July 28th: Japanese Darts

Several bottles later…

Publicly ackowledging a dislike for cheese generally produces a look of abject horror and disbelief matched only by the sheer bewilderment shown when I disclose I’m also not particularly fond of wine.  It’s as if my taste buds were somehow poorly educated, or that I must simply be mistaken.  With this in mind, I head to a wine tasting event on Friday evening with more than a little trepidation (it’s not oenophobia by the way; although I am slightly scared of wine snobs).

Not a sight seen very often… With Flo tasting red wine.

Organised by Juliane, my attendance was more of an attempt to be sociable rather than an attempt to become a wine convert.  I lasted roughly ten minutes of hearing tales of wines smelling of plasters (or “Band-aids”), excessive tannins and appellation aberrations before coming clean and revealing my wine ignorance.  It didn’t stop me trying out a few different selections though, with Flo (Nicole’s other half) helping to keep the wine flowing.  Despite still not knowing the first thing about wine, a great bunch of people made for an excellent evening.   The considered expert conclusion from two hours of wine drinking: I really don’t like white wine but the red stuff isn’t too bad.  It’d be far better cold though.

At Nova in the Cool Docks with Kelvin, Heather, JB and Kong

It was back to the Cool Docks on Tuesday night (imagined Shanghai committee discussion: “I wonder what we can call this transformed dock area to make it sound really cool?”) for a meal with JB and Heather, Kelvin and Kong from Brainchild at the Nova restaurant.  Great setting, great company, but French cuisine at its fattiest.

After discovering there are other Westerners working up in Yang Pu, on Wednesday lunchtime we met up with Nicole and Flo along with Lea, a British colleague of Nicole’s.  Walking to a restaurant in work attire in 35 degree heat is not a pleasurable experience.  Walking back to the office stuffed full of far too much food even less so.  A thoroughly enjoyable lunch, although the habit of putting the cooked chicken’s head on the serving dish to prove the full chicken has been served really isn’t required.

A subtle way of displaying loyalty at a Man Utd game

Another of those “one to chalk off” experiences on Wednesday evening – seeing local football side Shanghai Shenhua play Manchester United at the Shanghai Stadium.  Manchester United’s team of castouts, newcomers and fading stars scraped a one-nil victory in a pretty appalling game.  Inevitably most of the local support was not for the local team, with countless Rooney and Scholes shirts on display.  A few strange looks for me and Tim, but we’d never get away with wearing t-shirts emblazoned with LFC crests at a Man Utd game anywhere else.  An interesting use of police at the stadium; in the UK the police spend the entire match watching the crowd.  In Shanghai the police sit motionless in uniform rows of plastic chairs entirely focussed on the game.

We met up with Carmen and her husband Danny on Thursday night in Shintori, one of several Japanese restaurants near to where we live.  Fairly pricy but always tasty, its cavernous, industrial interior provides a perfect counterbalance to the intricate detail of its food servings*.

Bron, Carmen and Danny at People’s 7

Next door to Shintori lies People’s 7, a bar requiring its visitors to know a particular code combination to gain entrance.  Nine arm-sized holes into which guests must place their arm in the correct sequence.  That, or just continually sticking your hand in different holes until something happens, which is what Bronwen and Carmen did.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the elaborate method to open the door seemed to imply the interior would be equally imaginative.  Alas, we were greeted with a fairly standard bar with the staff dispensing cocktails perfunctorily.  With the toilet rolls outside the cubicles, Bronwen and Carmen pointed out that the ladies loos offered a different sort of challenge (although I’m told this happens in some other bars too).

So after a night of Japanese food and cocktails we finished Thursday night with Japanese darts, electronic style.  Apparently a big fan of darts, Danny insisted (although I didn’t take much convincing) on visiting the Japanese bar near our house that specialises in huge interconnected electronic dartboards (allowing people to play against opponents in other locations).  I have a natural British aversion to anything other than “proper” darts, but there’s a lot to be said for having the scores automatically calculated for you.  Especially after a few drinks.

Following Friday’s wine tasting experience, the 12 of us still standing hopped into three taxis and headed to another Japanese restaurant, Fount,  for an outdoor meal.  I have little memory of whether the food was palatable, but great to spend time with Juliane and several others we’re getting to know (Helke, Simone, Nicole and Flo).

3am in a Japanese sports bar… Looking tired entirely justified…

And in an effort to hone my darts skills (since it’s obvious I need more practice), following the wine tasting and Japanese food, we’d arranged to meet up with Carmen and Danny back at the darts bar at 11.30pm.  Carmen’s Dad was also here visiting, and will no doubt think again before taking on a Brit at pool (my pool skills being similar to my darts skills – pretty lousy, but the law of averages says I’ll fluke the odd game).  Over three hours later, we let the staff close the bar and went home.

Bed just after 3am.  Five hours sleep.  Back in a cocktail bar on Saturday night at 7pm.  A less frenetic but equally enjoyable evening with Jo and Bron; a good old fashioned roast (although I’m sure they’d call it modern) at Mr Willis and a quick nightcap in Closless (who seem to have lost chairs – I’m sure they could seat 14 the last time we were there – this time only 10) to end the night.

It’s now Sunday.  I need to rest.

*(sorry, not tying to be pretentious, just trying to paint a picture!).

July 22nd: Stars on the Bund

In the middle of an unassuming residential district, several Metro stops away from where we live, we find Bhoomi Stores.  Not quite the golden palace of Indian goods we’d hoped for, but good enough to replace most of Indian spices, snacks and other curry-related goods we’d either left behind or abandoned in the heat.  Well worth the effort to find it; we will definitely head back.

Pudong Skyline against a blue sky backdrop.

Shanghai has had what most people would probably consider to be perfect summer weather this weekend.  Two consecutive days of smogless blue skies is pretty much unheard of, along with stars visible in the night sky (the first time I can remember seeing stars since walking into the fire escape a few weeks’ ago).  We took advantage of the sunny sky to head over to the Bund area in an attempt to capture Shanghai’s famous skyline with a backdrop other than grey.  Bron then had undoubtedly the highlight of her trip to Shanghai so far, experiencing the world famous Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.  Without a doubt Shanghai’s best tourist attraction, visitors pay the tiny fee or £5 each to experience a 2 minute journey observing different coloured bulbs in a tunnel.*

We took a gamble that mid-afternoon on Saturday might have been late enough for the queues to reach the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (all 492 metres of it) to die down.  Sadly not: we decided against queuing for hours in the blazing sun, instead settling for an ice cream and an air conditioned taxi ride home.

As for our evenings, a hectic but thoroughly enjoyable weekend saw Friday night begin at De Refter with JB, Richard, Elousie and Ryan, followed by a few games of pool in a Japanese Sports bar.  I have no idea if most Japanese sports bars are taken up with huge electronic dartboard areas, but this one was.  We decamped to Masse, another sports bar, shortly afterwards to spend a few hours playing pool at ever-decreasing levels of skill.

Bron in the tiny Japanese shot bar

We met up with Isaac and Chong, a couple we’d met on the Wuxi away weekend, for a Japanese meal at Bankura on Saturday night.  A cosy restaurant with excellent food, followed by a drink in what has to be Shanghai’s quietest pub – the Yesterday Pub.  To be told it was normally busy during the working week wasn’t entirely convincing since we were as the only punters there until just before we left.  Bron and I had a sneaky stop-off in Closless, a Japanese shot bar on the way home.  Closless is tiny, consisting of just a bar with 12 or so seats, but the cocktails were perfectly formed.

Can you spot our house?

Ann and Emily came over to see us on Sunday lunchtime, without Ian who had returned to the UK with a stomach apparently still fighting to regain some semblance of normality.  A man made of strong stuff, Ian did well to explore so much of Shanghai and vicinity with the constant anxiety of always needing to be within about 20 feet of a toilet.  We took Ann to lunch in Masse – pool bar by night, civilised brunch/lunch establishment by day.  With the added bonus for us of being able to see our house from its windows.

To round off the weekend, on Sunday evening we met up with Simone (again somebody we met at the Wuxi weekend) for a Mexican meal in Maya, a somewhat posh restaurant hidden away in an apartment complex near our house.  A Mexican restaurant selling Youngs Double Chocolate Stout is always going to be a winner for me.  This idea of stopping eating/drinking out so much has yet to come to fruition.

*Words cannot do this tourist attraction true justice.  It has to be experienced to be believed.  But if you ever come out here to visit us, we’ll get a taxi and meet you at the other end.

July 19th: Midweek Lessons

It’s Thursday night: we’re supposed to be at a yacht club eating canapés and drinking cocktails.  Instead, we’ve finally admitted defeat.  Tired after 4.5 hours of language lessons in two days, and Tuesday’s somewhat disastrous attempt at a new pub quiz, a night in was needed.
Camel BarFollowing the closure of the much-missed (well, a bit missed) Bulldog, Bron and I rounded up John, Richard and Haydn on Tuesday evening to form a new team to enter The Camel’s quiz.  Sadly, even though we knew who Ghandi was, we didn’t know the exact spelling of his tailor’s middle name and so didn’t do so well.  And a team of 5 playing against teams of around 20 were always going to struggle.  I have many other excuses for our dismal performance, available on demand.

In an analogous way to the English language’s use of collective nouns for groups of things usually to be avoided (a scourge of mosquitos, a superfluity of nuns, a file of civil servants, that type of thing), the Chinese language has specific measure words for pretty much any group of people/places/things.  So you can’t simply say “Look at those cats”, “I would like two beers”, etc.  It has to be “Look at those {measure word for animals} cats” and “I would like two {measure word for bottle or glass} beers”.  Not knowing those measure words (and instead replacing them with the all-encompassing “gè”) reveals one to be somewhat ill-educated and pretty much guarantees identification as a foreigner (were it ever in doubt).  Since there are about 140 measure words in total (including one specifically for camels), I don’t think we’re going to get through them all.  Whilst “gè” is perfectly acceptable in some cases, I think we need to learn a few more.

And just as we get comfortable with the letter “x” in Chinese being pronounced a bit like “sh”, we are introduced to phrases such as (in a homesick sort of way): “I often think about eating sausages”.  Which is, of course, spoken in Chinese as: “Wǒ chángcháng xiǎng chī xiāngcháng”.   Oh, and the Great Wall of China is “Chángchéng”.  We’re in trouble if we ever consider eating a processed meat type meal there.

So the picture: it’s a photo of the urinal (well, trough) in The Camel’s toilets.  Complete with TV in the trough.  Not my photo – I think (hope) this was taken just before the bar was opened in 2010.  Since things are not as clean as they once were…

July 14th: Mount Putuo and Chinese Queues

Mount Putuo: Temples

Buddha: Calm Paul, stop worrying about queues.

With no apologies for sweeping generalisations: if the British are a nation who love to queue, then the Chinese are a nation of individuals constantly forced to queue but for whom actually queuing seems entirely optional.  Whilst the queues themselves can be quite specific (one queue per destination*), people will occasionally amble straight up to the counter at the front of the queue, push in front of the person standing there and argue/begin a transaction with the official without fear of confrontation.  Unless, of course, the person at the front of the queue is British.  In which case the Chinese pusher-inner gets intercepted and the Brits are served first.
In the UK there’s always the odd person who will attempt to push in, but in a typically relaxed yet infuriating way, those who jump the queues in China rarely seem to be chastised by those patiently waiting.

Mount Putuo: Temples

A revered place…

No doubt Tuesday’s day of travelling to Mount Putuo (or Putuoshan to give it its pinyin title**) would have been much easier were we able to read Chinese characters rather than just attempting to pattern match them against translated approximations from Google.  Getting to the bus station was the easy bit – finding the correct bus to board took a little more effort.
Our friends visiting from the UK, Ann & Ian (with daughter Emily in tow), had bought the bus and ferry tickets to Mount Putuo for us, but in typical Chinese style (stereotyping again) they wasn’t allowed to buy return tickets at the same time.  Yet more queuing…

So after a 7 hour (door-to-door) journey, we finally arrived on the island of Mount Putuo, situated to the southeast of Shanghai, for our three day/two night mini-holiday.  A revered location in Chinese Buddhism, the island of just over 12 square kilometres in size is one of the few remaining locations in the myriad of Zhoushan Islands yet to be connected by a bridge.  Well worth the trip; the island offers beaches, mountains, several Buddhist Temples and glorious scenery.
And whilst the “car-free” description is accurate enough, the island instead has many minibuses*** to transport its visitors between tourist spots.  Still, great to spend a few days away from the traffic jams and incessant horn blaring of Shanghai.

Mount Putuo: Beach

Bron dancing on the beach

It was also a great experience for us to spend some time in a location clearly not that familiar with Western tourists: other than ourselves, I think we saw perhaps half a dozen non-Chinese people in our entire time there.  Pinyin was available to aid transport on the minibuses, but with little English spoken on the island, what little Mandarin we do know came in very handy.

A beautiful location and fantastic hotel (despite some of the guests****) – a destination to return to in future when less hot.


Ann, Ian, Emily and Bronwen pretending its a nice cool day…

On Monday we’d travelled to Tongli for the day via private taxi with Ann, Ian and Emily.  One of several canal towns within a couple of hours drive from Shanghai, Tongli is now a location largely aimed at tourists (commanding, as it does, a fee to enter the town).  Nicknamed “Venice of the East”, Tongli has canals interspersed with tranquil gardens, tree-lined streets and, erm, the China Sex Museum (which we didn’t visit being accompanied, as we were, by a 2 ½ year old).

All-in-all a fantastic few days off work despite the heat (38 degrees at one point during the week), and great to spend some time with the Moulds family.

Internations Night at Sofitel

John, Bron and Kimyn at the Sofitel

Another Internations event on Thursday night to mark our return to Shanghai, this time at the Sofitel on Nanjing Lu.  With a bit more of a business feel than previous events we’d attended, we escaped from the main meeting room to spend most of the evening outside on the terrace chatting to an American lady called Kimyn, who was sadly only passing through and not a resident.

Last night I had a rare Friday night in whilst Bron joined her marketing colleagues for a night of Karaoke (or “KTV” as its known in China), Guinness and dancing.  A curry beckons this evening, and hopefully a restful Sunday as work gets more and more hectic…

* If Mandarin characters are indecipherable, you have to randomly join one queue, speak to the official at the end of the queue before being directed to a completely different queue and start again.

** “Pinyin” is the term used to describe the translation of Chinese characters into Latin script for those of us only used to Latin letters.

*** I really must learn the Chinese for “Sorry, this seat is taken” as somebody attempts to sit on the rucksack positioned on the seat next to me in an attempt to reserve it for Bronwen (who was otherwise engaged commandeering miscellaneous breakfast materials from the hotel restaurant).

****A note for the loud, angry American guy in the hotel – it’s not the hotel staff’s fault you’re diabetic.  Screaming at them to hurry up serving your cake, and then berating your companion else you might fall into a coma is not an excuse for your lack of ability to self-medicate (ignoring, as you did, the option to buy a bottle of readily available Coca Cola or similar sugar-rich drink).  Our minor emergency (absence of Prosecco) was dealt with much more easily by negotiating a bottle of Champagne down to the equivalent Prosecco price.

July 8th: Sweating Your Assets

Company away day at Taihu Lake

The Brits had little idea of what was going on…

Warning kids: kneeling on concrete is a bad idea.  Kneeling with one knee on concrete and a person standing on your other knee is an even worse idea.   Kneeling on concrete with somebody upon the shoulders of the person standing on your other knee is just plain daft (and hurts).  An interesting way to demonstrate our group’s ingenuity (thanks Ryan!) at the company away day at an activity centre  near Wuxi.

Company away day at Taihu Lake

Bron fully immersed in the activity…

Imagine about 100 people, clad in red t-shirts – emblazoned with the Argos logo – and blue baseball caps, walking through one of the busiest thoroughfares in Shanghai (connecting, as it does, 3 metro lines and several roads) right at the start of peak hour.  As marketing exercises go, no doubt more people in Shanghai are now aware of “Argos.cn” than previously.  A few perplexed looks from those milling around the Southern entrance to People’s Square  as the red and blue attired gang made their way onto a few buses, but no doubt there are stranger sights in Shanghai.
Not ostensibly a marketing exercise, the outfits were designed to bring harmony and social cohesion* to the staff for the day out.  By the end of the day, several group activities in the heat** of the blazing sun had turned most of the team into a sweaty mass of tired, aching bodies; the outfits markedly less marketable.  Despite the heat, a good day out with everyone determined to get as much out the experience as possible before melting.

Sunny Beach, South Bund

The girls on the lounging bed at Sunny Beach, post curry delivery.

As unique experiences go, I’m going to assume getting a curry delivered to a large bed on an artificial beach in Shanghai has to be up there with the best of them (great idea Rachel!).   Despite the sign stating “No outside food or drink allowed”, nobody seemed in the least bit concerned when the delivery man arrived with several tandoori dishes and a bagful of cutlery.

Sunny Beach

A big bed on an artificial beach – perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon

The artificial beach on the banks of the Huangpu River, South of the Bund, was only opened a couple of years ago, and seemed strangely quiet for a Sunday afternoon.  A tiny bit of rain early on was perhaps sufficient to deter most tentative visitors, but the slight cover above the huge beach bed did the job for us.   A fantastic way to while away Sunday afternoon…

Sailors Fish and Chips

Aussie, not British, but great fish and chips nevertheless.

A taste of home on Thursday night in the Aussie owned “Sailors Fish and Chip Bar” (well, kind of a taste of home – battered cod on the menu, ignoring the Aussie owners).  Classic Shanghai organisation resulted in the family Bradford eating their meal whilst sat in the road, but the food more than made up for the bizarre seating arrangements.

The Spot

Elouise and Bron entertain the jellyfish

With nearly 30,000 restaurants in Shanghai you’d think it nigh on impossible to randomly bump into people we know (not that many).  Text malfunction (mine or maybe Elouise’s) had meant we spent Saturday night with JB at the Bali Laguna without Elousie and Ryan, only to bump into them at the end of our meal.  This naturally progressed into a night at a bar sat in front of jellyfish.

A few days of travelling next week beckons with the arrival of Anne and Ian in Shanghai.  Good to get the basics out of the way first – a night in the Big Bamboo watching the British Grand Prix.  Now we can hopefully explore a bit more of China outside of Shanghai…

*Not one of my terms.

**I am, no doubt, not the first person to ever say this, but once it gets beyond 35 degrees, it doesn’t really matter what the actual temperature is.  It’s just stupidly hot.

July 1st: Orange Bikes in Wuxi

“Wuxi, Future City of Technology” declared the elaborate multi-media presentation provided by Wuxi’s local government, as the soundtrack to Jurassic Park played out in the background.  It’s difficult to take redevelopment of wetlands and new transport links seriously as I visualise dinosaurs marauding across the newly built parks.

View of Lake Taihu, Wuxi from our hotel window

Dodgy soundtracks aside, we’ve had an excellent weekend away in Wuxi – literally “Without Tin” – experiencing both the old (exploring a former silk-trading enclave) and the new (a huge 5-star hotel opened on May 1st).  Around 90 miles to the West of Shanghai, set between Lake Taihu and the Yangtze River, Wuxi is a city undergoing a huge redevelopment with the ambition of remaining culturally and environmentally sensitive.  The silk-trading enclave on the edge of the lake is being developed into a “retreat” complex, keeping as much of the original 19th century housing as possible.

This all part of a trip away with several other ex-pats from Shanghai, staying in a posh hotel around the lake.  Several Germans, Austrians, Belgians, Americans (including our local friend Rachel), Canadians and Irishmen but strangely no other Brits.

Bron, Rachel and Me outside City Hall in Wuxi

34 degrees isn’t my ideal temperature to consider a bike ride, but that’s what we ended up doing on Saturday afternoon, cycling past some of the wetlands around Lake Taihu.  A gang of 25 or so Westerners on bright orange bicycles must have been a strange sight for the locals.  And a particular apology to the brides and bridegrooms (since there were several*) having their photo taken against the backdrop of the lake; although having a load of foreigners cycle through a wedding scene can surely only enhance one’s wedding photos.

A night out in Wuxi’s drinking district on Saturday night made us realise just how expensive Shanghai can be.  Beer and cocktails at nigh-on half what we’d pay in Shanghai made the dodgy bands in nearly every bar just about bearable (but what is the fascination for Glen Medeiros’ “Nothing’s Going To Change My Love For You”?).

During the working week (for that is ostensibly why we’re here), we went out on Tuesday night for Mexican food and Margaritas (Strawberry flavoured) with the Brainchild gang and a few beers with Jacco from WebPower on Wednesday night.

Bron, Sarah, Kristy and Jude at Nova in the Cool Docks, South Bund

Friday saw the sad departure of Sarah to the USA, but a great meal sat outside in the “Cool Docks” south of the Bund was a fitting way to see her off.  Sarah was one of the earliest members of the team out here and will be sorely missed.  Although I nearly missed the entire evening after walking head-first into a fire escape (I blame Bronwen – I was following her and she walked under it).  Bloomin’ painful.

Speaking of pain – the incident with the non-mosquito bites continues to irritate.  Mosquitoes leave little marks that itch like hell.  According to the Doctor (there’s a certain point at which the continued spread of infected skin causes one to give up with the application of Tiger Balm and seek medical assistance) the infection on my foot and hand was not caused by a scourge (thanks, Wikipedia) of vicious mosquitoes but instead by spider bites.  I didn’t realise normal spiders (as in, not Australian ones) bit.  Antihistamine and antibiotics now in effect.

And we have been told that we’ve now reached the end of the plum rain season (raindrops the size of plums).  Which sounded like good news until we were told it marks the beginning of the 80 day hot temperature season.  40 degrees, here we come.

*Several sets of brides and grooms, not several grooms.  Which would have been weird.