We travelled overnight by sleeper train from Beijing to Shanghai. This gave us a welcome break from air travel as well as a chance to get some much needed rest. The railway stations in both Beijing and Shanghai were amazing; big, modern and efficient. And the train was great; comfortable, clean and punctual. Fortunately the high speed trains that the Chinese have been having so many problems with recently were not up and running yet when we were there. We arrived in Shanghai at 7:00 in the morning and decided to take the metro to our hostel. We hadn’t anticipated the rush hour commute though and my heart sank when the train pulled up at the platform and I saw all the carriages absolutely packed with people. The doors opened and miraculously not only did the crowd part to let us and our luggage on the train, but some of the people actually smiled at us. This was very different to Beijing where getting on and off a crowded train was harrowing, to say the least.
It was an easy walk from the metro stop to the Blue Mountain Youth Hostel where we freshened up and changed before heading off for breakfast and nice cup of English tea for me. Because Kiera and James know their way around Shanghai, we were able to see quite a bit of the city even though we were only there for two days. We ambled along the riverside promenade admiring the view of the Bund on one side and Pudong on the other and enjoying the clear blue sky, a pleasant sight after Beijing’s smoggy greyness.
We pottered around the French Concession. H&M and Zara’s were having a sale, so we spent quite a bit of time in there, as well as scoffing the most divine pastries at a patisserie called hoF. In the evening we went to an acrobatic show called ERA, which was spectacular and we were thoroughly entertained from beginning to end. Afterwards, in a moment of madness, I treated the kids to a cocktail at the Jade Bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel in Pudong. As Kiera predicted, from there we had a breathtaking view from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Bund across the river and the Oriental Pearl Tower next door, all beautifully lit up. At about 11:00 pm we watched enthralled as the city turned off its lights, building by building. Unfortunately we could only afford one round of drinks as it came to about R500! So we drank very slowly, savoured every drop and indulged on the “free” bar snacks.
On our last morning in Shanghai, Kiera and James took us for breakfast at Jia Jia Tang Bao, a tiny dumpling restaurant where the dumplings are freshly made every morning. When they sell out (at about-mid morning), the restaurant closes and reopens again early the next morning. These breakfast dumplings are a Shanghai delicacy and you see queues of people stopping to buy them on their way to work. There is quite an art to eating them; you bite a small hole in the dumpling and suck, rather noisily, all the soup out before popping the whole thing in your mouth. Absolutely delicious!
I was sorry to leave Shanghai and hope to return there one day. I loved the mix and contrast of old and new, east and west, tradition and modernism. It’s a beautiful city with an amazing energy. Compared to Beijing, it felt more tolerant and friendlier, and even the taxis stopped for us. In fact, it felt like being in another country altogether.
We were supposed to catch a midnight flight out of Guangzhou to Bangkok but our flight from Shanghai to Guangzhou was delayed by 5 hours and so we missed our connection. We landed up in a deserted airport in the early hours of the morning, tired, sweaty and extremely disgruntled. The kids were all for spending the rest of the night camped out in the airport but fortunately there is a very nice Pullman Hotel at the airport and when I flashed my credit card it didn’t take much to persuade them to join me there. We checked in at 1:00 am and the first thing I did was have a cup of tea and a bath. I then crawled between lovely crisp sheets, sank into a wonderfully soft mattress and decided then and there that fancy hotels are not to be sneezed at after all. We woke up, tucked into the breakfast buffet and went back to bed. We managed to catch a flight to Bangkok that afternoon and arrived feeling quite refreshed.
The jury is still out for me on Bangkok. I’m not sure whether I liked it or not. We were there for such a short time and actually did not see that much of the city. I really liked the laid-back, hippy vibe around Rambutri Road and the easy–going atmosphere of the weekend market. But the side of Bangkok that we saw was also rather dirty and sleazy.
I loved Chiang Mai. We stayed inside the old walled city in a lovely B&B called Baan Hanibah. We were surrounded by small restaurants, bars and massage parlours, what more can you ask for? Apart from eating, drinking and having our aching bodies attended to, we also found time to do a cooking course while we were there, which was great fun. Alex fancies himself as the next Gordon Ramsay and he kept us and the teacher well entertained while he cooked up a storm. I have to admit, he does have the flair and the language to go with it! I enjoy spicy food and especially Thai curries but after a couple of weeks in Thailand I came to the conclusion that you just can’t beat a good Durban curry.
I turned 54 in Chiang Mai and I treated us all to a splendid meal (courtesy of the credit card again) at an upmarket fusion restaurant called Ginger.
I love celebrating my birthday away from home but this time I found that I was having a bit of difficulty with it. I wrote this in my journal at the time:
On Becoming Old(er)
In Beijing we stumbled across a tiny shop selling the most exquisite Indian jewellery, made out of Indian silver and semi-precious stones. We had a lovely time trying on all the different rings before Kiera chose a moonstone and I settled on a peridot. It was such a special occasion that I even took a photo of the shop. The rings were a reminder for me of our time together in China as well as a symbol of our mother-daughter bond. Later, in Chiang Mai, we went out for dinner on the eve of my 54th birthday and I wore the ring. We had a pleasant evening but I was feeling a bit apprehensive about my impending birthday. To cut a long story short, I somehow managed to lose the ring after that evening. The next day I sent some clothes to the laundry and when it was returned, one of my socks was missing and a pair of trousers had shrunk. That evening at the B&B, I was gaaning aan about my lost ring and the bloody laundry when Alex and Kiera, having had just about enough of my ranting and raving, walked out of the room saying that they were going out, without me. How could they be so cruel to leave me alone on my birthday? I felt so overwhelmed with self-pity that I sat down on the bed and wept. And then it dawned on me, what a pain in the arse I was being. I started to think about the loss of the ring as a metaphor for me losing my self confidence. I had begun to think of myself as an old woman and was behaving, and expecting to be treated, as one. I dithered in the subway when faced with a crowded carriage, causing us to miss a few trains. I became paralysed trying to cross busy Beijing streets, again causing a lot of exasperation. I was hopeless in the markets, totally ill at ease with the haggling and bustling crowds. And I was driving my travel companions mad with my need for tea. To top it all my ankles had swollen from the heat and all the pounding of pavements and I was struggling to keep up. I had started to resent the fact that my travel companions were making no allowances for my old age! This had lead, indirectly, to a terrible row in Shanghai because I had felt that Kiera was being very inconsiderate, given my advanced years, to expect me to rush around a mall at lightening speed to find food before the lights went out in the Bund.
The upshot of all this musing was that I decided, then and there, to get my act together and to stop telling myself that I was old, which is difficult when you are travelling with youngsters, but I thought that I should start thinking of my age and experience as an advantage and not a hindrance. I was just beginning to regain my composure when Kiera and Alex reappeared and asked me to join them for dinner. Later James assured me that my children had never intended to leave me alone on my birthday; they had just wanted to teach me a lesson! And I have to admit, it was a lesson well taught and well learned. I’m still pretty bummed about that ring though.
After Chiang Mai we headed north west to Soppong, but more about that next time.