Sunday, July 31, 2011

Last Stop in Shanghai

Following the Yu Garden we had a few hours remaining before being picked up for the airport. May Lene remembered an area she had visited before that she thought we might like to see. Now the problem was getting there. She knew it was not too far from our hotel but could not recall the name of the area. She finally showed some photos of it to our taxi driver and he took us to the right spot (but not without giving May Lene some friendly teasing).

The area is called Tian Zi Fong and if you didn't know it was there you would walk right by. Tian Zi Fong is hidden in the center of a block of businesses that front the road. There is a small entrance that looks at first like an alley. Inside is a warren of shops , bars and restaurants. 

Had we found it sooner we would have loved to spend more time there, especially at some of the beautiful cafes. As luck would have it, we were on a tight schedule and I was having some back problems so we had a taste and left with a reason to return.

Yu Gardens

In the midst of Old Shanghai sits an oasis of quiet and calm. The Yu Yuan Garden. The Garden was built in 1557 for a high ranking official of the Ming Dynasty. It was damaged several times throughout it's life including during the Opium Wars in the 19th century and during World War II. The Shanghai government restored the garden in the 1950's and it is a jewel for tourism today.

Yu Garden is considered the most lavish of all gardens in southern China. It is easy to see why. It covers about 5 acres which actually makes it smallish in size. What it lacks in size it makes up for in its beauty. The furnishings are from the Ming Dynasty and there are some pieces in woods I have not seen before from this period.

Traveling throughout the grounds and halls you pass through many doorways and along the long double sided zig-zag corridor. Each side is finished differently and there are windows connecting the two sides.

The ponds and pavilions are exquisite and so calming. Even with crowds of people around you feel a sense of peace when standing there.

As you may have observed, I am continually fascinated by roofs. To most of us a roof is simply protection for our homes. There may be some architectural or material interest, but it is still basically a required element. In Asia a roof is quite often a work of art. The lines and sculptures and painting are all part of this most practical work of art. The roof lines at Yu Garden were especially interesting.

One of the most revered elements in the garden is the Jade Rock. It stands about ten feet tall and has many holes throughout. One interesting fact is that if you light a joss stick (incense) and hold it at the bottom, the smoke will float out through all of the holes. Similarly, if you pour water over the top of the stone, it will flow out through each of the holes in the stone.

Along with the jade stone there is another feature of this garden that I found both unique and mesmerizing. It is the Dragon Wall. A large part of the garden is surrounded by this elaborate wall. At first you think that it is simply a wall with a very decorative curved top. It is not until you come to one of the dragon heads that you realize the remainder of the wall is the undulating bodies of the dragons. I could hardly tear my eyes from it.

There is a tea house within the grounds that gives interested visitors a free class on medicinal teas. Even Ken was intrigued (he has never been a tea drinker) and decided to buy some. Now if it only will help us loose weight!

There is a stage for performances during a wedding and another area for large performances.

Despite being taken back in time with the beauty of the Yu Garden, one only need look up to realize that old and new can live is great harmony.

It is a part of Shanghai I truly love.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Old Shanghai

One of the areas were were told to visit by almost everyone was Old Shanghai and the Yu Gardens. Old town is currently a very complex shopping area that was originally built as a Temple. The buildings are huge and it covers a vast area. It is amazing to imagine what it was like when it was a temple and there were no tourists. Now it is a vibrant hub for both locals and tourists.

You can buy almost anything you can imagine including clothing, jewelry and souvenirs. We wandered throughout the area mostly looking at the architecture and the sculptures.

Never saw a dragon turtle before. We even found some whimsical pieces.

There is a very ancient tea house surrounded by a pond and accessed by a zig-zag bridge. Under the bridge lived a school of golden carp that was one of the hugest I have ever seen. And they were fascinating to watch. The entire school would swim in huge curved lines as if they were one fish and suddenly they would switch directions. We watched for quite a while.

It was very relaxing to stand on the bridge and view the fish, but our hunger got the better of us. We spied a treat we had not seen before and decided to try it out.

We are all dumpling lovers and there is a particular type of dumpling called xiao lung bao that is filled with meat and surrounded by soup. Usually these are small delicate buns with very thin skins and it takes some skill not to lose the soup when you pick up the dumpling with your chop sticks. This one was much bigger and came complete with a straw to drink the soup before breaking it open. Because of its size, the wrapper was quite thick and a bit doughy. We like the original xiao lung bao better, but this was a unique way to serve it.

We toured the Yu Gardens (next post) and then wandered a bit more through the smaller walkways and stalls. 

This was a wonderful way to spend our final day in Shanghai. It is a city I would like to visit again.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fina World Diving Championships

Most of you know that I am a huge fan of swimming and diving. Just before we left for Shanghai Ken saw that the Fina World Championships were to be held in Shanghai starting the week we were there. So my incredible desk man George arranged a ticket for me. Poor George must have made ten phone calls to make sure he got the correct event and timing before arranging the ticket.

I managed (or I should say George managed) to score a ticket to the men's 3 meter springboard semi-finals. With that ticket I could also got to go to the prelims in the morning. This would be my biggest travel challenge so far in Shanghai. Unlike Hong Kong where most people speak at least some English, the number of English speakers in Shanghai is very small - especially among taxi drivers. Thus far I had always walked where I was going, been on a tour, or had a Chinese friend along. This was my true test.

The doorman at the hotel gave my morning cab driver directions to where I was going. I think he must have put some fear into him for he stopped four times to make sure he was taking me to the proper gate. So far so good. The real test would be coming home.

Arriving at the swimming and diving complex was awe inspiring. There are four buildings in the complex and each is an architectural masterpiece. The grounds are immense and just walking through gives you a thrill.

There were three security check points to get in. Once inside I had several people ask to help me find where I was going. Some where volunteers and others were spectators who figured I might like a bit of assistance. One of the volunteers even offered to take my photo.

She then found an elderly Chinese couple for me to follow (though I knew where I was heading by then). Everyone wants to know where you are from and I am surprised how many times people will ask if I am British or Aussie, even after hearing me speak.

Not knowing what to expect because the meet was outdoors, I came armed with a hat, sunglasses, sunblock and an umbrella. I didn't need any of them because the seating area is completely covered. They even have misters that blow up through the stands every few minutes.

The facility sits by the river and is top notch.

The morning prelims had 52 divers from all over the world each doing six dives. That's 312 dives for those of you counting. As you can imagine there were some great dives, some not so great dives and even a few ughh dives. But the crowd was appreciative and very courteous. There were two American divers (cheer, cheer), one from Hong Kong (who came in 50th, bless his heart), two from China (amazing) and one from Kuwait who looked to weigh in at about 12 ounces and terrified. But even though he struggled (came in 51 or 52) the crowd got behind him and I think he felt better by the end.

I took a few photos of the diving and a few movies, but mostly I just watched and enjoyed.

When the morning session ended, 18 divers advanced to the semi-finals including the two Americans. There was an hour break and it was a diving free-for-all practice session. Dives were being done on the 1 and 3 meter spring boards and the 3,5,7 & 10 meter platforms. I loved it.

In the semi-final rounds (6 more dives each), the Chinese divers, one of the Americans and a Russian were vying back and forth till about the last few rounds. The American was in second for a while. Then the Chinese divers turned on the afterburners and blew everyone out of the water. They were doing dives with very high degrees of difficulty usually reserved for the final rounds and opened up about a 30 point lead on the rest of the pack. At the end of the session the two Chinese divers were separated by .25 points heading into the finals.

It was a long but thoroughly enjoyable day and my real test was getting a taxi back to the hotel. My fail-safe plan was to have the taxi driver call the hotel for directions, but I didn't need to do that. I followed the signs for the taxi and found myself on a wide open corner with little traffic. Just when I was beginning to think I was in over my head, I found someone who pointed to a taxi stand. The woman there spoke a bit of English. That combined with my hotel key card with the address on it got me right back to where I started. I now have a bit more confidence that I can travel on my own.

As a post script to the diving, for the first time ever Chinese divers swept gold in every event, both men's and women's. They are truly thrilling to watch and I feel lucky to have had the chance to see a bit of this competition. Swimming is this week so I missed Michael Phelps. Maybe next time!