From South Korea, to China. Warnings from my Korean friends were still ringing in my head boarding my plane, I was putting myself to danger they said, why not go directly to Thailand and spend more time there? I admit, they made some pretty good points. However,I knew I should ignore their words, and go discover what it’s like to be in China, listen to mandarin all day long and compare Chinese food to Korean and Japanese food, see how rude people are on the streets, how noisy and messy it is, and more importantly, to experience how cheap life is .
Day 1, Wednesday: I’ve asked a couchsurfer to host me for a few days, Levante, an expat from Hungary accepted my request and asked me to call him once I arrive at Pudong international airport. The airport was my first impression of china, the crowd waiting for arriving passengers was mixed with some strange individuals, I immediately got approached by one of them asking me where I was going, “going home” I replied. Five minutes later I realized I have to make a call and would need a new SIM card, with a confused look on my face another guy approaches me and offers help, he was wearing the same black suit as the other one, when I explained to him my situation, he asked me to follow him back to his desk. It was no information office, rather just a counter with about five agents inside, I found it very weird to see airport employees selling SIM cards, a part of me was just waiting for a scam to pop up, but everything went alright. The Chinese guy tried activating my new card but it didn’t work so he gave me my money back and even let me use his phone to call Levante.
Getting to “xing zhong rd” station was in itself a mission, I could see it in the Chinese guy’s eyes, well, more in his face than his eyes. I grabbed myself a map and about an hour later, I arrived at “xing zhong rd” station and went looking for another phone to use. A couple attempts in the street but no one was helpful until I headed to a hotel in the opposite side of the road which I had a hard time to cross, mainly because I couldn’t hide behind any other locals, and so I had to bring back my long forgotten Moroccan skills to cross that busy and noisy boulevard. but this time my efforts weren’t in vain, a Hotel worker agreed to help me after some hesitation, surprised at my situation after his call with Levante, he draw me an intersection with names on it and suggested me to hop on any bus going on the right direction.
When I got to the intersection I had to call again, I thought I was lucky as I spotted a phone booth, I hurried to it only to find out it doesn’t accept coins, “what a useless thing to put in the street” I thought. An old women saw my action and with only her gestures she offered me her phone, an old one but it still worked so I thanked her, “xie xie” I said leaving her with a smile I went to meet Levante. He knew I would be hungry so we immediately headed to a restaurant. Levante spoke some Mandarin, which helped big time on ordering delicious food, I could see that the restaurant was run by muslims and serves halal food, it was amazing, and for about two dollars a plate ,”We are in a Lanzhou restaurant” Levante explained. Conversation then led to religion, Levante had a lot to say in the subject and so did I as time passed by. When we finally got home we played Chinese chess, I almost won my first ever game, and it was a great way to kill some time before going to the weekly couchsurfing meet up, a good way for me to make some new friends on my first day.
We got the cafe/bar, somewhat late, the place had two rooms, one already full and the second totally empty, Levante ordered two beers and we sat, just the two of us, a while later, a girl stood by the bar after she ordered herself a drink, Levante tried to get her attention in some silly way but I went over and invited her to join us, then another girl came to our table and played along our drinking game, the first girl was called Wei Wei, her solo travelling stories in India and the middle east left me speechless, I knew I had to meet her again so before we parted ways she agreed on showing me around Shanghai when she could.
Day2, Thursday: The next morning I took a bus to a nearby Mall in “Qibao”. As I hopped off, I spotted a Starbucks, a chance for me to use some WiFi I thought, However I didn’t have a Chinese number and so I couldn’t log on. Sitting on my chair, a hot chocolate and an egg toast on the table, to my right, a girl in her twenties was also on her computer. I asked her if she could help me out, she immediately gave me her number to use it as a password, sweet.”Finally a nice Chinese person” I thought, then I asked her if she knew somewhere where I could get my own number, she agreed to show me the place right after she would finish her translating job.
While I was waiting I started looking for a new couch because sleeping on a cold floor wasn’t that fun the night before. A couple of hours later, Oria and I went out to check some stores that sold phones and SIM cards, when I told her my story and that I was trying to find a new place to sleep in but the couchsurfing website was slow, astonished, she said that she knew about couchsurfing too, not only that but she even have met her boyfriend through a couchsurfing gathering. She added that when they moved in together they never hosted anyone in their new place. Therefore, she called him and asked for his permission, then a thumbs up from her as I forgot myself staring at her, I just got lucky, I found my second couch, a whole bedroom actually.
Oria and I went home to put my small backpack that felt heavy with my computer inside right after she showed me around the old city of “Qibao”. Traditional homes, a river and bridges made an magnificent combination. She pointed to “luijazhui station” on my subway map when I told her I want to see the famous skyscrapers. It was quite a long subway ride, the poor and the rich, the urban looking and the less urban looking people sitting together, It was quite easy to see that Shanghai attracted everyone from China for job opportunities. When I left the subway station a tower standing high and sparkling was the first thing I saw, then more skyscrapers appeared, so of course I turned into a tourist, taking countless shots from every corner, amazed by the architecture I stopped for a moment to really memorize the view, I felt proud of making it all the way here.
I had made an appointment with Levante at 7 pm because I had no key to go back home by myself. He sure didn’t expect me I would be moving elsewhere that soon, but he didn’t mind it at all. At 10 pm I met Oria and her boyfriend right before it closes. I was really tired and all I could think of is going to bed.
A week sleeping on the floor in Seoul got me pretty excited to sleep on a bed. The boyfriend was a blond guy from Switzerland, he was handsome which explained the happy and radiant energy Oria was full of. After all, I admit, it might be what attracted me to her in the first place. Once at home, we made some tea and sat around a bunch of maps and guidebooks, they were both keen on travelling, and seeing a backpacker like me sparked their desire to travel all over China, which brought up many places I have never heard of.
Day3, Friday: For my breakfast, if you can call it one at midday, Starbucks was an easy choice since there was no WiFi at home. I had to meet Wei Wei from the couchsurfing gathering that day. On my way to Limping road Metro station I stopped at “people square“ because I had some time to kill, and while staring at all the impressive architecture, a group of people asked me to take a picture of them, the group kept growing as I was focusing on their 3 inch screen camera, an exchange of thanks and a strike for small talk, yet I walked away, three people followed me and asked me to join them on their tea ceremony visit claiming they were university students coming to Shanghai on their school break, my curiosity brought me trouble this time, I accompanied them to this nearby tea house, they did all the talking, but soon enough I was tasting different tea samples, some were good and some OK, and then as I told them I had to leave to meet my friend, they insisted on me buying a tea sample, and then the bill came, my eyes popped, but I wasn’t quite sure if I was being scammed because I wasn’t familiar yet with the yuan currency rates, so I told them that I don’t have much change,but that didn’t stop them from escorting me to an ATM downstairs, and that is when I found out I had to pay them over 110 USD, I had two options, either resist or give in and pay the extravagant so-called my part of the bill. I paid and left but they actually walked me to the subway station as if everything was normal, I played along fearing of confronting them and ending up in a worse scenario.
I then meet Wei Wei with my mind going over what had just happened, analyzing every moment, and still not quite sure if I was just scammed or was it just an expensive cup of tea, either way I preferred to be positive and forget the whole thing. She showed me where she grew up, a very old neighborhood, something I’ve never seen before, it looked like the poorest place in Shanghai, barbers on the sidewalk, motorbikes that shouldn’t be on the streets anymore, I couldn’t grasp how wide the social status gap was in this city, She told me about her story and how she traveled for 3 years, after working in New Zealand for almost a year. It was all history for her, because it was time to settle down and look for a steady job, a boring job in her words, it was her parents nagging her to get married that ended her long trip.
From the poorest place in the city, we walked to the bund and took pictures of the most amazing line of towers from across a river. On the opposite side, a traditional European looking buildings lined creating a beautiful contrast between old and new architecture. The sound of the bell ringing each hour turned this place into a masterpiece of art. A few blocks away and we were in Nanjing road, this one was my favorite spot, hands down, Shanghai’s times square, whatever your travel style is, you can always find what suits your taste in this place, shopping, local food, fancy restaurant, street photography, it’s no doubt the #1 place to not miss in Shanghai.
That same night I had to meet my hosts for dinner, we went to a hot-pot restaurant, where you basically cook your own food (or rather your own soup), mine got spicier than I could bear. Micheal paid for it all, “you’re my guest” he said . On our way back home, I was feeling kind of low and I couldn’t hide it, I guess I am not that good of an actor, was it simply because I was the third wheel or was it because I liked Oria and felt jealous , I know I never have seen such a happy girl, I even told her that, “I am in love” she replied. Or was it only because I was feeling homesick thinking about mom and dad and their unhappy marriage.
When we got home they didn’t wait much before they told me I couldn’t stay with them over four nights, it was definitely my sad face, but after all, four nights was more than I could ask for.
Day 4, Saturday: After getting some food with my hosts in a restaurant that served my favorite noodles. Each went on separate ways Michael to his job and Oria to do some work on her computer, and I left to meet Cay, a Chinese girl who agreed to meet me after I sent her a message through the couchsurfing website asking her to show me around. We agreed to meet in people’s square which I was familiar with, at least that’s what I thought until she showed me this huge market that revealed itself as we got deeper into a park nearby, she let me guess what type of market it was, “I know this, I know.. it’s where parents look for husbands for their daughters.” I stuttered. I teased her by asking where her name was listed in this marriage market. From there we walked towards the french concession, just the right atmosphere for a date I thought, we were lost and it took us a long time before we finally found a cafe where we sat as if we were in Paris, Cay was so generous, she paid for mostly everything, she knew how to make a conversation flowing and fun, and I could see how she was curious about me. Later on, we checked out an art gallery, talent was overflowing from those pieces, we walked out hand in hand from there, she pointed how my slow voice made her sleepy and that’s when I kissed her. I could easily see the joy not only in her eyes but even her way of walking changed. We wandered around the Yuyuan Gardens until we could see the exquisite glowing traditional houses and the zigzag bridge. The night was young so we moved to the fabulous bund and enjoyed the view as well as each other’s company.
Day 5,Sunday: With not much things planned ahead, I decided to go on a city tour bus. starting from people square all the way to downtown, to go up the financial Shanghai tower. Once there, the building looked nice from the inside as well as from the outside, such an epic design. However I have to admit It was a big disappointment when I got to the top and couldn’t get a clear look because of the polluted glasses, I took countless pictures just to get only two good shots that shows the other skyscrapers. I wouldn’t recommend anyone wasting that much money just to look at dirty glasses.
Day 6. Monday: At an early hour, I had to wake up to leave Shanghai and go to Hangzhou, a nearby little town that had beautiful landscapes, a chance for me to replace the noisy environment with a quiet one, I got there at around 2pm, it was raining continuously, but that didn’t stop me from exploring the place, I walked to the west lake all the way from the train station, it was at least a 30 min walk, my phone was dying and since it was the only way to get in touch with my host Maggie, I had to rush to a McDonald to charge it, Maggie sent her father to pick me up because she was stuck in traffic, and I followed her dad to their home, a tiny old apartment, I have to admit I was astonished at how she could host people in such a small place, as I laid down, my legs not fully stretched, I convinced myself that it wasn’t that bad but that was until I saw a huge spider crawling out my sheet, I called a hostel that I already booked to see if they still have a bed for me. I waited for Maggie to come back home to tell her that I was going to a nearby hostel. I felt kind of bad after leaving but I guess that was where I drew the line regarding couchsurfing. especially since I had a much better alternative for less than 5 dollars a night.
Day 7, Tuesday: I checked out from the hostel and went to the west lake, it was huge, I spent almost the whole day wandering in it, the mist rain turned this it to unforgettable walk. In Hangzhou people would stare at me for a longer time than in Shanghai, especially when I would be talking to my camera. At 5 pm I took the train back to Shanghai, a new host was waiting for me, this time it was in the french concession district, a classy place, it was also where lot of expats lived, which explains why I got approached constantly by drug dealers whenever I am in the area. and if you’re curious, though it’s never a good idea to purchase drugs from strangers in China, you can buy it for almost half as cheap as in USA or Canada, after some bargaining of course. Nick was an English teacher, a photographer and a world traveler. I found him studying for his driving licence test, it was his 5th time actually , “the translation sucked”,he explained. After a long day, I was quite hungry and decided to look around for food, but I was struck by expensive prices in these western looking restaurants, so I went on a quest was to find a Lanzhou restaurant.
Day 8, Wednesday: Nick’s place was really nice, beautifully decorated, his living room had plenty of space for me, I could finally use Facebook there with his VPN software that unblocks the access to many sites including YouTube , I took the opportunity to share my pictures and get in touch with my friends, it was a good way to spend the afternoon as I really needed some relaxing to do. Later that night I met Cay after she got out of her job, we went to the Bund, then came back home and watched a movie “the vow” but she couldn’t stay because of her strict mother, public transportation didn’t help either because the last train was at 10 pm, which also concerned me when I thought about going to clubs and discover Shanghai’s nightlife.
Day 9, Thursday: On My first day in China and while walking with Levante, a girl in her late twenties was kind of overhearing our conversation, and so Levante called her out on that and she turned out to be living not far away from him, we exchanged numbers, which brought us to that day, she was free so we met for a quick coffee, she told me about her billion dollar industry, air and water purifiers, she was quite busy so she left to work at 5pm.
Planing on going to a pub crawl that night I met my host at home who ended up convincing me to join him with his friends to a club in the neighborhood, it was an expensive one, Nick knew I was on a budget and paid for my drink, “how awesome” I thought, Nick brought his big Camera and was the photographer that night, I liked how easy was to get in touch with who ever he wanted being the photographer, he suggested I should try so I did, but it was so funny not knowing how to show people their pictures after each shot, and calling Nick for help, but I would say I picked it up rather quickly. After talking to every girl I liked there, I promised myself of buying a professional camera once I get back to Montreal.
Day 10 Friday: You know when you’re supposed to meet up with someone and have some kind of scenario pre-planned and then the girl brings her friends and ruin everything. This was my case this day, it was a bit awkward for me since her friends were a couple who couldn’t even speak English. So I let them lead the way since I had no idea how to handle a group like this, when we went to a restaurant they insisted on paying for me, it was their idea to go to an arcade games, It seemed like I was the only one who couldn’t pull any stuffed animal from those machines.
When we later parted ways, I went home to plan what I would do for a Friday night, and at 9:30 I joined a club crawl in an awesome bar, free drinks had me a bit tipsy and after long hesitation I finally approached the hottest girl right after she got out for some fresh air, we talked a bit but then her friends interrupted what we had going on. And then we all left for the next bar on this minibus, it was so funny when the driver dropped us quite far from the second venue after lack of communication, it was maybe less funny for the girls who had to walk under the rain, this one was quieter, a classy bar with a pool table, everyone was just on their phone because the WiFi was good. After opening a vodka inside the bus everyone got a bit tipsy, then to the third Club, at first I went solo trying to talk to different girls but then my group grabbed me and kept offering me more drinks than I could handle, when It was time to leave, I was way too drunk and barely recognized my friends, it was all blurry and walking seemed like a complicated task. As soon as we got on the minibus again, I got sick and kept throwing up until we arrived to the fourth and last club, all I can remember is falling a minute after I entered the club, I kept trying to get up but ended up hitting my head against the floor with each attempt until a girl grabbed me and led me outside, she asked me who I was with, and where I lived, then she took my phone and managed to call my couchsurfing host eventhough I told her not to. Inside a taxi, I had to ask her why she was helping me as much, “You fell on me” she said. Next thing I know is being in front of a restaurant I recognized because it was next to the building where Nick’s place was. No cash in my pocket, my angel even paid for my ride home, to this day I’m still grateful that I didn’t forget to exchange contact information. I am also grateful I didn’t lose my keys or phone. A hug goodbye and with four floors to climb, I had to use my crawling techniques that I learned before I learned how to walk. I immediately went to the bathroom and started a new throwing up session until I passed out, I woke up and crawled to my room and hardly even climbed to my couch, no couch has ever felt so good. I couldn’t help but think how I would easily have been laying down in the street if it weren’t for Maria, my angel.
Day 11, Saturday: Unexpectedly, Nick was pretty cool about the whole thing, he explained to me how lucky I was to have him answer my phone call at 3 am, because he wouldn’t hear his phone ring if he wasn’t waiting for another phone call. That morning, I had to leave to a hostel as I only had 3 nights to spend with Nick. The hostel was located not far from Nanjing road, right after I put my backpack and stuff there I had to meet a girl I took a picture of in the nightclub with Nick’s camera, Celina was in her 30s. bus she was Asian so you get the picture. I was a mess actually, with a scar on my forehead from last night. I am pretty sure I smelled like puke too, but she made me forget all that. She was playful and funny, she had no idea what a hostel looked like so I showed her where I was staying before she took me to a fancy restaurant, just as we sat on the table I took a look to the menu and said: “it’s quite expensive, let’s go to my noodle restaurant”. The food was delicious as always. From there we headed to the bund and as soon as we got there we started making out and by the end of the night we were watching movies at her place.
Day 12, Sunday: Celina and I went shopping for an external battery charger, bargaining was her thing so I was sure to have the best deal. Since she had a family meeting I had to go back home by myself, when I got there I saw a text from Cay saying she will be in the area for an hour or so before she would have dinner with friends, So I invited her to my hostel while I was doing my laundry, and once my clothes were in the dryer we disappeared to eat some Vietnamese food with her friend and his girlfriend, they both barely spoke English and if it weren’t for how talkative Cay was, it would undoubtedly would be an awkward dinner, but in a way I saved her for being the third wheel which she appreciated by paying for my food.
Day 13 Monday: I was supposed to leave this day but my clothes were still wet, the dryer pretty much didn’t work so I had to hang them on the roof, Shanghai’s weather didn’t help at this time of the year. The first thing I opened my eyes to was a text from my brother explaining to me how the situation back in Montreal was getting worse from every corner imaginable, that I am being called to court, because I didn’t respect my lease, a long story I will probably get on an another post. Still laying on my bed I didn’t feel like getting up so I just take a nap instead even after having slept more than twelve hours, and to move, I got downstairs and wrote a fast journal about my whole stay in Shanghai and Seoul , I literally spent my whole day in the hostel, aside from a disappointing visit to shanghai 2010 world expo.
Day 14 Tuesday: After a crowded and long ride in the subway, with the inconvenience of my luggage I finally made it to the train station and off to Beijing. I didn’t book my ticket ahead of time as oppose to my Chinese friends’ recommendation, yet everything went alright.
Only a few months earlier, Shanghai was nothing more than a meaningless word in my head, OK maybe a blurred image of a couple of towers but let’s just say that if it weren’t for this backpacking trip, (that let me explore any country that was on my way) I would probably never have set foot there, knowing you only have a two-week break from work every year naturally decides your destinations for you, and let’s agree that China would probably never make it to the list of choices. Yet, how sad and unfulfilling that would be, because for the most part, what matters most and what makes a trip so memorable and interesting is those new little routines you adopt, like how every night whether I had dinner or not, I would always stop at a food stand just before I get back home from a day sightseeing and eat the best and cheapest grilled chicken.