Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi'an Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits China, March 2004.

Our flight arrived in Shanghai in the evening. We found the new Pudong airport impressive but rather characterless. The bus ride from the airport to downtown Shanghai provided an opportunity to see the newly developed Pudong Special Economic Zone. Its centerpiece is a 1245-foot-high TV tower (photo, Oriental Pearl Tower) decorated all over with flashing, glittering lights and surrounded by high-rise office buildings and complexes. Shanghai seems to be in love with fancy neon displays in the elaborate style we associate with Las Vegas. We arrived at the East Asia hotel in East Nanjing Road, the center of the downtown area. The street in front of the hotel has been a pedestrian mall for a few years so it is full of shopping malls, restaurants, clubs, and crowded with people even after 9pm. Outside our fifth floor window, a big neon sign (photo, Hotel Room) shone right into our room, but there seems to be a rule that at 11pm, all neon lights are turned off and police on their motorcycles patrol the street, clearing off vendors.

We woke up at 4am our first morning, due as much to excitement as to the jetlag. We took a walk to the Bund (photo, Shanghai Bund) before sunrise. This is still Barbara's favorite part of Shanghai. People of all ages come for their morning exercise. We saw a dozen or so kite fliers, most of them seniors. One of them proudly pointed his kite out to us, just a black dot in the sky, about one mile away. The air pollution is bad and the sky was grey though it was not a cloudy day.

The Huangpu River separates Shanghai and Pudong and is still a working waterway for local transportation. We saw workers at the pier who had made a transport container on a barge into their permanent house (photo, Container Home) including air conditioning.

We stopped into a snack shop and enjoyed a Shanghai breakfast of soy bean drink and dumplings (photo, breakfast). It tasted as good as Barbara remembered. Walking back out on Nanjing Road, we found people watching is fun. In the early afternoon we met up with Ben, Barbara's client who happened to be in Shanghai at the same time as us, for lunch at Shanghai's most famous vegetarian restaurant, Goldy's. Later in the afternoon, we visited Barbara's uncle and aunt. It turns out her grandfather's old house in the French Concession was torn down five years ago to be replaced by high-end office complex. So aunt and uncle were forced to sell their long-time home and move into a small apartment in central Shanghai, where we visited happily before going out out for a nice dinner.

Very early Sunday morning we caught the train to Hangzhou, a beautiful ancient city southeast of Shanghai. Another aunt and uncle, along with a cousin and his little daughter, all came to meet us in the train station at the crack of dawn. They took us on a whole-day tour of the area around their lovely city, on the excuse that it is Richard's first time here.

We first went to Mayor Qian's Memorial. Qian was the first mayor of Hangzhou in the Tang Dynasty, a thousand years ago. Qian is famous for leading a troop of archers to defeat the rising tide that attacked the city annually. Qian's statue shows the hero with his giant bow (photo, Mayor Qian). The courtyard of the Memorial features a stage where art school students perform local Opera every day (photo, Hangzhou Opera).

We climbed to the top of the Leifeng Tower, where we got a bird's eye view of beautiful West Lake (photo, West Lake). From there we went to visit Meilongwu, a famous Chinese green tea plantation outside Hangzhou. The first harvest of the year before Chinese Memorial Day (April 4) was in full swing. The new tea is as valuable per weight as gold, and is the cream of the cream among discerning tea lovers. We had the pleasure to sample the tea while lunching at a farmer's house looking out on the tea terraces (photo, Meilongwu Tea Fields). The tea is phenomenal: every piece includes one leaf wrapping around a tiny bud. The color of the tea is as green as liquid jade.

In the afternoon, we visited Lingyin Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in Southeast China, where dozens of carvings of Buddhist saints and deities are carved in the rock (photo, Sacred Carvings). Buddhism's 500 saints are visited at Lingyin by people from all over the country. In the evening, we were invited to dine at Louwailou, one of the most famous Hangzhou cuisine restaurants, facing right on West Lake, where we feasted on typical Hangzhou dishes and caught up with family gossip.

Monday morning in Hangzhou, we visited a Chinese Flute making Master, Mr. Ying. His shop is in a hard to find little alley in the suburbs of Hangzhou. Thankfully, our aunt had scouted out the place for us or we would never be able to find it. Mr. Ying gave us a tour of us his workshop. We saw how raw materials purchased all over the country are stored for drying, cut and drilled into flutes, painted and decorated to create the beautiful finished product. He showed us a pure jade flute with an elaborate dragonhead carved at the end, which plays in perfect pitch and sounds clear and sharp as a knife. We brought home a few of his products including a "curved dragon" flute.

We caught the train to Shanghai just in time to arrive at the airport for our flight to Beijing, where we were picked up and hosted by family. The next day we took an excursion to Xi'an by overnight train. We slept like babies on the express train, since family talk in Beijing went to well after midnight every night. We arrived in Xi'an at 7:30 a.m. rested and fresh. Our first stop was Hua Qing Hot Springs, where emperors and their mistresses and aides had their individual bathhouses (photo, Hua Qing Baths) surrounded by beautiful gardens in front of Li Mountain. After checking out Hua Qing, we visited the site of the archeology digs with the famous Terra Cotta Warrior Army. Pit Number One was most impressive to us, featuring more than 1000 larger-than-life figures of soldiers, archers, warriors, generals and horses (photo, Terra Cotta Army), all facing east guarding their emperor Qin's tomb. Each soldier weighs 250-400 pounds and is between 5'7" and 6'2" tall, and each has his own character and facial expression (photo, more soldiers). There are also horses and horsemen (photo, Terra Cotta Horsemen). Standing next to these men, more than 2200 years old, was an experience hard to describe. The history becomes so alive it seems to be walking toward you.

We got back to the city, strolled through the Muslim quarter, and stopped for a lunch of some local special dumplings. Afterwards, we visited the Grand Mosque. The buildings and grounds combine Arabic and Oriental designs and architecture styles in beautiful harmony,to very peaceful effect. The prayer hall (photo, Prayer Hall) and Imams' quarters (photo, Painted Door) are particularly beautiful.

Coming out of the Mosque, we stopped at the Drum Tower (photo, Drum Tower) and the nearby Bell Tower (photo, Bell Tower) where for 5 RMB, you can hit the Bell three times. Inside the Bell Tower, a group of musicians were performing a Tang Dynasty style court concert with rows of big bells and stone gongs around (photo, Tang Dynasty Orchestra).

Our day in Xi'an went by very fast. It quickly became dusk, so we headed for the ancient city wall, the only such wall left intact in China. The wall is as wide as a two-lane road, and walking along it, Richard felt inspired by the musicians we had seen and pulled out his own Tang Dynasty flute and started to play (photo, Tang Flute) and hear the echo bouncing to the gate tower and back (photo, City Wall). When it started getting dark, all the lanterns on the wall were lit. With less then a dozen people in sight, it became a the romantic evening walk (photo, City Wall with lights) of our life.

We took the overnight train back to Beijing and spent the rest of the week with family and old friends. Our daily activities involved nonstop eating, drinking and talking: tremendous fun for us, but not so interesting to write or read about.