Monday, March 27, 2006

The Suzhou Experience

Now that I am safely back in Fort Collins, I need to talk about a legendary overnight trip to Suzhou. It is interesting all the way from our trip there to our trip home. Suzhou was our "GO BIG" trip as Morris' friend Chris put it.

Morris' girlfriend Nancy is currently living in Korea, and she flew to Shanghai on Wednesday for a 10 day sojourn. She has a friend living in Suzhou, and Morris also has a friend there (Chris), so we decided to take an overnight trip there. Of course, we had to start out the day with a 2 hour massage. At the place by Morris' house, if you come in before 6pm you can get a 1 hour foot massage and a 1 hour full body massage for 100 RMB, which is roughly $12.50 USD. Quite the deal. Well, the foot massage caused us to miss the 5:30pm train to Suzhou, and for whatever reason there was no other commuter train (Get it? Commuter Train. You'd think these would start at 5:30 and go late) until 8:30 but we didn't want to get there that late, so we start looking for alternative transportation.

There was a group with a small bus trying to fill it for a trip to Suzhou. The cost was 50 RMB per person, and there were 4 of us. On the way to check out this bus, we passed a taxi, so we asked him what his rate to drive us to Suzhou was (about a 2 hour drive) and he quoted 350 RMB. At first we thought that was excessive, so we told him we wanted it for 250 RMB. Well, now the bus drivers come over and start yelling at this guy for trying to steal their fare. We'll call this "almost a fist fight #1". The taxi driver gets really rattled and tells us we can go for 250, so we load up in the car and head out. About a mile from the train station, he changes his mind and puts it back to 350. We tell him to take us back to the train station. When we get out, he demands to be paid for the part that he drove, and we tell him no since he broke the deal. Then he physically grabbed Terry by strap of his bookbag and took his glasses off. The "almost a fist fight #1" wouldn't have been so bad because that was just between drivers, but this was really bad because it would have involved our group. The last thing I wanted to do was get in a fight in a crowded train station in Shanghai. Once the driver saw Morris and Me gearing up, he decided to just find the closest policeman and have him arbitrate the issue.

This was a funny scene. There are literally thousands of people at this train station, and we're in the middle of an intersection taking turns telling our side of the story. Lots of people came over to watch, but it wasn't like american lookie-loos that you see on the freeway. These people were just generally interested in what was happening in their neighborhood and wanted to hear the issues to judge it for themselves. The taxi driver was clearly nuts, and the policeman just didn't want to deal with him anymore. He asked us to just give the guy 10 RMB so he could save some face and we could all go on with our lives. As we were walking away he said to us (in English) "Welcome to Shanghai", and then he started laughing. We ended up finding a much more pleasant taxi driver and just paying her 350 RMB. Actually she was so good that we gave her a 50 RMB tip, which is never done there, so she was really happy about that. Hopefully over time carrots will convince people in China that treating your customers nicely will have rewards.

Once we finally made it to Suzhou and checked into our hotel, we headed out for dinner with the locals. This place was a Japanese restaurant with an all-you-can-eat-sushi and all-you-can-drink-sake dinner for 138 RMB, or roughly 17 USD. Remember, this is our GO BIG night, and we hit it hard from the beginning. We stuffed ourselves with sushi and drank lots and lots of sake. We actually ended the night with some sake bombs. Dinner was really fun, and we headed out to a lounge which was hosting the last night of an awesome band that was headed back to the phillipines the next day. We stayed for one set, and then moved on to a brand new Irish Pub. The Irish Pub had a pool table so we shot some pool for a while. Then Chris got it in his head that we needed to do some Irish Car Bombs, so he ordered pints of Guinness and shots of whiskey for everybody. If you don't know what a car bomb is, you take the whiskey and drop it into the Guinness and then pound the whole thing in one motion. As you can imagine, some people can't handle their liquor so well. Immediately after Chris pounded the beer, he dropped the empty glass on the table and went running for the men's room, where he proceeded to let loose 138 RMB worth of sushi and sake (and the car bomb).

We got the hell out of that place since our friend had literally completely covered the men's room floor and headed to a techno dance club. 3 people headed home early, but Terry, Chris and I stayed until 4:30am to close the place down. I swear, I am pretty sure there were people there that never or rarely see white people. Nobody was dancing, so we cleared out some tables to open up some dance space. Once we got out there, a bunch of girls and guys headed out there to join us. We had a really great time hanging out, dancing, and drinking with these people. In China, the really popular drink at clubs is this mixture of blended whiskey (like Johnny Walker Black) mixed with sweetened green tea (like Arizona Tea) and served over ice. In fact, you usually just buy the entire bottle of whiskey from the bar and a bunch of bottles of tea and mix it yourself. These people were nice enough to let us drink from their pitcher while we were hanging out and dancing. Needless to say, by the time the club closed at 4:30 we were toast and needed to crash.

We did our best to wake up in the morning and get checked out by noon, but none of us were feeling so hot. After wondering around downtown Suzhou for a while, we found a chinese restaurant that was sufficiently busy and sat down there. The food was good, and we even ordered some chicken soup to help soothe our weak stomachs. Little did we know that the soup would contain the entire chicken head. Pretty gross, but the soup still tasted good. Then we headed out to the most famous garden in Suzhou called "Garden of the Master of the Nets". The garden was pretty, and we killed some time hanging out there since that was better than hanging at the train station. Terry and I spent some time getting Morris and Nancy to pose for pictures like models. I wanted the shots I took to appear candid, and I think they came out pretty well.

We took the train back to Shanghai, which was an interesting experience. You have to be really careful where you go in China because you might end up in a place where English is not an option. Luckily I was travelling with people that spoke and read Chinese so I was able to travel to lots of places that I wouldn't have been able to as a tourist. There was no English at the train station. They were sold out of tickets, so we had to buy them from a scalper. I would have been screwed if I was by myself. Anyway, we made it on the train and the seats were actually really comfortable.

Morris, Nancy and I headed out to the Haagen Dazs dessert restaurant near the water for some really good coconut-milk based desserts. I wish they would open something like that here in the US. Of course, we went for a 2 hour massage afterwards! Then we met up with Terry to go get some Hunanese food. If any of you spicy food lovers ever go to Shanghai, you have to go to this restaurant called Dishuidong. The phone number is 6253-2689 and the address is 56 Maoming Nanlu, 2nd floor. They were voted as having the best hunan ribs in town by the local expat newspaper, and I certainly believe it. This is the only restaurant that I went to twice on this trip.

All in all, the trip was really a lot of fun. Staying with Morris in Puxi was great, and having Morris, Terry, and Nancy there to suggest things and deal with translations made (most) things easy. The trip would not have been anywhere near as fun without the local flavor and friends to hang out with.

Check out the Pictures from Suzhou to see the documentary of this legendary evening. I have also added some new photos to the end of the Shanghai photo set.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Day trip to Hangzhou

I signed up for a day trip to Hangzhou, which is about 2.5 hours away from Shanghai. I might not have done it if I knew it was 5 hours of driving, but I'm really glad I did because Hangzhou is a beautiful city up in the mountains.

We started the morning at the Lingyin Buddhist temple. It is like the buddhist temple in Shanghai only way bigger. There are lots of Buddhas, plus copper statues of all 500 of his disciples. When we were on our way out, this group walked up to me with a camera and I thought they were asking me to take their picture. Before I knew, I was crowded all around by chinese people who wanted to take their picture with me. Apparently showing a picture of yourself with a white dude is a big status symbol back home because it means you are well traveled. This was probably one of the weirder experiences of my life.

Then we had lunch and headed over to the Dragonwell Tea Village, which is known for making really good green tea. It is nestled way up in the mountains and is quite peaceful. We did some tea tasting and then purchased a bunch of tea.

For our last part of the day we went to Hua Guang Yu park, which means "Viewing Fish at the Flower's Harbor". There was a peacock garden, lots of little ponds, and cherry and peach blossoms everywhere. It is the main park for people who live in Hongzhou, and there were lots of people there. The park surrounds a large (5 sq km) lake called West Lake, which we took a cruise around.

On the way back we stopped at a pearl factory where they cut open a large oyster and showed us the different kinds of pearls that they cultivate.

You can see my pictures of Hangzhou. Morris' girlfriend flew in from Korea today, so the 3 of us are taking an overnight trip to Suzhou where we are going to party with some of his other friends. Suzhou is called the "Garden City" because it is full of beautiful gardens, and is supposed to be a really nice place.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

First couple of days in Shanghai

Sunday was a fairly tame afternoon. We went out to a teppanyaki restaurant and then met up with some of the USC people for an afternoon of haggling at the Xiang Yang market. This place is like a giant swap meet where haggling to one tenth of the originally quoted cost is not uncommon. The vendors here have copies of everything from North Face Jackets to Gucci purses to Samsonite luggage. The only thing I purchased was a couple sets of chopsticks. Some USC people purchased DVDs, PS2 games, and dress shirts. Then Morris and I headed over to the Dongjiadu cloth market, where I was sized up for a custom made suit. We agreed on a price (550 RMB for one suit), and I told them that if I liked the first one I would come back and buy more. I felt like I was getting food poisoning, so I decided to take some medicine and crash early Sunday night.

I felt a lot better Monday morning and walked down to the Ritz Carlton to get on a day tour of Shanghai. It started at the "Temple of the Jade Buddhas", which is a buddhist temple containing several huge Jade Buddha statues. After that we went to the Yu Yuan Gardens ("Pleasure Gardens") which is a beautiful garden in the city with carp ponds, magnolia trees, big walls, and cool rock formations. In fact, the garden used to be some rich guy's house and then it was given to the city for public use. We finished off the morning by walking along the Bund, which is a waterfront along the western edge of the Huangpu river. We had a family-style lunch at a restaurant there which was very good. After lunch we headed over to People's Square and the Shanghai Musuem, which has a bunch of exhibits on Chinese ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, and a bunch of other stuff. After that we went to a Silk Factory where we watched them start with the cocoon and create a huge silk duvet. To end the tour, we went to an art museum that has some really intricate jade carvings.

You can see pictures of my Shanghai Tour.

Morris and I were supposed to go out for dinner, jazz, and foot massages Monday. I laid down to take a nap before dinner, and apparently Morris was completely unable to wake me up. I woke up at 1am, long after he had gone to bed. Apparently I needed the sleep because I feel back asleep until 6am, so we decided to postpone those activities until Tuesday night.

I also signed up for a tour of Hangzhou for Tuesday. More on that later.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Three guys and a girl, Shanghai

The story you are about to read is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Charles and Monroe began their night with a low key ramen-soup dinner on Nanjing East. Nanjing East is sort of the times square of Shanghai... tons of restaurants and lots of huge electronic billboards that light up the night sky. They washed their soup down with some Kirin Ichiban and then headed out in search of a party.

Some of Monroe's college friends from Berkeley were in town on spring break, so it was decided to meet up with them at "3 on the bund", which is a building with a different restaurant/club on each floor. By happenstance the whole group met up in the elevator, and it was decided that 3 on the bund was not the place to hang out. It was decided that the group would split up and reconvene later at a new destination. Charles and Monroe went to a jazz club across the street to await the arrival of Monroe's brother Teddy.

Teddy showed up, and then said he wanted to wait for his date to show up before we went out to a new club. The jazz club was pretty cool, but it was a little too chill for someone who was jetlagged. The girl was taking a long time to show up, so the 3 guys headed out to a hip-hop dance club.

As it turns out, some of Monroe's friends from HP were at this club having a going away party for someone who was returning to the states. It was determined that the Berkeley crew was not going to come back, even though the club they went to was lame, so HP forces merged because they already had a table reserved.

The way real partying works in Shanghai is to have a table reserved, and several waitstaff reserved just to help the table out. The other thing you do is to purchase alcohol by the bottle instead of by the drink. The group was drinking an interesting combination of Johnny Walker Black mixed with Green Tea. Our group contributed a bottle of Jack Daniels for shots.

Charles, Monroe, and Teddy started throwing back shots of Jack Daniels, and offering them to the rest of the table. I should point out to you, fair reader, that asians typically can not handle large amounts of alcohol, so it got out of control pretty quickly. Teddy's girl showed up, and then everybody started dancing to this hip hop music. The partying ended at 5am, even though the club was still hopping.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Shanghai First Impressions

Apparently I have arrived in Shanghai for uncharacteristically great weather. Anybody that knows me (which probably includes you, since few strangers read this blog) know that I always take great weather with me wherever I travel. For example, when I went to Chicago for St. Patty's day we had 75 degree weather. Here in Shanghai, it rained last night (before my plane landed), and so now it is 55 degrees outside and the smog has been washed out by the rain.

I'm a little more focused now that I've had some sleep. We are about to go out for breakfast, and then the moving crew is coming at 2 this afternoon. I will mark the rest of my posts here in Shanghai local time.

Check out a few pictures of Pudong from Morris' Balcony. We are moving to the more happening neighborhood of Puxi, so I should get some even cooler pictures today.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Safe Arrival in Shanghai

I made it safely to Shanghai. Morris and I went out for dimsum, and now it is 3am here so I am going to crash. Anybody that is waiting for an email from me will probably need to wait either a day or two, as Morris is moving from his Pudong (financial district) apartment to a new apartment in the more happening area of Puxi. From what I can tell it is where all the nightlife and restauarants are, so it will be like North Beach on steroids. Sounds like fun to me!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I'm so glad it is over

"What's over?" you ask? These last 2 weeks. Everybody that knows me (which probably includes you, since I don't think many strangers read this blog) knows that I love to multi-task and always keep a hectic schedule. Keeping a hectic schedule is what keeps me going, because if I ever slow down I will probably just crash. Well, these last 2 weeks have been a little too hectic even for me.

Here's just a rundown of the big items:

  • Finish up winter quarter at DU, which meant writing 4 papers, delivering a group presentation, and taking 2 finals.

  • Finish up a Debian Telco release at work. Of course there were problems along the way, and in order to do this it meant staying at work until 2am and coming back at 7am the night before I had to take my finals.

  • Had a team outing at Dave & Buster's

  • Took last Friday off to go snowboarding (awesome powder!)

  • Went to Austin for the weekend

  • Prepared for my trip to Shanghai

You get the idea. It has been absolutely nuts around here. I am so ready to get on the plane and just crash for 14 hours. Plus, Morris emailed me the address of his house in Chinese, but I don't have the right fonts on my computer or something because gmail just showed a bunch of question marks. It is going to be fun trying to explain to a Shanghai cabbie that he needs to call Morris' cell phone for directions.

This is my first trip to China, and anywhere in Asia for that matter. I have no idea what I'm going to be doing there. I didn't spend much time researching touristy things to do because I'm staying with a local and didn't know how much touristy time I would be having. I can always research it there anyway. Here's my flight itinerary:

  • (Flight) 16 - 17 March 2006: Denver (DEN) to Shanghai (PVG)

    • Leg 1: Denver (DEN) to San Francisco (SFO)

      • United Airlines Flight 315

      • Departs Denver 10:28am

      • Arrives San Francisco 12:05pm

    • Leg 2: San Francisco (SFO) to Shanghai (PVG)

      • United Airlines Flight 857

      • Departs San Francisco 2:12 pm

      • Arrives Shanghai 17 March 2006 7:30pm

  • (Flight) 25 March 2006: Shanghai (PVG) to San Francisco (SFO)

    • United Airlines Flight 858

    • Departs Shanghai 1:45pm

    • Arrives San Francisco 8:18am

  • (Event) 25 March 2006 Whiskies of the World

  • (Flight) 26 March 2006: San Francisco (SFO) to Denver (DEN)

    • United Airlines Flight 526

    • Departs San Francisco 2:07pm

    • Arrives Denver 5:30pm

I'll probably buy lots of stuff there, because it is supposedly pretty cheap. Specifically I'm looking for custom made business suits, and maybe some camping gear. Perhaps I'll buy so much stuff that I need to get another suitcase as well. Other than that, I'm just looking forward to hanging out in a city which has been described by several people as being "just like Manhattan, only much bigger and busier".

Did you know that when you go to China you have to request a Visa in advance? They must do some extensive background checking or something like that which causes them to not be able to issue visas at the airport when you arrive. It just felt weird having to ship my passport off to a travel agent in Chicago whose sole purpose it was to walk the passport down to the Consulate and turn in my visa application on my behalf. Although, I have to say that their visa is a whole page out of my passport and is much cooler looking than the wussy little stamps you get in the EU countries.

Be sure to check back here for photos from China over the next week. This is my spring break and I expect to be partying like a rock star in 1999.