Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Seeing Shanghai

When you travel, or indeed do anything in life, you always have a preconceived notion about where you are going and what you are doing. One of the truly wonderful things about traveling is that often enough these notions are often both confirmed and confounded.

I certainly had some ideas about China, but I have to say that Shanghai was both everything I had expected, and nothing that I had expected. I knew that it would be big, busy, and polluted, but I wasn't expecting the sheer glorious chaos that is Shanghai.

I feel that Shanghai in 2009 is rather like New York in the early 1900s, a city of opportunity that is reinventing itself every few years. The city will be hosting the 2010 World Expo starting this spring, and until this week was home to the world's second tallest building. (Now the Shanghai World Financial Center has been relegated to a more modest 3rd place) The subway system has seen some major additions in the last two years, with even more stations and lines opening before the expo. It is fascinating to see a city that is just so New.

My first full day in China didn't start very easily though. Ken and I woke up to the sound of his phone ringing, as our mutual friend and ex-coworker Todd had arrived in Shanghai from Thailand. He and his wife were here, but puzzled as nobody was answering the doorbell.

Ken doesn't have a doorbell. The taxi driver had dropped them off at the wrong building AND taken a tip, despite the firm no-tipping rule that exists in China (and Japan, for that matter.) Finding them in the massive complex proved to be the work of about 45 minutes and 4 incoming phone calls, not helped by Ken and I's minor hangovers and the fact that his phone couldn't call Todds.

After our belated reunion, Todd's wife Bobbi decided it was nap time, as the flight from Bangkok had left at around 2 AM. The boys were eager to get some sightseeing done, so we walked to the Jade Buddha Temple. Ken and I had actually made the trek over there the day before, in between restaurants, but it closed at 5, and despite our 4:45 arrival time, they wouldn't let us in.

The temple exists to enshrine a pair of Jade Buddhas that were brought to Shanghai from Burma. Sadly, photography of the Buddha statues was prohibited, but believe me that the very large jade statues are well worth seeking out. Though this also introduced us to the sad fact that in China, everybody wants to make a buck (or two or three) from the tourists. As we walked into the temple, a man who seemed to be working there tried to get us to go to a calligraphy shop or something along those lines that was located INSIDE the temple grounds.

Indeed, there were several tacky gift shops and such placed around the temple halls. While there is certainly an overabundance of crass commercialism surround the temple and shrine tourist sites in Japan, the Japanese usually keep them outside the sacred grounds!

Despite all that, we all really enjoyed seeing the Jade Buddha Temple, and Todd was so impressed that he made sure to go back with his wife a few days later. Walking back towards Ken's apartment, we stopped off for a quick snack which was more like a full meal, complete with a few (gloriously cheap) beers each!

As we walked back to the apartment to gather up the ladies for dinner, we stopped at a street side window where Ken got some Shanghai Soup Dumplings. Picture a small, plump shumai, filled with broth and gyoza tasting meat. In other words, an utterly delicious little packet of goodness. Of course, you have to be careful biting into the dumpling, else the broth will go everywhere, as Todd found out to his dismay when he dove into his dumpling with a gusto that he soon regretted.


Mia said...

The shops in the temples aren't there for purely capitalist reasons. They generally sell things used as offerings.

But any temple that's more tourist site than place of worship is going to have more than its share of shops.

Travelingrant said...

Yeah, I imagine if you get out of the touristy areas there will be less of a presence, but I was pretty surprised to see shops catering to tourists INSIDE the temple grounds! Though of course, that didn't really detract from the visitation itself.