Somewhere Upon the Sea


上: “Shang” means “upon” or “beside”

海: “Hai” means “Ocean”

Not really a beach town …

Greetings from the Future, Dear Readers!

Today’s post brings us to Shanghai, where you can order noodle soup, dumplings, and a beer in a marble-columned building constructed in the 1800s with drug money.  Do you like neon?  Do you like staying awake all night?  Do you like making money, how do you feel about spending it?  Shanghai is loud, brash, fast, and beautiful.  It is London, New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and a wild west outpost with a retired sheriff.

Of the foreign “backpackers” in our hostel, we met a British man working three jobs (modeling, bartending, and entry-level clerking for a fashion design company) and a Mexican man who was working to import avocados.  They were sharing halves of a  bunkbed.  I seem to remember the Brit having turned the lower berth into an office of sorts.  A large number of the native Chinese at the hostel were clearly working out of the building as well.  A noted change from your average Australian 20 something, Brit-on-a-gap-year, or Israeli fresh out of service to the IDF.  That said, this city has plenty to do for those looking to take a trip.

Looking for enormous buildings that take the form of decommissioned rocket ships? Got it.
European architecture?  Yes!  Traditional, Asian architecture?  We can probably find something for you, but let’s not get too crazy with these requests.  Delicious, local fare?  You bet!  How about Indian restaurants, French food, and a place you can get fresh bagels and a good cup of coffee?  You’re in luck!

I’ll get to some of the sights, but first I want to explain some context (feel free to skip ahead, pretty pictures at the bottom).

When trying to understand Shanghai, one must take into account its history and importance politically, economically, and geographically.

Politically, you can think of Shanghai as an influencer but not a decider.  Shanghai is a New York of sorts, but not at all a Washington DC.  People make money here and couldn’t care much for policy.  Shanghai is a hub of business and finance on mainland China, which also dabbles in fashion, whereas Beijing is a hive of manufacturing and, within the last decade, tech.

Geographically, Shanghai is positioned as not only an excellent port for exporting Chinese goods but also importing.  Shanghai is a gateway to the Yangtze basin, which represents hundreds of millions of people, all within a very short distance.  Suzhou is 35 minutes on a train and Nanjing is another hour, all representing 20 million people beyond the 24 million in Shanghai.  This does not tally Wenzhou, Hangzhou, or any points south.  Read: a lot of people, really close by.

Economically, Shanghai boasts the most profitable commercial center in China, which translates to a noted cultural rift with the rest of the Middle Kingdom.  The urban/rural divide, while present  in the West, poses a more significant division in China due to a more pronounced wealth disparity.  A farmer in Wedowee, Alabama might not have really “got” Seinfeld, not being able to sympathize with the daily stresses of a womanizing standup comedian who lives off of cereal in Manhattan, but the farmer and Jerry could probably both talk about baseball or something … By comparison, a farmer in Qinghai Province might never have had antibiotics, so the prevalence of Lamborghini dealerships in Shanghai is probably going to cause a long, awkward silence while searching for something to talk about.  (There are two Lamborghini dealerships in Shanghai, that we saw.)  Get the difference?

For well over a hundred years,  American boat captains with Philippine crews, German engineers, and French cooks (throw darts at a map and create different combinations at home!) disembarked in Shanghai, rendering the city about as traditionally Chinese as Manhattan is “Field of Dreams.”  This cultural separation between Shanghai and the heartland of China  has bred distrust.

Politicians in Beijing, for hundreds of years, have actively worked to mitigate the city’s influence on national policy.  In the 1700s, Shanghai boasted the most profitable port on the Yangtze, despite being designated as something less influential than a county seat.  Hundreds of years later, the city remains a place that produces wealth for the country, with little influence on the  Communist Party’s overall governance.  1983 saw Shanghai’s tax contribution 33 times less than that invested by the PRC.  Shanghaiers are paving Beijing’s roads.

Do Shanghaiers look down on the rest of those in China?  Maybe?  Do New Yorkers talk of civilization ending at the Hudson River?  There’s some frustration on both ends.

Chinese friends have told me that, “Beijing turns foreigners Chinese, while Shanghai turns the Chinese foreign.”  As mentioned above, the port has proved profitable, thereby enticing foreign investment.  That said, the history of Shanghai’s foreign involvement was shaped as much by the port as by the products being shipped.

The 1,400 pound elephant in the room:

Imagine, if you will, a product that customers will gladly buy, regardless of price hikes, legal restrictions, or negative health consequences.  This product, when used outside the prudent restrictions of medical professionals, breeds large numbers of of people who show up late to work and are generally bad at raising children.  Now, imagine you have a lot of this product and a good idea of a place you can sell it, far from your home where you might have to … you know … deal with the consequences.

In 1838, the UK was selling 1,400 pounds of opium, per year, from fields in India, to buyers in China.  Simultaneously, the penalty for native Chinese opium dealers was death.  This came to a head with the Opium Wars, which initially decided that European and American merchants could ship opium to China.  This climate made financial empires.

Opium’s previous influence on Shanghai’s economy (and the world’s) cannot be underestimated.   The long gone British East India Company’s most profitable endeavor was in opium trade.  Jardine Matheson (they focus on shipping, but have expanded into the role of a holding company.  The trucks with the ladders on them in Hong Kong’s airport are owned by Jardine) posts 57 billion USD in annual revenue today and was started by a doctor who found it more profitable to abandon his practice prescribing this wonder drug and simply focus on shipping it.  Heard of HSBC?  The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was started in the wake of the Opium Wars as a means of putting all this drug money somewhere other than a mattress.

Shanghai’s architecture and overall layout are owed to foreign concessions with architecture built by European, Japanese, and American corporations.  A walk through the city can, at times, look very much like Paris, especially if one is in the French Concession.  A walk along the Huang Pu River on The Bund is straight out of Europe.  The most prominent buildings: the former HSBC headquarters, the former French Consulate, the former headquarters of Jardine Matheson, all boast Greek columns, domes, spires, and were paid for with drug money.

That said, the Chinese idiom of “旧的不去新旳不来” (jiu de bu qu, xin de bu lai), or, “If the old doesn’t go, the new won’t come,” applies in Shanghai.  The city, like others across China, is in constant flux, with old buildings being razed to make room for new skyscrapers.  Hard to argue with progress.

Today, of course, the economy is decidedly less smack-focused.  We had an absolute blast in this city, here are some of the spots we enjoyed the most.

• The Bund:  The Huangpu River cuts Shanghai in half, dividing the older part of the city, in the west, with its foreign concessions (this area is known as Puxi) from the newer half of the city, with some of the largest buildings in the world in the east (known as Pudong).  The Bund is located on the Puxi side and allows one a walk along the river where you can simultaneously view old, European buildings and peer over the river to see a dizzying light display every night on some of the tallest buildings in the world.

• The World Financial Center:  Pudong’s skyscrapers all have observation decks which charge admission fees.  The Oriental Pearl Tower, which looks like a rocket ship or series of basketballs balanced on chopsticks depending on who you ask, charges over $20 to get to the top.  To avoid these fees, long wait lines, and get an upholstered chair along with a telescope, we would suggest making your way to the building in Pudong that looks like a beer-bottle opener.  (Look to the  opening photo for this post, which  is the Pudong Skyline. The World Financial Center  building is the tall rectangle with a square missing from the center of it.)  Avoid the line for the official observation deck and go tell the attendant at the front that you want to go to “the hotel lobby.”  From here, you will be directed to an elevator with two available floors: 1 and 87.  You’ll be 20 or 30 floors shy of the actual top floor, but you can have a drink and sit in a comfortable chair for less than the cost of the observation deck.  To cross the river from our hotel in Puxi, we took something called the “Shanghai tourist tunnel,” which was very expensive, but was less a subway and more of a lightshow.

• The French Concession: While I never figured out the exact parameters of this area, a good amount of the city was previously under French governance and a lot of this area is still preserved with European architecture.  Have you been in Asia for a while and are you looking for some western food?  This is where you go.  Here, in the French Concession, you will encounter people who can’t count to 5 in Chinese, eating steaks.  It is pretty expensive compared to mainland China standard prices, but pretty standard for the U.S.

• The Shanghai Museum: A fantastically curated, free, museum that will take you through everything from the history of Chinese painting, ceramics, weaponry, money, as well as one fascinating exhibit on some of the different minority cultures in China.  A very worthwhile stop.

• The Propaganda Museum: A hard-to-find (located in the basement of what seemed to be an apartment building) but very interesting exhibit on communist propaganda.  A great place to grab a souvenir.

• Tianzifang (AKA “Tons of Fun”):  Located in the French Concession off of Tai Kan Lu, this refurbished neighborhood of tight alleys and old buildings is reminiscent of Beijing’s hu tong neighborhoods.  The only difference is that instead of the buildings being full of nice Chinese families, they’re full of bars selling giant mango mojitos.  If you’re averse to being in a very crowded area and aren’t in the mood for a very touristy setting, steer clear.  That said, there is much fun to be had.

• Bagelhead: They had bagels.  They had coffee.  They had bacon.  I’m sure you can Google it.

• Local Fare: Xiao long bao and Shanghai sheng jian bao:  While both of these foods were claimed by other cities on our trip, I figure it is worth reminding those reading that you can get these delicious foods in Shanghai as well.  The sheng jian bao were the slightly sweet, flour dumplings, filled with meat and soup, while the xiao long bao were the thin-skinned dumplings.

Our photos of Shanghai are a bit sparse. The shortage can be blamed  on the rain that poured down most of the time we were there and those aforementioned mango mojitos. Still,  here are a few photos of the Shanghai at night:

I’ve been delinquent on posting our videos.

It will take a little bit of patience to view these videos as you may need to let them load for a minute.

Come with me as I get lost in Qingdao.

A staircase you say?  Up a mountain?  In China????

Have you ever thought, “What’s it like to run on the ancient wall of a city while listening to Curtis Mayfield?  Also, what would it look like if we sped up the video really fast?”

Springtime in Suzhou

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from the ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, first built in 514 B.C.

An ancient Chinese proverb proclaims, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I have not been to Hangzhou, but I can attest that Suzhou does indeed possess the makings of a heaven on earth.

Marco Polo was the first westerner to sing Suzhou’s praises. It’s no wonder the Venetian traveler found this Chinese city to his liking considering Suzhou, with its intricate canal system, is called the Venice of the East.

Venice is one of my favorite cities, so its eastern counterpart had a lot to live up to.

Suzhou did not disappoint. To the contrary, this Sino-paradise earned its way into a top slot on my list of favorite places.

The ancient canal system, still intact, serves as the foundation for Suzhou’s alluring charm. Throw in verdant city gardens pregnant with spring’s blossoms and you have enough to inspire millennia of poets, artists … and two humble tourists.

As described by a friend we met in Nanjing, “Nanjing is like a man; Suzhou is like a woman.” I didn’t quite know what she meant at the time, but after just one day in this eastern Eden, I get it. Permitting gender stereotypes, Suzhou shows a softer side of a nation increasingly identified as an industrial powerhouse. An underlying echo of romanticism pervaded as we leisurely admired the city’s finely manicured gardens, bonsai groves and canals.

There are plenty of sights to keep your itinerary full for 3-4 days in Suzhou. Here are some highlights from our stay:

Tiger Hill Pagoda under construction.

Tiger Hill Pagoda under construction.

Tiger Hill: A quick bus ride from our hostel, Tiger Hill is a hillside area replete with gardens, canal bridges, lazy waterways, women picking tea leaves, temples and historical sights that date back to the city’s founding. The most famous monument, the Tiger Hill Pagoda (Yunyan Pagoda), was built between the years 959-961 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Like Suzhou, the Tiger Hill pagoda too has an Italian twin, in this case, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The pagoda’s lean — about 3.5 degrees to the north — is very apparent, but unfortunately while we visited, the pagoda was under construction and scaffolding obstructed our entry and photos. Still, Chris and I spent the afternoon strolling around Tiger Hill’s beautiful and expansive grounds, fully taken with the beauty all around us.



A pagoda in the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Humble Administrator’s Garden: This was my favorite of the city gardens we visited. I dragged Chris around every nook and cranny of this place.  I loved it. We didn’t leave until the garden closed and they kicked us out.


White porcelain pillow  Song Dynasty (960-1279) Doesn't look very comfy!

White porcelain pillow – Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Doesn’t look very comfy!

Suzhou Museum: Chris loved this place. He dragged me to every nook and cranny … and it was free! It offers a great collection of Chinese artifacts and artistry chronologically organized telling the story of Chinese history, and highlights the artistic and philosophical Chinese literati tradition, which apparently had a strong foothold here in Suzhou.


Chris sitting along the canal in the Pingjiang District.

Chris sitting along the canal in the Pingjiang District.

Pingjiang District: Specifically, Taijian Long Lane — an area of Suzhou that is still reminiscent of its ancient architecture and structure. Narrow passages packed with tourists and the occasional motorbike make for a busy scene along the canal, but respite awaits at the many mellow bars, cafes and restaurants lining the water. Chris and I sipped on a beer at a cafe along the canal and watched as boats slowly paddled by. It was lovely.


Fried soft shell crab? Not exactly.

Guanqian Street: Goodbye ancient China, hello ultra commercialism! Gucci, Prada, Hermès, oh my! This place was bright lights, big city central. Chris and I ducked down a side street and were pleased to find the China we could afford. Street food and local restaurants full to the brim. We sized up the many foods on offer, and the first to move me to pull out my wallet was fried soft shell crab on a stick … or so I thought. Those three fried crabs impaled along a stick were, in fact, not soft after all. Just regular ol’ crabs. So … I guess we eat the shells? I made one hearty attempt at chomping into a claw and bowed out. Chris took down all three, spitting out only the big claw shells. He’s so hardcore.


Three course meal and two big beers at Lao Shi To a for 50  yuan ... about 8 US dollars.

A three course meal and two big beers at Lao Shi Tou restaurant costed us 50 yuan … about 8 U.S. dollars.

Lao Shi Tou (Old Stone) Restaurant: This restaurant was right down the street from our hostel, and I suspect was owned by the mother or aunt of the guy running our hostel since he was very persuasive in his pitch. We dined there on our first night and loved it so much it became our go-to lunch spot. It was authentic, no other tourists in sight. Only downside, lots of men smoking cigarettes. Ah well.


Sheng jian bao at Yabba Shengjian restaurant.

Sheng jian bao at Yaba Shengjian restaurant.

Yaba Shengjian Restaurant: Famous in Suzhou and beyond, this place has a reputation for having the best sheng jian bao around (delicious fried pork dumplings). Our friend Brett recommended it to us (Thank you, Brett!). He said that we’d recognize the place by the line spilling out the restaurant’s door and around the corner. Sure enough, the line was long but it moved fast and the lady at the counter was helpful in picking out our order when we fumbled to know what to do.

Suzhou, like Nanjing, is located in the Jiangsu Province, which has its own style of cooking. Jiangsu cuisine or Su cuisine for short, makes up one of the eight culinary traditions of China. One thing I noticed while dining out in Nanjing is that the typical dishes seem to have a subtle sweetness. The presence of cloves and star anise could be detected but didn’t overwhelm. This subtly sweet flavor profile was true of sheng jian bao as well. This culinary masterpiece combines elements of a sesame seed bagel, savory doughnut and pork stew — did I mention there’s both meat and broth inside? It’s like bitesize soup in a bread bowl. So delicious!

Come take a stroll through Suzhou with Chris and me in this video (you may need to allow some time for the video to buffer):

And here are some more photos from our stay in Suzhou:




The South Capital

Greetings From the Future, in the South Capital, Dear Readers!

Apologies for the tardiness in our dispatches from a tomorrow, which due to VPN issues, fun and an explosion of learning about Chinese culture, is actually some time last week … or earlier. Let me catch you up to speed.

After visiting Beijing, Qingdao and Tai’an, we stopped through Nanjing. With a population over eight million, Nanjing is one of the largest commercial centers in eastern China. While, the idea of touring mega-cities raised second thoughts, we were fortunately convinced to make the trip.

Maria’s former co-worker grew up here, while a friend of mine is currently studying at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing University partner program for graduate students studying Chinese. Needless to say, my poor attempts at Chinese (beginning with pointing and ending in frustration) were not needed for our dinners with Brett.

Let’s back up and give some historical context to Nanjing fueled by little more than my curiosity and wikipedia …

China’s history goes back thousands of years, but we can break things into dynastic blocks to make the more modern end of things understandable: (Is it more complicated than this? You bet! While I recognize some of our readers are Chinese citizens and brilliant westerners with advanced degrees, we’re just trying to explain why this city is so interesting. Also, I’m not going back thousands of years to neolithic stuff. We’ll start year 1000.) 960 AD-1279AD is the Song Dynasty, 1279-1368 A.D. is Yuan Dynasty (Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Kublai started that one), the Ming Dynasty was 1368-1644 A.D. (ceramics, vases…you’ve heard the name) the Qing Dynasty was 1644-1912 (The Last Emperor … go watch that movie tonight), followed briefly by the Republic of China at 1912-1949 (Chang Kai Shek lost a war to Mao and ran off to Taiwan, bringing that government to the former island of Formosa), and the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to the present.

The city’s name tells us a bit of its history. We began our sojourn in Beijing, whose Chinese characters are 北京. “北,” meaning “north,” and “京,” meaning “capital.” Nanjing’s characters are “南京,” or “south capital.” It was actually the capital of China for some time. After the Ming Dynasty tossed the Yuan out of power (the Mongols) they moved the seat of power to Nanjing, from Beijing, and built a city wall that still surrounds much of the city, providing gorgeous views of Xuanwu Lake (stay tuned for video footage). There are numerous reports that Nanjing was the largest city in the world during the early Ming rule, before the Ming relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421.

In an effort to keep this readable, I will now fast forward hundreds of years to several historical facets of Nanjing, which coincide with places we visited. There are, literally, thousands of books to expound on how important this city is, but we were only there for a couple days, and I want to talk about a Jesus cult that started a war involving people who abstained from sex and didn’t cut their hair. On to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Haven’t heard of it? Are you a movie producer? Take note and do further research!

Ever have a bad day? Ever failed a test? Have you ever watched those ads at 3 a.m. after a couple beers and thought, “I could totally become a motorcycle mechanic!”

Hong Xiuquan wanted to work for the Qing Dynasty. As such, he took the requisite civil service exam, which had a very low pass rate and was very stressful. Hong failed this test four times in a row. After a defeat, some people turn to a bottle, some to the Bible, some to yoga. Hong was likely trying to turn to the Bible, but with a bottle in his hand, all while in downward dog.

Hong met a Christian missionary while at a low water mark. There was likely some depersonalization going on, a bit of depression, and a whole lot of “what does it all mean?” Hong began to believe that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hong then believed his brother wanted him to set up a heaven on earth. Fast-forward a bit and you have the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest wars in history.

Haven’t heard of it?

More people died in the Taiping Rebellion than the Civil War … and it was contemporary to the Civil War.

Also … more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than WWI.

The Taiping Army, headed by Hong Xiuquan, overtook Nanjing and used it as the capital for their briefly-lived empire. The city was renamed “天京” or “Taijing”, which means, “Heavenly Capital.” They ran their affairs out of the Presidential Palace, which is the same building complex that Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen ran the Republic of China from during the years proceeding Mao.

(For more on the Taiping Rebellion, read “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” by Steven R. Platt.)

We toured the presidential palace, which I would highly recommend even for those that aren’t particularly interested in history. The grounds were an interesting mix of traditional Chinese gardens and modern architecture with a heavy western influence evident throughout.

Other places worth visiting:

The Nanjing Massacre Museum: While my tone is normally sarcastic, I’ll have to leave that at the door for a moment. Japan’s treatment of Nanjing during WWII is a part of history that most Americans are not completely aware of. I would implore you to do your own research on this incident as I am not rightly qualified to do it justice. What I can say is that while numbers from differing sources vary, 200,000-300,000 deaths (noncombatants) is a fair number, reflected in Nanjing’s well curated and viscerally moving museum. Spending an afternoon here tells a grim tale of what happens in incidents of extreme tragedy: the best and worst of humanity both available.

The Old City Wall: Like most Chinese tourist sites, this costs money to use. I forked out the 30 yuan to go for a run here, twice, but was a bit heartbroken to think, “why can’t everyone use this?” I have since been told that one can purchase a yearly pass at a fairly reasonable price. (My debt to the U.S. Forrest Service in unpaid car passes for access to trailheads have spoiled me.)

The wall gives one an interesting view of both old architecture (the wall itself, several pagodas in the distance), the naturally gorgeous (Xuanwu Lake), and the progressive (buildings like rocket-ships and mildly polluted sunsets that glow orange and allow you to stare directly into the sun).

Experience Local Hospitality  (“我请你”or, “let me treat”): We met a group of three locals who invited us to dinner and refused to let us pay. There were raised voices, I had my hand on my wallet, there was good food, I kept my money. If you ever get a chance to repay the favor, buy somebody from China a snack today.

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

Furthermore, our friend Brett, who is American but has been in China long enough to become unduly generous, took us out to dinner. Brett was able to show us a bit of the nightlife and how a foreigner might find creature comforts in Nanjing. Want to know where to get Indian or Tibetan food on a Tuesday in Nanjing? How about a Belgian wheat ale? Brett’s your man and can explain it to the cabbie in numerous Chinese dialects.

Meet Brett!

Meet Brett!

Zebra Bar (a shameless plug for new friends): Across from the hostel we were staying at was a typical foreigner-friendly bar, which for three days a week is run by Gael (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Paa (from Ghana) who have built an entire menu around African food. As a former D.C. metro resident, I’ve had Ethiopian sponge-bread, but this stuff was otherworldly. Fufu, spicey fish, and chicken … it was great.

Did I bury the lead about two Africans living, working and studying in Nanjing? Possibly.

Both Gael and Paa are studying architecture in a language they began learning within the past three years. They both speak three or four languages. How’s that for impressive?

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

Purple Mountain: We didn’t get there but are told that it is great. To be honest, Taishan was the preceding trip to this, and I couldn’t deal with another stairstep-to-oblivion day trip. That said, we could totally live in Nanjing and will give it a shot the next go-round.

Signing off … from the Future!!!!



The Poodles of Nanjing

Greetings from the future!

Our next series of tales of tomorrow come to you from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province in eastern China. Chris is preparing our substantive dispatch from this future outpost. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short piece reporting on a furry phenomena here in China.

In the future, people love their pets just as much as we do back home in the present. At all times of day, you’re likely to see dogs being walked and caged birds being fed. Look around and you’ll see pampered pups on every street, strutting along in the height of doggie fashion. Sometimes, owner and pet may even be donning matching outfits. Now that’s love.

From our observance, the most popular breed by far is the poodle. We noticed this soon upon arriving in the future, but poodles are turning out in unparalled numbers in our current locale, Nanjing.

An animal photographer, I am not. Those curlycued canines move too fast for my iPhone shutter. I assure you, for every poodle depicted below there were 10 more that escaped my lens. When close enough to the dog owner to ask permission, Chris would politely express our request in Chinese. I took a simpler approach of pointing at my camera and smiling and nodding frenetically at the owners until they indicated consent. My interest in their dogs seemed to please most.

This goes out to our animal lovers back home. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the poodles of Nanjing!