China Part 2: Zhangjiajie

After a week and a half of exploring the major Chinese metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, it was time to head deep into Hunan Province for a taste of real China and its natural beauty.  We caught a flight from Shanghai to Changsha and met up with our tour group, which would guide our every minute for the next 6 days through Hunan Province.


On the way into Changsha, a city being rapidly built and supposedly soon to have the world's tallest building.

On the way into Changsha, a city being rapidly built and supposedly soon to have the world’s tallest building.

At this point, a description of Chinese tour groups is in order.  Our first taste had been in Beijing where Donna, Diane, and myself toured the Forbidden City & Great Wall and it turns out that the tour in Hunan would be like that but on steroids.  In China it seems like everybody tours everyplace in these organized tour groups, and for us there would be no exception thanks to Jenny organizing everything for the rest of us.  Wherever we went in touristy places in China we’d see a guide gingerly leading a large group of usually-but-not-always Chinese people around; you could spot a tour group from afar because the guide would hold up high a colored flag so that their flock can easily spot them.   When you’re on a tour, you have absolutely no say in what the activities are as the guides stick to a strict schedule and don’t seem to understand the meaning of “I don’t want to do that”.  My take on this is that in China people are less argumentative of authority, which makes sense given their political upbringing. The days would be long: you’re woken up from your slumber around 6:30 by a wake-up call pre-ordered to your room and then you’d get ready, eat breakfast and be off and onto the bus by 8am.  Then the many activities would then begin and they really pack a lot into each day, usually visiting 2 or 3 different sights or shows, and of course also including some “shopping”….


Life on a tour bus

Life on a tour bus

What do I mean by “shopping”?  Well, one good thing about these organized tours is that they are cheap.  Our Hunan tour included 6 nights of upscale hotel stays, 3 meals per day, entrance to all activities, plus the bus — all for $600.**  The key to the low price is “shopping”, by which I mean that about one-third to one-half of your time will be spent going to activities that are really glorified sales presentations where they hope you will drop $$ on whatever it is they are talking about.  We went to: a massage house where they rubbed our feet and tried to sell us various reflexology products, a tea house where they tried to sell us tea for 10x the price you could get it in a store for, a silk place where they showed us how silkworms make silk and then tried to sell us bedding, and a couple of places with awesome but expensive jade and pearl jewelry.  The tour guide gets a 4% commission of everything you buy, which is actually his primary form of compensation — and in our tour some of the older Chinese-Americans went bananas and spent thousands of dollars, so I am confident our guide did well!  To illustrate how important the shopping prsentations are to the whole operation: one time I hid in the bus because I didn’t want to go to a tea presentation and the guide flipped out on Donna and Mom when he realized I was gone because the vendors do strict head counts to ensure everyone they hope to sell to is present!  All that being said, the presentations are actually fairly informative nice and the products are high quality and in many cases, like the silk bedding, much cheaper than you’d be able to find in the West.


The ladies furiously negotiating pearl and jade prices with the store operator

The ladies furiously negotiating pearl and jade prices with the store operator


Donna checks out a necklace and earrings while I do what I did during most of the shopping experiences


** The shadiest part of the whole operation was that originally the price was $350, and once we were all on the bus for 4 hours on the first day, heading to Zhangjiajie, the tour guide informed us that to do “all” the activities, we’d have to cough up an extra $250, otherwise we’d be left out and forced to wait in the bus.  And obviously these were the more desirable activities, not the shopping!  People were pissed, including myself and many of the other tour patrons; it felt like a total bait-and-switch and I simply wasn’t going to let myself be screwed by some shady Chinese tour guide.  But in the end, Jenny’s cooler head prevailed and she paid the additional money for Donna and I, correctly reasoning that this was likely the only time we’d be in Zhangjiajie and we should make the most of it.  And the reality is, even after paying the extra $250 it was still a good deal when you consider the overall price of $600 was completely all-inclusive.


In the end the tour in Hunan was awesome and worth it.  Sure there were gruellingly long days, a shady bait-and-switch sales tactic, tons of forced shopping presentations, 3 meals a day of the-same-every-time Chinese food that left me not really wanting any more Chinese food, and a general feeling that you had no control over your schedule.  Also the tour guide spoke entirely in Mandarin so my Mom and I couldn’t understand a lick, but fortunately we had Donna and Jenny to translate for us.  But despite these gripes, looking back I realize I never would’ve been able to so many great Chinese places and pack so much into so little time,  especially in a country like China where a laowai like myself is a lost guppy.  As the following photos will demonstrate, we saw many amazing places and took in real Chinese culture.   Organized Chinese tours may not the way I prefer to travel, but like they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do, and in this case we “did China” like the Chinese do, and it was a great time!


So, on to the fun part, where we went and what we saw…




We flew into Changsha and stayed in a nice hotel in the area.  There is nothing too awesome about Changsha, its just a big, rapidly developing city.


Fenghuang, aka “Phoenix”


The next day we made a long bus ride to Fenghuang, arriving around dusk.  The drive there was interesting because for much of of it we were on small roads and were able to see a more rural version of China.  I was impressed with how clean and advanced the Chinese way of life seemed; I guess I was expecting everything to look more poor as it does, for example, in rural Latin America.


Fenghuang is an ancient city built along a river on the western side of Hunan Province.  At night, which is when we explored the waterfront, all the buildings are lit up and the city comes alive.  Jenny, Donna, Mom and myself cruised around on a Friday night, checking out the shops, enjoying a drink, and taking photos of the cityscape.


Zhangjiajie, aka “Avatar-land”


The next morning we got back on the bus and headed east to Zhangjiajie.  When speaking to friends about what this place is, I would tell them I am going to “Avatar-land” because the National Park that we would be visiting there has unique limestone formations that inspired the “infamous floating islands of Pandora” in the movie Avatar.


There were 3 main areas in the National Park that we would visit.  The first was Tianmen Mountain, which accessible via a long gondala ride directly from the city of Zhangjiajie.  At the top of the mountain we were able to walk around the mountain via a glass bottom walkway and then we descended to check out the famous Tianmen Arch, which is so big that the Chinese version of the Blue Angels (not sure what they’re actually called) have flown in formation through the arch!  We descended back down via a windy road that I kept thinking about how fun it would be to race a Porsche up.


The next day we checked out other parts of Zhangjiajie National Park.  The first was Baofeng Lake, where we did a short hike that led us to a cool boat ride on a the lake surrounded by the classic limetsone mountains.  After that the second spot we went was called the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.  First we took another gondola to the top where we could view the epic limestone formations from the top.  The weather was somewhat foggy which was kind of a bummer for the sightseeing, but it was still amazing.  Then we took a bus to another area where we could view more and more of the formations.  I felt like a Navi walking around the floating world!


There were a few additional attractions we saw on our tour of Zhangjiajie.  The Yellow Dragon Cave was a cool walking tour where huge stalagtites and slagmites were lit up in fluorescently colored lights.  Also we saw a show at the Xiangxi Theatre that featured short performances with themes from various subcultures in Hunan Province. An interesting point about Hunan Province is that it’s where most of the Chinese minorities live today. And of course we went to various shopping outlets, where the ladies were stoked on buying pearl necklaces and pieces of exquisite jade.  At an art boutique Donna fell in love with sand tone painting technique pioneered by a local Hunan artist named Junsheng and I bought her a beautiful scenic painting depicting ancient rural life in the Zhangjiajie area, something we could take back with us and enjoy forever!


Back to Shanghai and Out of China


The five days flew by and before we knew it we were back in Changsha and then on a flight back to Shanghai where we would spend only half a day.  At this point Donna and I would break off and head to Singapore for INSEAD’s Admit Day, where we would tour the Singapore campus and meet her future colleagues.  Meanwhile, my Mom would head back to southern California and Jenny would head back to New York.


It was an amazing time in China and I feel super lucky to have experienced it with Donna and her Mom, who could translate and make everything so easy for me!  My Mom and myself were stoked!



Categories: Zhangjiajie | 2 Comments

China Part 1: Beijing & Shanghai

China Introduction

A couple of months ago, Brandon, his mom, my mom and I all decided to do a mini-tour of China together. It would be East meets West in more ways than one! It would also mark the first time our mom’s would meet and the first time Brandon and his mom have been to China. Rather than just dipping our toe into the introductions as is normally done over dinner or a drink, we would have our mom’s hang out continuously for two weeks! In order to arrange the tours, my mom worked directly with the tour groups in China to organize our trip, which would be spoken entirely in Chinese. Kudos to Brandon and his mom for their patience and willingness to participate 100% regardless of the language barrier. Over the next two weeks, we would be visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Zhangjiajie (inspiration behind the floating mountains in Avatar) in Hunan Province.


Brandon, his mom and I landed in Beijing from San Francisco on October 15th after a 12.5 hour flight. Out of luck and the connection of my dad working at United, Brandon and my standby seats turned out to be in global first class from SF to Beijing. Unfortunately we weren’t able to upgrade Brandon’s mom, Diane, to global first as she booked an actual economy class ticket – that said, the head steward on our flight hooked up Diane with glasses of fine wine and champagne throughout the long flight! Once we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately picked up by the pre-planned tour guide at the airport. From there, we were escorted by a van to the simultaneously elegant and kitschy King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel, which would be our home for the next three nights.

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

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Brandon catching up on the business news.


The following two days would be jam packed with Beijing tourist activities. The first day, Brandon, his mom and I (as jetlagged as we were) received our 6am wake-up call to start the day. After an enormous buffet breakfast consisting of both East and West style foods, and several cups of coffee,  we were loaded onto our tour bus and headed off to check out our first stop: Tian An Men Square. That same day, we visited the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

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Brandon and myself with Chairman Mao nuzzled between us

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Our hotel in Beijing had a ridiculous name: King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel


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In front of the Tiananmen Gate Tower, which serves as the main entrance to the Forbidden City and is characteristically adorned with a portrait of Chairman Mao.

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I’m not sure what this huge flower pot is in the middle of Tiananmen Square is supposed to symbolize, but Diane and I felt compelled to get a photo in front of it!

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Throngs of people in the Forbidden City

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Brandon hiding behind an old and valuable sculpture of some kind.

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Fun photo with Diane!

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Since the tour guide spoke only Mandarin, Brandon was happy to have his an automated tour guide explaining to him in English what all the buildings in the Forbidden City were used for

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Hey Lauren Willis – Can you guess what those Chinese characters mean? … if you guessed “Starbucks” you’d be right!

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Rickshaw driver

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Great architecture in the Forbidden City

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We visited the Summer Palace, which is surround by a vast and beautiful lake

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Brandon and I took a rickshaw ride in Old Beijing

On day two, Diane and I went to visit a small section of the Great Wall about that was an hour drive outside Beijing. Diane and I climbed to the top of one section of the Great Wall and received personalized medals to prove it! We both agreed that heading down was much harder than walking up. China has a famous saying about the Great Wall: 不到长城非好汉 (He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man). Brandon did not make it to the Great Wall with us that day 😉 He had prior obligations to meet his friend, Roger, who has been running a Chinese peer to peer lending business in Beijing. Brandon’s friend, Colin, also joined us in Beijing. The boys spent the afternoon nerding out and discussing the potential for business opportunities in China before an epic dinner of Beijing’s famous, Peking Duck.

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Brandon’s mom, Diane


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Diane and myself climbed all the way to the top of what you see in this picture and earned medals for our achievement!


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That’s a long wall!


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At the Forbidden City

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Diane in front of the Beijing Olympic Stadium

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Me posing with the strange Chinese mascot for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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As with pretty much everyplace in Beijing, the classic Nanluogo Lane shopping street was completely packed with tourists.

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Brandon was happy to find a good beer spot to have a drink at!

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Found this guy all dolled up along Nonluogo Lane.

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Brandon and Diane toasting to a refreshing beverage along Nanluogu Lane.


At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon's friend Roger in Beijing

At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon’s friend Roger in Beijing

All in all, it was a fun and eye opening trip to Beijing. We were lucky with the weather – the first two days were blue skies! The pollution skyrocketed on the fourth and last day we were there (411 on a scale of 1000 – extremely hazardous). It also happened to be the day of the Beijing marathon… turned out that 80% of the runners didn’t finish the race. Although Beijing has a lot of character and thousands of years of history, the pollution makes it difficult to live there. However, it’s certainly worth a visit if you haven’t been before!


Our next stop along the tour de China was Shanghai. This place was my jam. After having spent three and a half weeks in a future INSEAD classmate’s centrally located Shanghai apartment earlier this summer, it was the one city in China I sort of knew. I had only scratched the surface of the city in that time period, but I liked what I saw. I had made great friends there who showed me the ropes and gave me a chance to experience the real Shanghai from the perspective of a young adult. These guys knew how to have a good time and it was my turn to show Brandon, his mom, Colin and my mom, who I was most excited to show the new Shanghai!

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Bullet Train station in Beijing.

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The bullet train brought us from Beijing to Shanghai at a cool 306 km/h. That’s 190 mph.


My mom was born and raised in Shanghai from the mid 50’s – late 70’s before moving to Hong Kong and ultimately New York with her family. It goes without saying, her city has undergone such massive changes over those years that, were it not for street names remaining the same, she wouldn’t have recognized her childhood neighborhood! It was a strange feeling to know more about my mom’s hometown than she did, but that simply shows how rapidly Shanghai has developed in the last couple of decades. It’s now considered the business capital of China with a population growth rate of 20% per year. At that rate, it’s no surprise that high rises and retail shops can be seen for miles on end in every direction you look in Shanghai.

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The classic view of the Pundong business district which sits just across the Shanghai Huangpu River from The Bund.

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None of those high-rise buildings existed when my mother lived in Shanghai 30 years ago.


We lucked out on our Airbnb accomodations in Shanghai, staying in a 4 bedroom luxury apartment overlooking the famous skyscape, The Bund. Every morning my mom picked up hot Chinese breakfasts for us all before we went exploring the city. We took pictures along The Bund, rode a ferry across the river to Pudong, walked through Old Shanghai, and checked out an aggressive fake market where you could buy everything from faux-(ro)lexes and drones to iPhones and chopsticks. At one point, we found Brandon getting chased down the aisle by a fake rolex merchant after a negotiation went wrong. The price started at 600rmb ($100), but Brandon asked for 150rmb ($25), at which point the chase commenced. Brandon won the negotiation, but ultimately lost in the end when two out of four of his fake rolexes stopped ticking under 30 minutes after the purchase. Luckily he was able to get a refund for the two broken Rolexes!

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We were on the 8th floor of this luxury apartment building thanks to AirBnB!

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The view from the breakfast nook inside our Shanghai luxury pad.

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The Old Shanghai market

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Brandon and Diane in the Old Shanghai market

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Useless but fun trinkets abound in Chinese markets

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Brandon and Colin found these drones for sale in Old Shanghai and bought 2 of them, plus 5 extra batteries. They provided hours of entertainment.

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It cracked us all to see that Budweiser is still one of the beers of choice in China.

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Looking to the West along The Bund, the original heart of Shanghai


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Group shot at from The Bund with the Pundong skyscape in the background


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Fun photo at The Bund

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How inappropriate!

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Brandon couldn’t resist mounting a golden elephant statue he found in Pudong for this ridiculous shot

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Hooters has truly gone global, with a location right in the heart of the Shanghai business district in Pudong

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View of the Oriental Pearl Tower from the 38th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel.

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Posing in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower

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At the center of the biggest mall in Pudong… you guessed it, an Apple Store!


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An assortment of $25 Rolexes that look good enough from a slight distance to fool anyone… that is unless they notice that they aren’t ticking

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With the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, Brandon got to work hacking the Great Firewall of China and getting an post-season package so that we could stream the game live to the TV in the Shanghai apartment!


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Walking with the madre’s from our Shanghai apartment

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Group Pic after the amazing acrobatics show!

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Brandon and me under the spot light at a movie premier my friends got us into during fashion week in Shanghai!

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Monnie bartending at the movie premier after-party

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Movie premier with famous Hong Kong actors who we didn’t know – we got into the premier with badges that said we were working for my friend’s ad agency!

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Brandon’s first haircut in China – luckily they didn’t give him the Asian styled faux-hawk, which is the latest trend there


Other highlights of Shanghai include an impressive acrobatics show after dinner at the famous Old Jessie restaurant. My mom also made a Chinese feast of epic proportions for us all one night at the apartment. It was then that Brandon realized I should be a good cook given my roots, but I haven’t yet shown him my capabilities. Thanks to my mom, the bar is now set quite high! On one of our final nights in Shanghai, my uncles Jack and Franck, treated us to a delicious dinner at Jade Garden restaurant in Xin Tian Di, which is a very trendy area of Shanghai. The entire family was together to enjoy each other’s company over good Shanghai-style food and wine that I had brought from California. It was great to see Jack and Franck. Brandon and I will be seeing more of them next year in Paris as they spend quite a bit of time in France.

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Epic family shot at the Jade Garden restaurant, with Uncle Jack and his husband Frank, Mom, myself, Diane, Brandon and Grandma


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My Mom (Jenny), my Grandma, and me

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Nighttime view from the apartment of The Bund with the Old Shanghai shopping area lit up in the foreground

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My Mom went shopping in the local markets and grabbed all the ingredients necessary to cook an authentic Shanghai meal

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Eating the excellent Chinese meal prepared by my Mom

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These were the two drones that Brandon and Colin bought. The one on the bottom was the first one purchased and eventually broke due to constant abuse at which point Brandon dissected it to see how it was built.


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On our last evening in town we stopped by my friend Monnie’s apartment, where I lived when I was in Shanghai the previous month, and enjoyed the whiskey and company of Monnie and a few of her friends!

We left Shanghai for Zhangjiajie with many wonderful memories of the city and of the time we spent with family there!

Categories: Beijing, China, Shanghai | 3 Comments

A Taste of Shanghai

I decided the most efficient and guaranteed way to brush up on my Mandarin speaking, writing and reading skills was to leave South America early and move straight to the heart of China’s largest commercial city.   I flew back to SF for 42 hours to pack my bags for Shanghai. Although it wasn’t my first choice to skip out on exploring Chile with Brandon, in the end, the impromptu visit to China paid off. Shanghai is an incredibly vibrant, international and vivacious city where you can get just about anything you want at your fingertips. I was fortunate enough to explore a small fraction of the city over the past 3+ weeks.

Cityscape - The Bund

Cityscape – The Bund

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

To be honest, I thought these were going to be a rather mundane and tedious few weeks of re-learning how to read and write Chinese. It turned out to be everything but dull and redundant! A few days before arriving in Shanghai, I had reached out to Jacqueline, a future INSEAD classmate living in Shanghai, on Facebook to see if we could meet up during my visit. Ironically, she would be traveling to Argentina at that time, but she so generously offered for me to stay in her room in Jing’An, Shanghai – essentially as central as it gets in Shanghai! Her roommate, Monnie, was the first person I met in Shanghai, and she couldn’t have been more welcoming or well connected in Shanghai, having moved there two years ago from Hong Kong. Monnie also had one of her good friends, Melissa, staying at the apartment for two out of three of the weeks that I was in Shanghai which was a treat for me. Melissa and I would spend hours chatting in Mandarin and exploring Shanghai – mainly she was correcting my poor grammar and laowai enunciation – through her, I learned a lot about life in Shanghai and China. And finally, our last roommate, Tanaka-San, was always excited when we decided to have a low key night at home.

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!


Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing'an apartment - lounging.

Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing’an apartment – lounging.

After taking one day to settle into Shanghai, intensive Chinese classes began. I spent the first four hours of each weekday in a Mandarin school called Miracle Mandarin, which I found through a simple Google search online. The 30 minute walk to and from class was a daily battle between the endless cars, scooters, bicycles and flexible traffic laws, which I’m happy to report I won simply by surviving! In addition to learning Chinese reading/writing at a rapid pace, I met a few new friends at the school from Germany, England, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brazil and Spain who were fun sidekicks to explore the touristy aspects of Shanghai. We visited the Bund to execute an ice-bucket challenge, and also to visit Shanghai’s fake markets to have custom jackets made  and bars to get a taste of the ex-pat culture in Shanghai. You’ll see from the two photos below of The Bund.   Although I’m told the pollution in Shanghai is significantly better than Beijing, there is no hiding the fact that the city does struggle with some pollution particularly during the hot and humid summer months. In one of the photos below I had to increase contrast because the smog was dampening the colors!  By the end of my stay in Shanghai, I had two days of blue skies and even saw stars on my last night in the city! 

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Through Monnie, I met many of her friends who grew up either in Shanghai or another large city in China. This was by far one of the coolest parts of the trip. I would spend hours talking to them in Mandarin, learning about their life and culture in Shanghai over a steaming bowl of hotpot (similar to shabu-shabu, but way better!) or a traditional Shanghai styled restaurant. Shanghai’s culture is centered around the enjoyment of good food, drinks, company and of course, KARAOKE! On my last day in Shanghai, Monnie and her friends threw me a surprise farewell party at a swanky Karaoke (pronounced Ka-La-OK in Chinese) Bar so that I could experience one of their favorite outings with friends. We sang, we ate and we drank Tsingtao beers – I had to sit out during the Chinese songs this time, but I look forward to the time when I can also participate!

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Hong Shao Rou - Slow cooked pork belly

Hong Shao Rou – Slow cooked pork belly

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Sampling Crazy Chinese Fruits for Desert. (Edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Sampling crazy Chinese fruits for. (It’s the edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Swanky Karaoke Club Entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain't horsin' around!!

Swanky karaoke club entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain’t horsin’ around!!

Another highlight was a weekend “getaway” to Hangzhou Melissa (Monnie’s friend), who is originally from Fujian province in the South of China. I was hoping to escape city-life for a weekend, but it turned out that “getting away” got me to a city that had more people than NYC and all of it’s surrounding boroughs combined. Hangzhou is a city about 100 miles outside of Shanghai, though it only took us about an hour to get there by train. At one point on the train, I looked up and a saw a sign that displayed our current speed: 296km/hr. Impressive! China has something like 16-18 high-speed trains; the U.S. has some work to do to catch up! With 1.4 billion people, 24 million in Shanghai alone, I understand China’s commitment to building efficient modes of public transportation from their subways to high-speed trains that run like arteries throughout China. Once we arrived in Hangzhou, we explored around their famous Xi Hu (West Lake) and their historic temples dating back thousands of years (though many have been restored in the last decade).


Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

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Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

My time in Shanghai flew by and I felt that I had hardly scratched the surface. The good news is that I’ll be heading back there with Brandon, my mom and his mom in a few short weeks to show them a few highlights in the city before we take a local airline to Zhangjiajie for a week long tour. Shanghai has changed significantly since my mom lived there nearly 30 years ago, so I am looking forward to showing her, Brandon and his mom the new Shanghai that I so fortunately had the chance to explore with the amazing friends that I met here over the past three weeks!




Categories: China, Shanghai | 1 Comment

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