Monthly Archives: October 2012

Asia 2012: Day 13


In 1986, my parents took the family to Vancouver for Expo’86, the World Exposition on Transportation and Communications. That trip perhaps began an interest in these two areas which would follow me to this day: I still find people movers, high speed trains and airplanes fascinating, while I ended up working in the telecommunications business as a professional career. In 1986, idealism for new forms of transport was running high, especially those using magnetic levitation. While Boeing featured a giant 747 nose, France a mockup of the then new conventional TGV train and our own Canadian effort brought Vancouver a brand new SkyTrain automated rapid transit system, the future was trains running on the power of magnets, free of wheels and friction.

Japan demonstrated their High Speed Surface Transport concept, with a working maglev transporting visitors a very short distance. But it was the German effort, the TransRapid system which captured my attention. I read the pamphlet, detailing the TransRapid concept as envisioned by MBB/Thyssen Henschel, over and over, back to front. Of course, almost every maglev project proposed, even in Germany itself, never materialized. That is, until the Shanghai Maglev in 2004.

I guess I now hold the unusual nerd-party trivia record of riding all two commercial maglev systems currently in operation, the Japanese HSST-03 Linimo at Aichi, built for Expo 2005, and the German TransRapid08 maglev in Shanghai. This morning, we took the Shanghai Metro to Longyuan Road station, which allowed us to switch to the new Maglev line to Pudong Airport. This line services a 30km stretch at 430km/h, although today it runs only at 300km/h during non-peak hours. The Maglev station seems a little sad, with a few travellers each run. Quiet as it is this Friday morning, the train is an impressive achievement. Boarding and seating is similar to a TGV or ICE, with airplane style seating. The eight minute journey begins slowly, then accelerates to TGV speeds within a seconds. While a little more rough than I imagined after years of reading about maglevs, the acceleration pushes you into your seat, as if flying just above the ground.

As we leave Shanghai, and China overall to go home via Hong Kong, I am left with the impression of the country being a vast and diverse place, still changing.  It is a country known for ancient treasures yet wants and celebrates a maglev train:  Of course the first one would be built here. As friends noted, they moved here because China was changing and always different, and it’s easy to see why they’re excited to live here.  China has been eye opening, exhausting, intriguing and exciting.

Asia 2012: Day 12

In the rain, the Nanjing Road shopping street seems less impressive.  We walked to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center today, which features the story of Shanghai’s history through pictures, models and interactive exhibits.  A huge model of the city fills the third floor, while individual models of the new Pudong Airport, as well as the Bund and other locations show detail of how the buildings are laid out.  If our trip in China has shown one thing, it is that the country is changing very quickly.  The museum shows the city’s historic path and its forward looking future.

Shanghai is different than the rest of China:  Our guide told us it is the most Western of China’s cities, but we think he meant in terms of Starbucks and Forever 21’s.  I’ve found as we walk around that Shanghai there is less honking, more Western style traffic patterns and more structure.

We then moved to Xintiandi, an area formerly known as the French concession, but now is an upscale boutique shopping district.  For lunch, we went to Din Tai Fung to have Xiaolongbao in a slightly more refined setting:  We had baskets of pork and crab, vegetarian chive and pork and chive dumplings along with noodles.  Along the walls are Chinese celebrities, their portraits drawn in caricature style, each signed and dated by the actual person, presumably.  Xintiandi has malls and shops lining it’s streets, offering strange retail experiences:  A “international supermarket” offers British cola at about six times the regular price, a store that only sells Maneki Neko beckoning cat figures, and a shop that sells postcards and coffee, which is looking to hire a barista/graphic designer.  By the way, that person needs to know Adobe Illustrator and presumably how to pull a espresso.  The latter store has a cute feature:  A wall of postboxes allows you to send a postcard in the future to someone, a delayed mailing.  However cute, it is working:  On a Wednesday afternoon, the place was filled with young Chinese, decorating postcards and enjoying hot beverages.

As we walked along the former French concession, we saw unusual mixes of stores:  Live hairy crabs in plastic bags and fish in water filled styrofoam crates, next to an imported wine store.  Young men examining fashionable sneakers in a sliver of a store only an aisle wide.  French bistros and hair salons.  Little kids doing their homework on a desk outside, while the parents sell fruit or fix bicycles on the sidewalk.

After a French dinner, at a bistro hosted by a Cuban expat, we returned to the Bund to see the skyline lit up.  Unfortunately as I took the modern new side of the city, across the river, I didn’t manage to shoot enough of the old buildings on the Bund.  I like the old and the new face each other across the river, it personifies Shanghai for me.

Asia 2012: Day 11

Today is our last day on this tour in Shanghai.  Walking out to the Bund, the riverside boardwalk that fronts the city skyline, we found the majestic skyline of Shanghai, standing proud in the morning sun.  The city has experienced great growth these past years, with skyscrapers jutting from the ground almost as we stood there.

On the other side of the river, where many of the new buildings stand, I went up the Jin Mao Tower, to the 88th floor observation deck.   While the huge, record breaking structures are interesting, albeit par for the course for someone from Toronto and its own CN Tower, what is amazing is the number and size of buildings around Shanghai.  Looking out into the distance on all 360 degrees from this deck, you see hundreds and thousands of buildings stretching out into the horizon, grey monoliths in the fog.  Almost like gravestones in a misty cemetery.  They are too numerous to count.

When I was a kid, my favourite game on the old Amiga was SimCity.  For those of you who calling me old right now, SimCity was a simulator which allowed you to lay out blocks of land and make a virtual town.  One of the first things I’d always do was to mark out a giant grid of houses to stimulate an economy.  Looking out at Shanghai, hundreds of identical low rise housing blocks stood in a similar grid, with identical coloured roofs, sometimes punctuated by an identical apartment building or a street.

In the afternoon, we went into the local bazaar, nearby the traditional gardens of Shanghai.  Despite the hawking of everything from small toy helicopters to three dollar MP3 players, we managed to get to try Xiaolongbao, dumplings with pork and shrimp inside.

We also visited a tea house, where a demonstrator showed a number of different teas to sample.  I think the general idea was you paid a small fee to try the teas, then visitors would typically buy some tea while they were there.  Unfortunately being from Toronto, a city with hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants, Chinese tea is far too common for us to buy and bring home from abroad.

The day ended with dinner at a nice Szechuan restaurant, just off Nanjing Road.  We tried pork liver, duck and shrimp, all covered in spicy chili.

Asia 2012: Day 10

Tonight we walked across the neon lit Nanjing Road in Shanghai, Western brands intermixed with Chinese cultural displays.  However, the day started in a much different China, one up on the hills of Longji, Ping An still hidden in fog as the sun rose and immediately diffused on the clouds.  As we made our way carefully back down the narrow twisting footpaths of the village, the town was still asleep save a band of roosters crying out in the morning stillness.  We eventually got to the bus stop, where we met a French family also on vacation.  They were waiting at the plateau as well, and soon the bus came, on schedule to pick us up for the half hour ride down the mountain.   Eventually we made it to Guilin after a second bus change.

As you approach Guilin Airport there is a sole road with a single lane, shared by motorbikes, cement mixers and tour buses.  Eventually the road turns into a modern street as you get within a few hundred meters of the facility.  Inside are several vendors, much like a bazaar than the typical retail found in airports we know.  Judging by the items on sale, people like models of airplanes, playing cards with famous Western celebrities, and cigarettes.

Getting to Shanghai was more of a challenge as the plane was delayed.  We have been very lucky here in China as we have faced almost no travel delays, but once in the air, everything was back to normal.  The Shanghai Airlines 757 took to the sky, again clean, efficient and courteous.  A hot meal of rice, winter melon, and sausage was served, complete with pickles and chilis.

Shanghai was a complete contrast to Guilin Airport:  Very modern and sleek, it’s grey/silver walls and posts efficient, it’s selection of retail international and au courant.  A KFC greeted us as we exited the building.  On the streets of Shanghai, monsterous towering skyscrapers mixed with older French and international modern style buildings from the early 1900s. It is a strange mix:  The old buildings recall a city like Alexandria or Cairo, the new, like Hong Kong or Dubai.

By dinner time, we had made it to Nanjing Road, a mile long stretch of pedestrian shopping.  As the sun had set, the neon signs, stories tall, had replaced it, shining brightly overhead.  Shopping malls are set up in a strange way– they look like department stores, but seem to have stores within stores, each independently branded and presented.  Each “shop” has an individual sales person who knows the products and helps with your selection.  Yet the “shop” does not have an independent till, which implies a central payment and management.  It is very strange:  There is a Lego “shop” with Lego branding and ads, Lego products and Lego displays, including a vacant playtable with no pieces in its bucket, and next door is a Tomy “shop” with little Japanese trains and cars.

For dinner, we had dinner at a French restaurant which served fondue, steak and tarte tatin, as interpreted by Shanghai.  Some were pretty good, while other courses were a bit of a miss.  But all said, it was reasonable for the price and location.  After dinner, we continued back on Nanjing Road, serenaded by public performances of many different kinds.  In one, Chinese opera was performed, in another, it was open mike karoake night to anyone who walked up to the hastily arranged laptop and amplifier.  In front of the Sephora, a crowd of had gathered to watch two men singing folk songs, bringing their own loudspeakers and microphones.  Similarly, a crowd of line dancers, again all middle aged Chinese women, had formed a true flash mob, hundreds dancing down the street.  The contrast of traditional Chinese instruments in front of Western brands and retail stores was intriguing.

Today, as a transit day, showed us the wide contrast between rural and urban China.

Asia 2012: Day 9

Ping An is a very small village tucked into the creases of the mountains here in Longji.  Upon steep mountainsides, villagers farm rice in terraces which were constructed nine hundred years ago.  Like corrugated cardboard, the sides of the hills are carved out in steps with irrigation so that water can be flooded into them in the springtime and the rice harvested later.  They are a sight to see, even at harvest time this October where the farmers are out cutting down their crop.

To get to Ping An, one must take a bus up the mountainous roads, filled with switchbacks and drops, hairpin turns and chicanes.  Even getting to the bus station/visitors center requires a two hour ride from Guilin, which in turn was two hours from Yangshuo.   But once here, the bus ride up the hill, however bumpy and scary, offers captivating glimpses and previews as the trees clear temporarily.  At the top, a village sits in the crevice of a valley, little guest houses, restaurants, homes and businesses, constructed of wood and stone, sit on the side of the hill.  Their straddle water piping, sewers, power and walkways, creating an organic arcology of living spaces pushing horizontal planes like shelves into the diagonal mountain.  All the walking paths are slate pieces, sometimes rickety, and they form small public spaces for people to congregate and chat, however precariously.

The Yao people live in these hills, the women wearing characteristic long hair, often tied up in a turban like headpiece for practicality.  Only a few hundred live in the village, and they belong to a handful of families all with the same surname, Yao.  They work the land, sell souevnirs to tourists, and run the hospitality industry of guesthouses and restaurants. One unusual specialty here seems to be cooking rice in bamboo, pieces of the trunk are sawn and filled with rice, then sealed and cooked over fire.  The blackened cylinder is then cracked open revealing moist contents for lunch.

In the afternoon, we went on a two hour hike around Ping An, walking up to one peak, then over and around to another, then eventually coming back down.  The terraces trace out the topology of the mountainside, line after line defining the shape of the hill.  As we walked around, villagers were harvesting with sickels, cutting the rice plants down and placing them with their tips overhanging the terrace to dry.

At some points, enterprising locals had set up stands to sell drinks and souvenirs to tourists:  Some were built on wooden stilts off the main walking path, with a folding table of combs, scarves and bracelets, and foam cooler to keep the beverages cold.  At the top of one peak, a small photo studio consisting of a computer, an inkjet printer and a laminator stood waiting for group shots and souvenir photos.

We greatly prefer Ping An to Yangshuo.  It is quiet and tranquil, calming in its isolation.  At night, there is little light and the view over the hills is completely dark.  A few voices cry out, as villagers hustle materiel and pipes through the village, but for the most part the night is quiet until the crow of the roosters the next morning.  Over the years, tourism has become a major part of the economy, but they still farm the land.  Ping An is a wonderful place to visit.

Asia 2012: Day 8


Our eighth day here in China began with a bike ride through Guangxi province, around the countryside.  The limestone karsts tower above the farmland here, almost as if someone had dropped these high rise buildings in the middle of a field.  Of course, the karsts have been there for ages, their limestone rock sawn and worn down by hydrology:  The farmland has been built around them.  Imagine standing at the intersection of Bay and Bloor at home in Toronto and staring up at the Manulife Center or other tall towers.  That’s how these outcroppings feel as they arch over and above you.

The towns dot the side of the road, tourists joyriding on bicycles parade through each hamlet of a few houses, each with an open living room and some snacks and beverages set aside should one of them stop for a break.  Families live outside, either in front of their house, inside for shade, or out in the field.  In one field, a woman washed her clothes while her water buffalo took a quick bath and drink.  Another villager brought her buffalo for us to see, prompted by someone in our group to even put it on show atop a concrete bridge that spanned over a road-flanking canal.

At the Li River, a concrete bridge was frequented by tourists, motorcycles and livestock, in ascending order of importance.  A natural break in the flow of the river with a small waterfall, local skiff captains got their tourist passengers up and down stream by the means of a motorized conveyor belt, which pulled their boats across the break from each level.

A couple of hours of cycling and I was beat:  I couldn’t find a gear that allowed me to keep my legs moving, nor could I sit appropriately in the seat without pinching some part of my body I didn’t know I had.   We found ourselves at the Moon Hill, a very tall karst formation with a bridge between its two spires.  I wish I had an image to show you, but as I attempted to climb the eight hundred odd steps, I found myself at my limit.  I ended up making it up half way, which was perhaps better than some of the tour group who elected to enjoy mango and coffee drinks, and worse than the other half of the group, who made it up to the top and even a bit beyond.

We rode back into Yangshuo, where after a break, we went for a rather delightful Chinese cooking lesson.  We first went to a local market, which was decidedly not for tourists, vendors selling eels to live chickens and rabbits.  The hermetic cleanliness of modern Chinese Canadian supermarkets was quite a contrast to these local sellers.  The lesson, at a very clean and modern establishment with a beautiful view of the Li River, included making chicken with cashews, wok fried greens, steamed vegetables filled with pork and green onions, and most notably, the local specialty, beer-fish, a local river catfish fried and steamed with garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a beer broth.

Tomorrow will bring us to Longshen, a small rural town, then eventually out of the countryside to modern Shanghai.

Asia 2012: Day 7

We woke up early this morning to leave Xian and fly to Guilin, a two hour flight south of Xian.  The streets were deserted at 5:00 AM as the bus took us out of the city core, past industrial areas towards the airport.  Xian’s airport is modern and sleek, and as the sun rose, the tails of China Eastern’s Airbus 320 fleet came visible, parked at the shiny gates.

The whole airport outside was covered in a haze, as a A320 hit rotation speed and pulled up, disappearing quickly into the grey void.  China Eastern’s plane was clean and bright, its attendants very friendly, almost stereotypically nice.  When one saw Siobhan reading, she turned on the overhead light for her.  Two hours later, we landed into Guilin, a town 1500 km south of Xian.

Guilin is hot and humid, its airport almost tropical and small compared to Xian and Beijing.  Driving out to Yongshuo from Guilin took us into the rural side of China, farmers fields dotted by giant limestone boulders the size of apartment buildings.  It’s hard to understand how these miniature mountains came into being, their shape being so irregular that they seem like some sort of science fiction element, like a primitive tribe living on them.

Yongshuo is kind of like Wasaga Beach:  A bit of a resort town, it’s filled with thousands of tourist, mostly Chinese, aiming to see the landscape and travel around on the river.  This afternoon we went on the river on a cruise, traveling up and down the Li River, watching fishermen by the banks, casting their nets; and the waterborne tourist traffic, skiffs rushing by down the river, waving to us as they go along.

The night in Yangshuo is again, resort like.  A long street named Xi Jie is set aside for pedestrians, and throngs of tourists mosy along the length, looking into shops and restaurants, or the many bars and clubs with promoters outside pulling people in.  Xie Jie has much of the feel of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, though with less jazz and more Chinese.

While in Beijing, motorized scooters, cut out of the 1980’s in fibreglass fairings and trim, are the standards, and in Xian, it’s three wheeled trikes with home made frames of plexiglass and steel, the bike of choice here is something akin to a 1950’s British bike like a Triumph.  I’ve seen them before, in the hills of Egypt, though those too were manufactured here in China.

Asia 2012: Day 6

Siobhan has convinced me to wake up at 6AM this morning to take a tour of Xian in the morning.  Shops still closed and morning deliveries still being made, our small group walked out to the side of the city wall to catch Xian’s residents exercise in the park.  Some made use of the multitude of public outdoor gym equipment– leg bending, back twisting jungle gym items meant for adults to get a workout.  Others played ping pong or danced to modern Chinese music.  Still others formed in groups to perform with wooden swords or physical exercise regiments learned in elementary school.

One group, flanked by old men chanting out their frustrations towards the canal, performd tai chi, led by a master who offered lessons.  Their colourful clothes contrasted against the gray walls of Xian’s old medieval embankments.

The highlight of the day was visiting the famous Terracotta Warriors site outside of Xian.  Built for China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, these six thousand figures made of clay were buried underground to defend him in the afterlife.  The figures are life sized are frighteningly detailed and realistic:  I expected more generic figures, but each in fact is unique and individual.  No too are alike, though many share similar poses based on rank, function and position.  For example, the cavalry have headpieces and hands placed as if pulling the reins of a horse.  Of course, there are horse statues as well.

Pit 1, the main excavation find, contains intact figures and some areas still unexcavated. Pit 2 appears to be fragments of figures.  Pit 3 is much more random, suspected to be a formation of officers in some sort of command and control function.

After returning from Lintong District, about an hour from Xian, we went to find the supposed Chinese Hamburger.  This delicacy is in fact referred to as Fanji Braised Meat in Preserved Sauce, but actually tastes like a Chinese version of pulled pork, put on an unleavened, pretzel like bun.  It was so good, we went back after eating the first standing outside the shop.  We also went back to the noodle house and had another bowl of hand pulled noodles.

Walking through Xian tonight, we realized so many of the unusual contrasts this town has.  Beijing is a government center, the capital, with formality and suitable pageantry.  But Xian seems different, a strange blend of modern Asia and it’s commercial excess combined with down to earth street life.  Xian represents the excitement of where the country is going.

Asia 2012: Day 5

We woke up this morning, light streaming in through the edges of the curtain aboard a train bound to Xian, twelve hundred kilometers southwest from Beijing.  The previous night, we rushed through the Beijing West train station, after finishing dinner at a restaurant in the lobby of the Railway Hotel, a chain of lodging near railway stations.  The station was enormous, with trains arriving and departing to all points in China.  A seat of people headed to the gates from the massive plaza, and a good thousand sat in the waiting room for trains to depart.  I can’t imagine all the platforms, as we only could see the one train we were about to board.

The train itself was a sleeper which I’m told was an eighteen car consist.  Each of the soft sleeper compartments held four beds, which were nicely fitted with linens.  Getting to the top bunk was a gymnastic affair which involved a foothold at chest height and spanning the gap between the top two beds.

Xian, home to eight million people, is truly a blend of modernity and history.  It is a city filled with tall modern buildings, its own fake Apple Store, and a Prada boutique, all next to an ancient city wall built in the 1300s.  The wall is the largest in the world and is square to the cardinal points.  This morning, we got the chance to go up on the wall, which is about as wide as a regular city street, and ride rented bicycles around the perimeter.  A total of thirteen kilometers, we drew a square around the center of the city, part skyscraper and commercial building, part park and lowrise housing.  The bike ride was a lot of fun as it brought a very human scale to the wall, offering perspectives on the people below living their daily lives as well as the giant buildings which form Xian’s skyline.

The Liuxiang Noodle Restaurant is a noodle house situated near the city center.  It has an air like Schwartz’ Deli in Montreal:  It’s got a garish fluorescent lighting and pale tile walls, it’s filled with locals, and they only serve one thing: In this case, hand made noodles in a beef broth.  Your only choices are size of bowl (small or large), extra meat, and plum juice or orange soda.  We chose a large to share and later I grabbed a bottle of Ice Peak, the local orange soda.  It’s not bad–sweet and carbonated.  The staff pound out strands of noodles, pulling them manually and tossing them into a large vat of boiling water.  The cooked noodles are then put into bowls with waiting beef stock and pieces of meat and vegetable.

A small army of waitresses take the bowls and shout your order number, delivering your bowl of noodles to your table.  The pasta itself is thick and regular texture and shape and broth is salty and tasty, with a hint of mint or spice.  Overall a very unique experience.

The afternoon was spent going to the Muslim Quarter, where a mosque is surrounded by hundreds of food and trinket vendors.  We returned to the Muslim Quarter later in the evening for dinner, when it was lit up with a bright mixture of coloured LED signs, bare incandescent bulbs and compact florescent in some sort of lighting turf war between street sellers.   For dinner we ventured to find Jiasan Guantang Baozi, a famed dumpling restaurant owned by the Jia Brothers.

To order, you speak with an attendant, who takes your requests and money.  She gives you a receipt, which you give to the bus boy/girl once you find a spare table in the busy cafeteria style room.  He or she then retrieves your order, while you wait at the stainless steel table.  The dumplings are served in a large steamer, and you eat with chilies and vinegar.  No bowls or dishes are provided, but the dumplings are good.  We also had a few skewers of barbecued meat, with spices similar to the kabob places near the office at home.

Xian was covered in haze this morning, where the tall buildings couldn’t be seen much further than a kilometer away.  The haze at night makes for an even gradient that renders as a pink or lavender in photos.  At night, the multiple floor shopping arcades and buildings stand as walls on the sides of six lane main streets, with a very wide pedestrian sidewalk sometimes filled with vendors.  In comparison, the Muslim Quarter is at a much more personal scale, where the crowd weaves between sellers offering snacks of fresh and dried fruit, barbecued meats and stews with noodles being made out in the open air.  Occasionally you see the jet engine like exhaust of a gas burner firing into the crowd at knee level, only protected by an upturned stool.  This is of course, dodging the three wheeled miniature delivery trucks bringing people, packages, recycled garbage and once in a while a twin sized mattress with Hello Kitty linens down the swarm of tourists.

Asia 2012: Day 4

If the mountain ranges near the Great Wall were parallax scrolling layers as if in a video game, the distant apartment blocks of Beijing’s outer suburbs, divided into rings were like a different level in the same game, just a new set of bitmaps loaded into memory.  The haze of the sky here makes them appear warm orange and brown in the rising sun of morning.

Our fourth day in Beijing began with a visit to the Yonghe Lama Temple, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism.  Most of the buildings we’ve seen so far follow a very similar architectural style, most being built in the Qing dynasty.  I suppose architects and engineers, even ancient ones, are a pragmatic bunch:  If a style and a technique works, don’t change it unless you need to.

Amongst the five halls of this temple, monks tended to the altars, while visitors came to pray and offer incense.  The largest of the temple buildings holds a 26 meter tall Buddha, carved out of sandalwood.  What’s really unusual is the main structure has two side structures connected by what appears to be skywalks around the second floor.

All around Beijing is constant construction.  The sound of construction, drilling and hammering, of large pieces of metal clanking on the ground and jackhammers in the distance, is non stop.

Our next activity was to visit a hutong, which is a communal style of living with small single floor residences, each gathered in a small grouping usually around a courtyard.  These residences brought together several families, living together in a very small space.  Nestled in the city, quietly isolated from the main streets, the whole of Beijing used to have thousands of such hutongs.  Many were demolished over time as new buildings were built.  The owners of this particular community, near the drum and bell tower in the north part of the downtown core, have offered tours as a business:  You get to ride around on a small tour, and visit a family house for lunch, where they show you how to make dumplings by hand.  We were sitting in the bedroom of the owner, his fiancee in the other room showing other tourists how to form dumplings in what appeared to be the living room.

The hutong has everything one needs for daily life:  One store has building supplies, another giving haircuts, several more offering food.  In the streets and public space, old men play chess or mahjong outside.  After the tour, we ended up walking the length of the community, guided by GPS until we found the subway station at the edge of the encampment.

We finished our last day in Beijing by returning to Tiananmen Square, and finding a McDonalds where we had a taro root pie for a quick snack.  This evening we drove to huge Beijing West Railway Station, to catch the Z19 sleeper service to Xian overnight.  The railway station is the largest in Asia, dwarfing the Kyoto station in Japan which was the largest I’d ever seen.