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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.





Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the safariRoosters

We’re reading Roald Dahl’s, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory right now and I haven’t been able to stop myself from using little Charlie as an example for Safari when she’s whining about a seed in her toast or refusing to eat an entire meal just prepared for her.  Granted this will only work up until Charlie is given a freaking chocolate factory, making him, I don’t know, the luckiest kid on the PLANET.  But for now, it goes something like this:

Safari: I don’t want that little green thing on the eggs (in whine language).

Me:  Don’t you think that Charlie would be SO happy just to have eggs?

Safari:  Yes (said in an air of defeat).

It seems to actually click in her brain; she seems to understand that she’s fortunate to have what she has.  To a certain extent.  A minimal extent.  Just barely.  But a little.

I just can’t get over how fortunate our children are.  Staying in 4/5 star hotels has become their norm (though they are just as at home in a 2 star hotel), amazing buffets present the hardest choice of their day:  choosing between brie and gouda cheese, and they get to go on awesome adventures in new places regularly.

My husband and I both grew up in families that had to watch every penny spent.  Staying at hotels was an absolute LUXURY, and we’re talking Motel 6.  Eating out at restaurants only happened on the most special occasions.

These are our roots and I believe that being brought up this way has given me very well-balanced values.  Values that I hope to give to my children.  Humble, modest values.  Values that make you appreciate the dinner you just ate when you pass someone pan-handling in the street.  Values that make you think about how the cost of that pair of sparkly pink Crocs you want could feed a family (including yours) for half a month.  Values that make you want to help others who don’t have as much as you do.  Thoughtful values.  Thinking values.

In terms of 5 star hotels, the problem is that the baby’s Daddy is a business traveler and so we accrue lots of Hyatt points, so we end up staying at lots of Hyatts.   It certainly isn’t because we can afford them (or would choose to spend our money in that way), it’s because they’re free.  And every time we do, I feel so grateful for the luxury we are able to indulge in; but for the kids, it’s just normal for them.  My fear is that they won’t grow up understanding and appreciating that luxury.   But they’re generally pretty AWESOME, so we keep on coming back.

In the end, I think that I trust that my values will be more influential than the type of hotel they’re used to frequenting in forming their values.  Oddly enough, reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really has sparked this mindfulness in me and made me realize how important it is to me that my children develop humility, compassion, and gratitude to take with them through life.  Although, I can’t give Charlie all the credit, the timing happens to be such that the older one is just getting to an age where she can comprehend such things and really is starting to form her values.

Here’s to staying at the Motel 6’s and guesthouses of the world; that is the world I want my children to know (with a few Hyatt’s sprinkled in here and there – so mommy can relax in a sauna every once in a while).

Journey on!

Oh, I forgot to address the ridiculouness of the above photo.  Those are the safariRoosters themselves, soaking in a bathtub large enough to fit four adults, watching a Chinese cartoon, while the futuristic lights of Pudong, Shanghai glitter in the background.  Ridiculous, isn’t it?  Absurd, no?  Are they NOT the most fortunate little buggers you ever did see?  Pretty sure they had just eaten chocolate dipped sugar cookies that were waiting in our room for us upon arrival, oh boy.

Soaking up History and Culture (and Nature) in Hangzhou

With roots as far back as 220 BC, Hangzhou is thought to have been the largest city in the world during the Song Dynasty in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.  It has been an important hub of culture, commerce, and politics, partly due to its location at the southern end of China’s Grand Canal (which runs north to Beijing and is the longest canal in the WORLD) and also a result of its stunning natural beauty.  Its most well known attraction, undisputabley, is Xi Hu (West Lake).

Because of Hangzhou’s rich cultural history, West Lake is surrounded by temples, pavilions, pagodas, and ampitheatres.  You can’t walk far before another photo worthy piece of architecture pops out from behind a tree, or another bench beckons for you to sit and take in the scenery.  And for this reason, Hangzhou and West Lake have been described to us as China’s number one honeymooning destination. 

Another quintessential feature of Hangzhou is that it’s a biking town and whether you’re single or a family of 4 (though, sadly, no bike seemed to exist for two adults and two small children), there’s a bike to fit your needs.  There is an AWESOME bike program (I believe it’s only for singles) where you can obtain a card (showing ID and paying a deposit) and then rent out bikes from one of the many spots throughout the city.  What’s best is that they’re free for the first hour, so you can theoretically just keep returning them within the hour and getting a new one.  However, they are between 1 and 3 Yuan for the next three hours of renting, so either way, it’s a very economical.

We stayed at the High Regency Hangzhou, which is located on the west side of the lake, in what may be the most bustling tourist area.  Walking through the promenade out our door found you skirting alongside thousands of [mostly Chinese] tourists.  Oh, and seriously people, the day WILL come where I tell you of quaint, dingy little guesthouses, I PROMISE.  The Mister’s Hyatt points and business travel WILL subside.  For now, I’m not going to complain about having a beautiful, more-than-comfortable, big-enough-for-the-kids-to-do-laps-around room to come back to at the end of the day.  As far as Hyatt’s go, the Regency Hangzhou wasn’t anything to write home about, but the location is great and if nice hotels are your thing, it’s worth a stay.  Though, the Regency Club staff were a bit more fidgety than normal about the kids [rolling around and the ground and such].

After wasting spending our first two and half hours in town on nap time (which were honestly also productive, researching what we’d do for the next two days), we headed out to the promenade to [possibly] find a rig on which to explore the lake a bit.  We thought that our rig would be a wooden boat powered by a paddle, but SOMEHOW, we ended up on this.

The kitschiest boat of them all, the kids were pretty stoked  jumping aboard (until it began to move and they realized that slow moving scenery WASN’T actually all that entertaining).  We were even presented with boiling hot Longjing Tea in thin plastic cups, mmmmm, phthalates.

When we returned from our sunset cruise, the light show had just begun.  Dazzling us with a colorful water dance, the light show definitely captivated our little weary dragon boat sojourners.  Set to a symphony of music, this water and light spectacle rivals the best of them; score another point for the Hangzhou tourism bureau.  We later realized that there is a beautiful outdoor terrace adjacent to the Regency Club at the Hyatt – which would be a great spot to catch the show, FYI all you Hyatters that don’t read this blog.

The next morning we set out to explore as much as we could squeeze in with two withering kids in tow.  Our first stop was the Su Causeway.  One of two man-made causeways that bisect the lake, these areas are more like parks jutting out through the water.  We passed a group of people singing under a pagoda, elderly Chinese people doing their morning Tai Chi (which is certainly NOT unique to this area – you find this EVERYWHERE, every morning), and dozens of perches just waiting for us to relax on them beside the lake.  We managed to get across the 3km causeway by 10am, with plenty of time to take on another adventure.

SO, we hopped in a taxi, with only a slight idea of where we were headed.  I had read about an area near Longjing Village called 9 Streams and 18 Gullies, but wasn’t able to get a great read on exactly where to find it.  We ended up, quite by happenstance, getting dropped off near the entrance to Longjing Village, with little knowledge of what walking down the hill would bring.  Perfection is what was given.  We meandered our way through the sweet little town surrounded by hills of growing Longjing, being asked if we wanted to drink tea the entire way, hoping that the stream I saw on Google Maps was the key to the area I hoped to find.  As we neared the end of the road, we realized that we had indirectly walked ourselves directly to my intended destination.  Along with hundreds of tourists (though not thousands like near West Lake), we enjoyed a leisurely walk through Longjing Tea country and through the first four of the “9 Streams”, playing in the fresh water to cool our steaming hot bodies.

Before we left Longjing Village, we knew we had to drink tea fresh from the source, but it was HOT, we were hungry, and the kids were getting tired.  We decided to say yes to the next person who offered us tea and were happy we did because it brought us to a little cafe on a hillside, with great views of the surrounding hills.  After being given a menu solely written in Chinese characters, we communicated that we did indeed want food (we asked for tofu, vegetables, and rice… in Chinese), but were far from certain about what would be coming our way.  Honestly, we didn’t care, we just needed FOOD.  What we ended up with was a yummy potato dish, a slightly odd egg and tomato dish, and a whole cooked fish in broth (didn’t see that one coming).  And of course, Longjing tea.

There are at least 10 other sites we would have liked to fit into our short weekend trip to Hangzhou.  A zoo, a children’s park, a handful of temples, and more walks around the lake, but I’ll take what we got.  It was so refreshing to get out of the city (which is where my heart belongs) and explore more of China’s rich cultural history.  When in China, and most especially if you’re visiting Shanghai anyway, a weekend in Hangzhou is in order.

We grabbed some soup just before leaving, a random recommendation from a travel blog I’ve been following, HoneyTrek, that just so happened to be just behind our hotel.  Pictured above are the kids just before eating, pictured below is the little guy sleep eating, literally, sleep eating (just before I grabbed him).  All the fun he had in Hangzhou had him tuckered out.