March 28, 2011

Travelogues 1.2

Finally, after nine days, a couple thousand miles and a temperature drop of 40 degrees fahrenheit, we reached Shanghai, and we said goodbye to our ship and wandered out into a country with a language we didn't speak, an alphabet we couldn't read, no idea of where we were, and nothing to help us out but a piece of paper printed with the name and address of our hotel in Chinese.

Here we are in Shanghai, China.

You are not supposed to take pictures of Red Army soldiers.

Even super bored ones who are assigned to watch the ship.

So I absolutely didn't take this picture.

But now you know what Red Army soldiers look like when they are given the boring duty of making sure no one sneaks off a ship to seek asylum in a communist country.

Our guard notwithstanding, the process was fairly well organized- all along our path from the gangway to the outside world (which was about 500 yards through a spanking new terminal with nothing in it but walls and high windows) we were greeted every 20 feet or so by a smiling Chinese girl who said either "Ni Hao" or "Welcome to China", depending on if she had gone to her English lesson or not.

We emerged into foggy white sunlight, squinting, and stopped in a line of folks waiting for a taxi.

The system went like this:

Wait your turn.

Tell the nice lady where you are going.

Wait for the nice lady to tell the next taxi in line where you are going while some other people start loading your luggage in the trunk.

Get in.

Drive away from the ship and everyone you know who speaks English.

Well.  You know us.  If there is a more interesting/scary/stupid way to do things, we'll be in the middle of it.

We got to the front of the line, handed the nice lady our paper and started to watch the loading of our things in the trunk.

But then our attention was returned to the nice lady because the cab driver was shaking his head and telling her lots of things in rapid Chinese.

She spoke back.

He started speaking loud rapid Chinese.

She told the other people to take our things out of the trunk.

The loud rapid Chinese driver pulled up about ten feet and the nice lady went to the cab behind him and showed him our paper.

While the nice lady was talking to the next cab, a big scary lady came to us and poked me in the chest while pointing to the first cab.  Ted and I both pointed to the nice lady and our paper.

Big scary lady marched back to the nice lady and they spoke in rapid Chinese.  Big scary lady took our paper, went to the first cab, grabbing Ted's arm as she passed and motioned for me and the other people to follow and bring the luggage.

When big scary lady got to the cab driver, she began their conversation by yelling at him hard enough to make a vein pop out on her forehead.  He yelled back.  She yelled louder and got right up in his face which made him stop for a second and just stare at her.

While he did this, she yelled at the other people to put our things in the trunk of the still staring cab driver.

Then he started yelling at her with little spits coming out of his mouth.

At this point, big scary lady began screeching at him in what even we could tell were epithets and swear words.  He escalated his retorts and just before they actually came to blows, two policemen showed up and grabbed them both by the arms and pulled them apart.

One policeman told the cab driver to get in his cab, and everybody else told us to get in too.

Uh.  No?

We don't want to.

Cab driver mad.

And with a final desperate look at each other (where are the grown ups when you need them????) we both obediently walked to the cab and got in the car.

Our cab driver peels out as Ted and I sit in the back seat looking at each other, quietly wondering what the hell just happened and expecting at this point to be Shanghai'ed in Shanghai.

Welcome to China!

So.  If you know anything about Asian culture, you will know that keeping harmony and saving face are two big components.  Public screeching, in full view of western visitors is really really out of character.

They lost face, they made us lose face. 

The harmony was totally shot to hell.

And now, we were in a cab with an angry man, taking us very fast to who knows where.  We quickly and quietly fastened our seat belts.

Finally, as we were weaving our way along an elevated freeway, we snapped out of it enough to realize that this guy could drive us to Beijing and we'd never know the difference.  We were already up to about 45 RMB ($7) and saw nothing resembling the Huangpo River or a hotel of any kind, let alone our hotel.

So Ted dialed the hotel on his phone and asked them to make sure our driver knew where they were located and then handed the phone to the driver.  We knew this was a little risky- it was making him lose face, but we figured he didn't care about our face and we were more interested in him knowing we had a quad band phone with international roaming if he had any kooky ideas about selling us into middle aged slavery.

He spoke to the nice hotel lady for about thirty seconds before he started yelling at HER, too!

We took the phone back and asked the nice hotel lady what to do.  She said to get his driver number.  We thanked her and hung up.

So now we have his driver number to give to the people he sells us to.

Now what?

There was a phone number on the back of the seat that said in English:

"If you have trouble communicating with your driver, please call this number."

We looked around, looked at each other, looked at the meter (which was, by now 75 RMB or about $11.50) and dialed that number.

We explained to the person who answered that we were in a cab with an angry man who had been forced to take our fare by the big scary lady and who was randomly rolling his window down and shouting to other cab drivers and that we were not sure where we were but our driver would not communicate with our local contact and our fare was approaching large numbers without any hotels or commercial areas in sight.

He asked to speak with our driver.

Our driver proceeded to speak rapidly into the phone, going slower and slower every second until we were in the middle lane of our side of a six lane highway going about 20mph.

As cars whizzed past us, honking their horns, our driver, (big surprise here) yelled at the new people on the phone.  This guy was apparently a very angry man with many issues that were made worse by his worried western passengers.

He gave us the phone back and the people on the other end said, "Get his driver number." and hung up.

Okey doke.

We had committed his driver number to memory in case we ever saw anyone again who gave a holy crap and sat back in our seats, trying to figure out how we got to this point.

Another few miles, off the freeway, some random turns, some aimless wandering, and a couple of switchbacks later, the driver seemed to suddenly get specific. 

We made two hard right turns and entered the semi-circular driveway for the Hyatt Hotel.

Final fare: 89 RMB ($14.00).  Ted gave him exact change with no tip- an absolute first in our lives.  We collected our luggage, showed him our backs, and left the taxi, even as some hapless stooge jumped into the back seat.

We still have no idea what the deal was, and no clue about why all the drama.    But welcome to freaking China.

If I was our driver, maybe I would hate tourists too.  But why a fare to a destination in tourist central (where he had a new fare as soon as we got out) would make him so angry and defiant is beyond us.  Sometimes, bridging the cultural gap is just exhausting and we decide not to.

So.  Here we are.

Things have to get better from here.

Whoever watches over drunks, small children, and us was on duty that day, because we not only get our room at 9am we get a room on the 29th floor over looking the Huangpo river - only the bar and revolving restaurant are higher than us.

We retreat to our cushy western hotel room.  Flop on the bed and marvel at the fact that we are alive and free.

Finally, I drag myself off the bed and the first thing I see on the river is this...

Now, it's worth enjoying this shot just for the uniqueness of the boat- but juxtaposed against a spectacularly modern skyline, it only hints at what we know is true of the country we suddenly find ourselves adrift in.  China is a place of ancient and modern all cobbled together, co-existing in a strange and interesting way.

The skyline out our window looks like this:

Again, it was foggy. But this is part of the Shanghai skyline these days.  At night this city is lit up like Las Vegas.  


And the river is full of boats all lit up like Christmas trees...

At least the tourist boats.  We saw a whole bunch of ore barges and other boats blithely sailing up the river without any running lights or navigation lights at all.  Sailor beware!

We were definitely in ABCinAFC (Another Big City in Another Foreign Country), but we wanted to get out to walk "the bund".  

The bund is a major river walkway that covers a long portion of riverfront and contains nothing really, except some river boat cruise docks.  

Here's a shot of it as we started walking...

It's really very nice.  And very well used by people from... well, China.  We were a distinct minority in our western-ness. I was wearing a Northern Michigan University sweatshirt and that combined with our faces made us the target of a lot of stares, one or two smiles, and a couple of people eager to practice their English.

A great effort is made to keep the bund clean and tidy, and they have plants and flowers in lots of places.  I was particularly tickled by this flower bed-

so I stepped up on the cement that surrounds it to get a better shot of the whole thing.


A Chinese policeman with a crossing guard vest and a whistle started tweeting at me and motioning to Ted to get me off the wall.


So I guess this qualifies as a semi-illegal picture.

We kept walking down the bund, trying not to look like the scofflaws we obviously were, and enjoying the sights and sounds and people.  Here's some random shots of signs:

No clue.  It explains something on the Bund, but...


Click it bigger if you want to see some chinese with translations.

Street sign. 

All in all, it was a good chance to just sample some new places and get an idea of the possibilities.

We are planning a trip on our own back to the rural parts of Vietnam, but we need to think a little harder about whether we really want to deal with China again... even just dipping our toes into China proved to be something of an ordeal, so venturing into the countryside may not be the thing of which dream vacations are made. 

In any case, there is a big fat statue of Mao on the bund, and everyone was taking their picture with it.  So I set my scale model up in front of it and told him to flash a peace sign because that is what all the Chinese were doing. 

 So now we have a classic Chinese photo.  

We think. 

In the airport for our plane back to Jakarta, we finally found the crap stores we had been unable to find in Shanghai- the ones with the magnets and keychains and cheap tee-shirts.  

You know- all the stuff Made in China.  

And now we could relax and enjoy our flight home, knowing that at the last moment we had obtained authentic local goods. :-)


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