Dateline: August 12, 2005, Shanghai, China

A notice inside the taxicabs here reads, “Psychos or drunkards without guardians are prohibited to take taxis.” Perhaps that explains why every other vehicle on the road is trying to kill us. Shanghai streets are filled with people, bicycles, mopeds and cars, the air is brown and so is the water. Its a city where its one person’s job to work in the Prada store at Plaza 66 and another person’s job to sell fighting crickets in an open air market a few miles away, or deliver an unknown liquid in giant blue barrels strapped to either side of a bicycle. Here’s a few other observations.

First, they don’t have unsweetened iced tea in bottles. I have been desperately searching for an unsweetened iced green tea drink, but every one I order turns out to have sugar in it. Yesterday, Brad and I went to a little noodle stand for lunch. The young waitress there was practicing her English on us, and she sounded pretty good. So I asked her, “”Are you learning English in school?” “I went to your country, but its very expensive.” Then she asked, “Do you like Shanghai?” “Yes, we do,” I said. Then, I asked, “does this restaurant sell green tea in bottles?” “Yes,” she responded. I was excited to finally ask…”Do you have a kind that is not sweet? A kind that has no sugar?” “Yes,” she responded. “I have no money so I work very hard.” Then she went off to take someone else’s order.

Second, very building has a flourish on the top to distinguish the roof or top floors from the rest of the building. Literally, every one has something. It looks as if every building has on some kind of hat. Here are some pictures of some of the more notable hats (more coming soon, with faster Internet connection!)

Third, everything cool is next to something that’s in your guide book. The best stuff we’ve seen has been in places we wandered into from an official site or attraction listed in the guide books. For example, yesterday morning, as the book directed, we went to Yu Garden and the touristy shops that surround it. After strolling around, beckoned in English by salespeople to purchase various tacky souvenirs, we wandered over to another market down the street. In there was everything you see in Chinatown, Hello Kitty bags of every shape and size, party favors and decorations, stationary, glitter, google eyes, needlepoint yarn, but by the 100s, stacked in stalls. The air conditioning was great, and the people (and their kids) staffing the stalls let you shop in peace.

Same with the Dong Tai Road Antique Market. This is a sweltering little area of stalls selling old coins, Mao buttons, Chinese locks and various other junky souvenier stuff. But right across the street is one of the best things we saw, the animal market. There, dogs, chipmunks, crickets (which we later learned people purchase to fight), fish and even a squirrel were for sale. I was really moved by the squirrel. I’ve never particularly liked them, but seeing this one in a tiny cage, doing backflips in an effort to escape touched me. I thought about purchasing him to let him go, the way my family used to do in Chinatown in New York, but I hadn’t seen any other squirrels on the street, and worried that I might be damning him anyway, or creating some kind of environmental disaster. We left there with our stomachs a little turned.

More soon. Meanwhile, you can look at some of our pictures here.
Lobby of the Peninsula Palace Hotel:

The music here in China stinks! Since arriving, I have heard 4 different muzak versions of �My Way� and �All the Girls I�ve Loved Before�. Shanghai�s theme song seems to be the song from the Titanic, for some reason. Zhouzhuang�s theme song, which won second prize in the first annual town theme song competition of 2002, is called �Zhouzhuang is Good.� I think you are getting the idea. The best music we�ve heard was the soundtrack for the acrobatics show, which unfortunately, they weren�t selling. It included Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer, and a variety of cheesed up opera songs. I think the soundtrack would have been a great souvenir of the show. It was a strange opportunity to make a little money that was missed.

Apparently, Shanghai doesn�t have a monopoly on bad music. I don�t even know what they play in the taxis, but in the hotel lobby today, a trio (piano, electric guitar and flute) played �You Say Potato� and �White Room� by Cream. Actually, maybe that�s kind of cool.
Dateline: China Eastern flight between Shanghai and Beijing, August 12, 2005:

First, readers should note that I am posting this from YOUR FUTURE! We are 15 hours ahead, and have already lived through your era. So to you, we offer this tip: You won�t be able to eat two orders of the xiao long bao. Just get one.

On the topic of xiao long bao (little dragon buns, aka the steamed pork dumplings they serve with vinegar instead of soy), in this installment I discuss Shanghainese food, particularly what we ate, where, and whether or not it was good. This meditation will also dovetail with the theme that the guidebook is not as wise as one would wish.

Jump ahead to review of:
Lao Tan
M on the Bund
Strange Place near Peace Hotel
Dumpling House on Maoming
1221 Shanghainese restaurant

Monday night, we had dinner with Michael and Zoe. Michael is a friend of a guy who plays on Brad�s journalist softball team, The Muckrakers. We met at a restaurant called Lao Tan which serves Guizhou food. Lao Tan is located at 42 Xing Fu Lu, 2F, a part of Shanghai far from where we were staying, at the Westin. Guizhou is a province of China even further from the Westin.

The cab dropped us at a storefront where two men were sitting on a pile of sheetrock and residents were walking home dragging 15 foot long wheelbarges stacked with chairs. I figured we were in the right place because a woman standing at the door was wearing a costume with bells, and I�d managed to glean from the Internet that the restaurant was serving food characteristic of an ethnic minority. As in the U.S., an ethnic restaurant often requires the waitstaff to be attired in some kind of costume. (Later in our trip, at the Shanghai Museum, we saw these costumes on display.)

Zoe grew up in a province near Guizhou, so she is an expert in the food, which is noted for spiciness. M advised that we just get whatever Z ordered, subject to whatever dietary limitations we might have. �Is there anything you don�t eat?� he asked. �No, really, anything?�

Fortunately, we failed to mention either snails or baby octopi, because what followed was without question the best food we had in Shanghai. Unfortunately, we were so happy I failed to photograph any of it. First we had some kind of weird root, which looked like insect legs and tasted like ginger and bamboo. The second cold dish was soba noodles in a spicy sauce. It was a lot like something you can get at the delicious Spices II in the Richmond District of San Francisco. M & Z know the owner of this restaurant, and he ferments his own wine out of a kind of Chinese �plum�. So we ordered a little carafe of that, to drink out of tiny white cups. (Tip: When a place serves an alcoholic beverage in tiny cups, there is a reason. Too bad I�m not writing this from Brad�s future.) We had pieces of fish with scallions and garlic, a dish of soft, fluffy tofu puffs atop a chili hash, smoky pork rice, baby octopus with red and green papers, and sea snail in a brown hot pepper sauce. We also had some smoky pork laden rice and some kinds of vegetables. It was unbelievably fantastic. [The place is also known for its hot pot, and we saw people enjoying a particularly red one. If you are ever in Shanghai, you should definitely go to this place. The menu has no English, but you can point at what other people are having.]

By the time dinner was over, we�d discussed Michael�s interest in Shanghai literature, and his new job as arts editor for a French magazine. Zoe, curator at a modern art museum, told us where the best galleries to see contemporary Shanghai art are located. And Brad, Brad was totally sauced. He�d had a few Qing Tao�s and a couple of shots of that plum wine, plus a couple strong Chinese cigarettes, and was over the edge. Nonetheless, he staggered with us across the street to a local bar that had beds for couches (just like S.F.) and had another drink. There, Zoe told us what Chinese people think of the Iraq war, and assured us that people in China don�t tip. Michael assured me that its okay to pay more than you might otherwise have to just because you don�t feel like bargaining. We left happy and grateful to them both.

La Tan spoiled me for Shanghai food, and I often found myself wishing for Zoe�s advice and guidance during the rest of our trap. Still, there were other culinary highlights, made sweeter by the fact that we were figuring stuff out on our own.

On Tuesday, we went for lunch to this strange place near the Peace Hotel that caters to Chinese tourists. The first thing on the menu was �dog with paste�. I wondered whether they had actual dogs back there that they were going to kill, so we didn�t order it. We did get the dumpling filled with crab roe, which you eat with a straw, and a sweet stew of eel and garlic. Tuesday night, we were supposed to go to the highly recommended 1221, but we got stuck without a cab near the Shanghai Center beautiful view of Pudong New Area from the fifth floor of the building.

The restaurant is entirely populated with Americans and other English speakers, particularly people entertaining as part of business, as you might expect. The prices are San Francisco level, and the book says that the menu is �Mediterranean-influenced� so that screens out a lot of people. But it may also be that locals know the food isn�t worth the price. For an appetizer, Brad and I shared the asparagus, which was probably about US$8. It was five or six thin spears, in anchovy butter, with a poached egg and shaved pecorino on top. It was pretty good, but you can�t go wrong with anchovy butter. The pecorino was mild and the egg added little. Then I what the menu described as �our salt roasted lamb� and Brad had the duck with scallops wrapped in bacon. Both the duck and the lamb were stringy, in the way overdone duck confit often is. The lamb had the virtue of being salty, and the duck of being fatty. That�s all I can say. Mine came with spinach, which was unremarkable, and with home fries. Brad liked his duck, which had a crispy glazed skin. His scallops however, were overdone and the bacon was chewy. About 2/3 through our meal, a party of 8, which included some unknown famous person came, and our waitress totally abandoned us to the ministrations of a nice young man who was perfectly fine, but wore a name tag emblazoned with the word �Trainee�. Not confidence inspiring.

Whatever my critique of the food, the dessert was great. We ordered the chocolate cake, which came with the only chocolate ice cream I�ve ever liked. I also got a glass of the cold orange Muscat, which I greatly enjoyed. After, we went out on the balcony to hear businessmen from Alabama flirt with whatever women were available and to watch the boats go by. The bill came to about US$100. (We each had one substantial and powerful cocktail, also, included in that price.)

On our last night we went to 1221, which was promised as a favorite of locals and expats alike. Its located down a little alleyway, behind some other stores, in a modern space that�s cleanly designed and looks really nice. The menu is in perfect English, reasonably priced, and, unlike the snooty M on the Bund, they serve affordable wine and wine by the glass. (Tip: When the nicest restaurant in town refuses to serve Chinese wine, there might be a reason. Too bad I�m not writing this from my own future.)

Though it may be snobby, my problem with 1221 is the same problem I have with Eric�s or Alice�s or Eliza�s or any of those American Chinese places we have in S.F. Its American. Where�s the snails? Where�s the pork tendon or the duck tongue? I might very well want to order something easy and mainstream, but if I�m in China, I want the option to get something out of the ordinary, or to make a mistake. I ordered a glass (and later another) of Dragon Seal white wine. We had hot and sour soup, which initially I poo poo�ed out of snobbishness but later begrudgingly admitted was good. We also ordered shredded pork with bamboo shoot. The shoots and meat were in some kind of black sauce. From the flavor, I could tell it was made with the kind of pork that is a specialty in Zhouzhuang (Wushan pork) but which we didn�t order when we were there because it looked like a red shellacked ham hock and the smell in the heat was gross. I was really glad we got that so that I would know what it was. We also ordered sweet pea with bread stick, which was like a lot of deep fried croutons with a few peas and onions. It was yummy, greasy, not a vegetable. We tried to order the Lion�s Head meatballs, but they were out. So we got the xiao long bao, which came four to an order and were salty and pretty good. Brad particularly liked how they are full of liquid when you bite into them. (The fact that they were four to an order was the precursor to today�s error of getting two orders at the dumpling place on Maoming. There, its 12 to an order.) Finally, we ordered a steamed fish

By the time we were done, I was surprisingly tired. I had wanted to go out to some bars on Maoming, but we both decided to call it a night, as we had plans to wake up early and catch the Jade Buddha Temple on our way out of town. I fell asleep/passed out on the cab ride home, then fell asleep for good 5 minutes later in the hotel room. I think that Dragon�s Seal wine poisoned me! But what doesn�t kill me only makes me stronger, and I plant to have another bout with it tonight.

Again, everyone there was white, except for two tables of Chinese, both sets American. If I were walking by a Chinese restaurant at home and saw this many white people in it, I probably would not go in. Still, I must admit the food was perfectly fine and the restaurant was nice. And they had that powerful wine!

We arrived in Beijing this evening and promptly went to the food stalls near our hotel. More on that tomorrow, and more links to photos in this section, including more hats (!!!) as I organize them.