From Shanghai to Beijing

In the few days that we stayed in Shanghai we grew to love the atmosphere of the city: it seemed like a lively place where people are getting on with their lives and having fun. The bones and arteries of the city, the transport system and the roads, are good, and the people are really friendly. It is the kind of city in which a foreigner can live for a few years and like it.

The next part of our trip is Beijing. We took a late evening flight. It was delayed by almost an hour. In India such a delay would have set people talking, many passengers would have gone to the gate and asked for the reason for the delay, and there would be several announcements giving more and more detailed reasons. In Shanghai people did not seem to bother. The quiet was nice. We took out our Kindles and read quietly.

We’d had a long day, so I fell asleep almost as soon as we took off. I woke up some time later to find the crew serving drinks. I had a tea and read about Beijing. The Family did not bother to wake up until we were about to land. The landing was beautiful: a feather-light landing which is so uncommon now. The night was a little chill, but we had our sweaters. There was another major delay at the baggage reclaim. It was past midnight, and we had to wait for nearly an hour for the baggage to arrive. Again I was surprised by the patience of my Chinese co-passengers. India is different.

It hadn’t been easy to flag taxis in either Shanghai or Hangzhou. Beijing airport turned out to be more organized. We were in a queue, and as taxis arrived, they would take the passengers at the head of the queue. We were in a taxi soon, luggage stowed away, and showed the driver the address of the hotel in Chinese. He spoke a few words of English. I remember reading in the newspapers that before the Beijing olympics taxi drivers had been given lessons in English. Were we reaping the benefits of that?

We are going to spend the next month in the Haidian district where there is a cluster of universities and high-tech companies. Late at night the taxi took about thirty minutes to get to our hotel from the airport. We found how impressive this was the very next morning, when I met a friend who took the shuttle bus at five in the morning and was stuck in traffic for two hours.

As we tried to check in late at night, the lady at the reception told us that we did not have reservations. I was nonplussed: I’d called up the hotel at four in the afternoon and told them we would arrive after midnight, and they had assured us that they would hold our reservation. It was sorted out minutes later, when the lady discovered that she had mistyped my name. It was three at night when we finally looked out at Beijing from our room 50 meters above ground.

The turning of the wheel

The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha's first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing'an Su, Shanghai
The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha’s first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing’an Su, Shanghai

The Jing’an temple is a large and beautiful temple in the middle of Shanghai, and is probably high on every tourist’s list of things to do. It turned out that this was almost the last thing we did during our stay in Shanghai. When we came back to Shanghai from our trip to Hangzhou, we took the metro to Jing’an. It was well past noon, and as we emerged from the metro station into the food court of a large departmental store, we stopped for lunch. We had the noodle soup which had become the mainstay of our lunches, but then got snagged by the many sweet shops around. We emerged near the entrance of the temple loaded with boxes of Chinese sweets.

The entrance to the temple is marked by a huge column topped by a brass copy of the lion capital of Sarnath. This was the symbol of the first Indian empire: the Maurya empire of the 4th century BCE, the same empire that adopted Buddhism as a state religion and then exported it to the world. Interestingly, over two thousand years of separate cultural evolution, the lion capital has remained a symbol of the state in India, but become a symbol of the Buddhist religion in China! We sat near the base of the symbol of our nation, and tried out the sweets. Chinese sweets are completely different from the Indian variety: they are not so sweet (sugar was, after all, one of the technologies that India gave to the world), and they have interesting but mild flavours. They look like Japanese mochi or daifuku, but the ones we had were not made of rice and beans.

We paid our entrance fees and entered into the usual chaos of a temple in China: incense, monks in BMWs, lots of young people praying, and children donating money. We passed through this into the side chapels on the ground floor. One was made of camphor wood. The carving was beautiful. We walked up the imposing staircase to the main temple with its immense bronze Buddha. While crossing the Himalaya, the Buddha turned from an emaciated ascetic (bhikshu) into a well-fed god. Behind the imposing statue was a large fresco telling the story of Gautama, the Buddha. The four main sections were his birth and encounter with the misery of life, the enlightenment, the sermon of the turning of the wheel, and the mahaparinirvana.

We walked on to a corridor which flanks the main temple, and goes round it to the drum and bell towers with a chapel to the Maitreya Bodhisattva, shown, as always in China, as the laughing Buddha. The temple and towers are dwarfed by the high-rise buildings around it, but the glitter and ornamentation seems to outshine these newer buildings.

Ordering food in China

Two things about ordering food in restaurants in China take getting used to.

The first is that you order everything together. There is no real distinction between appetizer and the main dishes. You choose all that you think you will find edible, order it, and it will arrive as it gets ready: do not expect appetizers to arrive first. We reconciled it with our Indian experience by thinking of a Gujarati thali, where again, everything arrives in any order whatever, and you can go back and forth. Exactly like that, in Chinese restaurants, the rice is more or less the end of the meal.

The second is when to pay. In some restaurants you get a bill at the end of the meal. In some, especially the smaller establishments, you order and pay and then find a table for yourself; only then should you even expect the food to arrive. There is also the third method: the food and the bill arrive together, and you pay before you begin to tuck in to the meal. We do see all three methods in India, the problem is that our expectation of which restaurant will use which method is wildly off.

That’s cultural differences for you.

M50 art district

M50 on Moganshan Lu in Shanghai is a collection of galleries, studios and spaces which house art and art projects. I was afraid I would never find it without google maps, but then I searched the web and someone on Tripadvisor had left precise and accurate instructions on how to reach this place. We arrived at noon and had a quick lunch at one of the cafes before starting in.

China has a thriving art scene, and M50 gives you a quick cross-section of the work being done. Quite a bit of it is not new, but there were gems tucked away in several of the galleries. In the middle of a gallery with very decorative colourful canvases I was blown away by three incredible abstracts.

Paintings were only one of the many kinds of media on display. There was also a large amount of porcelain. Some of it used older techniques, but there were some pieces which used the new high-temperature glazes: some of these colours are brilliant. I had an interesting chat with one of the artists about techniques and kilns. There was a time when I’d wanted to learn ceramics, but discovered that it was hard to get time on kilns in Mumbai. This conversation made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile establishing a small kiln at home.

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We walked through a maze of lanes and wandered into a small cafe which had a barista doing great artwork in cappuccino. As we sat there and destroyed her performance art, we saw a fashion shoot in progress. I did some ambush shooting during this (see photo above). Art districts involve all kinds of things.

My current off-work passion is photography. This seems to be a small niche in M50. We walked into a studio which called itself “The Dark Room”. It was manned by a crew of enthusiastic youngsters (see the featured photo) who showed me their dark room behind the shop. This brought back nostalgic memories of my school days when I was associated with a bunch of others in maintaining a small dark room in a little attic in the school. This had the same enlargers, development tanks, baths of developers and fixers. The kids spoke good English and we had a long enthusiasts’ chat about our first cameras which left The Family with glazed eyes. The kids had never heard of the camera models I started with. That’s a generation gap for you!

Back in the shop we saw some lovely prints. These are by the master photographer who is training the youngsters. We bought a couple of them: they seem to transfer the sensibility and aesthetics of chinese painting successfully into this modern medium. I would love to keep them on my wall and look at them again and again.

Connecting

As soon as we met in the evening, The Family told me about yesterday’s quake in Nepal. She was on whatsapp with my cousin’s wife in the US, who was, in turn, worried about my aunt, her mother-in-law, who was spending some time with another cousin in Patna. In China our first source of news is the TV. We switched it on and saw what few visuals are available with CNN. This and HBO are the two channels we watch occasionally, because the other channels are in Putonghua, which we do not understand.

Our access to the net from China is severely limited. Yahoo news is available. We looked at the news from India through this. Some low-bandwidth VPN gave us access to a trickle of other sources of news. This is a really bad time for the Nepali people, and the Indians who live in the plains just below.

What can we do for Nepal this time around?

Chinese fruit

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We discovered a little known aspect of chinese food: the fruits are wonderful. Our lunch on the flight in to Shanghai contained a slice of really flavourful and sweet orange. Every day after that we brought some fruits. The bananas are not very special, but the oranges, apples and nectarines are superb. So are the cherries and the many different kinds of berries. We really love the mulberries (shahtoot in Hindi, see the photo above): they are so sweet in this season. We still haven’t the delicious mangosteen or the dragon fruit, which look spectacular, but which taste a little insipid.

It is hard to find many desserts in restaurants, but there is always a plate of fruits. You can also buy cut fruits in plastic cups on the roadside, and in supermarkets.

The business of beauty

business

Beauty is big business in Shanghai. You can’t walk very far without running into a row of hair dressers or nail artists (example above). Interestingly they are all very full. The Family is itching to go into one of them. She regrets having done her hair just before leaving Mumbai, and doesn’t take very kindly to my reminder that her hair dresser in Mumbai is also Chinese.

Games are serious

Tourist guides tell you to visit Xintiandi in Shanghai. This Xintiandi is full of well-preserved and tastefully renovated Shikumen buildings repurposed into restaurants, coffee shops, up-market shops and bars. When you walk through this you see the beautiful people of Shanghai and foreigners. All very posh, but exactly like any other town center in Europe. Why travel to China if all you want to see is Europe?

cards

The Lilongs on the other side of Xintiandi are more interesting for a tourist with a camera. During my visit I saw two places where crowds had gathered. I nosed in, and saw a very serious card game in progress (photo above). In case you think this drinking and gambling is a man’s thing, think again. The next game had two women!

Luck is serious business in China. I’m told that the colour red is important because it is lucky, and not because it is beautiful.

A bit of a washout

lingyana

We left for Hangzhou by train one morning at 10. The trip to Hangzhou takes around 70 minutes from Shanghai Hongqiao Station. At the station we hopped on to the Y2 bus and reached the Lingyan temple in about half an hour. We couldn’t possibly miss this, since it is on the flanks of the Feilai mountain, which is supposed to have flown in from India!

You need two separate tickets to visit the temple. One ticket for the mountain (no discounts even for Indian passport holders) and another for the reconstructed temple. We thought it was worth the money. The mountain side is full of birds; there were several species we had never seen before. Unfortunately we were not equipped for birdwatching; we had neither field guides, nor binoculars. The sky was heavily overcast, and every now and then a fat drop of water would plop on to our noses or heads.

The Guardians of the Galaxy
The Guardians of the Galaxy

The temple was spectacular and full of people hedging their bets on the future. After visiting three spectacular halls with the Buddha-in-residence attended to by a host of scowling guardians, we needed a little respite. We had an al fresco lunch at a little temple cafe with a variety of nuts, dried fruits, and green tea. Refreshed, we climbed a little further to some more temples and a little temple museum. It was now well after noon, so we decided to go check into our hotel.

We took a taxi to our hotel. While checking in we discovered that the room we had booked was no longer available due to a mix up. The hotel gave us an upgrade to what they called a king room. Then while trying to pay for it I realized that I had left my phone in the taxi. The concierge immediately took my taxi receipt and called the company, which in turn traced the taxi, found my phone, and agreed to deliver it later in the day. Meanwhile we were shown to our room, which was spectacular: huge and comfortable, with a free minibar, a grand bath, a huge bed, and other luxuries which we thought we would not be able to use, given our tight schedule.

xihi

We dumped our bags and rushed off to Xihu (the West Lake). Our plan was to walk along the Sudi (Su causeway) all the way to the north, and then cross a small island and take the Baidi (Bai causeway) to the east. We had barely gone a hundred meters when a thunderstorm struck. In moments we were drenched. The only way out of the rain was to take a cruise. This took us to one of the smaller islands where we got even more drenched watching beautiful rock sculptures and lotus flowers in a rain-swept lake (see the photo above). We made our way back from this disastrous trip to our hotel, where we had dinner and enjoyed the room.

Hangzhou is pretty and friendly (I did get the phone back), has good cuisine, and probably makes a great holiday within a holiday. But for that you need a little luck. Ours was short this time around.

Religion returns

religion

The oddest thing about China is resurgent religion. It is not the middle-aged or the old who take to religion, it is the young. You can see the fervour with which they pray to Buddha in the photo above. I saw this again and again, in different temples. Shatters my naive belief in the materialistic culture of the orient.