On the 14th of September at the M on the Bund in Shanghai, prolific Chinese author and photojournalist Hong Mei, accompanied with her husband, photojournalist Tom Carter, gave an exciting talk about her debut travelogue, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me (title translated from Chinese), to an audience of around 100 people. The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session.
Hong Mei became the first Chinese woman to backpack across the entire Indian subcontinent. Along with Tom, the couple deliberately selected off-the-beaten path regions and survived on a limited budget as they travelled for over a year across the length and breadth of India - a country that still comes across as a mysterious land for many Chinese people.
As a British man of Indian heritage who has never lived or worked in India, I found the talk to be very insightful and highly inspiring. I have not been to India since 1999, and I suppose because I've had a very English upbringing, so, sadly, I would be somewhat of a misfit in Indian society/culture if I ever go. Of course, it goes without saying that India is a beautiful country with a rich and vibrant history.
Having listened to the India that Hong Mei and Tom described, as well as seeing the photos they shared, it didn't seem much different from what I had experienced in 1999 (!). Things, such as for example, the lack of proper infrastructure and the lack of hygiene in public places in India, makes China look like a developed country. This type of external observation is exactly what the Indian government needs, because if they don't know what and how foreign guests feel about their country, then how can they make improvements?
I thought it was courageous and brave of the remarkable Hong Mei to have travelled to some of the remotest parts of India by herself—I'm sure that even some native Indians would not be tempted to do that!
A young European lady in the audience asked Hong Mei how she was received by the Indians, not only as a Chinese but also as a foreign woman. Her response did surprise a few in the audience. "Despite what we have seen and heard about India recently in the news, I actually felt very welcomed and relatively safe." said Hong Mei.
She went on: "At first contact and glance, most Indians thought that I was a Japanese or Korean, but when I told them that I was a Chinese, they were very friendly and welcoming. India is a country with stunning scenes." She revealed that in some parts of India, local people had never met a Chinese person before, so the people in those parts were very nice and welcoming.
The talk did touch on a key point: even though China’s new middle class are travelling abroad more than ever before, yet it is still uncommon for Chinese people to travel independently – either as backpackers or on a luxury tour. Chinese people usually travel in groups and try to see as many countries as possible and in as little time as possible. For someone to backpack around one country on their own for a long time is seldom heard of; though, it is not to say that this trend may pick up in the future.
Hong Mei's book, written in Chinese, is available here.
My latest feature article for the Shanghai Daily is a travel report on how to spend 72 hours in London.
Having travelled extensively across ALL of China's 33 provinces...successfully succeeding in circumnavigating over 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so, Tom Carter, a superlative photojournalist and an old China hand, is just the man to have beside you when you need a story to be covered.
Carter, originally from San Francisco, has remarkably not only captured the whole of China through his lens, but has travelled extensively throughout India for a year too - a country that is still very much a hardship environment for foreigners (almost medieval in places). Try surviving in India for a day without making frequent visits to the toilet - that's if you can find one (nearly 50% - I say again - nearly 50% of the country's population has NO access to a toilet). Hats off to Tom for doing what he did for over a year because India is hard work. I couldn't survive the 3 weeks that I was there for in 1998, the last time I visited the country, despite staying at one of the BEST hotels in New Delhi at that time.
We chatted about many things for a couple hours with topics ranging from big media exasperations to publishing to travel war stories. Tom's wife, who is also a photojournalist, is a native from Jiangsu Province. She has recently published a diary about her travels around the whole of India (i.e. every major State in the country) - a first for a Chinese woman.
In the meantime, you can check out Tom's book, CHINA: Portrait of a People by clicking the picture below!
...shopping in Sainsbury's supermarket in Croydon...and he's emptied the shelves of ALL the cereal bars, crunchy nut corn flakes, and PG Tips teabags (oh, and Nutella jars as well...which costs at least RMB75/GBP£8 a jar in China...in the UK it costs around £2.30 a jar (about RMB20))! Shopping for groceries never felt so good (!)
Yes, in Hong Kong, Suzhou, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities with an expat population we can get such goods, but they are mostly imported (i.e. they've most probably have been on a container ship for at least 3 months), and cost at least 3 or 4 times the price we pay in the U.K. (Tesco in China is nothing like the Tesco in the U.K. - it's localized to the Chinese consumer).
When you are living for 90% of the year in a country where not many local retailers understand why foreigners drink black tea with milk at 4pm with cakes and biscuits (I can't live without it!), and why we eat cereal with milk every morning, your homesick body craves for such stuff when living 6,000 miles away (my Chinese/Australian/American and other expat friends who live in the U.K. do the same when they go back home for THEIR holidays to their countries).
Flying from China and onto the Arabian Sea (we came over from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Kunming, Nepal, Karachi, and into the Arabian Sea), the Airbus A330 comes close to the end of it's journey into it's final destination Abu Dhabi. Sunrises are always spectacular. Oblivious of the significance for earthlings, the sun rises on just another day above the skies at 39,000 feet.
Costing around US$222.5 million (€215 million) each, the Airbus A330-300 is one hell of a sexy machine. Etihad Airways has six of these beauties in their fleet, mainly operating on long haul routes out of their base Abu Dhabi. I had the pleasure of reviewing this flight from Shanghai Pudong to Abu Dhabi on board aircraft registered A6-AFB. A big thank you to the Captain and the Etihad Airways team for making this photo shoot happen!
Etihad Airways is a relatively brand new airline (established in 2003), and has one of the best cabin crew in the world from over 120 nationalities...and they have a kick-ass in-flight experience product too with all luxury comfortable seats, 5-star meals...give them a try next time!
Shanghai's Maglev train is a fascinating bit of technology (you wonder why Europeans cannot build something like this- and they will never be able to- except maybe the Germans). Balanced about 15mm above the tracks, it feels more like sitting in a plane rather than a train as it breezes the whole of the 30 kms between Longyang Road Station and Pudong International Airport in a remarkable 7 minutes 20 seconds (even the Japanese passengers on board today were impressed). It costs RMB 50 (approx.US$8) for a one-way journey. Now, compared with a taxi which may cost around RMB 250, and take around 40 minutes for the same trip- i'd say it's worth every single cent spent.
To get to the maximum commercial speed of 431 kph takes about three minutes (it’s done 501 kph in testing). Amazingly there are NO seat-belts - though I suppose that at this speed it’s not worth worrying about the consequences irrespective of whatever may happen.
From the Flair bar atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pudong, under July’s leaden skies; the futuristic skyline of Pudong contrasts with the elegant colonial style of The Bund on the Shanghai side. Shanghai is a city that has that magic romantic attraction blended in well with elegance, glamour, and sheer sense of global economic standing. The city used to be known as 'The Paris of the East'. While some old fashioned people may still refer the city with its nostalgic title, I however believe that this city has surpassed even the delights of New York and London (these two cities are not even close to where Shanghai is...in terms of everything...economically, culturally, and for beauty too). You realize this when you visit places such as the well renowned MINT club (you never know who you may bump into there). When you are in Shanghai, it feels like the center of the world (it really does).
The changes to the city in the last three years have been enormous. I used to live in Shanghai and nearby Suzhou for a number of years, and miss it so much. Make a point of coming here for a holiday, have lunch at the Yi Cafe at the Shangri-La Pudong (read this); afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel (read this), dinner at Le Sheng (read this!), have a drink at Hyatt on the Bund (read this); and then bop it off all night if you wish at the MINT nightclub or at Bar Rouge with some good company. Then bask in the history of the city which is spearheading China’s incredible growth.
Hop-on, Hop-off tourist buses have made good dollar from tourists around the world in every major city you can think of. Shanghai is no exception either, and the 24 hour tickets are cheaper here than most other places in the world. Notice that the top deck has covering to protect the passengers from the excruciating sun in the summers, the heavy monsoon rain, and the bone deepening humidity that throngs Shanghai.
Breakfast in Guangzhou (Shiqiao)
No tea or coffee today...sometimes I can be VERY Chinese in my approach to lifestyle. A glassfull of fresh cold milk (taken from well fed local Chinese cows in Guangzhou!), and a couple of delicious Cantonese Egg Tarts did the trick.
Lunch in the air (somewhere over Shaoguan, Guangdong)
Afternoon Tea at the Shangri-La, Pudong (Shanghai)
Shanghai is romantic, hectic, elegant, and nothing short of standing by it motto of being 'The Paris of the East'. From the Jade 36 bar atop the Shangri-La Pudong hotel, under July’s leaden skies; the futuristic skyline of Pudong contrasts with the elegant old-world style of The Bund on the Shanghai side. Go and see it as soon as you can...and enjoy the Afternoon-Tea at the Shangri-La, Pudong.
You'd be surprised how many people don't know that in some parts of China the cost of living is more expensive than in the West (they laugh when I say that sometimes), and you'd be equally surprised at how little knowledge most people have of China's global super power status in the world. I spend most my time myth busting because most people in the West (esp. Europe) still have the wrong stereotypical negative image of the country and its people in their minds. I recently came across a highly educated Romanian (Cambridge graduate) who for some reason kept on complaining about everything to do with China. She kept asking me questions such as: Do people ride bicycles in droves there?, Do Chinese eat weird food?, Do they have shopping malls like we do here? Do they have ATM machines in China? Whats the food like? I heard they eat all kinds of meat? and so on. She even mimicked the Chinese accent at one point. It didn't take someone to be Einstein to work out that she was totally unaware of the culture, and at some point came across as xenophobic.
Most people even compare China with India, which I think is wrong because there is no India-China competition. Though I have not been to India since 1998 (I am not an Indian citizen for those that don't know), but having spoken to many people (including native Indians) who have been to India, I can tell you that economically China is perhaps a few decades ahead of India. In my opinion, it would be an impossible task for a country like India to be as successful as China because of many factors including religion in India. Without being stereo-typically negative, the Indian culture comes across as being too conservative/closed compared to China, and that's something that cannot be changed (and should not be changed of course because every country has their own ways of living a life, and that's the beauty of life).
Of course there is a gap between the filthy rich and the desperate poor in China, however the good thing is that everybody gets their bowl of rice. In fact, to think of it, I have come across more people that are homeless and begging on the streets in European cities than I have in China. In some ways London itself does feel like it is the Western version of a 3rd world country because of its poor over used infrastructure (try taking an overcrowded commuter tube/bus/train in London with no air-conditioning!). It's only when you live in China you realize that the West is lagging behind in terms of infrastructure, quality of life, and economic stability.
If you happen to walk in a place such as Shanghai, you'll see that most of the middle class Chinese women are all carrying a Louis Vuitton bag (real not fake!), or wearing Prada glasses, and Gucci shoes. Shanghai really does feel like the Paris of the East. In some of the affluent parts of Shanghai or Beijing if you happen to walk into a Starbucks or a shopping mall, and you happen not to wear any designer clothes then you are not in (yes, it's that important of a status symbol).
I am not a generalist, and not a fan of stereotyping...however it would be somewhat of an accurate observation to say that the typical Middle Class Chinese person probably drives a Maserati or a Mercedes, learns English at Wall Street English (where prices start from around RMB 40,000 for a one year English language learning course!), loves their Starbucks coffee every morning, loves treating themselves to a good Steak meal at a top 5-star hotel, owns an expensive DSLR camera/s, and loves spending money to shop for designer clothes.
In my opinion Shanghai is more expensive than London to some extent (depending on where you live and what your cost of living is). For example, to rent a decent one bedroom accommodation in a nice part of Shanghai (Pudong or downtown Puxi) it costs around at least RMB 7,000 a month (that's about GBP 760, or around USD 1140 a month). Taking a taxi or public transport is still relatively cheaper in mainland China than in London or Hong Kong (taxi rates start at around RMB 14 for the first mile). However, the cost of weekly shopping and eating out at a restaurant might be almost the same as in Hong Kong (though Hong Kong food is more expensive than London sometimes). If, for example, you are going to eat in Xintiandi (trendy fashionable place), then for example the cost of a giant plate of food and a nice glass of wine costs the equivalent of about £15.00. But hey, if someone has lived in somewhere like Sweden, then China wouldn't give you any physical pain every time you come here!.
China's growing abundance of modern infrastructure contains numerous 5-star hotels (some have amazing architecture), world-class international schools (Dulwich College Suzhou for example), large number of airports, and so many other impressive things that are modern and clean - it makes the United Kingdom look like a Western version of a 3rd world country (no wonder why the former PM Tony Blair pays monthly visits to meet the CEOs of Chinese banks!). In some parts of the country, life comes across as being so much better than anything I have come across in Europe that it would make any other global economy envious. The fact is that Europe and America had their time of growth after the World Wars, now its the turn of Asian economies to grow.
This, flamboyancy, of course, does have its kickbacks and downsides. The biggest myth that derives from is that many Western business persons immediately think: 'If I go to China then I can become financially successful!'.
While it always doesn't end up like this (read this), it is true that in the long run, China is the place to be in. That's where the future is, and that's where the money is (in my opinion).
Ever since the 1930s, Shanghai has always been the city that brought along the blended emotions of nostalgia, fashion with a posh flair, and above all else, romance. With over 19-million people on the move 24-hours a day, seven days a week, there is a certain rat race going on by everyone planning on having a stake in the booming economy of China’s most westernised and fastest growing city. This is perhaps the most happening place in the world. Everybody wants to be here for their own economic gain, and nothing else. If you have money, then Shanghai is the place to show-off, and there is certainly an air on snobbery in the place. Yes, it has come to this. Indeed this is the place where business deals were signed, and to some extent the same thing happens nowadays. It's common to see board room meetings being held at nearby boutique hotels, and then they all go and have a good time at the likes of the KABB restaurant.
The latter term may be applied even more so in the well preserved Xintiandi area of the city. The original form of Xintiandi’s antique walls, tiles, and, exteriors have been preserved by the Shui On Company. The whole area is enhanced, which is home to art galleries, trendy boutiques, international restaurants, bars, and lifestyle luxury shopping. I cannot resist falling in love with Xintiandi every time I come here. The area would perhaps easily pass as the most elegant, and certainly the most western in China. It’s the kind of place where you just have to be careful on what you are wearing, how you talk, and how you behave. It’s the place to see, and be seen at.
Nestled neatly amongst this nostalgic yet chic Xintiandi area, is the 88 Xintiandi boutique hotel. The property, which has been owned by Langham Hotels since 2011, is a re-creation born out of the sprawls of a sublime Shikumen residence. Inspired by beautiful artifacts and designs, this hotel will simply blow your mind away when it comes to attention of detail as presented by a boutique hotel. I love it. When you are in this part of Shanghai, you can’t feel for a whisker of a second that you are in China. When one stands on one of the suite balconies looking the park with the Pudong side in the horizon, they could easily be forgiven for thinking that you are in New York or London. The view is very deceiving that I would actually given this city the slogan of ‘New York of the east’ instead of ‘the Paris of the east’.
The hotel’s 53 well-appointed rooms & suites range from 41 sq m to 140 sq m and come along with a blend of exquisite Chinese and Western design concepts designed by Shui-On architects. Dark woods, well-equipped kitchens and bathrooms, oblique angles, designer toiletries by Gilchrist & Soames, complimentary wireless internet, state-of-the-art gym, and plenty of intimate space that would make you effortlessly feel like royalty- it’s no wonder that the 88 Xintiandi has attracted the likes of architect Kengo Kuma to create a spanking new Shang Xia suite in the hotel. Oh, and not to mention the in-room blender, microwave over, in-room foot massage machine, and even a barometer so you don’t forget to take your umbrella (which is, of course, provided). Therefore, effectively it seems that nothing is left forgotten, and all the creature comforts are provided. Or, are they?
While food lovers can order from one of the hotel’s thirty strongly recommended trendy restaurants and bars in the Xintiandi area, or indulge in all-day limited amount of finger food at the Club Lounge; there is not much else in terms of food available at the hotel itself. Hats off to the hotel’s management for providing a fine choice of eateries in the neighborhood however the ordering of food from nearby restaurants may not be everyone’s cup of tea because of the hassle of ordering food from a restaurant outside of the hotel’s premises. I personally tried it and happened to have a good experience. The ordering of food is quite convenient. Effectively this hotel is essential for the essentials. Mind you, the Club Lounge has some treats on offer too. One of the dishes that started on their "breakfast dish of the day" became so popular that they have made it a standard item on the buffet.
I also had the pleasure to attend an 'agarwod ceremony' being performed at the Shang Xia inspired suite at the 88 Xintiandi. Agarwood is the infected wood of the Aquilaria tree. Historically the Muslim Sufis and Japanese Shaman use agarwood oil in their esoteric ceremonies. The agarwood oil and smell is meant to enhance mental clarity and bring calmness and tranquility. During the ceremony, the healer inhales the agarwood many times to get the smell to perfection. I must say that during the ceremony it did feel a bit awkward just sniffing the agarwood smell in a certain pattern. 'Would this be addictive, and good for health?', I wondered. I have give kudos to the ceremony master, Ms. Wendy, by showing her utmost professionalism when performing the agarwood ceremony She must have a lot of good patience to be able to maintain the exposure for such a long time.
On one particular evening at the hotel, one of the senior executives of an unmentionable multinational I was having light dinner with posed a common yet challenging question to me (it always happens). ‘What’s your favorite city in the world?’, she asked curiously. My answer was equally compelling. ‘Any city in which I have had a good experience or any city that I am residing in currently’. Therefore, it goes nicely with those wonderful words that at that particular moment in life my favorite city was Shanghai (though Suzhou, and London are equally favorable . I was surprised she did not ask me the same for my hotel, for which I would have given the same answer back. Therefore, here’s cheers to the 88 Xintiandi for making my day (and night). If it sounds like a love affair I have with this city, then you won’t be far away from that mark too.
The MEET is a contemporary steakhouse located on the 2nd floor of the Kerry Hotel in Pudong, Shanghai. The restaurant has a rather unusual foyer where dinars can see the meat cuts well placed behind a glass. At first, it appears to look rather like a cross between a glamorized butchers shop, a nightclub, and an upmarket restaurant. It’s no surprise that they do stock the largest selection of meat in the whole of Shanghai, and it’s easy to see why.
The restaurant, with it’s 112 seats which also include a private ‘Masters Table’ for 14 people, shimmers in warm shades of red, burgundy, and brown. It’s a very masculine-looking dining room with leather banquettes and booths, mahogany wood tables and floors, and a sense of warmth. There is a real zest of luxurious settings in place, and it’s a message to welcome the classy white coloured dinars I suppose. It’s thankfully not as noisy as one would imagine it to be (as noisy as steakhouses can be sometimes), but still good enough to create a family gathering atmosphere.
The staff seem very proud and attentive, and some of them are even eager to recommend some dishes from the menu for you. The menu, which comes with some cheesy messages like ‘don’t forget to order the side dishes!’, is actually one that delivers more than a hint of your average steakhouse.
The first bites of the evening are of ‘very tender grilled baby abalone’, and ‘oysters rockefeller’. The former is a canapé style dish where the abalone is neatly covered with red peppers garnished with lemon juice. While the latter is basically consisting of high quality oysters. These oysters are first class in terms of freshness and taste. A good quality oyster such as the ones provided at the MEET can provide up to 222% of your Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of Zinc in 100 grams, and would provide just under 1 gram of Omega-3. These two properties alone would be enough to provide a healthy lifestyle if you eat them every day. Nevertheless, it’s still good to get a one-off experience and eat fresh good quality oysters.
One thing I began to notice is that the dishes at the MEET are all very colourful, quite perhaps the most colourful I have seen for some time when doing reviews. This can only indicate one or two things. The food at the MEET is absolute fresh and it is brought in from especially organic farms in China. Apart from the meat, most of the other dishes are not imported.
Next up was the rich, creamy, flavourful, and colourful in bright yellow ‘Boston lobster bisque’. What made it even more appetising was the shredded minute sprinkling of the parsley and chives. Absolutely wonderful. As close as you can get to Michelin star quality.
Sticking with the theme of seafood, we decided to go for the recommended ‘jumbo lump crab cake’. This dish a traditional American dish, and the best jumbo lump crab cakes derive from Maryland. The key to the true flavour of this dish is to not have many breadcrumbs, but have a rich amount of the jumbo lump crab- a larger sized variety of crab known for its rich juicy meat. What really impressed me was the rich bright colour of the dish.
The steak was a winner too. We went for the ‘MEET signature Ningaloo tomahawk marbling score 4+’. This massive piece of meat was both delicious and, heavy in weight. The 1.8kg to 2.4kg serves 2-4 people. The steak had been marinated in rich OXO sauce, red wine, hoisin, garlic, and ginger. It, too, was tender, and ridiculously scrumptious. Very impressive. For the side dishes we had the oven roasted tomatoes, potato wedges, and sautéed broccoli. At it’s best, MEET, is very good indeed. You just can’t argue when someone is cooking big platefuls of heartiness at dinner, can you?
Located in the futuristic part of Shanghai’s Pudong district, the Kerry Hotel, which belongs to the Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts group, is a fine example of where China’s high lifestyle is heading. With the rather unattractive looking Shanghai Exhibition Centre located right on the hotel’s doorstep, some people may argue that the location is not as glamorous as that of Bund, or even as nostalgic as that of the French Concession. To put it bluntly, it just looks like any other bog standard office building from the outside. There is not a single indication that some architectural genius has mastered this piece of boring concrete. OK, so the outside of the building may be an actual failure in terms of design (well done to the unmentionable architect). Nevertheless, just step inside and you’ll be exposed to a rather different world. Can looks really be that deceptive, I wonder? Let’s find out.
The journey time from the point of arriving at Shanghai’s Pudong airport, where my chauffeur sent by the hotel met me, must have been less than 40 minutes at the most. Upon arriving at the hotel, I was quickly whisked away to my room where I was showcased the hotel’s revolutionary paperless check in procedure using iPads. It saves the approx. 80,000 pieces of paper being used every year , and an innovative initiative by the hotel management to make the future bright as they say. First impressions of the hotel are that this place is spacious, very chic, and feels fresh. There is definitely an air of elegance around as one takes a short walk around the lobby.
The cheery on top of the cake has to be the rooms themselves. Split into five categories, the hotel’s 574 well-appointed guestrooms and suites are generously spaced between 42 to 168 square meters. Each rooms provides fascinating views across to the Century Park or the rather unattractive Shanghai Exhibition Centre which looks more like a mini airport when standing at the 31st floor, the hotel’s highest. What really impressed me most was the generous space of the rooms, and the modern amenities that come with it. Take toiletries by L’Occitane, a massive rain forest power-shower the size of two London telephone booths, a Jacuzzi, wireless internet, Nespresso machines, 40-inch flat television screens, iPod docking station, complimentary mini-bar drinks for the first round, and even a notepad and pencil next to your toilet seat (now, you didn’t think they’d have that did you?).
Those fortunate enough to fork out the money and stay in any one of the seven floors dedicated to the Clubrooms are rewarded a 24-hour butler service, and with complimentary accesses to the Club Lounge. With delicious snacks, and beverages including the hotel’s own brewed beer, available all day long, this Club Lounge is like no other in the city. There is a potpourri of food on offer, including various pots of yogurt, juices of various kinds, cereals, fruits, alcohol drinks, delicious chocolates, and cheesecakes to die for, and endless cups of tea and coffee. In addition, with things like a ‘wine vending machine’, there is definitely more variety here and it’s a place to savour for as a city getaway from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. Take a drink, forget the outside, and just salute the future of this city.
The Club Lounge is not for lunch or dinner, which is why I wandered off to have a drink at the BREW, then dinner at the MEET restaurant, and then had lunch the following day at the COOK restaurant. The latter is perhaps not the place to go to if you are vegan as it specialises in steaks, and meat is the key attraction here. Judging from the display of a ghastly array of meat chops, including a few lambs legs, hanging behind the red lantern lit room I it does make ones stomach churn. It’s look like a cross between a luxury restaurant and a glamorized butchers shop all in one. But, fear not, as the MEET is perhaps one of the best steakhouses you’ll visit in this city (it really is).
The Kerry in Pudong is proud to have their own small craft brewery located inside the actual bar called the BREW. The 153-seat BREW is a beehive for city yuppies looking to while away the evening in good company. The bar specialises in brewing their own six signature beers, and a cider. You can either try all six of them if you want. The two favourite ones are the ‘Indian Pale Ale’, and the ‘Pils’. Both of these are also widely available in the Club Lounge, in the mini-bar or in any of the restaurants at the hotel. On the other hand, the COOK is a flamboyant hall made up of open kitchens that highlights the best dies from around the world. Indian, Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese, Western…vegan, you name it and it’s all there. The best thing to do is to purchase a card from the counter, and try bits and bobs of everything. The cost will then automatically be added to your hotel room bill.
After all that heavy food, I decided to wander off to the gym to have a look what’s on offer. I was in for a surprise. I was expecting a small averagely sized hotel gym. The large Gym, which is open 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, is big enough to house at least 300 people at one time. Guests can book their own personal trainer, and have a personalised measurement area to see how fit they are and which are suitable for them. One thing I did notice was that the area seemed to be full of expatriates, and not as many residing guests as one would have thought. For sure, the Kerry is definitely more of an up market apartment style for the expat community, and that’s why they also have one tower just for Kerry residences (again mostly for expats). They even have a dedicated children’s ‘Adventure Zone’, almost like a mini Disneyland or Thorpe Park but without the Disney characters. This is the place where rich parents can leave their kids for the day (so they don’t have to bother with them), and go to work or shopping.
The Spa offers a pro-active and multi-disciplinary approach to physiotherapy, restorative massage, and skincare all inspired by the Chinese martial arts of Wudang Wushu. What’s interesting about all the spa treatments here is that they all begin with a Tai Chi exercise. Not too difficult, but it’s designed to loosen up the tired muscles and to make the legs and arms a bit more flexible. After the initial Tai Chi exercise, it is time to go for the actual massage treatment which itself is a journey that provides a sheer heaven for the sense. Does it make you look younger? Maybe not, but it defiantly makes you feel younger!
With those thoughts in mind, I can say that the Kerry Hotel, Pudong is more fun and jazzy compared to other hotels in the city. So yes, looks can indeed be deceptive. Just make sure you don’t come here intending to take photos of a beautiful building from the outside though.
I have been reviewing Chinese restaurants for quite a long time that it doesn’t take too long to find out if the place is more of a glamorized version of your local Chinese takeaway or if really the place the befits an emperor. Nevertheless, since this was the Shangri-la hotel in Pudong, I was hoping to have my eyes set on something a far more grand than would be on offer. So here I was at the beautifully decorated Gui Hua Lou
Even though the hotel has been open since 1998, the 160-seat Gui Hua Lou only came into existence in 2006. The key to the success of the restaurant has to be in the hands of Chef Gao Xian Sheng, who brings with him not only the 22 years of culinary experience, but a real charm to surprise even the most experienced of dinars. This place is packed, and that’s also a testament to its existence.
It’s difficult to list all the dishes that we tried, but some of the highlights were “curried prawns”, and the “Xi’an style local noodles”. It’s seems hard to believe but the smooth and ultra thin noodles are handmade to perfection. When you take each mouthful, the noodles don’t break that easily even though they are thin and are seem to appear fragile. The curried prawns are equally tantalising, both for the tongue and a feast for the eyes.
The ‘hot and spicy’ sauce served with the dishes achieved a delightful balance so perfect between the heat and the sesame that it was not so spicy after all. The only thing about the Sichuan style spicy chicken is that it came with bones. Call me spoilt, but I like my meat with bones, and without the skin. Though to balance the argument, I am aware that if the meat is not served on the bone and skin, then it ain’t the real deal! In addition, it’s not like your average chicken dish, the meat is crunchy (because of the fried spices on it), and tenderly succulent. It’s the kind of dish that you can keep eating endlessly if there was no stomach lining.
To my delight I found out that Chef Sheng is from Yangzhou, famous for the ‘Yangzhou chou fan’ (egg fried rice), and so it was with without mention that I asked him to present me an authentic dish of this traditional and simple dish. I am a huge fan of ‘Yangzhou chow fan’, and it somewhat bought a huge smile on my face when the chef told me that he will prepare the dish. ‘Please wait, I’ll be back soon’ Said Chef Sheng. He did not fail in his task, and produced one of the best ‘Yangzhou chow fan’s’ I have had in times in memorial.
This was not my first time to the Gui Hua Lou, and I am sure it won’t be my last either.
In the late 1990s the Pudong area of Shanghai consisted of nothing but a few buildings, and those were not classed to be high rise either. The award-winning Shangri-La Pudong was one of those buildings, and when opened in August 1998 it was one of the tallest and most grand 5-star hotels in this part of the city. Ever since that day, countless other international brands have opened and in a space of under 16 years, the Pudong area around the Shangri-La has become something of a ‘Manhattan of the East’. With so much competition going on all the time, it is no wonder why the team at the Shangri-La Pudong are doing so much in terms of providing excellent customer service, and striving to stay ahead of the competition. And it is exactly that one key feature that makes the Shangri-La Pudong stand out from the rest. It is not unusual to see the General Manager, and the Hotel Manager both in the overly decorated lobby at some point of the day. It just goes to show that even though they are busy the one key thing on their minds is to maintain the quality of the service provided to the customer- the people who pay their bills.
Unlike most other hotels in the area which only have one tower, the Shangri-La comprises of two towers- River Wing and Grand Tower. Combined together, the two towers have 952 spacious and well-appointed guestrooms and suites. The Grand Tower is the newer one of the two towers. It was designed by a New York based architect named Kohn Perdesen Fox (KPF) and was opened in 2005 with 375 rooms and suites. This also includes the premier room, which is 54 square meters. The River Wing houses the rest of the 577 rooms and suites.
The true glory of the rooms only comes to affect once you are inside them- full of rich ambiance and warm colours, and providing a true shaker of what absolute luxury feels like. Not only that but it glamorises the reality of being in the fantasy legend of the Shangri-La. The rooms have a few jewels to peek at too. The journey to karma begins once you are whisked by the smooth and fast elevator to your desired floor and room. Be welcomed by priceless views of the Bund on one side, and that of the futuristic Pudong financial district skyline from the other, security box large enough to hold a 15 inch laptop, a powerful monsoon shower, exclusively Mediterranean style wash basins next to the conventional Western style toilet, toiletries by L’Occitane En Provence, and 6 different pillows on offer on the menu including one remarkably filled with traditional Chinese Medicine. Each room proudly presents a copy of ’Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton, the book which inspired the Shangri-La legend and the book that gave way to the hotel’s existence. The screening room, gym, and Chi spa – a sense of heaven cocoon straight out of Lost Horizon – are well worth the trip.
On the subject of the Chi Spa, it’s worth pointing out that unlike other hotels, the Shangri-La has dedicated a whole just for the spa. It’s so good that you may as well feel as if you are in the woods of Tibet. Deriving from the origins of the Shangri-La legend, the Chi Spa offers 21 various treatments and gives a sense that it’s a place of personal peace. I went for the ‘Chi Balance’ treatment for 2 hours that started with a shower and a foot bath, followed by a unique blend of Asian techniques personalised to suit the current yin/yang status of anyone, focusing on the earth element (building chi), wood element (moving chi), and fire element (clarity and peace of mind). Techniques include acupressure, energising massage for yang simulation and a relaxing massage for yin calm. Apart from the massage treatment itself, the best part of it was the chance to smell and choose the five different treatment oils are offered of which you can choose one. The humorous part is that by the time you get to smell the last oil, your nose can’t recall what was the first one- it’s all good fun. If that’s not enough then try one of the two swimming pools, two health clubs and an outdoor tennis courts. If the time prevails then this is certainly a playground for the wealthy.
And where to begin for the food? There are 10 innovative designer restaurants, bars, and lounges to choose from. Each displays a work of architectural and culinary art and they are all designed by international award-winning creative geniuses such as Adam D. Tihany, Bilkey Llinas Design, and Super Potato. The latter is perhaps the most famous of all as this Japanese company is getting its teeth into all the luxury hotel brands in China. The highlight? There are too many to list here. If you want to try a richly authentic Chinese cuisine then make sure book a table at the Gui Hua Lou, which serves a blend of Shanghainese, Sichuianese and, Huaiyangnese cuisine. Oh, and how can I forget the Jade on 26? Of course everybody that comes to Shanghai must come and have a drink at least at this beautifully designed by Adam D. Tihany. The Jade on 36 guarantees marvellous views across to the Bund and the rest of Shanghai’s Puxi area, and can even turn your evening into an affairs de amour.
We also tried out the Yi Café, where you could easily have been fooled into thinking that this is a night market in Asia. With it’s contemporary design, warm lighting and food stations laden with cuisine from around the world, you can easily make this out to be a food festival every day. If you have the stomach for it then it is worth coming for everyday for at least a month and even then perhaps you would be able to accomplish completing all the dishes on offer. Free flowing drinks are a bonus for cuisine. The food is very exciting- big bowls of fish in fragrant broth, beautiful salads of mango, papaya, sliced dragonfruit, cheeses, salami, sushi, smoked salmon…oh I can go on and on. There are 10 open kitchens, each displaying a live cooking show everyday where native chefs present culinary delights of Japanese cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Mexican cuisine, Middle-eastern cuisine, Malaysian cuisine, Western European cuisine, and Indian cuisine. Each table is manned by a native chef from the country where the cuisine comes from, and that goes to show how serious the Shangri-La Pudong is in providing a truly personalised service to its guests.
On the note of Indian cuisine, I can say (as a man of Indian origin), that it’s not easy to find high quality Indian food in China. The majority of the Indian restaurants in China are shabby, the ambiance looks cheap, the price is too high, and the quality of the end product is also comparable to something out of a no-frills take-away in the ghettos of Paris. I would not divulge into the number of times I have had to deal with the infamous ‘Delhi-belly’ IN China after eating Indian food because the quality of the food is just so bad. Nevertheless, on a happy note I can tell you with my hand on my heart that the Indian food at the Shangri-La Pudong is amazing. The chef has done a fabulous job in making sure that the guests experience the best Indian cuisine ever, and he has definitely passed my quality check.
The icing on the cake for the Shangri-la has to be the chauffeur driven limousines that can whisk passengers from any part of the city upon arrival or departure. Now, to make it really stand out they have even added a spanking new Rolls-Royce Phantom. On that note, I would like to add that I am sure that if the Shangri-L Pudong’s building was a standing man (or woman) surrounded by all the other grand buildings around it, then he (or she) would say proudly turned around to all of them and say: ‘Now, beat that!’.
The Yi Cafe - Gastronomic adventure at Shangri-La Pudong, Shanghai!
The first time I heard about ‘TianZifang’ was last week when my journalist friend asked me in sheer surprise when I was hoping to while away the afternoon. ‘Oh you have never been to Tianzifang?!’, ‘Why?, you are a Laowei, you must go and see it!’. She said. ‘Tian Zi Fang?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard about Xiantiandi, Moganshan Lu, and Shikumen, but where’s Tianzifang?’. Therefore, I went to explore further. Yes, rather embarrassing as it may be that as a travel writer I have not been here before. However, never too late to explore as they say.
One of Shanghai’s latest tourist destinations was largely unknown until around 2006, and is neatly tucked away in the city’s famed French Concession area. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo site only around a 20 minutes’ walk away, the historical Tianzifang is an area full of significant modern Chinese and Western arts and crafts.
The best way to get to this popular tourist attraction is by taking metro line 9 to Dapu Bridge and then walking across the street to Taikang Road (known as Taikang Lu in Chinese). While there are slight similarities to places such as the Shikumen or Xintiandi in terms of architecture, this destination is more for the tourist. You are more than likely to bump into someone with a Canon or Nikon as opposed to a bunch of Shanghai yuppies having business lunch. The right way to describe is that it’s a wonderful carnival of art, design and architecture. However, at the same time its less eccentric and classy than, say, Moganshan Lu.
Originally built in the 1930s as a Shikumen residential district, Tianzifang remained very hidden to the outside world, and was not a touristy attraction until about 2006 when it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
Many Chinese artists, café owners, and boutique French bistros owners settled in the area around 2006, and eventually in time the place has become a beehive for tourists. There is still some reminiscing of how people used to live their life here prior to the area becoming open to the world. The generic architecture consists of the concept of having people work downstairs in their art shops, cafes, and restaurants, and above them (or in the back alleyways) are the original homes of the locals who have remained in the area. Some art galleries belong to famous artists such as Ren Wei Yin, who had to endure being a shoe repair person for 15 years during the Chinese revolution because in those days his art was not recognised in China. You’ll find all kinds of souvenirs here from ancient watches to shirt’s with an improvised image of President Obama embedded into a Mao Zedong image and labelled ‘Oba Mao’, to all kinds of weird bric brac.
A complete contrast to the ivory towers of Lujiazhui in Pudong, here you’ll find bicycles, hanging laundry from the windows, and even people washing their utensils outside their homes. If you love contemporary art and design, or just want to inspire yourself by knowing what it may be like to live in the real Shanghai then make sure you have at least half a day free to explore this part of the city. I even managed to discover a cleverly designed handmade lamp made from fork and knife sitting outside someone’s home.
After being in Guangzhou for nearly 4 months, I returned back to Shanghai from Guangzhou for a couple of short visits earlier last week. It felt like going to another country because everything is just so different in Shanghai compared to Guangzhou. Food, people, culture, weather, quality of life…and just about everything else (including language!). You can immediately feel the aroma of high life lingering everywhere around this fast paced metropolis. On the way from Hongqiao Airport to the Jumeirah Himalayas Shanghai hotel, which took around 40 minutes door-to-door, I passed 3 Ferraris, 2 Mesaratis, and countless number of Mercedes Benz luxury cars. Most of the drivers seemed to come across as being young professionals rather than your stereotypical mid-60s aged CEO of a multinational. Then there are the US$6 million villas dotted around the Jinqiao area of Shanghai, which is the kind of stuff that English footballers would love to have as their Asian holiday homes. If there is one city in the world that is defying the global economic crisis, and growing at a horrendously dizzying pace, then it is Shanghai. In a nutshell, Guangzhou and Shanghai are like oil and water.
Compared to its southern Guangdong friend, Shanghai’s culture and economy is forging ahead at an electrifying pace. Yes, the rooted Shangahinese culture and the history are there, but it just does not feel like China. There is too much affluence, too much arrogance, too much competition, and it’s just too damn fast. Talking of speed, things do generally get done quicker in Shanghai compared to other cities (even my former hometown Suzhou is slower paced!). So for example if you go to the bank to get a new bank account, or if you are waiting for a taxi, or even if you are waiting to have your freshly brewed coffee made for you, then in my experience it all tends to be quicker (and smoother without the language misunderstandings) in Shanghai. Then there is sheer glamour, which must promote Shanghai as China’s vanity capital. A recent example of this has been the arrival of the former Chelsea footballer, Didier Drogba. The African from Ivory Coast has joined Shanghai Shenhua, a club that is currently languishing in 13th place in the 16-club league, for a reported US$350,000 a week. This is in a country that has plenty of ambition to rise up the ranks of global football, but are struggling to do so. Such feasts of money can only be added to Shanghai’s history of creaming to attract the world’s attention. Last week, the club hosted Manchester United for a friendly in another vanity show (much as they strived to achieve their best in the heat and humidity, they lost 1-0 to the visitors).
But among all this hustle and bustle, one thing sticks out clearly. Some observers have pointed out that Shanghai has already reached the accumulative elegance and affluent reputation enjoyed by Hong Kong. Chic fashion, money, glamour, and absolute snobbery are all the cultural ingredients that make up modern Shanghai. The Bund and Pudong areas are paved with gold. Perhaps a strong sign that the city which used to be known as the ‘Paris of the East’ during the pre-second world war years, may now enjoy the title of being dubbed the ‘New York of the East’. Indeed, Shanghai (and other 1st tier Chinese cities) are being exposed to a myriad of foreign brands, especially American goods and products due to inward investment as keenly encouraged by the Chinese government.
In my viewpoint, China’s newly found middle-class and upper-class are indulging in tastes of western food and other shopping traits, more than what European people or Americans’ would indulge into. KFC, Pizza Hut, MacDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Subway Sandwiches and others have outlets in every street corner of the major cities (even in 2nd tier cities). You name it- all the big American brands have established base in China, and business wise they are profiting at a higher rate than back in the USA because selling Western fast food to Chinese people is no longer a mission impossible. The downside of this could be that the younger generation of China may not appreciate their own way of culture and food in years to come. I don’t know. This is just my own personal viewpoint.
A sheer example of speed being used to the max in Shanghai, and its dramatic connection to technology (literally) is the super high speed Maglev train. Balanced at around 20mm above the tracks, Shanghai’s Maglev Train breezes the 32kms between Longyang Road Station and Pudong International Airport in a remarkable 7 minutes 30 seconds. Winding up to the maximum commercial speed of 431 kph takes about three minutes. There are no seatbelts - at this speed it’s not worth worrying about the consequences (really). The front of the train displays battle scars - victories of scrapes with birds and bugs. The train banks into a slightly tilting angle, and produces a quick fire shotgun-like sound when it passes other trains at speed. This is as close as passengers will get to enjoy the feeling of what it may be like if a plane was speeding on the ground instead of at 37,000 feet. The adrenalin rush is felt from the moment the train begins its journey right the way through to the end. The feeling stays with you for a while after disembarking the train – almost like as if you have touched down on earth again.
However, I found out last week that even the technological heights of the Maglev are a world away from reality of rural China. Because of a severe typhoon hitting Guangdong Province last week, I decided to take the plunge and embark on a 14-hour train journey from Shanghai to Wuhan, and then on from Wuhan to Guangzhou (costing a total of RMB 1000). If I had wanted a real adventure, then I could easily have taken the direct 15-hour night train from Shanghai to Guangzhou (costing only RMB230), however there were no sleeper beds available and only hard seats (not wooden seats as may imagine, but still uncomfortable for a 15-hour night journey). Now, without being stereotypically negative, from my experience I have found that while 1st tier Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing may have world-class infrastructure and sheer affluence, however the culture and quality of life in the rest of the country still needs improving. With a thriving economy, the issue that stems out is that China is a large and complex country with many things on the government’s agenda that will take time to resolve. Because of the extreme cultural and social contrasts, China is a country that you either fall in love with, or you end up despairing. I adore the former concept because of the color and vibrancy of the place.
The train journey itself showed a different side of the country as opposed to the ivory towers of Shanghai. Some of the odd and eccentric behavior I encountered on the train journey (and this was in the first class cabin) was: people carrying live chickens in their hands (read = dinner/lunch for those who have no fridge), loud snoring (with mouth open), playing mah-jong, non-stop chain smoking, a bunch of grannies talking non-stop, kids keep taking photos of me and then running to show their parents ('mum/dad, look a foreigner!!'- they would say), slurping loudly of noodles (!), loud slurping/sipping of tea cups, spitting with a loud 'Krrraaggg thoo', people drinking alcohol and barbecued meat at SIX in the morning at Wuhan station (!), people wearing pajamas during the daytime train, mothers breast-feeding their babies in front of everyone (!), strong stench of human waste coming in from the open train lavatory, cutting finger nails (non-stop), loud mobile phones (annoying music tunes to go with them), and just endless…noise. It was an experience....
I noticed someone took a photo of me, and as we came close to Wuhan station a young couple from Hunan approached me asked me if it was OK for them to take a photo with me (because I am a foreigner). It wasn’t a quiet journey, even if the cabin was meant to be a ‘quiet cabin’. People stared at me in curiosity. These days, in the bigger cities Chinese people would not even blink an eyelid if a foreigner walked passed them because they have got used to us. However, in rural areas and places such as a long haul train, it is still common for people to stare at foreigners. It’s just friendly curiosity.
Even as I am sitting here in a café in Panyu (Guangzhou), people are randomly stopping by and curiously just standing and watching what I am doing. Because I can understand Mandarin, I can hear things like ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei (foreigner), what’s a Laowei doing here?’; ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei using the laptop, so many Laoweis’ in China these days!’; ‘I think he must be from Iran, yeah looks Middle Eastern. Shall we ask him?’. It goes without saying that questions like these may be common place for any human being to be asked at if they are in a non-international/non-multicultural environment. So, yes I may get those kind of questions and curiosity from the locals even if I go to, say for example, Africa, North Korea, or Burma. In all my years in mainland China, I have got used to these kind of comments (even though I personally don’t like it). However, I am sure that for any newcomer to China it may make them feel: either 1. Annoyed, 2. Feel like a superstar, or 3. Spoil them because people are treating them like a VIP. I wonder if North Korea would be the same one day (if they open up to the world as China has done).
Yes, neon lit cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Suzhou give you the impression that China is as advanced as any other global city in the world. The infrastructure in China is one of the best in the developing world (and in some parts even better than the developed world). For example, I have not experienced a power failure in all the 9 years I have been in China (like India experienced earlier this week, where half of the country had a power shortage- that kind of thing can never happen in China because the infrastructure is much more advanced).
The younger generation who live in the big Chinese cities have not been exposed to the difficult humble upbringings that their forefathers endured during hardships times in years gone by. This goes especially true for the 2nd generation who are born after the 1980s who are perhaps more used to having dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, or drinking their morning coffee everyday at Starbucks instead of tucking into traditional Chinese breakfast. However, it’s only once you enter the countryside and the 2nd tier cities you immediately realize how much improvement there needs to be made in order to get the rest of the country to where it should be. On the train journey I took there were a whole host of things that made me feel how damn lucky I was not to have taken the all-night hard seat train as that would have been a million times worse than the daytime experience.
Below are some photos from my time in Shanghai (and some of the train journey as well).
- Navjot Singh
Because China is such an enormous and complex country, therefore moving to a new city in China can be described as an experience similar to that of moving to a new country (even if those two cities are within the same province). This means when you relocate your life from one city to another city in China then you will most likely have to:
1) get a new mobile phone number,
2) apply for a new bank account,
3) re-register with the local police as a foreigner,
4) get accustomed to the culture, and language of the new city
5) get used to the local food
6) get used to the business culture as well as the people’s culture
From my first three weeks in Guangzhou, what I have come to realise is that generally in the south region there is no real sense of urgency in everything the local people do- and I mean EVERYTHING. The first impression of this is clearly visible as one arrives at the city’s airport. The ever-slow paced queue at the arrivals taxi stand seems to go on for as far as the eye can see. Other examples include the laid-back approach displayed by the staff at local banks, and even mobile phone shops, and waitresses at restaurants taking forever to deliver your dishes.
Despite being in Guangzhou for such a short time, I have also happened to experience two separate cases of theft in such a short time. The first case involves identity theft.
I relocated from Suzhou to Guangzhou, which is a journey of around two and a half hours by plane. When I left my apartment in Suzhou, I forgot to deactivate my internet account, and I forgot to deactivate my mobile phone account for Suzhou too. Once I got to Guangzhou, I called the service provider (China Mobile), and asked them to deactivate my Suzhou internet account. To my frustration, they told me that I have to physically go back to the branch outlet where I originally signed up for the internet account to be able to permanently deactivate the account. That meant that I would have had to take at least a day (make that two days just in case of flight delays, etc.) to go back to Suzhou just to close an internet and mobile phone accounts.
Now, to make matters worse, the person who moved into my home in Suzhou started using the internet for free under my account because it was still open. He even started using mu mobile phone number (by claiming to be me!). The only solution for this dilemma was for me to change my password for both my internet account and also my mobile phone number, and until I returned to Suzhou I could not close both accounts down (and I have no idea when I'll return to Suzhou).
The second case happened on the ground here in Guangzhou. This Cantonese city, in my experience, being a 2nd tier Chinese city, also comes across as a riskier place compared to the westernised cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Good people and bad people reside everywhere; however, that risk of bumping into certain troubles tends to become more apparent in slightly deprived areas of any city in any part of the world. Guangzhou is no exception to this.
What I experienced yesterday was nothing short of stuff compared to classic Hong Kong movies (without being stereotypically negative here). I was in a coffee shop in Panyu in the southeast part of Guangzhou. My intention was to have a nice cup of coffee and make my way to the local bank so I could open a new Guangzhou bank account. As I left my laptop bag on a chair, and made my way to the counter to pay for my coffee a young man calmly picked up my laptop bag and left the coffee shop.
My immediate reaction on realising the theft of my bag was of shock and anger with myself of leaving it on the chair (even for less than a minute). I called 110 for the police, and at the same time questioned the shop staff on why they did not stop the man. Their response was that because the man left the shop so calmly, they thought he was my friend. The most worrying thing for me was not losing my laptop or passport as those could easily be replaced with new ones, but of losing my precious photos, and all the articles I had written (including the manuscript for the 2nd edition of my first book on China). Even my backup USB drive was in the bag.
In the 5 hours of drama that followed, remarkably the thief called me back (he found my number on a document inside my bag), and asked for 200,000 yuan in ransom (approx. £20,200 GBP). To cut the story short, eventually I had agreed to go with at least 10 undercover police officers to a specified location on the outskirts of Guangzhou with 'fake money'. The plan was to hand over the ‘fake money’ to the culprit, and at that moment, the plain clothed police officers would jump in to arrest him by surprise. I did manage to tell the thief (through a translator who could speak Cantonese), not to erase any of the data from the laptop as that meant a lot to me.
As we made our way to the undisclosed location in a disused industrial area of Guangzhou, we got news that the unarmed man had turned himself into a local police. Thankfully, all of my belongings were returned in one piece (including my passport, house keys, credit cards, and around 1,000 yuan of cash). It could easily have turned ugly.
While being interrogated, the man claimed to be mentally ill (he showed the police a doctor’s note), and claimed he was not aware of what he was doing. With tears rolling down his face he apologised to me.
It's perhaps a relief that I got everything in one piece but shockingly according to Chinese law, if someone is mentally ill then they cannot be charged for any crime no matter how serious the offense is. So effectively this man got away lightly. A journalist from the Guangzhou Yanchang Evening News accompanied me throughout the event to note it on record. He told me that only 3 weeks ago another mentally ill man beheaded his own uncle in Tian He District, but he could not be charged for the murder because he was proven to be mentally ill. Scary hey?
So, thankfully it was a good conclusion, and it was nice to know so many good people were there to assist me at this difficult moment in my life. This included my colleagues, the police, and my friends who kept me company on the phone throughout the ordeal. I got my laptop back. However, most importantly I got my articles, manuscript, and precious photos back. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll never let go of my bag next time I order a coffee (not even for a second…not in a place like Panyu).
The award-winning Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai is located inside the Himalayas Center right in the heart of the trading district of China’s most happening city. Easy to get to from both of Shanghai’s two airports’, with around 40 minutes by taxi from Hongqiao Airport, and around 30 minutes from Pudong International Airport, the hotel is also a stone throws away from Huamu Lu metro station at Line 7, which easily connects to Longyang Road metro station on line 2 from where guests can catch the futuristic Maglev train straight to Pudong International Airport.
The cubic-shaped 23,000 sq meter Himalayas Centre is a landmark building that combines nature, humanism, and fine architecture. It takes on the form of a jade piece with heavenly inscriptions that breaks forth from the ground. The project consists of not just the Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, but also a fabulous shopping mall. In the 4th quarter of 2012, an art museum and a theatre would also be opened at the location.
Jumeirah Group opened its first luxury hotel in China in 2011 and is now present in Dubai, London, Frankfurt, the Maldives, Shanghai, and in Abu Dhabi. The luxury hotel industry in China is growing at an alarming rate. A few things separate the Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai from the others in this competitive industry within this part of Shanghai. Hence why the hotel has adopted the concept of ‘STAY DIFFERENT’ to everything they do.
One of the things that sets the hotel apart from the others is its lavish lobby and its dramatic ceiling complete with a 260 sqm LED screen, the largest indoor screen in Shanghai which displays various multimedia animation to reflect the four seasons. Every successful hotel manager will tell you that the lobby is their favourite part of the hotel because this is where they can get a true feeling of how well their hotel is doing.
Immediately as you enter the lobby, apart from the LED screen roof, the first thing that strikes the visitors eyes is the enormous amount of space in the 16-meter high lobby which contains exactly 1,000 Chinese characters on the pagoda style roof, and some of the finest pieces of art around the whole of Shanghai. When one observes any of these 42 delicate pieces of value, you realise that this hotel lobby is truly the envy for all other luxury hotels to gasp at.
The 42 art pieces are a personal collection of the hotel’s owner, Mr. Dai Zhi Kang. The 47-year-old property tycoon, with a personal fortune net worth of $1.2bn is keen in his pursuit of contemporary art. Dai is a collector of modern Chinese art and has an established a museum in his Himalaya Centre to house the collection. Rising from his humble beginnings, firstly as a student at Remin University and later as a Banker, Dai changed course and invested in the booming Chinese property market to eventually become one of the most successful people in modern China. From our brief conversation I got to know that he is also an avid collector of rare ancient scrolls and sculptures.
Guests are allowed to borrow a complimentary iPod nano at the lobby, pre-loaded with information in Mandarin and English, and they can listen to all the history and detail of each art piece. The complimentary Lobby Art Tour which is open to the public also explains the Feng Shui elements of the design of the hotel which contains a full sized antique pagoda in carved rosewood. Things such the mirror and the fountain (which bring energy of the feng shui element of water), and the dragon boat made of African Rosewood, are some of the things that are displayed to deliver the good wishes to all the guests for a smooth stay. There is that air of elegance which stays with the Chinese thought of pursing a higher achievement in life. The dragon boat certainly displays that.
You are not just exposed to fine art, but effectively you can read a 5,000-year-old story with the ‘Thousand Character Essay’, which each character has a unique meaning, epitomising the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy. It’s a strong fusion of local Shanghainese culture, Arabic influence, and an essence of the pastoral life of the common people of this country that is brought out clearly by the design of the tasteful piece. After all, would you expect anything less from a world-class architect as Arata Isozaki, and interior designers KCA International (from Burj Al Arab fame)?
Indeed Jumeirah is about affluence, as well as being different. The latter term is perfectly exemplified when you see a group of Chinese musicians dressed in traditional Arabic wear (burkas and all), and playing Arabic music. It may come across as being a bit odd and eccentric, however that’s the beauty of enjoying Arabic culture in China.
Fond memories of my stay at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers came to mind as I presided towards my generously spacious room, which granted priceless views across to this modern part of Pudong district. Though the views may not be as extravagant as those offered by the riverside at the Bund (unless you like to admire the view of the massive yet blandly designed Shanghai exhibition centre, or some of the villas, each costing around US$6 million, located right opposite the hotel), the hotel does offer sheer tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown Shanghai.
There is an air of traditional Arabic elegance spiced up with Chinese affluence, and this all hides behind the aroma of the hotels furnishings. It may not be easy to see for the guest, however the ethos of the Jumeirah brand is to bring a little bit of the Middle East to wherever they are situated and in Shanghai, and it is no different. I suppose a replica model of the seven star Burj-Al-Arab hotel situated in the lobby blends in well with the surrounding art pieces.
Want to feel like Chinese royalty? Each of the 339 rooms and 62 suites are lavishly furnished with jade piece, and Feng Shui elements, and state of the art facilities. The temptation to combine business with pleasure can be just too much when one is offered a contemporary Chinese scholar’s work table complete with all the internet connectively for all kinds of international electronic equipment.
Creature comforts that will leave any other hotel drooling with envy include the easy one-step bedside master switch, 42-inch LCD television, and richly thick 600-thread cotton duvets and pillows. As for the bathroom amenities, the hotel has stuck with the unique brand concept of ‘STAY DIFFERENT’. So unlike other hotels where you may just get one of either luxury toiletry brands, at the Jumeirah you get both L’Occitane and Acuqa Di Parma toiletries- all along with a soaking bath, separate rain shower. To top it all up, you’ll be glad to know that the hotel boasts the fastest complimentary internet connection in Shanghai at 60 MB. After a long day in the hustle & bustle of the city of over 19 million, it really is an oasis to escape to where you can just hide yourself in sheer luxury away from the crowds. Its projects such a cosy feeling that it’s almost easy to forget that you are in China.
Fans of the Jumeirah brand have not been let down when it comes to providing world-class cuisine. Three of the five dining venues at the hotel provide exquisite authentic cuisine from all around the world. Bringing in world class chefs who may even double as undercover artists because that’s how presentable their dishes are.
Indulge your taste buds into ‘Shang High’, provides an authentic Shanghainese dining experience, while J MIX projects the finest Japanese dishes, and Grill Room is for those with a western penchant. The hotel does not fail to be different in this department because very few luxury hotels in Shanghai offer a true Shanghainese cuisine, instead opting to go for either Cantonese or Sichuanese dishes. It saves the guest time for drifting down the tedious and narrow lanes of Shanghai to find true authentic Shangahinese cuisine.
The Jumeirah Himalaya Shanghai excels in providing the best of what people really want in Shanghai, and that is either Shanghainese or Japanese cuisine.
The heights of glory don’t just rest there. This hotel is more than your average five-star lay over. There are snippets of the Jumeirah that make you feel that you have come to somewhere magical, and the ethos displays exactly that. It will keep you wondering if it’s real or just a fantasy.
After months of talking about it, finally it has come time for me to relocate back to Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province in Southern China. Guangzhou has a special place in my heart because I lived there for a few years when I first came to China in 2003. I have enjoyed living and working in Suzhou for the past 11 months (excluding the 2 months in Shanghai).
Suzhou is technically split into two parts- the historic Suzhou, and the Suzhou Singapore Industrial Park (SIP). The old Suzhou is still very much a tourist town with all the historic gardens and canals. Whereas Suzhou SIP is more of an expat haven that feels like being in an affluent part of the U.K. or the U.S.A.. In the SIP area there are famous International schools such as Dulwich College Suzhou, and there are MANY expat shops, restaurants, and bars selling imported European and American food. Suzhou SIP itself is perhaps the most beautiful, cleanest, and spacious city I have been in China.
Prior to my arrival in Suzhou, my impression of this city was somewhat limited to one that most non-residents have, and that is of an ancient and historic Suzhou with period architecture and lush greenery blended in with canals (hence why it's known as the Venice of the East). I never imagined that one day I would be living the life of an expat in this city. It is quite a privilege to be able to witness the beauty of Suzhou as a 2nd tier city, and also how rapidly it’s growing, both economically, and geographically.
I have really enjoyed living here, and I am going to miss it a lot. It really is a fantastic place to live in. In the SIP area, you can go to Jinji Lake, Times Square, and around Ling Long Wan to do shopping and eat delicious Korean and Japanese food. Suzhou has a large Japanese and Korean expat community. Then there is an assortment of Americans, British, French, Spanish and other European nationalities, Indians, and of course, Singaporeans.
In fact Suzhou is not as expensive as, say for example, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Beijing, but it is more expensive than most 2nd tier cities such as Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Tianjin. For example, the house prices in Suzhou vary from around 1300RMB a month for a 45 Sqm 1 bedroom home (in downtown old Suzhou), to 35,000RMB a month for a 150 Sqm 4 bedroom home (Suzhou SIP area). I live in the SIP area, quite close to Kunshan and so the house prices in this area are competitive for the expat luxury market.
It may be frustrating sometimes that the roads in Suzhou SIP are EMPTY 90% of the time, where the streets in downtown Suzhou are BUSY 90 of the time! That's the remarkable beauty of this amazing. There are also two railway stations- One in the SIP area (more modern but quiet and empty), and the main Suzhou station (Very BUSY). Overall, Suzhou SIP feels like a ghost town because the roads are all empty 24 hours a day (photos below)!
Having lived and worked here, I also feel that the people of Suzhou are more oriented towards their career and are more serious on maintaining a long term job security than people, in say, Shenzhen (where most of the people are migrants).
So, with a very heavy heart I say goodbye to Suzhou. On the other hand I am very much looking forward to relocating back to Guangzhou (I used to live in Panyu for over 2 years before coming to Suzhou and Shanghai). Here I have included some images of life in Suzhou. There is a good mix of the old and new Suzhou.
Amidst the sad feeling of missing good friends, and my home for the past 11 months it's time to face the facts and move on in life. That's the way the stone rolls. The rock tumbles...the cookie crumbles. Ciao Ciao Suzhou. :-(
Famed for being as the backdrop of many foreign and Chinese movies, including the Hollywood hit, ‘Mission Impossible 3’, Zhouzhuang is consistently considered to be the best and the most popular "water town" in China’s eastern region. Located around 35km southeast of the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, and on the southern shores of the famed Lake Baixian, Zhouzhuang is remarkably tiny compared to other water towns around this part of China, such as Luzhi, Tongli, and Mudu. The town is well noted for its rich culture and the well preserved ancient residential dwellings, many of which still remain in a similar condition to what you may have found if you had come here, say 30 years ago. It is one of the few ancient water towns wehre over 60% of the buildings are the original structures from the Ming (CE 1368-1644), and Qing Dynasties (CE 1644-1911).
With a rich history spanning over 3,000 years, Zhouzhuang is a living example of how people used to live their lives in China well before any of the technologies of modern life that we take for granted these days came into effect. The best way to explore the town is by taking a trip abroad one of the gondolas (costs 100RMB for a 1 hour tour of all the canals). While rowing the gondolas through the narrow canals, the oarsman will be chanting folk Chinese songs which themselves contains stories about the life and culture of this ancient water town.
The town originated as a village by the name of Zhenfengli during the period around the Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty. It is claimed by historians that the town received its current name in CE 1086 during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty when the village was donated to Zhenfengli's Quanfu Temple by a devout Buddhist by the name of Zhou Digong, who owned this piece of land. Quanfu Temple is a marvel of a temple complete with some original artifacts on display, and it forms a signature part of a tour of Zhouzhuang.
Until the early 1980s Zhouzhuang was perfectly hidden away from the world’s eyes. The town was only bought to the world’s attention when an American businessperson who owned an art gallery in New York, visited the town and realized its true gifted potential as a tourist town. The interest in watertown Zhouzhang has sparked interest in other watertowns across China, and in particular, the watertowns of the Suzhou area. Since the 12th century, Zhouzhuang has been connected to the Grand Canal, which extends from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north.
In terms of food, the town has plenty of offerings of fresh fish (from the water), house made rice wine (very sweet tasting), and pork meat (especially pork knuckles!).
If you are going from Shanghai or from Suzhou then you need a full day set aside for exploring the whole of the town. The following places of interest are worth paying a visit at Zhouzhuang:
Strikingly beautiful and located inside Nanhu Garden, Quanfu Temple is a Buddhist place of worship built on the shores of Lake Nanhu. The temple is so large that had to be divided into four parts, which related to the four seasons of the year. The enormous prayer halls of the temple are a delight to be in as it brings out the best of all the different personality faces of Buddha. Light a joss stick and make a wish!
The distinctive looking Milou Tower is situated next to Zhenfeng Bridge on the islet in the southwestern part of Zhouzhuang. It is clearly visible as one makes their way to the entrance of the ancient town. Milou Tower was originally a place where actors and writers would gather around to perform or tell stories. Even to this day performances take place at the Milou Tower.
Chengxu Taoist Temple
Considered to be one of the largest and most famous Taoist temples in the region, Chengxu Taoist Temple is located on Zhongshi Street, just opposite Puqing Bridge. Originally built during the Song Dynasty (CE 960-1279), the temple contains fabulous halls including Sheng ("Sanctity") Hall and Doumu (Goddess Mother of the Great Wagon) Hall, while its pavilions include Yuhuang and Wenchang.
Situated discreetly in the narrow Nanshi Street, Shen Mansion is Zhouzhuang's largest residential building containing over 100 rooms covering an area of over 2,000 square meters. With its beautiful courtyards, each surrounded by living quarters, the mansion is the stuff made out of dreams for any emperor. Take note of the expensive period furniture still on display in the rooms.
The Former Residence of Ye Chucang
A native of Zhouzhuang, Ye Chucang (1887-1946) was a poet and statesman who made many efforts to reverse the destructive effects of opium abuse and gambling during that period. His residence is made up of five courtyards and three main architectural structures (Zuyin Hall, Ye's private residence; and the Main Hall). The lavish displays of rich furniture and the strong smell of mahogany and oak strongly flavor the air. It provides a glimpse of what life must have been like for the gifted Ye Chucang.
How I got to Zhouzhuang
I took the coach from Shanghai Railway Station. The journey takes approximately 1 and a half hours, and costs 25RMB one way. There are regular buses throughout the day from Shanghai or from Suzhou (if that’s where you are travelling from. The journey takes around an hour and costs less then 10RMB one way). Zhouzhuang is close to Tongli Village.
This article was also published on TheTravelEditor.com