My friends and I went on a four day trip to Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. We were unable to articulate a precise account of a culture of unlimited complexity at the turn of the century, but there are a few impressions that we find useful and perhaps fun to share.
Before traveling to China you have to get a visa. Go to the consulate in time. Apart from filling in forms, delivering photos and paying the fee ($140), you will need to submit two passports. If you do not keep it, request a document at the police station that proves that i your visa was issued.
In the back streets of Shanghai is where you discover that you really are in a Chinese city. Narrow alleys, overlapping and dark shops, luminous puddles dotted with neon lights, filthy bathtubs stacked where unappetizing fish give their last puffs.
The first meal
We started to deal with the currency. Seven yuan = ~ One dollar. The restaurants are cheap. You can eat for about 20 yuan in the premises away from the main streets. Since we do not understand a potato, we mark the image of a plate of rice with meat on the wall. The owners laugh and hooked us up. The rice is terrific. The meat is not bad. But he does not know a cow, or a chicken, or a pig. But we eat, what a relief.
The spell of Shanghai
We headed to a bar that Tripadvisor rated as emblematic: the Old Jazz of the Peace Hotel. There we found a cozy pub with several tables around a stage. And we enjoy the music of Zhou Wanrong, a nonagenarian who plays with his band an unclassifiable repertoire between pachanga and jazz.
We left the Old Jazz wanting more, and following the trail of thunderous music we arrived at a building in the Bund (the legendary riverside walk of Shanghai), where on the seventh floor is located the Rouge nightclub. Security let us in but not before warning us that next time we bring shoes, shirts and dresses. We emerged on a terrace from which you can see all of Pudong (the financial district of skyscrapers and hotels across the river), and where a majority of expatriates, and also some local, dances reggaeton and hits of native origin.
Taxis are cheap in China. A trip rarely exceeds $5. Hence we used them so much. Our journey with taxi drivers let us to meet reckless sprinters, talkative drivers who don’t care if you don’t understand them, men worried that the Chinese race will remain pure, and also…”normal” drivers.
Psychotropic tunnel and Pudong
Cross the Yangtze River (more than 400 meters wide) in a psychotropic tunnel, in a car that goes at three kilometers per hour, battered by thousands of lights that look like the end of 2001, a space odyssey. Wondering what this is all about. Go out to the other side, raise your head and….wow
The second tallest building in the world, the Shanghai Tower, with 630 meters. To the ninth highest, the Shanghai World Financial Center, with 500 meters. Climb to your vantage point, the highest in the world, riding in the bright, lysergic lift that takes you to the 100th floor, 10 meters per second, and look, on both sides, how Shanghai spreads as far as the eye can see.
Calvary at the station
“Shanghai is one of the biggest cities in the world and millions of people are moving by train every day, it can not be that difficult,” we think. But it was. All those millions of people seemed to be there, the security queues at the entrance are endless and Chinese non-residents can not get tickets from the vending machines (so you’ll need to keep another endless queue). The best thing is to buy the tickets before you travel (Ctrip works perfectly), go two hours in advance and make sure that all the booking details are correct: the slightest change can make you not get on the train.
Suzhou is worth visiting. If you have a short time, one day is enough to walk through the quiet canals, where you can take a boat ride and lose yourself in the alleys of the roads bordering the tourist area, where you can see beyond the stage that make up the Channels. There you will find elders playing mahjong, multiform fish floating in ice boxes and butchers beheading chickens in series. Also a Starbucks, of course.
Too Much Transparency?
Looking for accommodations for Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing, a picture of one of the rooms in a five-star hotel caught my attention: the wall separating the bathroom from the rest was glass. I thought this was just a feature of that specific hotel, but no, it was a lot of hotels. If you also prefer to do what is done in the bathroom in privacy, be forewarned.
In the middle of the flood we had the opportunity to see one of the wonders of the Chinese Buddhist tradition: the Lingyin Temple or the Soul Retreat. It’s one of the largest and best preserved (and still active) temples in China, with about 1,700 years of history. It is a huge complex, with caves with dozens of buddhas carved in stone. The temples are one behind the other climbing a mountain, and they house halls as imposing as that of the Celestial Kings or the Great Hall, which houses what is supposed to be the largest statue of Buddha.
The city of the lake
In Hangzhou it rains almost half of the year. And so much water makes this huge city, with nine million inhabitants, a green paradise. Put on a raincoat and water boots and stroll around its spectacular lake. You can also walk through one of its catwalks (watch out for the windmills and the umbrella rods) and see the Leifeng Pagoda, a magnificent white building that borders the south bank.
Beijing is colder than Shanghai Among other things, it’s because the sun tries to hide behind a perpetual layer of pollution. You’ll constantly scratch your throat like a smoker.
Do not you enjoy yourself because you are going to spend the Day of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing (October 1)? Forget the joy: that day and the previous ones are probably the worst to be there. The national day is not like the new year: holidays, few, and the vast majority of the population uses that day to travel with the family to their places of origin. The strong security of the city turns the center into a tetris of security booths, fences and enclosed areas that will prevent you from passing to some of the essential, such as Tiananmen Square. Of course, the Forbidden City is so immense (and overwhelming) that it will never seem to you that there are too many people. Save a full day for the visit.
The Peking night, unlike that of Shanghai, has a very specific area of march: Sanlitun. There are many bars, some international and others with mostly Chinese goers.Check out the Kokomo on the roof of a building with five floors of bars. By the way, if you have something important the next morning, like a visit to the Great Wall, you’d better not drink too much.
We left Beijing and traveled for two hours by bus to the Great Wall. We climbed the hill until we reached the defensive construction, looked at both sides and decided to walk to the right. We check that we move through a practically vertical corridor and we intend to reach the third guardhouse. About 300 meters, in the second, we give up because, rather than walking, we climb. We look at the horizon, but we only see a great cloud in the background, determined to erase the blue of the sky.
We hear, astonished, how the Belinda guide assures that this is one of the best days of the year. What will it be like in winter, with the heating at its worst? We descended from the wall, for 20 minutes, in a kind of sled by a winding metal slide, which saves the zigzag slope. An attraction that reflects the ludic character of the Chinese.
Beijing and its markets
Book a day to eat at Wangfujing Market. There is everything: spiders, jellyfish, tofu (also tofu smelly), crabs, starfish, snakes, scorpions. It’s cheap and delicious. Take a stomach shield. The last day in Beijing, you can go to the antiques market in Panjiayuan, where you can buy handicrafts, ceramics, earrings, books, chopsticks and almost any object that will solve your gift ballot. The art of haggling is the order of the day.
Alas, it was time to go. After some more issues at the airport due to visa issues, we finally made it back. A trip we’ll not soon forget. And we will certainly be be back for more.