Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Welcome to Shanghai

At nine o'clock this morning the train rolled into Shanghai station – an hour and a half late.

Lesson learned – Chinese trains do not run on time. Accept that, make it part of your outlook, and move on. From the moment I stepped foot onto the Shanghai platform my rush of a day was underway in a beautifully chaotic fashion. I was pushed up one staircase, and down another, through a security screening and then past a gate. Everyone else seemed to have tickets to get through the gate, but I was just let on in. Shoved on in. I'm sure it will be fine.

Up another flight of stairs it becomes obvious that that last gate I went through? It was the gate to get onto the subway, and while – yes, here I am now – I will need a ticket to get out. Not wanting to be charged the highest fee I had to make my escape out of the pay area so I could then buy a ticket and reenter. But how to get out without a ticket? And without paying. I mean I didn't mean to by-pass their system, did I?

So, I got out the same way I got in. When I saw a big gate open for paying people with luggage I got in the charge and burst through. It strikes me that you could probably go anywhere in this city for free like this, but the ticket was only 3RMB and who am I to break the law in China? That would be a teeeeeeeeer-rible idea.

Ticket paid, and back inside, I rode the three stops, and then walked the five minutes to end up at my hostel. Once there I was told that I could throw my gear down but that I couldn't yet nap – the bed was not free. Fair enough. Rather than lazing around I was forced out into the world. In search of a map.

Apparently the China Mobile store at the end of the street would have maps. I was off. It was a good plan at the time, and as they sold World Expo tickets I was pretty sure I could kill two proverbial birds with one very large proverbial stone.

The store was sold out of Expo tickets, and the maps were all in Chinese. Still – they wrote down the address of a allday shop that sold tickets just one block over. Off I headed with a spring in my step and a new chinese map of which I could read maybe ten characters. This would help little, but do for the time being. If I could locate my current possition.

The allday? They were sold out too. Why are these places selling out? I mean it's not like the tickets are anything special – you can get them right at the main gates. Just keep more in stock people! But no, I was still without tickets. Fine, very well. Whatever. Back to the streets with my Chinese map. First stop? People's Square where I began my adventure from the subway.

On route I passed a volunteer booth for the expo, and was given – without asking, they just saw me walking by – an English map of the city. What service! Next up was people's square where two Chinese guys started talking to me in near-perfect english. This is never a good sign. Never. It's just as bad as someone starting a sentence with, “where are you from?” Nothing beneficial will ever come from these things.

After talking with them for a while they mentioned a tea ceremony. Uh-huh. I may be hours into the city, but the first thing that I saw entering my hostel was a poster claiming this to be the big scam. And it is – do a google search of Shanghai tea ceremony. Loads of scam hits, and pictures of people who run the scam. But I still had an hour before McDonald's went from serving breakfast to lunch food (lunch is much cheaper, and I am not quite so rich) and I kinda-sorta wanted to see how this scam played out. So long as I can keep myself removed, I'm normally pretty good with them.

And if I end up losing some money, so be it.

Now, had I read about this scam on the internet first I would never have been so bold. Never. I would have ran screaming – just like a wee girl named Germaine used to when complemented on her t-shirt by an awkward school boy a decade past – and never looked back. But I had not yet researched how the scam is supposed to play out and so I went along with them.

After all they did just spend ten minutes walking me through my map of the city and pointing out all the best places to go. So off with the I went, foolish as a first day traveller, up to the shady complex and into the tea room. Sitting down I asked first and foremost how much would it cost? They pulled out a menu. Each tea – 48RMB. They ranged from 38 to 139 but the average ones, 48RMB.

They then explained lucky numbers and translated all of what the girl pouring the tea said. Then they asked how many types I'd like to try. I pulled out a 100RMB note and said, “this is all I have. We can do two.” And then seemed fine with that.

We drank the tea. I was offered the chance to buy some tea. I declined – being a back packer and all. They seemed fine with that. I got a little tassel thing as a “gift” (sure you can get them at the 2RMB shop, but they also sell for 20RMB in the tourist district, so it's not a terrible thing to get – for free, in theory) and then the bill came... it was – dun-dun-dun...

97RMB. I paid, I got change. We left. It was good.

So let me tell you how the scam is supposed to play out, and then we can figure out if I got scammed or not, alright? Because it's a hard question. I'm going to say no I did not. But yes they were running a scam. Work with me here.

People chat you up by peoples square – check.

They take you to a tea shop – check.

You drink the tea – check.

You get a monster bill – umm... not really.

From what I've read some people never ask to see a price and thus drink all the teas, which would set you at about 700RMB. One hundred and ten American dollars. But this is not what I've heard in the scam article write ups either. People are losing hundreds of American dollars, three hundred, six hundred, and up. So what went different for them? I asked to see the price. At that point they couldn't just make up random numbers on the bill.

As we drank the tea we were poured glass after glass from one brewing. This is where I worried. This is where I thought they could argue that each glass was 48RMB and as I'd not inquired about that it would – in theory – be my fault. I've seen scams like this before, where they take you to an ATM to pay. I will admit that I was a tad worried at this stage, but not for lack of money. Most people would just pay – but I was wacky, and overtired and ready to rage or love. If it worked out, I would love. If it was a bad scam, I would rage. And the police would be involved. Would they care? Normally – probably not. But in the early weeks of the expo with the eyes of the world kinda-sorta on them... Well the Chinese act differently during these times. There are workers that prevent people from J walking right now. Imagine that in any city, let alone Shanghai China. I figured the police would back me, and it could be a fun story – but also a hassle that might not play out necessarily in my favour.

This is how other scams have run from my post-review and research. But no, I was simply charged the 97RMB which I had agreed to when entering the building. Was it that they took pity on me? Did they not want to hassle with an ATM? Did they believe that, as I said, I only had 100RMB on me?

I'm not sure.

As we left, they pointed me in the direction to the pedestrian street I wanted to go to, and then wished me a good day. They were very nice, very kind, and very helpful. Was it a scam? Sure – I mean what are the odds that I meet the only two people interested in going for tea right at the place where all these scams originate, and they aren't in on it? But for fifteen bucks, an hour of good tea drinking, and touristic advice, and delightful conversation? It was definitely worth it.

Had I been charged ten to twenty times that, I would have been less delighted. But I wasn't. So there it is. Strangely enough most of the people writing about the scam say how pleasant it was except for the price at the end. For me? I just got the pleasant. If I were you, I wouldn't recommend going along with this, give the choice – but then again every now and then it works out.

Like I said, I was pointed in the direction of the tourist street, and that's where I wanted to go. A few seconds later I was strolling along it. It's a pedestrian shopping street – or so they would have you believe. Sure it's for walking, except for all the intersections where bikes and scooters zoom through without warning, and – ohh yeah – there are a number of sight seeing 'trains' that run up and down without any regard for people in their path.

Up the street I came across a third official Expo items gift shop. Looking around inside I realized that all the prices were set and that no matter what area I was in I'd need to pay the same amount. Most of the things were cheap, except for the many items made of gold – but never mind them. It's a Chinese thing. Who wouldn't want a giant gold mascot? Am I right?

I asked about tickets and was sent down to the end of the street, near the river. There was a building there selling them. As I was headed off that way anyway, this seemed like an excellent destination. And once there I cringed – paid my 400RMB – and received a 3 day pass. It looks like Shanghai for me will be all expo, and nothing else. With four full days left, I'd have only one left to explore the city. With that realization I knew that today must be my day of full exploration. If I didn't see it now, I might never develop the time for it.

To the river. The waterfront has a lovely boardwalk full of domestic tourists in matching orange, pink, and yellow hats. There are also teenage couples being in love (gross), and old couples also feeling emotionally affectionate even after all these years (even worse – don't they know they should be bitter and unhappy – that's what relationships are all about! I mean the kids are young, they don't know better – but, come on.)

It seemed I was destined to know just about every teenage girl on the walk, however. There was just no avoiding it. Not me, not in China. Once every minute or so I was stopped by someone wanting to take my picture, be in a picture with me, or I would stop on my own, making it easier for the people lurking behind lampposts trying to be covert in their hairy white man photography.

It's not that I'm unused to this behaviour, it's just that I'm unused to the frequency. It's to the point where if I see someone take out their camera I just stop, and look at it, assuming they want a shot of me. Ohh – they don't? Huh. I guess that makes sense. But then when I start to think I've become far too conceited, there's someone else snapping a shot of me.

The Pear TV tower was as wonderful as I thought it would be. But did they really need two globes at the base of it? I mean Toronto decided that a pink CN tower might be a bit much, didn't the fine people of Shanghai realize how this could be interpreted? Ohh never mind. This is Asia. That was probably the intent. Super good lucky power tower!

Big ol' cock and balls.

That what I saw hanging in a restaurant window. A giant roster, and some spherical meat in mesh bags. Not knowing what any of the mysterious meats were I opted for McDees. I know, I know, I'm mad at myself too – but ten Nuggets for less than two bucks? And they gave me three sauces. Three!

Luckily for those who do love Mackers there seems to be one on every other block. On the Nanjing road anyway. Man in never ceases to amaze me how that one company changed the world forever. Who thought it would be hamburgers and soda that linked the entire globe? Take that Michael Jackson, and your Superbowl half time event!

Back on the water I was again caught up in people snapping shots of me. I imagine it's because they remember the famous Sean Richtoff when he was interviewed about the Beijing Opera back two Marches ago when I was in New York. Maybe not. O.K. most likely not. Still, a man can dream.

Reaching the point where the river walk was less touristed, and more a bus stop infested road, I decided to make a break west, or Xi as one might say here. There were the Yu gardens to be enjoyed, after all. Though I assumed that they would come with a price tag I'd not yet be willing to pay. Still – the forty five minute walk there proved to be interesting all in its own right.

I walked into the local area of Shanghai where stores charged a third of what they were other places. 2RMB shops popped up (this is basically a thirty cent shop.) Some magnets may have been bought here. Magnets that may seem racially inappropriate were they purchased in any other location.

Through the back streets I walked, cautiously, as I'd been advised there was some thievery in this here town. But I had no problems, and it was in interesting journey. Men were fixed their motorcycles at the side of the road with rusted parts in a plastic yogurt container, while their girlfriends fed them ice cream on a stick. Yes, I did mean to pluralize that. It seems to be the only way one can fix a bike. No girlfriend with stick-ice cream? Why even bother?

Clothes were hanging from windows precariously close to power lines. Cats were being scooped up and taken away, with a polite nod and a hello my way. I'd rather not think about where those cats were headed.

For twenty minutes I saw not one white person. I'd found the tourist shopping street for the domestic travellers. The Anti-Nanjin if you will. And then I ran into “Old Street.” Gone were the authentic buildings, and shops, and people. Here were the “authentic old buildings” tourists came to see, converted into Starbucks and fashion streets. There was also a figure shop – more toys! But it was sadly lacking, and overpriced.

I'm not saying that pictures weren't taken here – but it wasn't what it could have been. As I walked along the boardwalks over coy ponds I once more was requested to pause for a half dozen more photos. Every now and then, I'd have them take a picture with my camera to prove that this happened to the folks back home. I feel that I should just wear my camera in video mode around my neck as I walk through these areas to show the people who pause, take pictures, and ask me to stop. I don't expect anyone else to believe it. I don't expect I'll believe it a few months from now ether. Still I can hardly blame them, I am – after all – pretty awesome.

And then, with that done, just a stroll back to the hostel where – crashing in bed watching the latest episode of LOST (calling the day good and done at 3:30 – hey I still put in six hours of exploring! And I have expo tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day.) Wait, four days? True. A guy sharing my room gave me a pass he wasn't able to use up. I now have another day, and this is it – Shanghai will be all expo for me. Confirmed. Not that that's bad. I did see most of the tourist stuff today anyway. So I probably won't see the gardens, ohh well. And I won't see the skyline at night tonight – but there are all those trips back from the expo to investigate that area after dark. I'm sure I'll get there. I'm sure.

How could I not?

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