Shanghai

Do I have to like every place I visit? I hope not. Fortunately my original plan to take an airport bus to the town center and then a taxi to my hotel, the Jinjiang Inn, was derailed by an insistent taxi driver. Otherwise I never would have gotten there as there actually is no transport in Shanghai. No transport!

Let me be clear. Walking is an obstacle course as the whole city is a construction site. Yet more skyscrapers, desperately-needed metro stops, luxury hotels and new plumbing lines are under construction day and night. Buses have information exclusively in Chinese and are unusable for foreigners. The metro lines are nowhere near sufficient and are far from anything a tourist would want to see. For taxis the demand far outstrips the supply. Even if you manage to find one (good luck with that) they will not take you any distance less than 2km. Driving? Traffic is legendary here. Cars, motorcycles and fearless cyclists are entangled in a slow-moving knot on every street that thins out only slightly for the three daily hours between the interminable “rush hours”. And the noise! Drivers think nothing of driving an entire block leaning on the horn. They honk for any reason and no reason.

That this monster city could billow up to the skies with public transport now being added as an afterthought says a lot about the local mentality. It’s capitalism run amok.

There are some great sights in Shanghai—if you have the fortitude to reach them. Unfortunately the Bund was closed for renovation at the time. The Yuyuan gardens are a marvel of Chinese design.

The Shanghai Museum is vast and extremely well laid-out with the world’s finest collection of Chinese porcelain.

And then there’s the Shanghai skyline which is breathtaking. It makes New York look like some hick backwater. And that’s tough for me to admit. I took the nighttime river cruise and when it approached the massive, twinkling towers of Pudong the excitement ran like a current through the (mostly Chinese) tourists. We were all running from one side of the boat to the other with our mouths gaping at the astonishing light show. There really is nothing like it. And yes, it did make the entire exasperating, exhausting visit worthwhile.


Xian: Melody Hotel

Melody Hotel XianThis is a highly recommended option in Xian. It’s centrally located and the airport shuttle is right outside the door. My single for 198Y was small but nifty with a handy boiler and cups plus a minibar. I only wish the staff spoke more English!

Although there was no wifi access from my room, I did get online from the downstairs “Star Ferry” restaurant.


Xian: From Dust to Dust

Today I awoke to another dusty day to frame my visit to the world-renowned Army of the Terracotta soldiers. I shall spare you the grim details of the local bus ride there (except thank you Lonely Planet for misplacing the bus station on your map).

Two thousand years ago this Emperor cleverly foresaw his eventual death and had thousands of soldiers sculpted from clay in order to fight for him in the afterlife. Life is a battle, death is a battle, after death is another battle. Only a man could think this way. He must have started this project as soon as he was old enough to shout an order. And I don’t even have a will but, hey, I’m a Boomer. I eat right and exercise. Who knows? Maybe they’ll think of something to eternally postpone that day of doom.

Speaking of eating, as I returned too late to see another tomb, I returned to the Muslim Quarter for further food studies. That place has the most numerous, varied, succulent and unusual street food I’ve ever seen. Block after block, there are women rolling out pastry, stirring up stew, stir-frying fresh veggies, rice and tofu, deep-frying patties and selling all manner of produce from chicken and mutton to chilies, mushrooms, jackfruit, candied fruit, spices, beans and plenty of stuff I couldn’t recognize.

For the record, I had mutton soup with diced bread, cold beans with cucumber, a sort of sesame cake, jackfruit and candied kiwi.

I’m nearly in a sugar coma but enjoying fresh date tea with honey in the hotel restaurant. I’ve taken many more pictures and instructional videos (how to wok-fry rice and greens over a coal-fired stove) than I can post here but stay tuned! Fresh date tea with honeySince these crack cooks are so unappreciated here that many live without running water in their homes, I suggest we start a movement to give them visas to foodie cultures like ours. Oh noodle-pullers, come to mama.


Xian: Back in the Groove

Such a relief to leave the dust bowl of Pingyao and upgrade to the normal smog of Xian.

Pingyao was a major banking center and how did it all get started? A trumpet player in the 18th century married an heiress and turned his head to business, founding the incredibly wealthy Wang banking family. See Mom? It’s not always a disaster to marry a musician.

Xian was once the starting point of the Silk Road and you can still get lots of silk in the tiny Old Town along with Gucci bags, jade bracelets, Lacoste shirts and much, much more!

More authentic wares line the streets of the Muslim quarter. OMG the food. My beloved sesame noodles were a revelation. Then there were these fresh fried pastries stuffed with dates or sesame with honey. I had two.

Which brings me to my 10 Surprises:

1. Despite the fact that there are food stalls, snack stands, noodle shops and restaurants every 10 meters I have not seen one single overweight Chinese person.

2. Tea shops are there to sell tea not serve it. This is not a cafe culture.

3. Xian is dazzling at night.

4. There’s an automatic medicine machine at the hotel. I don’t know what that’s about.

5. In the muslim quarter men sit around with a caged bird or two next to them chirping away.

6.Chinese women have a case of the sparklies. Sparkly stuff is glued on to hair ribbons, shoes, coats, bags. You name it.

7. Napkins are rarely placed on the table.

8. There were more fake Kipling valises for sale than Vuitton.

9. The Grand Mosque of Xian had inscriptions almost exclusively in Chinese; very little in Arabic.

10. Chinese original programming on TV is overwhelmingly costume drama.


Pingyao: The Sandstorm

Pingyao is in China’s Shanxi province, one of the regions pummeled by the worst sandstorm of the year. It doesn’t feel like a storm as there is little wind. It feels like you are living inside a desert: not on a desert but within the sand and dust. Visibility is about 50 meters. It’s not a yellow haze as in Beijing; it’s grayish and completely miserable. Because the dust is so fine, breathing it is really sickening. This is much, much worse than Tunisia. I had planned to cycle 6km to see a temple but merely walking to the end of the street makes me nauseous. For some reason, it’s much worse than yesterday. In Beijing, authorities warned that air quality had reached hazardous levels; I’m sure that’s the case here. So I’m hanging out in the hostel, catching up on reading. My train to Xian leaves at 1am so I have a lot of time. I so hope the air is better in Xian.