Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Out in the country

Alex and our driver arrived around 10:00 and we took off for a day in the country。 Our destination was Water Town。 Founded in about 1050,it is a tourist attraction of sorts,but as Alex noted, many people still live within its ancient walls。 It seemed so strange to be out of the city, having lived these past few weeks where you see only buildings。 As Alex noted, the air was cleaner and as our driver stopped at various toll booths to pay our passage, Alex and I talked about our sights。

I remarked how this four lane highway, which wandered through several farming communities, reminded me of the Interstate 5 at home when driving from Portland to Salem。 Tree nurseries,rice fields, other plant farms including fresh water oyster, crab, and fish dotted the landscape。 The road narrowed to two lanes and our driver expertly wove the van in and out of the pedestrian traffic until we arrived at our destination。

We decided to have lunch first and the three of us walked into a restaurant in the main drag of the entrance to water town。 Alex ordered a profusion of food including:BBQ pork ribs, pork on the bone, fish and tofu soup, tofu and egg, pork and chili with ginger, Chinese cabbage and fungus, thinly sliced water buffalo, pork kidneys and peppers。。。and a few other items that escape my memory。 needless to say, we had leftovers!

Our driver stayed with the car and Alex and I took off to explore Water Town。 according to my ticket,China has several Water Towns but this one is considered #1 in the country。 I can see why。 it‘s incredible! We wandered in and out through the arts and crafts merchants—I found a couple of very unique items—and Alex did a great job negotiating for me。 With small bridges over water routes that cut through the ancient rock and brick buildings, here and there you could hear the boat drivers singing Chinese songs to the few tourists who took a ride。

As we wandered through the very large town, Alex made certain we stopped and had our tickets punched so we could enter and see the artifacts collected from the Ming and other dynasties when this was primarily a town。 Some amazing items greeted us that I thought equaled those found in some areas of the Shanghai Museum I had visited the previous day。In one of the areas I spied my first and only visit with a cat! I was so excited I took its picture!! It was very cat-like, unimpressed with my activities。

By about 3:00 we started back to the van and just as we arrived it began raining。 We both felt very fortunate the sky had waited until we were done。 On the ride home I told Alex it seemed fitting that this was the first time it had rained while I visited China and that I took it as a welcome mat from my state of Oregon, since it is known for liquid sunshine as well。

Tomorrow I head home。 It‘s been a wonderful visit here in China。 I‘ve made a number of new friends, learned a tremendous amount about  China, its culture, its people, its future。 I look forward to returning, but for now。。。I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends! I‘m homeward bound!

see you all soon!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Shanghai Museum & my two teachers

At 10:00 Rebecca and Helen appeared at the apartment complex; Rebecca hailed a cab (they gave the driver the day off since Mon/Tues are holidays here in Shanghai) and we took off for downtown. Helen indicated our first stop would be lunch since our destination for the day, the Shanghai museum, would take 2-3 hours and doesn't offer lunch inside.

We arrived at one of the new towers in downtown Shanghai and headed towards Kinwang Restaurant, a chain of Hong Kong based restaurants. Taking a look at the menu, we soon learned it was still "breakfast", so we sipped tea and talked until they began serving lunch at 10:45. This prompted a discussion about one difference between Hong Kong and China. Helen and Rebecca explained eating times between the two are very different. More like Spain, Hong Kong folks eat multiple times throughout the day and don't think about dinner until well after 7:00 p.m. In China, lunch time begins at 11:00 and goes through 1:00 with dinner at 5:00 – 6:30, usually.

After careful examination of all our dining options, my hosts selected a great collection of Hong Kong style food: marinated squid, salad (nothing like American salad), fresh steamed vegetables (carrots, peppers, celery, Chinese peas, lotus root, and fungus), BBQ pork on the bone, sweet and sour pork (the only Chinese dish I've had during my stay that looked and tasted like 'American Chinese!'), a bowl of noodles with big shrimp/pork filled dumplings as dessert. Upon inquiry, Rebecca was delighted to learn I had discovered and liked Chinese milk tea (I had bought it packaged in Wuhan), so all three of us enjoyed this and raised our cups in a toast to our day's activities.

We left around 12:30 for the museum, about a 10 minute walk from the restaurant. Designed like an old steamer (explained in the previous post) we entered to find it a favorite holiday destination of other Shanghai residents. Helen got me the English audio guide so I could understand all three levels of historical items collected in this one huge building.

We worked our way upward examining artifacts of all types stretching back over 2,000 years. One room housed an impressive jade collection. Another featured Ming and Qing furniture. Other rooms were dedicated to other themes: ancient sculptures, Chinese ethnic minorities' arts and crafts, ancient carvings and seals, Chinese paintings, Chinese ceramics which included early porcelain...the list goes on! One of the many benefits of enjoying the collection with Rebecca and Helen is they could answer so many of my questions. A great example of this was my lesson in peaches and bats.

Looking at a very pretty and ancient vase in the porcelain exhibit I asked them, "There must be a reason why the artists chose to feature peaches and bats." Helen and Rebecca explained a peach is a symbol of 'long life' and bats symbolize good luck. That's what the artist's message was to whoever received the vase. Today, when a Chinese person gives an older person a gift of peaches it means the wish is for him/her to have a good life.

Another example of my teachers' lessons involved a bird called the Phoenix and a dragon. These two symbols used in tandem—we saw one of its first uses on an artifact that dated to 50 BC—hold a special meaning for a couple. The Phoenix represents the woman and the dragon the man; together these symbols mean luck and happiness. One more lesson...I noticed a plate with goldfish on it. The meaning of giving someone with a goldfish design on it is the wish for life to be better and better.

Rebecca, Helen and I had a great day together talking and sharing. I am so very appreciative that they both gave up two of their New Year's Day holidays to spend it with me. Thank you, my new friends! :)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

January, 1, 2006 - Shanghai

New Year's Day in Shanghai was an incredible experience; I quickly became the student of the master Professor of Shopping: Amelia. She's rather awesome to watch in action. She confirmed my list of items I wanted to obtain and we went from place to place—she had a definite methodology. We would go to one store where items were too expensive, but she knew there were many of the items I wanted. She would note what I wanted and then we would leave and she would find the same or better items elsewhere and then would go into negotiation mode. After a few transactions I told Helen to tell her I wished I knew Chinese to truly learn from a master negotiator! She is amazing and tenacious!

Half way through we took a break to enjoy a wonderful New Year's lunch at a very popular and famous place in Shanghai: Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. It's in the heart of the old town shopping area and on three levels in a traditionally designed Chinese building. She had called ahead for reservations and the three of us struggled to keep pace with her as she wove in and out of the crowds, passing literally hundreds of people waiting for a table at the restaurant and appeared before the woman in charge of seating. Clearly, they knew each other. And, as they cleared a table for us, Amelia began her review of the menu and began ordering even before we were seated at the table. I told Helen, "She is a master in multi-tasking as well!"

The steamed buns we had are a mixture of pork and crab (I saw them clean the crabs, very small so it's quite a detailed process) in a white dough that is sealed on the top and then steamed in round bamboo containers. Two stacks of four containers arrived at our table with about 5 buns in each. The secret, Helen told me, was to dip the bun in the little dish with thinly sliced ginger and vinegar. Just bite a small end of the bun and then suck the juice out...all done with chopsticks, of course. I can't say that I'm expert with chopsticks, but with practice of using no other utensil since my arrival in China, I am managing to not embarrass myself. Our driver joined us and between the stack of buns, a side of impossibly thinly sliced and marinated beef, two vegetables and two desserts we nearly exploded with all food.

Fueled up for another round of shopping, Amelia took off like a shot and wound us through the dense crowds to find some of the items that remained. I'm so glad I asked, at the last minute, to buy some tea. That was a heart-warming experience.

Amelia's eyes lit up when I said tea and she told Helen to tell me she knew of the right place. Winding our way through another section of old town we arrived at a woman tea merchant's shop. When Amelia and the proprietress saw each other, I quickly learned they were friends. Motioning for us to sit down at the tea table—a huge trunk of a very old tree served nicely for the five of us to sit around—and she began serving us tea.

I motioned at the tall, flute-like glass on the table which held what appeared to be a flower that took up the length of the glass. Impressive, I questioned further and learned it was flower tea. The owner took a large, thumb-size brown object and put it into another glass. She poured teaming hot water into the glass and we watched the flower "bloom." Amazed, I and took photos of its transformation. We sipped this tea and then she offered a ginseng oolong tea that after you drink it, it tastes sweet. Another wonderful tea! I told Amelia that our 'tea party' made our New Year's together—the four of us shoppers—a wonderful, wonderful memory.

After we acquired everything on my list—and many items that weren't!—Amelia quickly found our car and driver and we took off to the river so I could see both sides of the city. Like Portland, a river runs through Shanghai...but from an architectural perspective one side—the financial district—has hundred year old buildings that speak of Western influence and some Russian. On the other side it's a sea of growing skyscrapers less than 10 years old that all carry unique marks and designs.

Helen and Rebecca helped get me through the sea of people out for a stroll on the promenade as we walked arm in arm to keep from being parted and potentially lost from each other. We strolled the waterfront and I took pictures and then returned to the van. Amelia announced it was Sunday and she was going to church, disembarked from the van and disappeared into the crowd. I thought she had meant we were to see a church and I told Helen on my next trip to Shanghai I would like to go with her. She said she would let her know this. On our way back to drop me off at the apartment, Helen mentioned that Amelia had phoned to order me dinner that would be delivered to my room at 5:30. This level of hospitality is rather overwhelming!!

A woman arrived precisely at 5:30, knocked on my door and presented me with a metal, cafeteria style plate with rice/ham, cooked cucumber and egg/bean sprouts. All items I have grown to enjoy while I've been a guest here in China. I flipped on the CCTV 9 all English station and settled into to my second night in Shanghai...the first evening of 2006. Tomorrow at 10:00 Helen and Rebecca will appear at 10:00 to take me to a museum. I am very, very spoiled!!