A Travellerspoint blog

Taking advantage of some time off

Small day trips around Shanghai

sunny 32 °C

Although it hasn't been that long since our last entry, we have done quite a few things in the past couple of days so this entry may get lengthy. I apologize in advance!
Last weekend we had to work both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday I (Heidi) actually had to teach a couple of demos for parents and students. I was unaware that I would have to do this so soon. I was hoping I could teach a few classes to get comfortable before I had to do a class in front of parents. Any of you who know me will understand that I did not sleep a wink the night before the demo. I could just imagine my face getting all blotchy and my voice getting shakey. But it actually went really well, I taught body parts to a small group of 4-5 year olds. I got them all laughing and a few parents signed their kids up so, I must have done an okay job.
After work, we found a restaurant near our home that was serving an American style BBQ. They had shish-kebobs, chicken breasts, hot dogs, potato salad and beer. It was all you can eat for $10 and we took full advantage, it was actually very good and we plan on going back this weekend.
Monday we spent running errands and going to the foreign book store. We really miss having a Barnes and Noble right around the corner! We ended up only buying a cookbook though because the books were kind of expensive, $10 for a paperback. I have also been on a mission to find fingernail polish remover, I still have my toenail polish on from the wedding! Unfortunately I have only been able to find some that cost $25, thats right 25 USD for a small bottle of fingernail polish remover.For that much money, I can just wear socks until it grows off! So our errand running was not that successful.
Tuesday was a big day. We went to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park with our friends Erik and Amara. This is a type of zoo where the animals are not in cages but in big yards with moats around them. There is also a bus that you can take through the "reserve" part of the park. They used to sell live animals for you to throw out of the bus windows to the animals but have stopped doing that recently. It wasn't clear if that was for safety reasons or for cruelty to animals reasons. Whichever the reasons, the animals have not gotten used to it and still walk up to the bus begging for food, like the bear and lion below.

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Other than the animals that wandered to the bus, most were just sleeping in the shade, quite disappointing! The rest of the zoo was pretty nice, there were a lot on monkeys and baby lions but it was such a hot day that most of the animals were laying around. The highlight of the day came when we visited Lemur Island. This is an island where all the lemurs roam free outside of their cages. You can purchase fruit to feed them and they will come right up to you and eat out of your hand. When I heard about this, I was less than excited, animals eating right out of your hand sounded pretty gross to me! It was actually really fun, they were pretty cute/weird looking but their fur was really soft and their feet had soft little pads on them. They would come right up to you and jump on your head and shoulders just fighting for the apples. Then they would sit right on your shoulder and munch away at the food.

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Tuesday was Mid-Autumn Holiday, the celebration of the Full Autumn Moon. To celebrate, we were invited by our friend Ben to go out to dinner. We met him at his apartment where he treated us with mooncakes. Traditional mooncakes are cakes filled with a variety of things such as bean paste, egg yolk, or nuts. Ben bought us some more "American" style mooncakes which were made out of white or milk chocolate and filled with bean paste. Afterwards we enjoyed a spicy Sichuan dinner and then walked around Fudan Universtiy campus. Since it was a holiday, there were people everywhere, sitting on blankets, reading poetry, looking at the moon and of course eating mooncakes. It was quite festive and reminded us of the 4th of July, everyone just spending time with friends and family. The moon was quite beautiful that night!

Wednesday we got up really early to catch a 7:45 train to Suzhou, which is a city about 1 hour outside of Shanghai. Suzhou is a "smaller" city with a population of 5.1 million. It is very famous for its ancient gardens, at one time there was over 100 but now only about 1 dozen remain. When we got to the train station, we were a little disappointed, that part of the city is really dumpy with decaying buildings and muddy canals but after we started walking the city soon turned quaint. Narrow streets with overhanging trees. Our first stop was the North Temple Pagoda, which is the tallest pagoda south of the Yangzi River at 9 storeys tall. We climbed to the top and had an awesome view of the city. The temple goes back 1700 years and was originally a residence. We spent some time wandering the grounds, with the hidden gardens and Buddha statues.

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Next we headed to the Humble Administrator'a Garden, the biggest and most impressive in Suzhou, it was constructed in the early 1500s. Everything about this garden was beautiful and you could tell that much thought has been put into the placement of every building, tree and stone. Although it was a very hot day, the garden has been constructed to keep people cool, everywhere we went we were either in the breeze or under the shade of a tree. It was very beautiful and very peaceful.

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Above is just one of hundreds of bonsai trees in the garden. There where trees there anywhere from 5 to 100 years old. It is such an interesting and time consuming art. This was one of Nate's favorites.

To end the day we went to the Suzhou Silk Museum. Suzhou was once an important part of the silk road and has a 4000 year old silk industry. We where able to observe ancient and modern techniques of silk making. It was really interesting. They even had baskets full of silk worms munchin' away at mulberry leaves in preparation for their cocoon making. If anyone needs some silk, that is the place to purchase it, you can get a meter of silk for less that $1!
We decided to only do a few things in Suzhou on Wednesday, the weather was really too hot to do much outside and since it is so close to Shanghai and it only costs $2 each to get there, we will just come back frequently to enjoy the small town. It really is a nice break from the fast paced life of Shanghai.
That pretty much catches us up to today. We also have a Picassa Web Albums account where we are posting more pictures the address is http://picasaweb.google.com/heidigras. I hope you enjoy!

Posted by heidigras 04:59 Archived in China Comments (1)

The Job Hunt!

rain 27 °C

So, now that our friends are gone, we decided that it was time to start working and making some money. We started looking online for jobs and discovered that there are dozens of new jobs posted everyday. We just started emailing our resumes to every place that looked okay and waited. Within 24 hours, we each had set up several interviews and were feeling pretty optimistic. Each interview, we were offered a job and so it started to become a quest to find the school with the best package. We spent about 4 more days interviewing at various schools; kindergartens, adult centers, private and public schools. Those days interviewing were exhausting, Shanghai is a very big city and traveling from here to there takes quite a while and of course the schools were never right next to each other, 2 interviews would pretty much fill up a day. It started getting pretty chaotic as potential employers continued to call us and try to set up appointments, at one point we were in contact with 20 different schools. It became pretty stressful to keep all the schools & contact people straight and after 4 days, we were both pretty tired of interviewing. On the fourth day I accepted a job at Lolo Kids. Nate continued his quest for a few more days, trying to decide if he wanted to accept a position at an adult or children's school. Just when Nate was about to make a decision, a job opened up at my company and Nate was offered a job. He took it.

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So, we are both employed now by Lolo kids, which is a new school in Shanghai teaching kids ages 3-12. The parent company to Lolo is a very popular adult education school called Longre Education. Longre decided to open a kids branch of their successful business, Lolo Kids. They are opening 5 new centers in Shanghai with one teacher at each location. Nate and I were hired as the lone teacher at 2 of these new centers. This job not only offered us the best package (good pay, they sponsor and pay for our visa, health insurance and plenty of vacation) but working at the same school also guarantees us similar schedules. Since the school is brand new, there aren't actually any students yet. For now our job consists of hanging out at our centers for about 8 hours each weekend, meeting parents and testing kids for placement. The school anticipates that classes will begin sometime in mid-October, which gives us about 3 more weeks of relaxing (and we are still getting paid!)
Last Saturday was our first day of work (since June 15!). We went to one of the centers where there where a couple demos scheduled. At demos, parents and kids come in for a demonstration lesson. The director gave the demos and it was our job to play with the kids and try to get them to speak English. After the demo, we each gave the kids placement tests. Overall, it was a really fun day, just playing and talking with adorable little Chinese kids. Seeing how cute the kids are really made us anxious to start teaching. They were all so excited about learning English and their enthusiasm was contagious. For the weekend, we had probably 60 kids come for testing and we had a few kids sign up on the spot. It will probably take some time to get all the classes filled up so until then we will just be teaching a few classes a week. It is pretty nice to ease into this job, just one or two classes a week will give us a chance to get comfortable with teaching.

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So while we still have a quite a bit of free time, we are trying to do some more sight seeing. On Tuesday we went to a FIFA Women's World Cup Soccer match, Nigeria vs USA (we won 1-0). It was a pretty fun game, we sat by some of the family members of the players so their excitement was pretty contagious. We had so much fun, we are going to try to get tickets for the final match on September 30. There is also a Tourism Festival going on in Shanghai right now, lots of parades, fireworks, and food & beer festivals. We hope to go to as many things as possible. This week has been pretty rainy so it has been a little difficult to get out to do stuff, you don't realize how much rain effects your plans until you have to walk everywhere!
As most of you probably heard, there was a typhoon scare on Wednesday. It was predicted to be the worst to hit Shanghai in over a decade; schools and businesses were shut down, they closed the subway and evacuated 200,000 people from the suburbs. It was really quite impressive how well the government handled the threat, especially if you compare it to how terribly the US handled Hurricane Katrina a couple years ago (we should be so embarrassed!) Fortunately it missed us and it barely rained at all (we were happy that it didn't turn out as bad as they predicted but truthfully were a bit disappointed that we didn't get any sort of bad weather at all, it would have been interesting to experience a mild typhoon).

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That pretty much sums up our life for the last couple weeks, finally getting everything settled and hanging out with friends. The next couple weeks we will hopefully do some small day trips and visit some friends in Nanjing (we will also work every now and then!). Sorry the blogs haven't come as frequently as we had promised, now that we are caught up it will be easier to keep you updated. Until next time...

Posted by heidigras 08:08 Archived in China Comments (1)

A Taste of Old China

33 °C

Our second round of traveling plans revolved around sites that are often referred to as the "Old China" or "real" China. Our first stop was to a water village named Zhu Jia Jiao (朱家角), located in the outskirts of Shanghai. Once upon a time, much of the regions around the Yangzi River were organized villages with many canals and waterways. These waterways served a number of functions: to remove waste and sewage, transport goods, irrigation, and fishing resources. At one point in time, there even existed a Grand Canal that reached all the way to Beijing. Nowadays few of these canal systems remain in existence, but the small water villages that have been preserved are celebrated as an accurate picture of the region as it looked as close as a couple of hundred years ago.

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This water village is located about an hour and a half from the city center of Shanghai, so we rented a minibus to drive us there. We spent a leisurely afternoon there, taking a short boat cruise through the winding canals, and walking the paths and bridges of this small village. We also visited the local temple, where our friends enjoyed ringing the temple bell and listening to its resounding gong reverberate over the village waters.

Our second stop was a short trip to Beijing (北京), the capital city of China. We took a night train from Shanghai to Beijing, which leaves at 7 pm and arrives in the city 12 hours later, which is a pretty comfortable ride in the soft sleeper section of the train. The soft sleeper section is divided into rooms with two sets of bunk beds in each room. However, we purchased our tickets a bit late (only two days in advance instead of the recommended week in advance), so we could not all have beds in the same room. So Heidi and I bunked with a couple of random Chinese guys on the way there, and Mike and Chris got lucky by being placed with a couple of Chinese babes (although they were too chicken to try to talk to them, haha). We arrived in Beijing just before 7 am the next morning, and quickly made work of haggling over room prices at a nearby hotel. After we dropped off our luggage, we were off to the Summer Palace (颐和园), one of the historical residences of the Emperor during China's dynastic period.

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The original Summer Palace was destroyed by Western countries (primarily British and French forces) at the conclusion of the second Opium War during the 19th century. It seems that there are few places one can travel in China without being reminded of the historical tensions between the Eastern and Western powers.

That night we visited the famous Lao She Tea House, where there are nightly performances to accompany our tea snacks and bottomless cups of tea. There they put on a kind of variety show, which includes singing, traditional instruments, Beijing opera, acrobatics, magic, and comedy. But my favorite part was the Sichuan mask act, where a man in traditional garb magically switches his face mask to different colors and designs at the blink of an eye. Afterwards, we spent several hours wandering around the city, in search of pizza, the one food Chris and Mike were desperately craving. Our unsuccessful journey eventually delivered us into the hands of that beloved figure of the American South know as Colonel Sanders, where we enjoyed some spicy chicken sandwiches (made with dark meat, but still tasty).

The next day we had to get out of bed early, as we rented a private driver to take us to one of the most famous sights in China, the Great Wall. So at seven o' clock in the morning, we were off on a three hour trek to the outskirts of Beijing, to a little village called Jian Kou. When we arrived at Jian Kou, we were dropped off at the base of the mountain, and had a one hour hike ahead of us to reach the section of the Great Wall. This section of the wall is referred to as the "wild wall", as it is a 700+ year-old, unmaintained section of the wall, and hence is a less-traveled destination. Here we could escape the sea of tourists, vendors, and tacky advertisements that predominate the more popular destinations. We wanted to avoid all of the safety rails and banana hawkers to have a more isolated and unspoiled experience.

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We spent the entire day hiking the treacherous slopes of the wall around Jian Kou, where we had a magnificent view of the wall, as its ancient stone structures and guard towers snaked along the mountains surrounding the valley of Jian Kou.

After an exhausting day travailing the wall, we returned to Beijing. Our first stop in the city was at a restaurant that specialized in Beijing duck, a special dish native to Beijing. The duck is roasted whole with oil and seasonings, then is cut into slices and served with condiments and small flour shells. The duck is placed with onion, cucumber, and plum sauce onto a shell, then is rolled up and eaten like a taco. It is a really tasty, and must-have of Beijing cuisine. After dinner, we discovered that we were in the midst of a beer festival, where there were masses of people, beer stands, and entertainers everywhere. In order to be discreet and avoid the attention of the locals, we quickly joined in the festivities and hid our faces behind a few pints of some good German brews.

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After we tipped back a couple of pints, we decided to check out a local food street, where we could try some tasty local night time snacks. There we discovered some really interesting treats, including grilled scorpions, seahorses, and silk worms, some of which can be seen below.

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The scorpions above were crazy, as they were still alive and moving. They were cooked to a crisp, and once you can get past the crunchy little legs, they were actually pretty tasty, just like popcorn! Yum! The silk worms, however....not so tasty (*shudder*).
After our culinary adventure, we were off to Hou Hai, a really cool area of brightly lit bars and restaurants that are built around a lake. We just took a scenic stroll through the area, and helped Mike and Chris buy some souvenirs, including some really cool Chinese revolution propaganda posters, which I also couldn't help but purchase a few. At the end of the night, we were exhausted after such a long day, and crashed in our hotel.

The next day Heidi and I decided to split ways with Mike, Chris, and our Chinese friend Jessica. They went to visit the Forbidden City, which is the famous massive complex of buildings that was once the residence of the emperor. We had already seen this place, so we decided to let them take a look while we explored something new. Heidi and I first went to the Lama temple, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Tibet. It was a really beautiful temple, with many ornately decorated halls.

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After wandering through the temple, we were approached by a hawker that was offering rickshaw tours of the city. I expressed disinterest, but eventually gave into his relentless pitch by agreeing to a price that was less than 1/10 of his initial offer. So we hopped on a rickshaw, which is a small covered cart that is pulled by a bicycle. A Chinese man pedaled us around on the rickshaw through some of the famous hutongs (胡同) of Beijing, which are the traditional small lanes that crisscross through the traditional living structures of the locals.

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Beijing people traditionally lived in courtyard-style houses, which were divided into four-walled sections, with a courtyard in the center. We stopped in to visit the inside of one of these residences, and also visited the city's drum tower and bell tower, which are famous structure found in some of the larger and historical cities in China (primarily those which were once capital cities). We also stopped into a porcelain shop, where we observed the entire process of making a vase, from the pottery wheel to the the final etching and painting. Below is some women painting the final stage of some vases.

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After our trip around the city's hutongs, we joined Chris, Mike, and Jessica for a short hike up the the mountain at Jinshan Park, where we could have a panoramic view of the Forbidden city from up on high. The mountain here is man-made, and the mound originated from the earth removed to form the moat around the forbidden city. Besides the great view from this park, it is also famous as it is the site of the suicide of the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. The emperor was driven to hanging himself from a tree after the last dynasty (ruled by the foreign Manchus) was overthrown by a Chinese-driven revolution.

Afterwards we grabbed some dinner, hurried to the hotel, picked up our stuff, and then rushed to the train station, where we made it just in time. We then took the return trip in a train back to Shanghai, where we were again bunking with some random Chinese and Japanese people. Thus this concludes our tales of Old China, and hence is the last thing you have to read about in this lengthy blog entry.

Posted by heidigras 20:40 Archived in China Comments (0)

Modern Shanghai

32 °C

We're still trying to catch you all up on current events, and I think the best way to begin is to say that our anniversary was a success. On our anniversary day I was able to wake up early for a change and made it out to a large outdoor market just down the road from our apartment complex. I bought some really nice flowers by the stem and had them cut, wrapped, and arranged in a nice vase. The market where I bought them is actually pretty cool. It is organized into several small shops under a large tent-like pavilion. Here you can buy anything from pets (including fish, dogs, cats, birds, lizards, turtles, spiders, snakes...), to flowers and plants, to antique decorations. Heidi and I had visited there once before just to check it out (whereupon I was discouraged from buying a really cool bonsai tree) but the flowers were my first real purchase there. After stumbling my way through the ordering process with my broken Chinese, I finally managed to get what I wanted, and felt that I got a pretty good deal, too. On the return trip home, I grabbed some MacDonald's for lunch (Heidi's favorite, haha) and grabbed a small cake from a quaint little bakery down the road. It is pretty convenient that all of these things are within walking distance from our apartment, although because the city is so dense, it has taken me some time to find many of these little shops and boutiques.

That evening we found a really nice Italian restaurant located in the French Concession, a historical area of town whose architecture still bears the mark of European influence in Shanghai. Our restaurant was located in an old villa which was once the residence of a wealthy European family. We had a great dinner, which included fresh mozzarella balls, lasagna, and even some authentic sangria, once again proving that you can find just about anything in Shanghai.

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The next few days were just a blur of restaurants, shops, and night life events, as we introduced more of the city to our friends Chris and Mike, who were visiting us from Michigan. We went to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where there are really interesting displays of the city as it has looked over time, and also a large scale model of the city center. It is there that one can really get a sense of how fast this city has grown over the past few decades, but it is still hard to imagine that only thirty years ago the tallest building here was a mere 13 stories. This trip was aptly juxtaposed with a visit to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, from where one of the best views of the city can be obtained from its observation deck, and where we could show our friends the character of the city today.

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Above is a great picture of the massive project that is the Shanghai World Financial Center, with the Jin Mao tower in the foreground. The Jin Mao tower is currently the world's fifth tallest building, but will soon be overshadowed by the Shanghai World Financial Center, which is slated to stand at 492 meters (1,614 feet) at its completed height.

And of course, no trip to the this side of the city would be complete without a tour of the Bund, the historical location of foreign investment, architecture, and the concession areas located along the Huangpu River. It's hard to believe now, but less than 100 years ago, signs reading "NO DOGS OR CHINESE" were placed on parks in this area to restrict access to Westerners. Now the European architecture has been preserved and is revered as a signature landmark of the unique character and history of the city. One of the most impressive views of this city can be had at night, when the city is lit up like a Christmas tree. We took a night boat cruise down the Huangpu River, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower can be seen here in all of its night time glory below.

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This concluded our introduction of the city to our American friends, and thereby also concluded our introduction of modern China. The next couple of side trips would provide a view of ancient China, the kinds of places that are stereotypically referred to as the "real China", the kind of sights everyone expects to see when they come to the Orient. More detailed blog entries of these trips will come soon...

Posted by heidigras 02:03 Archived in China Comments (1)

Back in China

sunny 34 °C

Well, we had a quick visit back in the states, we had a great time and it was great to see everyone. We are now back in Shanghai and are anticipating some visits from friends and a few more weeks of vacation before we start looking for jobs. The first few days back were a little rough, we both got sick and the jet lag took a bit to get over, so we pretty much hung out in the apartment. On Wednesday our friend Chris came to visit. The first night he was here, we took him to dinner and then to the highest building in China (for now, they are finishing a new one that will be even taller). It took 3 elevators to get to the top, there is a bar on the 89th floor. We had intended to get drinks there but it was really expensive (like $10 USD) so we just kind of looked around and then left.
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Chris was sick for a couple days after he arrived to we kind of laid low, another friend, Mike, showed up a couple days later and we started sight seeing again. We went to Yu Yuan (a 700 year old garden) and Old Town (traditional Chinese architecture). We had been here before but it is a must see in Shanghai and really never gets old. It was beautiful and the detail to the garden in amazing, each rock and plant have been placed specifically to create a perfect environment. Old Town has a great "old world" feel with narrow streets and Chinese buildings towering over the alleys. Some of the atmosphere is lost by the vendors selling souvenirs but they are cheap and usually good gifts so we did a little bartering.

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A few days later, it was my birthday. We went to the Jade Buddha Temple in the morning. It was very interesting and holds a very large Buddha statue made completely of white Jade.
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Afterwards we did a lot of walking, we found a small street lined with restaurants with all different cuisines and had some Chinese Muslim food. We went to the other side of the river to Pudong and looked for a Museum but were unable to find it so we headed home. To end the day, we headed to a Shanghai Acrobat show. We had seen a couple before but this was by far the best. Our friend Lucy is a tour guide in Shanghai and was able to get us great seats for very cheap. Even though I was far away from home and family, It was a very good birthday, very busy but I really enjoyed everything we did.

Posted by heidigras 07:05 Archived in China Comments (1)

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