30th Nov 2008
This month I decided to take a week off to visit my old friend Alex in Shanghai, China. It has been four years since I was last in Shanghai and I had heard a lot from Alex about the changes that have taken place in that time.
For those of you who don’t know, Alex is Malaysian Chinese, he spent a lot of his formative years in Australia and lived there for many years before seeking greener pastures in China three or four years ago. Among Alex’s many accomplishments are his language skills, he speaks pretty much fluent Mandarin, so he was an ideal person to visit in Shanghai where this is one of the main languages spoken.
I flew to China from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, via Amsterdam, with KLM.
The trip was relatively uneventful despite a major delay in Schiphol Airport while they fixed a fault with the plane. The weather in the UK was getting pretty cold as winter started to bite so I was gratified to find that Shanghai temperatures were still in the low twenties despite a bit of rain.
The first thing that I noticed that had changed in Shanghai since my last visit was that the high speed railway between the airport and the city is now open. I did not get to make use of the service though as Alex met me at the airport and we travelled by bus to town.
The city has remarkably light traffic (in comparison to, say, London), it seemed easy to get around and far less chaotic than cities like London, Cairo and New York where the traffic can be positively frightening and it is often quicker to walk.
A lot of this may be down to the motorways which are stacked up to five levels high and which mange to keep much of the traffic away from ground level streets where there is no parking anyway.
Our first couple of days were spent finding the way around. The tubes (underground trains) are probably the easiest method of transport. Also, if one is using taxis, a certain amount of work needs to be put into learning to give directions in Chinese as very few if any of the taxi drivers speak English.
Tipping is unnecessary and, although people are not at all aggressive or hostile, there are not a lot of smiles to be seen and people seem not to be overtly engaging. I did, however, find it very easy to strike up conversations on the train with Chinese and found several who had studied overseas and seemed more than happy to practice a little English.
Everywhere one goes it is apparent that the Chinese people, at least in this region, love their food.
There are street stands where Uyghur people cook barbecue lamb on charcoal coal fires. Restaurants proliferate and there are many open front shops where street hawkers cook breakfast over open fires or make and sell fresh noodles. It is fascinating to watch as they create the noodles from dough on the spot and put them straight into the soup to cook. The resulting noodle soup is then served with chopped coriander, some vegetables and that delicious fried chilli oil that is so popular in Chinese meals.
As anyone who knows me will tell I too enjoy new foods and I can strongly recommend China as a paradise for new and exciting flavours and textures. If you have never tried food outside Euro-Chinese restaurants this will be a real eye opener.
We booked a trip on the high speed train to Hangzhou which is a city about 40 minutes (at 240 kph) from Shanghai where many Chinese go for holidays. The train was clean and very spacious, more so than any I have travelled on elsewhere.
First class tickets, return to Hangzhou cost us about 75 RMB (£7). Hangzhou was quite different to Shanghai, the people looked and acted differently and in general were more friendly. I found that European faces were not common and the local girls would call out “hello” then have a giggle if you reacted to the sound. This was something that happened quite often.
We found a cheap hotel and booked in for the night but it wasn’t the sort of place you would leave your bags unattended and we were given instructions that if the police showed up asking questions I was to say that I was visiting Alex, not staying there. Apparently there are still some restrictions on where Europeans should officially travel and stay in China but it is difficult to discern exactly what these are. Alex said that “officially” as a foreigner he is supposed to tell the police when he goes to a different city and intends to stay over night. The Chinese government clearly does not encourage people moving from place to place in an ad-hoc way.
Hangzhou is centred around a huge lake which has a walking track right around and through the middle of it. Very picturesque and there are a couple of monastries and many places to stop and eat and drink.
Boats ply the lake and one can pay to be punted around or hire pushbikes and ride around the lake. I advise the latter as a really good way of seeing everything. The bikes requires a 300 RMB deposit but only cost 1 RMB per hour to use and if you check them in once per hour and check out a new one you won’t pay anything.
We also visited a monastry where the monks had, for centuries, carved the rock into replicas of the Buddha. These are quite remarkable and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. In some places the rock has been worn completely glassy by the thousands and thousands of visitors who have placed their hands on the same stone for centuries. The monasteries too are quite impressive and stretch up the hill one after the other. Lots to see but difficult to understand everything you are looking at as little of the signage is in English.
In Shanghai we visited the home of Zhou Enlai, one of the original “gang of four” in Chinese government who struggled to hold the country together and overcome some of the injustices that resulted from Mao’s cultural revolution.
Zhou was a man of deep principals and commitment and it was fascinating to see that his house has been preserved in original condition, apparently as he lived in it. It was also interesting to read some of the tales about the Kuo Mintang (the opposition to the Chinese Communist Party) who used to spy from the house next door on the comings and goings from this famous residence.
China is a country of rich history and up the road from this house are others belonging to prominent personalities including the Soong sisters.
The Soong sisters had remarkable stories. It was said of them that “one loved money, one loved power and the third loved China”. They married H.H. Kung (the richest man in China), Chiang Kai-shek (arguably one of the most powerful Chinese rulers) and Sun Yat-sen (first president of the peoples Republic) respectively.
We also did some obligatory shopping, and visited a huge multi-story shopping centre which sold nothing but computer bits.
This was an interesting exercise as it quickly became apparent that even with skilful bargaining and negotiation the prices were no better, and often higher, than one would pay in the UK. In addition to this the knowledge of the people selling the goods was very narrow. In one section they sold only motherboards and knew little if anything about other components. I spent several hours trying to find someone who knew what a wireless network drive was until and was told that they don’t exist or can’t be purchased in china. Then I found that area of the shopping centre where they actually sell them. An interesting trait I noticed when dealing with people in China who don’t speak great English 9my Mandarin is almost non-existent) is that if they don’t understand your question, Chinese people will nearly always answer “yes” with a big smile! I guess this is seen as the safest option. I often test the water now by confirming the opposite of what I asked just to check. A typical conversation might go like this:
Me (pointing to the right): “Is this the way to the toilet?”
Helpful local, smiling and nodding: “Yes”
Me: (pointing to the left): “So the toilet is this way?”
Helpful local, smiling and nodding: “Yes”
Me: “she she”.
On the topic of bargaining I will pass along a few hints that I picked up. No doubt they are wildly out of whack but they seemed to work for me.
The first is: Don’t ask the price unless you intend to buy. To do so sets an expectation (it is a sort of opening gambit) with the seller and he/she will not be happy if you later decide to walk away because you didn’t really want to buy the item anyway.
The second, if you are European the opening price given to you will often be up to 10 or 15 times what the item would reasonably sell for locally, be prepared to start your own bidding at this bottom level.
The third hint is, stay at your bottom bid until the seller comes down about 70 percent or so. Then start to walk away. The seller will offer you a final price as you leave. Offer a price between your lowest and this final price. If you can stick to this you will generally do well.
My final advice though is, whatever you pay, appreciate that the price reflects what you were prepared to pay, not necessarily what was possible, and just enjoy the process, it is half the fun.
We did many more things in China which were great fun and it is one place I will return to again and again. The people are polite, honest, and generally friendly. The country is a massive mix of cultures and races and there is so much to learn and experience that one could spend a lifetime there without scratching the surface.
The comment that best describes China to me is one made by my Chinese father in law on a previous visit “be wary in China, nothing is as it appears”.
One final story.
Alex is no fool, he has lived in many places and seen the best and worst of people. But when I arrived he was still smarting from an experience weeks earlier in a Chinese market.
Alex had seen a dog there, a puppy that seemed very unusual and desirable, spots like a hyena!
Always up for being different, Alex paid 100 RMB for this dog, took it home and cleaned up its mess and put up with its howling for a week.
Then the spots started to come off. Some enterprising person had dyed the poor animal.
Cheers Lex and thanks again for a great holiday.