Shanghai – Old Town – New Town


We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.

There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).

We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.

The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.

Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.

We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.

Inside the Press Cafe and Bar

We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.

A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.

 

 

The Big City

It’s raining in Shanghai. Outside the sun parasols have been transformed back into being rain umbrellas. The cool air is a huge relief, the roads awash with water that scooters splash through, their riders soaked to the skin or suddenly (miraculous), clothed from top to bottom in waterproof gear. We watch wet to the skin people passing by from behind the glass of our local patisserie.

We often set off to find a cool place to drink an icy drink, have a cappuccino and find a comfy corner to write in. The FFC has a number of bookstores or interior design shops which feature a coffee bar or juice bar and welcome patrons in to sip an icy drink and to sit for hours on old leather couches or at antique tables and chairs. The ambience is often artsy with booklined shelves and original paintings, soft lighting and muted music. We found Sinan Books early on and thereafter we discovered an interior design shop, filled with art deco furnishings in which we were served a particularly good cappuccino by a slim suave Shanghai man in a crisp white shirt. A slender and beautiful young Shanghai woman, wearing a long flowing skirt and sporting a moving snake plait of hair down her back joined us there with her entourage of admirers. They enjoyed a photo shoot in the stylish space, with her posing amongst all the art deco artefacts.

But today we took shelter in the patisserie after we had travelled to the Bund, early in the morning, on the metro. The Bund is downtown at the river’s edge. The sun beat down on us mercilessly. We hovered on the waters edge promenade, gazing across the Huangpu River. Large working river boats still ply their trade, and large ferries make tourist river crossings. We strolled along and took some pictures of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and other iconic buildings on the opposite bank. We decided that we would leave our crossing for another day, as the heat was excessive. We sought coolness like shade plants, clinging to the slightly cooler sides of the streets in the inner city. We stopped and admired the many art deco buildings, looking upwards at them. Many are in excellent condition and others, we were grateful to see, are being worked on behind bamboo scaffolding and shade cloth. The Bund was mainly tourist free, apart from small groups of Americans and Italians and larger trains of Chinese people under umbrellas following their leader bearing a flag aloft.

iaPM mall – Shanghai
Dolce & Gabbana (iaPM mall)
Shirokuma Curry (iaPM mall)

We strolled about the big inner city, crossing roads sizzling in the heat, avoiding Starbucks and KFC’s before deciding to return to the FFC (now called “home”) on the Metro. We now know the number 10 line and alighted just next to the iaPM mall. Opening the glass swing doors from the metro station into the mall was like diving into a very cold, refreshing swimming pool and so we stayed there, moving past the icy glass and chrome windows showcasing Gucci, Stella McCarthy, Dolce & Gabbana and so on and so on. L and I deeply admire design and fashion, if only from afar and so we lingered long and rode the escalators up to the 5th floor. This time we were looking for curry, which we found in a Japanese format (Teriyaki chicken style) at Shirokuma Curry. We downed cold beers with it and made friends with chopsticks after an absence of days. The meal was wonderfully tasty and we enjoyed eating it on the top floor of the very modern and beautiful iaPM mall. It had been a day in which we had enjoyed the very modern side of Shanghai with its huge malls and awesome skyscrapers.

And then the rain came and instead of seeking shelter in our upstairs flat, we ducked into our patisserie, sipping iced mocha drinks and petting a sweet little Chinese former stray dog, called Mona, now owned by a very sophisticated Belgian lady who was sitting beside us.

Shanghai Cheese

Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.

When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.

Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.

On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.

We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.

Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.

The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.

The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.

The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.

In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…

Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”

Ah! The power of food!

We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.

But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.

 

 

Shanghai Calling

We began our trip to Shanghai with a long train journey and a smooth transfer to the metro. Standing on the hot streets of Shanghai for the first time, we were approached and helped by a friendly lady who literally walked us to the front door of our Airbnb, in the Former French Concession (French Quarter).
There we met with our host Ian, who took us up 3 flights of very narrow ancient wooden stairs. After settling in we gathered around a table on the roof garden where we chatted and drank good German beer out of small wooden cups until after 1 in the morning. Ian, a neuroscientist, with his Salvador Dali moustache and Bretton Fisherman T-shirt, talked about his son Lucifer and life in the very authentic French Quarter, which, as he says, could still be the 1930’s in many ways.

We retired to our small room with its soft bed on the floor and view of Chinese life behind windows across the street.

In the morning we left early and descended the very steep stairs, viewing other tenants through open doors, eating noodles for breakfast from large bowls and washing over basins. Outside the narrow alleys are lined with parked scooters, bikes and there is washing hanging out. The gathering heat pushes up the alleys in waves to greet us.

We went down hungry after a deep cool sleep to a patisserie with counters of croissants and sourdough bread and sandwiches behind glass. We ordered cappuccinos which arrived with picture perfect foam and at just the right temperature. We sit at small tables, surrounded by more non-Chinese people than we have seen for seven months. Our neighbour is from somewhere else and he seems settled in Shanghai with his American partner and they have a cute little dog with them called Tequila. We move tables, like Goldilocks, till finally, we are most comfy next to a Swedish man and his daughter. We talk with him long enough to eat our almond croissants (sorry Olympia but you have moved to second place – the croissant is just as good – but, hey – its in Shanghai…) and we drink another cappuccino and share a Chelsea bun (it seems a man can just live on bread alone…). Eventually, we leave the coolness and seeing as how this patisserie is literally on the street right below our room, we know we will return tomorrow morning. Outside we bump (literally) into a man, very hot as he is dressed for the long cycle ride he has just done, and I am not sure how, but we are chatting. His home is the world, but right now we are talking on the pavement of a Shanghai street and he invites us on WeChat, and for a beer – sometime later.

We walk on and the heat is crushing, but the pavements are deeply tree lined and the shade is thick, so we keep on walking. The air is full of the sound of cicadas filling the air all around us. We have two olive and basil rolls in our bag and a thermos of cold water. We pass old Chinese restaurants, piled high with bamboo steamers and big bowls and low tables, cheek by jowl with trendy juice bars and vegetarian restaurants and American style bars and European bistros. Eventually, we are sweating and although a tree deep park is nearby, we are lured in by a bookstore sign and as we step onto the dark wooden stairs of the classic French building, an icy wave of air-conditioning washes over us and so we go in. Inside is a world of books, a collection of English classics and those we studied as students, and although we make a snap decision to buy one, we can’t decide which one, and so we buy none. What book to buy from a beautiful Shanghai bookstore. Maybe something deeply South Africa, we spy a JM Coetzee, or maybe an old favourite – I see “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson … and I am nostalgic about another time, Lex finds a hardcover collection by Joan Didion, but perhaps something by an Asian writer, Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Isguro…? Instead we buy an icy fruit and veg drink for me and L sips an avocado milkshake – which is so delicious and I steal multiple sips because what is that lingering spicy something I can taste? And here I am writing at a table surrounded by books, under cold air-conditioning with no intention of leaving anytime soon.

Travel to Xiàhé (Labrang)

Labrang Monastery

We were early for the bus. We had left the school and taken a taxi across town for nearly an hour, but we still arrived early. The queue to the ticket counter was long, and the signage was all only in Chinese, but we used our app and in the end, we found ourselves in possession of two tickets to Xiàhé (known as Labrang in Tibetan).

There was a station cafeteria, Chinese style, but even so, it felt familiar to any other station café around the world. Not quite a greasy spoon, but a beef noodle shop, with the same dim interior and large space of empty plastic-covered tables and maroon velveteen covered chairs as found elsewhere.

Monk buying Beef noodles
Monk buying Beef noodles

There was a wooden archway covered with artificial flowers leading to a section next to the window, and we sat there with two large steaming bowls of noodles, with platters of sliced beef and savoury and sour plates of various pickles on the side.

Michelle and beef noodles

From there I surveyed the other customers and began to note the travellers walking back from the bus station where they had disembarked from buses.

Tibetan men with traditional Tibetan jackets
Tibetan men with traditional Tibetan jackets

They walked by in groups and I began to note the Tibetan people amongst them, distinctive by their clothing, the women in their long dark skirts, red sashes and thin long plaits. I observed a group of young men, all with gold rings glowing in their ears, at a table near us. Their tussled hair and wild air caught my attention and my eye, and when they caught mine they smiled, broadly and easily between long drags on their cigarettes.

Tibetan men
Tibetan men

Lex pulled out his camera then and tried to unobtrusively snap them for me – not very successfully – and over the next few days we would see many Tibetan men and women, and their quality, which I cannot name in other way but as a certain wild untamedness, remained elusive.

Inside bus to Xiahe
Getting ready to leave Lanzhou for Xiahe

The bus ride was quite long but immensely enjoyable. Across the aisle, a young Tibetan couple flirted with each other. His hand, with its large yellow gold ring, was constantly touching hers. Her hand fingered his heavy brocade jacket, which was casually worn on one arm, leaving the other arm free, with the empty sleeve wound around his waist and secured with a dashing leather, silver knob studded belt.

The seat in front of us was taken by a maroon-robed monk, no doubt on his way to Labrang Monastery in Xia He. His head of short black stubble was just visible to me above his seat. His cell phone rang frequently and he talked softly to a young Tibetan man who sat beside him, in a language which I soon recognised as not being Chinese.

Bus to Xiahe
The bus was comfortable, the road dual carriageway and pretty empty of other vehicles. The scenery was welcomingly green and treed and rural, and I felt myself relaxing into it after the months of being in the intense city atmosphere of Lanzhou. At first, the villages we passed through showed abundant signs of Islam, with the hills and valleys dotted with multiple minarets and spires rising from many golden and dazzling white and glowing emerald domed mosques.

After a while, the presence of Buddhism was more strongly felt as we began to note more and more temples and tangled streamers of prayer flags flying haphazardly up the mountainsides.

The road separated eventually and became a single road and we began encountering more trucks and animals and random stops along the road, to drop off and pick up passengers in what appeared to us to be the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, we arrived in Xia He and we left the bus and were soon surrounded by groups of men trying to get us to take a taxi for a ridiculous amount of money. We had directions to our hotel and so we left them behind us and began to walk.
(Read the next blog for more on our visit to Xiahe and Labrang Monastery)

The streets of Xiahe
The streets of Xiahe

 

 

Terracotta Army

It was a long bus trip from Xian to see the Terracotta Army. We had made sure that we had boarded the right bus – and not the ‘blue bus’ which is apparently a tourist rip off. We took the bus the locals take, with it stopping to drop people off at work stops along the way.

It was raining outside and the bus windows were misted up. Inside the bus, we bought tickets from a bus conductor who spoke no English, and we sort of listened to her when she stood in her uniform and talked for a long time into her headpiece microphone.

A swipe across the glass window revealed just how many terracotta army businesses there are along the way – the soldiers stand still and silent on the pavement, sustaining many families, restaurants and businesses.

We arrived eventually, to no rain, and the place where the bus stopped was a wide parking lot with no obvious ‘enter here to see the army’ buildings.

Thereafter there was a lot of walking. There were food stalls everywhere, and there were also stalls selling full animal pelts and strips of fur to make collars, which were all hung up on wire fences.

We walked past them all in search of entry tickets, or indeed the place where they were sold. Eventually, we found the building, after a detour to dump our rucksack which L had been labouring under.

We followed a path with others which wound through some just budding trees and finally came upon the huge structures which house the three main pits containing the clay army.

There were groups of foreigners on tour here and there. We heard German and English and some Scandinavian language – it was the first time we had seen so many foreigners for months!

We moved into the buildings and were relieved to see that our timing was good. There were relativity few people inside and we could easily approach the rails and gaze down into the archaeological dig – the pits containing the clay figures.

It was also easy for us to get close to the metal statues recovered from the pits which now stand boxed and glowing behind glass in their dim chambers.

Terracotta Army

 

Terracotta Army

We moved to the rail, after waiting for a minute or two for a gap to open up.
And there the soldiers stood beneath us, made from clay, their wooden bows and other weapons having long since disintegrated, leaving them clutching air in their clenched fists.

Terracotta Army

I was surprised by the feelings and emotions that stirred in me as I gazed down at them.

I had read the story around them of course and knew a little of their history. The army is a relatively recent discovery, and the massive pits under huge dome roofs containing them are still working archaeological digs.

And so they felt different from any other historical site I have ever seen. I felt moved to tears as I stood and stared at all those thousands of ancient motionless clay soldiers.

Terracotta Army

On the bus back to Xian I noticed again the hundreds of replicas lining the road outside various businesses. I myself had only bought two small fridge magnet soldiers as reminders of the real thing.

The real soldiers were never made to be works of art – but with the belief that they would, in fact, come alive one day, and live to fight for their creator…

I wondered if that was why they had stirred such emotion in me.

Made from dust, as they are, they have, in some small way, achieved the goal of living forever after all.

I wondered if, in looking at them, we look at ourselves. They stand as clay men, created as they were to one day live, waiting to have life breathed into them.

Terracotta Army

They wait in rows, sealed in, wearing the individual faces given to them by one or other of the 700 000 workers who made them. Only a few body and head moulds were made, but all the faces were allowed to be created differently.
They stand there, being stared at by millions, on the bucket list of many – with some still waiting, hidden in their pits, to be uncovered, together with their chariots and horses ( I spotted one, with only the rump and back legs emerging from the wall of clay) to be pieced together, restored and returned to their rows.

We will be forever grateful that we visited the terracotta army when we did – just at the beginning of Spring. We have heard stories of the crowds experienced there during the summer months.

There was a lone military type Chinese man pacing backwards and forwards along one side of the main pit – but still, we felt that we could have reached out and touched the soldiers if we had dared. They felt very accessible to us.

Terracotta Army

I was sorry that there were no archaeologists working in the glassed off section behind the pit where apparently workers may be observed putting together the armless, legless, headless clay soldiers who are moved there – supported and sometimes covered, between desks and other archaeological paraphernalia.

Still – I was sorry to leave and walk the long path back to collect our bag – this time nibbling on a spicy Chinese kebab bought from a food stall.
The soldiers stayed with me for a long time – I think of them still.

National Geographic video on the Terracotta-Army