Friday, September 08, 2006

Rain outside my window



It's a rainy day in Shanghai, raising the question of whether our planned trip upriver to Hangzhou is going to come off.

Yesterday didn't generate any photographs, but it wasn't short on experiences starting with a walk home from work.

Every time I drive over to the office, I wonder whether it would be worthwhile to hoof it. Yesterday afternoon presented the chance. We were done early and so I, feeling intrepid, enrolled two of my fellow adventurers and headed out the door and onto the pavement. We began almost immediately - the first intersection which required a turn wasn't labled the way expected. Forging on though, we found the street we needed and made out first course adjustment in the direction of the hotel.

While I've done extensive walkabouts in Shanghai before, those were in more business oriented environments near the city center. This time it was along boulevards where real people live and they were out in the street doing real people things. One of the characteristics of Guilin Road is it's place as the community recycling center. We walked through large piles of plastics, metals, wire, styrofoam and electronics, all being picked through by experts looking for that one big find. A world class piece of steel strapping tape perhaps. As we continued on, the gritty areas gave way to nicer and nicer neighborhoods. We passed the China Space Research Agency and the Shanghai Blood Transfusion Center. Also "the best BBQ restaurant of the world."

Guilin gave way to Hongqiao and then we were on a nice, Plane tree lined road with clusters of shops, stores and cafes, finally making our way to Yili Road and the hotel, sweaty but undaunted. While not hot, it was very humid.

The big learning of this trip - crossing the street. No eye contact with the drivers, or you've ceded your superiority. It also helps not to jump 3 feet in the air when the delivery truck that's bearing down on you blows the horn 2 feet from your side.

The other key finding - the noise. Life in the street here is not only chaotic, but truly cacaphonous. Horns blowing, people yelling, bicycle bells ringing, noisy vehicles. Took me back to my nightly dog walk and how amazed we are when we can hear the train crossing Alameda, 4 miles away.

The second big adventure of the evening was dinner. After drinks and cordiaity in the penthouse, we went out to 1221, a nearby Chinese restaurant that was reported to serve food the way we might expect it. That's to say, it's pre-killed and does not contain skin, bones and eyeballs.

Two cabs got us there and we walked down a long alley to the entrance. It had the makings of a trendy, chic experience. The hostess told us "nothing available for 8" to which we countered "we just called and were told "no reservation needed", an exchange which yielded a promise to work something out and free beers. Waited about 10 minutes and a table appeared.

Now this was an interesting place - 95% non-Chinese. Some Arabs, many Americans and Europeans. It was very noisy and far less polluted with cigarette smoke than other places we'd been, the smokers limited to the Chinese and the Arabs. The scene immediately evoked "The White Countess", a movie about expats in 1930s Shanghai that we recently watched. Many sknny Euro-model girls plying their plates with black chopsticks sitting at tables with older men, their shirts unbuttoned to their navels. Maybe a slight exageration here, emphasis on slight.

Won't bore you with pictures of the food, it looked just like what you'd find in any restaurant in the US. But it was very, very tasty and infused with the taste from herbs which one would not normally find unless they were doing the cooking themselves and trying to be as authentic as any great Chinese cookbook would demand.

Not much more to report about the evening, so I'll close with a vignette about our cabbie. First one ever to ask where I was from, he wanting to practice his English. He gave the most earnest "thank you" when we left the cab. It cleared away any and all bad vibes that might have been brewing. Another nice connection with a fellow traveler, half a world away.

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