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I thought the US was the consumer capital of the world until I went to China. Shanghai is mind-bogglingly commercial. Everywhere I went, I was sold to. The hawkers were relentless. Walking down the main shopping streets such as Nanjing Road, I could tolerate it. I was there to shop after all.
“Hey lady, you want watch? You want bag? No buy, just lookee. Cheap today, just for you.” The litany of suggestions was repeated to me continually, by one salesperson after another as I walked the shopping gauntlet. It was crucial to not make eye contact and keep going. Making eye contact always guaranteed a longer pitch.
While I got used to the relentless offers on the street, it depressed me to be relentlessly sold to in a Buddhist temple. The instant I stepped into the Jade Buddha Temple, I was approached by a guide who attached herself to me with the intent to tell me a bit about the temple, but more importantly to sell me souvenirs. As soon as I bought, she moved on.
It was the same in the water village of Zhouzhuang. This beautiful water town is the oldest in China and dates back to 770-476 BC. It is appropriately called the Venice of the East (much in the same way that Stockholm is called the Venice of the North). You feel like you have stepped back in time to a kinder, gentler place. But don’t be fooled. The locals there expect you to shop, too.
Wherever I travel, I love checking out the signs on shops, restaurants and highways. I have found so many good laughs, especially in places where English is used as a second language. Here are a few of my recent favorites from Shanghai and Beijing, complete with a few hard to resist comments:
Don’t follow too clowsely
Don’t dring and drive
Donkey Meat for sale. (Do people really eat donkey? Never mind, don’t answer that given that I saw dog heads for sale in a street market.)
Baby on Road (This was on a car window sticker in Beijing. I could not decide whether it was a joke or a spelling error.)
Best restaurant and store names: Gotta Pick My Precious Love (I am not sure what is sold here, but the name is spectacular.)
Paris Lice (Yuck. Lice does not sound good for a clothing store, even when you place Paris in front of it.)
Happy Everyday Bar, Happy Station Restaurant (There were lots of happy places in Shanghai.)
Baby Move (clothing store).
Hot Taste Restaurant.
“Behavior and upper taste” on a billboard advertisement with all the rest of the writing in Chinese. I would like to think that I have behavior and upper taste.
Now, what are some of your favorite signs?
In just about every way, Shanghai was more interesting than I expected. It was both totally modern and completely ancient and the intersection of old and new made for a dynamic combination.
Looking from the Bund toward Pudong, you get some beautiful views of Shanghai’s modern skyline . . . even on a rainy night. The Bund is Shanghai’s version of Wall Street and there are some beautiful old bank buildings along the waterfront. But at the moment, you can not see the waterfront from the street thanks to all the construction going on for Expo 2010.
The photo here was taken from the Bar Rogue, a cool bar on the Bund that was just a five minute walk from where we stayed. We got there about 11 pm on a Monday night and people were just starting to come in. By midnight, the place was full and the dj was playing some great chill out music. Given the spectacular views inside and out, we decided to stay for a while and sampled the Bar Rogue signature cocktail –a mixture of vodka, Grand Mariner, cranberry juice, raspberry puree, lime juice and a slice of orange. It was so good that I had to have two.
Last night as I was leaving The Liffey pub, the band was playing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I don’t know how many years it has been since I have heard that song, but it instantly transported me back to the US. It reminded me of my friend Ted who loves John Denver, as well as my cousins Kara and Kristy who were born in West Virginia. And finally, it reminded me of my Dad who played John Denver on his turntable. I felt warm and fuzzy and left with a smile on my face.
Then as I walked into the Gamla Stan (Old Town) subway station to come home, a street musician was playing ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music.” Just as quickly, I was back in Stockholm.
Sometimes you just have to give in and do the tourist thing. Going to the Huxinting Teahouse is a case in point. Located in the jam-packed with tourists Yu Garden Bazaar, the tea house was built in 1784 and is the oldest in Shanghai. The name means mid-lake pavilion and the tea house does indeed sit in the middle of the lake.
The five-sided building is charming and you have to walk a zigzag path to get to it. Apparently, evil spirits can not turn corners and thus walking the Bridge of Nine Turnings will keep you safe!
In spite of all the tourists, I was charmed by the place and we stopped in for afternoon tea. We were in good company at least as both Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth have had tea here.
We sat on the second floor and had a beautiful view over the lake and gardens. Our tea was poured into the famous Yixing purple clay teapot, which is said to brew the best tea. Whether it was the best tea in China I don’t know, but my oolong was good and it was served with a variety of sweet and savory treats, including tofu, eggs, rice crackers and more.
I had some fantastic meals in Shanghai and – to my western way of thinking – some strange ones as well. In the soups, I often found chicken heads and feet as well as fish tales and heads. As long as I did not inadvertently crunch into one of these additions, I was OK with their presence. That said, when I did bite into one of the more unusual options, they did not stay in my mouth for long.
What I was not so OK with were the dog heads we saw in one of the markets, complete with teeth bared and fur still on. I could not stand to look at let alone imagine eating man’s best friend.
What I absolutely loved where the dumplings, both savory and sweet. Xiao long bao or pork dumplings are a Shanghai specialty and you could find them in street markets and in more formal restaurants. Served up with fresh ginger, soy and vinegar, the ones at Din Thai Fung were particularly tasty. I am getting hungry just thinking about them.