Monday, September 18, 2006

A Day Off the Grid

Sometimes the very best things in life come to you when you least expect them. And sometimes those very best things are little more than a day spent with an old friend, the making of a new friend and the wonder that comes with opening yourself up to a new experience. The latter being the real challenge as it almost always requires that you suspend your values, cautions, beliefs and pre-conceived notions about the world and the people in it. My old friend Albert has been over here on this side of the world for a little more than a year and last time I was here we spent a few minutes comparing impressions about who was looking older (he was, obviously) and about work in general. I didn’t have much time on that trip for fun, so I intended to hold him up to an offer of a walk around the place. We exchanged a few notes and decided that the same old Shanghai stuff might be too tame for a tough guy like me so we bottomed out on a ferry ride to an island in the middle of the Yangtze called Chongming. A little bit of research turned up nothing of interest – a travel blog by some teenagers, a Chinese newspaper account of the Hairy Crab festival and a university level paper talking about the island’s insignificance as a stopping place for migratory shorebirds. Those tidbits plus a description of a large bird sanctuary at the island’s south end. That was to be our destination.

Albert did a little research and found a ferry schedule and we made plans to head out early in the morning. I rose at 4:30 AM to meet his driver at my hotel. I met him a bit early and we headed across town to pick up my companion in Pudong.

Shanghai is a different place at 5 AM. Most of the big cities I’ve lived in or near (NYC in particular) don’t really ever close up shop. But this place, normally a buzzing cacophony of horns and traffic was stone cold abandoned for the whole drive over. Needless to say, we made incredible time down to the Bund Tunnel, under the Huangpu and through that Oz of glass and concrete that Pudong has become.

We got Albert and headed across the northern reaches of Shanghai to the ferry terminal. Terminal being a really loose term in this case.

Passing through endless industrial areas we headed towards the river and into the shipping zone, large container loading cranes dominating the horizon.

Arriving, his driver pointed in the direction of what appeared to be a dock and grunted. We got out and walked up the muddy street. There was a small group of people waiting by a locked gate and we sidled up and took a look. Leaning on a barrier that overlooked a choked stagnant canal with a derelict barge, I noticed that most of the people seemed to have tickets in their hands. So I suggested we head back to where I had seen a bunch of people standing in line. Albert volunteered to handle the purchase and promptly got in the wrong line. A man standing there gave us a head nod towards an open window and he switched. He’d apparently been in the line for those with cars.

The tickets set him back 13 RMB, $1.50. Not bad for a 1 hour river trip. We headed back to the gate which was now about to open. I passed through and was told something in Chinese by the official taking the stubs. Who knows what, but I assume it was important given all the little things that were to come.

Making it down to the wharf, we found two boats. One pretty big and shiny, the other with “ferry capsizes in Yellow Sea killing dozens” floating above it in misty red letters. Naturally we opted for the pretty, shiny boat.


Climbed the stairs and entered the cabin which was spacious, well lit and clean. We selected a couple of seats in the back rows and Albert went off to use the facilities.

Almost immediately I was accosted by a one-handed Chinese man speaking to me in a not quite threatening if somewhat insistent tone. Naturally I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, which only made him speak faster and louder. Another man in a uniform came over, starting in with the same routine. I was at a loss and I fell into saying “I don’t know what the hell you’re yammering about” over and over. The one-handed man kept showing me his ticket (it being pressed against his stump with his good hand) and seemed to be saying I should show him mine. I did, and they were different. But who knew what that meant? Then they started to point out the window and it finally came to me – we were on the same boat. I told them my friend was in the toilet and they agreed to stop yelling at me. Albert came out and we disembarked and crossed the pier to the death trap awaiting us wondering all the while why it took a passenger to set us straight and not the guy who was taking the tickets.

Boarding boat #2, we were greeted by three or four surly crewmen, their shirts unbuttoned to display those wife-beater t-shirts popular with tramp steamer merchant sailors the world over. We motioned that we’d live to ride above – the answer was no. We motioned that we wanted to ride on that deck, the answer was a return motion that we could ride there if we planned on drinking. So we just stood there until the chief tough guy came over and motioned down a flight of stairs and said, “Xia mian” which I understood to mean “you’re riding down below.” So down below we went.

Where the cabin on the other boat promised a sun-splashed Yangtze crossing, this one said “be near the window if the thing starts listing to port.” It was about 8 feet
wide and 30 feet long with 10 or so rows of dingy seats with even dingier head coverings on their backs. There were three sliding windows gaily decorated with that flower stick on stuff one used to put on their clear glass bathroom windows back before frosted glass was invented. We selected a couple of seats towards the back and settled in for what was surely our last adventure on the high seas.

The boat got off on time and we began to cross the river. More people filed in and so I moved to the center seat to allow someone to use the outer one. Which no one did, taking one look at us and deciding instead to ride in the engine room. A young woman, late teens, early twenties crossing with her mom and boyfriend decided that the seas were rough and decided to spend the time with her head out the window vomiting up her breakfast. Her condition was in stark contrast to the “Snoofy” (yes, Snoofy) sweatshirt she was wearing. Poor Snoofy had never suffered so.

Not much else to say about the trip except that Albert and I had long talks about what a bitch it is to get old and discovering that we both had problems finding shoes that were comfortable.

Now our plan was to get off the boat, wander around Chongming, find some birds at the southern end of the island, maybe see the temple and get back on the boat around 4:30.
They say that the universe sometimes smiles kindly on babes in the woods, and on this day the universe had a big grin, just for us.

We got off the boat to a swarm of men offering “Taksee” and we scoffed, being in possession of comfortable walking shoes and snacks. A few men offered to take us in their bicycle rickshaws and were met with further scoffing. We were the merry scoffers!

So we walked along the road to the center of the island. One guy in a little minivan would not leave us alone. He kept pace with us along the road yelling, “Dongtan”
over and over. It wasn’t in my dictionary so I was perplexed. I told him we were walking and he just started laughing and laughing, that being the funniest thing he’d heard up until that moment of the day. We walked and he followed. Finally, I decided we should just take a short hop and take the rest on foot. So we began negotiating. Which was pretty stupid since we couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Ever resourceful, he opened his wallet and took out a 20 and pointed at it. Aha, why not? $2 into town.

So we got in the car and off we went.

Couple of miles down the road, we began to understand why he was laughing. I told him I wanted to see some birds, he nodded furiously and started repeating “Dongtan” again. We turned the corner and then it all became clear. The sign read Dongtan Bird Refuge along with a distance – 42 kilometers! Now we could understand his amusement. He thought we were completely daft. And so again we began the negotiations and he solved the difficultly by showing me a 100 RMB note. $12 for 42 kilometers and all the Chinese birds I could see? Why the heck not!



Driving along the roads it quickly became obvious we were not in Shanghai any longer. This was real China – rice paddies, water buffalo, crazy little carts with belt-driven lawn mower engines that were attached to the front steering mechanism, grandmas on bicycles
. So close to the metropolis yet it couldn’t have been further away. I was loving it and every mile provided another wonderful sight.


The housing was quite interesting – pagoda-style lines with bright and colorful tile roofs. Many of the houses were covered with tile on the outside walls as well. There was a lot of home construction going on and there seemed to be a self-perpetuating cement business with homes being the chief driver. I don’t know much about the local industry, but the place seemed prosperous.

We sped along until we hit a little village and he veered off onto a dirt road between fields of rice. It was muddy and bumpy and I was wondering what the heck he was doing. I halfway expected him to be taking us home to meet his wife. Up ahead, I could see a backhoe working in the road, something that escaped him because he drove
right up, called them “idiots” turned around and headed back to the pavement. Where we once again picked up speed. About this time I was beginning to think about how I was going to negotiate the return trip because we were out in the middle of nowhere.

More paddies, more villages and more regular life going on around us. The wind was picking up and he more or less explained to me that it was from the typhoon off the coast. How he knew that, I will never know. The wind though was making itself known now and it was becoming apparent to me that the birds were more than likely disappearing with its ever increasing intensity. In the words of a wise Chinese philosopher, “Niao bu xihuan feng” – birds hate the wind. But on we motored.

We turned onto a long straightaway and it was obvious we were nearing Dongtan. The road was lined with lighpoles with banners depicting the various birds of the area. We drove on, a small cluster of building appearing in the distance.


Pulling up to a barricade, he stopped the car and we had a chat about what it was going to cost us to go back. 100 for the ride and 100 for him to kill time while we birded. He mimed taking a nap to explain the second 100. Fine, $25 for a day in the place. That agreed to, he motioned us out of the car and into the building where we were greeted by three young men in uniforms. They presented me with what must have been the visitors guide and handed me a pen. Problem was, the page was in Chinese. Completely. I just stood there like a gaping dolt until the driver took the pen and lifted my glasses off my face and put them on. Old guys around the world going blind together. He filled in the lines and the guards took out a passport, stamped it and handed it to me. When he was done, he handed them back to me.

Walking out of the office and into the wind we climbed a small rise and saw before us a field of reeds and Phragmites grass that stretched to the horizon in all directions. The scope was staggering. There was a little boardwalk that went out about 40 yards and one small mudflat that contained a single egret but beyond that, it might as well have been Kansas. He pointed at the egret and said, “Niao”, bird, and insisted I have a look at it. This was I realized that birding for me meant one thing, for him it meant seeing a bird.

I set my gear down thinking that since I was out in the sun I might want to consider a little sunscreen. I got out the tube and started putting it on. This instantly attracted a crowd of people wondering what the heck I was doing. I explained to the driver in Chinese that I was pretty white (Wo shi hen bei se) and pointed at the sun. This caused the crowd to break into polite giggles.

The driver insisted I walk down the boardwalk, which I did avoiding the part of it that was freshly painted. No birds. So we headed back. Off in the distance there was a small flock of Cattle Egrets working the field behind a backhoe that was digging. Typical of Cattle Egrets, garbage eaters the world over.

Figuring it was time to head back I decided to use a Porta Potty along the side of the parking lot. They were coin operated but one was open, the door being obstructed by a giant spider web which was more than happy to envelope my head. I went in and slid the door open and immediately realized I had chosen the one toilet in China that had never been flushed. Be happy with that explanation, it’s all you’re going to get.

Back to the car and back on the road, the driver continuing to point out each and every bird as if he was being paid by the head. Saw a few things I recognized and a few I didn’t.

It was now about 10:30 and we weren’t getting far into our day long plan so I asked the driver if there was a temple on the island. He nodded and off we went into one of the singular experiences of my life.

The ride back was along a different route so we were treated to more villages and more people. It was great and I was rapt. Eventually we made it into a small town and into a seedy section and there it was – the Chongming Temple.

I’ve done a fair amount of things in my life and I’ve been a few places. Many of

these have provided emotional experiences, but few come close to this one.

We entered the temple and were greeted by old man who presented me with a book and asked me to sign in. Again the pages were in Chinese so I just wrote my first name. He asked us for a donation of 10 RMB. We passed a large golden Buddha in a glass case just beyond the entrance. I asked for permission to photograph it which was gladly granted. It as the last photo I took in the place because the feeling of holiness made it clear that it was simply wrong to invade it with a camera.

The driver performed the rites of submission, and I followed with the palms together wave in front of the face acknowledgement for the shrine. There were around 6 buildings in the complex in addition to the entry building. The main temple held a very large golden Buddha surrounded by a 10 smaller golden statues of disciples, each in the 5 foot tall range and completely unique. From there we made our way around the
compound. At each of the 4 corners were smaller temples with Buddha varying in size and shape. The air was sweetly redolent of incense. A small group of monks in saffron and burgundy robes came out and watched us, one offering a “hello.” We stopped in each of the smaller temples and paid our respects. In the final one there was a service underway, monks singing and chanting and playing instruments. I didn’t go in, feeling it was too much of an imposition but I stood and listened for a bit and it was wonderful.

I thanked the driver for this experience and told him using what little Chinese I had that I thought it was simply great.

I asked him to head back to the ferry and he was happy to do so. He took us on a very circuitous route through fields and along dykes, his desire to show us some more birds. He continued to point them out as they presented themselves.


Arriving back at the dock he ushered us up to the ticket window and saw to it that we got our fares. And then we parted, a hearty handshake, many smiles and a new friend made. He, $36 richer, we immeasurably so.

The timing was perfect – 10 minutes in the waiting room and the gates opened. Up the pier (our friend passing us and waving, his next fare underway.) This time it was a nice boat, like the one we’d been kicked off of earlier in the day.

Again an easy crossing. I’d expected some chop based on the wind but it wasn’t too bad. As we neared the coast, we encountered a steady stream of tankers, barges and container ships moving in and out of the port.

Getting closer, I noticed some obvious landmarks that I’d not seen earlier in the day. Writing it off to us being on the opposite side heading out, the time of the day and the fact that we hadn’t been paying attention, pretty soon it became obvious that none of these things had been there in the early dawn light. Still trying to come to grips with conflicting information, it finally dawned on us – we were headed into a different port. Which was a problem, because Albert’s driver was waiting for us at the other one?

A check of the GPS confirmed that we were 10 miles or so closer to Shanghai. So now here we were. “Where” being an interesting construct because we had no idea where “where” was and no way of finding out.

Couple of calls to Albert’s wife who in turn talked to the driver who in turn couldn’t imagine why we were stupid enough to take the wrong ferry yielded a plan – taxi to my hotel where the driver would collect Albert. We found a cab quickly who acted amazed at where we wanted to go, the amazement later explained by the huge taxi bill. But we made it, the driver found us and everything worked out splendidly.

It was quite a day and not quite over. We met for drinks in the penthouse and decided on Mexican, that cuisine being one we’d not yet tried. So off to Mexico Lindo, chicken fajitas, Sol beer and tortillas just like the ones in San Carlos. Can’t get them in New Mexico, but if you want them here, not problem.

The last little tidbit of the day came at the end. Walking into the hotel after dinner, we were greeted by “Take Me Home, Country Road” performed in broken English by a German band in a reggae beat at the Shanghai Oktoberfest.

I dare anyone to top that.

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