you could put all of us there almost three times. For me, it was mind boggling enough to keep me occupied for the metro ride from the airport to the hostel. History-wise, it has arguably been the most important Chinese city, due to it’s favourable port location, which made it a key trading hub in Asia. It has also been playing a vital role in administrative and governmental dealings as well, but that’s boring, so I’ll just leave it at that. Shanghai then became an incredibly important city in global terms when the British arrived to preach about the awesomness of tea drinking and BBC dramas, while doing trade and getting rich in the area, and colonising the shit out of some willing locations around the continent. Although we know that didn’t sit well with the Chinese, they had to reach some kind of an agreement after losing the First Opium War, and the Treaties of Nanking and Whampoa allowed Shanghai to become one of five ports to establish foreign trade around China. However, the main influence didn’t come from the UK, but more from the French, thanks to the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession. Especially because of the latter, that also means there’s kind of a larger French community still living there nowadays, which I was told was the main reason why Shanghai looks pretty much like a European city, and stands out a little in looks from others in the country. Shanghai was the focal point in business between east and west, getting super-wealthy during the process, all the way until 1949 came, and Mao decided they shall only deal with socialist countries. This was the case up until the 1990’s, when Deng Xiaoping thought better of it, and asked ’why the hell are we not ripping off westerners again?’ and started to implement a lot of economical reforms, which put Shanghai back on the map (Of course he didn’t say that, and all that was nothing like a ripoff). So, you can figure it out, foreign investment started pouring buckets of money and gold bling-blings back into the city, who got back to it’s glorious former self.
Culture-wise, there are lots of fantastic things to visit here as well, for example the Art Museum, God Temple, and the Yu Garden, where I first got asked by a local girl to do a selfie with her, coz I’m the first white person she has ever seen.
So, after about 89 years of flight time via Moscow, we finally arrived. What was comforting is that the airport administration is incredibly slow there as well, and it took another 2 hours to finally get out of the passport control. Although there was one positive, as it took about 20 minutes to find one Hungarian there, which is not a record by any means, if you know our kind of people. She wasn’t hard to notice thanks to the blue hair and the 20 piercings in the face either. So she became part of our entourage in Shanghai and started a long list of guest-stars during the trip, which has no shortage of weird but brilliant people. Now, I was expecting some sort of a culture shock here, and apart from one woman playing human bowling with her suitcase on an escalator, there was nothing like that at first. The metro network is very modern, and easy to follow, as everything is written out in English as well, which was huge help, since our designated China expert was only to arrive from France hours later. Finding the hostel was not an easy task though, as Chinese people don’t really believe in using street numbers, even though they are shown in addresses, so at first finding our way was more like a trial and error process. Culture shock started to develop at this point, with crossing the streets. People there just love to ride these little scooters and bikes, but in numbers really, and none of them fear death, so when the lights turn green, all hell breaks lose and everyone goes in every possible direction, and you just stand there, looking up to God, and waiting for the inevitable. Of course, you get used to it after a while, and they actually do watch out for others, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to keep calm. The rest of the day was as usual, strolling around in the city, and trying to eat.
Now, you all know about chopsticks I guess. I’m still convinced that this is part of a grand joke to wind western people up, at least it feels like that when you try for the first time ever, and the kitchen crew are watching you behind the counter, cracking up laughing. Our faces must have been a joy to behold as well, while trying to figure out what did we order exactly? Mine looked like containing chicken, eggs, mushroom, something looking like ginger, and some sort of vegetable in it. Still have no idea what was that, but it was delicious. This is going to be a recurring theme during the trip, a lot of the time it was a pick of faith with food, but mostly got lucky, the cuisine there is really incredible. Our adorable first time with local food was awarded at first by a spoon, with which they permitted us to eat the rice, and then a day later we even got a bowl of rice for free, probably for being the goofiest creatures they’ve ever seen.
After that, just took a stroll around the downtown area, looking around the financial district, and The Bund, which is basically the first two pages of pictures when you search Shanghai on Google. That’s essentially the super-awesome looking waterfront, and the first place any tourist will ever go to. It’s beautiful, huge, pompous, and giant, and huge. I spent most of my time looking up, and this is something that European people will get struck by first usually. The buildings are tall, and magnificent, and to me it felt like walking around in a film, as I’ve never seen anything like that before, except for movies and TV shows. Following day, next up was the Yu Garden, and the Old City. The OC, as you would expect, is more of a tourist show off, and I’m pretty sure ancient Chinese emperors didn’t hang out in Starbucks or go for hot wings at KFC, but it still looks pretty neat, with small alleys and lots of people, and houses where the doorsteps are made to be unusually high, so the bad spirits can’t enter. You’re right, bad spirits are so lame they can’t jump or raise their legs. Another cool trick the ancient people implemented to fight these spirits, is to make bridges over the little lake shaped like a zigzag line. Common sense states that them spirits are also noobs when it comes to turning in directions, and get confused and dizzy easily, and usually they just retreated to the nearest McDonalds to make some tweaks to their evil plans. Going back to the Old City topic, that also has all those shops, selling a lot of very Chinese stuff like candles, tea and herbs. Really cool stuff. Then off we went to the Yu Garden.
Now, there are lots of these gardens around China, and seen quite a few, but I have to say this was one of the most captivating, looking like a little village, with it’s own little houses, tiny alleys, tunnels, and the little creek flowing everywhere, accomodating huge-ass goldfishes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly look like when it was built in 1577, it suffered some blows during the Opium War, and World War II, just to name a couple. The place was also used as operative headquarters during these times (coolest-named group to congregate here were the Small Swords Society), and had been closed before the public for quite some time, before being opened again in 1961. The centerpiece here is the Currow, which is an ancient stone, which was being shipped as a present to the Imperial Palace to Beijing, but the boat sank near Shanghai, and this stone was the only thing to be salvaged. It was then decided that the stone should stay there afterall. Notable event in the Old City, is that we finally figured out how to properly eat with chopsticks, and met the famous dumplings at first, which are being filled with a variety of unknown stuff, but delicious nonetheless. I’ve also had my first meeting with tofu, which is actually pretty amazing, but you really have to fight to get it settled on your sticks. also, not to be confused with the infamous stinky tofu. That, well, stinks. Horribly. Don’t even get close to that stuff.
Now, here comes the nightlife. As I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of Westerners living here (by the way this is going to be the general term used for anyone coming from Europe, The Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, and other non-Asian people not covered in the above), which means there are a number of bars reminding you of the first world. We actually started the evening in a Mexican Bar/Restaurant, then went to the so called pub street, which actually has a name, but I forgot. Here you can find most of the expacts living in the city, and these bars are just like in the good old West. Pretty expensive, that is. China in general has pretty good prices, with food especially being low-cost, but bars are a different story. If you come from Western-Europe or the US, it’s probably not a big deal, but us Eastern Europeans were a little surprised.
Not because of that though, but we wanted to leave these bars anyway, as they weren’t very Chinese, and the idea really was to hang out with locals, see how they party. Of course, didn’t find any places. It turns out the Chinese in general are not huge party people, not in a sit at home and watch X-Factor way, but not in our way either. Clubs are pretty much the same, but nobody wanted to show them there at first, and bars are more like places where people sit at their tables in clusters, only talking to, and looking at their very own peers, having conversations and playing all kinds of board games, which they’re incredibly fond of. Think of the likes of backgammon. The most common one though, which you will find in any joint, is one where each player has a little cup with two standard dices. I sucked at this one so didn’t like it, meaning I can’t really remember the rules now, and I’m not even going to tell you about that one in this post, let’s leave it to a later episode. Main point being, we couldn’t find any traditional Chinese drinking places, but didn’t want to go back to the expat bars either. What to do? Being the genius Budapest-boys as we are, we figured we’ll just drink on the streets, which is actually allowed in this country, as long as you don’t cause trouble or bother the local residents, it’s okay. This is where we met our best friend, and most trusted travel companion. He is called Baijiu, the number 1 booze in China. For reasons beyond my comprehension, locals like to call it white wine, which is a little baffling for two reasons: First is obviously because that name is already taken for some time, and second, because it’s nothing like wine, it’s a very strong spirit, and over 50% ABV (Some versions reaching 60). Why our best friend you ask? Hard to explain if you’re the kind of person who asks these questions, but the point is, despite tasting like pure pain and suffering, it’s one of those drinks that don’t fuck you up completely, and only elicits real joy in everyone. Honestly, I didn’t feel shit or wasted drinking that thing at all. And here comes the best part: does not cause hangover. Honest to God, when that was the only thing we had, nobody had a hint of hangover or nausea, so amazing. At one point I wanted to marry that bastard. Not to mention that it’s cheaper than the orange juice you follow that with. Just don’t buy flavoured ones.
So, party on the streets, then rejoined our friends in the expat street, and enjoyed a top night out afterall. More later on the Shanghai nightlife, when we saw one of the coolest artsy clubs ever, on our farewell night before heading back home. Honorable mention goes out for the taxi-network there, they’re everywhere, and normally you can find one pretty fast. And they’re extremely cost-efficient. Only downside is that a lot of them don’t really know the cities they operate in, and a few times we had to somehow explain to them how to get to a certain location. When you don’t talk Chinese, it’s not easy, so I’m proud of myself. Anyway, that’s it for now, we all woke up after sleeping sound for a couple of hours, sans hangover thanks our white friend, so all was ready for the next step in our journey, which was Suzhou, and our first foray into the classic, real China, after the modernity of Shanghai. So yeah, part 2 coming up.
By the way, I’m Attila.
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