Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trek Around Town

Yesterday was a day for me to get out in the streets and do a marathon walk. I took a look at the map and aligned on three targets that formed a big triangle with the base at the far end, away from the hotel. At the bottom was a garden, located down in the French Concession. At the top, Jing'an Temple, a medium sized complex in the heart of the shopping district (ironically.) Between the two – Zhongshan Park, a city green space that I have had on my list for some time.

The map suggested about 10 miles total, and I figured it was a reasonable amount with an ambling gait. So I packed my camera, GPS, an orange and a piece of chocolate and headed out the door at 8:30 following a breakfast in the penthouse. The rest of the traveling team was heading out for pearls and knock-offs so I was on my own.

My route took me along Ya’an Xilu Elevated Road and since I was under it, it quickly became obvious that the GPS was going to be partially useless. “Weak Satellite Signal” was the first message I received after a half hour of walking. After some confusion about my turn, I made it and headed south towards the first destination. The streets were moderately empty, at least by Shanghai standards. I still had to pay attention when crossing the street and it made me wonder where all these people were going on Sunday morning.

Moving along, I missed my left turn and realized this after a block or two. The map confirmed the miss and so I plotted a course back to my original plan. I passed a fancy Radisson Hotel that was lined with tall red brick walls. The combination of the walls, the Sycamores and the colorful sidewalk made for an interesting view as I proceeded down the sidewalk.

I took a brief sojourn into a small corner park to see the caged birds that I could hear singing as I approached. As always, a small knot of men stood around singing while the birds tried to drive off rivals with their vocalizations. Back on the street, I found a shortcut through a neighborhood that led to my destination.

Looking up the street, I saw a group of young men jostling and joking on the sidewalk. I grew up urban, and a sight like this always suggests caution. So after a brief stop in the public toilet (.80 RMB for use of the facility) I crossed the street. As I approached, one of them broke off and started to cross the street towards me. I just watched and walked on. As our paths were about to intersect, a black BMW pulled in between us and he stopped to talk the driver. He was making a joke about pulling all the tree blossoms (hen duo hua) off the car. I felt like an idiot, falling prey once again to my western conditioning and the sense of insecurity that has become part of my everyday life, back home.
I arrived at the gardens and found out that they were less a park and more of a neighborhood. Reading the occasional plaque on the pillars of the compound wall, it seems that the ground and the gardens constitute sort of a “heritage district” of villas built in the 1920s the first time that Shanghai was a world expat capital. The homes were beautiful and the greenery was splendid but it wasn’t obvious to me that walkers were welcome, so I ambled on.

Passing an interesting block of buildings done in the Tudor style bu with red timbers and yellow stucco, I found my way back at Ya’an Xilu. I crossed the thoroughfare on a cool pedestrian overpass with escalators going up and narrow, slippery stairs going down. Above the street it formed a giant circle that allowed one to reach any of the four corners of the intersection. From the railing I could see Jing’an Temple, the next stop on my journey.

This temple is the oldest in the city, originally constructed in 247 AD. It moved to its present site in 1216, during the Song Dynasty. During the Cultural Revolution it was converted into a plastics factory. In 1983 it returned to its present use and has been undergoing various improvements since that time. It’s now located at the west of Nanjing Lu (formerly called Jing’an Temple Road) and sits hard on the flank for the City Center Mall. Dunhill, Burberry and Tiffany are its neighbors.

I thought a brief rest might be nice before going into the temple. Jing’an Park is right next door and so I went in. Walking up the lane I passed a group tap dance lesson, the instructor stridently imploring her students to do the heal and toe tap with gusto. Moving on I found a little enclosed garden and went in for a visit. It was hard to believe that this little oasis sat upon one of the busiest intersections in the city. A small pond was graced by a tiny pagoda and a bigger building where visitors could purchase big pink thermoses of tea. Many couples and singles were sitting at tables with said thermoses gracing the center of the table. A feral calico cat sized me up and kept its distance, not really running away but not coming close either. A path composed of polished pebbles would through traditional Chinese garden architecture. A stone tablet stood behind a circular doorway and a plaque nearby told the story of the original temple and the stone, which now lies submerged at the bottom of the nearby river. I spent a half-hour or so in there before leaving and luckily I checked my photos just before leaving because the camera was reporting “corrupt data”. I swapped memory cards and went back around, taking the shots a second time. One walk through a meditative place leaves you serene. Two walks, less so.

I found a bench and stopped for a rest. A group of elderly people off to my left were singing a ponderous, traditional Chinese anthem. The tap dancers were still at it and the instructor was still chiding them. It appears tap is the angriest of all dances.

The park was very busy but not overly crowded. It was nice to see all these families doing things together and it made me think of the west in simpler times.

After a bit I got up and went off to the temple which was across the street. I paid my 20 RMB entrance fee and went in. All the noise and traffic and bustle were left behind the moment I passed through the gated arch. I’d like to say I was transported back 1000 years, but I wasn’t – too many modern construction materials lying around. But it was a calming experience despite the concrete mixers and plywood boards covering gaps in the plaza.

Three large iron charcoal burners were cooking the sticks of incense that one could buy for 2 RMB at a little red cart. Once ignited, those wishing to pray stopped and faced each of the cardinal directions, raising their hands and the incense to their foreheads. I went over to the larger temple and waited in line for a place at the prayer bench to pay my respects to the large, golden Buddha. I deposited a few bills in the prayer box to wing my wishes on their way. A small altar was off to the left with two smaller Buddha and so I walked over and paid my respects there two.

Leaving the Buddha, I went out in the plaza and just stood there taking it in. Although there was a limited amount of things to see, it was hard to leave the place. And so when I felt it was time, I headed out the gate, stopping to buy an incense bundle on the way.

With two of my three goals met, I decided that hoofing it to the third might be a bit more of a challenge than I needed so I decided to take the subway.

Heading down the escalator, I first tried to automated ticket machine and stymied by that bought my ticket from the man behind the window. Found my way to the train and waited for it to come along. This time of the day, the subway was great – no crushing mobs and room to move around. The train came and I boarded, securing a spot in the back corner of the car next to a young woman with that same techno-pop-punk thing going on that the Japanese girl in “Babel” was working. At the next stop, a 20 something young woman got on who had to be very close to 6 feet tall judging her height from a steel handrail. She made me stand up straight and all I kept thinking was that this little girl could make a fortune on the runways in Paris. She also provided an interesting contrast to Techno-girl, the engaged versus the disaffected.

My stop came up and I disembarked, heading towards the exit. In the time I have been coming here, the subway stations have changed. Before the entrance corridors were empty, now they are full of little businesses selling everything from food to iPods. They serve to make it difficult to find your way out, and the solution is to just start riding escalators.

The first ride up brought me to a food court where something didn’t smell quite right. Kentucky Fried Chicken was mobbed and by far the most popular of the various stations. I kept on moving, finding myself at another bank of escalators, and so I went up, arriving at the upscale cosmetics department of a big store. By now it was clear that I had somehow managed to leave the station and arrive in a giant store. Looking around, I thought I saw daylight so I moved off to my right. Sure enough, it appeared that an exit was looming. I passed out of the store and into a grand atrium with criss-crossing escalators and 5 or more balconies lined in chrome. A cosmetics company had set up a stand for demonstration and was playing techno at an ear-splitting level, the only word in the refrain being in Spanish, “cuando, cuando, cuando”. The bass beat was almost disabling.

I stumbled out the door and back into the cacophony of the streets. Sure enough, I had been lost in the Carrefour, the local French department store.

Now it’s generally pretty hard to figure out which way to go when you have only one intersection to use as a guide. The placement of the sun gave me a rough idea of direction, but my GPS was still sputtering from being underground for so long.

I started walking up the road, thinking that some trees I could see would probably be Zhongshan Park. Wrong, the presence of an elevated road up the street suggested I was not heading the correct way. Retracing my steps, I tried the street to the right and walked on a bit, passing another public bathroom for hire that I clearly did not care to visit. Still wrong, I stopped, got my bearings and headed back the way I had come. MY infallible sense of direction kicked in and I was on my way.

Street vendors were selling all manner of things. A large barrow full of strawberries and lychees. Several carts of journals, bound in a spectrum of covers. DVDs and little hand-held sewing machines. One man had a large barrel of charcoal attached to his three-wheeled bicycle and was selling grilled ears of corn and yams, in their brazed skins.

I found the park and took the turn to go in. Several women had bicycles with racks on the back from which they were selling ducklings, chicks, rabbits and mice. The ducks were 50 in a Tupperware tub. The next level held a few dozen chicks in a similar bin. The bunnies were two to a little cage as were the mice. I’m not sure what the Chinese tradition is with respect to these pets, but given the urban environment I can’t imagine many end well.

Zhongshan is a large park and was full of people going about their parkly things, just like Jing’an. There is a small amusement park at the corner I entered and children were riding on a small, wild roller coaster. A traditional carousal with painted horses was turning merrily. Overhead, an odd contraption comprised of a rail and a sphere-shaped pedal powered car, made me stop and wonder. I went on.

Feeling it was time for a rest, I found a shady area with some benches and plopped down on one. As I was rifling through my stuff a young disabled man slowly pedaled up on a tricycle begging for change. I gave him one of the RMB coins I had collected somewhere during the day and he thanked me. I responded in Chinese and his face lit up, thanking me again and again. He rode on.

Sitting there I had a nice view of the little motor boats that renters could drive around on a series of canals. The reminded me of the powered boats at the old amusement parks I would ride as a child. Out of nowhere, a 30 second rain shower splotched the pavement.

Taking that as a sign to move on I wandered off down the paths. I came up short coming around a corner due to a bride and groom having their portraits taken. I snapped one surreptitiously and did a u-turn. Walking instead along one of the canals, I came to the world’s largest wisteria – towering 30 or more feet in the air. The trunk was a tangle of individual vines.

A pavilion off to my right was filled with people listening to a concert of Chinese music. Flyers were controlling their kites from the center of a field. Their seriousness measured by the incredibly technical string management system they each had. A big circle with a handhold in the center that was spinning like mad. The kites were remarkably high.

I went on, deciding now to begin to call it a day. Young lovers sat on benches enjoying their private afternoon moments. A man and a woman sat in a small pagoda with music stands resting between practice pieces. A couple children came up to me and said, “Hello, how are you” to which I replied, “Fine, ni hao ma” which spun them off into a fit of giggles, the little girl saying “He’s Chinese!” I find it’s quite common for children to greet me in English on the street, apparently it’s a form of practice for them. And for me too.

I now had decent bearings so I went back and made the turn on the path home. The last two miles were uneventful, my interest being more in putting an end to the journey and finding my way to a cold drink. Two miles later I rolled into the lobby, with 13.6 miles on the odometer. A day well spent with tons of news things seen.


























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