Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday 2/28: End of the beginning of the year

Today was a short day, or I guess a long day depending on how you look at it. Work project in the morning didn't go as smoothly as expected. Actually it went great so we decided to move ahead with Monday's portion, which took longer than expected. Had my first breakfast outside of the hotel at Azul, a tapas place recommended by a coworker. The set 2-course brunch was super, had tapas-sized portions of a stack of blueberry pancakes, eggs benedict, cappuccino, and TWO mimosas (they brought the second, completely unprovoked by me, to apologize for slow service).
NOTE: sign on right is for an eye and ear clinic.

Back at work, finished up another phase of the project. Success!

Took the metro subway to visit the old synagogue from 1907. Shanghai was one of the (few?) cities in the world to accept Jewish refugees in the time leading up to WWII, this part of town is where they lived. The apartment buildings on the left side of the road leading up to the synagogue - and on the right side of the road after the synagogue - have been demolished to widen the road in time for the Expo (similar to a world's fair) that starts May 1- but all construction needs to be finish by April1. Needless to say there is 24x7 construction going at breakneck speeds throughout the city.

The ghetto of that time is now a park with people practicing tai chi and beautiful sounding songbirds locked in cages.

Tried to find the artist colony called M50. Sure I could've taken a cab, but isn't more fun to walk around and get lost? Even if you don't find your destination? I got super close, and just knowing that is enough for me! It was getting late and I still had much to see and do!

The president of the our Shanghai IT consulting company TXTed me to "take metro to people square ,meet you at raffle city 1f starbucks". I know how to get to People's Square, so I figured I'd guess the rest when I got there. Where is the Raffle City, I wondered. Is it a really huge bingo parlor or something??

As I emerged the metro subway, there were signs saying which exit to take for various destinations, with Raffles City being one of them. Maybe something is lost in translation, but apparently it's just a funny name for a mall, like Franklin Mills or Stonestown.

As we were walking around downtown on the way to the lantern festival, I remarked how cars will honk at you while you're crossing the street on a green light. I wanted to know who has the right of way, but for him it is a much simpler scenario "They have the honk," he said. So poetic.
There must've been thousands of people packed into the streets surrounding the Yu Garden for the last night of the new lunar year festival. The sky cleared just in time to see the full moon - so two weeks ago when it started must've been the new moon. I get it! My favorite things to see: hundreds of lanterns, many with Chinese word puzzles written on them. People lighting paper balloon kites that carry candles and sending them off into the night sky (we saw something like this in Haifa for the secular new year). Lots and lots (and lots) of people setting off fireworks and firecrackers. Stuffed moon-shaped meat dumplings we sampled in a restaurant row. A hilarious English menu in a Hong Kong style restaurant where we had dinner. This was the funniest item: Queen of fresh pigeon casserole bacteria. My friend said "they meant fungus, not bacteria". Either way, still funny :)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday 2/27 in Shanghai

Today was 20% work, 80% shopping, which itself is a lot of work. So basically it was all work. Stopped by the office in the morning to complete a small project, then on to the shopping!

The goal for the day was to get a completely custom made tailored suit, at a high quality, for $100 or less. A coworker offered to meet me at the subway station nearest his tailor, but first I had an hour to kill, so I stopped by an electronics market behind my hotel. I had heard good and bad things about this place. This good: nice small market where you can get noise-cancelling headphones. The bad: two of my coworkers refer to it as "the flashlight place" presumably because most of the vendors sell things like LED headlamps and laser pointers among other goodies. Once I found it by matching up my Chinese-language directions with the sign, I have to say that I love this place, it turned out to be one of my favorite marts, in spite of (or possibly because) I spent an hour there and only bought one small piece of stationary. At the other marts in Shanghai, I have ended up leaving with all sorts of expensiveish goods I didn't know I needed - mostly clothing and trinkets - and feeling completely exhausted from dodging the "hey mister I give you best price" yelling ladies and the haggling and the checking to see if the products look reasonably legit and well assembled. At this "little" electronics mart (I explored the first 3 of at least 4 floors and there were at least 50 vendors on each floor), I found all sorts of neat electronic and computer adapters, connectors, tips, cables, converters, etc. It's like Radio Shack's warehouse. I don't want to see the big mart everyone is pushing me towards.

Then, at the tailor's, I picked out the fabrics, style, measurements, etc on the suit - and negotiated in a custom made tailored shirt too. This plus a set of matching tie, cufflinks, and handkerchief all for $110 total. I'm pretty happy with my purchaose, but we'll see how it all comes out. I'm planning to wear it to a ball in St Petersburg next week, so hopefully I have what it takes to be a good suit and shirt designer.

Another pricing oddity. Popped into Davidoff (the actual store, not a knock-off haggle market) to look at cigars. The cheapest machine-made Montecristo's are 250 RMB for a small box. The cheapest lighter is 5890 RMB. Why do lighters cost 20x more than Cuban cigars?? Some sort of Communist solidarity?

Had dinner with Boris - a guy I spent 17 hours of a 13 hour flight with on Monday. He's a very interesting character, with views on getting the most out of business travel, why Russia is doomed to fail in 10 years (if it hasn't already), how his most important goal is to find Russian Jewish girls for his sons to marry, what you need to know about Chinese massage, and so on. You name the topic, he has an opinion, and often yours is the wrong one. I love this guy, he was fun to share Shanghai with, especially in short doses (he's flying to another Chinese city tomorrow to continue his important work auditing factories that produce components for his employer's medical testing devices).

Two amusing articles from the paper today:

"Cause of death of detainee is disputed by kin" - article about 3 suspicious deaths in Chinese prisons. What's so suspicious about these???
"A MAN died in a central China detention house with cut-off nipples, injured penis and a hole in his head, while police claimed he died from an acute disease after drinking a cup of water." "In February 2009, Li Qiaoming, 24, was beaten to death by three fellow inmates in Yunnan Province, but the detention center at first claimed that he died of playing a game of 'hide-and-seek.' In March 2009, Li Wenyan in Jiangxi Province died in a detention house of what authorities said was a bad dream."

"Google links with US spy agency" - so let me see if I get this straight. Chinese hackers allegedly infultrate some of Google's servers - Google asks the NSA for help tracking down the hackers - Chinese newspaper makes it sound like Google is letting the NSA sit on the thrown and wear the crown jewels.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Feb 26: wrapping up the work week in Shanghai

At lunch time, my manager and I popped out to the Tao Bao center, it's a famous Shanghai "knock-off" market. They have bose headphones for $15, UGG boots for $20, etc. It's fun but exhausting haggling for everything. If you're somewhat interested in something, and ask the price just to find out how interested you are, now you're involved in the negotiation and you have to see it through. Every time, whenever I said my final-final-final offer, and walked away, they always came yelling that they'll accept my final offer. It's a crazy process. We had a fast-food lunch before heading back to the office. I had a fountain soda of what appeared to be Cherry Pepsi based on the cartoonish sign. I have to say it takes EXACTLY like Robitussin. I have had 1 or 2 beverages that are reminiscent of Robitussin - this is not one of them. I think this literally WAS Robitussin!
For dinner, a coworker gave me a few recommendations of restaurants in the area. I narrowed it down to two and asked the hotel concierge for advice. He suggested the Peace Villa Mansion (Shanghainese cuisine) over the Coconut Paradise (Thai food) as the mansion is historic, majestic, unique. I enjoyed the walk as it brought me in another new direction: behind the hotel. What's next - above or below?

At the Peace Villa, quickly discovered I was the only English speaking person there. No matter, I hadn't come for the conversation, and the photo menu technically was in English, although that was no help as the dishes were named "Buddha jumps over the wall" and "Braised 8-Treasure with Soy Sauce" - the photos weren't much help either. I selected the 8-Treasure, having no idea what they might be, and gestured to what looked like shrimp and beef entrees in the menu in an attempt to get them to point to what might be included in the treasure. No luck, and I almost accidentally ordered a bunch of dishes ;)

While studying the menu, they brought over a bunch of random stuff: fruit salad (3 cherries, apple slice, 2 strawberries, passionfruit slice, half of a kiwi), a little glass cup of tea with refills, warm creamy milk in a bowl with tapioca pearl balls and cubes, a little cup with perhaps tiny brine shrimps, another little dish with - I really have no idea what these are - maybe octopus eggs in ink??

The drink menu was equally unique. There were a few juices, sodas, beers. Wine only by the bottle. Then I noticed the 9300 RMB ($1350 USD) teas and 2988 RMB ($410 USD) bottles of liquor (they don't seem to serve by the shot).

My best guess having now had the 8 treasures - using the photos in the menu as a key - is: cashews, peas, duck neck, tofu, water chestnut, shark liver, braised pigeon, and soy sauce. If anyone has any thoughts, please fill in this na├»ve traveler!

After dinner, popped by the office to check on my most important project that I came out here for. So far, so good! I have to pop by again twice more this weekend, but I should be able to get out and enjoy the nightlife too. Stay tuned for another exciting adventure!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thursday 2/25 in Shanghai

I started the morning off wishing Olga a happy birthday for the second day in a row. It's nice that she finally caught up with me and gets to enjoy her own birthday - instead of listening to me enjoy it from 16 hours ahead.  Work today wasn't too technical, but it was tiring. Spent most of the day as part of a team visiting possible locations for our weeklong annual meeting in October. The venues ranged from not-yet-built buildings with cute names (Rock Bund is owned by the Rockefeller family and is oalesn the Bund River - but there's not much to see beyond the scaffolding) to oddly decorated government-owned estates with kitschy names (The Children's Palace reminds me of any Soviet museum or performance hall that is deteriorating a bit but trying to stay relevant - kids were rehearsing a bizarre Oreo brand cookie song and dance.

Tonight I decided to walk out of the hotel and turn left. It doesn't sound like anything monumental, I know, but in the combined total of about two weeks that I ever visited Shanghai, I have never explored the area west of my hotel.

While on my westward walk, I was drawn into a low-key store that had cute women's shirts. Nothing on the rack decided to come home to the states, but I saw a pair of sweatpants that would take good care of me at the gym. After a long discussion where neither the saleslady nor I understood the other (I was asking about sizes - I have no idea what she was saying, but she definitely made a hand-gesture of using scissors to trim the legs), she stated the price as 50 RMB (about $8 US). I tried to haggle, but she didn't seem to notice or understand. Are there some low-rent clothing shops in Shanghai with non-negotiable prices? I ended up walking out, and she didn't stop me, so I guess we know the answer.

Next I spotted a liquor store and picked up bottles of baijiu (like vodka?) and huangjiu (like whiskey?) to bring back home to try. They were mentioned in my guide book - if anybody knows if any better Chinese liquors, please let me know!

Continuing along, I spotted the microbrewpub Boxing Cat Brewery. I've been really good this trip about trying local foods (ok, I had two Chinese meals so far, it's a decent start). FYI in case Yelp wants to open up a site in Shanghai: the stout is good, the sliders are very good, the chocolate peanut butter cake is mediocre. They apparently go to extreme lengths to cater to an American ex-pat audience. I couldn't find anything even remotely Asian on the menu. It's like Gordon Biersch's or Rock Bottom's menu with the Chinese Chicken Salad and pot stickers removed. It couldn't be any less Asian. And one of the sandwiches was listed as "San Francisco Patty Melt". What's up with that? I've been enjoying this tasty entree all my grown life without knowing it's a San Francisco treat!

A couple of amusing articles you can look forward to in the paper Thursday:
Toxic toll at Taiwan factory increases - the iPad isn't even out yet, and already it's killing people!!

Have babies to win gold, say Russians - Not sure which propaganda machine to thank for this gem. My favorite quote "No medal compares to having a child," said [gold medalist Anna Boulygina]. "I think children are the main thing women are designed to do."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Feb 24 in Shanghai

The only thing worse than missing Olga's birthday because I'm in China -- is missing it twice.  All day today has been Olga's birthday in China -- but for her it's still the day before her birthday. Thursday when she wakes up all starry-eyed for her birthday, I will have moved on to bigger and better days. Such is the life of the traveler.

The first person to correctly identify this food item from my breakfast by replying to this blogspot post will win a prize that I'll bring back from the exotic People's Republic of China.

I had another super productive day. When there's someone in the US covering my regular job, and I get to work as the US office is closing, and I have consultants in Shanghai helping out too, I can get a surprising amount of stuff done! I should try this more often.

This evening I had dinner with my manager from the US, his cousin, and the cousin's wife. His cousin has been living in Shanghai for about 3 years on an ex-pat deal. The two of them met when he had been here for about 2 months - they make a really cute couple. We had dinner at a Korean BBQ place. They brought all sorts of soups and rice with lots of veggies and some broth mixed in and a ton of different lettuces for you to make little lettuce wraps using the meat they grill at the table and sweet rice with ice - fun and tasty!

Here's a photo of my manager in front of the funny little toilet in the men's room at the Korean bbq.

On the way back to my hotel, I chose to walk two short blocks in a light rain. I stopped at an intersection and zoned out a little while waiting for the light to turn green. After a few moments, I noticed the rain had suddenly stopped pouring on my head. I looked up to discover a guy had sidled up next to me so I could share his umbrella. We had an unspoken moment as we crossed the street together, then separated.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2/22: Making up for lost time

The first day of work was good - checked in with everybody, laid the groundwork for a few intense projects in a short period of time. Around lunchtime, I was sort of expecting everybody to go to lunch together (that's how it worked during my visit two years ago), so after people started disappearing 1 and 2 at a time, eventually I looked around and saw the office almost deserted - and suddenly realized I was waiting for a group outing that wasn't happening. Thankfully one of the partners was lingering and we struck up a lunch date. So far my first meal in China, and a local took me to a Spanish restaurant, where I ordered Mexican (burrito) and he ordered Italian (risotto). Strange!

I didn't have any specific plans for this evening, a co-worker from the US (who had lived in Shanghai for two years) recommended a lounge in People's Square park, so I decided to head in that general direction. Walking to the metro, I see most things haven't changed - passed Mister Donut and the shop that sells olive tea - or is it tea olives? Two metro stops later, I was in the labrynthian D-Mall underneath the Square. This place has shops with the cutest things: korean stationary with little manga children travelling the world, little japanese socks with cartoon dogs dreaming, and a wide selection of decorated "I am not a paper cup" brand coffee cups. Eventually, somehow, I managed to find the exit - it was directly through vertical strips of plastic, the kind a supermarket has to separate the butcher's area from the freezer area.

I enjoyed the walk through the People's Square park, although the only Peoples I saw were young couples in love. By the time I got to the end of the park, I wasn't really looking for the lounge anymore, I just wanted some good local food. A little bit more random wandering led me back to XinTianDi, the somewhat touristy Quincy Market-like area I had visited my first night in Shanghai two years ago. The most interesting restaurant there is Steam, a contemporary but not overly expensive menu dim sum place. I had the steamed shrimps wrapped in lettuce wraps (think dim sum stuffed cabbage), Cantonese broccoli stir-fried with mashed garlic (slippery yummy bok choy), and noodles with fresh wonton (a little bland for my taste).

My only complaint about the place is that they have an endless loop of Kenny Rogers singing what he probably thinks are the greatest love songs of all time. Remember kids, this is the guy who decided his face would look better replaced with a bowling ball bag. Yeah, he used the same judgment in covering Bryan Adams, Cher, even his younger self, and if I wait around long enough, probably Celine Dion and Bette Midler.

After dinner, I walked around XinTianDi a bit -- it's actually much nicer than I remember - it's several blocks long, with a lot of different restaurants, expensive pottery and tea shops, and souvenir kiosks. Before leaving the complex, I stumbled upon a lounge advertising what they called "Yogurt of Paradise." Well, I had to try that! It seems to be a semi-sweet greek-style yogurt - mostly frozen - with chopped tropical fruit on the side. It was.... interesting. Now you know!

Epilogue: still 10 minutes away from the hotel, I had to start running back and get there in 5 minutes -- or else. I want to say it was the Yogurt of Paradise that suddenly kicked in!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Unwelcome arrival in Shanghai

I don't want to come off as whiny - let's say this story is an FYI.  I was supposed to land in Shanghai at 4:40pm, but there was extreme fog. We circled for an hour but it never cleared up. At 5:50 we landed at a small nearby airport called Hongqiao. They wouldn't let us off the plane for various reasons (the airline doesn't have any ground crew there, lack of border control personnel, no stairs to reach the 777 door, etc). While we waited for refueling (the fog issue was never mentioned again so I assume it lifted), at 8pm they announced the air crew is now officially unable to take off because they have been working too long, and a replacement crew was en route from Shanghai airport. At 9:30 they announced that the new flight crew had arrived, but local officials would not permit them onboard until the plane had been emptied of passengers and luggage. At 10:30 I made it through passport control and picked up my bag. At 11:15 I survived the taxicab line of hell. At 11:30 I pulled into the hotel.
Here's a photo of what I saw out the window all those hours.

I always say my flights are too short, I hardly have time to finish anything. Now I know what happens if the flight is any longer, it's exhausting and a bit frustrating... but tomorrow is another day! :)