(Note: all images can be expanded by clicking on them)
Like a retro Eiffel Tower
Shanghai is known as “the Paris of the east.” This is a wild understatement. Shanghai has more people, more diversity, more culture, more lights, and more fun just to name a few things. The only thing it may not have more of is cheese, Champaign, and Eifel Towers (but it does have a pretty cool TV tower).
The city is easy to navigate by subway and walking (A GPS phone is great to help you find your way), and Taxis are cheap (But don’t expect your driver to speak a word of English or understand what you’re trying to say in Chinese).
In short, Shanghai is most westerner’s favorite city in china, and it is definitely a good place to spend a few days to decompress from the oddities the rest China offers to western foreigners.
There are three main reasons I travel the world:
- Meet new people and experience new cultures
- See and experience new landscapes
You’ll notice that visiting museums, galleries, archeological sites, and other man-made edifices are not on the list. There are plenty of things to see in Shanghai, but I don’t do a lot of sight seeing. Hence, this is short list. (This statement is slightly contradictory because I did go to Beijing specifically to see the forbidden city and great wall, but that is the next post).
The first thing I wanted to do in Shanghai was visit the Shanghai Financial Center and view the city from their 101st floor observation deck. So this was my first mission. According to my guidebook, on a clear day you can actually observe the curvature of the earth from up there. Unfortunately, the air pollution in Shanghai was so bad that I could only see a few miles in any direction from the observation deck. It was still a really cool experience to look down on the city form 474 meters up.
View from the SWFC observation deck
I spent a lot of time walking around shanghai’s old European grotto, “The Bund,” which has made a big comeback in the last decades as China has reopened to foreign investment.
I also checked out a few Malls in China (They are loaded with good restaurants). I am from Minnesota, where the Mall of America is, and I found the size and number of malls in Shanghai absolutely staggering!
On my last full day, I went to visit the Jing’an Buddhist Temple. It was only a couple miles away so I decided to walk. I got a bit lost, and it was closed when I arrived. However, I found a nice park across the way to snap some photos as the sun went down. On the way home, I could feel liquid pooling in my lungs like I was getting pneumonia – the air pollution is really that bad in China!
On my way out of town, I rode the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train to the airport. Instead of wheels, this train uses electromagnets to hover above its tracks. There is virtually no friction, and the train can go incredibly fast. My train zipped to the airport at 301 km/hr (187 mph). A friend told me they used to run it at 440 km/hr (273 mph), but they have toned it back, probably over safety concerns.
View out the back of the Rock & Wood hostel
I stayed at the Rock & Wood International Hostel. This was the most modern, clean, and organized hostel I have ever stayed in (I’ve stayed in hostels in 15 countries across Europe, Central/South America, Africa, and Asia). It has everything a good hostel has – comfortable mattresses, bunks that don’t squeak, A/C & heat, wifi throughout, clean bathrooms, hot water, social space, bar, movie projector, outdoor lounge, helpful staff, and a couple of guitars to boot (I think all hostels should have at least one guitar).
People back home are always a little weary when I tell them that I prefer to stay in hostels when I travel. Most Americans’ entire perception of hostels comes from the horror movie Hostel, where American tourists are abducted and sold to murder-fetish houses in Eastern Europe. If you think this is what hostelling is like, you’re probably ignorant enough to stop reading here, and continue believing that story. I wouldn’t want you to stay in a hostel and pollute the incredibly positive, tolerant, international atmosphere with your ignorance.
In my 10 years’ experience hostelling, I have never been attacked or robbed of anything except a little sleep – Sometimes the beds move and squeak every time your bunkmate shifts, and I’ve encountered some incredible snorers along the line. These issues can usually be resolved by using earplugs and having one more drink before bed.
My bunkmate Mehdi
The first person I met upon my arrival to Shanghai was my Iranian bunkmate, Mehdi. As I approached our tiny 4-bed room, he was just walking through the door himself. I smiled and said, “Hello, how are you?” to find out if he also spoke English.
He replied with a handshake and a smile from ear-to-ear, “Hello! I am happy because you are smiling!”
We began with the usual “What is your name? Where are you from?” How long are you here?” questions, but we digressed quickly into deep philosophical dialogues concerning greater meanings in life. I quickly realized that we came from very different places and backgrounds, but somehow, for that week in Shanghai, we were operating in the same place physically and mentally. On one occasion, our differences in background and culture led to intense disagreement and some arguing, but it always returned to friendship, trust, and understanding.
Mehdi and I are of the same god – Our opinion what, exactly, that means may be very different, but we are both peaceful souls and students of the earth and this life. Through this perspective, we forged a great bond and walked a similar path for several days and nights. Needless to say, we learned a lot from eachother.
In the hostel I stayed in previously, I met an 88-year-old retired heart surgeon from Sweden. He had spent a great deal of his life volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, and had incredible experience to draw upon. I recall the first conversation I had with him:
The Chinese language barrier had me starved for good conversation in English. I was thrilled to hear some people speaking English in the common area in the hostel when I arrived. I walked into the room and said awkwardly, “Hi, I’m Alex!”
Rolf returned with, “Hey Alex, where do you come from?”
“USA,” I replied.
“USA? Get the hell out of here! We don’t want talk to you!” He it said in a tone that I wouldn’t realize was a joke if he didn’t smile and start laughing immediately after.
I told him to “Bugger off!” in an attempt to prove my international travel proficiency and asked him where he was from.
“Sweden,” he told me. Excellent – I had him right in my crosshairs.
“Hjavla Svenskor!” I shouted at him. “Fan med dig!” That translates to, “Damn Swedes… Fuck you!”
I was born in Sweden and spent my younger years speaking Swedish and English at home. This leaves me with the unlikely ability to call out Swedish jerks and hit on Swedish girls in their native tongue – A huge benefit on both ends while traveling internationally.
My conversation with Rolf moved quickly to hugs and admissions that we were both a bit on edge because we’ve been unable to speak and joke in our native languages for so long. He had spent a great deal of time in New Zealand, and missed “taking the piss” out of his friends. He welcomed the opportunity to joke back and forth with somebody who understood kiwi humor.
I went on quite the tangent there… The point I was trying to make was that he said something incredibly simple, but gloriously intelligent in our first conversation there. I sat in the hostel common space with two Chinese people, a fellow Swede, and a student from Bangladesh. Rolf expressed seriously and with great empathy,
“I can’t stand it that people in this world try to solve their differences by killing each other. The more different people are from you, the more potential there is to learn something from them, and if you kill them, you can’t learn anymore from them.” The Chinese people didn’t speak much English and didn’t quite understand, so Rolf clarified to them. “You and I are very different. That means we can learn a lot from each other, but if I kill you, I can no longer learn anything from you.”
While Rolf clarified, I looked across to my new Muslim/Bangladeshi friend. Our eyes met as we nodded in agreement to Rolf’s words. Our eyes spoke a silent understanding – Yes, we are from cultures that have been at odds for hundreds of years, but we are beyond that. We lead lives of peace and hope for a better world.
I’ve been around. I’ve met people from Kansas to Kazakhstan, but I have never met someone I wished violence upon. Nor do I think I have met someone who wished violence upon me. Rolf’s simple words of genius can only be backed up by the words of another old wise man: “Peace cannot be kept by force, but it can only be achieved by understanding” –Albert Einstein.
Wow… I really lost myself there. This is going to be a long post. Back to Shanghai:
Through the hostel and a few choice oases, I made some great friends. It’s probably easier to just list the ones that I want to remember. I like to make a list of people and occurrences after each city I visit, so I won’t ever forget my friends and experiences around the world.
• Nathan: A Hawaiian living and working in shanghai as a distributor for Santa Cruz surfboards, skateboards, and snowboards across Asian Markets. I met him at a Reggae show that Mehdi and I stumbled across my first night in Shanghai. His wife was the backup singer – it was a great show!
• Mike and Luke: Brothers from Ohio. One in China working for an international acquisitions firm from Brazil. The other in Shanghai teaching coaches basketball coaching strategy (NBA is huge in China, and china has more youth basket ball players than the rest of the world combined).
• Alex and Sebastian (Seabass): Danish dancing dudes. These guys were taking a break from studying Kung Fu elsewhere in China. Alex, Sebastian, Mehdi, and I went out dancing at several of the best clubs around Shanghai almost every night. We made a good team. Usually we would arrive back at the hostel between 6-8am the following morning.
Eva & Anuli
• Eva and Anuli: East coast American girls teaching English in China. We met via dance-off while closing down a club at 5am with Mehdi, Alex & Seabass. They joined our crew afterwards at the convenience store for some snacks and dancing (Yes, in the supermarket). They joined Rina’s family and I for Christmas mass at a Chinese church, and we had a Christmas dinner and drinks together afterwards.
• Ivon: An Australian/Chinese guy who invited me over for his “Orphan Christmas Party” he hosted for people who were away from their families for the holidays. Unfortunately, I missed the party because I went to church & dinner with other friends, but I met up with him at Perry’s (everybody’s favorite college bar) afterwards for a beer and some games.
• Ana: Uruguaya muy linda sourcing textiles for a Uruguayan clothing company. I met her when Mehdi left me alone at a bar late on Christmas night. She has been working in Shanghai for 8 months, and was able to teach me a lot about sourcing in china. Ana was super easy going, showed me incredible hospitality, and there was something very familiar about her, which was welcome in this strange land on Christmas. She even let me do laundry at her apartment before I left, which is one of the nicest things you can offer a backpacker.
• Rina, Ralph, and James: Rina is my classmate from the University of Malta. She invited me to spend Christmas with her family. Her husband, Ralph, and son, James, were an absolute treat to spend time with. They invited me for dinner and church on Christmas Eve, and lunch on Christmas Day. I learned a great deal from them all. Surprisingly, one of my favorite lessons of the trip came from four-year-old James. When Ralph asked James if he and I were friends, James replied with, “No.”
“Why not James?” Ralph asked his son.
“Because Alex is Mommy’s friend.”
My feelings were a little hurt at first, but I realized his confusion and said to him, “You know, James, we can all be friends. You, me, mommy, and daddy!” It was in this moment I realized that the Keynesian economic principle of scarcity cannot be applied to love and friendship. Unfortunately, keynesians run the world, and I fear that, like James, they might be applying the “law” of scarcity to love and friendship. This might explain why there is so much suffering in the world.
Happy Merry Christmas
I wrote the following post on Christmas Day, but I never go around to proof reading or posting it. Chinese people know the phrase Merry Christmas from marketing promotions. However, many of them think the name of the holiday is “Merry Christmas.” This led to a lot of people saying things like “Merry Christmas is tomorrow!” or “Happy Merry Christmas!” I thought it was hilarious. Anyways, here is a belated Christmas post:
25 December 2013, 11:01pm – Shanghai, China
Today is Christmas, and I am in China. This is the first time in my life that I am away from my family for Christmas, and I am definitely missing our tradition. Instead of swedish meatballs, ham, and potatoes at my mother’s house, my christmas this year consisted of friendship, nightclubs, untraditional holiday food, and lack of sleep at my hostel in Shanghai.
I am fortunate to have an old classmate who lives in Shanghai with her family, and they were kind enough to invite me to join them for their Christmas celebrations. I am incredibly grateful to have so many friends around the world who are always happy to invite me into their homes, and Rina’s family has been exceptionally wonderful and welcoming. Last night, I had Christmas dinner with them, and we attended Christmas mass at St. Peter’s Church in Shanghai. I also had Christmas lunch with them today at their apartment in Shanghai.
After lunch today, I took a short siesta because I have spent the past two nights out dancing until the wee hours of the morning with my hostel bunk-mate, Mehdi, an Iranian man of mystery who I could write a whole book about, but in short: He is unlike anyone I have ever met, he dances more uniquely and frequently than anyone I have ever met, and he always says what he thinks and seems to be having continuous revelations that reveal deep lessons in regards to the meaning of life.
Anyways… after my nap, I decided to treat myself to pizza at Shanghai’s best pizza place, Pizza Marzano. I LOVE pizza, and there is not pizza place in the town where my surfboard factory is. While I was waiting for my food, I was reading through Christmas messages from my friends and family, and I was hit by a wave of Melancholy. “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself as I sat on a cold patio eating Pizza alone for Christmas dinner. I’m thousands of miles away from the people I love most on a holiday that, to me, is purely about the blessings of friends and family.
Luckily, technology allows us to communicate across the world. I was reminded by a wise friend via Whatsapp message that this is part of a dream I have dreamt for a long time – “You sleep in the bed you make.” This made me feel a little better, but I was still pretty bummed and decided to walk it off.
I strolled through “The Bund,” Shanghai’s most westernized district, with a grande soy hot chocolate from Starbucks in hand. I was surrounded by about 24 million people, yet I felt incredibly alone. I simply could not shake a feeling of misery.
About halfway through my walk, I finally got the reality kick-to-the-face that I needed. As I was about to ascend the stairs of a sidewalk overpass, I saw a man lying at the base of the stairs, face to the ground, shivering, begging, praying for change. I was emotionally frozen, but continued past not knowing how to respond. When I reached the other side of the overpass, there was another man in a similar position begging for change. Shortly thereafter, another homeless man with white hair down past his shoulders and no shoes on. “How dare I be cold in my thermal hoodie and Northface Jacket,” I thought to myself. I continued on and found myself walking through a subway tunnel. I noticed a man looking over my shoulder with a look of sympathy on his face like nothing I have ever seen before. I looked to where his eyes gazed, and saw a mag that was either a severe burn victim or an Agent Orange child. He was also begging for change, but with the most hollow eyes I have ever seen.
This is when it all came together for me. I am among the most fortunate people in the world in terms of friends, family, health, and opportunity. I am not with my family and friends this Christmas, but I am blessed with the choice and ability to pursue my dreams to the most distant shores. And I have done so under my own will. Instantly, my melancholy turned to gratitude and appreciation for the gifts I have been given.
My Christmas was really made when I arrived back to the hostel in time to Skype my family while they ate Christmas Breakfast. My sister has a lazy susan/turntable on her dining table, so they placed the iPad on it, and I was rotated around the table to have individual face-to-face conversations with my family as they waited for breakfast to be served. I got to pop into the kitchen and chat with my dad while he made eggs, and my niece, Rhian even showed off her Ice Princess dress for me.
I think the best part was watching my 15-month-old niece dance to my cover of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. I didn’t know what to get for my mother this Christmas, so I recorded the most christmassy song I know and sent it to her. She plugged her iPhone into a stereo and played it for everyone. Apparently my little niece loved it! Here is a link to the song if you want to here it:
Merry Christmas everyone. Thank you for your support and helping me achieve my dreams. So much love! -Alex