Sunday, October 10, 2010

China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Seven

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Seven
Our last full day in China, so we decided to stay with the group only until the Maglev train ride. Shanghai’s silk carpet factory was our first stop. They were just too picture-perfect and beautiful – and expensive (in the tens of thousands for a small hanging) – to consider walking on. Again, only a few artisans were on display weaving in the factory, and our factory guide attributed this to the cottage industry of China. Most of her artisans had looms at home, she said. Some of the high quality carpets could take months, even years, to complete. The more knots per square inch, the more expensive, and the more exquisite and detailed. Many of our fellow travelers made big ticket purchases.

Where does most of the artisans' work actually occur? Only a few craftsmen were at work at any of the government-owned factory stores to which we were shuttled. We were told that most work is a “cottage industry” occurring within the person’s home. I wonder? True or third-world factory conditions somewhere out of the view of Westerners intolerant of such things?

Our favorite part of the carpet factory, though, was the accountant labeled “budget computing”… using an ancient abacus as his computer… while listening to his MP3 player.

We thought we were in for a special treat at a Mongolian BBQ for lunch. We enjoy these in the U.S. At first glance, the set-up was very similar: with bowl in hand, go down a buffet line and choose your ingredients, then deliver o a short order cook who grills on a common circular cook top. A few differences. The choices included goat meat, and the grill cooks threw the food around so much that our all meals tended to look alike.

As part of my job at the Hampton Roads Partnership, I monitor transportation efforts and simply had to ride on the world’s only commercial Maglev train ( These trains are powered by electromagnetism and suspended in air above the track on a magnetic cushion.

It did not disappoint as we ran from Shanghai’s Longyang Road station to Pudong International Airport as part of the metro system. Reaching a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (just under 277 miles per hour), it is much faster than the bullet trains in Japan I enjoyed during my visit there. The entire round trip only took about 15 minutes. The rushing whoomp felt on the return trip when passing the other train was exhilarating. If you blinked, you missed seeing it altogether.

We were fortunate to meet Jerry Roper, President and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and his wife on the train. Chicago is a Shanghai Sister City, and the Chamber along with Chicago Mayor Daley had been visiting at the same time we were in China.

After the Maglev trip, we bailed on our travel mates and skipped the last shopping experience of our trip, the Yu Garden Bazaar or Shanghai’s “China Town” and the circus later that night. Before catching our first non-rickshaw Chinese cab, we stopped at the train station’s McDonalds for a taste of home. That Micky D’s cheeseburger tasted just like the good ole’ U.S. of A, but the French fries had a very distinctive Chinese food oily taste. Looking around the fast food restaurant, we could have easily been at home based on the patrons, many speaking English and all dressed on modern Western garb. The décor, including the bathroom and the Café McD, were exactly like home!

We had obtained a business card at the hotel with both English and Chinese information and also asked Capt. Jack to write down where we wanted to go in Chinese. Despite a false start with a cabbie who couldn’t understand his Chinese character, we asked a guard at the taxi stop. He understood our destination: the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower ( which we had seen from The Bund the night before.

The OPT, as the English-speaking Chinese referred to it, was once the tallest structure in China (1,535 feet high). Although it is still the tallest TV tower in China and third tallest TV tower in the world, at least as of the date we visited. Bert, TV guy, needed to get up in that tower as high as he could, so we took the cramped – Chinese know no personal space limitations – elevator up.

The 360-degree view was extraordinary. We could see forever, or as far as the smog would allow, on both sides of the Huang Pu River. It was almost as if one had “photoshopped” the Manhattan skyline over and over and over. We walked around the glass-enclosed observation deck noting the city we faced stenciled in English and Chinese on the window.

We’d heard there was a glass floored observation deck somewhere, so we stood in line for the elevator only to find we needed to pay more Yuan to go up. These were some of the best pictures of the trip; we even captured the shadow of the OPT and another group of teenagers who certainly looked no different than Bert’s daughter Jillian and her pals.

As we were the only Western faces in the crowd, we’d become the tourist attraction in the OPT. Chinese tourists cozied up to us, and their guide explained they’d like to have their pictures taken with us. We felt like rockstars!

After the OPT, we hailed a cab and handed him our hotel card. After a bit of shoulder shrugging, he finally called the hotel, we’re assuming to get directions. After what seemed like an eternal cab ride (and cheap!) which took us through an amazing tunnel system under the Huang Pu River, we arrived back in older Shanghai. The cab gave us a much closer perspective of Chinese life – and driving – than did the back of the bus. We saw a woman using a foot-pump sewing machine under an umbrella on the street, a city wall whose top was embedded with glass shards, and the hustle, bustle of everyday people living everyday lives.

The best part of the harrowing cab trip happened while we were stopped in traffic. I glimpsed a small Chinese boy looking at me from the back of his cab. He shrank down into the seat when he saw that I had seen him, timidly cradling himself under his mother’s arm. Then, as he peeked back at me, I waved to him. He waved back with the biggest little boy smile. Some things transcend cultures.

Slideshow on Flickr

Read the series...

No comments: