Shanghai with no expectations, Part One.

It’s not often one gets a chance to stay in a Tibetan home-stay on the Northwestern edge of Sichaun Province in the Wild West of China. It’s even less often that you then travel across country by train and sleeper car by way of a two days of travel and land in a luxurious “serviced” apartment of someone you’ve only heard about and emailed with, but apparently that is what is possible in this day and age of internet and meeting up with friends of friends. It’s made us realize just how small this world truly is, where a couple from Brooklyn, NY, can travel nearly around the world hosted by a diverse crowd of welcoming strangers.

So, into Shanghai we arrived with little expectations. Sure, some had told us it was too shih-shih and others had labeled it boring. But, after traveling through Hong Kong and Singapore, we figured we should give one of the most important port cities in modern history a chance.

While we were staying with Tracie’s Aunt’s friends in Hong Kong, they mentioned their mutual friend Rose that we should try to meet up with if we had a chance in Shanghai. King said, “..Rose is kind of a foodie…she knows a lot of great places and is always the one I call up when I have questions about where to eat…I think you’ll like Rose…”  We put her in the back of the mind and headed for Southwest China. Our mission was China and Food with a capital F. Sichuan treated us well and when we headed back East we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Before landing in Shanghai, we spoke with Rose only once. We said, “Hi Rose, yea, this is Wayne and Tracie and we’re leaving Jiuzhaigou today and we hope to arrive in Shanghai in two days.” She said, Oh, ok, well you have my cell, call me when you get into Shanghai and I’ll email you all the information for how to get to my place.

We took a flight out of Jiuzhaigou, one of the smallest airports I would expect fromChina and landed in Xi’an. We hopped on a bus from the airport to the main rail station and haggled with the masses and managed ourselves some soft-seat sleepers on the overnight to Shanghai. Way easier than last time. We knew what to do: we wrote down the Chinese characters for everything and when pronunciation failed the flash of the ol’ script got us on our merry way. Well, not exactly, we had to linger around for 3 and a half hours for our next train, so we wandered around the station (loaded with our bags) and finally found a place to eat. It was ok, nothing compared to food in Sichuan and we marched back to the station, dodging a few pick-pockets here and there and settled into a cozy soft-seat waiting area.

As an aside to my aside, I’m sitting on a nice train blazing through Japan, on a bullet train. I mention this because one of the things we’ve learned in our travels is whenever you can upgrade or find a way to travel in a better class it is always worth it.

Our ride from Xi’an was one of the more interesting of the trip. We found our soft seat sleeper seats and waiting for us on the lower bunk of our companion seats was a dapper looking older Chinese guy, had to be in his late seventies. He was relaxing, shoes off, black-satin-socked feet gently crossed and half-dangling off the mattress. His grin met my Nei Ho Ma? And we were on our way.

Getting into the car, not only had I spied the old man relaxing, but I’d noticed a 2/3’rds empty bottle of white liquid, the label was in Chinese, so I couldn’t make it out. Probably some rice wine I murmured to myself. Indeed it was. After some initial warming up and friendly conversation, him trying to figure out what we were saying, he slapped down the cap to his tea bottle – the ubiquitous Chinese warm tea bottles that are all over the country. He then leaned over, as the bottle was near my side and nabbed the bottle and filled the cap to brimming and pushed in my direction. “Uh..oh…it’s begun…” I though to myself and then murmured to Tracie.

About five shots and bags of fiery peanuts later, a new younger gentleman joined our cabin and the evening set down beside us as we eased on into a gentle overnight haul across the continent. We only awoke to a late night crashing about as the old gent moved on and a new one settled all of his accoutrement in. We crushed back into sleep only to be torn awake from the mad slumbering snores of our new neighbor and managed to drift off for the last remaining hours of darkness.

We awoke in the morning to some polite conversation with our bear of a sleeper and the younger quiet  one we’d met the day before. He had shared that he knew a little English and helped the way before our snooze with smoothing over our wretched attempts at Mandarin with the old guy and spent the better part of the day chatting away. He treated us to a large, yet mediocre meal in the train car later in the day (he apologized himself for the substandard state of affairs) and then said goodbye a few stops later.

After that we were on our own until we arrived in a mess from western China. An overnight train away left us dreadfully unprepared for our arrival. We smelled. Not only had we just been on a train for two days with no shower, but in the Tibetan homestay it was really cold, so showering wasn’t exactly on the priority list there, nor was washing the clothes. We needed both.

A few hours later, showered and changed into our cleanest clothes, we met Rose for the first time. We settled down for a bit and chatted about our dreams, our hopes and our travels and she told us about a house guest she’d recently had through and that we’d just missed her. Her name was Fuschia and she even had brought some cheese from England with her.

Stop. We were like, wait a minute. Did you just say Fuschia? Is her last name Dunlop? “Yea, why do you know Fuschia?” No, but we’ve read her book. Her book was such an inspiration for coming to eat in China and to think, we just missed her. How funny, how small this world is of ours.

So, we sat down to some Stilton from Neal’s Yard and some Yak milk cheese (which was reminiscent of Parmesan) by way of an English writer and cook in Shanghai, China. We knew right then and there, that we’d really lucked out in meeting Rose. After sharing the cheese and other snacks we all headed out for dinner. Rose had plans, but still managed to walk us around a bit and show us some of the places nearby. She left us to take our pick.

The next day, we woke a bit later and she was already out for work, but the night before she’d shared some of her favorite places to go for lunch and a suggested a couple of “sieu long bau” places downtown. For breakfast, we headed right downstairs where every morning there was a plethora of nice french pastries, Chinese pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit and as much espresso as we could drink. Holy God! Thank you! We had tea for nearly a month and it was getting old. Every time we tried some other snack drink or breakfast drink they were disgustingly sweet and indeterminate of origin, so our love affair with coffee resumed.

We wandered around Shanghai that first day at a leisurely pace. The weather was a bit rainy and we were a little sad to see rain here as well after being in the cloudy city of Chengdu and then Northern Sichuan for so long. We wandered over to the Shanghai Museum, which to our surprise and delight was free. There we saw many wonderful exhibits, surprisingly one of our favorites was about “ethnic-dress”. There were beautiful handmade cloths and masks, knives and then on another floor we wandered through furniture from the Qing and Ming dynasties.

For lunch we went to Jia Jia Tang Bau (I think the literal translation is: Excellent Family Soup Dumplings). There we started with an order of steamed Pork and Chicken dumplings (12 per order) and individual bowls of soup. The soup was a light chicken broth with a fine julienne of seaweed and egg crepe. A light and refreshing start to a surprisingly delicate week of food. Despite contributing to our not so delicate weight gain, Shanghai is something more refined than the rest of China. I wouldn’t say snobby as some would, but it is where elegance never seemed to leave China.

The dumplings were so good we ordered another set, this time a crab roe and pork, which was a nice take on surf and turf, but our favorite was the pork and chicken. If you go, make sure you order the ginger and vinegar on the side. When you drape a few strands of the ginger, lightly painting the dumpling with vinegar you get a balanced explosion you’ll never forget.

Just across the street, literally, right across the street Rose had mentioned were the pan-fried version of Soup dumplings. I said to Tracie “Let’s just go take a look and see how they are…” Four more dumplings later, and these were twice as large as the steamed we said to each other, ok, we have to stop. But oh man was it worth it.

In the afternoon we dragged ourselves back to the apartment and checked our email. Rose had sent us a “..I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve booked you for dinner the whole week…”. Hell no we didn’t mind. That night we met her for a lovely European style dinner, where we all shared a nice bottle of Shiraz and we devoured our respective contemporary takes on french preparations of old standbys. Braised lamb, roasted quail, and a steamed fish. The dinner was pleasant and the company was even better. To top it all off it had one of the best nighttime views of The Bund. All this and it’s only a day into Shanghai. More to come.


Japan rocks our world

OK people. The reason why we've been so quiet lately is that we've been going like mad and dithering over writing blog posts. So here's a quick overview of what we've been doing in Japan. (Yes, we will fill you in on Shanghai and Seoul in a bit, and more about specifics in Japan – like My. Favorite. Logo. Ever.)

Our itinerary for Japan was sort of a big black hole, even while we were in Seoul. Should we go to Kyoto first? Or Tokyo? Then we started reading and we were like, woh, there is so much to see here, how are we going to decide? Fortunately for us, we've been emailing Wayne's friend Nafumi for recommendations. Right after we booked our flight, she emailed us and said, I have a friend who could possibly put you up for a few nights, you should meet him! He lives near Kagoshima!

I scratched my head, I had no idea where Kagoshima was. It's a city on the island of Kyushu, the third largest and most southwestern of the main islands. It's a more tropical place, with the volcano of Sakurajima that looms large over the landscape. We said "yes please" and changed our tickets to land in Kagoshima, and Yoshi came and met us at the airport. 

We were so glad that we changed our tickets – Yoshi was the most amazing host ever. He made fabulous dinners for us every night – from shabu shabu to sukiyaki to chicken sashimi (yes it was delicious). He took us to so many places, like Kirishima national park, where we went hiking; an outdoor contemporary art museum; and an onsen in Ibusuki that had the most breathtaking view of the bay. We were so grateful to experience Japan with someone who lives here, it's made such a difference to how we perceive it. And visiting a place that is off the beaten path has also been so rewarding – I don't think we would have gone to Kagoshima on our own this time around. 

After a few days, we said goodbye to Yoshi and jumped on the train for Hiroshima. I love the trains here. They are so efficient and timely and they make sense! Even if I can't read Japanese, the system is logical enough to figure out when you look at the schedules. The train is clean and pleasant and FAST. The U.S. only wishes it had a system as nice as this.  And to top it off, the selection of food at the stations is so unbelievably good! Little lunchboxes filled with sushi or some kind of pork or rice balls or whatever. It's just so…civilized.

I also have to point out that every single meal that we've had here has been good. Even when we pick a totally random hole-in-the-wall that we have no idea what the food is going to be like, I end up cleaning my plate every time. We've stumbled upon or were brought to a ramen place that won #1 in the shio (salt broth) ramen category in its district, a conveyor belt sushi place that had ridiculously fresh sushi (and yes we tried horse sashimi), freshly made udon at another small joint in Hiroshima, okonomiyaki hot off the grill, some kind of fried chicken/fried chicken ball/fried ham combo plate (ok sounds gross but was delicious) at a place frequented by office workers…the list goes on. We've been devouring pastries every morning for breakfast because they're so good and relatively cheap. (Um yes that must be why I'm getting a belly. Sigh.)

We didn't have much time in Hiroshima so we focused on visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and the park around it, where the A-bomb dome is. Seeing the mangled dome with the walls around it that just disintegrate into rubble and visiting the museum hit me pretty hard emotionally. I tried to imagine the horror of that day but I really can't even comprehend what it must have been like. There were drawings from the survivors that were displayed in the museum that recounted their experiences and I felt a deep sadness that was also partly anger – how can we still build nuclear weapons when we already know the horrible consequences and suffering that happens? It just seems so foolish.

But I think the most hopeful thing is that Hiroshima today is not completely defined by the bomb. Yes, there are many memorials and the city strives to bring a message of peace to the world, but the city feels lively and bustling. A city that feels like it would be fun to live in – lots of great restaurants, excellent street life, easy to get around, good cultural institutions. Hiroshima feels like it's moved on to a bright shiny future.

After our short time in Hiroshima we caught an overnight train to Tokyo. We've been here for less than twelve hours, but we've managed to visit Tsukiji Fish market, wander around the smaller streets in Ginza, and see the Imperial Gardens. (and write this blog post!) So far, it seems like a city like New York. Rich and powerful. Enormous luxury cars zoom down the street, and crystalline skyscrapers glisten in the lovely spring light. I'm still trying to figure out what is Tokyo's character, what sets it apart from Shanghai and Seoul and Hong Kong. Give me another two days and I'll get back to you on that one. 



Want a train ticket? Good luck.

We said goodbye to Hong Kong yesterday and headed to Guangzhou, where we needed to get train tickets. Guess what? Nobody who works in the train station speaks Cantonese! Crap. So we were stuck with stringing together Mandarin from our phrasebook. We wandered around the station until we finally found the long distance ticket sellers, but we had no. idea. how to to read the schedule. After staring at it for about 10 minutes while waiting on line we sort of deciphered it, but still had no idea if we were in the right line.

We were super lucky though – two girls (who only spoke Mandarin) took pity on us and tried to figure out what we wanted, and helped us with communicating with the surly ticket seller. It almost certainly would have been a gigantic fail otherwise – it was almost the end of the day and there were people crowding around the window trying to cut the line, and the ticket seller certainly would not have had the patience for foreigners who spoke no Chinese.

So we're off on a 35-hour train ride to Chengdu in a few hours. Wish us luck!