Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shanghai: 8AM Luwan

The Luwan District, located directly south of People's Square, is part of the old French Concession area, one of the most prestigious sections of the city. The trees lining the main streets were imported from France over 100 years ago. The district includes the historical residences of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Mei Lanfang, among others. Here are some random photos from morning walks near my hotel...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shanghai: Moganshan Art

If you like modern art, and like browsing galleries, 50 Moganshan Road is your destination... an area once home to factories and warehouses on the banks of Suzhou Creek has transformed into Shanghai's leading creative arts center, a labyrinth of workshops, studios, and galleries that will keep you busy for an entire afternoon. As you explore you'll find paintings, sculpture, photography, and artists galore... even a film viewing room or two, as filmmakers, architects, and graphic design firms have now taken root in this section of the city. When it's time to rest, there are a few nice cafes and teahouses in the area as well. I had a blueberry smoothie and pastry that totally hit the spot. There is no subway service nearby, so taxi is your best choice. Hint: bring a roll of t p as there might not be any remaining in the restrooms you locate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shanghai: Pudong Towers

Across the Huangpu River from the Bund is Pudong, Shanghai's new corporate development area, which provided me with an entire afternoon of memorable experiences and worthy photo ops. My taxi dropped me off at the Shanghai World Finance Center... at 492m it's the tallest skyscraper in China, 2nd tallest in the world, and possesses the world's highest observatory ~ with glass floors, so cool!

The journey to the top is a high-tech Disneyland-like experience, from the ticket buying, to the elevator waiting area (complete with attractive "flight attendants"), to the elevator design and ride itself, to the observation decks, lounges, and souvenir shop... it'll put a big wow into your day. And yes, the views are incredible. The highest viewing deck is 474m (1,555 ft) above ground level. Do you have vertigo? Yikes!

The Park Hyatt Shanghai occupies floors 79-93, the highest hotel in the world, surpassing only its next door neighbor in the architecturally decorative Jin Mao Tower, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (floors 53-87). After a cool drink at the WFC lounge
I headed down and walked toward the Oriental Pearl Tower... there's a nice park along the way (seen in the lower right of the photo below).

The Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai's most recognized landmark, has 15 observation levels, restaurants, exhibits, gaming areas for kids, shopping, and ~ my favorite ~ the Shanghai Urban History Museum in the "basement"... a fascinating chain of revealing wax-museum type exhibits (skip the tower crowds and lines ~ trust me on that ~ and also have lunch at one of the fine restaurants beside the Huangpu River nearby).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shanghai: The Museum

The Shanghai Museum was founded in 1952, but moved to a larger (and more appropriate) new home in the center of People's Square in 1996. Its collections are extensive, stunning and unsurpassed anywhere else in China. All I can say is, wow...
5 beautifully designed floors, 11 permanent galleries ~ containing over 120,000
pieces total, and 3 special temporary exhibit halls.

The permanent galleries are:

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Bronze

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Sculpture

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Ceramics (my personal favorite)

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Jades (incredible artistry)

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Paintings

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Calligraphy

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Seals

  • Gallery of Ancient Chinese Numistics

  • Gallery of Chinese Furniture in Ming and Qing Dynasties

  • Gallery of Arts and Crafts by Chinese Minorities

  • Designed by a local architect, the new museum building is designed in the shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel called a ding. The building has a round top and a square base, symbolizing the ancient Chinese perception of the world as "round sky, square earth". The Shanghai Museum is a definite must-visit. Admission is 60 yuan... plan on 2 hours at least.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Shanghai: A Night Out

    OK, here's the perfect Friday or Saturday night out in Shanghai if you're traveling with your significant other... a romantic dinner at Bali Laguna, followed by a taxi ride to Bund 18, where you'll take the lift up to the 4th Floor and Lounge 18 for drinks and dancing... and later, if you're in the mood for a change of scenery, head up to the top floor and Bar Rouge for more music and fun.

    Shanghai's best Indonesian cuisine, Bali Laguna, is perched over a large lily pond inside of Jing'An Park. The exotic decor and music inside have a distinct and soothing Indonesian feel, with high wooden ceilings (bar on the first level, dining on the second, with outdoor seating by the lake as well ~ weather permitting). Dubbed Shanghai's Most Romantic Dining by the Asian Wall St Journal. 189 Huashan Road.

    In 2008 Shanghai City Weekend gave Lounge 18 its Editor's Pick Best Bar award... it's a tasty mix of classical and modern d├ęcor (plush colorful chairs and couches, eclectic paintings, candles everywhere) with spectacular views of Pudong across the Huangpu River, delicious food (skip Bali Laguna if you want to simplify your evening) and cocktails, great DJs and a busy dance floor. Super nice, you'll want to return.

    Bar Rouge on the 7th floor is a bit more rowdy, and has an outdoor terrace for fresh air views of the Bund and Pudong. Shanghai being a hub of international business activity, the clientele inside Lounge 18 and Bar Rouge are a good mix of Chinese, Americans and Europeans... and the DJs are too. Address: Bund 18, 1 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road (as of this writing Lounge 18 is currently closed for rennovations).

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Shanghai: To Zhouzhuang

    If I could recommend only one attraction to anyone planning a visit to Shanghai, it would be a day trip to Zhouzhuang... my afternoon exploring this ancient water town (originally built during both the Ming and Qing dynasties) is definitely one of the highlights of my China experiences. Zhouzhuang is surrounded by lakes and contains several canals, including 14 picturesque stone bridges.

    The Chinese call Zhouzhuang their "Asian Venice" for good reason, and although this village (60 yuan entry fee) is far smaller, it contains abundant treasures... 900 year old traditional Chinese houses and courtyards, hundreds of shops (silk wares, souvenir trinkets, arts and crafts), pottery and rice wine making exhibits, a Buddha statue museum, temples, and an open air opera house with daily performances.

    There are a few good restaurants outside of the village, but it's an overcommercialized zone you'll want to avoid. If you can, visit on a sunny weekday, as sunny weekends bring Chinese tourists and (according to my Shanghai friends) the tiny alleyways where all the shops are located can get too crowded. While browsing there you'll want to sample some of the snacks offered along the way... date filled rice balls, etc.

    Zhouzhuang was recently declared an International Heritage Site by the United Nations. One of the most famous compounds inside the village, Shen's House, has 7 courtyards, 5 archways, over 100 rooms, a wharf and water gate... a few rich families formed the core of this village long ago. While walking through Zhouzhuang is extremely enjoyable, 1 hour gondola rides (60 yuan) are available as well.

    The best way to get to Zhouzhuang is bus... 7 departure times are available from the Shanghai Bus Station (beside Shanghai Stadium) and the ride takes approximately 90 minutes. Upon leaving Zhouzhuang you'll probably be taken to the silk factory on the edge of town, but there was no high pressure sales, and I found it quite fascinating (including demonstrations of all the steps required to make silk ~ I held some worms!).

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Liuzhou: Walk Around

    With each city I cover in this blog, I remind travelers that the best way to discover hidden gems and learn about the daily lives of the locals is to take a two hour walk... each day in a different direction from your hotel, one hour out, then one hour back using different streets. Liuzhou, because it is not a big tourist destination, offers a crystal clear glimpse into Chinese life, and life here is extremely peaceful.

    For whatever reason, Liuzhou has a larger percentage of scooter commuters than most Chinese cities... many parents scooter their children to school on the way to work, and I saw several dealer showrooms near downtown. During wind storms alarms from many of the thousands of scooters parked outside of businesses in the city go off at once. It's amusing until it becomes mildly annoying. But I can't say it's a complaint.

    A recurring theme in my observations of China is the active nature of the people, especially older generations. I wouldn't at all be surprised if in fact they spend less time watching TV than Americans. Liuzhou has an abundance of parks, and each time I ventured out they were busy. Chinese exercising, dancing, singing, performing music, practicing taichi, playing mahjong or cards... they love being social and outdoors.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Liuzhou: The River Liu

    Apparently it's long been a tradition in Liuzhou for the locals to swim in their home river. I assume the water isn't as clean now as it was hundreds of years ago, but the River Liu looks very inviting, and definitely more blue green than any river I've seen in China before or since. I saw quite a few Chinese swim across it on their way to work in the morning, a refreshing way to get some exercise... notice the red floating suitcases (I don't know what else to call them) in the photos below, keeping towels, clothes, shoes, cell phones and laptops dry. The men try to show off their physiques after drying off, and the women ignore them.

    On both sides of the river are parks and promenades, the nicest I've seen in China by far. Since Liuzhou is hardly a big time tourist destination, I'd say the local government has its act together... and the locals appreciate those amenities judging by how much use they get. After sundown the people of Liuzhou crowd the promenades, which stretch for miles, bats devouring insects overhead. The Chinese love to pile onto sightseeing boats too (25 yuan for an hour ride ~ most serve drinks and have guides). It's a fun way to see all the lit up bridges, waterfalls, mountain peaks and pagodas. The last boat rides end around midnight.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Liuzhou: Ma'an Shan

    A few blocks south of downtown Liuzhou and the Liu River is Ma'an Shan (Horse Saddle Mountain), one of many limestone peaks in the area. There are a maze of well built stairways and trails that lead to the top, with many interesting resting stops along the way... places to play badminton or mahjong, viewing pavilions, or wide landings and caves where the locals practice taichi, which is very popular in Liuzhou. Getting to the summit is a workout, so be sure to pack an extra shirt or plan on heading back to the hotel for a shower before your next activity.

    I climbed Ma'an Shan a couple of times, and rode the Yufeng cable car (20 yuan ~ entrance inside Yufeng Park) up to the top as well... the views are spectacular up there, and there's a nice strong breeze to keep one cool on those hot subtropical days. Looking north you'll see the Liu River wrap around downtown Liuzhou, and looking south you'll get a beautiful feel of the mountainous Guangxi region. The breeze felt so good one late afternoon that I stayed until the sun went down. The trails are well enough lit at night to navigate without problems.

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    Liuzhou: Dalongtan Park

    Dalongtan Park, which occupies 1,300 acres of land, beautifully showcases the world-famous geography of Guangxi region, and is just 3km south of downtown Liuzhou. I took a taxi from my hotel around 10AM (the No.19 bus goes there as well), and although it was overcast that day, I was rewarded beyond my expectations. A large underground spring serves all of the waters in Dalongtan Park (Longtan Lake, Mirror Lake, Dragon Pool, and Thunder Pool).

    There are 22 limestone peaks in the park, and many trails to explore. Along the way you'll find picnic areas, locals fishing, colorful butterflies, stairways leading to viewing pagodas, and Lei Tang Temple, nestled up against the base of one peak. The smell of incense from the spiral burners permeates the air and takes you back to ancient days. Dalongtan Park is must-visit, and I can only imagine the enhanced beauty when one visits on blue sky mornings or afternoons. Admission is free.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Changsha: More To Do

    I created special posts for Yuelu Academy and the Changsha nightclub scene (only mentioning a few out of nearly a hundred bars in the city), but of course there's more. At night, if you like to sing, go to a KTV, they're everywhere. I stayed at the Southern Pearl Hotel (silver domed building on the right side of the 2nd photo below), there's a KTV on the third floor. If you're a single man, walk in and they'll set you up with an escort or two ~ for a fee of course, but worth it, you'll have a blast. If you're with family, friends, or a travel partner, go for it... most karaoke computers have English songlists and the rooms are always plush. A few miles away is Holidae KTV, housed underneath a huge ferris wheel (lit up like Vegas at night). I went there with a date. We booked a room and were taken to their KTV store, where we purchased drinks and snacks for the evening. A bellboy carted it all up to our room. We sang for 2 hours, and had a few liquored up drop-ins too. Most KTVs provide in-room catering, but I've been to some that have centrally located buffet dining.

    One of the best attractions in Changsha is at the Hunan Provincial Museum... the Mawangdui Han Tomb, which showcases a 2100 year old mummified corpse ~ Lady Dai. She was found amazingly well-preserved (flesh intact and joints still movable) within 4 coffins in 1972. Her new home is definitely more high tech. Other travel sites show photos, but why spoil the fun? Go see her for yourself, she's a wonder. The huge wooden tomb is also impressive, though not ornate, and contained many artifacts that are all part of the Museum collection. Admission is free with a valid passport, No. 50 Dongfeng Road (open 8:30AM to 5PM every day, but closed Noon to 2:30PM weekdays). For shopping, try the Huangxing Road walking street. It's always packed, and definitely more fun at night. For a day trip, history buffs can visit Mao Zedong's childhood home in Shaoshan, 130km south of Changsha (open 7AM to 6PM daily and can be accessed by bus or train). Martyr's Park is quite nice for a quiet stroll by the large man-made lake... No. 1 Dongfeng Road.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Changsha: Just Explore

    During my many visits to China, I've found (repeatedly) the best way to learn the true nature of a city and discover it's treasures is to simply explore... I do this by taking a daily walk in the morning or afternoon, and each day I head out in a different direction from my hotel. One day north, the next day east, etc. I'll walk one hour, just following my intuition and letting fate lead me, and then return back to the hotel using different streets. This method never fails to deliver... always bring your camera!

    Never more than a few blocks from corporate China are the street markets, sections of old neighborhoods that have evolved into hubs of commerce. I come across these in every Chinese city, always full of activity, always offering perspective into the daily lives of the Chinese people. With fierce loyalty they support their neighborhood market sellers, restaurants, businesses and shops... it keeps the entire local community strong, both economically and spiritually.

    Tofu is a specialty of Changsha. During one afternoon walk I came upon school students who were being let out for the day. Outside the school gates were a group of street food vendors, mobbed by hungry kids... and these kids are demanding too, better make it as ordered or next time business goes elsewhere, ha! Parents and grandparents are waiting after school to escort the younger ones home. The older kids go shopping, to restaurants, or to internet cafes (packed on weekends).

    Gradually, all over China, older neighborhoods are being transformed into modern shopping and living districts. You can't go anywhere in the city without seeing cranes and scaffolding. It's all very pedestrian oriented, and pure walking streets are growing in popularity with these new development projects too... you'll see tea houses, bars, restaurants, boutiques, salons, antique shops, and yes, Starbucks is appearing here and there (though not in Changsha - yet), along with the Pacific Coffee Company.

    What impresses me again and again about China is the active nature of the older generation... retired or not, they love to gather in the public parks morning, afternoon and evening... playing badminton, exercising, dancing, singing, performing music, playing Mahjong or cards, performing stage plays, or just chatting. The Chinese are a very social people, and it's evident in the restaurants too... families, friends or groups of business people gathered around large lazy susans, with dishes galore.