Thursday, January 15, 2009

A morning in Suzhou

The most interesting thing we did in Suzhou was checking out the local stores. For instance, we found a TV store...

... a kitchen supplies store (check out those wok burners!) ...

... and a bath supplies store, where you can get your own wooden bathtub.

These doors, however, were not for sale and simply up for grabs. Too bad they didn't fit in a suitcase as they would have looked great in our living room.

There were also plenty of local delicacies to try, like little birds (pigeons?) and pigs' noses. We stuck with sweet sesame dumplings.

Traditional buildings by the only remaining canal inside the town

A view of several bridges over the canal. Unfortunately most of the buildings around it were built recently and are nothing special.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Venice of the East

I couldn't understand how appropriate the above name was for the city of Suzhou until I saw some pictures on the internet after I returned. Having just two days to explore Shanghai and its outskirts was not enough, and a morning in Suzhou was the best we could do as far as getting out of Shanghai.

Suzhou looked a lot more like Venice in the old days, when the main way of transportation was by water. In the new China of automobiles most of the canals were paved over and you have to get out of Suzhou city and into the country if you want to get a glimpse of its watery past--which we weren't able to do.

Still, it was interesting to see what a smaller city looks like, and, to be fair, the center of Suzhou is still well-preserved with its narrows streets filled with traditional businesses and stores. Unfortunately, there is only the main canal left. A visitor with more time can take a leisurely walk alongside the waterway or visit the numerous gardens. We sat down at a tiny traditional restaurant and had some sweet dumplings before heading back to the metropolis.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Walk on the Town

European Architecture around the French Concession

A view into a courtyard. The two-wheeled vehicles and the laundry hanging outside are Shanghai staples.

A well-lit building downtown, opposite the historical People's Park

The lights and crowds of Nanjing Lu, where all domestic and international tourists must set foot at least once.

Another view of Nanjing Lu

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Moving pictures from the temple

The courtyard in the Jade Buddha temple

Past, Present and Future Buddhas

Monday, June 9, 2008

City in motion

Video, at last! Nanjing Lu by night...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bright Lights...

After visiting the Yu Yuan Gardens, our guide brought us back to the French Concession, where our hotel was located. He recommended this restaurant specialized in traditional Shanghainese cuisine and left after we sat down. At first ordering was easy because they had bilingual menus. However, to order more dishes turned out to be pretty difficult, since the waiters did not speak a word (not even yes or no) of English.

My parents and I have been in many situations where we don’t speak the language of the place, but this was probably our hardest time ever trying to communicate. Gestures and pointing were somehow not working, no matter how many different waiters came to our table trying to help. We did manage to get second helpings of one dish, but getting mooncakes or watermelon for desert was a real challenge. Eventually we did get some watermelon.

It had turned out to be a nice day, so we went for a walk after lunch. Around the French Concession there are a lot of small boutiques selling very cute, original outfits for prices that give even Singapore a run for their money. Of course we did some shopping and kept walking, taking notice of the European-inspired architecture as we went along. We made our way to the river, passing the historic People’s Park and busy Nanjing-Lu, with its plethora of neon lights a la Times Square.

It was already dark by the time we got to the river, to take a different look at the Bund and the Pudong. This time it was really hard to see anything at all. Apparently, this is the busiest time of the day to come here, and so we had to hold hands to make sure we didn’t get lost in the crowd. Catching a taxi back to the hotel was difficult too.

We had a quick dinner around the hotel (my mom and I had congee--porridge) and then went to the Cotton Club. Shanghai is somewhat famous for its jazz scene. Especially well-know are the jazz sessions at the historic Peace Hotel, right on the Bund. Unfortunately, the Peace Hotel was closed for renovations, so we took our guidebook’s suggestion to check out this Cotton Club. This place is an unassuming bar not too far from the French Concession where there are live bands every night, including a lot of jazz.

On that night, there was rock and folk on the menu (performed by Americans, even though the audience was mostly Chinese), and since it was a weeknight, it wasn’t very crowded, so we had a nice view to the stage. It was a different way to experience Shanghai.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Rocks and dumplings

Gardens seem to be a very important element of Asian cultures. An excellent example is the Kokoen gardens in Himeji, Japan, but it’s definitely not just a Japanese phenomenon. The Chinese gardens we’ve seen in our trips tend to be grander, rockier, and more complicated than their Japanese counterparts. The Summer Palace is a larger than life example, though the garden at the Forbidden City was another instance of a garden comprised of a number of pavilions, some trees, and many funny-shaped rocks.

The Chinese look at rocks the way we look at clouds: the imagination turns strange shapes into familiar objects or animals. In the Summer Palace, for example, there was a group of rocks names after the Chinese zodiac signs, though I couldn’t tell the monkey from the snake. If had had more time, however, I would have liked to try and find out.

In Shanghai, one of the major attractions is the YuYuan gardens. Unlike the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City, these were private gardens at a time, and belonged to a government official. For a garden that didn’t belong to the emperor, it is quite large. It is comprised of several sections (hence the plural “gardens”), and includes a few ponds, a zigzagging bridge, a corridor with a lane for ladies and another for gents, a theater, numerous courtyards, and, of course, hundreds of rocks.

On top of a white wall separating two of the gardens lays a grey dragon, undulating for many meters. Apparently the emperor was not amused when he heard of this dragon wall. After all, the dragon is the symbol of the emperor and not something commoners should be using to accessorize their gardens. The owner avoided this issue by giving only four claws to each of the dragon’s hands. It’s really a technicality, but since the emperor’s dragon has five claws, the dragon on the wall did not represent a threat.

Outside the gardens, there is a huge bazaar. It’s a whole neighborhood of buildings mimicking a traditional style and narrows streets packed with tourists. Most of the buildings house souvenir stores, but there is also a number of restaurants, including a very large one famous for its xiao long bao, or Shanghai-style dumplings. You can see the cooks at work folding many dumplings per minute, or you can go upstairs and try some yourself. They are very, very recommended.

Below are some views of the YuYuan Gardens.