I can finally check China off my list of countries to visit. Unbeknownst to me I’ve been preparing for the trip all along. Years of hearing friend’s stories and eating at traditional Chinese restaurants (thank you Carol) left me knowing what to expect:
- Smog. Somehow, not as bad as I imagined. I guess that comes from spending 5 years in Bakersfield.
- Stinky tofu. Somehow, worse than I imagined.
- Crazy cab drivers. I took Eric’s advice and never sat in the front seat. Better to be carsick in the back than watch the horror unfold in front of you.
- Annoying people who cut in front of you in line. Well, let’s just say the Polish Mafia doesn’t tolerate this kind of behavior. I cut back.
The adventure started off in Shanghai. You know, from Madonna’s movie “Shanghai Surprise”. For some reason I expected an uber-glamous city , and it might be glamorous by Asian standards but I really wasn’t that impressed. The city is loaded with high-end stores like Gucci, Prada, etc. but they were all empty. Kind of like Vegas. Despite Shanghai’s size and population (24 million) it was very clean- I rarely saw trash on the ground.
We had a free day so we spent it walking the Bund, which is the waterfront promenade with views of the impressive city skyline. It’s much better at night when all of the buildings are lit up. We also walked around “old town”, went to a tea house and had lunch at Din Tai Fung, where I introduced my colleagues to the soup dumpling. I also introduced them to the wonderful world of Chinese foot massages- smoky, dingy places where they burn your feet in scalding water then pummel your legs. Awesome! The rest of the week was spent in meetings, cabs, night markets and restaurants with questionable menus. Thankfully our distributor from Hong Kong was there to translate since “vegetable health speculation chicken giblets” didn’t mean a whole lot to us.
Our next stop was Beijing (formerly Peking for you history buffs). What should’ve been an easy two hour flight turned into an all-day odyssey. With about 10 minutes to go the pilot pulls up, announces that the Beijing aiport is closed and takes us to the nearby Tianjin. After some bickering with the flight attendant we learn that a storm is approaching and it was unsafe to land. We spend the next 6.5 hours riding out the storm on the tarmac with a dozen other planes. Surprisingly it wasn’t half bad. Unlike the US, people are allowed to get up and move around the cabin. Ok, so maybe they’re not allowed to get up in China either but no one listens. The airport brought us a hot meal, busted out the wine and left the cabin doors open for fresh air. It was kind of like a weird party. We finally checked into our hotel around midnight and enjoyed a “Hilton Burger” from room service while watching a lame Adam Sandler /Jennifer Aniston movie. I didn’t know Jennifer Aniston did anything else after Office Space. BTW the Hilton Wangfujing is badass. Hands down the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
Most of our time in Beijing was spent in cabs, meetings and more questionable restaurants, in that order. Traffic is awful there and so are the cabbies. Many of them only know one part of the city or are illiterate and can’t read the address on your hotel card. Ugh! I actually liked Beijing more than Shanghai- the city is very nice (no doubt due to the 2008 Olympics) and situated in the mountains (when you can see them through the smog). The best part of Beijing is it’s close proximity to the Great Wall. We chose the “Disneyland” section of the wall, which has a nice gondola to take to you to the top. I would have preferred to climb the 1000+ stairs but I’ll save that for next time. Thanks to that dumb storm the pollution cleared out and we were treated to a rare blue sky day. And no crowds either! The whole thing was quite impressive.
Another gem is the food market. Where else can you buy scorpions, giant centipedes and seahorses on a stick? It was fun watching people actually eat that shit, while us tourists stood 3 feet back from the stall and used our telephoto lenses to snap photos. We bought some dumplings and asked the vendor what kind of meat was inside. Chicken, he said. I think they say that to all the white folks. Probably donkey! We ate them anyway.
We closed out Beijing with the famous Peking duck dinner. Good stuff. Thankfully they put the meat on a plate instead of bringing the whole bird to the table. Not in the mood to see another beak, thank you.
On a final note I have some un-answered questions:
- Why does the chicken head always end up in front of me on the lazy susan? Seriously.
- Why do they use squat toilets when regular ones are readily available worldwide? Treacherous with high heels.
- Why do men pull their shirts up over their bellies on a hot day? Not good for tourism.
So would I go back? Absolutely. Might skip Shanghai in favor of HK or Taiwan, but Bejiing is definitely worth exploring a little more.
My first meal stateside was Tutta Bella pizza and a Trophy cupcake. Ahh, so good to be home!