Shanghai - December 2010

With airlines reducing schedules and increasing airfares, it is getting more difficult each year to find vacations that won't break the bank, especially during school breaks. After a lot of summer time searching we found a relatively good deal to Shanghai, the largest city in mainland China.

As school break approached we were very excited for our trip, even though we weren't looking forward to an exhausting 15 hour flight. We arrived on time and we were ready to explore. With 2 guidebooks, winter coats, and stack of restaurant recommendations to help take us through the city our plan was to explore and learn as much as we could with our limited time.

The first attraction you encounter in Shanghai is at the airport. Lot's of airports have subways, taxis and buses but in Shanghai you can take one of the fastest trains in the world. This is the MAGLEV train which runs from the Airport to downtown Shanghai (Pudong) in 7 minutes 20 seconds achieving a top speed of 268 mph. You cant even appreciate how fast you are going until you pass a train in the opposite direction because you can feel it but you can't really see it.

Our hotel was situated between Nanjing Lu and People's Square in the city center. Nanjing Lu is one of the world's busiest pedestrian shopping streets, and was crowded day and night. In the early morning , there were hundreds of people doing Tai Chi and in the evening shoppers filled the streets looking for bargains and snacks. Since we stand out more than most people, we constantly have people offering to sell us handbags, toys and watches.
Hungry, tired and with no particular destination in mind, we went for a walk along Nanjing Lu, past the McDonalds and KFC's when we saw a small sign that said dumplings and a frenzy of people walking in and out. We followed everyone through a supermarket and up the escalator to a food court with about five or six dumpling and soup restaurants. The place was packed! The biggest line was for Yang's Fry Dumpling (these are fried soup dumplings made of pork and sage) so we sent Keith to order and Elliot and I found seats at a communal table. It took Keith a while to figure out the system. Orders were not placed at the restaurant, but instead you had to go to a separate cashier from a printed list. The usual technique of pointing at what you wanted was not going to work here. It certainly posed an ordering challenge since nobody spoke English but Keith used the zoom on the digital camera to take pictures of what he saw others eating and then showed the camera display to the cashier. By holding up the display and pointing he was finally able to get his message across.

You can see that the place is very popular and the line was present the entire time we were there. We found out after that Yang's was one of the most famous dumpling chains in Shanghai. It also confirms that if there is a line of people waiting to buy food then it is probably going to be special.
We had read that eyeglasses were very cheap in Shanghai so we began our first day with a visit to the Eyeglass market behind the Shanghai Railway Station. There are over a hundred eye glass shops in a multi level mall the size of a Home Depot. We settled on one vendor amongst the hundreds and three salespeople helped Elliot pick out a new pair. Bargaining was a part of every purchase in Shanghai, and we may have given in too early. We initially thought that we got ripped off (since he has a strong prescription) but after running the numbers we realized that the frames and lenses were only 250 RMB (approx $38). They were ready in 30 minutes and they fit perfect. We wish we bought another pair since Elliot loves them!

Next up was one of the most famous dumpling houses in the city, Jia Jia Tong Bao and we waited about 15 minutes for a table. We ordered 3 types of dumplings at the cashier when we walked in and and joined other diners at the table while our dumpings were freshly prepared. We had pork, pork and crab and crab and all were excellent!
Ever since our Japan trip, Elliot has been fascinated with vending machines and their offerings. With the selection in this row, wouldn't you choose the Happy Roll?? We don't know what the other packages said but from the looks of it maybe something like "Sad Girl Cookies" or "Boo Boo Face." We didn't give them a try and never found out.
The next stop was the Jade Budda temple in the western part of Shanghai. The temple itself was beautiful and there were two giant Jade Buddas but we were not allowed to photograph either of them. The Jade Buddas and the beautiful architecture was not the memorable part of this site for Elliot.
For him the highlight of temple was being able to feed the Koi fish. The fish are accustomed to being hand fed and ate right out of your hand.
In Japan we found some crazy Kit-Kat flavors... No Kit-Kat's in China, but we found some interesting Lay's Potato Chips (Hot and Sour Fish Soup, Italian Meat Sauce, Lemon Tea, Cool and Refreshing Lime Flavor). This was the selection at 1 store but we didn't buy them when we had the opportunity. We at least got to try the Italian Meat Sauce (which tasted similar to BBQ) and cucumber which tasted like a sushi roll according to Elliot.
If we had any preconceived notions about what China would be like (overcrowded, hectic, heavy government presence) this picture captures the exact opposite. The infrastructure is very new, there is some incredible modern architecture and gleaming shopping malls. We even heard that the Bentley auto showroom never has cars in it because they sell so fast that they can't keep any in stock. Most of old Shanghai is no longer standing because it was raised to make room for new modern buildings but in one corner of the city some old streets remain. There is not much of the old Shanghai remaining but some remnants of old Shanghai with alleys and street foods which seems to balance out the city.
Yunnan is the most southwest corner of China that borders Burma and Laos. We have never seen (or heard of) a Yunnanese restaurant so made sure it was on our list. We went to Southern Barbarian restaurant which is famous for two things; their extensive beer list and fried honey bees (yes real honeybees). Since we have sampled (and enjoyed.. Really!) some of the more mainstream insects like crickets and grasshoppers we just couldn't pass up this opportunity. We don't know if they are meant to be a finger food but that's how we ate them. Elliot LOVED them. His tongue even turned yellow!! None of us will look at the typical honey bee the same way again.
Each day we tried to coordinate our activities around the foods we wanted to try. On our third day we sought out a "Food Street" in the old part of Shanghai. The only mention of it was in the Frommer's book but the neighborhood map was mislabeled and we walked in circles for a half hour. Finally we found the one block section where a few dozen street restaurants were selling different foods. It is easy to tell what will taste good but the most frustrating thing is that the language barrier prevents you from actually finding out what you are eating most of the time. The only way you can order is to point at the item, hold up your fingers for the quantity that you want, smile and then offer some coins. Usually the proprietor will take the correct amount, in the 25-85c range.
Fortunately all of the items are cheap so we tried as many as we could including scallion pancakes fresh out of the pan, more dumplings, a type of fried bread and Jian Bing (above) which is a breakfast crepe with egg, scallions, parsley, a crunchy cruller and some hot sauce which gets rolled and folded like a burrito. It was one of the best things we ate during the entire trip.
Elliot went back for seconds!!!

The Chinese version of the "Dollar Store" except what cost $1 in the US costs 2RMB (30 cents) in Shanghai .
A nice tea service in YuYuan garden, which is basically a tourist trap, but it was the ideal break for us after a visit in the garden. They had a list of teas the ailments they could cure but one of the workers there lost credibility because he had a cold which is one of the things that the special tea was supposed to prevent in the first place. It was hard to say no but we didn't buy anything and we continued with our tour of the gardens.
The YuYuan Garden was a beautiful park, but best appreciated in the warmer months. It was built in the Ming Dynasty over 400 years ago as a tranquil park. The treasure in the park is the Jade Rock which is huge. There were gardens within the garden and Elliot had plenty of space to run around and enjoy some fresh air.
With all that fresh air, we needed some dumplings! Luckily right outside the gardens, at the foot of the zig zag bridge was Nanxiang Steamed Dumplings. Elliot had a soup dumpling so large it needed a straw! It was very good indeed and he really enjoyed it.
Here you can see his technique. Normally the preferred method is to nibble the dumpling first, then slurp the soup, and finally eat the dumpling. Elliot's technique when he finally gets the chopsticks to grip is to eat it in one bite.
Later that day, more dumplings to perfect his technique, but this time they were desert dumplings filled with Red Bean Paste at Din Tai Fung in Xintandi. A sweet ending to a long day.
We had two excellent meals at the Crystal Jade Restaurant which is Cantonese with some Shanghai Style Dim Sum. This is a Roast Pork over Noodles, and it
tasted as good as it looks.An afternoon was spent shopping for toys and souvenirs at the AP Xinyang Fashion and Gifts Market. Elliot was able to refine his bargaining skills and really got into it. He named a ridiculously low price for a remote control car and walked away when the vendor said no, and he ended up getting it for his price after haggling a bit more. Hopefully he will be able to leverage these skills in the boardroom one day. This was the best picture we could get because vendors selling counterfit goods really don't like when you photograph them or their inventory but they have everything!
After 6 days we were veterans of the street food scene and became quite comfortable sampling varieties of food and developing new favorites. We found WuFu alley and were rewarded with some new treats and different varieties of things we hadn't seen before.
Elliot enjoyed the steamed buns just as much as the soup dumplings.The final stop of the trip was the Shanghai Zoo. Most of the reports on the Internet say that this zoo has inhumane habitats and that the animals are mistreated. We kept this in mind when we were strolling around the zoo and did notice that the habitats are from a different era where the animal exhibits were generally designed much smaller than they are today.
We finally found the panda and we were very sad. He was not moving and almost looked like something you see in the movies where a person wears a panda costume, drinks too much and ends up in the panda cage at the zoo.
Then we found a group of happy playful pandas that were just happy to have a big pile of bamboo to enjoy.
We ended the trip the same way as we began with a ride on the MAGLEV train. Elliot waved goodbye with the 2010 World Expo mascot by his side. We had a wonderful time in China and will have very fond memories of the sights, sounds, tastes and people of China for many years to come.
Wishing all of you a healthy and prosperous 2011!

Corinne, Keith & Elliot

BONUS VIDEO - Elliot's Soup Dumpling Lesson

video

1 comment:

Sonja said...

Omg - I recently posted about odd Lays potato chip flavors too! Check it out at http://www.toeuropewithkids.com/2011/03/perfect-pickles-chips.html.
I think China's flavors are weirder though.