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August in Shangh[eezy]

Now I know what it feels like to be cooked alive in an oven – or how it feels to hang out in a sauna for multiple hours.  With the hottest temperatures EVER recorded (in the 150 years of documenting), Shanghai was hotter than a witches titty (that’s the third time I’ve used that colloquialism in the last week and I’m pretty sure I’ve used it incorrectly every time) for the entire 12 days we were there.  We didn’t exactly choose to visit Shanghai during the hottest heat wave in history, it was based on some red tape.  The mister had to process his resident visa up there – we have an excuse.

Us, Day 1: Awww, what’s all the fuss about (with even the BBC reporting on the heat)?  It’s hot, sure, but nothing worse than we’ve experienced traveling through Southeast Asia or the Caribbean in the summer.

Us, Day 5:  Hot damn, is it okay NOT leave the hotel until dinner time?  Ironically for us, though, the sun setting basically gave no reprieve from the heat, 105F dropped to a balmy 95F.

Though we weren’t able to conquer as many sights as we would have liked, we fortunately had enough time there that we were able to knock out quite a few.

The first few days were somewhat geared around kids activities – the results of which were hit AND miss.

HIT: Shanghai Science and Technology Museum – the kids and I were SO impressed with this museum.  Around every corner and through every door, new discoveries awaited.  Our first stop, naturally, was Children’s Rainbow Land  (which is honestly where I thought the fun was going to start AND stop).  It was full of hands on exhibits, a sweet play area, and plenty of space to run around chasing rainbows on the floor.  After spending well over an hour there, we went for a snack, thinking we’d leave shortly thereafter.  While hunting around for a snake exhibit that we never found, we discovered the Animal World and the Spectrum of Life exhibits.  Though I’m not really much of a taxidermy animal fan, this may have been the most robust animal exhibit I’ve seen yet (better than the Museum of Natural History in NYC – mainly because it’s China and whereas animals are neatly organized in glass covered exhibits in the US  – here they are barely caged in by small wooden fences).  The animals were diverse and out in the open, set inside elaborate natural habitats.  As we made our way through taxidermy animal heaven and into the Spectrum of Life exhibit, we were just dazzled.  With a living forest almost as impressive (though not nearly as technical) as the California Academy of Sciences Rainforest, the Spectrum of Life guided you through a diverse forested landscape, up rock pathways, past waterfalls, and through giant [plastic] insect groves.  You should, probably, temper my excitement with the fact that anything that resembles open, green space at this point, makes me feel like I’m trekking through rural Mongolia.

MISS: After our experience at SSTM and because of our oldest’s fondness for anything reptile, we decided to go to Shanghai Insect Kingdom.  I thought we’d go see some snakes and lizards.  What I was NOT prepared for was a seal in an INCREDIBLY small habitat upon entrance into the “kingdom”, followed by a VERY shallow fish pond (above which there was pathway that you crossed over) FULL of fish – which I can get past – but also home to a Giant Green Turtle who wasn’t even covered by the water it was so shallow and looked like a statue because it had such little room to move around.  Needless to say, 5 minutes into our time there, I was in tears.  We proceeded to walk through the rest of the space, most of which was okay – insects and lizards and such – but some of which was equally as dispicable – a “petting zoo” with two goats in a metal cage, being fed dead branches by dozens of loud children.  OF COURSE, the kids loved it, though I did my damndest to explain why treating animals in this way was NOT okay and that had we known, we would NOT have supported the business.

SO-SO:  A playzone in Pudong, Action and Fun, that was one part awesome and one part wasted space.  Awesome was the giant slide that the kids rode down in potato sacks.  Awesome was a tree house they could climb in.  Awesome was the fact that despite the heat, there were only a handful of other kids there at the time.  Wasted was the LARGE space with little to fill up the in-between.  There was a reading area with nowhere to sit.  A toy kitchen with nothing to cook or cook with.  A closet with no dress-up clothes.  And a play dough table where an employee just sat making things – but not with the kids.  But after, we discovered an arcade with a little kids roller coaster, just adjacent to the play space.  Add it all together and it’s definitely worth a visit on a hot or rainy Shanghai day.

Because it was so hot, some of our trip was defined by our accommodations – as we ended up spending much of our time indoors.  There are four Hyatt’s in Shanghai, so we decided we’d do a Hyatt tour (we successfully completed SIX separate check-ins, including our one night at the Hyatt Hangzhou).  The mister started frequenting Hyatt Hotels through business travel and we’ve sort of gotten sucked into their great customer loyalty program, damn freebies!, they get me every time.   SO, for all your Hyatt stayers out there in the ethers, I give to you a full review of three of the four Shanghai Hyatt’s.

1) Hyatt Andaz Shanghai – located in the trendy Xintiandi area of the French Concession, this hotel (like the Andaz brand in general) is hip and colorful.  We stayed here on two separate occasions and while both rooms were nice by my standard, our first room was spectacular.  With mood lighting throughout and a curved facade, it felt like we were on a luxury spaceship.  The toilets throughout are Japanese style Toto toilets, which means that they open and close by itself, have seat warmers, and clean your private parts (both front AND back).  FANCY.  And the breakfast was KILLER.  A congee bar to write home about and every other Chinese and American/European style acoutrement you could hope for.  Great gym and fancy lap pool made of glass.  Plus, the location.  Just out the door, you’re able to walk through the tree lined streets of Xintiandi, find any sort of cuisine you can think of, and pass sites of historical significance.  I give it a 7.

2) Hyatt on the Bund – ah, Hyatt on the Bund.  This was our favorite.  Because of the location.  And the spa facilities.  And the breakfast.  Oh, and because of the beautiful rooms with views to match.  We upgraded to a suite both times we stayed and the rooms were spectacular.  Perhaps the nicest Hyatt room we’ve encountered yet.  Nespresso machines, a variety of fresh teas, a bath tub the size of a small swimming pool, and views overlooking the Huangpu River with futuristic Pudong to the left and the historical art-deco buildings of The Bund on the right.  I could have sat and stared out our windows all day at the freight ships navigating the river by day and the techno-lighted cruise boats gallavanting about by night.  It is my belief that the best views of Shanghai are seen from this hotel (which is also home to the highest open air terrace in the world – Vue Bar, located on the 33rd floor).  The one minus is that the pool is indoor and has the relaxed vibe of the spa facilities, so it’s hard to take kids there without feeling like you need to keep them quiet.  BUT, on weekends, they set up a play zone just outside, where the kids can fish for rubber duckies and power motorized boats in the pond.  This one gets a 9.

3) Grand Hyatt Shanghai – though we have stayed at some we liked, we’ve concluded that Grand Hyatt’s are for old, stuffy people.  They are much more formal and just not our cup of tea.  We thought we were going to stay here for three nights but ended up canceling our second and third nights so we could soak up more time at the other two Hyatt’s, which we much preferred.  The two positives were the pool – it was the only one out of the three that had a more family feel to it (ironically), and the beautiful quartet that plays in the lower level bar, whose music resonates throughout the hotel (it’s a circular column shaped hotel, so all rooms face towards an open column).  Scoring lowest, I doth give the Grand Hyatt a 4.

So yea, we’re basically Shanghai Hyatt experts now – definitely going to add that to the resume.

In and amongst our busy days laying low at our hotels, we also did some stuff.  Evidenced below, dusk was the earliest we got outside some days (this photo is taken from famous Waibaidu Bridge, China’s first all-steel bridge and a Shanghai icon since 1908).

We strolled up, down, and all around The Bund, an area just adjacent to the ever-bustling Huangpu River and one of Shanghai’s prime tourist destinations.   In the early 20th century, it was the center of multinational banks and trading houses and has remained home to some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions..  As such, the buildings that run the length are an eclectic mixture of neo-classical, art-deco, and gothic architecture (among other styles too deep for me to remember).  Bottom line is that it’s quite visually stunning.  And when you juxtapose the classic architecture of The Bund with the futuristic buildings of Pudong just on the other side of the river, you’ve got yourself a pretty unbeatable combo.  Pudong is home to Shanghai’s iconic skyline, as seen in the photo below.  The littles favorite is the rocket in the center, Oriental Pearl Tower.

We strolled through Fuxing Park in the French Concession.  Not surprisingly, it’s French in style and was erected by yup, you guessed it, the French, in 1909.  Groups doing tai chi and men playing mahjong overflowed its gardens.  What is mahjong you ask?  And why were people doing tai chi in the park?  Mahjong is a very popular Chinese card game that I’ve read is a bit like rummy and while women do play, it’s men who you see playing while sipping on tea and smoking cigarettes on makeshift tables on the streets (or in parks).  I hope to kick its ass someday.  As for tai chi, if you’ve been to any Chinese inhabited area in the world, you’ve probably seen groups of older Chinese people taking to the park for their morning dose of tai chi, but if you haven’t, this is what happens.  Small groups (though sometimes large where I come from in California) gather in the early morning, often times in parks but also in open spaces adjacent to the street, and go through their slow, rejuvinating, and mind balancing routine.  It’s relaxing just to watch though I often want to join.  Public exercise is wildly popular in China – mostly confined to middle-aged to elderly people, in both the morning and the evening, a stroll down the street will greet you with groups of people collectively exercising.

We ate at a few kick-ass restaurants.  And many others that will soon be forgotten.  The two very much worth mentioning are Lost Heaven and Hai by Goga.  Lost Heaven is a culinary and visual exhibit of folk Yunnanese cuisine, found in the western Chinese province, Yunnan.  While it may be true that tour groups frequent this restaurant, it surely does not lessen its authenticity (or relative authenticity).  It’s GIGANTIC, but a lovely ambiance is still maintained and the traditional decor is beautiful.  And the food is oh-so-delicious, with many vegetarian items on the menu – something that we hold at a premium after living in China for six months.  It’s conveniently located very close to The Bund and makes for a perfect destination after an evening walkabout.  The owner of Hai is from San Francisco, so we couldn’t help but like it.  In all honesty though, the view from the terrace is superb and the California cuisine delights were scrumptious.  It was quite expensive, but I’d go back for sure.

After mustering the energy to leave our hotel before the sun went down, we roamed through Yu Garden and Yuan Historic area.  We had gone to the UNESCO World Heritage Classical Chinese Gardens of Suzhou days before and in all honesty, Yu Garden put up tough competition.  Though it’s not nearly as large as the gardens of Suzhou, it had all of the right ingredients to create a classic enchanted atmosphere.  A maze of pagodas, ponds, large rock croppings, and sculptures, Yu Garden kept both the adults AND the children quite engaged.  There were small passageways galore for the kids to roam about and give mama a small heart attack when they roamed one (or ten) turns too far.

We also went to the circus, Shanghai Circus World.  It was okay, though it’s quite well reviewed on Trip Advisor, so don’t let my underwhelm stop you from going.  The last acrobatic show we had witnessed was the spectacular House of Dancing Water in Macau, so our point of comparison wasn’t really all that fair.  With the exception of a motorcycle stunt, where I think something like 7 motorcycles buzzed around one another in a 15×15′ metal sphere, that made me look away in fear, we left a bit disappointed.

And, we devoured dumplings every chance we got.  Ain’t nowhere got better soup dumplings than in Shanghai, where they were first created.  If nothing else, go to Shanghai for the soup dumplings.  GO.

And I also got an awesome case of travelers tummy that actually wasn’t all that awesome.  My first time, EVER, so I really shouldn’t complain.  What more, what more?  Oh, I ate no less than 20 bowls of congee in 14 days.  So in addition to being a Shanghai Hyatt expert, I’m also a congee connoisseur.  Who said that living in China as a housewife wasn’t going to contribute to my resume?  I’d hire me.

Shanghai was cool but I really hope to experience it again when it is really cool.  Cold.  As in not scorching hot.





Road Tripping the US with Young Kids: Scenic Byways

American’s scenic byways are a FANTASTIC way to see some of the best the US has to offer when you’re tight on time and/or unable to go on long hikes with young kids.  National Scenic Byways are defined based on having archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.  Four years ago, when our oldest was 8 months old, we took a cross country road trip to Vermont and back (while that wasn’t exactly the plan, it turned out to be a beautiful silver lining).  We were fairly tight on time in both directions AND had an infant, so we weren’t able to dedicate time in every area we wanted to see.  And then we discovered the myriad of scenic byway scattered about the US.  Were it not for these thruways, we would have never been able to see places like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia or the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.  We were able to see dozens of incredible places solely because we could drive straight through and onto our next destination, rather than making a timely loop.

For a full list of US Scenic Byways, visit America’s Byways.

Go explore!

10 Tidbits for Tumultuous Toddler Travel

Like anything in life, the more you practice the better you get.  Even flying with kids gets easier the more you hone your practice.   While most of these things are intuitive, I think that I’ve picked up some tricks along the way.  On our last Hong Kong-San Francisco flight, I compiled the following list:

  1. If you’re careful about ripping open the blanket bag at the top, you can reuse the bag for garbage.
  2. On long international flights, they come by twice with a drink service within the first two hours and then not again for another 5 hours or so.  Ask for red wine at both passes and save for when you really need them – 6 hours in, tired kids, achy knees and a serious case of cabin fever.
  3. Snacks like pistachios are GOLDEN for toddlers – opening them takes time, so you get at least four times the benefit.
  4. iPods for the kids, iPads are too large.
  5. Bring baby wipes – even if your toddler is long out of diapers – there WILL be a juice spill or a dirty face, or better yet, a pee incident.
  6. Look at the seatbelt light before you promise a walk about.
  7. Change diapers standing up on top of toilet seat – don’t mess around with the table for kids who can walk.
  8. The little cups in the bathrooms make for great toys (but are wasteful, so let’s limit this activity) and have the potential of making a cabin-fevered tot a happy-water-filling-and-pouring tot.  And it’s fun to see how many people you can cram into the bathroom.
  9. Use earbuds for yourself so that you can still halfway watch a movie while listening for AND attending to the little’s needs/constant whining (you can keep just one earbud in).
  10. On a long flight with kids coming into the US, where you’re not allowed to bring on water  – ask for an entire bottle of water – some flight attendants will roll their eyes at you, but it’s def worth it.  Oh, and bring smaller [spill proof] water containers to fill up.