Tuesday, November 22, 2011

So...Where Have You Been?

To be honest, I've kept busy throughout my stay in Shanghai, whether it be work, meeting new people or activities, I've not gone travelling around to a great extent. In the last few weeks I decided to plan a few trips, one to Suzhou and another to Hangzhou, both highly regarded cities by the locals. The question for me is how to navigate through a city which is not as developed as Shanghai.

I decided to enlist the services of a tour, which entailed a private car and tour guide for 8 hours. Given the destination was1.5 hours away, this left little time to navigate and explore. On a drizzly day, we went to the famed gardens and Tiger hill while dropping into a local restaurant for some food.

The gardens I must say were underwhelming, perhaps due to the time of year, or because some other cities I'd visited had blown me away. The benefit of choosing a private tour paid off at lunchtime as there was the flexibility to choose a place on the street whilst in the city centre. Without a tourist in sight, I was able to get some assistance in choosing some local dishes from a restaurant that would not probably meet half of the health and safety standards back home. A man makes dumplings downstairs, while an elderly old woman took orders and handed you a receipt to take upstairs where your order was fulfilled as you waited. Suzhou cuisine I've been told is sweeter, and that was certainly reflected in the dumplings. Some noodles and another portion of dumplings later and it was back on the road to visit Tiger hill.

Seeing a city being developed is quite a sight, with kilometers of road being blocked off, a subway was being built, while cars maneuvered their way across the roads. To reduce the dependence on cars and bikes will certainly ease traffic congestion and perhaps enable the vast population to set their sights on cities other than Beijing and Shanghai.

Tiger hill was bustling with flag waving tour groups, while the best spots were where there were not a flag or megaphone in sight, proving again that catering for the masses doesn't always result in the best experience.

Luckily a friend volunteered to accompany me to Hangzhou, which proved invaluable when purchasing tickets. Meeting at a station that resembled more of an airport lounge than a train station, thousands of people milled around waiting to board trains to varies nearby cities. While much maligned in the media due to an accident earlier in the year, I felt no issues boarding the train for a 1 hour journey travelling up to 300kms/hour. Spacious and efficient, the train whooshed us through the countryside of China to our destination without worrying about traffic at around $28aud round trip. A note to tourists - you need to carry your passport when taking the train as one of my unsuspecting friends found out. That is unless being surrounded by police thinking you were trying to seek asylum in China is something you wish to experience.

The West lake is the main attraction in Hangzhou and for good reason. The expansive lake enables the plethora of tourists to be spread to large clusters rather than rubbing uncomfortably against each other at each step as is the case in other tourist spots. The entire lake is too long to walk by foot and I dare not risk riding a bicycle with such an unpredictable crowd, so we walked about a third and opted for an electric car tour for the rest. Then, hiring a row boat we floated on the lake and soaked in one of the last remaining days of sunshine before winter hits. There were many other places to visit in the town, but there was something quite nice just lying there with the day ticking away - besides, I didn't feel the urge to fight my way through crowds to get a glimpse of a different tourist attraction. Fortunately the assumed thick layer of pollution protected me from getting sunburnt!

I've just returned from a ~4 day trip to Taipei and what I saw was interesting to say the least. The contrast between the two countries is quite amazing... Anyway for discussion on another day...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Follow the Red Flag

It was good to get a cold out of the way early in the season and it was inevitable as covering one's mouth or nose when sneezing or coughing is a rare display of manners amongst the public here. Subsequently, I was sick for the golden week and wasn't able to utilise the week long holiday during October. I was however able to venture out on the weekend and decided to travel to all the tourist spots that have eluded me so far. When working in a city for an extended period you tend to push back the 'touristy' sites as you feel you've got plenty of time to visit them, however with around a month and half to go, I felt I need to make better use of my time here.

So, over a two day period, I ticked off Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower, Yu Garden, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai History Museum and the Shanghai Aquarium. Solid without being spectacular, I've found it seems to be one of the aspects of the city that hasn't developed at breakneck speed. The scores of people at Yu Garden during the day make it a nightmare to walk through, while I'm sure my head has popped into a number of photos as I navigated my way through the crowd. While at the pearl tower, the mandatory skyline view of the city provides a perspective of how large and dispersed the city really is. Finally at the aquarium an excellent display of marine wildlife is on show, with the highlight being the longest underground walkway, providing a spectacular experience as a variety of creatures swim around you.

Last week I headed off to Suzhou, yesterday Hangzhou and later I'll make a short visit to Taiwan. Coupled with about 5 days of drinking this week am I hearing the feint sounds of trying to cram everything in before I live to regret it?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Fish Food

A three hour drive from Shanghai and it is a relief to get out of the concrete jungle that is the main city. Not having experienced a hot spring - I failed to venture to an Onsen in my trips Japan - it was something I was curious about and Tianmu lake was the destination. Before the trip, I had to organise some swimming trunks, as this particular hot spring was not au naturel.

Not unlike cows in a prodding yard, men and women are separated upon arrival to the hot spring, where a multitude of attendants usher you through the maze of change rooms to your locker which matches a plastic wristband which acts as a magnetic contact key. Hence one of my curiosities of how you secure your belongings while wallowing in some hot water was solved - eg not a traditional door key.

Imagining large pools where people congregated, I was surprised with the layout, where around 50 small pools peppered the landscape. There were a variety of different pools, ranging in temperature (up to 52 degrees) and content, - which I'll touch on later - while budgie smugglers made unwelcome appearances throughout. Sitting in the hot spring, it certainly was relaxing and if it were devoid of people, I could get a lot of thinking done, on what exactly I'm not sure.

Walking throughout the resort and going from hot spring to hot spring, there were some interesting varieties, including one filled with beer (a waste I say, but didn't dare take a sip), lavender and by far the strangest was fish. In a cooler spring, for just 15 yuan (~$2.5aud) you could sit in a pool where little fish nibbled away at your dead skin. Be sure to keep you head above water, so as not to swallow fish excrement, while those who opted for budgie smugglers rested easy as the little fish could not venture into unwanted territory. It's a strange feeling to have fish nibble away at parts of your body, and regardless of whether or not I got any benefit or just provided some fish food it was a unique experience.

As Golden Week in China ends, - three days of public holidays followed by some well timed annual leave - it's a shame that I managed to catch a cold and been stuck watching some atrocitious acting and lines from War of the Worlds instead of venturing around town. However, I did stumble across a great service here, where a delivery company for just $2.5aud, arranges ordering, pickup and delivery of your chosen food from participating restaurants. Eg you have a hankering for a local Japanese place? Log onto the delivery service website which replicates the restaurant's menu, select your order and presto, it's delivered with no fuss. It saves worrying if the restaurant can understand English, while also provides an easy way to sample a variety of restaurants.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's a Dinosaur!

It's been many years since I've visited the local zoo in Melbourne and I haven't gone to the Werribee open range zoo either, so whether this ranks high or low in the zoo rankings I cannot say, but last week I ventured out to the Shanghai Wildlife Zoo.

The Monday being a public holiday (thankfully occurrences of public holidays here is not desolate in the second half like back home, with a 5 day weekend approaching!) I travelled by train and bus (thankfully with a local) out to a 153 hectare zoo wandering around for about 5 hours. In such a large area, we were able to walk around freely, even with the multitude of people milling around. The usual suspects in terms of animals were present, most in large enclosures and even some were permissible to feed. Thank goodness for the SLR, as I was able to get some good snaps of a giraffe with a tongue Gene Simmons would be envious of. Finally, lugging around the camera paid some dividends!

Impressive reach

You can't visit a Chinese zoo without seeing panda, and I was thankful to get a glimpse of 3. Thinking that there was to be a line 10-15 deep reminiscent of the subway, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to navigate my way around and get a few snaps. Yes, they were about as active as one of those people you see on "Amazing Medical Stories" who are 200kgs, but they're just so damn cute you feel like going up and patting them.

This was as active as the lovable panda got!

With around 2 hours to go before closing, we noticed on the map that there was an area only accessible by vehicle. Seeing some large passenger buses we thought that they were ferrying locals to the zoo from other places, however upon closer inspection, there were 2 bus lines to visit another area of the zoo: Regular passenger buses, and another which carried around 40 people, which one of the staff mentioned: "Is much better than the other ones". Not knowing what to expect, we paid, lined up and waited. Important: This bus was a cage with wheels with outward facing seats and no windows. A much better choice! However, for those thinking of going, the left side of the bus has a much better view! Without much knowledge of what we'd be seeing, the bus took off.

Not unlike a scene from Jurassic Park, a manned gate opened where the vehicle drives into a holding area. Once inside, the gate behind closes, and the one in front opens, complete with signs about electrified fences and warnings for broken down vehicles. (I could hear Jeff Goldblum's delivering a on-liner) Inside, zebras, buffalo, and gazelles roamed freely, while other areas (through separate gates) housed bears, tigers, lions and cheetahs. Unfortunately with the bars being so close together, getting a clean photo was difficult, however seeing a tiger up close and personal was a great experience. The vehicle is allocated one 'free' chicken, which is dropped from a chute and gobbled up in a flash. 60 yuan would allow for another chicken, and a tiger was teased before the chicken was granted an extended 10-15 minutes before the next bus circuit.

Happy to see this rare animal

When are they going to drop one of those pesky humuns through the chute?

Finally, we ventured to a seal show which was enjoyable albeit short, however it was included in the cost of the ticket, so I can't complain. What was noticeable however was the extreme amount of excrement offloaded during the performance which perhaps could be put down to nerves from the performers. In any case it was a good show despite the fact that the water looked like it hadn't been changed in a few years.

Let's hope the tap water is better quality

Impressive vertical leap

To finish off the night, some dumplings and tsingtao (Chinese beer) replenished the energy reserves. I've got to say some of the places in Melbourne have some pretty good dumplings when compared to the ones here... I'm impressed.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

I'm Too Old For This Sh!t

The line from the Lethal Weapon series - a favourite from my childhood - seemed to best describe my thoughts when I went out on Friday night. Experiencing the Shanghai nightlife, we went out to eat some Sichuan food with a group from work. With more chilies than a bowl of rice, there were even some murmurs from the locals that it was hot, while anyone who knows me understands that I can take to spicy food about as well as a dwarf competes in a tall man contest. Thankfully I was able to nibble my way through enough to line the stomach with some protection before a full night of alcohol, and we managed a very 'Australian' custom by drinking the restaurant out of cold beers.

A small group of us ventured on to a popular nightspot called M2, which drew some raised eyebrows from some of those we told. Needless to say, my name and cool places are not synonymous and I was having second thoughts on the t-shirt and jeans I decided to don. The main difference between asian and western countries in terms of clubs as far as I can gather (from around the 6 I've been to in my life), is that occupying space requires a certain amount of dough, which I found out this morning cost me to the tune of 2100 RMB ~ $320 AUD - heck that was just MY share! What this got you was a small table, a couple of bottles of whisky, a fruit platter, and a guy who transfers the whisky from the bottle to a jug. Obviously this business model tends to work better than Australia where patrons can nurse their $10 drinks for a couple of hours. With fashionistas, complete with a so-called hip-hop singer the pre-requisite 'tosser' sunglasses (gimmie a break - indoors at night??) complete with western dancers and  it was quite an experience. I can't recall the last time I went to a night club, and I don't even know if I can call it that, but there was loud music, a bunch of people dancing, and a strange dice game being played where the loser downs some of the expensive nectar that costs me more than half my flight here! It was an enjoyable experience as it's not something I'd go out to do, while it was good to see what happens with young folks these days!

We went onto another club where my guess is that the other half of my plane fare is about to sting me as this was a slightly larger table, there were more drinks and the music was louder. Geez, I don't know how people do this week in and out. This was different again, with fancy dancers strutting their stuff at regular intervals, showing patrons how it's meant to be done. Rest assured I didn't dare attempt to dance and was quite happy to guard the expensive space we had secured.

Thankfully all these spots are a stones throw from my apartment and I was able to stumble home at 4am. I hadn't had that much to drink, however I did manage to press the wrong floor and try my card in someone else's door a few times - luckily I didn't start banging on the door. While the incorrect floor I did get off had the hallmarks of a patron who didn't make it to his/her room - spew all over the elevator exit which I somehow managed to avoid. Microwaving some frozen fries and having a shower, I was knocked out in no time.

Needless to say not much else happened on the weekend. I'm too old for this sh!t...

Oh, just to put a dampener on all this cool clubbing underground scene talk, my iPad is back up and running, resetting and deleting the whole thing seemed to work, and now it's just a matter of re-syncing 7gigs of data again!

***edit: Thankfully I've now been informed the amount for the club was a *total* amount rather than each! Much more palatable and easy on the wallet!****

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Brief Beijing

Last week, I got the opportunity to go to Beijing for work. Arriving Monday and leaving Wednesday night with a full schedule of work, unfortunately I didn't have a chance to explore the city, while the initial experience was quite a contrast to Shanghai. Flying out in the afternoon, the mystery of the missing sun was solved, with a spectacular view above the cloud line above Shanghai, providing evidence exactly why it feels like the city is baking in an oven bag!

The brief encounter with Beijing is certainly not enough to provide a comparison or legitimate feel for the city, but the road where Tiananmen Square resides is both expansive and provided a unique experience - Albeit from inside a taxi! Lanes of around 12-16 fill the street, while massive buildings line either side of the road with no allowable areas to park.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Random Rants

I'm not a technology wiz, but I know enough to build my own PC and maintain most things related - usually by resetting the PC! So when basic technology just doesn't work, it's infuriating. The convenience of the iPad has been great, but in the last 2 weeks, it refuses to connect to the internet. Now this would have to be the most simple operations available and has effectively rendered the device useless. It's a double edged sword when it comes to Apple. Lock down the device and it remains relatively safe from exploitations that are common with PCs, the flip side is, you've got to make sure it works and if it doesn't, well, you need to fix it straight away.

So here are the issues/attempted fixes - Which firmly place the blame on Apple.
1) There is a wifi signal and correctly connects to the wireless modem. Going outside or a distance away changes the signal power.
2) Safari - the only allowed browser, complains that the internet is not connected, as does the iTunes and Apps stores.
3) Resetting the configuration on the iPad - albeit limited in options anyway - fails to resolve the problem
4) Resetting the modem does nothing - neither does leaving all devices and the modem off overnight
5) All other devices - Laptop, iPhone - connect fine to the wireless internet
6) Connecting to another wireless internet - thanks to the serviced apartment for keeping strict password formats across rooms! - connects to the modem, but the error still appears!
7) Turned off auto-brightness and dimmed the display - yes that was a fix I read on the internet

It's been interesting reading forums about this issue (11 pages in one site) where this has also been reported across both versions of the iPad. Obviously there are the Apple fan boys with the 'check your modem' trick or 'update your firmware - there's nothing wrong with the product, it has to be the modem!' - even if other devices can connect. I wouldn't be so frustrated if there was another option available (eg cable connection), but a wifi device with no input options - well, leaves me with the option of wifi or wifi, so it damn sure better work!

Here's hoping another 900mb operating system update comes and blasts away whatever bug is in the system...

Ok, its not a post about Shanghai, but here's another rant...

I'll admit I've been a huge fan of the Lonely Planet guides, but I'll ask the question: Have they become too popular?

Seeking food recommendations, I went through the online iPhone application - which I'll admit probably have the worst maps I've seen with unnamed or missing streets - to find some recommendations. Picking one at random, we made our way there by taxi and from the street represented exactly what you'd expect in a foodie street. Dark with old men playing cards, while small shop owners eagarly anticipate customers coming into their quaint small establishments.

Having had to climb a number of stairs and turn some dingy corners, we made it to the restaurant. Almost booked out, we were fortunate to get a table, and the view of the chefs made for what we thought to be a good night out. As the night progressed, we noticed a lack of locals or local looking people - apart from me - filling the restaurant, all presumably grabbing the same recommendation from the same guide. This wouldn't be bad if the food was mindblowing, but sadly, it was the worst food I'd had on the trip. Reflecting, I read a bit more about the restaurant, and it was recommended as one of the top three in the Lonely Planet guide!

The question is: Has the popularity of guides such as this destroyed the once quaint, brilliant places, into tourist magnets and in some cases lowered standards significantly to make a quick buck?

Oh, the only interesting thing from the night was we tried fried bees!

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