01 September 2010

China: Shanghai

Part One: Shanghai (上海)

The Chinois are white (but neerer the South more browne) with thinne beards (some having none) with staring haires, and late growing; their haire wholly blacke; eyes narrow, of Egge forme, blacke and standing out: the nose very little, and scarcely standing forth; eares meane: in some Provinces they are square faced. Many of Canton and Quamsi Provinces on their little toes have two nailes, as they have generally in Cachin-china.  Women are all low, and account great beauty in little feet, for which cause from their infancy they bind them straight with clothes, that one would judge them stump-footed: this, as is thought, devised to make them house-wives.
Father Diego de Pantoia S.J., Spanish missionary. 1602

When you get a visa for Korea, you can get one that is either single-entry or multiple-entry. If you get the former, you can't leave the country during the year of your stay, or else you won't be able to get back in. So most people get the former, including Lizzie and I. Why go to Korea if you won't be able to travel other places?

Lizzie's visa has a typo, unfortunately. She applied for a multiple-entry visa and got it (according to Korean immigration services), but the visa sticker pasted into her passport mistakenly read "S" instead of "M". It seemed like a minor thing to get changed, so we went to have it checked out shortly after arriving. The worker at the immigration office studied Lizzie's passport for about an hour, consulting other workers and thick-looking manuals, before picking up a pen and triumphantly scribbling out the "S" and writing in an "M" instead, then initialing it.

At the time, Lizzie and I exchanged skeptical looks. There was simply no way that this was going to turn out well, visa-wise.

So when we were heading to China, we were not completely surprised when we were stopped at the immigration line at the airport. I had walked through without a hitch, but not Lizzie. And really, who can blame the official peering unhappily at Lizzie's passport? You can't change a national visa with a pen and some initials. You'd have to be a complete idiot to try it. The only problem was that the airport official thought that we were the complete idiots, not the worker in the immigration office.

Our flight was in forty minutes and Lizzie had to try to find the immigration office in the airport and get her visa okayed and then get back through security and immigration... Action had to be taken if we were going to make it.

Decisively, I stepped forward. I was going to run with Lizzie to find the mysterious office, interpreting the Korean directions of passer-bys on the way. Once there, I could help make things go faster with urgent Korean words and my potent masculine power of intimidation. And if anyone tried to stop us or mug us, I would bull through them, heroically throwing myself on the brandished knife and waving Lizzie on. "Run! Think of me... at the... Great Wall!"

But no. I couldn't go back through to the other side of the immigration line, since my passport had already been stamped. Sorry, honey. Um. I'll wait here.  Oh, hey.  Skittles.  Delicious.

Thankfully, Lizzie made it back with three minutes to spare, telling a tale of a tiny little office that was on neither the first nor the second floor, but within a labyrinth of airport hallways halfway between the two. And her visa is still not fixed. But we were cleared for that day, and so we were on our way to China.

China was a remarkable mystery to the west for a long time, even after Marco Polo traveled east to visit the Great Khan whose Mongol hordes had taken over most of China. And it took many years before serious knowledge about the country began to spread outside of its borders. Ephraim Chambers' 1728 Cyclopedia has only this to say about anything China-related:

Now, of course, we know a bit more (such as the existence of tens of thousands of Chinese characters, not eight thousand). But as familiar with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City as I may have been, and after a year and a half living in Korea, I still found a lot to surprise me about China.

Let me get some of the obligatory stuff out of the way, so we can leave it aside in the future:
  • Yes, China is still a communist country. They have a lot of statues of Mao and very severe-looking train guards, and sometimes they will pre-empt programming on every channel simultaneously to broadcast a state-mandated newsfeed about how helpful the Chinese Red Army has been with the recent mudslides. It's not in your face very often, but it can be surprising to see the iron inside the glove sometimes.
  • Yes, China is also now very capitalist. There are a huge number of businesses and entrepreneurs in the cities, and advertising is constant. People are investing and trading and so on, and on a day-to-day basis it's hard to tell the difference from the States. Blah blah blah triumph of capitalism blah blah the earth is flat.

Our first stop was Shanghai, or 上海. It was hot. Terribly, astonishingly, gob-smackingly hot. Every day, it was over a hundred degrees. Walking out the door was like being personally slapped in the face by the Sun, leaving you dazed and drenched in sweat. At midday, the heat was so powerful it was accumulating in puddles and causing the occasional small dog to sublimate directly into vapor.

Lizzie and I were fortunate enough to know some locals in the city: our friends Jack and Grace had been living there for two months now, working as English teachers for Disney English. Disney had put them up in a local hotel right in the nice part of town, and they didn't use one of their rooms. They kindly offered to let us stay there.

We met Jack and Grace when were all living in Yeosu last year. Grace is from Michigan and Jack is from a small island off the coast of France called the United Kingdom. Because it had been so hot and they had been so busy, they hadn't gotten around to seeing many of the local sights. And because they were also accommodating and fun, they were essentially the ideal people to show us around.

The hotel was called "Elegance," and it was excellent. Nice big room, clean sheets, and one of those big disc shower-heads that imitate rain. I could maybe offer some criticism about their ability to spell, since the large neon sign outside read "Elangrace," but nobody's perfect.

After a little bit of time unwinding, we met up with Jack and Grace and a friend of theirs, Nicky, to go get some dinner. We went to "Grandmother's Restaurant," an establishment only a minute's walk from the hotel. It was here we'd establish a precedent that would hold true no matter where we went in China: the food was delicious. Braised mushrooms, fried tofu, green peppers and potatoes, served up with a huge bowl of white rice that Jack and I wolfed down. Nicky actually speaks Mandarin Chinese, which is an amazing accomplishment. In eleven days, I still never managed to successfully order water (水; I am certain of the pronunciation but could never make myself understood).

Following dinner, we had some drinks (Captain's Bar) and made plans. Before we hit the hay, we took a walk on the Bund to see Shanghai by night. The skyline across the Huangpu River (黃浦江) sparkled, especially the Oriental Pearl Tower, which lofts its glittering globes 1,500 feet into the air.

A word on the layout of the city: after the Opium War, the western powers forced China to open Shanghai up as a trading port and ceded large areas of the city to Great Britain, America, and France. These areas developed a distinctive character, with western architecture and habits becoming deeply influential. The Japanese occupation in 1937 swept out most of the westerners and the subsequent communist regime took care of the rest, but their influence remains even today, buoyed by a modern desire for tourism. It has also left the city traditionally divided into areas such as the Bund, the French Concession, Old City, and so on. New areas like Pudong (home to the looming skyscrapers of the city) are also rising into the list.

The extent of their kingdom is so vast. its borders so distant, and their utter lack of knowledge of a transmaritime world is so complete that the Chinese imagine the whole world as included in their kingdom. Even now, as from time beyond recording, they call their Emperor, Thiencu, the Son of Heaven, and because they worship Heaven as the Supreme Being, the Son of Heaven and the Son of God are one and the same.
Matteo Ricci, Italian explorer. 1601.

The next day we walked with Jack and Grace to the Old City. This area preserves some of the flavor of Shanghai-that-was, with long alleys and narrow streets holding a mix of small shops and homes. It would be reasonable to expect that such a preserved area would be kitschy and contrived, artificially kept in imitation of days that are long fled. But instead of a stale reproduction, Old City preserves a whole old way of life. It's well-lived in and dingy, with barbers cutting hair on the street and narrow little stores selling racks of snacks. It looked exactly like how I imagine all of the city would look, absent urban planning and capital investment.

Jack had ordered some clothes the week before, so we went with him to pick them up from the tailor's. Along the way, we passed through the People's Park and saw the charming phenomenon of 人民公园相亲角, or "People's Park Matchmaking Corner." This is an area of the park where Shanghai parents come to try to match up their children. It's not really arranged marriages, but more a big analog version of E-Harmony.

Posted personal ads were placed in long rows, with vital information and photos. Parents peer at the ads and note down possible good matches for their children. If they find someone good, then the long-suffering Chinese progeny often arrange to meet. It's a charming custom, persisting here despite the obliterating force of the Internet and increasing liberalization of Chinese youth.

Jack's tailor turned out to be housed in an entire building of tailors, all turning out custom-made clothing at extremely low prices. He had bought several three-piece suits and custom shirts for an absolute pittance. And what's more, they thoughtfully provided him with a blanket behind which he could try on his new clothes! How can you go wrong?

Well, the answer is that you can't go wrong. So Lizzie and I both ordered clothes. Hers was a fashionable coat (no, I cannot describe it any more in detail because I am a guy) whereas I ordered a pinstriped suit-coat. In a matter of a half-hour, they'd taken our measurements and exact specifications about color and lapel size and pockets and so on. The cost was about $45 each, and when we picked them up a few days later, they looked amazing.

We had lunch, a bowl of noodles from a tiny place in Old City. The noodle shop, whose name has proven almost impossible to look up (Chinese characters are hard to research) was little more than a scrap metal and plywood shack in an alley, with a gas stove and small prep area. We sat at one of the two tables, and ate delicious bowls of lo mein (捞面), stirred up in a wok over a huge red flame two paces away. We drank a great deal of water and the Chinese sport drink "Scream," since the heat was becoming withering by this time of the afternoon.

In the afternoon and after a bit of an air-conditioning break, Lizzie and I went to see Yuyuan Gardens (豫园). This 16th century Chinese garden has long pathways through carefully-chosen rocks, manicured flowers along ponds, and recently-restored buildings. Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea expresses the sought-after ideal best:

[T]here is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn!

You would expect gardens to be of a modest size, but Yuyuan was quite large - it took an hour to walk through only about half of it. It was laid out in a deliberately confusing manner, with passages through large rocks leading into other sections of the gardens and wooden walkways doubling back through nearby pavilions. Of particular interest were the dragon walls: these distinctive walls separated the different areas, topped with brown tiles that terminated in stylized dragon decorations.

In the center of the gardens, we walked across a bridge on a small lake, to what is probably the most famous teahouse in the world. The Mid-Lake Pavilion teahouse has been patronized by Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, and (of late) Hillary Clinton. We had iced tea.

The bridge to the teahouse has nine turns, like many ancient Chinese bridges in places of the sort. Teahouses were once sacred, and according to legend evil demons cannot turn corners. They have to cross water in a straight line. So to protect the teahouses, they crammed into their bridges a sacred number of turns. These days, I don't think the Yuyuan teahouse actually needs the protection. No demons would have been able to get through the packed masses of people cramming themselves into the bridge entrances to get photos in front of the teahouse.

Wee came to a Faire of China where on the water Barkes, besides small Boats which goe up and downe and small Barkes were assembled in one place, and made a Citie with streets in the water above a league Moveable long, and a third part of a league broad. These Faires are principally on the Holy day of some Pagode, whose Temple is by the waters side. ... These Faires last from the new Moon to the fill, in which it is a goodly thing Beauties and to see two thousand streets or ranks strait, enclosed with glories of this Barkes, most of them flourishing with Streamers and Rher-Citie. Banners, and railes painted, whereon are sold all things that can be desired, and others Mechanike Trades; in the midst Boats going up and downe with people to trade without any conmsion or tumult.
Pernam Mendez Pinto, Portuguese explorer. 1542.

From Yuyuan Gardens, we met up with Jack and Grace again to head to the Fake Market. I never caught its real name, but it's unimportant. What's important is that it is a large building dedicated to churning out cheap imitations of quality goods. A hundred small booths line its corridors, five floors of shoddily-made crap.

In theory, each floor is dedicated to a certain set of things. On the first floor electronics, on the second floor clothes, and so on. But in reality, everyone wants to sell you a watch. As you walk past a shop crammed with poorly-silkscreened t-shirts, inevitably the proprietor calls out sharply, "Hey, you want to buy watch? Just come look, no problem." But the words, said a thousand times a day, have started to lose their individual meaning (if that meaning was ever known).

It's the truest homage to salesmanship you will ever hear. Over and over, like a formal chant.

"Heyou wanna buywatch, justcomelook noproblem.
Heyou wanna buywatch, justcomelook noproblem.
Heyou wanna buywatch, justcomelook noproblem."
As it happens, we do want to buy a watch. We forgot to bring one to China, as used as we are to cell phones. I wouldn't mind a nice knockoff of an Omega, actually, and at one point I agree to a shopkeeper's chant and enter his store.

To all appearances, the store sells fake Nintendo DS units and pirated movies, but the shopkeeper ushers me in to the back of the store. He holds open the curtain in the rear, smiling happily. I imagine it's a lot like having a prayer answered, to have someone agree to look at your watches. Lo, I have descended from on high.

Kneeling, the shopkeeper lifted up a box from a lower shelf against the wall, then pried up the board. From a hidden compartment beneath, he pulled out a roll-up bag of glittering fake automatic watches. The real versions go for $300-$1,000. These fakes probably go for an average of $60 or so. Of course, since the quality is poor, they probably are worth only half that.

I admit to being tempted. As in most transactions in China, I was expected to haggle. Could I get this price down low enough to where I'll be comfortable with it? I knew I would be essentially renting the watch until it broke (in a year? a month? a week?) so it had to be very cheap.

I pointed to the one I like, and said, "Okay, good. 50 for this one." I tapped the number into the large nearby calculator that serves as translator. 50 Chinese yuan is about $7.50. It was a truly absurd lowball, but the shopkeeper laughed, letting me know it's not unreasonable to start there. He countered with 500 ($75), to which I laughed myself in reply, rolling my eyes to let him know how ridiculous is his number. We started in earnest. He punctuated his offers with cries of, "Be serious! No joking!", and I received his tries with exasperated sighs of "昂贵!" (Expensive!) 50. 500. 70. 450. 75. 350. 75. 300. 75 or I go. 250!

250 rmb ($37.50) seemed the sticking point. I almost relented and bought the watch, but then I reminded myself: there's no certainty of quality. There's almost certainty of no quality. I would be buying highly-polished, prettily-forged junk. I walked out, ignoring the final drop to 225. I knew it wasn't going to ever drop to 100, and I don't buy paperweights for more than $15.

We did buy a watch before we left the Market, though. 10 rmb ($1.50)for a fake Swatch whose face actually reads "Swatoh." Not a bad deal. It stopped working that night. Later in the week it restarted.

The next day was our third day in Shanghai. It seemed meet to follow the exploration of the Fake Market with exploration of a real market, so we went to a local antiques bazaar. As it turned out, however, we basically just added a middleman to the process of buying the same things: somewhere in back, it is certain, was a helpful guy ferrying stuff from the Fake Market, rubbing them down with sandpaper, then stocking the shelves of the antiques booths. Almost everything was of obviously recent origins.

On the plus side, few people called out enticements to come buy watches. Instead they lurked disinterestedly near their wares and slurping down noodles from Styrofoam, or slept with mouth ajar. They sold rows of jade bracelets, grimy swords, and wooden carvings. I picked up a few items for myself and others, including some fascinating stamped-metal calligraphy paperweights.

The top floor of the antique market was special. Unlike the lower four floors, the top floor didn't have booths and tables crammed together and stacked with cheap wares. Instead, blankets were laid out with a few items posed carefully. I suspected that this was the real market; these were the real antiques. My suspicions were essentially confirmed when I offered a very low price for a set of wooden beads coveted by Lizzie; the shopkeeper tightened her mouth, put the beads away, and waved me on. She wouldn't talk to me anymore, and was insulted. Those were old beads.

They have also along this River of Batampina, in which wee went from Nanquin to Pequin, (the distance of one hundred and eightie leagues) such a number of Ingenios for Sugar, and Presses for Wines, and Oyles made of divers sorts of Pulse and Fruits, that there are streets of them on both sides of the River, of two or three leagues in length. In other parts are many huge store-houses of infinite provisions of all sorts of flesh, in which are salted and smoked Beefe, tame and wilde Hogs, Ducks, Geese, Cranes, Bustards, Emes, Deere, Birds, Ants, Horse, Tygres, Dogs, and all flesh which the Earth brings forth, which amuzed and amazed us exceedingly, it seeming impossible that there should bee people in the World to eate the same.
Pernam Mendez Pinto, Portuguese explorer. 1542.

After lunch (marinated tofu in a delicious soup with seaweed), we moved on to our next destination: the Guanyuan Flower, Bird, Fish, and Insect Market (官园花鸟鱼虫市场). It is exactly like the name describes: an enormous outdoor pet market, where you can buy brightly-colored fish by the barrel (quite literally), racks of sparrows and other birds in split-bamboo cages, and fresh flowers. And of course, the insects. Above all and dominating the scene, hundreds of thousands of crickets chirped.

Crickets have an ancient history in China. Since antiquity, they have been kept as pets or matched against each other in combat. According to one legend, the concubines of the Emperor would each keep a cricket in its tiny woven cage, holding it to her heart at night to comfort her loneliness when the Emperor stayed with another woman. And because the Emperor had many women, the halls of the palace sang loudly with chirping.

People still keep crickets as pets, but most shoppers seemed more interested in the crickets' fighting potential. Using slim bits of straw, they would poke at individual crickets to test their fighting spirit. According to both traditional wisdom and modern science, a good cricket will be unusually big, and have large mandibles and a formidable head. They will attack the wisp of straw fiercely, and a happy customer will purchase the cricket, feeding it choice tidbits until it is time for a fight. At a fight, the crickets lock in combat when goaded by straw. The fight continues until one flees or until one is killed (dismemberment or decapitation). You can watch a sample fight here.

There were other insects, as well. Millipedes and stag beetles and other things I can't even guess at, as well as all the paraphernalia required to house and feed them. Lizzie and I bought sets of cricket bowls and water dishes, no larger than a thumbnail.

With the day wearing on, we moved on to the Oriental Pearl Tower, the globe-and-spire building that makes Shanghai's skyline so distinctive. I wanted to go to at least one museum, and there was a museum of Shanghai's history in the basement.

The Shanghai Municipal History Museum (上海市历史博物馆) was, in a word, bizarre. It tracked the history of China from ancient times right up until the communist revolution - in other words, it stopped right when things were getting interesting. There were plenty of interesting dioramas about how much fun it was to engage in traditional Chinese farming, and some horrifying examples of cultural blindness (the Caucasian mannikins were terrifying). But just as the Japanese were invading: bam, no more history. According to this museum, Shanghai history concludes with saloon-patronizing Englishmen strolling down a black-and-white Bund in their top hats, wondering about this curious new "radio" device.

The quality of the exhibits was variable. Some of them were high-tech projections of movies on interactive screens, in which a mutton-chopped banker speaks on the phone in exotic English. Others were crude papercut illustrations of how to operate a windlass. One thing was consistent: the wax figures were extremely detailed. They were actually so detailed it was a little offputting. You can see the carefully-placed whiskers on some of the figures was done with attention to each bit of stubble.

Thoroughly creeped-out, Jack and Grace and Lizzie and I left the Oriental Pearl Tower and went next door, to the Shanghai World Financial Center (上海环球金融中心). This is one of the tallest buildings in the world. Depending on how you define matters, it's the third-tallest building in the world (if you go by the height of building spires) or maybe the second-tallest building in the world (if you go by height of the roof), or just plain tallest building in the world (going by highest occupied floor). No one, at least, disputes that it looks like a bottle opener. It was disappointing that we never found scale miniatures of the tower that would actually function as an opener, but maybe that seemed too diminishing to the gift-shop owners.

As with most attractions of absurd height, there was an observation deck. And there was a fee and a line to get to it. There were probably several lines and several fees, actually. I don't know, we didn't do it.

Disheartened by yet another line, we noticed that the building wasn't all observation deck. It actually also holds the world's highest operating hotel, the Park Hyatt Shanghai, whose top level is on the 91st floor. And there was no line. And no fee.

And so we stepped lightly past the queue for the observation deck, where dozens had lined up for the long slog to buy an overpriced ticket, and walked a hundred yards over to the hotel entrance. It was curiously understated on this side; it had no lobby, just a security check and an elevator bank. It was also deserted except for a smiling squad of porters.

We tried to look both unobtrusive (Is it okay that we're over here? Will we get in trouble?) and impressively foreign (Look at our craaazy round eyes! We must be rich! This is certainly where we belong!) as we got into the elevator. There were only three buttons: 1, 87, and 91. Whoa.

Imagine our delight when we find that we can have some pleasant drinks on the 87th floor, uncrowded and reasonably-priced. If I have advice for anyone about Shanghai, it's that you should go there. From the lounge, stationed many hundreds of feet in the air, you can look down on the Oriental Pearl Tower and other landmarks of Shanghai, and see the city splayed in front of you. We watched as the sun sank and the light faded, and Shanghai kindled its lamps to life. Even from this height and distance, we could still see the continuous little flickers of light that were camera flashbulbs on the Bund.

We treated ourselves to some beers and wine and canapés. The canapés were small but inexpensive: pureed local scallops with cauliflower and a very basiled sauce vierge; and smoked salmon on a bit of rye topped with flakes of crisped potato. There's nothing like fine dining in very small portions at 1,500 feet.

Humbled by the experience, and still laughing at sharing out a shotglass' worth of scallops among four people, we headed to dinner. The restaurant was a favorite of Jack and Grace's, a Uyghur noodle shop. The Uyghur are a northwestern people who once ruled most of the country, and traditionally practice Sufism Islam. Their food is spicy and simple and (as I found out) incredibly delicious.

We had shou la mian (لەڭمەن), or "hand-pulled noodle," and got to watch the noodles being pulled ourself. The noodlemaker (noodlemaster? noodler?) separated the dough into balls the size of his fist, then vigorously yanked each ball from hand to hand, stretching it. And then in a way that was too fast to interpret, somehow the long string of dough had been separated by his spread fingers, and while still shifting from hand to hand it was now long thin noodles. Tossed into a pot and boiled; when soft the noodles were put into a wok and fried up with vegetables for us. The seasoning was simple but amazing, salt and pepper and some things we couldn't identify.

It was probably the best meal we would have in a trip that included many delicious meals.

They are also very hardie, and when they haue fasted a day or two without any maner of sustenance, they sing and are merry as if they had eaten their bellies full. In riding, they endure much cold and extreme heat. There be, in a maner, no contentions among them, and although they vse commonly to be drunken, yet doe they not quarrell in their drunkennes. Noe one of them despiseth another but helpeth and furthereth him, as much as conueniently he can. Their women are chaste, neither is there so much as a word vttered concerning their dishonestie. Some of them will notwithstanding speake filthy and immodest words.
Friar Iohannes de Plano Carpini, Italian missionary. 1246.

The next day was our fourth day in China, and it would be the last one we spent in Shanghai. We chose to devote it to the World Expo being held in a specially-cleared spot further down the river. The phenomenon of the World Expo is one that has mostly passed from America, in large part because the United States isn't a party to the international organization that plans them. The 1974, 1982, and 1984 World Expos were held in the States, but never since. And so we had only a vague idea of what to expect from the Shanghai World Expo; mainly we knew that the event consisted of dozens of large pavilions, each devoted to a different participating country. Frankly, my idea of a World Expo was still mostly based on Epcot's Spaceship Earth. See the miracle of telephone operators!

From Wikipedia:
World's Fair, World Fair, Universal Exposition, and Expo (short for "exposition"), are names given to various large public exhibitions held in different parts of the world. The first Expo was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom in 1851 under the title "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations". "The Great Exhibition", as it is often called, was an idea of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, and was the first international exhibition of manufactured products. As such, it influenced the development of several aspects of society including art and design education, international trade and relations, and even tourism.

The basic idea is that Shanghai cleared out a huge amount of land in their city (displacing some 18,000 families) and set up an infrastructure of buses, water stations, raised walkways, ticket counters, and a dedicated fleet of small electric vehicles. Each country then gets assigned an area on which to build their pavilion. Those countries that can't afford to build a pavilion get housed in huge metal warehouses, with mini-pavilions stationed inside. If you're a country, your pavilion is supposed to reflect the wealth and glory and culture of your people. It also appears to be an iron rule that you never even come close to mentioning anything embarrassing about your country. By all rights, the mini-pavilion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo should be painted with blood, but instead I discovered that the DRC has many interesting minerals.

The choices made by pavilion designers are interesting. Mexico is huge and curvy and red, and Finland looks like... well, actually a lot like Spaceship Earth. The South Korean pavilion was cool, since it was shaped like the stacked letters of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. The North Korean pavilion was depressing and sad; concrete and a fake bridge and a replica of the Juche Tower.

The Fiji mini-pavilion, housed inside the Pacific Joint Pavilion, did stand out for us. Because the big pavilions (China, Australia, etc.) all had four-hour lines for entry, we went to some of the smaller and less popular pavilions. And at the Fiji pavilion, a wonderful woman seized upon us - probably her first non-Chinese visitors of the day - and gave us a big nylon bag and packets of tourist information for Fiji. She sashayed in delight as she fetched the bag, calling to a friend, "Someone is interested!" Lizzie immediately declared that she wanted to go to Fiji. Because they gave us a bag.

The other pavilion we enjoyed (and the one we particularly set out to see) was the Czech pavilion. Lizzie lived in Prague for a year and a half, and so of course she wanted to find out how they would present themselves. The pavilion had various displays describing life in Czech, such as the heroic and fictional Jára Cimrman, the advances in Czech fiber-optics, and a green-screen ride where you could pretend to be flying over the Czech countryside. It all seemed a little strange to me, but Lizzie pronounced with satisfaction, "This is all very Czech."

In the Czech restaurant within the pavilion, we also enjoyed some real Czech beer (two different kinds of Budějovický Budvar) and Czech potato pancakes called bramborák. I should mention that the whole Chinese trip was a wonderful beer-holiday: no more terrible Korean Hite, but delicious Chinese Tsingtao and Japanese Asahi and even those wonderful Czech brews, that were cold and thick and plentiful.

We closed out our time in Shanghai with a Cantonese dinner and some time at a local club, where they were preparing to celebrate Chinese Valentine's Day. Apparently Chinese Valentine's Day is celebrated with dice in some way. Not knowing how to play any dice games, we made up our own.

It's really hard for me to overstate the importance of Jack and Grace's generosity and companionship. We had an amazing time in Shanghai, and it is in no small part thanks to their kindness and help. Not just giving us a room and helping us find places and recommending things to see, but just the gift of their friendship and the pleasure of their company made our trip wonderful. We are very lucky and grateful.

We left Shanghai with some sadness, but looked forward to the rest of our trip. In the morning, we took the train to Hangzhou.

As far as I ever saw or heard tell, I do not believe that any king or prince in the world can be compared to his majesty the [Emperor] in respect of the extent of his dominions, the vastness of their population, or the amount of his wealth. Here I stop.
Father John of Montecorvino, Italian missionary. 1305.

No comments:

Post a Comment