Shanghai ‘hoods: Old Town

The cosmopolitan city of Shanghai is one of those bewitching places that casts a spell over the freshly minted Chinese tourist.  It is city that perfectly displays the contradictions and paradoxes of China itself.  Like a jigsaw puzzle of mismatched pieces, Shanghai’s distinct and unique neighborhoods continue to fascinate and confuse the unexpected tourist who had initially thought they understood what China is all about.  From the old-world European charm of the Bund to the ultra-modern over-the-top skyscrapers of Pudong, never has one city offered such extreme representations of old versus new.

For one trip to Shanghai’s unique ‘hoods and the virgin tourist is proven wrong and thrown into even more confusion and fascination with the Middle Kingdom.  

This next series of posts is going to continue on the journey through the unique and distinct ‘hoods of Shanghai.  I’ve already written about the Bund and a little about Pudong at night.  The next few posts will move on to some of Shanghai’s other noteworthy ‘hoods:  Old Town, Pudong (during the day) and the French Concession.

Old Town is perhaps the best representation of Old China found in Shanghai.  Known to the locals as Nan Shi or “Southern City”, Old Town is a beautiful area of traditional Chinese buildings, bazaars, gardens, temples and shops.  Although a large part of Old Town has been sadly bulldozed away to make room for modernization, there is still a large area remaining of these gorgeous traditional Chinese buildings, some of which date back to the 16th century.    This part of town was originally built in a circular format protected by ancient, city walls to keep the malicious Japanese pirates away.  Now, it has become a tourist mecca and unfortunately this once pristine area is now almost intolerable due to the swarms and swarms of camera-clod tourists.

My dad and I actually stumbled upon Old Town one afternoon as the sun was setting and I was able to capture some pictures of it before the herds of tourists invaded.  Here are some of my favorites.

Old Town is only a few blocks away from the Bund, where we were staying.  We had a map of the general vicinity and pretty much stumbled upon it by noticing a significant change in the architecture around us.  Here is one such building that marks the opening of Old Town and its lovely buildings, shops and gardens.  

The buildings were unlike any I had seen in China.  Nothing like the colorfully painted ones in Beijing that sprinkled throughout the city (especially in the Forbidden City).  These buildings were mostly white with black lacquered woodwork across the rooftops.  

Before entering into the labyrinth of Old Town’s buildings through the pedestrian only passageways, we passed a preview of what was in store along the main drag.  The whimsical black woodwork was indeed a lovely contrast against Pudong’s ultra modern skyline.  

We made a left turn into this bazaar and voila, we found Old Town!  It was filled with every kind of touristy shop imaginable.  Some were outrageously annoying stocked high with knickknacks and trinkets while others were quite nice (such as the department store where I bought a few silk scarves).  

As we wandered back inside, the narrow passageways did not allow for the swarms of people.  It was late afternoon on our first visit to Old Town and a weekday.  Thus thankfully it wasn’t that crowded…..yet. 

There were hundreds of gorgeously ornate buildings such as this one.  I loved the juxtaposition of the red against the black and white woodwork.  Simply spectacular. 

Unfortunately it was getting dark thus none of my next pictures turned out.  It was a pity as we found a lot of serene ponds filled with goldfish, one of the Chinese people’s favorite luck charm.   Hunger and thirst overpowered us (it was five o’clock, cocktail time!) so we decided to leave and come back the next morning.

Although the weather was ok and not as smoggy, we forgot that Saturday meant a lot more people.  Despite the crowds, at least the conditions were better for taking more pictures of the gorgeous buildings, a work of art in their own right.

As we headed further into Old Town, the crowds of people became overpowering.

Excuse me, excuse me….but I can’t even seem to move!  

Before I knew it, my head was screaming inside…”Get me out of here!”

As we walked out, I noticed two more buildings that were worthy of representing the “old”.  The one in the photo above and below.  

And I learned a valuable lesson:  Never go to a tourist attraction in China on a Saturday!

Stay Shanghai ‘hood featured will be the glorious French Concession.


Shop til you drop: Shanghai shopping

Before going to Shanghai, I had heard the dreamy term Shanghai Shopping.  I knew that Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East and had some of the best fashion out there in all of China.  For most women, Shanghai is a shopper lover’s paradise where you can literally shop til you drop, all day long.

Although I must admit that I am not the most enthusiastic shopper (I only have ten pairs of shoes compared to the dozens that most women have), I did enjoy strolling Shanghai’s infamous fashion scene and admiring the huge variety of offerings.   After only a few days, I determined that there are more shores than the eye can see.  There are stores everywhere and quite honestly most of them, especially the designer boutiques and high-end shops, were empty.  Perhaps this is a sign of the economy. But it did make you wonder how the stores can stay in business when there is literally not a single soul inside except for a bored shopkeeper chatting on the internet!

In Shanghai, you can find anything the heart desires whether it be ribbon shops, button stores, chic up and coming boutiques or high-end retailers only for the ultra wealthy.  You can find it all in Shanghai if you have the energy, patience and perseverance to walk the crazy, congested streets of Shanghai to hunt and gather.

Here are some of my favorite shops I found along the way. Hope you enjoy!

For the locals or those inclined to do-it-yourself and make your own clothes….

I saw ribbon shop after ribbon shop…everywhere! 

Even shops dedicated to lace so you can make your own lingerie. 

There are also loads of yarn and fabric stores like the one above and below.  The fabrics were gorgeous (if only I knew how to sew!).  There are also lots of tailor shops in Shanghai where you can get your own suits tailor-made for cheap.  Too bad my husband wasn’t along. 

For the locals, affordable shopping…

Crazy, neon lights “junk” shops like these ones above…

Anything you can possibly fit and sell in a store….

Food markets were everywhere.  Street Food is a huge way of life as most Chinese eat breakfast and lunch out.  It saves time and is very cheap. 

Some of the streets had open market styled shops like these ones above.  I even saw live product demos right out in the street.  

For the fashionistas, the somewhat affordable new, chic boutiques of the French Concession…

There were rows and rows of these boutique shops…but not a soul inside….

For the rich…upscale shopping in places like the at the start of the French Concession and Pudong….outrageous designer boutiques that only the ultra wealthy can afford…

And finally…whatever you want…

I saw every kind of instrument shop imaginable.  Instead of all being together in one store, each kind of instrument had their own shop. 

I left Shanghai without buying one fashionable thing.  Perhaps I was overwhelmed, too cheap or just plain old tired and ready to get back home.  I wonder if I go back again someday, if all these shops will still be around or it will be one big strip mall? 

Stay tuned…more posts coming soon. 


Street Survival 101: How to get around urban China without getting flattened

For anyone who has ever traveled in Asia, then you understand exactly what the title of this post is about.  Walking anywhere in any big Asian city – whether it be Beijing, Shanghai, Kathmandu, Bangkok or Delhi – requires a certain kind of expertise, guts and street smarts.  In these large urban jungles, traffic comes in all shapes and sizes and is massive, loud, aggressive and sometimes uncaring about human life.  You make a mistake once by stepping out into the street without looking and you could be dead.

The intimidating street:  Crossing the street in Shanghai can be a dangerous thing.

I discovered this frightening fact the first time I was in Kathmandu and New Delhi.  I had read about it before so was thankfully somewhat prepared and aware that there are real dangers involved in crossing the street and even walking down the sidewalk.  I grimaced when I heard the tales of the unexpected tourist who looked the wrong way and got smashed by oncoming traffic.  I was prepared, or so I thought.

I was shocked and horrified once I actually stepped onto these very streets for the first time and realized that you’ve got to truly pay attention whenever you are walking anywhere in a large Asian City.  For human life is not always valued the same in a big city where there are millions of people fighting to survive and get around (ok, this is a little harsh but sometimes I really did feel this way, especially when the cars, trucks and buses came right at me in the middle of an intersection during a green walk sign!).

Never before had I felt so threatened when walking the streets than when I first arrived in Beijing.  There were many close calls, especially when we first got there and were so jet lagged.  Yet, after a few days we figured it out and here are the main things we discovered.

Street Survival 101:  How to get around urban China without getting flattened.

First of all, there is no regard whatsoever for the “green” walk signs.  Cars, trucks, mopeds, buses, you name it, all come charging through the intersection honking their horn in warning as the pedestrians scurry across.  There were many times when I feared either I or someone else would be struck dead.  I especially got nervous when the elderly were wobbling across.  There were many close calls.

I probably shouldn’t have taken this photo and have been more concerned about my safety and my dad’s, yet this just shows how cars really don’t care if you are in their path.  You’ve got to get out of the way fast or else, well….

Second of all, vehicles love to run red lights.   It is extremely important that before you step out into the street you look ALL ways.  Do a 360 degree look around before moving forward no matter what color the street light or walk sign indicates.  Four times out of five, there will be something coming.  I found the bike lane to be the worst offender.  Many times bikes, mopeds, electric scooters and carts hardly stopped at all and kept going regardless of the red light.

Intersections in China can be a free for all—cars, bikes, motorcycles, trucks and people included!  Beware!

Third of all, whenever you cross a street you just have to keep looking and do your best to get safely across as fast as possible.  Vehicles can come out of nowhere and of course they won’t slow down or stop if you are in its path.

Getting around is a free for all.

I witnessed many “almost accidents” such as this one between the bicyclist and the moped.  


Finally, just because you are walking on a sidewalk does not mean you are safe.  I’ve seen motorcycles, bicycles and even small cars driving either behind or right at you on the sidewalk.  It would really hurt to get your foot run over!

This guy passed me from behind…thankfully the sidewalk wasn’t too crowded.  

The good news is that the Chinese are aware of the dangers of crossing the street and have done some things to make it safer for pedestrians.  In Shanghai, one of the most difficult places to cross the street, I found huge above ground walkways over some of the major intersections such as this one (Note:  In Beijing, these above ground sidewalks did not exist and I sure wish they had!  It was insane trying to cross some of the busy intersections there and I’m happy that there were no incidents!).

Climbing up out of harms way (thank you, Chinese Government!). 

I am much happier here than there down below! 

When Shanghai built this new highway a few years back, it was a welcome gift not only to the drivers but also to the walkers who received the above ground sidewalks. 

Because it sure beats trying to walk down there and be battling against that line of traffic. 

Shanghai also adopted the use of crossing guards on some of the busy streets near the high-end French Concession.  I had never seen these in other highly congested parts of Shanghai and certainly not in Beijing, which is notorious for having extremely dangerous crosswalks.

Finally there was some help for the pedestrians!  The crossing guard even blew here whistle loudly at aggressive drivers and stopped them from driving through the green walk signs.  Phew! 

Rest assured….after a few days of walking like a local you’ll be fine!  You will learn how to zigzag across traffic at extreme speed and expertise.  You’ll remember to take a 360 degree look before stepping out into the street.  And most of all, you’ll appreciate your streets back at home even more!

Stay tuned…more China coming soon!  Thanks for reading and comments are always welcome and appreciated!  


Shanghai Surprise

There is something special about Shanghai at night.  On the west of the river is the stunning, old world grandeur of The Bund.  On the east, you see the magnificent light show of ultra-modern Pudong.  I could have spent hours walking along the waterfront boardwalk and admiring Shanghai’s greatest surprise:  It’s spectacular beauty at night.   Here are a few of my favorite views.

(Note:  I apologize in advance for the quality of these photos.  Unfortunately I used my iPhone camera.  I hope to learn the art of photography at night.  A photography course is on my goal list for 2012.  I still thought these photos were worth sharing.  Enjoy!)

Stay tuned…


The Bund at night

There is something seriously sexy about The Bund.  Lovely, grand, historic buildings line the decedent waterfront of the Huangpu River affording an old-world charm, albeit European, to the “Paris of the Orient“.

Built around the start of the first Opium War and the consequent concessions, the lovely historical buildings of The Bund were constructed over a period of years starting in 1840 until 1930.  The “Bund” which translates into the “embankment” or “embanked quay” reflects a multitude of architectural influences signifying the international flavor of Shanghai at the time. The old historic buildings that once housed large banking and trading companies, businesses and foreign consuls, represent a bouquet of different architectural styles.  One can find Gothic, Baroque, Rome, Renaissance, Classic, as well as both Eastern and Western influences among the buildings.  It is truly a delightful place, especially at night when the city lights aluminate this spectacular strip of buildings.

The Bund is particularly sensual at night.  When the lights are beaming up onto the building’s arches and splendor, it is a magical place that is definitely worth an evening stroll.

Here are the highlights of the Bund at night.  Enjoy!

A not so great picture of the Bund as seen through our hotel window….amazingly beautiful!


Shanghai: The Decadent Little Sister

I love this picture! Photo taken out of hotel bathroom looking down at the Bund.

The best way to explore the sharp contrast between old versus new in China is to visit Beijing and Shanghai in the first week.  While Beijing is old, historical and brimming with culture, Shanghai is ultra modern, cosmopolitan and chic.

One of the country’s most vibrant and modern cities, Shanghai, meaning “by the sea” is going places that China as a whole dreams of heading.  Given Shanghai’s strategic location as a gateway to the Yangzi River, it was first established as a small port town and eventually grew to a population of 50,000 in the late 17th century.  The real future and fate of Shanghai occurred after the opening of the British concession in 1842 which lead to a period of dramatic growth, splendor and decadence.

Shortly after the British arrived, the Americans and French followed and Shanghai became an economic powerhouse financed by opium, silk and tea trade.  As the city blossomed and grew, large finance houses set up shop leading Shanghai into a period of robust growth and economic supremacy.  There was a long period of vice and decadence as the city became filled with whorehouses, opium dens and gambling parlours which eventually were cleaned up only to lead the city into a long period of malaise and decay.

Shanghai was revitalized in the early 1990s when the decision was made to develop a swampy, vacant farmland on the eastern side of the Huangpy River.  This area, today known as Pudong, is one of the most ultra-modern, brilliantly colorful skylines in all of China save for Hong Kong.  Being in Pudong, it is unbelievable to see this modern, dazzling supersized city that was all built within the last 20 years mirroring the sensational growth of China herself.

To me, Shanghai is a fascinating, complex city beaming with lights, color, vibrancy and of course good old contradictions.  While The Bund represents the prestigious, old-world charm of the past, Pudong represents the dramatic future of China, the number two economic country in the world.  Shanghai perfectly brought the old and the new all together in one big, luminous city full of paradoxes for the perceptive traveler.  I fell in love with its complexity, beauty, modernity and historic charm.  It is a place that summoned up so much of my feelings about China, and a fabulous way to end the trip.

Stay tuned..My next post series will be all about Shanghai and all this phenomenal city has to offer. I will cover the Bund, Pudong, The French Concession, Old Town, Shanghai Shopping, Chinese Street Smarts and more….plus I will probably throw in some Tucson posts since I’ve never blogged about lovely Tucson, Arizona before and it is a cool place.  Thanks for reading!


Screaming by on the Beijing-Shanghai High Speed G Train

Leaving Beijing, we had our first taste of heavy traffic and wet rain.  We were ready to leave the dreary weather (or so we hoped) and head south to Shanghai known as Beijing’s decadent little sister.  Although I truly enjoyed Beijing’s majestic Forbidden City, ancient hutongs and scattered parks, I really was getting tired of the smoggy, cold weather.  Plus the food options were becoming limiting (that happens when you don’t especially like Chinese food) and I knew that I would find much more variety and international fare in cosmopolitan Shanghai.  It was time to leave.

Photo below taken during our hour-long taxi ride to Beijing South Railway Station.  The further we got out off town and along the Ring Road, the more of these ugly Soviet-era apartment complexes there were.  It made me realize just how insanely big Beijing is and how densely the people live.  This represents one of hundreds if not thousands of these kinds of living complexes. 

In my opinion, there is no better way to see some of the countryside and what is really going on in China than to travel by train. There is something nostalgic about train travel.  You can sit back, relax and watch the world go by or in the case of China’s high-speed G trains, watch the world scream by.

The Beijing-Shanghai G Train is one of the longest and highest quality high-speed railways in the world with a designed speed of 350 km per hour.  It makes the 1,318 km/819 mile long journey between Beijing and Shanghai take a mere 4 hours and 48 minutes with a brief stop at Nanjing.  Launched in June of 2011, the railway was the first one designed for speeds up to 380 km/hour (236 miles/hour), making it the fastest train in the world.  The journey from Beijing to Shanghai took 3 hours and 58 minutes compared to 9 hours and 49 minutes on parallel railways with conventional trains. However, after a few mishaps shortly after its launch, the train was slowed down to its current rate averaging 300 km per hour/186 miles per hour.

Photo below:  Pulling up into the Beijing train station I am amazed by its modernity and vastness.  There are railways everywhere. 

Entering Beijing’s train station which is extremely modern (except for the bathrooms: Squat toilets of course).  Security was tight and the place was packed.  

An up close look at a G Train.  Impressive! 

There are rows and rows of G Trains waiting for its passengers to board.  Each train has a “sightseeing” class with only four luxurious seats, one section of first-class seats (with about twenty-four seats) and 16 trains of regular coach seats.

Leaving Beijing there are tons of buildings in the midst of construction.  We made a joke that the national bird of China is the “Crane”.

Per GMO (9/2011), “over 200 skyscrapers are under construction in China today.  This is equivalent to the total number of skyscrapers in the U.S. today”.


As the train slowly rolls out of Beijing, passing by one new building conglomerate after the other, it becomes evident what is really going on in China.

“A giant smog of unreality hangs over Chinese property.  SocGen calculates that over the last decade, China has completed 16 billion square meters of floor space.  This is equivalent to building Rome every two weeks” (SocGen, June 23, 2011)”.

As we would soon witness during our five hour train ride, this construction boom has resulted in vast “Ghost cities” across China in which there are no inhabitants and the cranes cease to be working.   The China National Bureau of Statistics and GMO estimate that there will be up to 75 million new homes built this year.

Per the Financial Times*:

“After a decade of soaring prices, signs are that the world’s most populous nation faces its first real estate crash.  That would be dire for other countries that rely on China to fuel their own economic growth”.

Some scary trends:

  • Home prices in Beijing have risen by about 150 percent in the past four years.
  • Residential transactions are down 11.6 percent from last year, all across China.
  • Analysts say an urban apartment costs 8-10 times the average annual income nationwide.  In Beijing and Shanghai the multiple is closer to 30.
  • Construction accounts for 13 percent of the economy, one-quarter of all investment and 40 percent of steel use.

*Source:  Financial Times “A lofty ceiling reached” (12/14/2011 by Jamil Anderlini).

As we head out of Beijing, passing by all the look-a-like buildings and apartment complexes, the G Train finally starts to pick up speed reaching of dizzying 306 km/hr or 190 miles/hour.  It is the fastest speed I’ve ever traveled by train and my stomach felt it.

Finally we had left Beijing and were in the countryside and it was beautiful ….but not for long.

Ghost cities appeared in the distant horizon and it freaked me out….they were everywhere!

This photo below spooked me the most.  We were in the middle of nowhere and in the distance there was a gigantic “Ghost City” where everything had stopped in time, uncompleted.  The initial belief of the Chinese government and real estate tycoons was “we will build and they will follow”.  Not so sure if it is true.

After almost five hours of passing ghost town after ghost town, I was fascinated and in shock.  I have never seen such massive construction and building anywhere before.  It is phenomenal.  In a country where property construction accounts for an estimated 13% of GDP in the world’s second largest economy, what will happen when the real estate bubble comes to a half?  The economic ramifications for China, its people and the world are frightening.  Let’s hope for a soft landing. 

Arrival at Shanghai’s Rail Station…..and on to the next adventure. 

Stay Tuned…more Shanghai surprises coming soon!  

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

Daily Life in Beijing

China is a place awash in complexities and paradoxes.  It is a place that is growing, developing and modernizing at lightening speed yet at the same time is being held down by its ugly past.  It is full of splendid culture and traditions dating back thousands of years.  Yet, it also has some disturbing truths that may someday bring the current Communist Party and its “emperor” down.

As the country continues to race towards become the next global leader and world power, the housing bubble is finally showing unwanted signs of crashing, the Communist Party is hammering down and trying to stop the rapid growth of micro-blogging, human rights activist, journalist and anyone speaking out against the government is imprisoned and severely punished, the environment is rapidly deteriorating, pollution is pitiful, and ghost towns lay dormant.  All the same, China is still technically booming and its people are better off today than they were twenty years ago.  China has witnessed one of mankind’s most incredible rise of its people out of poverty.  

Yet, where are they headed?  What would happen if the economy begins to stagger or fall?  Will people speak up and protest?  Will there be a Chinese Spring?  What will happen to the 900 million peasants who have seen their life improve but still have a long way to go?  What will happen to the rest of the world if China is hurting?

The implications are mind-boggling and of course would have worldwide effects.  It is no coincidence that articles on current events in China are found daily in papers, online and on TV.  China is huge, important and will impact us all.

Perhaps these questions are why despite not “loving” traveling to China, I have found it one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been.  China is at the center stage of the world right now and to be there, witnessing it all, is an amazing travel experience.

To wrap up my Beijing posts, I felt a photo blog on “Daily Life in Beijing” would help illustrate the complexities and paradoxes of this fascinating place.  I am also including a list of intuitive articles on China today, for those who want to learn more.  (See the bottom of the post for links).

Here is a walk through Daily Life in Beijing.  Hope you enjoy.

Old versus New:  A remaining part of the ancient city wall in the heart of Beijing.  

All that remains is a dilapidated old wall.  Whereas right down the street is Wangfujing Dajie (below), a Vegas meets New York City-styled pedestrian walking street and shopping Mecca. 

And the new….

The Lion is the symbol of China and can be see throughout the country protecting its inhabitants for thousands of years. 

The red lantern, another prominent symbol in China.  

For some reason, I truly love this picture.

The Hutongs represent the old part of Beijing.  Hundreds exist yet many have been torn down in the thrust towards modernization. 

In a high-density city of over 20 million inhabitants, there are still many places like this one to find peace and solitude and enjoy nature. 

Signs of westernization and commercialism are prevalent but not overbearing like in most cities in Europe…note the Starbucks above. 

Yet traditional architecture can be found throughout the city bringing the visitor back to the days of the dynasties and reminding us of China’s long history and path. 

Truly spectacular hand-painted art embraces the heart and soul of Beijing. 

As you explore Beijing’s streets, you are struck by the contrasts between old and new.  Modern and traditional.  I found the local farmer’s markets to be one of those great contrasts and delights.  

I have never seen such an enormous pile of lettuce in my life!  And it looked so fresh…

Buyers and supplies loaded their produce onto the back of their bicycles, just like the old days.  

Tai Chi could be seen practiced daily along the streets of Beijing usually in the mornings.  

Or you could find parks filled with retired Chinese playing Chess, Checkers and cards.  

Ping-pong is also popular in Beijing’s many parks. 

Some of Beijing’s oldest Hutongs have been transformed into modern-day party central, filled with outdoor bars, terraces and craziness.  It was where all the young, somewhat rebellious Beijing youth hung out at night.  

Beijing is still a large bicycling community.  There are even pathways like these along the streets for bikes, motorbikes, motorcycles and electric bikes.  It is one of the main ways the Beijing people get around the city:  On two wheels.  

The electricity and bike park outside the Hutongs.

Laundry can often still be seen drying outside the home or apartment balcony.  I was impressed with the creative methods for drying laundry in big cities! 

The pollution, congestion and traffic where alarming and frightening.  This is the typical day in Beijing.  Gray, smoggy and dark.
This parked car shows how dirty the air is!  I had to take a picture of it.  Not sure if it ever got or will get washed.  
Most Chinese live in apartments.  In a country of 1.3 billion people, space is key.  Most of the apartment complexes I saw in Beijing were quite dreary like this one below.  It reminded me of a Soviet-era complex. 

As you get out of the central part of town on the Ring Road, you pass a million of these kinds of apartment complexes where there are several generic-looking gray buildings clumped together as a some sort of compound. These kinds of developments are going up for miles and miles outside of the city.  I have never seen so many apartment complexes being built anywhere.  It simply blew me away and made me realize the gravity and magnitude of the Chinese ballooning population.  

As our time dwindled in Beijing, I left feeling perplexed and uncertain about my feelings of this city.  The history was amazing yet the complexities bothered me.  I wonder what will become of Beijing and of China?  How will it transform and grow into the next century?  Will it hold on to its long traditions or will it become more westernized?  Will democracy come or will the people remain powerless and voiceless in their own country.  It certainly will be interesting to see. 

For further reading on China, please see the following articles:

Financial Times, “A lofty ceiling reached” 12/14/11 by Jamil Anderlini

Financial TImes, “Beijing in a hole over new homes” 11/15/11 by Simon Rabinovitch  “Guest Pot:  Some Things You Should Know About China” by Tyler Durden

Also the tremendous book, “China Wakes:  The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicolas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn is an excellent read. It is a little outdated by I think these two brilliant New York Times Writers are right on target with what is happening in China.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about China.


Beijing at night

When you think of China’s city lights. your mind often rests on Shanghai and Hong Kong:  Big cities, amazing skyscrapers and incredible lighting at night.  These cities sometimes feel like Disneyland or Vegas, captivating your souls and imagination.  There is an odd resemblance to Christmas, as the city lays aglow in uncanny lights.

After visiting Shanghai I admit that the city’s evening lights are unbelievable and mesmerizing.  I instantly fell in love with the city at night, and felt that Shanghai was almost right up there with Paris, the City of Lights (yet I prefer the older city atmosphere of Paris over the newly built, ultra modern Shanghai).  I could have sat there all night admiring the lights over the Bund and Pudong in Shanghai.  I had never seen anything quite like it before and I realized that the night in Shanghai was by far more beautiful than the day time when the city was awash in pollution, traffic and noise.

For as much as Shanghai’s lights beckon,  I believe that Beijing’s city lights are highly under-rated and definitely worth admiring.  Maybe it is the old-world architecture that I fancy or perhaps the initial belief that Beijing would be uneventful.  One night in Beijing proved that my assumptions were wrong.  It was not a gray, dull, boring city.  Instead, it is an ancient city beaming with life as soon as the sun sets.  

The beauty of Beijing at night can’t be denied.  It is a place worth exploring with your eyes wide open….

The Forbidden City at night is unbelievably spectacular.  My only regret is that I’m not a better photographer as I was unable to truly capture the dreamlike nature of this place at night.  

View from the cab.  I love this photo.  I feel that it captures the true energy of Beijing at night.  I took it from our cab window obviously while we were moving. 

Picture of Ghost Street, the renowned street with any kind of Chinese food that your heart desires.  

Right outside of our hotel was one of the largest street food venues I’d seen.  It was bustling with activity as soon as the sun set.  Hungry customers lined up and ordered their meals on a stick to go (of course cooked fresh right in front of their eyes). 

The main pedestrian street at night was filled with colors and entertainment.  There were enormous flat screened TVs built into the sides of buildings.  Kind of reminded me again of Vegas or New York.  

Restaurants awaited hungry customers….

My only regret was that I was too tired from jet lag and walking eight hours throughout the day to stay up later and enjoy the sensational beauty of Beijing at night.  For the city’s secrets are often revealed at night when it is quite, more peaceful and full of a different kind of life.


The Lama Temple: Buddhism in Beijing

Before visiting China, I had the amazing opportunity to hike the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal.  As I’ve said time and time again in my blog and to family and friends, this was the one trip in my life that really touched my soul.  It inspired me.  It changed me.  And most of all, it encouraged me to continue exploring as many far off destinations that I can possibly visit.

My trip to Nepal was my first exposure to the Buddhist religion.  Sharing a border with India, Nepal, a tiny mountainous kingdom, was exposed to two main religions:  Hinduism and Buddhism, that grew and developed to become the two prominent religions in Nepal.  During my trek through rural mountains villages in Nepal, I was blessed with one Buddhist village after another.  Temples, colorful prayer flags, gigantic prayer wheels and burning juniper incense infiltrated my heart and soul.  The monks dressed in maroon robes and praying softly was a pleasant, peaceful experience.  I instantly purchased the Dalai Lama’s famous autobiography when I got home.  I felt inspired by this magical religion and wanted to learn more.

I read his book, appropriately titled “Freedom in Exile:  The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama“, and felt an anger and shock burning inside my soul that drove me mad.  I could not believe what the Chinese government had done.  It was tragic, sad and terrible.  Yet, it was a story that had been repeated all too frequently in our world’s history.  America and the injustice done to the Native Americans.  The “colonization” of South America.  The tearing apart of Africa.  And the list goes on.

What I had a hard time coming to terms with after reading this book was my feelings on traveling to China.  I understood that human rights were far from being achieved by the Tibetans as well as most of the population of China.  Would I be ok with that? 

Driving around town in the Twin Cities (the local term here for Minneapolis and St. Paul area) I grew accustomed to seeing “FreeTibet” bumper sticks on many cars.  I knew that the Dalai Lama had recently come here to speak with his people, the local Tibetans who have come here in exile to start a new life.  What do they think of the Chinese government?  I wondered but felt like I knew.

I wouldn’t find my answer of course until I was in China, looking around, visiting Buddhist temples and talking to people.  The first stop in my quest to understand Buddhism in Beijing was the most revered Buddhist temple outside of Tibet:  The Lama Temple.  Originally built in 1694 during the Qing dynasty it was used as a palace and later changed to lamasery in 1744 by Emperor Qianlong.  Today it is the largest, most well-preserved lamasery outside of Tibet and is a renowned place of worship, pilgrimage and importance in the heart of China’s capital.

We set off on our last afternoon, walking, to the Lama Temple.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s tragic account of events, I wasn’t sure what kind of religion I’d find in China.  I understood that the Communist Party of China had no official religion yet tolerated religious practice to some degree.  Yet it was hard to get a sense of how religious the Chinese are overall since many prefer to keep their religion private.  Some estimates state that there are approximately 100 million Buddhists in China.  It is the most prevalent religion, followed by 18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants, and 4 million Catholics (Facts from “Culture Smart China:  The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture” 2010 edition).  Yet in a land of 1.3 billion people, these numbers lead me to believe that there are a lot of people who do not practice a religion or chose not to tell anyone that they do.  Like most statistics in China, it is hard to get a clear picture.

Regardless, Buddhism has a strong cultural importance in China as it has been inside the country for thousands of years since its introduction from India via the Silk Road.  I was keen to visit the Lama Temple and see what it was all about.  After visiting this lovely place, I was even more confused than ever.  For it was simply serene and the devoutness of the practicing Chinese Buddhists was deeply touching.  It didn’t make sense to me what had happened and why Tibet cannot be free.  Like most of my trip to China, it proved that it is a land of paradoxes and contradictions that a foreigner may never fully understand.   There are many questions in life that will remain forever unanswered.  Perhaps this is one of them.

Here are my pictures and commentary from my visit.

The walk from our hotel near the Forbidden City took us over an hour passing through main thoroughfares, small streets and plenty of interesting things to take pictures of.  We knew that we were finally getting closer to the Lama Temple when we reached this street packed full of Tibetan shops. 

Suddenly gray dull Beijing came to life with color, smell and sounds as we entered the Buddhist district near the Lama Temple.

The majestic archway leading into the Lama Temple.

The walkway to the temple was beautifully adorned with shade trees that cast a peaceful glow on the area.

There were plenty of monks dressed in brilliant orange.

Some monks had obviously come from far to pray and also be like a tourist and snap some photos.

When you were done with your incense, you placed them in the fire pit to burn.

As always, there were lions protecting the temple.  This one is a male with its location on the east side of the building and grasping a ball.

The breathtaking architecture of the temple reminded me of the palaces in the Forbidden City.  Yet the smoke-filled air from the burning incense gave the Lama Temple a much more mystical feel. 

Perhaps there was too much smoke in the air to take this picture but I still enjoy the close-ups of the incredible art and detail of the buildings. 

I left the Lama Temple feeling relaxed and peaceful.  It was such a special place and I was relieved to see so many ordinary Chinese there practicing their religion openly.  It is estimated that hundreds of Buddhist temples were destroyed after the revolution in China in 1949.  It is a pity that they no longer exist.

Stay tuned..Next stop is “Everyday life in Beijing”.  It is my last post on Beijing and a compilation of tons of great photos I haven’t shown yet.  Thanks for reading !

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

How to get around urban China like the Chinese

Throughout my stay in urban China, I was bemused, amazed, surprised and continually fascinated by the resourcefulness of the Chinese in regards to modes of transportation.  Here is a photo blog of what inspired me.

When getting around or transporting goods, anything works, especially bicycles!   

These were the “party bikes” located in the bar zone of the Hutongs.  I loved seeing all the young Chinese gals cruise around on these fun bikes for bar hopping.  

One of many bike parks.  I loved the electric bikes.  They were sleek and quiet.  You hardly knew they were there.  

I especially loved these little bicycles.  Not sure if they have a special name or not.  But they sure are cute! 

With such heavy traffic and high costs for cars and trucks, it is no wonder the bicycle is the number one mode of transportation for both people and goods.  

Sidewalks, streets and highways…no matter!  If you are a pedestrian, you just had to watch out for passing motorcycles and bikes! 

Meals on Wheels!  Hungry anyone?

The Daily Commute:  Beijing.  (Look at all the smog!).  

I loved these little “tin cars”.  There was no way I was ever going to step foot in one of them though.  I don’t think you’d come out alive if you got in an accident in one of these little cars.  I even saw them on the highways!  Scary. 

Thankfully Beijing had their own devoted “Bike and Motorbike” lane.  This made things far safer except of course at the intersections where it was a free for all between bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians and cars! 

There are plenty of buses in China which is a cheap and affordable way to travel.  

A motorcycle park.  Genius idea! 

Driving is the most dangerous mode of transportation in all of China.  Per Lonely Planet China, “China’s roads kill without mercy.  Traffic accidents are the major cause of death for people aged 15 and 45, and the World Health Organization estimates there are 600 traffic death a day!”.   After spending ten days in China, I completely understood these facts.  Driving is crazy there (like many big cities in the world) and it was even more scary being a pedestrian in Beijing.  Vehicles do not think twice about driving right towards pedestrians even if there is a walk sign in the cross walk.  You have to really be careful and use a 360 view when crossing the street (if you want to make it safely across!).

I had heard about these graphic displays of “Traffic accidents and resulting deaths” before and was thus forewarned that they are disturbing.  Here is a display set up in the heart of Beijing.  The police were passing out flyers with pictures in case these warning signs weren’t enough. 

After seeing these graphic displays of fear, I was a bit weary getting in taxis (especially in Shanghai where our hired cab driver drove over 100 mph on the highways, passing on the shoulder.  I finally told him to slow down as the pictures continually returned to my mind). 

Stay tuned…more China coming up soon! I may even sneak in a few posts about Minnesota!

Adventure Travel China

In search of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs

While waiting in the American Airlines lounge at Chicago O’Hare to catch our international flight to Beijing, we found ourselves talking to a China “travel warrior”, one of those successful American businessmen who had either the luxury or the headache (depending on how you view things) of traveling overseas constantly to Asia.  Since I never got his name, I’ll call him the Chinese Travel Warrior as it seemed to fit.  He’d been to China at least 40 times and was well versed in the ins and outs of traveling and doing business there.  He’d informed me gleefully about the preparation of Peking duck as well as showed me a picture on his cell phone of what you’d get in China if you ordered Chicken Soup (yes, a real dead chicken foot sprouting out of the top).  He told me the good and the bad, the nice and the dirty and helped get me excited about the adventure ahead.

Probably the best piece of advice that the Chinese Travel Warrior gave me, however, had to do with sightseeing.  He told me that I had to spend some time in Beijing’s infamous Hutongs or “narrow alleyways” that mysteriously thread through the heart of old Beijing.   He told me that the Hutongs are where the history, culture and life of old China can be seen, if that is, you can find them.

Not knowing or understanding at all what the Hutong are, I opted to search my beloved Lonely Planet China and here is what I found about Beijing’s Hutongs:

The spirit and soul of the city lives and breathes among these charming and ragged lanes where a warm sense of community and hospitality survives.  Criss-crossing chunks of Beijing within the Second Ring Road, the hutong link up into a huge and enchanting warren of one-story dwellings and historic courtyard homes.  Hundreds of hutong survive but many have been swept aside in Beijing’s race to build a modern city.

The description of the hutongs obviously grabbed my attention and lead my father and I on a three-day search in finding the best and the most colorful hutongs in all of Beijing.  Here is a collection of my photos taken during our explorations of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs. 

Finding the Hutongs was half the battle and half the fun.  Our first day in Beijing, I was on a mission to find them.  We walked until we dropped, for over eight hours, pounding the pavement of Beijing.  I had read in Lonely Planet that all the Hutongs are marked with a historic sign.  Yet finding them on a map was another challenge all together.  We realized that the best way to find these hidden treasures was to walk without a map and explore.

Eventually after lunch we found our first section of Hutongs located directly behind the Forbidden City.   Before I saw the red sign (photo below), I noticed a dramatic change in the architecture of the buildings and most notably the roofs (photo above).  They looked old.…could these be part of the Hutongs I was searching for? I wondered.

This sign confirmed it:  Our first Hutong spotting!  

Yet this Hutong wasn’t too inviting.  Perhaps it was being renovated?  We decided not to walk down and explore it much further than this picture.  I knew there would be more.  Many more.  We would just have to find them! 

We continued our walk down Beichang Jie, one of the main drags located behind the Forbidden City, in search of more Hutongs.  We saw lots of interesting photo shots like the one above which I adore.  I love the old bicycles and the cool buildings.  

We walked a little further and came across this lovely Hutong.  I found a splendid alleyway but there was not much else back there but quiet courtyard homes.  

I was fascinated by the Hutongs and could have explored them all day long!  Here is my dad going under the electrical boxes that provide electricity to these ancient homes.  

The Hutongs are narrow thus all bicycles are normally parked outside the entrance.  I love this picture.  For some reason, it is one of my favorites from the trip.  

During our second day in Beijing, we discovered an entirely new area of Hutongs located by Qianhai Lake in North Dongcheng.  These Hutongs were more than residential and had stores, bars, restaurants and even chic boutique designer shops.  Here is a more lively Hutong that we found the second day which snaked around in many different directions.  

I found it hard to not get lost.  Yet getting lost was probably the best aspect of our search for the hidden Hutongs.  That meant you discovered new things that you probably would have missed.  Sometimes traveling without a map is the best way to travel.

If you did get lost or not want to get lost, you always had the option of hiring a rickshaw to show you the way.  We found this line up of eager rickshaw guides in a more touristy section of Hutongs (now what it was called still remains a mystery to me!  Again, it is a hutong that we managed to stumble upon and never found it again!).

Comparing notes and trying to work a deal. 

After hours of walking and exploring, we finally came across this trendy Hutong that had tons of cool bars, restaurants and shops.  This time we made a note on how to get there and find it again! 

Some of the beautiful boutique shops found in the Hutong. 

By lunch time, we were ready to take a rest and found the perfect place, The Passby Bar, located on Nanluogu Xiang, which was a great place to eat and watch the world go by.

Above is a picture of all the restaurant’s Lonely Planets!  Apparently the owner is an avid world traveler! 

As we entered the Passby, it felt like entered some kind of English pub.

I LOVED their motto:  BETTER TRAVEL THAN DEAD!  It seems like it was written for me! 

After a delightful lunch with of course a glass of wine, it was back to it.  I was determined to find more of Beijing’s hidden Hutongs and the more we walked, the more we discovered.

The architecture was a photographers dream.  

We left the Hutongs feeling excited about what we’d seen and looking even more forward to coming back to experience them at night, when they come to life with people, lights and mystery.  

The Chinese Travel Warrior was right….you can’t possibly see Beijing without finding the hidden Hutongs which are the true heart and soul of the city and its magical past. 

Stay tuned…next post will be on Beijing’s Hutongs at night! 

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