After three months of teaching, Tanith’s school term came to an end, and a week’s break provided us with an opportunity to take some time out and head across the Sea of Japan to China. Fortunately we have some SA friends living in Shanghai, and so we were able to take advantage of their offer of a spare room and a knowledgeable city tour.
Shanghai – a clash of cosmopolitan and classic China
Shanghai is developing at an incredible rate, with new skyscrapers popping up all over the city. It was fascinating to compare and contrast Shanghai with Tokyo – two Asian powerhouse cities, but completely different in character.
Our hosts, Ena and Jules, took us all over the city, from the cosmopolitan Bund on the Huan-pu riverfront, to the ruins of the Old Town, where many old houses and settlements are being bulldozed to make way for more modern apartments. We walked through the Yu-yuan market, sampled what are allegedly Shanghai’s most famous dumplings (judging by the 60m queue they may well have been!), through a scary pet market (selling everything from frogs to dogs to fighting crickets!) and through an antique market, where not everything was as old as it was supposed to be!
Despite the lack of historical authenticity, there were still some pretty items to be bought, and Tanith wasted no time in identifying a beautiful Chinese tea set which was immediately deemed to be an essential addition to our burgeoning teapot collection back home. Sticking out like a sore thumb as a non-Asian meant that the price offered was never going to be a fair one, but fortunately we had Julian’s budding Mandarin skills to fall back on and negotiate a mutually acceptable price, although I am convinced they still made a very tidy profit!
The pet market was really interesting, given China’s notoriety for eating animals of all sorts. However the fighter crickets amazed me the most. Cricket-fighting has a major following in China, and one could see men opening the cricket canisters and poking the crickets inside to determine whether they would be ‘suitable’ fighters. How they could tell one from the next I am not sure, but some crickets looked lot meaner than others!
The Old town is perhaps a better representation of where the Chinese have come from in the past twenty years, although one feels that the Chinese Government is looking to eliminate this eyesore in the near future, which would be sad, despite its run-down appearance. We had lunch in the old town, a delicious but spicy plate of baby lobsters that set us back a whopping R30 in total!
Unfortunately the following day was overcast and raining, so we went to the Urban planning museum for a take of where Shanghai is going – there are billions of dollars being invested into this place, and lots of money to be made! As the evening brightened up we decided to head up the Jin Mai tower, currently the highest building in Shanghai, although it is soon to be surpassed by the building next door to it!
Here we enjoyed cocktails at the Grand Hyatt 87th floor sky bar, which gave us some fantastic views of Shanghai by night, before we headed home and enjoyed a home-cooked meal with some other SA friends (Samora and Lucy), where we had great fun analysing the differences in culture and life between China and Japan.
Beijing – Global landmarks and exotic foods
Just two days before leaving Tokyo Tanith and I decided we also wanted to visit Beijing, and so managed to arrange a two day stopover on the way back home. It was a tight schedule, but in 48 hours we managed to see many of Beijing’s highlights.
Despite a delay in our flight and a mix-up with our hostel booking, we woofed down a very fatty portion of Peking duck before darting across Tiananmen square and heading into the Forbidden City an hour before closing.
The forbidden city is such a massive complex that it was physically impossible to see everything is just a few short hours. Nevertheless we were most impressed with the residence of the last Emperor of China and the umpteen that lived here before him. Although the central Palace Museum was closed for refurbishments taking place prior to the opening of the Olympics next year, the other buildings were no less impressive, and it was pretty awe-inspiring just to walk around the place and revel in its history. It was quite amazing to think that until 50 years ago no mortals were even permitted within the Forbidden City’s inner walls!
It was hard work walking around the massive Forbidden City, and as day turned to dusk we started looking around for dinner options. Feeling fairly adventurous we directed our taxi driver (using a combination of the two Chinese words we learnt on the trip and various sign language gestures) to Donghuanmen market, a buffet of just about all the exotic food Beijing had to offer.
Although I am happy to report no sightings of dog on offer, we were subjected to offers of frogs, snakes, scorpions, crickets, cicadas, worms, octopus, chicken gizzards, heart and livers. Given that not all this food is readily available in Tokyo (in retrospect we understand why!), we felt obliged to at least sample some of the local ‘delicacies’. Starting off with snake (not unlike bull’s chinchillinhas, or small intestine, which I tried in Argentina), we then moved on to some crunchy baby scorpions (foregoing the very scary-looking big daddies below) before cutting our losses at roasted silkworms (like Mopani worms but even worse!) We managed to have some lamb skewers before and oily banana fritters after to cleanse our pallets, but also took the advice received from some seasoned Dutch travellers we once met and washed everything down with a coke, which went some way to settling the uprisings taking place in our stomachs!
With one day left to see what we could, we rose early the next morning to forego the pricey tour packages and catch a local bus to Badaling, a popular but highly accessible part of the Great Wall – given how much time we had, this turned out to be our best option for the day. With some pointed assistance from the locals, we managed to catch the right busses and got to the Badaling gate fairly early, where we had large stretched of the wall to ourselves under cloudless skies.
Although large sections of the wall around this area have been rebuilt, the sheer length of the wall and its immense size relative to the arid landscape surroundings give it an incredible sense of grandeur. Once on the wall we walked a few km’s to where the rebuilt section met up with the original wall; but even from here one could see it stretching out over the hills and as far as the eye could see. The amount of time and effort that went into constructing this man-made wonder is mind-boggling, and just goes to show that once people make up their minds about achieving something, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.
As the tourist busses started to stream in, we started making our way back, bargaining harder with the local vendors and buying some more low-quality trinkets to take home. We got back to Beijing in time to take in the Lama Temple, which was where the famous Dalai Lama first plied his trade. In this aspect of religion, Japan and China are very similar, as the temple layouts and styles between the two countries were very similar in this period, with Japan being very influenced by the Chinese.
On our way back to our hostel we walked through a few of the Hutongs, or typical Chinese suburbs, which still bear the scars of decades of communism – emotionless dark grey walls, communal toilets and the ubiquitous dilapidated exercise equipment! We grabbed an early dinner, trying out some spicy Sechuan fare, before walking around the outskirts of the forbidden city once more, and actually ended up being trapped inside the front gate for a few minutes as we had to wait for the Chinese national guards to lower the country’s flag in Tiananmen square before carrying it back into the Forbidden City for the night.
This delay made us very late for our flight back to Shanghai, and we had to catch an expensive taxi ride back to the airport, only to find out that our flight had been delayed. We ended up getting back to Ena and Julian’s place after 1 that evening, and then had to get up early to catch a train to the airport to catch a flight home.
As a final tourist attraction, the Maglev train to the airport did not disappoint, as we flew up to the midrange speed of 301 km/h (the later trains head up to over 400km/h) and hurtled past the cars on the nearby highway, as if they were travelling in slow motion!
So a four day break came and went very quickly, but it was great to get out of Tokyo and see another Asian country, not to mention catch up with our SA friends. China is a fascinating country, and we only had time to scratch the surface of it. For now it’s back to year end audits for me and teaching for Tanith, until our next break at the end of the month!!