Far East Hopping

June 7, 2018 7:40 am Published by Leave your thoughts

They tried to kick me off the flight. Upon presenting my documents at the gate to Shanghai, the employee asked where my Chinese visa was. I don’t need one, because I’ll be using the 6-day visa free stay in Shanghai and its neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. That didn’t fly with the flight operator. They were adamant no one lands in China without a visa and asked me to step aside from the queue. During the 15-minute wait, they informed authorities one person is getting off this flight – that would be me. I explained again that I’ve done this years ago and there is no problem at all. This fact increased their suspicion, because “things might have changed”. Ultimately the pilot arrived on the scene, had a closer look at the computer, turned to me and uttered the long-awaited “OK”.

Shanghai wasn’t in a hurry to welcome me back, because Pudong Airport was too congested for a timely landing. We circled about 40 minutes before receiving a landing slot and then another 40 minutes on the tarmac waiting for a gate. The recently upgraded airport was under even more construction, which I spied through the window. It was May, but weather was gloomy, overcast and about to rain. Night was approaching and I was slightly worried about the next step of the journey. Naturally, there were zero problems with the visa free entry. At the far left side of Immigration, there are 2 separate visa free stands, away from the general queue, where officers idle and itch to prove the clueless airlines wrong. I was only asked where I was going, presented an outbound flight reservation, got my passport stamped and was on my merry way into the Middle Kingdom.

The next key task was getting a local SIM card with internet. They are conveniently on sale at the baggage reclaim area. The first offer was worse than expected and after checking carefully all cards, I bought a cheap unlimited SIM card, installed by the helpful sales lady. I followed the signs for buses to other cities and reached a small bus station inside the airport terminal. It’s set up well enough for foreigners not to get disoriented and my only trouble was understanding the cashier’s English pronunciation. There are a few exits leading directly to your bus at the right time and you can’t get lost. The signs over the exits were in Chinese, but you can ask around or compare the destination name and time with the ticket. I even joked with an employee that the next bus to Suzhou isn’t my “zhou”. Another 40 minute wait and I hopped on the bus to Hangzhou.

It was already dark and raining and nothing from the famous Shanghai skyline was revealed as the bus hurtled along the highway. Of course I had a Chinese seat mate with loud music on his phone. I called home over Viber and got in contact with my Bulgarian hosts on the ubiquitous WeChat. My progress was tracked over Apple Maps, which has detailed information about public transport, while all Google products are completely blocked off. In 2 short hours, we pulled into Hangzhou slightly ahead of schedule. I jumped into the first taxi, showed the hotel location on the phone and off we went, no Mandarin required. Except things in China aren’t what they seem and the driver “accidentally” brought me to another, more expensive hotel. I explained the situation to the English-speaking valet who rushed to meet me. He made the driver aware of my destination and instructed me what to pay and not a Yuan more.

At the real hotel, I was greeted by my compatriot with instant noodles in hand and a room ready for me. The place was modest but totally fine. Convenient, faux-traditional interior and much cheaper than what you would pay in the USA. Jet lag was overpowered by excitement and we decided to check out the night city. It was the perfect post-rain warm evening to stroll around empty streets. We went to the famous Hangzhou landmark, West Lake, which was just a few blocks away. The streets leading to the lake were guarded by those ubiquitous flashing roadsigns that are all over the People’s Republic. The lake coast is full of attractions like gardens, paths, restaurants and pavilions, all strangely deserted after hours. The moonlit inky lake was calm, beautiful and a perfect ending to a surreal first day.

After baozi and pastry for breakfast in a very tight basement/dining area, we started our walk around the lake. Daylight showed us a tea shop and a convenience store neighboring the hotel. Admiring the impressive gardening, we returned to the West Lake, which was naturally much more lively during daytime. The lakeside parks are lovely and full of shops. People strolling around, elderly people dancing, even one person drawing calligraphy on the tiles with water. We continued on a road leading to a bridge in the lake, which served as an endpoint to the excursion. The number of people increased, as this is one of the favourite sightseeing spots in the country. We passed by signs welcoming the G20 summit later that year, which was apparently a big deal. After checking out the commercial district and confirming that yes, shops are similar around the world, we headed to the train station to bid the city farewell.

The new and shiny Hangzhou East Train Station is amazing. The waiting area is extra spacious and surrounded by many exits to the platforms. We poked around the shops and discovered Bulgarian yogurt branded as Momchilovtsi, a treat in more ways than one. Had a quick snack and queued at our exit together with a large group of passengers. You can’t reach the platform without your ticket and the gates don’t open until very late, at about departure time. Then there is commotion while everyone tries to enter first and avoid being left behind. It is worth it though, because at the bottom of the stairs, a technological marvel awaits: the 300 km/h CRH (China Rail High-speed) train. It is much like the Japanese Bullet Train (Shinkansen) – very clean, comfortable and efficient. And already covering a sizeable part of the most populous country. It’s always nice to mingle with the real people on a train and see what they are like firsthand.

After a short and sweet train ride, I witnessed Jiaxing, a “small” city of about 4 million. Its out-of-town train station is brand new and sparkling, but really small in comparison to others. We took a leisurely 40-minute bus ride downtown, passing by endless residential development projects. They were all closed-off complexes with a few residential blocks for the lower middle class. The name of one of them contained the word “Aristocratic”, which was quite ironic. The absurdities of East-West cultural appropriation go both ways. After passing by the impressive brutalist government buildings, we got off at the newly-developed entertainment heart of the city. It consisted of malls, an amusement park and a few small restaurants, one of which welcomed us for lunch. I had a cold noodle soup kind of like soba and a can of local beer. Both delicious and fulfilling.

People here look at the air quality index on their phones all the time. During my stay, the weather was gloomy and not great, but the air wasn’t too bad either and it was warm enough for a stroll. We visited the old town, full of ancient buildings with traditional design of sloping roofs with round tiles. Some of them were dedicated to the crafts, some housed restaurants or bars. At noon it was strangely deserted. Of course, old town had canals, stone bridges and all the exotic stuff. Such experience never gets old… oh wait.

We continued to a main market street, where we got ourselves some juice which was tricky to drink with a straw. Above the street was perched an ancient temple and garden with stone paths. It won us extra authentic tourism points. We went home through a big park with lots of pathways and lakes. I spent the night in a real expats’ apartment in a closed apartment complex. It had a nice park with a mini lake, a convenience store and nothing much notable. The area was nice, quiet and clean. We had dinner at a restaurant where the employees took great interest in our laowai selves. The Chinese have no concept of personal space and it can be a little awkward.

On the next morning I started early for good old Shanghai, the biggest Chinese city, situated about 100 km away. On my own again, with strong concentration, I followed my hosts’ instructions and took a bus to the station, where I used my pre-purchased ticket and got on the express train. In a matter of minutes, the windows started showing me the outskirts of the humongous megapolis. Soon enough we pulled in at Hongqiao Train Station in the western part of Shanghai. It is connected to Hongqiao International Airport (the older and second-largest SH airport after Pudong) and the subway station of the same name. The size of the crowds did not disappoint. Using the handy online maps, I got oriented easily and boarded the subway going downtown, which took another 40-some minutes. What’s with all these 40-minute trips?

Coming out of the subway onto the streets of downtown Shanghai is dizzying and breathtaking. Huge glass buildings hang over you from all directions, near and far, next to wide roads and busy traffic. Yet there is a strange sense of relaxation. Now I’m at the northern bank of Suzhou River, the smaller one, which joins the big one, Huangpu, a few blocks to the east. That is the direction towards the central business district. Home to the countless super-tall towers that emerged from the economic miracle and the fog like petrified giants. And to spice things up a bit, all sorts of laundry hanged on the streets, right next to the river.

The intersection of those two rivers is the most famous part of the city – the Bund, a pedestrian and motor way along the western bank of the Huangpu. This is the location of some of the foreign concessions with the first big financial buildings dating back to the late 19th/early 20th century. My hotel was at the northern end of the Bund, next to the historical Waibaidu Bridge over Suzhou He (“He” means “River”). Upon checking in I encountered one of the frustrating features of far-east tourism: incompatible credit cards and hotel deposit. It’s annoying, because the deposit blocks a sum from your card for weeks. Prepared with cash and alternative bank cards, I checked in successfully and enjoyed the view from the top, albeit to the opposite direction of the Bund, because I’m cheap.

My next port of call was the Bund, where I asked a local uncle to take my picture with the skyscrapers in the background, the same scene from my first visit 10 years ago. It wasn’t crowded and I took my time sinking in the panoramic views. But not all was careless relaxation, for I was on a mission to acquire Korean cosmetics. One of my hosts advised me that I can find it on the main street in Shanghai and that’s exactly what I did. You don’t need to be told what street – of course it’s the legendary shopping paradise Nanjing Dong Lu, starting from the Bund and ending 1.5 km later at People’s Square. On Nanjing Lu (“Lu” means “Road”), you can find anything and anything can find you, especially local scam artists and fake watch vendors. One needs to be extra careful around here, but I had no problems and quickly found the right shop and purchased the goods.

I took the subway under Huangpu River and found myself in Pudong, the financial heart of the country. There is a new pedestrian overpass where neck flexibility permitting, you can enjoy shiny the buildings, products of unchecked ambition. It’s remarkable how many more skyscrapers they can raise in a decade. Last time, in addition to the beautiful TV tower Oriental Pearl Tower, there was one other super-tall tower, Jin Mao (420m) and now it’s a part of a group of three. Each represents China’s past, present and future. The future is Shanghai Tower at 630m, with an impossibly twisted and smooth triangular shape. Let’s check out its observatory.

To go up, sometimes you need to go down. The glass-walled lobby for visitors of Shanghai Tower lies beneath street level and after a currently empty queueing area, there is a descending escalator. Employees are posted at the top, bottom, entrance and basically everywhere. They informed me the ticket costs ¥180, almost not expecting me to bite. I assured them I’m ready to part with my hard earned cash and started the ascend. Like all landmark skyscrapers, this one had some sort of museum on the way to the observatory and the mood was uplifting (no pun intended). It almost feels like being launched into space. Guests arriving at the top level follow a corridor to the windows, which showed… nothing. From the corridor, everything outside was just fog. You could feel white people getting confused and worried that they just made a very bad deal. Once at the windows though, we confirmed the city is still out there, just not very visible. Still, looking 600m below is impressive, especially when you watch extremely tall buildings from above.

I wondered what to have for my only dinner in Shanghai. Between the tough choice of local food and continuing my global burger collection, I chose the latter. Fear not, I also had yummy dumplings at the airport on the next day. The burger joint was at People’s Square and I had to catch a bus to go there. Pudong boulevards are super wide and after a little misunderstanding about the bus stop, I caught my ride and it took me exactly where I needed to go. People’s Square occupies a huge space and is home to the opera, local government, city museum, an art gallery upscale restaurant, a park, an underground mall, hotels and more skyscrapers. The roads are decorated with red flags and bring grandeur to the scene. I descended into one of the office buildings’ food court and had a fat American burger, followed by Chinese ice cream while going back to the Bund on foot. I passed by cramped streets with hanging wires and facades darkened by moisture.

The Bund at night is something else. It’s lit by multi-coloured lights coming from everywhere, especially from Pudong’s mega structures across the black river. The promenade has a flower-decorated wall, the crowds are in full swing, policemen patrol in mini electric vehicles, people chill on the benches. Of course, there are newlyweds’ photo sessions with long beautiful red dresses and serious photographers. Everyone is focused, but one groom didn’t miss the chance to wave and thank me for my congratulations. There are newlyweds and models at every step back home, including the Waibaidu Bridge, which provides a great photo op.

On the next morning I got out of this urban monstrosity by taking the subway and flying away. On the train, a group of Serbian athletes was excited about their new sporting day, while I was excited about what comes next. Carrying only a backpack, I moved quickly around the airport and had enough time to relax and enjoy the craved dumplings. I even grabbed a SIM card for my next destination from an automated vending machine near the gate. Beats queuing, producing documents and filling out forms.

Continued.

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This post was written by rado

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