SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY, 2009
The main purpose of this trip was to observe the total solar eclipse of July 22, which was going to run right through Shanghai. I’ve seen two eclipses before (La Paz in 1991 and Aruba in 1996) and it’s simply one of the most incredible experiences you can ever have, to look up at the formerly bright sky and see the blackest black you’ve ever seen (the moon covering the sun) and an ethereal hazy smoky glow all around it (the corona). You must at some time in your life see a total solar eclipse. In fact, make a note on your calendar for August 21, 2017, as a total solar eclipse (2-3 minutes of totality) will sweep across the United States, on a path from Oregon to South Carolina.
This was a strictly personal trip for just Laurie Kasper and myself. No group to be dealing with which, much as I love traveling with all of you, was a nice change of pace. But even a trip for two can have some challenges, as you will see.
Shanghai is a major city, actually the 6th largest in the world. (L.A. is #8.) Depending on which census you believe there are anywhere from 14-18 million people living in the Shanghai metropolitan area, so it’s a bit bigger population-wise than Los Angeles. It’s home to some of the tallest buildings in the world, considers itself very cosmopolitan and fashionable, is a shopper’s haven, and will be the home to Expo 2010 (aka “World’s Fair“) in August of next year, for which they are feverishly building and gearing up.
Shanghai’s also pretty easy to get to. We flew LA-Vancouver-Shanghai and on the return LA-Toronto-Shanghai, all via Air Canada. The biggest problem we had (but at least they called) is that Air Canada kept changing our flights on us, which required us the first time to shift everything back a day and then to add in a Toronto layover when we had previously been able to fly straight through back to LAX.
This visit was also going to shake up my preconceived notions about China. I’m old enough that I still think of China as “Communist China” with visions of Mao-spouting people walking about the streets, Little Red Book in hand, converting the non-believers. Not even remotely close.
Except for the fact that 99% of the people were Chinese, Shanghai looks like any other major metropolitan city you’ve ever seen. We didn’t see any evidence of soldiers or armies and you realize didn’t even see that many policemen, except at major intersections where they were usually directing traffic. Definitely not my impression of an authoritarian state.
Once we got settled in to our hotel (Shanghai Hilton - very nice), it was time to explore a bit and scout out possible eclipse-viewing locations. And it turned out that there was a pedestrian bridge half a block from the hotel that would be perfect.
Shanghai’s very big on these types of bridges over main intersections - it keeps people from having to cross traffic - which is a good thing because the first thing you learn abut walking around Shanghai is that the traffic simply doesn’t stop. “Pedestrians-have-the-right-of-way” is a totally unheard-of concept. So even when the light is with you and you’re in the crosswalk, you’ve still got to keep an eye out for turning traffic because they expect you to stop or go around them, not the other way around.
And keep an eye out for motor scooters, mopeds, and bicycles. There are thousands of them moving with the traffic. In fact, some of the corners even have a “scooter/moped/bicycle only” traffic signal and there are scooter/moped/bike lanes as well. But while you’re crossing the street you’ve really got to keep your eye out for them, especially when they’re making a turn through a pedestrian crosswalk, because they can literally seem to come out of nowhere. We almost got nailed a couple of times.
Probably one of the best things we did right away was go and get a Metro card. Shanghai’s got a great subway system (The Metro) that gets you just about anywhere in the city. It’s one of the newest in the world and it shows. Very easy to get around, clean, fast, efficient, but crowded. You can buy a card and put as much RMB (the local currency - also known as the yuan - with an exchange rate of about 6.8 yuan to US$1) on it as you want and then each time you go in, you simply swipe it at the turnstile. When you exit, you swipe it again to get out and their computer system automatically deducts the proper fare and shows you how much you have left on the card. Really great and made getting around easy. It’s cheap too. Most trips cost about 3 RMB which is less than 50 cents.
We certainly hit the extremes of weather while we were there. We landed (Monday) on the second-hottest day ever recorded (104ºF) in the 137 years they’ve been keeping weather records for Shanghai. Tuesday was pretty much the same, but it started clouding up late in the day and even rained for a while Tuesday evening. Wednesday (eclipse day) brought us absolute overcast and thunder/lightning downpours. Thursday and Friday were combinations of cloudy/drizzle/rain, and Saturday was a lovely partly-cloudy day. So we certainly got the full Shanghai weather menu.
Not only did we have lightning outside on occasion, we had some “lightning” inside our room too.
China runs on a very different electrical system than the United Sates. Different plugs and - more importantly - different voltage, running at 250V instead of the usual (for us) 110-115V. Not a big deal as we had converters and adapters with us. On top of that that, the hotel has some built-in plugs that are still 250V but will take American-style electrical plugs. And they’ve even got a 115V “shavers only” plug in the bathroom. You’ve just got to be aware of the voltage and make sure you’re plugging in things that can handle the higher volts. Well . . .
I must have done something wrong because our first night in the hotel, I plugged in my converter and strip extension cord, and didn’t notice that the converter was still set to “HIGH” instead of “LOW” when . . .
There was a large blue flash of sparks that came out of the outlet and the smell of burnt wires filled the air. Uh-oh, I thought. Have I blown out the circuit? Immediately thinking, “No, that can’t be right,” I plugged a second plug in and repeated the electrical storm that had occurred only moments earlier. Except now, I had killed every American-style plug in the room to the point that we had to have them send up an electrician to get everything back in working order.
We spent Tuesday doing some exploring of Shanghai (in the oppressive heat - fortunately there were plenty of street vendors from whom to get waters and sodas) which included the Jing ‘An Temple which was only a few blocks from our hotel.
This is a Buddhist temple that’s been around in one form or another since 1216. It’s been renovated and ransacked a few times in it’s history and is currently undergoing yet another renovation. The place is guarded by a four-headed lion on top of a tall column (in fact, just about every building in Shanghai had a lion statue guarding it) and some more stone lions near the entrance. They charge 20 RMB ($3) to go inside an look around but once you step through the gates, you definitely feel like you’ve stepped back through time. (At least, until I saw the Buddhist monk inside talking on his cell phone.) But the place was very interesting to poke around with incense being burned, a bell tower, statues galore, and a room full of small Buddhas.
But the highlight day was to be Wednesday with the eclipse in the morning and a dive in the shark tank at the Shanghai Aquarium set for the afternoon through a local dive shop (Big-Blue Scuba Diving International) I’d found on the Internet.
Weather was obviously going to be a consideration for the eclipse. I had known before we left L.A. that there was a chance of cloudiness or rain so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. But the first two days in Shanghai offered glimpses of blue sky and I was hopeful when I woke up Wednesday morning. But my hopes and dreams were the things to be eclipsed.
Although there were glimpses of the sun through the clouds at 7:15AM, by the time the moon took the first bite out of the sun at 8:30AM, you couldn’t seen a thing. Not even a hazy disc through the clouds. Luckily, China TV was covering everything so we could see what was happening in other parts of the country (where there were also lots of clouds). And, since totality wasn’t occurring until 9:35AM, I still thought we had a shot . . . like every man thinks he’s got a shot at dating a supermodel if everything aligns perfectly.
By 9:15AM, not only had nothing changed, but it seemed like the clouds got a little darker and it had nothing to do with the eclipse. However, even though it appeared we wouldn’t see the sun, we knew the city would still got absolutely pitch black during totality so we decided to head outside, cameras in hand, and experience that moment with citizenry of Shanghai. We made it as far as the front door of the hotel.
That’s when it started raining. Not just a polite little get-you-wet raining, but a soaked-through-your-clothes pouring. It’s one thing not to see the eclipse. It’s quite another not to see the eclipse, to get drenched to the skin not seeing it, and then likely catch your pneumonia and be confined to a Chinese hospital to be treated. We opted to retreat back upstairs to the Hilton lounge and observed the rest of the eclipse from there.
Still, it was pretty incredible seeing the whole city go dark for five minutes but not quite the same as if we’d been able to actually see the moon block the sun. Our only consolation was that there was apparently nowhere in metropolitan Shanghai where we could have been and seen anything more than we didn’t see from the comfort of the Hilton.
But at least we still had the Shanghai Aquarium dive to save the day. Except . . .
Who would have though there were TWO public aquariums in Shanghai? The one everyone raves about is the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium which is adjacent to the Pearl Tower in the downtown section of Pudong. In fact, that’s the one where last year a group from the Aquarium of the Pacific toured and were specifically told they couldn’t do a dive in the main tank. And they were a little amazed when I told them that I was able to set this up.
So imagine my surprise when we were picked up at our hotel by Leigh Chan, the owner of Big Blue, but we didn’t head east towards downtown. Instead we headed northwest and ended up (in the rain of course) at some large park. To make matters worse, we couldn’t park by the front gate but had to drive around to a back area where Leigh said, “You have umbrellas with you, yes?”
With that, we trudged off through a muddy field, past some barricades, walked around a lake, and finally came to the entrance for the Shanghai Changfeng Ocean World. It seem this was Shanghai’s FIRST Aquarium and it was here that we were to do our shark tank dive.
It actually worked out really well. Although not as flashy as it’s downtown cousin (which we visited on Thursday - more in a moment), they’ve got a nice collection of animals and their large exhibit is a shark tank that’s got some Sand Tigers, Blacktips, Whitetips, a Sawfish, some big rays, and a very large Shovelnose Guitarfish.
We watched them do their shark feed and then went backstage to gear up and dive in. We spent a very pleasant half hour inside, observing the sharks, waving at visitors, picking up shark’s teeth, and having a wonderful time. And now I can say: I dove China!!!
Thursday was to be our day to play golf. The sport’s fairly new to China and rather upper crust as well, with most of the courses being private clubs. But they all seem to have one day a week when they’re open to the general public and we’d made arrangements to play at a place called Silport, about 30 miles west of Shanghai. But with all the rain we’d had Wednesday and with more predicted for Thursday, we decided that - much as we’d like to golf China - we’d probably end up playing a muddy, sloggy round and we didn’t need to come halfway around the world to do that.
So we instead hopped on the Metro and headed downtown for the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium. To get there, we walked through the East Nanjing Road shopping street (which is in and of itself an adventure), got to the Bund (the old historic district of Shanghai, right on the western bank of the Huangpu River), and then rode the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel under the river.
The Sightseeing Tunnel in itself is an adventure. First of all, you won’t see any sights. You hop on these little unmanned robot pods, each accommodating about 20 people, and it take you through a 2000-foot long tunnel under the river to the other side. But along the way, they’ve got all these lights and bad narration, like a cheesy theme park, telling you the story of Shanghai from the time of the Earth’s creation (the word “magma” is prominent) to present day. And there’s something along the way with ghosts. I didn’t quite get it but it was a rather amusing five minutes. And it lets you out right at the base of the Pearl Tower.
The Pearl Tower is the world’s third tallest TV tower and has become the signature landmark of the new Shanghai, standing 1535 feet tall. And it’s right in the middle of the “new” downtown Shaghai which includes a convention center, the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, a shopping mecca called Super Brand Mall (www.superbrandmall.com/index/index_en.asp - there‘s even a Best Buy inside), and a lot of new construction going on all around.
The Pearl Tower’s got an observation deck and a restaurant in the upper reaches but since it was a hazy day in Shanghai (as many apparently are), it didn’t seem to make much sense to go up (and pay) for a closer view of the haze. So we headed for the Aquarium, Asia's largest, which opened in 2002. But I came away a little underwhelmed.
There were an awful lot of fresh-water animals exhibited, which is OK, but generally not as interesting to me as their salt-water cousins. The aquarium’s got Education people throughout to answer questions and while some apologized to us about their English, it was certainly good enough for us to understand what was going on.
They definitely should be commended for their “Save Our Sharks” exhibition, running through Labor Day, which details the plight of the over-fishing of sharks in Asian waters. Given the notorious reputation most Asian countries have for over-fishing, it was surprising to see the Aquarium tackling such a politically sensitive topic.
But the highlight of the place is their main salt water exhibit and it’s underwater viewing tunnel, the longest in the world at 120-meters. And it was pretty nifty.
You start by descending a good thirty feet or so down an escalator that's surrounded by a clear plastic tube. So you really get the feeling of going "underwater" as you start viewing this part of the aquarium. Then you can step on to a very slow-moving belt (people-mover) that will gently take you through the entire tunnel and allow you to see everything. The belt is only half the width of the tunnel, so you can easily step off to stop and look at something, and then step back on (or just walk it yourself).
Another nice feature is that the tunnel is completely acrylic and submerged, so the animal that's on your right can easily swim up and over your head and end up on your left. It really does give you a nice view of the undersides of some of the animals and while as divers we may be used to seeing such things, the general public there that day was oooo-ing and aaaah-ing (in Chinese of course - but it sounds the same) with great abandon.
If you're in Shanghai, the Ocean Aquarium’s definitely worth seeing, especially because there are so many other things in the area to see as well. (It took us only about 90-minutes to tour the place.) And if you took time to get a metro pass, you can hop back on the Metro and head on off somewhere else.
One place you could stop is Longyang Road because that’s also where you can pick up the Maglev, Shanghai’s high-speed magnetically-levitated transit line.
Now the catch is that this is considered a “demonstration” run so it only runs from this station to the Pudong International Airport (and back), a one-way distance of 19 miles which is covered in under eight minutes, at a speed of 187mph. Although you can use this as your transport to/from the airport, it seems that most people do like we did, which is ride it to gawk and say that you were going 300km/h. (There’s a speedometer in each train car that shows the current speed).
Actually, you really don’t have any impression of how fast you’re going once the train’s moving. It’s very smooth and your only clue is seeing how fast things whir by outside your window. The seats are quite comfortable, the ride starts literally with the train rising a few inches (which you can see/feel) as it’s magnetized, and off you go. You hit 300km/h within about 2 minutes. Overall, a great experience and relatively cheap (about US$13 round-trip).
I mentioned earlier about the Super Brand Mall. One thing to understand about Shanghai is that they consider themselves very cosmopolitan and they LOVE to shop. In fact, there are “shopping streets” set up that are closed to vehicular traffic but which also feature some of the most aggressive salespeople I’ve ever seen. We were constantly approached on the street, especially on these shopping streets, about buying something.
I am puzzled as to why every person I encountered in Shanghai seems to think I need a new watch. I became convinced that there was something on Chinese television or in the newspaper before I arrived that said “Ken Kurtis needs to buy a new watch” because every day, without exaggeration, I must have had 20 people (usually men) come up to me, flip open a laminated brochure, and say, “Hey . . . Want to buy a watch??? . . . Rolex!!” When you demurred on that, the follow-up was always, “How about a shirt? Polo!!”
The most amazing/intense place this happens is on East Nanjing Road, which is also where there’s a large Metro stop where you get off to go to the Bund, the old section of historic/downtown Shanghai. But getting out of the station to the street was like running a gauntlet of vendors. They’re actually to be admired for their persistence because I don’t think I ever saw them one time getting anyone interested, but they don’t give up and will hit the next person they see with “Hey mister, wanna buy a watch . . . ??”
The most amazing Nanjing Road experience we had was one evening when we decided to actually venture into one of the stores which was called some thing like “Shanghai Underground Commodities Market“. You go down an escalator into an underground store that’s really a warren of small stalls, with everyone selling similar stuff, everyone trying to get your attention, and everyone promising you the best deal. You just walk around continually going, “Not today, thank you.”
My favorite was when I walked by one stall and they started with, “You need a nice watch?” and then switched to “How about Polo? You’re wearing a Polo shirt. I get you one cheaper . . .” and then followed that up with “You need underwear? I give you good price on underwear.” As I walked away shaking my head, I heard one of them mutter somewhat derisively, “He probably doesn’t even wear underwear . . .”
One of the treats of visiting Shanghai came via Bill Driscoll, one of our Reef Seekers divers who now lives in Shanghai. He offered to take us to lunch at Din Tai Fung where we could sample the famous Shanghai bao (pronounced “bow” - rhymes with “cow”) which are little steamed dumplings (various fillings) that also contain inside a soupy broth that forms during the cooking process. Yum, yum!!!
The trick is not to eat them the second they arrive at your table because the liquid inside will literally scald your mouth. What you do is let them sit for a bit, bite off the top, allow some of the steam to escape, then dip the bao in ginger/vinegar/soy and plop it in your mouth. Very tasty.
(You may not even have to go all the way to Shanghai to get bao. There’s actually a Din Tai Fung in Arcadia that’s supposedly affiliated with the Shanghai one. I have no idea if it’ll be as good as what we had in China, but I’ll definitely journey out to Arcadia to find out.)
The other thing on our must-do list was to go to a Chinese Acrobatics Show. We found one, at the recommendation of the hotel, only a few blocks away at the Yun Feng Theater. And what a treat it was. We paid top dollar (all of US$40) for our seats and were a dozen rows back from the stage and dead center. And who knew the human body could be contortioned into such positions, let alone that you could actually get over a dozen people on a single bicycle. It was a 90-minute shows (no intermission) and was chock-full of entertainment.
The highlight was the finale, called “The Ball of Death.” It’s a large (10-15 feet in diameter) mesh steel ball, with a door in the front, in to which they drive a motorcycle. The motorcycle then goes around and around and up and down and over and under and then . . . they open the door and put a second cycle in. Then a third. Then a fourth. And then a fifth!!! Truly amazing to watch and to realize that with just the slightest little bobble inside the ball, it really DOES become the ball of death. (This isn’t from the group we saw (and these guys have SIX cycles) but here’s a video I found on You Tube that’ll give you an idea of what we saw: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzeoHZCw_-M .)
Our final full day in Shanghai was probably our favorite because not only did the sun come out (but it was still a bit hazy) but it was also our most ambitious day for sightseeing.
We started off by taking the Metro to People’s Park to tour the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre (also sometimes called the Urban Development Museum) which offers a history of Shanghai from a building development standpoint, as well as showcases plans for the future.
The highlight is the third floor which houses a scale model (it takes up the ENTIRE third floor) of what Shanghai will look like by 2020. You can walk around the entire model and view parts of it from raised platforms, and you really can pick out various buildings throughout the city. It’s pretty impressive just from a standpoint of modeling and my first thought was, “How long did it take them to build this and put it all together?”
Next up on our agenda was a walk over to the Yu Gardens and the Yu Gardens Bazaar. The Gardens are the oldest around, dating back to 1559 (they’ve been restored a couple of times - “yu“ translates into “peace & health”) and offer a tranquil retreat once inside the walls.
But outside the walls, you have the Yu Gardens Bazaar, a collection of shops, stall, and vendors selling everything under the sun. What a contrast!!! Take the energy and enthusiasm of the vendors of East Nanjing Road, get them all hopped up on amphetamines, triple the number of shoppers, and you’ve got the Yu Gardens Bazaar. Oh my!!! Wall-to-wall people, merchandise everywhere you look (or food - they even have a Dairy Queen), dozens of little “streets” to walk down making it easy to get lost . . . it’s just an absolute wonderful adventure.
We wrapped up our final day with a walk back to the Bund.
The Bund is on the west side of the Huangpu River that splits the city (the “new” downtown is on the east side of the same river) and contains all the older historic buildings built around the turn of the century. It’s also the center for most of the banks and financial institutions of Shanghai as well as it’s considered a prestigious place to be. Best of all, the buildings are all nicely lit and - from dusk into the evening - the lights look terrific, especially with all the new buildings across the river and the brightly-lit boats (dinner cruises mainly) that ply the river each night.
But the biggest problem right now is that the view is blocked by construction. Next year, as mentioned earlier, Shanghai’s hosting Expo 2010 and one of the things they’re doing is re-building the Bund Promenade that runs the length of the Bund and which affords a great view of the Bund and across the river. But what they’ve done is erect a large plywood wall so that you don’t see the construction. And this also totally blocks your views, unless you’re at least 20 feet or so in the air. (And I’m not quite that tall, even on my tippy-toes.)
But this is where a little serendipity comes in handy.
As we walked up from the southern end of the Bund, we saw the Shanghai Meteorological Tower (also known as the Signal Tower) which is a two-story building with a tall cylindrical tower sitting on top of it. This was originally built in 1884 to help control river traffic. It was rebuilt in 1907 and also relayed weather reports. Today, it just sits there in the middle of the construction. Or so we thought.
As we walked by, we noticed a construction fence around the Signal Tower. But then we noticed a gate . . . that was swung back. And a sign that said “Signal Tower Restaurant”. And then we noticed a neon sign with the lovely magic word: “Open“. So in we went.
Turns out the place is now a restaurant and a bar. Our waiter confided, “The food’s not that good.” But you can get drinks and you can’t beat the view.
Walk through the first floor and upstairs to the second floor bar. But don’t stop there. Take the spiral staircase up to the roof of the second floor (and now you’re higher than the plywood fence) where there are tables and chairs and enjoy a lovely view of not only the Bund but also across the river to the new downtown area and the nightly light show.
And if you want to do what we did, don’t stop there but take the second spiral staircase that raises you another dozen feet or so and grab a table and seat at the base of the Signal Tower’s tower, and get a grand view north along the Bund and east across the river. It’s especially impressive as the sun sets because you not only get the “warm” light of the setting sun, but you also get to see the Bund, the new downtown area, and even the river come alive with lights. It seems that everything in this area is lit up, some with changing neon displays, others with colored lights, still more with just plain old floodlights. But it’s a beautiful sight and was a great way (especially since they brought our drinks up there to us) to spend our final night in Shanghai.
Shanghai’s nickname is “The Pearl of the Orient” and it certainly lived up to it’s billing. There were still plenty of things to see that we simply didn’t have time to do in a week so it would definitely be worth a trip back. (I suppose I could go when the next eclipse moves through but given that that won’t happen in Shanghai until 2309, that might not be such a good plan.) Shanghai’s a great, modern city, a fascinating cultural experience, and - even thought we didn’t get the eclipse viewing that was our main impetus for going - a good time was had by all.