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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shanghai: French Consession, Tianzifang, & Pudong - 4.12.11

  • Duolun Lu Cultural Street(多倫路文化街)
  • Soong Ching-Ling's Former Residence (宋慶齡故居)
  • Tianzifang (田子坊)
  • Shanghai World Financial Center (上海環球金融中心)
Washing my face this morning, I realized for sure that water in our hotel had a funny smell.  I didn't know if it was only in our hotel or if it was the water quality of Shanghai in general.

On the 26th floor at the hotel restaurant having the breakfast buffet, the food and even the coffee tasted a little off to me, like we were eating artificial flavor substitutes rather than the real thing.  All the news about the notorious tainted milk and toxic food in China clouded our heads in a way that we really could not enjoy the buffet that much.  Both H & I were hungry without appetites.

Taking the elevator out of the hotel, I smelled cigarette and blurred it out,  "Did someone just smoke a cigarette in the elevator?"  I looked over to this middle aged Asian guy who was standing next to us.  Surely enough, he was hiding a cigarette in one hand.  I looked at him with disbelief shaking my head.  Once we got out of the elevator, he actually gave the cigarette to the hotel staff member in the lobby to throw it out.

We took the metro to our first stop, Duolun Lu.  However, it was on our way to Duolun Lu on Hengbin road that I found most fascinating.  Hengbin road was a quiet residential street without all the shops and traffic.  I had a glance of how people in Shanghai live: laundry was hanging out of the windows to air dry; outdoor markets with people eating noodles for breakfast, vendors carefully carving out the pineapple to preserve most meat possible.... This is the side of Shanghai that felt real and endearing.

Next, we were on to Soong Ching-Ling's Former Residence.  Soong Ching-Ling was the widow of the founding father of the Republic of China. This was the villa that she lived in from 1948 to 1963.  The villa was simply decorated and the garden was an amazing oasis in the city. The villa was in the heart of French Concession, which housed a lot of beautiful European style villas.

Before our next stop, we had lunch at a Shanghain noodle shop on the way.  The stewed pork, one of the signature shanghai dishes, was pretty good, but the noodles were only mediocre. 

Tianzifang was a mix of residential and commercial houses that had the fascinating traditional Shanghai shikumen architecture with intricate alleyways.

Walking in the maze-like alleyways with the old brick walls on both sides and entangled wires over my head, I was fascinated.  There were interesting shops, galleries, restaurants, outdoor cafes and bars.  An unexpected turn later, some old ladies were walking out of their houses with bikes parked by the front doors.

There was even an outdoor bar selling an Austrian winter drink, Gluehwein (hot spiced red wine).  Of course we had to stop for a drink despite that it was spring time in Shanghai.  We lingered at Tianzifang for most of the afternoon before we headed back to our hotel.

Before we headed out again in the evening, we had a small bite to eat in the food court at the mall by the hotel since neither one of us were hungry for a big meal.  Yang's fried dumpling was a chain eatery in Shanghai that was recommended by my Chinese tour book.  They were cheap and delicious!  I loved the crispy skin and the sesame on top.  The dumplings were juicy and flavorful.  They were better than the Xiaolongbo we had the day before and cost a fraction of the price.

After the fried dumplings, we headed to Pudong, the modern 21st century Shanghai with all the iconic skyscrapers. On the big avenues, there were street vendors selling souvenirs to the tourists.  I saw a vendor selling kites and thought it would be a great gift for our nephew.  I asked the vendor how much it was, and pulled out money to pay for one.  Then it occurred to us that one should always haggle when shopping in China!  The thought was further confirmed when the vendor offered discounted price if we buy two.  Well, now we definitely felt like fools.

SWFC (Shanghai World Financial Center) not only was the second tallest building in the world, it had the world's tallest observation deck on the 100th floor at  474 m (1,555 ft) height.   It was also a beautiful building in design.

Before coming to Shanghai, many people had told us that Shanghai made Manhattan looked like a village.  Standing on the 100th floor observation deck, I understood exactly what they meant.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shanghai: Old Town & River cruise - 4.11.11

  • Yu Yuan 豫園
  • Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant 南翔饅頭店
  • Huangpu River Cruise黃埔河遊輪

We purchased the flight & hotel package from China Airlines.  The direct flight from Taipei to Shanghai was only an hour and a half. (Enough time for me to be interested in the in-flight movie and wishing the flight could last longer so I could watch the movie ending.) As soon as we got out of customs, the airline arranged pick-up was already waiting for us to take us to the hotel. 

On the highway to the hotel, I immediately got the sense of how massive and populated this city was.  There were rows after rows of tall apartment buildings everywhere.

Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the Renaissance Zhongzhan Park Hotel.  The hotel was situated over the Zhongzhan Park Metro station with lines 2, 3 and 4.  The metro station was connected to a huge shopping mall called "Cloud Nine".  Although the hotel was not very close to most tourist sights, the easy access to the metro definitely made up for it.

Between the jet lag and my sister's wedding related events in Taiwan, both H & I were so sleep deprived that once we checked into the hotel, we took a power nap before we headed out again.

Finally at 4:30 PM, we were ready to see what Shanghai was all about.  We headed down to the metro station. There was a screening machine that checked large bags in every metro station.  I had not seen such security measures in any other city before.  It was probably the after work rush hour, the station was crowded and people were aggressive even in comparison to New York standards.  A lot more men were wearing suits than I expected, and women were fashion conscious even though there was still a gap with the latest trend.

Our first stop was the old town.  It was pretty in a Disney Epcot Center sort of way: very touristy with lots of shops catering for tourists.  After walking around the old town for a while and taking enough pictures, we headed to Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant for one of H's favorite Chinese dishes: Xiaolongbao.  There was a long line on the first floor for take-out, so we headed to the restaurant upstairs. The waiters only came to take the order once and requested payment upfront.  We ordered a few different juicy dumplings.  They were good, but not spectacular.  I thought it was the fact that the restaurant was established in 1900 which made it famous, not necessarily the dumplings.

After the old town, we bought the ticket for the Huangpu River Cruise and headed to the piers. It has became my travel to do list whenever I visit a city that offers river cruises.  I love seeing the city from a different angle at night.

It was a chilly night in early April.  On one side of the Huangpu river at the Bund, there were the European style architectures built in the early 20th century. On the other side, all the modern skyscrapers in Pudong dressed up in dazzling lights with a pitch dark sky as the backdrop.  The view was spectacular and mesmerizing.  There was no denying that it was a clear statement of Shanghai being one of the most important metropolitan cities in the world.

On the way back to the hotel, we walked through a park and saw the most amusing things happening.  The park was like an outdoor multi-functional night club with groups of people gathering in different corners dancing to different music and even singing karaoke.  At one corner they played  70's disco music, even with disco ball lighting!   I wondered if people had to pay a fee to dance and was it the norm in many parks in Shanghai.   It was too funny!


Monday, May 16, 2011

Shanghai: Prelude

View Shanghai Trip in a larger map

This was how we came to the conclusion of visiting Shanghai & Suzhou.

My sister was getting married in Taiwan in early April, and we knew we would take two weeks off to attend her wedding and squeeze in a short side trip. 

Bhutan was our top choice. By last summer, I already contacted the local travel agencies to inquire all the preliminary travel arrangements since no independent travelers can enter Bhutan on their own. However, we had to rule out Bhutan since it was not cost effective to visit Bhutan for such short stay.

Then, H mentioned Vietnam. Once again, we did not have enough time and I was not feeling Vietnam for reasons that I could not explain.  I know H is fascinated with Vietnam and we would visit Vietnam one day soon, just not yet.

My work had kept me busy that I didn't have the luxury to spend hours to research and plan complicated trips. I wanted an easy trip with minimum flight time. The direct flight from Taipei city airport to Shanghai city airport was a mere 1.5 hours. Since I understand the language, I figure that once I book the plane tickets & hotel, I should be able to wing it once I get to Shanghai.

The familiarity would make the trip easier, on the other hand, it also made the trip less exciting for me, which is one of the reasons that I have never had a strong desire to visit China. However, Shanghai seemed to fit our needs for the purpose of this trip.  And I guess it was only a matter of time for us to cross China off our travel map.

Trying to be an equal opportunist when it comes to exploring new countries, excited or not, we booked our trip to Shanghai.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Freeman -- American Cuisine in the Lower East Side

You can not judge a book by it's cover, but can you judge a restaurant by it's facet?

Some restaurants are love at first sight for me without tasting their food: One if by land, Mari Vanna, Lady Mandl's tea salon to name a few.
Freeman was one of them.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a camera with me this time.
The cellphone pictures will have to do.

Fried Vermont Quail with warm cabbage slaw
Anything fried always taste good.  The crispy skin & breading had a lot of flavor.
The crunchy cabbage slaw added an interesting contrast in texture and flavor. 

Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels in Hefeweizen broth with garlic aioli, toast
Sorry, I totally forgot to take the picture until we almost finished the dish.
Steam Mussels was an easy dish and could hardly go wrong, loved the grilled toast.

Pan Roasted Arctic Char with stewed leeks, beet chips & meyer lemon salad
I was curious about arctic char since I did not come across to it often. Turned out, it was very much like salmon, but lighter. 
The dish was executed perfectly. The skin was crispy and the meat was moist.
The stewed leeks, beet chips, and meyer lemon salad was so good that it really made this dish special.

Seared Filet Mignon with sweet & sour onions, mashed potatoes in horseradish cream
Another dish that was executed well. The sweet & sour onions and mash potatoes were excellent!

Sauteed Swiss Chard
Again, we ordered this side dish because Swiss Chard was not something we cooked or came across often in restaurants.

Apple Cobbler with vanilla ice cream, caramel & seasalt
Our waiter's recommendation. I loved warm dessert.  IT felt homey and comforting. 

Okay, maybe I am not completed objective when it comes to judging a restaurant. 
Freeman would probably have to do terribly wrong for me to not liking it.
However, not only did I enjoy the ambiance and the food; the service was also worth noting.

I loved when I went to a restaurant, the servers could give me concrete and thoughtful  inputs when I asked for recommendations, not just gave me the standard PR answer:  "They were all good." 
Our server at Freeman was attentive and knowledgeable that made our dining experience even more pleasurable. 
Freeman is a great restaurant for a romantic dinner.
It can also be perfect for a few friends hanging out at the bar with drinks & appetizers. .