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?