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My first day in Shanghai was the first time I got goosebumps from a city skyline. The hostel was right next to the Bund and as you emerge onto it you come face to face with the Oriental Pearl TV tower and the other spectacular erections (haa) on the other side of the Huangpu river.
I walked around aimlessly and found myself in Peoples Park where I came across one of the most bizarre scenes of the trip so far. Groups of people were gathered in the park looking at lots of pieces of paper. I got talking to some English students (there is a place called English Corner where all the students hang around trying to practice their English) and they explained that these pieces of paper contained detailed descriptions of people who are trying to get married – or more accurately who the parents are trying to get married! Many were already deep in discussion with potential matches (or their parents) and I was completely shocked, not just by the Lonely Hearts pages coming to life in front of my eyes but by the sheer number of people who were involved in the process!
I was invited by my new student friends to a tea ceremony – which I was obviously slightly suspicious of. I told them that I didn’t have much money and some of them even offered to chip in for me, I thought fuck it – this is an opportunity to see a traditional tea ceremony with a group of very funny English translators and even if it was a scam – I supposed that is all part of the experience! So for the next hour or so I drank a few different teas and watched as cups were poured over a little statue of what looked like a frog but was actually the God of tea.
The Old Town in Shanghai sounded too good to miss considering most of it seemed to be a sprawling mass of high rises and cranes on dusty building sites preparing hurriedly for the Expo in 2010. I’d read that there was a Sunday market down there so I got up early and after navigating a few construction sites and busy roads I turned onto a shabby looking street where men were fixing bicycles and colorful washing hung across narrow alleys. This was a bit more like it.
Suddenly I turned onto a street absolutely FILLED with sellers. It was a spectacular site– I held my camera by my waist and took sly (mostly shit) pictures as I strode through. There were live fish flapping around in plastic tubs, chickens being killed and plucked by the side of the road, people haggling irratically and sacks and sacks of teas, vegetables and spices- all of which appeared to have arrived by the many bikes which cluttered the scene further.
Old Street itself is busy and has a slightly disappointing faux-traditional feel to it. I did find a very exciting new snack which is basically a dumpling with soup and meat in the middle. It comes with a straw sticking out of it and is a wonderfully ingenious little thing. I ended up having two. The Yu Garden is by far the most impressive thing around the Old Town – a really amazing example of a traditional Chinese garden.
Re-united with Rago Mark after his Beijing football tournament (they came fourth for those that want to know), and also some friends we’d met in Xian who happened to end up in the same room as me in Shaghai, we decided to go and see an acrobat show. It was an amazing show although I was slightly concerned about the amount of time these youngsters must have spent balancing chandeliers on every limb and unicycling upside down on a tightrope when they should have been out having a good time.
We also led our companions across to the other side of town where I had heard about an Art Street where old factories were being converted into exhibitions for local artists. Also nearby was (supposedly) the Museum of National Security which attracted me with it’s promises of gangster paraphernalia but ultimately disappointed me with it’s not actually existing anymore. Not a good thing to admit to your friends after leading them around in the rain for half an hour but luckily the Art Street was good so I didn’t feel like a complete failure. Inspired, I spent the rest of the day taking black and white photos of bicycles and shop fronts.
The Shanghai nightlife is the best yet and without even trying we found ourselves being given free entry into a club with an open bar. We were there drinking, dancing and playing dice games with the locals until 4am and spent absolutely nothing the whole night! We ended up going back to the same place again a couple of nights later because we’d had such a good time (and because we were to lazy to find anywhere else) and although we had to pay about 8 quid entry this time, the bar was just as free and the drinking, dancing and dice just as fun.
There are some cool places around Shanghai so we decided to do a day trip to Suzhou, famously described by Marco Polo as the “Venice of the East” for its network of picturesque canals. Getting a return ticket was easy and cheap and although we were disappointed with the modern city which Suzhou has become in recent years, the traditional gardens were full of charm and the canals were worth a look. You may also be interested to know that they eat a lot of frogs here (at markets you see them in bags, alive and squashed together into a horrible orgy of squirming green bodies) so to sample the cuisine, and perhaps due to some sort of warped curiosity, I tried a bubbling hot pot of frogs with green peppers and onions. It was actually really nice except that you had to negotiate spines and skins, both of which were slightly disconcerting.
Our next stop was Hong Kong so that morning we decided to go and waste some of our remaining Chinese money on the local watch and dvd sellers. We’d had a lot of fun playing with the sellers, trying to sell them stuff back and asking for things which we knew they would sound funny repeating. Anyway, I ended up buying a pair of fake Ray Bans as my sunglasses were broken (I’ve decided that in Thailand I am going to kit myself out completely in fake designers haha) and I made one beggar very rich. The best line was from one of the sellers, who approach you, by the way, with a piece of laminated card displaying their goods, who said that he had “everything”. When I responded that we had no time he quickly retorted “I HAVE TIME!”. I asked how much and eventually got him down to 1000RMB (about a tenner) for a day which I thought was more than reasonable.
on April 18, 2009
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