Monday, March 2, 2015

A Short Stay in Shanghai

After a rough couple of days trying to get out of Zhangye, China, I couldn't be more relieved to arrive in Shanghai, where I would be staying with an old friend from back home, Amy.  My arrival started on a positive note that was so small and simple, but such a sharp contrast to my recent experience that I took notice.  As my taxi driver wound through the streets of the French Concession in Shanghai, he took another look at the address I had provided, and realizing he had gone down the wrong street, flipped off the meter as he backtracked and found the correct road.  That simple moment of honesty gave me such reassurance that my stay in Shanghai would be a good one, and indeed it was.  I arrived late that evening, and Amy whisked me up to her apartment, happily chatting and catching up until we both needed to collapse.

I awoke to the sound of raindrops, so I took my time getting up and moving, eating delicious fresh toast with butter and honey as I enjoyed the quiet space of the apartment.  It's incredible how a simple space on a couch in a friend's home feels so much more comfortable and familiar than a hostel bunk.  Once the rain had let up a bit, I set out to explore, wandering up and down the wide, shaded tree-lined streets of the French Concession.  The streets reminded me of Mendoza, one of my earliest stops on this journey back in Argentina.  It's incredible how some small feature like that can transport you to a memory half a world away.  I decided to settle in at a lovely little cafe called Voce, enjoying a Caesar salad and a cappuccino - enjoying the comfort of the familiar - until it was time to meet Amy back at the apartment after she got home for work.

We decided to check out El Luchador for dinner, an easy walk away, and a restaurant that had been personally recommended by a Canadian friend I had met all the way back in Chile, as a close friend of his was the manager.  While the friend of my friend wasn't actually at the restaurant that evening, we had a truly enjoyable, low-key evening of tasty margaritas and delicious southwestern food - Amy had a couple of tacos, and I had a beef burrito complete with cheese and sour cream - a decadent splurge after all those dumplings and bowls of soup!  We left completely stuffed, taking some time to walk off our food comas through the neighborhood.  Amy led me down a popular bar street full of foreigners, then turned onto a road full of small local grocers without an expat in sight.  It was refreshing to be back in a city where both sides were possible.

The next day I was absolutely determined to make it to a gym, so I planned to visit CrossFit MeWellness, a recommendation from the folks in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, it looked to be a lot further than I had initially thought, so I figured I would just go to CrossFit Iron Dragon (rumored to have terrible programing but great t-shirts) which looked a bit closer and had a slightly later class start time.  Somehow though, after a long walk, a metro ride, and another long walk, I got a bit lost and wound up stumbling upon MeWellness after all!  The space was great - a brand new Reebok-sponsored box - and the coach, Erwin, was wonderful.  I stuck around after class chatting with a few of the members, and they invited me to join them for lunch.  We wound up at a Belgian brewpub, sharing mediocre appetizers and sampling delicious Belgian beers,  sitting out on the patio to enjoy the perfect weather.  I rode back to Amy's neighborhood on the back of Erwin's motorbike, taking in the sights of the beautiful modern modern metropolis as we rode.  

That evening, Amy and I headed out to meet some members of the local ultimate frisbee scene - Amy and I had actually played on a competitive coed team in Atlanta many years ago, and while I didn't play much anymore, she was coaching kids at the international school where she taught, and she was a leader on the field for the local competitive team.  We wound up at a spot called Spicy Joint, sharing heaps of Chinese food - family-style, of course - greens covered in a peanut buttery sauce, chicken, fat noodles, spicy bowls of fungi, cauliflower, and many more, finishing with a plate of little balls of dough with a sweet dipping sauce that tasted like an ode to Krispy Kreme.  Our table was one of the few with any expats, and luckily we had a few who spoke the language well enough to keep a wide variety of plates coming.  The group was highly entertaining, and they invited me to join them for a tournament more than a month away in Hong Kong.  I laughed it off, saying I didn't have cleats and had no idea where I would be at that point, but I kept it in the back of my mind.

Another interesting development to come out of that dinner was my realization that a friend from my college ultimate frisbee team was back in Beijing.  I had spoken to him months ago, but he had planned on being in the US when I was traveling in China, so I assumed I would miss him.  Since I had wound up coming to China later than I had initially planned, he was also back in town.  Sure enough, I reached out to him, and I was invited to stay with him and his wife for my upcoming visit.  

The next morning, I grabbed some takeaway coffee and a sandwich from Voce and set out to visit the Yuyuan Gardens.  Upon arriving at the metro stop, I first encountered a massive market - tall, beautiful modern Chinese buildings filled with a mix of souvenir shops, food, and regular shopping.  Being a Friday it was pretty packed, mostly Chinese visitors but also a few foreign tour groups.  One little shop caught my eye, and I spotted some tiny porcelain lucky cats that looked like they would make good Christmas ornaments.  Unfortunately the Chinese symbols on them all stood for "money" and "good luck", so they didn't seem like great picks for my family.  I started chatting with the lady running the shop about the Chinese zodiac, and with her help, I realized that each member of my family was born on under a different sign.  Thrilled, I bought corresponding figures for each of us - snake, monkey, tiger, pig (that's me), and a dragon for my boyfriend.  

The Chinese zodiac ornaments I found at the market :)

From the shop, I crossed a zigzagging bridge over a koi fish pond to the entrance of the Yu Gardens.  I found a peaceful spot to sit down almost immediately to enjoy the sandwich I had brought along, sitting on a dark wood bench under Chinese lanterns, overlooking a pond with koi fish and turtles, surrounded by rocks and greenery.  The garden did turn out to be beautiful and, for the most part, very peaceful.  It was a bit of a maze inside, moving from walled section to section, through small walkways in interesting shapes, through and around small wooden buildings and pavilions, bridges over little ponds, rocky features and stonework, mosaic details in the pavement, carvings set into the walls, and many, many dragons.  Each room and space blended together a bit, and despite the beauty of the place, I did become a bit anxious to escape the maze and the growing crowds of people after a while.  

I finally did emerge, right back where I had started, and after wandering through the shops a bit - seeing some of the handicrafts in particular - I began to make my way back to the metro, passing on a riverside view of the iconic skyline ("the Bund"), as Amy and I had planned on visiting it that night, though I did sneak up into a nearby hotel and get a decent view from their lounge floor.  Tired from wandering, I made my way back to Amy's neighborhood.  Arriving about an hour before she had returned from work, I treated myself to a much-needed pedicure just around the corner from her apartment, relaxing and reading an interesting expat magazine as I waited for my newly painted toes to dry.  

Unfortunately, the restaurant we had planned to visit that evening was fully booked, so instead of venturing out to the Bund, we met one of Amy's work friends at Pizza Express, a short walk from the apartment.  Later, we met another coworker friend at ultra-hip, modern Liquid Laundry.  While it was known for being an amazing brewery, I opted for a delicious coffee-infused bourbon cocktail instead, which was outstanding.  We hung out there for a bit, chatting and enjoying the atmosphere, before meeting up with more coworkers at a place called Senator, a small, smoky bar with a speakeasy feel.  It had great decor and tasty appetizers, but the cocktail I selected was a bit disappointing - a bacon maple bourbon drink that tasted super sweet and watered down and not at all bacony.  But it was a fun crowd, and we stayed a while, laughing and chatting, until we were all ready to call it a night.

The following morning was my last in Shanghai - a disappointingly short stay in what had turned out to be such a fun, vibrant city.  Amy and I made our way to a spot called Vita for a lovely outdoor brunch, sipping coffee as we watched adorable local children play in the enclosed yard of the restaurant.  The food was delicious, though portion sizes were enormous - leaving me plenty of leftovers for my train ride later that day.  

Since I had still failed to see the Bund, we shared a taxi out to see the amazing view of the skyline and the waterway.  We didn't stay too long before wandering back to the nearest metro station and finding our way back to the apartment, where I packed up the remainder of my stuff, thanked Amy for being an incredible hostess, and bid her farewell.  

I easily caught a taxi to the train station, but I was doubtful I would make it in time for the 4pm train as we battled heaps of traffic on the way.  The train station itself was an absolute monstrosity, and I was completely lost.  Three ticket counters later, I stood in line and started to pay for the ticket on the train I wanted, but my line didn't accept credit cards, so I was redirected to a different queue.  Everyone in my line ignored me when I begged to skip ahead, so either they didn't understand me or they didn't want me to know that they had.  By the time I had made it to the front, only first class seats were left on the train, and the card reader didn't work for me to pay.  After waiting in line number three, I was told that they only accepted Chinese credit cards and that I would need to go to the ATM.  Feeling at this point like I wanted to punch someone, I marched over to an ATM, got some cash, then flat out skipped ahead of the line to pay and inserting myself at the front this time.  I was stuck taking a train that only left 5 minutes after the one I had wanted, but it was a slower train, arriving into Beijing about an hour later than the 4pm train would have.  

As it turns out, the friends I was meeting in Beijing didn't arrive back into town until much later than expected, so my long delay with the train just meant I spent less time waiting on the other end.  And though the train was fully booked, it was only packed for the first couple of stops.  For the remainder of the five-and-a-half hour ride, I had plenty of space to stretch out and marvel at the speed of the ultra-modern train.  Next up, my final stop in China… Beijing.

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