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From China (Shanghai, Tunxi, Huangshan)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Shanghai: A city of business

Dear Friends,

Shanghai is an intriguing case study in the compromise between the East and West. As China's most developed city, Shanghai is not the capital, but the commercial and financial center of the nation, the analogue of America's New York and Germany's Frankfurt. Now, as the site of the ongoing World Expo 2010, the city is arguably at its all-time prettiest. Modern skyscrapers like the record-setting bottle-opener-shaped Shanghai World Financial Center adorn the skyline in the Pudong (River East) district, while relatively older (though still quite new) Shanghai lies to the West of the Huangpu (Yellow River) in Shanghai's Puxi (River West) district. Mostly a patchwork of modern office buildings with a few historical sites, Shanghai is primarily a city for shopping and for industry, a city of business.

The city is vast and its blocks are long, made longer yet by the dense humidity and heat that impede motion and clarity of thought. Foot transportation has little place in a city where a fifty-kilometer taxi ride costs under 200 yuan (or, by today's exchange rate, $27). In fact, taxi fares are strictly regulated in Shanghai, with recorded messages played in both Chinese and English for any boarding passenger. Especially for the convenience of Expo customers, complimentary over-the-phone translation services are advertised in the cabs. Demand for the cabs is high due to the glut of Expo visitors, so during peak hours and in peak areas, supply may not always keep up. The subway, at three yuan (44 cents) per ride, is a great alternative with air-conditioned trains and platforms and extensive service stretching to all attractions and, as of recently, to both major airports.

My understanding is that Shanghai cuisine is traditionally mild, but it is difficult for me to isolate the city's flavor in what is a major cosmopolitan center with a vast representation from the larger country. The first night in Shanghai, a family friend and resident of Shanghai treated us to a restaurant with a wide assortment of Chinese fusion dishes. Though I should not attempt to summarize the cuisine, I have found that popular dishes are dim sum, various preparations of pork, chicken, and duck, often on the bone, and soups made from the broth of the neck or heads of these animals. Steamed and fried vegetables are featured widely along with rice, indispensable.

The Shanghainese dialect, I learned, is close to neither Mandarin nor Cantonese. The implications of this have little bearing on my experience, however, as all three dialects are equally distant from any language that I know. English is not widely spoken, so I communicate primarily with the use of dramatic charades accompanied by grunts.

Within the city, the Yuyuan Garden, dating back to the Ming dynasty, offers a rare glimpse of traditional Chinese architecture, though it is encompassed by a ring of shops selling everything from clothing to iPhone knockoffs.

On our third day in Shanghai, another family friend drove us to the nearby village of Zhujiajiao, 1,700 years old with narrow canals and Chinese gondolas. Much like its Western equivalent Venice, it is now mostly a tourist destination where the only regular dwellers of the the town proper are the merchants who operate the souvenir shops.

Later that same day, our friend showed us one of the primary flea markets, away from Shanghai's city center, whose clientele is almost exclusively local residents. Our friend's expert negotiation skills illuminated the meaning of a true bargain, when the merchant himself is visibly dissatisfied by the final sale price. Through this experience and others, I became aware of an economic phenomenon that I cannot easily reconcile with classical theory: a merchant's reservation price is different for a foreign client. I certainly understand the role of price discrimination in determining the merchant's opening offer and perhaps varying levels of insistence in dealing with a foreign buyer who may not truly know the market-clearing price of an item, but it bewilders me that the merchant will let the foreign client walk with a bid that would otherwise be filled for a local client. My only thought is that there is an implied cost in the form of diminished future revenue in a low sale price that differs for the local and foreign client. Exactly how this can be formulated in a consistent mathematical model, however, is beyond the scope of this letter and is left as an exercise to the reader.

From my experiences in Shanghai, I have come to understand that the people are hard working, honest, and friendly. For example, the representative of a private airport car company responded honestly to inquires about the duration and prices of the alternative taxi or subway services from the airport, contrasting sharply to my experience in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the car driver lied to me about the nearest bus stop being many kilometers away (see "from Sofia"). Further, vendors trust their clients with their shop and inventory and are not hesitant to leave the client unmonitored. And a deal is a deal. When a price has been negotiated, the vendor completes the transaction with alacrity and courtesy, unlike in many of my experiences in Egypt, where the vendor often demanded additional payment, arguing that the agreed price was actually higher or swapping one bill with another of lesser value to fool me into thinking that I had underpaid (see "from Egypt"). Indeed, my experience in China so far has been extremely pleasant and I have nothing but respect for what I see as a dedicated, diligent, and honorable people.


from Tunxi and Huangshan: The first mountain under Heaven

Dear Friends,

On the afternoon of July 10, we began our journey from Shanghai to the nearby Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), a celebrated scenic site. The plane covered the four hundred kilometers in roughly an hour, gate to gate. Our hotel was located in the small town of Tunxi near the base of the mountain, a town that is now increasingly referred to as Huangshan village for its role as the final lodging point before the mountain itself.

Transportation from Tunxi's modest airport to the hotel proved eventful. The short taxi line moved quickly until our turn arrived. The next driver in line took a good look at us before protesting to the dispatcher, refusing, it appeared, to port us. His objection was never clear to me, but his escalating tenacity delayed the line for what could have been ten minutes as he threw his arms around and pointed to others waiting in line to indicate, I can only speculate, his preference for the other customers. During this flustering altercation, we solicited the aid of another driver who finally bore our burden only after the dispatcher gave him the green light. Neither of the witnessing parties admitted to speaking English, so the intriguing details of this enigma remain on the opposite side of the language barrier. With a few hints, however, I have formulated a few hypotheses.

When the consenting driver declared the fare of thirty yuan (less than $4.50) prior to boarding us, I first thought that perhaps the protesting driver did not consider it worth his while to drive us a short distance (what amounts to probably five kilometers) and would rather earn a higher fare by transporting one of the other customers a farther distance. I considered, then, that the thirty yuan was a compromised fare that was above the standard one (it is high by local price levels) in the spirit of catalyzing the transaction. However, I discarded this theory when I learned that several other native Chinese had paid the identical fare from the airport to the same hotel. Also, it is unlikely that any other customer in the taxi line was looking to travel a farther distance, since the five kilometers is clear across town. Upon boarding us, however, the consenting driver did attempt to inform us about the fray. He produced thirty yuan in notes to represent our fare and then pulled out another ten yuan, pointing to what I initially thought was the dispatcher. I first believed that he was urging us to tip the dispatcher, but only half way through our taxi ride did I realize the more likely scenario: it was not the dispatcher, but the protesting driver, to whom he had pointed, and the additional ten yuan was not a tip (as the request for a tip would be irreconcilable with my understanding of Chinese culture) but an indication that the protesting driver wanted to charge a higher fare, while the dispatcher, representing the customer, denied him. Ultimately, when I asked by way of a bilingual gentleman that I had found in the hotel lobby upon arriving, the consenting driver claimed not to know why the protesting driver refused to take us, perhaps to save all parties embarrassment.

The following day, I explored the town of Tunxi with its long, repetitive touristic walking street, a bazaar of souvenirs, tea, and local handicraft. Our meals during our stay in the Huangshan area were fearfully authentic with some of the more challenging dishes including frog bone soup featuring not only frog legs but also the skin; fermented fish, a fascinating delicacy with an alarming aroma and remorse-inspiring aftertaste; and fatty pork tendons, feet, and stomach. Standard omnivorous fare included various preparations of bamboo shoots, bok choy, cucumbers, and bitter melon. The operational details of dining are consistent with the family-style method observed in many Chinese restaurants in the US, where large round tables have a rotating center plate bearing a communal spread of dishes. I was surprised to find, however, that white rice was only served toward the end of the meal. Also, it seems to me that desserts are not popular; rather, meals are concluded with a plate of sliced watermelon and grape tomatoes. Beverages served with meals include tea, Coca Cola, Sprite, orange soft drink, and occasionally beer, but never water. Breakfast foods include various steamed buns, fried rice, fried noodles, steamed yam, and fried and hard-boiled eggs, to name a few. Most of the food is fried or boiled and contains large amounts of oil relative to my custom. Foods that I missed dearly: grilled and braised meat, coffee, cheese, bread, cold water with meals.

We initiated our ascent of the mountain after breakfast the following day. The ninety-minute bus ride from the hotel to the base of the mountain stretched across some luscious green countryside. The climb itself consisted of two parts: the first six kilometers to the half-way point and our lunch destination, Yupingluo (Jade Screen) Hotel, played out in mostly clear weather and over a consistent grade. The second half, a seven-and-a-half kilometer hike, was fraught with foggy weather, threats of rain, and a wider range of terrain with both steep ascents and descents. I recorded the climb on my Garmin Forerunner 405, which registered a gross elevation gain of 1,793 meters and a gross elevation loss of 758 meters for a net elevation gain of 1,034 meters. The ascent lasted a casual and immensely enjoyable four and a half hours (excluding lunch) over thirteen and a half kilometers.

The network of footpaths in the mountain is made entirely of stone steps for an extremely convenient hike requiring minimal gear and preparation. The simplest of shoes suffices. While the mountain weather was cool relative to the village (roughly 15-20 degrees C or 60-70 degrees F), humidity was high and the air thick with fog, especially toward the top. With low visibility, the most breathtaking views were not accessible on this particular day. Tina, our twenty-two-year-old guide, noted the mountain's four distinguishing scenic features: the many grotesque pine trees, the "sea of clouds" visible particularly from the highest peaks, the waterfalls, and the distinctly shaped rocks, named after their likeness (e.g., "Turtle Peak," "Frog Peak," "Flying Over Rock," "A Monkey Gaping at the Sea," and, my personal favorite, "Cock Peak").

The vast majority of the mountain's visitors are Chinese tourists. Westerners are rare, and rarer yet are dark-skinned Westerns. I became the spectacle of many excited Chinese tourists, some of whom invited me into their photographs. Adorable children proclaimed "Hello!" and were thrilled to put to use the English that they were learning in school. Also among the climbers are the remarkable porters that bare hundreds of kilograms upon their shoulders, transporting supplies to the top of the mountain two or three times per day. At a rate of one yuan per kilogram, the cost of porters to the hotels and restaurants at the peak is far less than that of the alternative cable telphers, which is high because of the opportunity cost that is the foregone revenue of transporting tourists instead of supplies. In addition to hiking the trail or riding the telpher, the tourist has a third option for ascending the mountain: porters with bamboo carriages are available for hire; two porters required to carry one passenger.

We spent the evening atop the mountain at the Paiyunlou Hotel. For being somewhere were supplies are delivered by foot, the hotel was impressively well equipped. The building had electricity and running water. The rooms came with the standard soap, shampoo, towels, electric kettle, and lone condom (presented on a single-capacity condom stand with the caption "Cherish yourself -- Maintenance health"). Though the quality of the rooms and food was poor by bottom-of-the-mountain standards, the accommodations were reasonable for a short stay. That night, we engaged in the hotel's foot massage services. The procedure was painful and the aftermath was pleasant only by comparison.

The following day, we rose early for an unlikely shot at the sunrise. The fog was unforgiving, however, so the sunrise consisted only of the vast cloudy heap before us turning brighter. We could not see ten meters in front of us, let alone one astronomical unit. We hiked around the peak that day in pouring rain following breakfast at the Beihai Hotel (by far the best meal since Tunxi) only then to undo the previous day's work in just a few minutes by way of the Yungu Telpher. The ponchos that we had purchased in Tunxi in anticipation of rain kept our torsos dry, but our shoes and hems resigned to complete saturation. We spent one more night in Tunxi. Our agenda complete, we returned our Shanghai plane tickets via C-Trip, the online China travel broker (NASDAQ: CTRP -0.90%), in favor of a bus leaving thirty-seven hours earlier.

The bus ride from Huangshan to Shanghai ran six hours (an hour over the scheduled five because the bus driver turned back after twenty minutes for having forgotten something). The two-storey air-conditioned bus was equipped with overhead television screens (Eastbound routes featuring The Yards [2001]). The ride was smooth, comfortable, and scenic at times. I had the fortune of sitting next to Li Ya, a young student majoring in English Tourism (same degree as our Huangshan guide Tina) on her way to a three-month internship at a hotel in Shanghai. Li Ya generously shared with us some shaobing, a savoury pastry and specialty of Huangshan. She introduced me to some Chinese pop music on her mp3 player after I sang along to some of her Lady Gaga.

My experience in Huangshan was memorable and deeply satisfying. I'll have to return sometime to catch that sunrise.


from Shanghai II: International city

Dear Friends,

In my first letter from Shanghai, I described the city as "an intriguing case study in the compromise between the East and West," but I did not specifically highlight the Western or otherwise non-Chinese aspects of the city. For my final two days in China, I explored a little bit of international Shanghai.

Our hotel on these final days was located on Shanghai's Nan Jing Road, the city's popular and touristic pedestrian shopping street. To satisfy my growing craving for coffee and a sandwich, I investigated the nearby Starbucks. I was somewhat surprised to find that the classic brewed coffee tasted very much like its American version (Tall: 15 yuan, $2.20, about 15% more expensive than in Chicago), but the trusty vitrine sandwiches were actually fresher and tastier, though doused with considerable amounts of mayonnaise as I've found to be the case with much of the Western-inspired food here. For its proximity and its nostalgic invocations of home (which I had come to miss, admittedly, albeit less so though than on some of my other journeys), this Starbucks complemented my final two breakfasts in China, with the bread component provided by the bakery 85 Cafe, half a block further along Nan Jing. I have yet been unable to find a dense heavy-crusted multigrain bread, the closest approximations so far having been oily and subtly sweet.

With some time to spare on the evening following our arrival to Shanghai by bus, we decided to explore the World Expo, partly motivated by the prospect of finding some food to which we are a bit more accustomed. By this point in our trip, we were fluent in the Shanghai metro, having mastered the curious queuing protocol of First in, Random out (FIRO). Often, several queues form and they ultimately merge, with no concept of the "back of the line"; one could just as easily and legally wedge his way into the front of line without inspiring any hostility in the other passengers. We arrived at the Expo by metro around five thirty PM, entering the Expo itself by six. The (mostly local) crowd had ebbed and the gradually setting sun allowed the air to cool just enough to make the outdoors bearable.

The main site of the Expo consists of a large village of pavilions representing countries both large and small. Word had it that the China and Saudi Arabia pavilions were of particular note, with admission waits reaching several hours. We were not so enthusiastic about such waits, so we forewent those two particular attractions. We spent some time in the Morocco pavilion, which had been dressed to look like a traditional Moroccan medina. By the time we had made our way to the European section, much of the pavilions had closed. I was not so much impressed by the representation of the countries themselves as I was by the considerable effort that the city had invested into making the Expo site navigable and friendly. Uniformed volunteers lined the corners eager to provide assistance; wide, elevated walkways and electric shuttle cars provided easy transportation; large maps of the Expo site abounded.

Our hopes for good food, though, had been upset as we settled on the self-proclaimed "Italian restaurant" Colabo, whose cheeseless and doughy-crust pizzas left much to be desired. On a tip from one of the Persian vendors in the Iran pavilion, however, we tracked down an unlikely Iranian restaurant in Shanghai, which would serve as the following night's dinner venue.

Far from the city's center out by the Hongqiao district of Shanghai near the domestic airport lies a long and hidden pedestrian street called Hongmei Lu, culinary center of expatriate Shanghai. The street is a row of contiguous buildings, with one side the pretty facade and outdoor seating and the other the underbelly of an alley by which delivery trucks pump raw ingredients into the kitchens. The street's shops have representation from the US, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Cuba, India, Italy, Japan, France, and Iran, just to name a few. Unlike the restaurants at Xintiandi, the new hip and expensive part of Shanghai that attracts many foreign tourists, Hongmei's restaurants seemed a bit more sustainable, outlets for habitual expat customers and not just a one-time meal from a passing-through tourist. This street was not a tourist attraction at all, but represented part of the real life of a small subset of the Shanghainese.

The kabob at Shiraz was our penultimate meal in Shanghai and a welcome change in taste from the Chinese food we had been eating. The next morning, after a coffee and a sandwich, we concluded our trip with some final shopping before we boarded the impressive Shanghai Maglev Train to the Pudong Airport. The thirty-kilometer journey on the magnetic levitation train lasted a smooth eight minutes and ten seconds. The train achieved a top speed of 301 km/h, well below its capacity and top commercial speed of 431 km/h. Fascinated by the speed of the train, I recorded the majority of the ride on my camera, sure to capture segments of the blurred scenery shooting past the windows. The ride was smooth and silent and very short. Short like the entire trip itself, which was now nearly over.


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