Shanghai is a big city. This won’t come as news to most people, but I thought I would mention it nevertheless. However, in spite of its gargantuan sprawl (2,448 square miles – four times the size of Greater London, and roughly the same size as Northumberland or Devon) its various quarters and districts have a surprisingly homely feel, and are easy enough to get around by bike or scooter, which seem to be the form of transport chosen by the majority of people for quick, local journeys. Recently, we acquired a scooter which has proven to be great fun, and is featured here in this picture being modelled by local resident, me.
The issue with quickly scooting from location A to location B of course is that you don’t always have your scooter handy if you’re out and about in the city. With the recent introduction of a seatbelt law that requires every passenger to wear their seatbelt, taxis are harder to come by than they used to be (if you’re going to fine people for not wearing a seatbelt, taxis have got to have seatbelts in them, really, meaning that at least two-thirds of the taxis I’ve been in since arriving here have been taken out of commission recently). There’s also the small matter of ‘DiDi’ (Chinese Uber, basically) which is very handy but the app only comes in Mandarin, which I am still finding difficult. I can handle ‘Hello’, or ‘One of those please’ but I struggle a bit with this:
So. What to do if you are out and about and want to quickly make your way from one place to another? I’ll tell you what to do, get a bike!
Over the last few months, I started noticing bikes left out and about in Shanghai in random places. They all looked very similar, in the mould of ‘Boris Bikes’ back in London, but instead of being locked in a rack which could be opened with a few coins, these were literally just lying around any old place.
By a basketball court after hours…
In the park…
And soon enough I noticed other kinds of bikes turning up all over the place.
A young bike, waiting to make its way in the world…
Three bikes in a meeting, discussing their plans for the day…
A drunk bike who needs to go home…
Anyway, it turned out that the Orange bikes (one of which you saw in the park there) belong to a scheme called ‘Mobike’. Following a recommendation by a friend at work, I signed up and it is wonderful. The bikes are usually available on any street corner. You scan the QR code on the back and the bike promptly unlocks itself. You ride it to wherever you’re going, leave it in a sensible location for the next person (so not just ‘by that bench’, ideally) and lock it again. You then get charged (usually 1RMB, or about 12p) and you go on your way. It’s incredibly handy, very reasonable in price, and the bikes are almost literally everywhere. The bikes’ only downside is that most of the seats aren’t adjustable, and they are built for people who are quite a lot smaller than me. Oh, and you can’t change gear. So, given that Shanghai is twice the size of Rhode Island, I wouldn’t be looking to use one for a massive journey, but given that you are never far from a Metro station or a taxi rank and pedalling leisurely through a place like the French Concession is so picturesque and relaxing, it’s a wonderful scheme to have at your fingertips. Plus, each bike has a bell you can ring just by turning the handlebars, and despite it being childish, it is enormous fun. There are three or four different schemes running, judging by the different coloured bikes you can find (but then, Shanghai is 40 times the size of Liechenstein, which is whole country, so they need a fair few options to cover the ground) so there seem to be more than enough to go around.
It came in particularly useful last night when coming back from Puxi. My taxi driver, who clearly had no idea the address on my taxi card actually was, began to hesitate and circle around about a mile from where we live. No problem – I just asked him to drop me off where we were (using one of the few phrases of Mandarin I actually do know), hopped on a Mobike and was back home in 10 minutes. It was midnight, but the weather was clement, and the ride was highly enjoyable. Thanks Mobike!
Recently, Disney came to China and opened up their newest and (so far) biggest park yet. By the time it’s finished, it will be three times the size of Hong Kong’s Disneyland Resort, and will come in at a mere CN¥ 34,000,000,000, which may explain the cost of the merchandise in the ‘World of Disney’ shop. Still, cynicism aside, it does still have a healthy dollop of Disney magic to offer, and nowhere was that magic more evident than in the production of ‘The Lion King’ that we saw last week.
As an English teacher, I have often thought that the only thing ‘Hamlet’ was missing was a buffalo stampede, a gang of hyenas, a highly unlikely suspension of the food chain and some deeply uncomfortable, if only implied, Lion sex. The film has rightfully gone down as a classic of its genre, and the Broadway production has had rave reviews ever since it first opened in 1997. Having heard such amazing things about it, it seemed only sensible to go and see it when it came to our new home town.
Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint. The use of puppets and costumes is astonishing and utterly immersive, and the visual spectacle more than made up for the fact that the entire script was in Mandarin, thus rendering it difficult to understand. Obviously not for the majority of the audience; I think having it in Mandarin is really a very sensible option given that we’re in Shanghai, but I must admit that given my language ‘skills’ (I can say, “Hello”, “one of those, please” and “please turn left here”, but I struggle with “From the day we arrive on the planet, and, blinking, step into the sun, there’s more to see than can ever be seen – more to do than can ever be done” to be honest) I couldn’t make out much of the script. But, of course, this is The Lion King, and at this stage who even needs the script to follow the action? The whole show is astonishingly visual. The music is emotionally charged, and the melodies soar as high as they have ever since 1994. Mufasa has a booming voice, Scar gets booed by the audience, Nala and Simba play mischievously as children and a little less mischievously as adults, everyone laughs at Rafiki, Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, and the hyenas somehow manage to achieve the mix of being equally funny and sinister throughout.
As evenings out go, it was a thoroughly colourful and hugely enjoyable one. Yes, there is something idiosyncratically bemusing about Chinese theatre etiquette (basically it seems anything goes, including playing on phones, talking throughout, coming and going at random intervals in the middle of the big set pieces, and only clapping at the end for approximately 12 seconds) but it all added to the atmosphere of the evening. As if there were any bonuses needed, Disneytown also has its own Cheesecake Factory, and so we were able to watch the whole thing with stomachs full of deep-fried Mozzarella, burgers and milkshakes. The show has closed down for a while now – apparently the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie will be opening at the Grand Theatre, accompanied no doubt by Johnny Depp croaking out his ‘maybe it was funny the first time’ Keith Richards/David Bowie impersonation for the millionth time – but if the tale of Simba’s rise to power should ever return, I’d definitely be happy to contribute again to paying off some of the cost of the resort and spending my evening being entertained and dazzled by a genuinely charming show.
We arrived in Harbin late on Friday night, after a flight that practically defied belief and defined discomfort. Thankfully, it was short, if not sweet, and three hours after leaving Shanghai, we touched down onto the frozen wilds. Ok, they’re not frozen wilds. Harbin is China’s eighth biggest city, boasting a population of 10 million people. Every year since 1963 they have held a festival of ice, and it was for this reason that we had made the trip north. And it really is north. Vladivostok, not exactly famous for its balmy summer evenings, lies south east of Harbin which should give you an idea of just how North we are talking here.
I’ve never really known how to deal with, extreme temperatures. I’m from Leeds, and until August last year had lived my whole life in the UK. Now, I’ve done ‘hot’ before. Even arriving in Shanghai in August brought us face to face with 90-100 degree heat and a humidity of 95% and up. On our honeymoon we visited Death Valley and spent a day driving in 120 Fahrenheit so heat wasn’t a stranger to me, but the coldest I’d ever known was probably about -5c. Harbin’s average temperature in mid-January is usually somewhere around -20, with a wind chill factor that makes it feel about 10 degrees lower, so I wasn’t sure how that would feel.
Getting out of the airport and feeling the first blast of cold was like being attacked by a million tiny snakes all at once. I’d never felt anything quite like it; and I wasn’t mad about the idea of feeling it for very long. Fortunately, we quickly got into a well warmed taxi and found our way to our hotel which, to compensate for the sub-zero temperatures outside, had very kindly warmed our room up with a thermo-nuclear warhead disguised as a radiator. This was a kind gesture but made for an ironically uncomfortable night’s sleep in the heat. The following morning, we donned our many, many layers, and headed for the city centre to see what this ice festival was all about.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, it’s about ice. The 20-minute walk into the town centre was a novel experience. The cold attacked us from the outset, but unlike any cold I’d known before that, after the initial shock and awe, it didn’t go away. It changed tack and slowly seeped in to our bones. It was unremitting in its assault and before long our extremities were struggling. It turns out a decent hat, some thermals and a sturdy coat will keep your body and the top of your head warm enough, but your face, hands and feet will need serious attention if you want to enjoy your stay. I tried the first 5 minutes of the walk without my hat on (I hate wearing hats) and proceeded to experience brain freeze from the outside in. Head thumping, I admitted defeat and hatted up. I then realised my scarf had frozen to my face as the moisture in my breath caught on it. An interesting moment, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Arriving at the Central Street, (imaginatively named ‘Central Street’) we found a cafe in which to warm up. Despite the fact that the ornaments and chintzy curios that lined every surface lent the place the air of a serial killer’s basement in an episode of Criminal Minds, the atmosphere was genial and the waffles were nice. Also, since there were six of us and only one waffle iron in the place, we ended up staying six times as long as we’d planned to and therefore got six times more warmed up than we’d planned. And it was a good job, because after lunch, it was time to cross the Songhua.
The river is massive. Far wider than the Thames, it flows through Harbin and in summer provides boat trips, water skiing and a refreshing dip. Not in January though. The entire river was frozen solid – and not just on the surface. We saw people walking across the ice, which we would have thought precarious until we saw cars and vans driving across it too. People were skating on it, sliding around on it and generally treating it as solid ground, which practically speaking it was. We pondered how best to cross this frozen tundra until we spotted a quad bike attached to some rubber rings, and a friendly looking man beckoning to us. Not quite believing it ourselves, we promptly found ourselves being dragged across the river by said bike, sat in said rings. This was enormous fun, although when the bike suddenly pulled a skid and sent ice daggers straight into our faces, it was a bit less pleasant. We all arrived on the north side of the river looking like we had just had an encounter with a frozen sandblaster; but perhaps it was good for us. Perhaps. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Having once de-ringed (and that’s not a euphemism for how scared we were crossing the river) we found ourselves at the entrance to the snow sculpture park. We were all, by this point, doing our best to give the impression that the cold really wasn’t that bad and we were fine, but my hands and feet were starting to really scream. However, the screaming subsided when I saw the incredible, surreal beauty of the snow sculptures.
Set across 14 square miles of Sun Island (ironically named, I presume) the sculpture park features hundreds of snow sculptures varying in size from quite big to thunderously gigantic. The sheer size of some of them absolutely baffled me. Arriving at the edge of a lake (I say it was a lake, but I only know this because the ‘ground’ got slippier and a bit see-through at this point so I presume it’s not always ground) we were treated to the sight of a giant snow sculpture of what I presumed was Genghis Khan, bestriding the horizon. Fair enough, I thought; seems a bit odd to immortalise him in snow, but what do I know? Well, it was meant to be Santa Claus. So, cultural insensitivity class complete, we slid across the ‘lake’ to have a closer look and discovered that not only was it more festive than your average Mongolian warlord, it was also a slide! This was incredibly exciting to me, and I bounded up the stairs with relish. Well, I skidded towards them carefully and then stumbled tentatively up them, but you know what I mean.
The slide itself was very slippy, and inordinately quick. The giant corner at the end hadn’t filled me with any fear until I realised that my little shovel/sledge type thing had no steering mechanism whatsoever and not even a hint of a brake, and so I simply crashed into the side wall and gravity did the rest. My hip is still a little sore even now. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
After finding another cafe in which to warm up (this time by attaching heat pads to as much of my body as possible and drinking a hot, if utterly formless hot chocolate) we walked further round the park. The scale of the snow sculptures is unbelievable; the sheer artistry that goes into them took my breath away. I don’t know how they do it, but then maybe that’s part of the charm of it – I probably don’t want to know, deep down. It was just utterly stunning, and under the clearest skies we’d seen for a while, the views were staggering.
This wasn’t even the main event for which we’d travelled, but what a bonus it proved to be. By now we were feeling the chill again and so we caught the cable car back across the river and went for dinner before beginning our evening stretch.
The ice festival is held across 600,000 square meters outside the city, and has to be seen to be believed. In the absence of actually being there, here are some pictures.
The ice is taken from the Songhua by 10,000 workers and transported to the site where it’s cut into ‘bricks’. The sculptures are then built up (over 40m tall in some cases) brick by brick, with rows of specially adapted LED lights laid between each layer. The lights are specially designed not to emit any heat, and proceed to light each structure up in a kind of odd fusion of Vegas and Arundel. There’s a mix of gargantuan ludicrosity in the main buildings and beautiful intricacy in the smaller sculptures that are dotted around the festival, and at the entrance gate, reindeer give rides on a sleigh to children, lending the whole thing a distinctly fairytale air. It was certainly surreal, as we slipped and slid our way around the vast park taking in the sights and trying to forget that it was so cold you could build an entire city of ice and then happily let people walk all over it. The cold, by this time, was well into its Blitzkrieg against our senses, and there was no end in sight. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Shattered and shivering, we made our way back to the hotel and tried to make sense of the day we’d just had. Realising that there wasn’t much sense to be made, we laughed the evening away and retired to our (extraordinarily warm) bedrooms for some well-earned sleep. Walking 7-8 miles on ice will test your legs considerably if you’re not used to it, it transpires.
The next morning as we got dressed it was so warm in the room we genuinely had to open the window to let some cold air in. The air was -18c so it was very cold indeed, but it came as welcome relief since our G-Type Main Sequence Radiator didn’t have a temperature control attached. We spent more time on the main street and having popped into some shops filled with tat of questionable quality (and obviously bought some of it while we were there) we found our way up to Saint Sofia Cathedral at the other end of town. After the Trans-Siberian railway was built in 1903, the Russian Army arrived in Harbin and, presumably in need of a place to rest, warm up, and worship all in one, they built this Cathedral.
At the time, Russians made up 1/3 of Harbin’s population, and so this presumably would have been a very important place to them. It’s not a copy of St Basil’s in Red Square but the similarities in architecture are clear. It has also never been renovated, and so for the very reasonable price of ¥15 you can go in and see it in its original glory. On top of that it now serves as a museum of Harbin’s history, which is as fascinating as it is long. It was a lovely way to finish our trip, and as we made our way back to the airport I felt an odd lingering sadness. Leaving a place isn’t always a sad thing, but leaving somewhere so oddly idiosyncratic as Harbin, in the full knowledge that you will probably never go back, is something different. We were only there for about 36 hours, but they gave us all memories that we’ll never forget.
I haven’t blogged much about some of the peculiarities you see out and about on the streets of Shanghai, so today I’m breaking that duck and talking about dogs. Noel Gallagher once asked ‘Is there anything funnier than a dog in sunglasses?’ Now, there may not be – but there are a couple of things that come pretty close, and you can see them with almost alarming regularity in Shanghai. I’d better preface this blog with the apology for the lack of photographic evidence for any of this. I have tried, really I have, but getting your phone out and taking a photo of a stranger’s dog all while trying not to make it obvious as you walk past them in a busy street is not easy. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Right, where was I?
Dogs in Clothes
I’ve seen this a lot – I suppose ‘clothes’ is maybe the wrong word, but not always. In any event, this is more than just a simple doggy coat to protect a pooch from the Shanghai shivers (I love alliteration, I’m trying to bring it back). I’m no fashion icon, or really even aware of fashion (jeans and a t-shirt will do me just fine thankyouverymuch) but I imagine that even the keenest trendsetter would be shamed by the effort some of these dogs put in to their attire. They look incredibly Sharp-ei. I suppose it’s not the dogs that put the effort in, although as you see them proudly trotting along the street they do carry a certain air of ‘Look at me, bitches, I’m FABULOUS!’ This week I have seen dogs wearing: a full superman outfit (cape and all), a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt and cravat, a suit (which looked like it cost more than the one I wear to work), a hot pink body warmer with tartan leg warmers, a bowler hat, and the wooliest jumper I’ve ever seen. That’s just this week, and that’s just in our little corner of the city. Imagine what the catwalk shows would be like, or dogwalk shows, I suppose. I also presume that these amazing garments only get brought out in winter, since surely the little blighters would get a bit hot under the collie in summer. It must be nice to have a range of outfits, perhaps a favourite costume that really speaks to who you are as a dog, and you can simply whippet out on a morning if you feel the need to make a statement. But all of these sartorial wonders pale in comparison to my new favourite/least favourite accessory for our four legged friends…
Dogs in Shoes
The streets in Shanghai aren’t dirty, per se, and so I don’t think dogs necessarily need any protection from them, but apparently I am in the minority. It took me a while to notice this aspect of doggy life in Shanghai, largely because most of the dogs here are so very small so I missed it; but a lot of them wear actual shoes. Shoes. On a Dog. I had to pinscher myself when I first realized what I was seeing. If the effect of putting shoes on a dog were just that the dog had shoes on, that wouldn’t be funny, particularly; but what makes this my favourite part of poodle life in Shanghai is that these doggy converse make the animal in question trot and gambol like they’re on springs. There must be a springer spaniel joke in here somewhere, but I’m trying to avoid terrierable dog puns in this article, as the more beagle-eyed readers will have noticed already. The inevitable concern arises when you consider whether or not the dogs are actually comfortable in them. It seems a bit cruel to attach funny springs to your dog’s feet and then watch them bumble about the place, sort of half like deer who are just learning to walk and half like supermodels. It’s a very odd, but absolutely hilarious mix – providing of course that the dogs in question don’t mind. They seem happy enough with it though, and if it keeps them warm and safe, then all the better. So, the canine population of Shanghai has nothing to worry about when it comes to fashion nirvana, but what about inner peace and equilibrium? You can’t just get satisfaction in life by bouncing around looking flash, trying to wolf down any food you can find and generally looking much cooler than me. No, you need some sense of self, balance, calm and resolution. How to get that? Look no further than…
Dogs doing Tai-Chi
I know, you think I’m joking and that this article has now entered the realms of the ridiculous, if it hadn’t already. But no, I’m serious. Even when the air is bad in Shanghai and your voice is left feeling a little husky, there are a dedicated band of Tai-Chi grandmas who come to our local park on a morning to do some meditation through motion. Their commitment is admirable; we have seen them out in wind, rain and shine and in some less-than-forgiving temperatures too. One morning, as we walked to school, we noticed, just pekingese-ily out from behind a bush, a local dog. Fully attired, of course, and with a huge perm to boot (you should see what they do to dog’s hair here; that’s a whole other blog right there!) it promptly trotted out (properly attired in sports shoes) and began pawing at what we presumed was its owner. Of course, the net result was that it looked like it was trying to join in the Tai-Chi and this made us laugh a lot. Since then we’ve seen a few dogs trying to take part, and some of them look pretty good at it. All of them would be considerably better at it than me, so I suppose I should be learning from them a bit. They certainly seem relaxed, but then with that kind of inner bliss and external style, who wouldn’t?
Sadly, it’s not all fun and games for the dogs of Shanghai; there are a lot of stray animals here. Clichés abound about dogs being the first thing on a menu (actually, that cliché is meant for Korea, and I’m not convinced it’s true there either) but on our way to work we will often pass several small groups of dogs (if it weren’t so sad to see them ambling around with no apparent home, I would like to consider them a group of friends who patrolled the streets, perhaps solving crimes) with nowhere, it seems, to call home. They live in hedges or under the bridge in a local park, and while there are some kind-hearted locals who come to feed them, they don’t have a home to go to and the weather is beginning to turn cold. Before we left for Christmas, a few of us noticed with some alarm the disappearance of the puppy twins who had bounded about by the bridge for several weeks as we walked to work. Concerned that the cold had gotten the better of them, we allowed ourselves the briefest of hopes that perhaps they had been adopted by a loving home. In the end, it turns out neither extreme was true. The puppies reappeared the other day, still healthy it seems, but still having to snuggle under the bridge at night for warmth. We would love to take them home of course, but this is impractical for a number of reasons, not least that we live on the 12th floor of a high rise block and are out for 12 hours of every day at work. Hopefully they will all find refuge someday, though sadly I doubt it.
That brought things down a bit didn’t it? Best finish on another bad dog joke, albeit not one of my own.
I went to a zoo the other day and all they had there was one dog. It was a Shih Tzu.
I’m here all week. Actually, I’m not here all week, because we’re off on another adventure soon – more on that later!
Before we moved out to Shanghai, we heard all kinds of rumours about what it might be like out here. Now that we’ve finished our first term, I thought I would blog about a few of them, and let you know how true or not they turned out to be. Now, obviously, this blog has a huge caveat in that it only reflects our experience in our small part of Shanghai, so it’s not a ‘China is like this’ blog since I am in no way qualified to talk about that, but if you are thinking of coming to Shanghai, here at least is what you should and shouldn’t believe.
Cliché: Spitting on the streets is commonplace and acceptable.
True? Yes and No. You’d think from some of the sites we read that everybody spends their time lobbing saliva all the time in every direction. That’s not quite true, but there is certainly none of the social stigma around spitting that we have in the UK. It’s not entirely uncommon to walk past a blob of spit in London or other cities, but it’s relatively rare to actually see someone do it. Even rarer is the sound of them hocking themselves up a nice juicy globule. In Shanghai, neither is uncommon. When people spit, they do it openly and loudly and neither of those things is particularly pleasant. However, nobody spits at anyone (at least not that I’ve seen) and so while it’s fairly unedifying it’s also relatively easy to turn a blind eye to. The noise, meanwhile, is something I hope I never get used to. There’s no getting around it; it’s disgusting.
Cliché: The pollution is so bad you can hardly see 10 feet in front of you.
True? No. Or at least, not yet. We’ve been in Shanghai for 130 days and 120 of those have been perfectly clear. 8 have been a bit on the misty side and 2 have been noticeably bad, the worst so far being the day we left when the AQI reached 250. This, compared to elsewhere in the world is relatively painless. I wouldn’t recommend a sprinting competition with any asthmatic friends, for sure, but thus far the pollution level has been extremely accommodating. Now, we’ve also heard that it gets worse in winter, and winter has only just arrived, and plenty of people who’ve lived in Shanghai for longer than us have said that this Autumn has been unusually clear, so perhaps we’ve just been lucky. People do wear masks, but apparently the particles are extremely small, so just wearing the surgical mask isn’t going to help. At some stage soon we’re planning to buy our official pollution masks and will soon be walking the streets channelling this fine gentleman.
I want that coat, too.
Cliché: The roads are madness.
True? Oh yes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There are a billion people in China and 24 million of them in Shanghai. We have been told by more than one person who’s lived here for a long time that cars will run pedestrians over if they are in the way; it’s cheaper for drivers to kill someone than it is to pay the insurance costs of their medical care. This is a sobering and deeply unpleasant thought, and one that doesn’t take much believing once you’ve seen the way people drive. There appear to be few rules outside stopping at a red light, and even that isn’t always adhered to. Buses and Taxis will maybe stop for you (with extreme prejudice and reluctance) on a zebra crossing, “right of way” is viewed the same way as a lot of people in the west view Feng Shui – a charmingly naïve quirk from foreign lands. Being a passenger in a taxi at the start of the year was a genuinely unsettling experience and to this day it’s not something we’re entirely used to. Cycling to work requires extreme concentration at all times, and walking is relatively safe but not comfortingly so. Having said that, it means that we are not getting complacent. Hopping across the road when the signal is on red or the traffic seems quiet is easy enough in the UK. We don’t do that here. Stopping, looking and listening has never seemed so important, so if you are reading this blog and worrying that we are walking to work each day through a Motocross rally site, don’t. I mean, we are, but we’re being careful about it!
Cliché: There is all kinds of weird food available
True? Well, yes – but fortunately it’s not all that’s available. Have we eaten dog yet? No. Are noodles all we eat? No. There’s a blog here about the food we tend to eat, and really it’s all there. One of the many perks of living in Shanghai is that your culinary experience can be as ‘authentic’ or ‘expat’ as you want it to be. There are Domino’s and McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and Starbucks and all that crowd available at nearly every junction on the roads, so you don’t have to look far for a taste of ‘home’ but those places are also nestled between Chinese restaurants and street vendors so you can just as easily get stuck into the local culture.
Cliché: The streets are busy all the time
True? No. If you go to the Bund in Golden Week, you’ll find plenty of people – but even then, not so many that you can’t move comfortably. There are 24 million people in Shanghai, but it’s also a very big place, so they are fairly well spread about. If you go to the French Concession, or Liujiazui or Nanjing Road, you’re unlikely to feel isolated; but I haven’t yet seen anywhere so busy that it’s made me uncomfortable. It’s certainly less busy than Central London, so it feels quite easy to handle.
Cliché: Once you’ve moved abroad, you won’t want to ever come home.
We recently got the chance to travel to Yale University with three students as they took part in the ‘Tournament of Champions’ in the World Scholar’s Cup. As school trips go, this is a pretty exciting one to get the chance to run, and on the morning of November 17th, we arrived at reception at 6:45 to get a taxi and begin the trip. As it was raining, we realised taxis would be scarce, but we didn’t realise that the 10-minute journey to work would end up taking us 85 minutes to complete. It was an unfortunate Chinese confluence of events. It was raining for the first time in a fortnight, meaning all the taxis scarpered home (because obviously, nobody wants a taxi when it’s sheeting down with rain) and when one finally did turn up, an angry (and extremely patronising) Belgian woman stole it on the grounds that she had booked one last night and she had a meeting at work. “Maybe you should try booking in advance next time?” she ‘helpfully’ offered as I pleaded with her for some charity because we had a plane to catch. I do not know who she is, but next time I see her I will be sure to push her off something. So, on this timescale it was going to take us 102 hours to get to America. This might sound churlish since it obviously couldn’t possibly take 102 hours to get anywhere…but bear in mind we still had to fly with China Eastern airlines.
Ah, China Eastern. I don’t know where they got their fleet of planes, but given the noise they make when they take off, it’s easy to assume that they are simply leftover pipes from a roadworks project and fitted with plastic seats and powered by an engine that someone found hanging out the back of a 1903 Model T Ford. You know that planes will make some noise when they take off, that’s natural; but on China Eastern it sounds like a bag of spanners has been left on top of a washing machine. The inevitable nerves this generates might be calmed slightly by some music, or a book to read, but I found myself instructed by a steward (his face alive with all the joy of your average embalmer) that all electronics had to be switched off 40 minutes before take-off. There was no apparent reason for this. Flight mode, I understand. I’m sure that my phone couldn’t mangle the circuits of an airplane (although I’m less convinced of that when flying with China Eastern) but I have no issue with putting my phone into airplane mode, obviously. I promptly did this and put my music back on. This was met with a stern rebuke and a warning that all phones must not be used. I tried to point out that I wasn’t using my phone, but I should have realised that this wasn’t the time for nuanced debate. Having said all that, we did get airborne, and I am now writing this, so obviously we survived the flight.
Only just though. The turbulence on the way over was the worst I’d ever experienced. Admittedly, it could have been much worse, and it’s fair to say that any flight you get off in one piece has been a good one, but the weather shook our flying sewing machine around with unusual severity as we negotiated the Pacific. Not only that, but the movie choice was a bit limited. ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and the ‘Fast/Furious’ series were listed under ‘Classics’, which tells you everything you need to know there. Once on terra firma at JFK, we then had one more famed wonder of air travel to experience before getting to see America: the staggering unfriendliness of American customs control. It never fails to find a way to depress me further after getting off a long-haul flight. If people really are concerned that the ice caps are melting, maybe they should open an American immigration control border on each. The frost it generated would refreeze entire glaciers and could have everything sorted in a few weeks. I’m sure it’s a soul destroying job, and I wouldn’t want to do it myself, but still, as a welcome to the land of the free, it’s unsettling.
What has never depressed me though is realising I’m in America. I adore America with a naïve but gorgeous stupidity. And here we were in an East Coast fall. Autumn colours bold and bright reflected a November sun. I revelled in the juxtaposition of a gang of kids outside a run-down corner shop as luxurious cars went by in a neighbourhood where well to do houses line up next to tyre servicing grease yards. This was suburban New York and it was gorgeous, even in its ugliness. A schoolhouse and senior citizens’ clubhouse that looked like Mayflower passengers could have built them sat alongside grimy concrete walls and fences around the basketball courts in a mix of genteel pageantry and harsh reality. The day I am tired of seeing America be America, feel free to send me to Nebraska as punishment. I am, at heart, a hopeless idealist when it comes to America. Maybe I’ve watched too much Aaron Sorkin, or maybe the kid who saw it as a fantasy land far across the water never grew up. It is a richly layered, deeply conflicted, wounded and complex animal, but I love it dearly – even if I am destined to be disappointed by it eventually.
We drove along the interstate towards New Haven in a sleepy reverie, watching the world go by outside the window. As we crossed the bridge out of New York, we managed to glimpse a misty view of Manhattan. Like the idyllic dream of Jay Gatsby, the island was tantalisingly close but just out of reach. Powering 1776 feet into the air, I saw the new World Trade Center contrasting with an ancient, distant Statue of Liberty extending her hand into the sky, both symbols of remembrance and progress. Having never visited Manhattan, the sight of it just over the bay made it almost tangible but somehow so distant it couldn’t be real. Those views had been something, but even that hadn’t prepared us for the view from our hotel window of New Haven in the morning.
Yale positively reeks of privilege and history, steeped as it is in both. The Battell Chapel (the location for the opening ceremony) is ornate, colourful, beautiful and softly creaking under the weight of its own age. Names like ‘Kingman Brewster’ and ‘Alfred Whitney Griswold’ line the walls, making the place feel somewhere between Hogwarts and a Dickens novel.
The Yale Environs haven’t changed much since the university was founded in 1790, based as they are in the original pilgrims’ plan for the city of New Haven which was settled in 1638 with an ‘eight-street grid’ that still exists to this day. One thing that has changed though is where people come from to visit and study there. There were 40 different countries represented by schools that had made the journey to this conference, and they made up quite the eager crowd of brilliant young minds keen to learn, and excited to be there by the way – when it was announced that everyone would be given a free cuddly alpaca the cheer that went up made me wonder if a pop star I’d never heard of had just walked in. This is a place where education is valued; the library has over 15 million books and there are 14 different schools under the umbrella of Yale College. It was exciting to be on campus (as much for me as for the students) and we got a glimpse of ‘real’ college life in the Pierson canteen; but it felt a far cry from how I used to eat at university, although in fairness that’s no bad thing. Yale may have had 5 presidents and 52 Nobel Laureates study in its hallowed halls, but you simply cannot get a decent kebab-meat pizza there for love nor money. At any rate, the lunch buffet prepared us nicely for a visit to Five Guys for dinner, and if ever your love for America is in doubt, just remember that Five Guys is a place you can go, which should cheer your soul.
Five Guys and Mountain Dew…
Two of the great perks of being in the USA
Day two saw the students begin with an exam of some kind (which also somehow excited them all just as much as the free alpaca had) before I was taken to my briefing on how to judge debates later in the day.
10 hours of debate judging later, and I had some time to stroll back to the hotel. Maybe my love for America is naive and myopic but being among the streets of this beautiful town genuinely revitalised me. I’m sure it helps that the architecture in New Haven is so beautiful and the air was a fresh, crisp contrast to Shanghai, but I felt like I could have walked around for hours. At Thanksgiving dinner, I was seated with young girl from Chennai who wants to be a neurosurgeon one day. Within 5 minutes of speaking to her it was clear that she was about 800 times smarter than me (which is still not necessarily smart enough to be a neurosurgeon I suppose) and I asked if she would consider coming to a university like Yale. With a look in her eye so sad it could have melted a glacier (don’t worry, a US immigration officer will be along to refreeze it soon) she told me that she would never be able to afford it; she lived at home with her mother and grandmother who had basically sold everything they could to give her the education she was getting now. Anything more than that would surely be beyond them. It was a heart-breaking reminder of just how lucky most of the people I’ve ever known are, and one of the great flaws of the system. This blog is not ever going to be a political ranting site, but I must admit, the thought of this girl being denied the chance to go to Yale by her circumstances should give us all pause for thought.
Our third day was our day off around the town. We decided to take the students to the shopping hub of New Haven, before discovering that it doesn’t have one. Undeterred, we promptly pillaged the university shop for memorabilia, clothes, and anything we could find with Yale branding on. We even found time to call in at the gym and have our picture taken with the official mascot of the College, although he didn’t look too impressed with us.
In the evening came the closing ceremony of the weekend’s festivities. Parents and teachers were herded upstairs, and the students given free reign downstairs to be excited and cheer which they did in a kind of ‘we are excited but also preternaturally inclined to behave well’ way. Still, it made for a pleasant end to an exciting trip. The last leg was our (thankfully uneventful) 24-hour journey back to Shanghai on the world’s 20th longest direct flight of just under 15 hours. All was as it had been; America shone resplendent in its beautiful wonder and China Eastern made me take my headphones off 8 hours before we landed in case I was playing a song that could crash the plane. Between fresh air, great food, beautiful scenery, nice people, and a midterm rekindling of my love for all things Americana, I had taken a lot from the trip, but perhaps most excitingly is the fact that I now have a Yale sweater I can wear with pride, and when people ask if I went to Yale, I can ‘honestly’ answer “Yes.”
On something of a whim recently, a group of us got together on a Friday night and decided to book a weekend in Korea. I’m not entirely sure from where the idea came, but having now returned, I’m very glad it did come. Seoul was the obvious choice of location insofar as it was the only place in Korea that any of us had heard of (except Pyongyang – and to be honest we were all looking for a more ‘user-friendly’ vacation than that) and so it was that on a Friday afternoon, we hopped in a cab to Pudong airport ready for a quick flight up to Incheon airport.
A quick flight.
In its defence, the flight itself was quick, but what we hadn’t counted on was that Pudong airport at 5pm on a Friday night is apparently the only place in China that does not have a staff to customer ratio of approximately 1:1. Seriously. Everywhere we have been in Shanghai so far has had so many staff available that we have seriously wondered how most of the city is able to stay open or economically viable*. But not in the second busiest airport in China (with over 60 million passengers a year passing through) on a Friday night where several check-in desks stood lonely and unattended like those girls at the dance in ‘Grease’ – you know the bit I mean, right? Nevertheless, once we had crawled through our security checks we boarded our bus to the plane, and promptly got on. And promptly sat there. For a while. Quite a while.
Now, being delayed on the tarmac is not a huge issue. These things happen; it’s air travel for crying out loud. It may not have been ideal, not least because we were still sitting on the tarmac (well, sitting in an airplane on the tarmac) at 8pm when we should have been landing in Seoul, but the real kicker came in the courtesy of China Eastern airlines’ regulations about when electronic devices should be turned off. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but most airlines nowadays ask you to put electronic devices on flight mode before take off, but if you are reading your e-book, or listening to music on your phone etc they are happy to let you continue during take-off. Oh, not here on China Eastern. No. Here at China Eastern, the rules seem to state that your electronic devices must be turned onto flight safe mode at least 20 minutes before take off (I know I am prone to exaggeration for effect, so let me state for the record that none of the timings here will be exaggerated) and thereafter cannot be used AT ALL. You need to pay attention to the safety briefing (fair enough) and then you have to sit there without a single device at your fingertips unless it’s one of those old fashioned books or magazines, since they already come in flight-safe mode. This is also not necessarily a problem; it’s not ideal, but takeoff doesn’t take all that long and you can get back to Sudoku or your Kindle, or your music in short order. However, once your departure is delayed by nearly two hours and during that time you are not permitted to use any of these devices, your patience can begin to feel tested. At least, it can if you are me. Oh well, at least once you’re airborne you basically have the whole flight to use your devices, right? Wrong. Here at China Eastern, everything must be turned off and completely out of sight at least 30 minutes before landing. This was enforced as the cabin crew came through the plane telling us all to stop doing whatever we were doing, and we duly obliged (because while we’re not above sneering about it on a blog two weeks after the event, we’re definitely not going to publicly express our dissatisfaction with a rule, no matter how stupid it may seem) like good citizens. This didn’t seem to bother the woman in the seat across from us who waited until we were in our final descent, pulled out her phone and took a call mid landing. Safety first guys.
So, here we were, in Seoul. We had booked a place via Air BnB (if you’re not on this yet, you really must try it out) and found a very nice taxi driver who took us as the final bus had gone, and we were at least an hour away. While the drive itself is not really worthy of comment, two things did catch my attention on the way into the city. Firstly, people seemed to be able to drive in Korea. This may seem fairly straightforward, but only if you’ve never seen the roads in Shanghai, which are effectively the real life manifestation of the TV show Robot Wars mixed with drivers who are somewhere between Sonic the Hedgehog and Stevie Wonder**. Secondly, the currency struck me as odd. Our taxi ride cost 90,000 Won. I don’t even know what that means. Is it expensive? If something costs 90,000 anything, surely it must be expensive, right? Well, it comes out at about £60 which for an hours’ drive for 7 people at 11pm in a major city is really not all that bad. I was still confused though, and our first visit to the cash machine saw me debate whether I should take out 500 Won before realising that this would be the equivalent of equipping myself with 34p for a weekend in London. Probably not going to get very far.
Having stopped for some refreshment at a local 24-hour store which was brilliant (both the store and the refreshment) we finally arrived at our apartment and promptly collapsed to bed, just 38km from the North Korean border. A bit unsettling perhaps, but 38km is far enough so as you don’t have to think about it, even if it’s not far enough to rule out something intercontinental and ballistic hitting you. The next morning, we awoke and headed for the city, beginning with a trip for breakfast to Butterfingers Pancakes. What struck us most about Seoul in terms of its difference to Shanghai (other than the fact that you could reliably cross a road when the green man was showing without fear of being cleaved in two by an errant van) was how American it felt. Shanghai feels western, make no mistake, and nowhere is that more prevalent than Jinqiao, but it feels generically ‘Western’. Seoul feels American. The shops are straight out of a Californian mall, and the cafes and diners that line the streets could be in Greenwich Village. It’s also very beautiful; although not as picturesque as parts of Shanghai, it does have a certain intangible buzz about its atmosphere which is hugely enjoyable. Perhaps people are more relaxed because they’re not terrified that every time they go near a road they are going to be flattened by an onrushing scooter. Who knows? After a bit of a wait at Butterfinger’s (obviously some scamps had heard of it before us and managed to beat us there) we finally got seated and presented with the most tempting menu I have seen in some time.
I love a massive heart-attack breakfast, and these all came with a lot of French toast, a lot of maple syrup, and a side of massive pancakes if we wanted them. I thought it could get no better…and then I read the drinks menu and saw that they served Mountain Dew. Not one part of the experience disappointed. The food was gorgeous, the drink was fantastic, and the prices were very considerate – although of course I say that with absolutely no idea whether it was cheap or not since everything costs several thousand Won, but it felt pretty reasonable, all things considered. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, I’d definitely recommend it.
Following that we caught the metro (brilliant, by the way) into the city and took the opportunity to look around the markets and shops of Myeongdong. With everything from familiar high-street names to tiny delis and street stalls, it was one of the few times in my life I could say I had genuinely enjoyed a shopping trip on which I bought nothing and basically walked around a lot. We met a man dressed as a cat, saw octopus being fried (a bit rancid, that one) and saw a few people singing songs with signs on their back warning us that the apocalypse was coming, and would be sponsored by a company called ‘GoBrite’ or something similar. Not sure what the GoBrite apocalypse will look like, but apparently it will be a musical, so that’s a plus. After heading up to a mountain on the edge of town to try and get a cable car up, before realising that the queue was somewhere between 60-90 minutes long (which is 800,000 minutes in South Korean currency) we headed back to our apartment to get ready for our evening.
The day was lovely, make no mistake, but the real revelations of the trip were yet to show themselves. Firstly, while flicking through the various TV channels available, we discovered the show ‘Unpretty Rap Star’. Before I go into more detail, a quick sidenote – the TV in Korea is every bit as mental as you’d hope it would be. We saw all sorts, and it was as utterly bonkers as it was wonderful. God bless you, Korean TV. Anyway, Unpretty Rap Star, we soon learned, was basically an X-Factor style show where a load of rappers battle each other for the right to be famous. Like the X-Factor, there was an awful lot (emphasis on the awful) of backstory, tears, context and suspense building before the big moment, but unlike the X-Factor, when the moment came, it didn’t disappoint. I won’t go into detail here; it won’t do it justice, but suffice to say that if you ever get chance, have a click on this and then imagine the seven of us dancing around the apartment to this song and quoting it ad nauseum for the rest of the weekend. (Just for reference, there is some ‘language’ in the song…be prepared!) Duly energised and full of Korean rap attitude, we went out for Korean Barbeque. This was totally marvellous; they put us at a table, lit some of it on fire, and promptly cooked our meat right in front of us as we sat and chatted. It tasted lovely and the whole mood was fairly joyous. If you ever go to Seoul, don’t miss the chance to try it out. The food there is really something. The club scene, meanwhile, takes a bit of finding. We walked around the city for a little while trying to find somewhere before the less energetic of us (me included, you’ll be surprised to hear) decided to call it a night.
Sunday came and saw us explore a bit of Bosingak Bell Pavilion, (well, the streets around it) featuring a couple of huge portions of fried chicken and an equally huge ice-cream. Walking around Seoul, a city of 10 million people, we felt surprisingly unencumbered by others. It’s fair to say we weren’t in the very heart of the bustling metropolis, but nevertheless it was nice to feel chilled out in a city of such size, scope, and life.
Then it was time to board a train to the airport to start our journey home. We had wisely booked ourselves on the 6pm flight home to ensure that we wouldn’t be too tired for work on Monday, so as we headed back to Incheon, we weren’t anticipating a lengthy stay.
Oh, how foolish we were.
Arriving at the gate, we were told to check in using the online ticket booth passport scanning robo-check-in machine. (I think it’s called the ‘Oh-My-God-How-Unhelpful-Can-A-Single-Machine-Be-At-Least-When-The-Robot-Revolution-Comes-If-They-Are-All-This-Useless-We’ve-Got-Nothing-To-Worry-Aboutatron 9000‘) This went well until we were told that two of us weren’t booked on this particular flight, despite this being patently not the case. We were then told it was because what we were trying to get on was the 14:25 flight, not the 18:25, even though it was now 16:00 which is, military clock fans, later than 14:25. It then transpired that this particular flight had been delayed because it couldn’t land in Shanghai due to bad weather. Each flight that had been due to leave Incheon during the day was now subject to a 4 hour delay. We waited downstairs until such time as we’d been told we could try again. We tried again, but the machine now changed its mind and decided that different members of our group now didn’t count and couldn’t check in. At this point we were told that we couldn’t simply check in at the desk, but would need to go via the online machines, which were by this point completely overwhelmed by people trying to check in for various flights to Shanghai. We were also told, at different points, that the flight would leave at 6, 8, 9, and 10. Predictably, this was not well received by any of us. Fortunately for us Incheon has a nice enough food selection on the rough side of check-in, so we were able to get a nice burger and fries to help us through the wait. Eventually we found our way through check in, where we began the last wait of the journey – or so we thought. Originally a couple of us had been hoping to watch the Spurs v Arsenal game as we would be landing at kick-off time and might make it back to the flat for the second half. In the end, thanks to the rather wonderful airport wifi at Seoul (which puts every public wifi I’ve ever seen in the UK to absolute and utter shame) we watched 86 minutes of the game before finally boarding the plane.
And so it was that at 1am we finally landed back at Pudong, a mere 30 minutes after we had all been firmly instructed to turn all our electronics off. Back to an AQI of 124, a fog that rivalled Victorian London and a taxi driver determined to do the entire journey in a) silence and b) third gear. Seoul would have been hard to leave anyway, but this made it that much harder. Since it had actually been quite hard to leave, we were just grateful to be back in our own bed, at 2:30 and ready for the alarm to go off 4 hours later.
It’s rare that when I get back from a place I genuinely feel that I could go straight back and be perfectly happy there. Seoul is one such place – it was fantastic and I’m looking forward to a return visit one day.
*Actually, we know how they do it, and it makes us sad. Why pay one person RMB100 an hour when you can pay 10 people RMB10 an hour? On the plus side, it means everyone who is working in a totally empty noodle place down our road has some company when they’re on shift. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to have much effect in the restaurants in Jinqiao, where the service is so slow you can legitimately order your burger at the start of happy hour on a Monday night and only finally get to eat the damn thing once happy hour has finished and everyone else has left and you have died of a wasting disease. Anyway, I digress.
**Yes, all drivers in Shanghai are blue, and can play keyboards like funk demons.