Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Xanadu - my travels to/in/from China

Day 0: 6th July 2011

A journey of a thousand miles does not begin with a single step. It begins with the desire and tonnes of summoned will power to get up from bed. That's made a little easier and necessary if you have stuff to do like - speak to the Mrs. who is at the end of the said thousand mile journey; store stuff in the fridge of a friend who is fanatical about leaving to office by 730 and lastly if you have to get out of your comfort zone and do a perfectly regular thing which you have demonized in your mind (not going to elaborate on this activity :-) }

All done and back home for packing which too got done in pretty good time with the Mrs. calling every half an hour to check on my progress and to remind me to be safe at Hong Kong. Managed to sneak in some bits of 'Prince of Persia - Sands of time'!

The cab arrived with the trend of exotically named Meru drivers continuing- this time it was Omprakash Ehobran. I had budgeted for massive traffic enroute and had hence started at 1830 hrs though my flight was at 0100 hrs the next day. All along the route there were calls made and received advising caution and wishing for a good time in china. Guess what happened next- absolutely zero traffic.

Reached chatrapathi Shivaji international airport at 1930 hrs and was a surprise check in guest at jet airways counter for flight 9W 76 to hong kong. The staff wondered whether they should check me in so early but they went ahead and asked me to take it slow from immigration onwards.

Immigration was smoother than I had expected but for the fact that the officer was wondering why I had got a new passport for an ECNR clearance- beats me dude ask your bureaucratic bosses.

Anyway all said and done, after roaming around the duty free area it was time to board. The economy class in international flights is actually very comfortable. Watched aakrosh and went to sleep.

Day 1: 7th July 2011

The landing in hong kong was amazing. The bend across the mountains, the harbor and marina, and the runway right next to the sea was a sight to behold.

I had plans to check out some of the transit tourist spots but by the time I oriented myself to hongkong airport's complexity and systems I decided to spend my time inside. It's a different experience all together I would say. At the end of an hour I actually understood that the systems were pretty simplistic actually and I wish Indian airports could adopt some of the measures here like simple but efficient security checks, free wi-fi that actually works etc.

One thing that struck me was the prevalence of teeny weeny shorts among girls. Exhibition of long toned legs seemed the norm! The eyes were feasted, and then the stomach started demanding its turn - searched for a vegetarian dish and had a spinach mushroom quinche.

It was soon time for departure from hong kong. The cacophony of the Chinese travelers in the airplane was unbelievable. The childlike pronunciation and the long winded sentences made the journey pretty interesting.

Landed at shanghai's hongqiao airport on dot and cleared immigration quite easily. After lot of signalling I managed to borrow a cell phone to call my wife and let her know I had landed. {note- please activate international roaming or buy a pre paid world sim. Don't delay it till the last minute.}

It so happened that the mrs was on her way and I had to wait for ten more minutes. Ten minutes turned to an hour as she had gone to the wrong terminal.

What a joy it was to see her after so Many days! At that moment I felt as light as a feather devoid of tensions and fear.

We took the metro to the shanghai science and technology museum stop. We then hired a taxi to go home. Amazed at the brand of vehicles used as taxis - mine was a volkswagen passat. Met nidhi and srija there. Had a nice warm bath and some homemade dal and off I went to sleep.

Day 2: July 8 2011

The dawn broke bright and sunny and at 0530 I was fooled into believing that it was 1030. Had a late breakfast, said tata to the wife at the gate and then came back to the world of Skype Gmail and the like spending A few hours in the process.

After a quick bath I set out to Carrefour nearby and after a few basic purchases and observing the creepy crawlies and chopping of pork, I set out my long city exploring walks that I had started in Mumbai. My primary observation is that this city has achieved a healthy balance between the pedestrian and the motorist. Wide tree lined pavements and well laid roads with excellent traffic lights made it delightful to walk even at 2 in the afternoon.

I came back home and made cabbage molagootal which proved to be a good hit among nidhi and srija. Also had a gala time with Akash and Ganesh who had come down. A good dinner later, followed by packing for the Beijing trip ended the day.

Day. 3: July 9th 2011

Happy Anniversary!! It's been one whole year and it's been just awesome. Savi has been a real blessing in my life. Thanks for her presence, God.

My anniversary gift was a bullet train ride { the new G series which travels at 300 km/h} and a tour of Beijing for three days.

Our train G102 to Beijing Nan { Beijing south} was at 0700 hrs. We left home at 0500 reaching shanghai science and technology museum metro station in time for the metro which would take us to hongqiao railway station.

Jagan, Savi’s colleague was along with us and the promise of a fun filled journey hung in the air! Jagan did not live upto his description at all. We had been told that he was a serious guy, but I’m glad he proved those statements wrong. This guy’s a must have for ANY journey.

The first sight of the inter-city railway station evoked oohs and aahs from us. Seriously, it was more awesome than ANY airport I had seen so far. Yes, hong kong included. We finally got on to the platform for our first glimpse of the hallowed G series. There was no limit to the photo and video sessions. Jagan had a petite Sony handicam which swung into action with future productions for lonely planet.

The train started sharp at 0700 hrs with the guarantee that at 1220 hrs we would be stepping out on the platform at Beijing south.

Once the initial excitement of viewing the train touching 300 km/h had worn off, people turned to mundane stuff like eating and sleeping. Yes, even a bullet train has it's limitations in keeping humans perpetually occupied. The human race is thus- easily bored, always wanting more and fickle towards new forms of entertainment.

Had a tough time explaining that we wanted water. Had to finally walk towards the pantry, point to a bottle of Evian mineral water and get it. For those interested, the Chinese word for water is 'shway'.

As promised, we were walking out on the platform at 1220 hrs. The hotel, "qiao yuan" was directly opposite the north exit of the station. After dumping our bags, we emerged in the "searing" (supposedly for some madrasis) heat to explore the forbidden city and tianenmen square.

Beijing is a pretty simple city to navigate given the hyper efficient metro network. And the tickets cost just 2 yuan. If you take a pass and load it with some cash, you can eternally roam around the subway network to your heart's content for just about 2 yuan.

So, then we took a metro on line 4 to xidan and then changed to line 1 which takes you straight to tianenmen square.

The whole afternoon was spent in a historical lesson taught to us by a digital tourist guide which automatically detects the location you are at in the forbidden city and gives you a short historical overview of the same. Another lesson for the India Tourism Board.
One very funny thing that happened to us was the multiple times we were asked to pose with Chinese families for photographs. I had read about this - the fact that Indians are considered a bit 'exotic' if I may use the term.

Tianenmen was an entirely different experience. The venue of the infamous 1989 protests so brutally suppressed by deng xiaoping - it now bears a festive atmosphere celebrating the 90th anniversary of the communist party. The atmosphere resembles the carnival that's seen at india gate! The square is surrounded by the peoples hall, chairman Mao's memorial and the national museum of china.

One interesting thing happened- while we were roaming around the square, we were approached by a pretty Chinese female who was curious to know where we were from and whether we would like to join her for tea. I had read somewhere on the net to avoid such invites and did so accordingly.

We then pushed our tired bodies to wongfujing a commercial centre of Beijing. Didn't find anything worthwhile or affordable in the high street shopping atmosphere of that place.

Day 4: July 10th 2011

Groan!!!!! Another early day, this time courtesy of the tour of the great wall of china and the summer palace. We were asked to get ready by 0700 hrs to be picked up by the tour operator.

We chose to have breakfast at the hotel's restaurant and instantly regretted the same. The only choice for veggies was pumpkin, dumplings, boiled vegetables and milk! Found out later in the evening that there was another restaurant which served western food.

One of the major questions is how does one verify whether the food is actually meat free or not. This is made tougher by the fact that a minuscule % of Chinese speak English. Just ask "mayo row?" which translates to "no meat?". If the reply is row then it's non veg. If the reply is mayo then it's vegetarian. The Chinese actually find the concept of veggies pretty strange. There were lots of smiles after we had placed the order.

Our vehicle driver came exactly at 7, picked us up and set out to pick up another tourist, an Australian who was a target of our back-biting. She earned this through her obnoxious attitude illustrated by gems like “there are so many people here”. Of course idiot, when you come to the most populous country in the world, people will be the main thing that you see. Wont waste much time on this irritant (except to highlight some highlights (sic)) ;).

We first set out to the summer palace, which as the name suggests was a retreat for the emperor in the summer. There are a few stories associated with this place all involving the “dragon lady”. The place by itself is sylvan and pleasant; there’s a big lake and lots of trees.

Following this we were taken to the ‘Torture Cell Number 1” of the day – the jade factory. This place showcases how jade ornaments and showpieces are made and the “tourists” are encouraged to buy a souvenir or two. Except that encouraged is too mild a term to be used. You need tremendous will power and an infinite capacity to say NO to escape from this place with your wallet weighing the same. Of course, its part of a business tactic of the tour operator and the jade factory operators. Take it in your stride and say NO loud and clear if you do not intend to buy any piece.

Lunch was served at a restaurant behind the jade showroom (cost covered under the tour package) and if you are a vegetarian all that you will get is rice, tofu, boiled vegetables and spring rolls.

With the formality of lunch completed, we headed towards the Badaling section of the great wall. The utility of the tour operator was felt only when we reached here. Without them it’s impossible to beat the crowd and navigate your way through he cable car ride and trek up the wall and get back.

The Great Wall itself is simply amazing. With the thrill of having seen a wonder of the world satisfied, we then started to look around. Wherever you see, the vast expanse of the great wall looms large upon you. It stretches far beyond the line of sight and its importance in an era when there were no radars/anti-aircraft guns etc cannot be underlined enough. A must see for everyone. Jagan shot some classic anniversary videos of us which we will treasure for life!

We were then ushered to torture chamber number 2 – a a pearl showroom with a similar experience like in the jade showroom. Again, tons of patience and an infinite ability to say NO is essential.

In the course of the day, the Aussie had provided some comic fun by praising Jagan’s t-shirt; which led us to link the two and crack innumerable jokes. Jagan being the sport that he is, took it in his stride and joined in the fun. Towards the end of the day, the Aussie started to lose her cool and the Beijing sun (a mere 33 degree Celsius) boiled her brains and made her utter lots of obscenities against our tour guide. Thumbs down lady, it’s difficult to see you adjust in a non-Caucasian nation.

While returning, we saw the Olympic stadiums and got into a discussion on family and the time that can be allocated to hobbies and “pasisons” – I strongly defended Arsenal while Jagan issued a challenge saying that a re-evaluation would have to be carried out in 5 years time.

After a brief rest at the hotel, we set out again to Wongfujing street – this time armed with information about the exact spots to visit. Its an amazing street with lots of trinkets and other decorative stuff to buy – but beware of a deviation – it leads straight to culinary hell: where all the creepy-crawlies are roasted in open air. The stench is nauseating!

We also managed to advance our bullet train tickets to a 1400 hrs train on Monday. The process is very simple – you just go to the counter and show the tickets and then indicate the time to which you would like to change. If seats are available, its as simple as a Copy Paste operation in MS Excel. No Cancellation+loss of money+changing charges etc.

Day 5: July 11th 2011

Yippeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!! Saw Pandas face to face for the first time. Beijing zoo is a sprawling area with a wide variety of animals on display. But our focus was squarely on Pandas and Pandas were the only animals we saw and exited.

Also managed to surrender jagan’s Beijing subway card.
Caught the 1400 hrs bullet and reached Shanghai Hongqiao at 1915 hrs. Was home by 2030! Neat!

Day 6: July 12th 2011

Jetlag and the Beijing trip exertions finally hit me! Slept like a log, watched movies and chatted.

Day 7: July 13th 2011

Bomb blasts in Mumbai! Really sad :-(. Why doesn’t India adopt a firm policy like the US and China? Have these countries witnessed even one such incident in the recent past?

Met Jagan in the evening and visited Starbucks for the first time. YAAAAYYYYYYY!!! Love the place and the coffee quality is also good, unlike SPR coffee which I presume is a Chinese imitation of starbucks.

Day 8: July 14th 2011

Went to Lujiazui to check on some bank related stuff. Saw the magnificent IFC towers, the pearl tower and got lost totally. Was a big big blow to my ego and was sulking the remainder of the day. Note to self: its OK to get lost, don’t make it a big issue.

Day 9: July 15th 2011

Went to Lujiazui again with Savi’s colleagues – Evergreen, kevin, Sky and Sky’s wife Vicky. Awesome guys! Learnt a lot about China and got an impression that Chinese have a laissez-faire attitude towards jobs. “if not this, another one” seems to be the motto unlike in India where we analyse and dissect the decision so much that we end up bursting our brains.

Day 10: July 16th 2011

Friends of Nidhi and Sreeja had come over – Pavithra, Ting Ting and Fiona. Had lunch, spent some time talking. Pavithra was glad to have found tamils in Savi and me and it was an Iyer bhashai session throughout.

Savi, Pavithra and me then went to French Concession a place which I had hyped up a lot based on what I had read. Turned out to be a boutique showroom paradise! Was a bit dejected.

Day 11: July 17th 2011

Achieved great heights! Literally. Went on top of the World Financial Tower observatory which is some 400 odd metres above sea level and had a wonderful view of Shanghai.

Went to Yuyuan garden and AP Plaza, shopped and got all the gifts that I wanted and returned home for packing. Said my goodbyes

Day 12: July 18th 2011

End of a wonderful vacation :-(

My takeaway’s from the trip:

1. A very friendly race of people. Very cute in their speech and mannerisms. Don’t know how the aggressor image has gained credence. Maybe that’s another side of their psyche – the Mr. Hyde!

2. China is a good place to visit - considering that at one point of time it was equivalent to India, the progress has been tremendous

3. India is light years behind China and serious effort is needed to even think of catchning up with them!