Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A morning across the dotted line and into terra incognita

Sometimes, we kid ourselves into thinking we’re special. From the very first trip over here, I’ve been the intrepid one, actually leaving the hotel grounds and wandering out into the streets. Chongming last year was so far off the grid that it cemented my legend once and for all. And every time I head out into the morning mist (exhaust?) to find another park full of exercisers, my reputation is furthered among the those that see this place as mysterious and observable only from behind the wraps of our 4-star cocoon.

Having a look at the map and still feeling up from my 3-park blitzkrieg yesterday, I decided to take it up a notch and head off on foot to an area that was well beyond the edge of our known world. A world that mostly consists of the local tourist areas, the streets around the hotel, the park across the avenue, a two block buffer on either side of the main road and the neighborhood of the design firm.

My goal was Chengfang Park, what appeared to be a solid 1-2 miles up north of here on the other side of one of the rivers that wind their way through Shanghai and down to the grander Huangpu. I figured this to be about a 1.5 hour outing and planned accordingly, polishing off breakfast and hitting the lobby by 7:10.

Given the distance and complexity of the route, my GPS was called for. I stopped at the entrance of the hotel parking lot and fired it up, much to the amusement of the idling taxi drivers. “Dian di tu” – “Electric map.” Captured the satellites, made a waypoint and was greeted with a “battery low” notification. Of course. After pondering whether I needed it or not and finally deciding that it would be worth it if only for a measure of the distance, I went back up stairs, grabbed a couple of double As and started over again.

I was on my way. Had my map, had my camera, binoculars and sunglasses.

Funny thing about my GPS – there are no accurate maps for cities in Asia so it shows it all as gray space. As you progress, a little line is developed that shows your progress through the streetless wilderness. It’s a great tool, but in this case it doesn’t replace a map.

As I distanced myself from the hotel, the area became grittier and grittier, making me appreciate just how insulated we are in the place where we stay. Instead of tall glass buildings and fancy shops, I was now down in the neighborhoods with real-live people going about their routines. A couple shot past on their motorbike having a raucous argument about who knows what. Children in red, white and black uniforms were on their way to school, a young waif-like woman stumbled out of a "club" shielding her eyes from the morning sun. Down every alley, life was going on. I forged ahead.

The street signs in the main part of Honqiao are bilingual – characters and English. Here they were strictly characters, thus rendering my map valid only as a means of counting street crossings. Now the paper guide was gray space too.

As I closed in on Suzhou Creek, I made it across one more boulevard and up onto a long concrete viaduct that made its way over the river. Bikes and motor scooters shared the lane with pedestrians, making the walk a bit hazardous. I learned quickly that one does not wear reading glasses to look at one’s map in such a situation.

Street vendors were spreading out blankets to sell their goods to passing commuters. Men’s shirts, cotton hats, sink sprayers and what appeared to be antique pieces jewelry done in jade. Buddhas and monkey statues. Sunglasses and belts – everything you could imagine. Well everything except for the fake watches and handbags people try to sell you back by the hotel. This was real stuff for real people.

Crossing the river, I came down to another boulevard and a decision. At this point, the map made no sense about what was presented in front of me. I just went ahead, across the dotted line and further into the gray.

Workers were busy building a wall around what appeared to be the park I was seeking, except it was on the wrong side of the road relative to the map, and the workers seemed to be living in shanties inside what might be the park. With my western sensibilities, the notion of the construction workers living in corrugated metal shacks inside a city park just didn’t register. I figured I was in the wrong place. Looking across the street, workers were busy moving construction materials around in a big field. Hovering low over the field, I thought I saw big birds, but their bearing made me think they might be kites. As in paper kites that a child might fly. But there was no wind, and it didn’t make sense that kids would be flying kites in a construction wasteland. I moved on, looking for a way into the greenery off to my right.

Eventually an entrance presented itself and I took the opportunity, instantly being transformed from an industrial world of noise, smoke and traffic to a vision of China Past. Well, excluding the garishly painted refreshment stand, it looked like China might have once looked.

This is a beautiful park, and it added to my sentiment that the Chinese love these little bits of serenity in their otherwise crowded lives. Across a big lake, a small pavilion floated in the haze. Long wooden canoes were tied up in a bunch, waiting for boaters. The paths were composed of pebbles and clouded in overhanging trees. Like every park I’ve been to, this too was crowded with people doing all manners of exercise. Several large groups were ballroom dancing on the top of a hill under a canopy of trees. Moving along and soaking it in, I heard music and spun off down a side path. A woman and a man were trading tunes on wooden flutes in a waterside pagoda. The pond between us was dusted with white petals from the overhanging trees.

On and or I walked simply enjoying the sights and the sounds. Like most parks this one had piped-in music coming from speakers along the paths. I passed an old man listening to a small transistor radio tuned to the same station as the park speakers.

Over the trees I saw the figure of a large bird soaring over the area. It was the kite-bird I had seen across the road. This time it was an easy call – it was in fact a bird and an Oriental Honey-buzzard to boot. Like none I’d seen before, all horizontal black stripes on a white background with a manner of flight that suggested incredible lightness, more of a “lofting” than an actual soar. I watch it until it passed behind the trees.

Checking my watch and GPS, the news was sad – time to leave in order to make it back for my real-world commitments. Out and down the street I went, getting back to my hotel after almost two hours and 5 miles of hiking. A morning well spent by any measure and an incentive to come back to this place again.

























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