Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. One of the Most Brutal Vacations of my Life

I'm not much for organized travel. Rather, the ideal trip for me involves flying into developing country X (preferably sans return airfare), with a guidebook, a backpack, and a sense of "well, we don't really have any reason to be here, so let's make the best of it and see how things go". I've had a lot of incredible trips fitting this mold, and hope to continue taking trips like this for many years.

Like Shooting Fish in a....Pond?
This past weekend we had a "company sponsored holiday", which involved a 4-day trip to Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Now for those who have actually traveled in their lifetimes, you'll notice that this is a 3-city trip in 4 days. That is to say, there is a 0% chance that we were actually going to "see" any of these cities, it was just going to be "get on the bus, get off the bus" for 4 days. I sort of expected this, as it's a very Chinese style of travel, and tried to mentally prep myself for the rather ho-hum nature of this type of trip. But my god could I have never prepared myself for what went down that weekend in the Yangtze River Delta.

We left the office at about 5:30am on Thursday. After flying from Shenzhen to Hangzhou, we were immediately hurled into a bus with a tour guide. A really. obnoxious. tour guide. He had a microphone with like a hip-speaker thing, and was yelling into it the entire trip. In very obnoxious Chinese. So that was pretty awesome. Our first stop on the trip was a pretty decent restaurant in Hangzhou, as we arrived about lunchtime. It was immediately obvious that I was going to be something of a "guest of honor" during this trip--I always sat at the head table, immediately next to the sister of the 2 brothers that own this company (the brothers were not on the holiday, and their sister is what I would refer to as the "Company Mom", just a really nice 40ish year old Chinese woman who speaks about as much English as I do Arabic....so she's pitch-perfect). Anyway, so we had a decent lunch. After lunch we went to the pretty amazing West Lake of Hangzhou, and took a very crowded touristy boat around the West Lake. Still decent. We walked around that area for most of the afternoon, before going to a sort of shopping street, then this bizarre Song Dynasty-themed Chinese amusement park/folk village/mental institution/song and dance theater. Yeah, it was all of the above. Weird first day overall, but nothing compared to the devastation of Day 2.
Temple somewhere near Hangzhou

Day 2. A brutal day for sure. We got on the bus in Hangzhou, and our first stop was a "silk museum". By silk museum, I mean a place where they tell you how silk is made, then spend an hour trying to convince you to buy some silk. And of course I'm in the market for silk scarves, bedsheets, and lingerie, if not this may have been a pointless excursion. That said, there was some entertainment when, on their map of the old Silk Road, they had labeled Kuala Lumpur as a city in Northern Sri Lanka (I assume they meant to say Colombo...) Anyway, so after this whole silk business, we went to an equally asinine place that was a "Chrysanthemum Tea Museum". Same thing, "here's our tea, here's how it's made, now buy some". Should also be noted that this was all in Chinese. And of course I"m in the market for chrysanthemum related products, otherwise this may have been a pointless excursion. From here, we went to a place selling various trinkets. And of course I'm in the market for that too, otherwise...well you get the point. Anyway, all these places were ~1 hour apart by bus (ferally hot bus as well), so by the time we'd been harassed to the point of wanting to stab the tour guide, the day was done and we were just arriving in Suzhou.

A brief aside--I asked Lisa why the hell we had wasted 1 of our 4 days doing an unbelievable amount of shopping/completely idiotic activities. She informed me that this is how the tour guide makes money--he gets commission from the shops if we buy things. Frankly, I would be just as happy giving the guy like $10 (or even less, we could realistically each give him like $5, and the $200 he makes would be about 2 weeks' wage in China), and just have that extra day to not be assaulted by merchants peddling their crap. But apparently this is not how China works. Also quite interesting, none of my Chinese coworkers seemed fazed or aggravated about this absurd series of shopping misadventures.

The lads, Jacky (#3 guy in the company) and Michael (Old friend of the owner's, company chef)
Day 3 was interesting, we went to a very beautiful old village called Zhouzhuang, which was definitely one of the coolest places I've ever seen. Appropriately named the "Venice of the East", it is world famous for its canal system, and I was pretty surprised and intrigued to find that many people were still living here despite it being a tourist-infested village.

Zhouzhuang, the Venice of the East
Another brief aside--days 3 and 4 of this trip (Saturday and Sunday) were absolutely mental from the standpoint of the INSANE NUMBER OF TOURISTS AT THESE SITES. And they were all Chinese. I had no idea that domestic tourism in China was such an enormous industry, but I can assure you that having 10 tour guides with 10 hip-speakers screaming at their tour groups inside a relatively cramped temple is not the greatest way to enjoy the historical relevance and general awesomeness of these places. But anyway, such is life when the country you're living in has 1.3+ billion people.

So after our tours around Suzhou, we finally arrived in the center of the center, the economic heart of the People's Republic of China, one of my favorite cities in this world (as of now, currently #3 on my list behind Hong Kong and Seoul), Shanghai. Upon arrival, I left the tour group to go meet up with my old friend Douglon, who I had lived with for about a month in Hong Kong upon my return to Asia in October-November 2011. He's currently living in Shanghai and managing his Dad's building, the House of Roosevelt. I met up with him at the House, which was a surreal experience. Put bluntly, it is one of the nicest buildings on the nicest and most famous street in China's most cosmopolitan and expensive city. The building has a restaurant on the 8th floor, where we went for dinner.

At this point 2 things should be noted--

1) I had already eaten dinner at this point.
2) Douglon is a world renowned eater, and more importantly, a world renowned host. So I knew what I was getting into to some extent, but was sure to tell Douglon upon my arrival

"Now Douglon, I've already had dinner. So can we just do some appetizers or something else light?"
"Of course, no problem at all"

As it was Douglon, I should have known better. The next thing I knew, a waiter asked me how I would like my steak cooked. Sweet jesus. Before dinner, I ended up getting a text from Martin, the old friend that I'd met up with in Hong Kong a couple of weeks prior. He was in Shanghai, and came to meet us at the House of Roosevelt (he's also a good friend of Douglon's, so it was a nice reunion). We were also joined by another friend of Douglon's, a Peruvian girl who had grown up in Sweden. The four of us enjoyed a magnificent meal atop one of the nicest buildings in the city, with a beautiful view of Pudong/Lujiazui and The Bund. Or at least, the 3 of them enjoyed the meal, as well as the sight of me trying to force down more food after having already eaten dinner.

Wuxinting Tea House, Shanghai
Overall a fantastic evening. The following day, I went with some coworkers to a really interesting temple near the Wuxinting Tea House and Yuyuan Gardens. I'd been to the exact place almost exactly a year before, which was kind of cool. Following this, I ended up meeting up with another couple of old friends of mine, Madlien and Martin, who are currently living/working in Shanghai. We went to the French Concession, a beautiful, leafy, up-scale area of Shanghai, and had a few afternoon drinks. I then received a call from Douglon inviting us for an afternoon lunch/few drinks at the House of Roosevelt. It should be noted that they have the largest wine cellar in China there, and that Douglon, being a ridiculously good host, would not take a cent for the food or wine. Consequently, we had a fair bit of food and wine. The food was infinitely better than the night before, as this time I was not already horrendously full, and we had a couple of bottles of white wine/champagne. I was to meet with my coworkers at Pudong International Airport around 4pm. The House is around 1hr from the airport by taxi, and consequently when 3:45pm rolled around, we decided I'd best hightail it to Pudong. And so I did, but not before falling asleep in the back of the cab (too many glasses of champagne it would seem), only to be woken by a call from Jacky asking where I was (though to be fair, they didn't care that I was a bit late, as the weather was crap and our flight ended up being delayed a bit anyway).

So that was the trip to Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. As I noted in the beginning of this blog post, I tend to prefer trips that are completely unplanned. After returning from this atrociously constricting trip, I decided it was time to book something stupid, so yesterday I booked 1-way airfare from Hong Kong to Dhaka for the day after my birthday, as we have 1 week's holiday for Chinese National Day that week (I was really, really, really hoping to do Tibet, but unfortunately the Chinese government has closed Tibet to foreigners for the foreseeable future....welcome to China!). For those who don't know where Dhaka is, you clearly haven't been reading my blog often enough, as I wrote a fairly decent piece on Bangladesh last year. Anyway, so will be heading there for some amount of time in late September. Interestingly, that's the tail end of the rainy season, so should involve some flooding and perhaps malaria. And I cannot freaking wait.

That's about all from here, interesting and manic trip to the Yangtze River Delta, and making plans for an even more interesting trip to Bangladesh. Some photos from the trip below (apologies that they're a little grainy, my camera broke the other day...5 years old so that'll happen, so I used my iPad camera on the trip, which is not bad, but not sensational. Also, if my grandfather is reading this, a huge thanks for the iPad a few months back, it's been remarkably useful so far, and had I not had it during these last few days, I would have had no pictures of the amazing places I just went to. Also happy belated birthday to my grandfather, and belated father's day to both he and my Dad)

Weird Song Dynasty Themed Theme Park
Near Hangzhou

Love the Chinglish


video
Yeah it was this crowded in the temple...


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Crazy, Crazy 2 Months

Oh boy. It's been one of those 2 month periods when I blogged absolutely nothing. Generally times like these indicate either having an enormous amount of work, or alternatively living a lifestyle characterized by intense highs and lows. In the first instance, I simply don't have time to write. In the second instance, I don't really feel like writing during the peaks, as I feel like I'll come off like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic,  and don't feel like writing during the troughs for fear of coming off like Leonardo DiCaprio in the prison scene of Catch Me If You Can (couldn't find the clip...unlucky!)

This particular 2 month stretch had a little bit of both, incidentally. So my last blog post came from my Qingming Festival trip to Kuala Lumpur. Since then, I've gone to the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, Las Vegas, nearly took a job in Hong Kong, nearly left my job about 4 separate times, and ended up staying at my job due to a ridiculous set of circumstances.

So the Canton Fair. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. Basically, imagine literally every single manufactured item you've ever bought from China. Anything you own that says "Made in China" on it. Think about the incredible variety of these items. And think that (more or less) every single one of those manufacturers was at this trade show. Around 50,000 booths. Selling EVERYTHING. Everything from hairdryers to lightbulbs to action figures to pottery to busses, construction equipment, and everything in between. They even had Tuk-Tuks! I'm pretty sure I even saw some kids for sale. That was a lie, and probably not very funny. But oh well. Also noteworthy about the Canton Fair was the McDonald's in the Guangzhou Convention Center. How noteworthy can a McD's be, you ask?

Well picture this--24 counters. And no menus, per se. Just meals A, B, C, and D. Big Mac, Fried Chicken Sandwich, Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Fillet of Fish, with fries. And no drink orders. Just pre-poured, relatively warm, melty-ice Coke. And imagine it being about the size of a 16-car garage. With lines going out the door all the time. We had about 15 people in front of us in line when we walked in. And within about 4 minutes, we were served. Also of note, the meal was 45RMB, or about $7. This might not sound THAT crazy, until you realize that ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF CHINA, a meal at McDonald's costs 15RMB, or about $2.50. Price gouging for the win. I would have taken pictures, but when I took out my phone to do so, an employee more or less tackled me saying "NO PICTURES ALLOWED!!!" Is that all? You'd think it would make for good free publicity....

The Canton Fair also amazed me with its diversity. We had people from, among many others, the following countries come to our booth requesting information for product importing: Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa, Kenya, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mauritius, Kosovo, and one very outgoing and awkward man from the "Armenia-China Friendship Council". It made the United Nations look like the Tokyo Metro at rush hour. After 8 days in Guangzhou that included my first ever experience with real Chinese Hot Pot (pictured below), we returned to Shenzhen. After a few weeks of working in Shenzhen, it was time to head to Vegas for the National Hardware Show.

So Vegas. We went to Vegas during late April/early May for a trade show. Fortunately, one of my best friends from childhood/high school/college, Dan Gannon, lives in Vegas (this to the surprise of my colleagues, as up to this point I've had a friend in literally every single city we've travelled to for work with the exception of Guangzhou). Anyway, so we went to Vegas for a trade show. In short, it involved a ton of working, and hanging out with Dan a fair bit. I got to meet Dan's best friend in Vegas, former World Poker Tour Champion Joe Bartholdi, who I can honestly say is one of the most genuinely hilarious and genial people I've ever met. Definitely the kind of person you'd like to hang around as much as possible, just a really nice kid (I say kid despite his being 32...shocking). He also happened to write a hilarious song called "Fat Chicks" that he performed in a bar. If I ever get a dying wish, it will be for him to upload it to YouTube. One of the funniest things I've ever heard. Vegas involved a fair bit of gambling (on the trip I was up about $150US, which was excellent), and a fair amount of shopping. Funny side note--one of my bosses wanted me to come with him to the Louis Vuitton Store in Las Vegas. I'd never actually been into a LV store.

"Are you going to get your wife a gift from here?", I asked, with some surprise. It should be noted that this guy definitely makes pretty damned good money by China standards, but as most LV handbags/products don't go for less than like $1,000, it still seemed excessive.

"No, I need to get the gift for a friend of my wife's sister."
"Well that's interesting. Your wife's sister's friend must be very rich"
"No, they're not. They are having me buy it for a local government official as a bribe to get their child into the best school in their province"

Welcome. To. China. In the 21st century. Bribes no longer are limited to just cash. Louis Vuitton merchandise is now considered perfectly legal tender for the perfectly illegal act of bribing Chinese officials.

The per capita GDP in China is around $5,400US. The bag cost $1,300.

Wow.

I returned from Vegas about a month ago today, and what a month that's been. I had an interview for a pretty interesting job opportunity in Hong Kong, and nearly left my job here to pursue other opportunities until my boss made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Around 20 May, time had come for my "6 month salary reevaluation", or some such thing. I went into my bosses office and reminded him of this, and he bode me to take a seat. Overall, it was a pretty excellent conversation--we spoke first about the fact that adjusting to life in Mainland China had been a bit more difficult than I'd expected, how there had been several times that I'd nearly left work here to return to the US, and the like. At one point I asked if I could start to go home at Christmas.

"Of course, I'm happy to pay for you to fly back to Chicago at Christmas for about a week or so."

Well that makes things a bit easier.

We then got to the point where we were going to talk about my future here. Regarding salary--he made a solid raise offer. I asked for an asinine amount more than that. Basically, I asked for what I'd be making in the US. Only I'm working in a country where, as I mentioned a moment ago, the per capita GDP is $5,400. Not $47,000, as in the US.

He was a bit taken aback by this request, and asked if he could think about it for a few days and get back to me. I said that was just fine. We continued to chat for another 5 minutes or so, at which point he asked me

"Well, if I give you this amount of money, what are your future plans? What do you want to do?"

"I suppose I'd stay here and work for you guys in China for a couple more years, then go work for you guys in the US for a couple years, then around age 28-29 go get a masters then a PhD then go into academia"

Something about that answer must have really pleased this very heroic and very wealthy Chinese man, because his next sentence was

"Well, I've thought about your raise request. And really, the money means nothing to me. And since you've started working here, I don't know why, but I've always liked you. Even when you've acted unorthodox, I've always thought it was interesting. I've always thought that you've been a very good addition to the office. So I'm OK with it."

Win.

The next day he decided to give me some more work responsibilities. I am now completely in charge of our company's expansion into the Australian market. I am going to be heading to Australia about twice per year (this coming year looks to be October and February), and will be setting up our entire operation there. This, in addition to the 3 times per year to the US and once to Germany means I'll be racking up a sadistic amount of frequent flier miles (probably around 100,000 per year), and will be able to take occasional much-needed breaks for living in the PRC. Overall, could not have gone better.

So that's about where I'm at now. A long post, surely, but it's been an eventful 2 months. A week from tomorrow, we leave for a 5-day company holiday to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, a trip where I'll get the chance to see a couple of friends in Shanghai, which will be nice.

Also random recent note--was able to spend this past Saturday night in Hong Kong with none other than Martin "Luther" Zech, an old friend from HKU who just finished a dual masters degree program with Sciences Po (Paris) and Fudan University (Shanghai), and Ben Don, another friend from HK/my trip last summer to Thailand/Cambodia. Martin brought 2 of his cousins to HK, and we showed them a night on the town, involving Wan Chai, trying to break into the Wan Chai Haunted House, and 3am dim sum (photo at right of Sir Ben Hibbert's favorite dish, whatever it is). Overall, an excellent trip town memory lane with a couple of old friends.

On the travel horizon, apart from next week's company trip, I'm hoping to sneak away to either Tibet or Bangladesh sometime in the next 3 months or so, before heading to Cologne, Germany, in September, then Sydney/Melbourne in October. Should be good.

Below are some more random photos from the last couple of months, including a gentle reminder from the phenomenal translators at the Canton Fair, a horribly iPhoto-edited shot of Shun Hing Square at night, and some other shots of Shenzhen. Cheers if you've read this stupidly long update, will try to be more consistent!

You'd better enjoy it in 2 hours.

Shun Hing Square. Must say, the building is starting to grow on me.

Shenzhen Metro. Don't even think about bringing on balloons. Don't even think about it.
Shenzhen City Hall after a rain. My office is the middle skyscraper on the left

Really interesting actually, there was a book in the Shenzhen Central Book Mall titled something to the effect of "The History of the World In 100 Objects", the book had been put together by the British Museum (without question the greatest museum in the world, and with a whopping $0 entry fee, also certainly at least tied for least expensive!) using 100 objects in their archives to show the history of the world. #100 was a solar-powered lap and charger manufactured in noplace other than....Shenzhen! 



Area around Masjid Jemak RapidKL Station, Kuala Lumpur, from 2 months ago. I enjoyed it.