Sunday, May 4, 2014

China, Part 1 - Shanghai

Can you believe we went to China?  I can still hardly believe it myself.  I've had several people ask me "Why China?" and the short answer is "Why not?"  I have always had a pretty serious case of wanderlust, so to me it seems like a no brainer to visit such a far off and fascinating country, but I suppose I can also understand that this isn't everybody's cup of tea.  

We have been fortunate to take so many fantastic vacations using Charlie's airline miles.  As we were planning our trip for this year we had to consider Isaac's school schedule.  Spring break was looking like the ideal week for travel, but that also limited us on available destinations since it is harder to use reward miles during such a busy travel time.  Forget about Hawaii, the Caribbean, etc.  We actually had tickets booked for Curacao but then changed our minds.  Charlie has been to China a handful of times for business and is actually not a huge fan of the country, but being the awesome and unselfish husband that he is, he agreed to go back again with me and the boys.  It felt like a good time to go while our kids are at pretty manageable ages (no babies).  We also have some friends from our ward who are currently living in Shanghai and seeing Kirsten's Instagram posts over the past several months had really piqued my interest in the country.  

I've decided to break down the trip into a few different posts, so as not to overwhelm anyone - including myself.  We flew into Shanghai and spent a couple of days there, before taking the high speed bullet train to Beijing.  We visited The Great Wall of China (by far our favorite thing) and spent another day seeing the sights in Beijing before taking the train back to Shanghai for a few more days.

We left LAX at about 2:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon and arrived in Shanghai around 7:00 pm on Monday evening.  It is about a 13 hour flight and a 15 hour time difference.  I had assumed that the boys would sleep for a good portion of it, but one thing that I failed to realize ahead of time was that it would never get dark outside while we were on the plane.  We were flying backwards across the International Date Line. So at 1:00 am PST Luke was still wide awake and very intent on opening up the window to show me that it was still light outside.  He did eventually sleep and overall it was a pretty easy flight, all things considered.  

We took a cab from the airport to our hotel in the Lujiazui area of Shanghai.  The cab ride seemed to take forever - partly because our driver was going about 5 mph and repeatedly telling us "un-fah-mil-yah" while traffic was speeding past us.  We had the address written in Chinese for him, but it is a fairly new hotel and a bit removed from the other hotels in the area and he apparently had no idea where he was going. 

We eventually made it to the Mandarin Oriental.  It was a gorgeous hotel and we had a phenomenal view of the Pearl Tower and the Huangpu River from our room.  The service was also incredible and every member of the staff knew us by name for the duration of our stay.  I have no idea how.  They must have hidden cameras at check in and then quiz the employees on all of the current guests.

After taking in the view the boys were super excited to try out the big bowl shaped bath tub before turning in for the night.  

We were up bright and early the next morning and eager to see the sights of Shanghai.  We had breakfast at the hotel and then set out on foot to explore.

A funny quote from Isaac while we were staying at the Mandarin Oriental, he said "Mom I love this place - there are so many butlers here!"  I don't know how he learned the word butler but he uses it to mean any type of servant, and he loved the idea of so many people waiting on us in China.  He has no idea what a good life he has!  

We walked along the river on the Pudong side and then took an electric gondola ride through an underwater tunnel over to The Bund.  We had read about the Sightseeing Tunnel ahead of time and thought it might be fun for the boys.  It was a weird laser light show with some strange dialogue that I couldn't really understand and some random blow up waving people in the middle of the track.  Totally bizarre and kitschy but Isaac and Luke thought it was cool (though Luke was scared of the blow up people - they were kind of creepy).

The Bund is the waterfront area on the west side of the river.  This side, also known a the Puxi side, is the older area of Shanghai.  The Bund is lined with classical architecture on one side, and a fantastic view of the modern sky scrapers across the river on the Pudong side.  We walked for a ways and stopped to have some snacks (brought from home).  The weather was gorgeous that day and I really didn't realize at that point how rare the mostly clear blue sky was.

Next we turned and walked down Nanjing Road which is the main shopping street.  It is a wide pedestrian road and I imagine that in the evening or on weekends it is completely packed.  It is said to be one of the busiest shopping areas in the world and at night it is lit up like Times Square.

I had to stop and use the bathroom.  I was forewarned about the "squatty potties" and the need to bring your own toilet paper, so I was prepared.  But the concept was still just crazy to me.  This may have actually been the cleanest restroom that I used.  Most of them were utterly disgusting and I eventually started limiting my water intake so that I could avoid the public restrooms.  The smell was usually overwhelming, no one washes their hands, and the floors are splattered and filthy.  Even inside relatively clean restaurants and stores, the bathrooms were almost never kept up (they were worse in Beijing than in Shanghai).  

Nanjing Road leads into People's Square which is the city center of Shanghai.  It is home to People's Park and several museums and government buildings.  The boys were excited to be headed to a park, though I think they had their hopes up for a playground with swings and slides, and this was not that sort of a park at all.  After awhile Luke started begging to go on the carousel.  I told him "sure you can go if there is one, but I don't think there is" - having no idea that there actually was a small amusement park in the middle of the park.  As soon as they spotted it they both cheered right up and Luke exclaimed "The carousel!  It IS here!  See Mom?!" 

Charlie told them they could each pick a ride.  Luke obviously chose the carousel and Isaac chose the rocket ride.  He was delighted to have a gun to blast the other rockets with.

We knew to expect Chinese people wanting to take photos with our children.  We mostly found it amusing and wanted to be polite.  We encouraged the boys to cooperate - though I can rarely get them to hold still and smile for my own photos.  Anyway, I taught Luke to hold up his two fingers for all of the photos since the Chinese are all about flashing the peace sign.  Luke just likes showing that he is two years old, so he loved holding up his two little fingers.  We had no idea on day one just how crazy the photo taking would become... more on that later.  

After the park we walked over to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center which is also part of People's Square.  This place is seriously amazing.  There are interesting exhibits on every level but the most impressive by far is the enormous scale model of the entire urban city of Shanghai.  It was really incredible to see the city all laid out that way and to try and comprehend the vastness of it.

Shanghai is currently the largest city proper by population in the entire world, with a current population of over 24 million people.  Seriously huge.  

This photo shows the Lujiazui area where the famous Oriental Pearl Tower is and also the Shanghai World Financial Center (the one that looks like a bottle opener on top) and the Shanghai Tower which is currently the second tallest building in the world.  And this is also where our hotel was.  Cool, right?

I think Charlie and I could have stared at this exhibit for hours but Isaac & Luke were having more fun running circles around it, so it was time to move on.  My other favorite thing in this museum was a 360° theater showing a video that takes you through the famous sites of Shanghai.  It gives you the feeling of flying through the middle of the city.  Also very cool.  The boys really liked the full screen driving simulator where you could sit inside a boat and drive around the Shanghai highways (in a boat?).

Next on our agenda was Yu Garden.  We had been walking all day - which I actually love doing because I feel like it is the best way to see a new city - but now it was time for our first subway ride.  The boys were both really excited about this.  Oh my goodness, where did we get Isaac?  He is the craziest kid and also totally hilarious at times.  He insisted that he was "surfing" the subway and refused to hold on to the railing in order hold this pose instead.

Don't ask me where he got the idea that this is a surfing pose.  What is with the hand signals?  He did this on every subway ride for the whole week.  At first we tried to discourage him but he was undeterred and so we just laughed and took pictures instead.

So the guide books show Yu Garden as this peaceful looking classical Chinese garden complete with the tranquil pond, sweeping tree branches, and quaint buildings with the upturned roof corners.  That part of Yu Garden does exist, but you must pass through a maze of shops and restaurants and tourists in order to get to it.  We were kind of overwhelmed by the crowds of tourists, and the street vendors swarming us, and the people wanting photos, and all sorts of other craziness.

I did absolutely love the architecture here and some of the shops were so beautiful and selling all sorts of lovely treasures.  Our friend from Taiwan sent each of the boys a red envelope for Chinese New Year with some spending money for our trip.  They each chose a decorative kite from this shop.  Isaac chose a green dragon and Luke chose a red bat.

Most of the local food that I saw was unidentifiable, but my best guess was that these were some kind of roasted bird legs.  Um, no.  Moving on.

We did eventually make it to the center of the garden but it was so crowded and there was a long line spanning the bridge to get through to whatever there was to see on the other side.  We opted to skip it.

On our way out of the Yu Garden we were ambushed by more vendors placing toys and trinkets in our kids' hands and then asking us for money.  We somehow ended up buying two pairs of roller skate wheels that attach to your shoes.  Isaac and Luke were both fascinated by the guys they saw skating around everywhere and were begging for their own sets of wheels.  They were also convinced that they would be able to glide around the sidewalks with the same ease.  Luke was quite angry when his first few attempts landed him right on his bottom.

After hunting down a McDonald's for a late lunch we made our way to the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train.  Isaac and I had read about this train years ago in one of his many train books.  He went through a major train obsession for awhile and he used to beg to go ride bullet trains and the high speed magnet train in China.  This was literally his dream come true.  How many six year olds do you know who get to ride the fastest train in the world?

The train only runs a distance of 18.6 miles from the airport to a major metro station in Pudong.  We could have actually taken the train from the airport when we landed, but we would have still had to get a taxi or ride the metro and then walk in order to get to our hotel.  After a long flight and with a lot of bags it was just easier to get straight into a cab.  So we went back to ride the train just for the sake of riding it.  How could we not?

The top speed of the train is 431 km/hr or 268 mph.  We weren't whipped to our seats with the speed or anything, but it certainly felt fast.  Very fast.  It was a cool experience and I'm glad we did it.

More subway shenanigans.  In addition to Isaac's surfing, the boys also fought over window seats (even though there was nothing to be seen but a black tunnel), and on several occasions Luke would give Isaac head massages during the ride.  I have no idea how these massages came to be, but they both seemed to really enjoy this.

We headed back to the hotel for just a little bit to grab a bite to eat in our lounge while Charlie secured train tickets for our trip to Beijing the next day.  Luke was in love with this little bunny cupcake.  This was the only indication of Easter that I saw over the entire course of the week.  The concept of Easter doesn't really exist in China, which is terribly sad.

We quickly headed back out again for the evening and to meet up with our friend Kirsten from Irvine.  It felt so crazy to be hanging out with a CA friend all the way over on the other side of the world!     We met outside the Lujiazui metro station right across from the Pearl Tower.  The boys were in love with that tower and it quickly earned the nickname of the "Favorite Tower."

Kirsten guided us to some good Western food across the street in the 13 story Super Brand Mall.  We ate at a place called Sproutworks which had a few different grilled meats and lots of sides to choose from.  I just got a plate full of different sides: corn & edamame, a Greek orzo salad, some pesto & asparagus pasta, and endive with apple and blue cheese.  After a long day of walking it all tasted pretty good!

After dinner we split up and Charlie took the boys back to the hotel to go to bed while Kirsten and I headed out for a night on the town.  This was seriously the funnest night.  First we grabbed some egg tarts from a bakery in the mall (I think she told me these are a Brazilian thing), and then we headed out on the big circular elevated walkway.  The view from up there of Shanghai at night was really spectacular.

We had to walk for awhile to get to the massage place but it was well worth it.  This was such a fun and amusing experience that I'm sure I will never forget.  Kirsten and I went for an hour long foot massage and it only cost like $15.  Charlie did this once before in China and told me all about it, but he didn't get to wear the shorts.  These pink silk pajama shorts that they had us change into had us totally cracking up.  The plastic slippers really completed the look.

We had a private room with two recliners and a side table with tea for each of us.  There was a TV with some random Chinese station playing.  First they brought in wooden buckets of boiling hot water with a few flower petals, so that we could soak our feet.  While we were soaking, the masseuses had us sit on our foot stools so that they could massage our shoulders and necks.  My guy spoke a little bit of English but I don't remember Kirsten's woman saying much of anything.  We later realized that she was blind and Kirsten informed me that it's very common to have a blind masseuse in China.  It is like a culturally stereotyped job for the blind.  Makes sense I guess.

After the shoulder massage we moved back to our recliners and put our feet up.  They wrapped one foot in a steaming hot towel while working on the other and then switched off.  These photos are terribly unflattering, but I'm posting them anyway.

I was totally relaxed by the end of it all and not wanting to get up and walk out into the cold night air.  Kirsten walked me back to the metro station where we met and from there I walked about half a mile back to our hotel alone.  It was a little after 10:00 and Charlie suddenly started texting me like crazy wondering where I was.  I guess he'd fallen asleep and then woke up to realize it was late at night and his wife (with horrible sense of direction) was somewhere out on the streets of Shanghai!  But I was totally fine.  It just takes so long to get anywhere in that city.  I made it back and collapsed into bed.  Actually the jet lag going over was very minimal and even the boys slept great every night.  But we certainly wore ourselves out with all of the walking and sight seeing that we did most days.

Wednesday morning we were planning to go up to the top of the "Favorite Tower!" but we awoke to rain and cloudy skies and decided to save it for another day.  We ended up going to the Natural Wild Insect Museum instead.  Just as we were walking in the front doors of the Museum Isaac turns to us and shouts "OH NO!!!  The tour bus!"  Haha!  This is kind of a family joke that we have.  Living in Irvine there are actually quite a few Asian tour buses driving around town and anytime we are headed out to a restaurant or somewhere, Charlie will tell us as we're getting out of the car "Hurry up before the tour bus comes!" Meaning that we don't want to get stuck behind the big crowds. So when a tour bus did actually pull up at our destination Isaac knew that it was bad news.  I could only laugh.

Once inside we saw all kinds of interesting little creatures.  Isaac's favorites were the big black scorpion and the bright blue crab.  Luke loved the little furry marmosets.

The tour buses turned out to be a school field trip.  There were at least a hundred little kids that looked to be around 5 years old.  It was so crazy to watch the way they walked through that museum.  There was a woman with a microphone talking super loud and at an incredibly fast pace, whom I assume was narrating the tour.  The children walked through in a single file line and glanced at the contents of each aquarium as they passed.  They toured the entire museum this way and then they were done.  The people of China seem to follow a certain way of thinking.  And from what I could tell, they pretty much do exactly as they're told.

After the museum we were supposed to meet up with Kirsten for a tour of the underground "Fake" Market at the Science & Technology Museum.  We had to go back to the hotel to grab cash and ended up taking a cab over, but then had to walk all around the outside of this enormous museum to finally find Kirsten at our meeting spot.  It just seriously takes forever to get anywhere in Shanghai.

Kirsten took us to her favorite jewelry lady and bought me a cool wrap bracelet that she had specially made.  I ended up going back later in the week to buy a few more.  While we were looking at jewelry the boys discovered a toy store and a few minutes later they were the proud owners of an army tank and a Shanghai taxi.  Both have flashing lights and make very loud sounds.

The market is astonishingly huge and one could easily get lost inside.  There are rows upon rows of shops with everything imaginable.  Almost all of it is knock off versions of name brand goods.  Designer purses, North Face jackets, Beats headphones, etc.

Kirsten showed us a few more cool shops and then called her driver to come pick us up.  Yes, a driver! Best thing ever - especially in a city like that.  Her husband works for Disney and they have some pretty nice perks while living abroad for the next few years.  So Driver Lu came and picked us up right outside and drove us to lunch at a place called Wagas.  We filled up on salads, wraps, pasta, soup, and smoothies.  Isaac even ate spaghetti w/ meatballs and we are still teasing him about it because he actually ate and enjoyed something different than his usual five things that he will eat.

Driver Lu took us back to our hotel and we said goodbye to Kirsten.  She was so great to be our hostess and tour guide.  It made Shanghai just that much more fun.  We hurried to check out of the hotel (a sad goodbye as we truly loved that hotel), and catch a cab to the train station at the airport.

There are two airports in Shanghai.  We flew into the Pudong airport but the train station is at the  Hongqiao airport, which is farther out in the city.  The traffic in Shanghai can be horrendous and the drive to the airport seemed to take forever.  And the city of Shanghai seems to go on forever too.

The train station was enormous but fairly easy to navigate.  Isaac got tired of waiting and made himself comfortable.

And finally it was time to board the train and head to Beijing.  This high speed bullet train is only a couple of years old and is a super convenient and affordable way to get between the two cities.  It travels around 180 mph and takes about 4 and a half hours from Shanghai to Beijing with a few stops in between.  It felt comfortable, clean and modern.

One thing that really made an impression on me during our trip was the endless amount of apartment high rises, with tons more being built.  There were literally thousands of them!  Every where you looked there were clusters of new concrete towers being erected and tower cranes all around.  I had imagined that the landscape between the two cities would be mostly rural countryside but I was astounded to see towers popping up all along the way and to pass through cities of millions of people that most of us have never even heard of.  The population of China is almost mind boggling.

The train ride was mostly pleasant and relaxing, but we got a little restless too.  The boys watched Frozen and played with the iPad and we still had plenty of snacks from home to munch on.  Luke dripped some soda on his shirt and freaked out because he cannot stand to be messy (except for his face - maybe because he can't see it - which he is always refusing to let me clean up), so he went without a shirt for awhile so the drips could dry.  I had started a new book on the plane and read for most of the train ride.  My mother-in-law gave me this book and I loved it.  "Follow the River" by James Alexander Thom.  It's about a young woman who is captured by Indians but then escapes and walks over 1,000 miles back to her home in Virginia.  It's a true story and simply amazing.

Luke was SO excited about having his own suitcase for this trip.  He talked about it for weeks ahead of time.  I kept searching to find the perfect one, but never really found what I was looking for so at the last minute I ordered a cheapie "Planes" one.  He was over the moon when it finally arrived and absolutely loved pulling it all around the airports, train stations, and hotels.

We finally arrived to Beijing around 8:00 pm and took a cab to the Doubletree where we stayed for the next three nights.  Charlie talked to the concierge and arranged for a driver to pick us up the next morning and take us to The Great Wall of China.  I will save that experience for the next post.

Here are a few video clips from the first portion of our trip.  It's really nothing fancy, just fun little bits of things that I wanted to remember.


Erin said...

Carrie! A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! What a post and what a trip! I think it's the coolest thing ever how you guys travel with your boys all around the world. And how nice to have a friend in China to show you around! Can't wait for the next post!

Brady Clifford said...

Can't wait for the second post!

Mikael said...

Now I don't need to go, I feel like I traveled with you! Amazing!! And you look hot in all the pics!