October 31, 2004

depressing sunday

Sundays, I hate sundays. Most others probably like sundays, because it is still weekend. I hate sundays, I've always hated sundays.

Sunday is boring. There are only a couple things you do on sunday: recover from a hangover (bye-bye-sunday), doing nothing at all (very common), watching the grand prix while you know Schumacher wins it anyway, checking your emails and checking them again an hour later, you do your choirs (how depressing is that?!? always "laundry this", "cleaning house that").
There was a time in my life when sundays were good though. I would be flying model aircraft. That was fun, until the thick-headed Dutch bullshit government decided that silent, unpowered model gliders were more annoying and environmentally unfriendly than the power-boosted mopets and scooters revving their little sowing-machine-like-engines at 150 decibels!
Then there is the next door neighbour ofcourse. Despite living in a very Christian village he always felt it necessary to start doing DIY at 8 am on a sunday morning, the heiden! Ofcourse it wasn't cutting the hedge with scissors, but rather drilling the walls and hammering them down!

There is another good reason to not like sundays: The next day will be monday and the first working day of the week! When I was a kid, that would be interesting because I actually loved going to school. I had really nice classmates in Arnhem, but when we moved away, well... you can imagine something.

Ofcourse if you like gardening I suggest you stick to sundays. Ideal for gardeners!

well, winter time has set in. The clock went back an hour last night. It meant an hour extra sleep. very useful for bristol's drunkards. Not so much for me though as I spend it awake, so I didn't get that much sleep.

Right tomorrow back to work again! Let's hit the sack. teh sooner I go to sleep the sooner sunday belongs to the past...

October 28, 2004

Museums and sightseeing…

From reading several travel guides, one would think there is enough to see in Shanghai to fill 3 weeks in Shanghai alone. Well, it really isn’t that impressive. Unless you literally want to follow what the book tells you, you can see the most important stuff well in a week’s time and do some ordinary shopping as well.
Shanghai has a couple of museums, of which I have seen only one I must admit. The Shanghai Museum on People Square is quite good. They have a good collection of artefacts and they have it nicely attired. I believe they’ve done the place up a couple of years ago. Well, now it is definitely worth going. The price is fairly cheap, only 30 Yuan. However, if you want to get the most of it I suggest you get an audio guide, which costs about 60 Yuan I believe. The audio guide is needed, because despite their interesting collection and their nice layout, the artefacts do not have much of a description. They all have a sign that states: ‘this a vase’, or ‘this is a painting’. If you are lucky they display the era from which it descended. Very disappointing as it makes the museum a lot less interesting. In case you are wondering, it doesn’t help being able to read Chinese, as both Chinese and English are displayed.
If you want to see everything properly you really should spend 2 half- days, as it is indeed that extensive.
Having said that, the best collection you can probably find in Taipei, Taiwan. When Chiang Kai Shek and his followers were chased out of China, they brought along as much of the Chinese heritage as they could possibly carry, to prevent it from being smashed by the communists. The museum in Taipei is quite a bit bigger than the Shanghai museum, and I will certainly want to go there a second time. Especially since I have only seen about a third or so the last time I went there.

ancient wine vessel
ancient wine vessel, originally uploaded by ksporry.

buddha in large numbers
buddha in large numbers, originally uploaded by ksporry.

Hangzhou is a lot better! Hangzhou is fairly touristy and at the west lake in Hangzhou always attracts a lot of people. On one of the peninsulas has a nice little museum with some fairly interesting artefacts. Although the museum is not even nearly as big as the Shanghai museum and the artefacts are not always as interesting, it does have some interesting pointers. First of all, what definitely makes this museum better than the Shanghai museum, is the fact that they have displays everywhere! Each artefact has an explanation of what it is, where and when it is from, what it was used for, etc etc. And every so many displays they provide you with a little story about the further developments made in a particular era. Very interesting, and it is even in English! They also discuss some of the more recent history of China, like the rise of the communists, Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang, the Japanese occupation, the cultural revolution, etc etc. definitely worth seeing. One drawback though, is that you can walk through the museum pretty quickly.
Having said that, There is so much to see in Hangzhou/west lake, that you won’t miss too much. Most of the buildings and sightseeing highlights are reconstructions and restorations. Very few is left from the original buildings, which is a bit of a shame, but it is still nice to see. Again, if you want to see Hangzhou, I suggest you take 2 full days to see the west lake area properly, maybe even more, because many of the attractions close around 17.00. You also need to be fairly fit as the area is surrounded with hills, and there are some steep stairs to climb!
One interesting little shop on the main peninsula, is part of the seal stone engravers society. A society that was dedicated to, yes, you can guess: engraving seal stones. They use an ancient way of script for seal stones, nowadays known as, again not very surprising: seal script. They have a very interesting collection of seal stones, in all shapes and sizes, but also a lot more that is related to Chinese calligraphy, like brushes, ink stones, ink tablets, etc etc. Note though that they don’t bargain like Old Town. The price on the item is what you get to pay, take it or leave it! If you really want to get something interesting I would suggest to go for it here, as they do have some unique items. Otherwise you can get many seal stones a lot cheaper in Old Town.
If you do have the opportunity, go there during spring, when the lotuses are blossoming. That should give quite a spectacular sight on the lake as there are many fields of lotuses. When I was there, all you could see is the green leaves on stalks of about 2 meters high. Interesting, but not exactly breathtaking.

Gate Shanghai
Gate Shanghai, originally uploaded by ksporry.

Shanghai has several other attractions that are worth going to.
There is the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is a modern shaped TV/Radio Tower of some 400 odd meters tall. You can go up to 360 meters in the futuristic, rocket shaped tower. There are 3 balls you can visit, although I didn’t see any elevators or stairs going to the first ball. The second ball at some 260 meters high is regarded as one of the more interesting points of view, especially considering Shanghai’s haziness. Also it is a lot cheaper than doing the whole thing. I paid the extortionate sum of 100 Yuan to get to the top, which does allow you to visit the second ball as well. It is interesting, but no more than that.
Alternatively you could go to the Jinmao Tower. At 88 stories one of the highest buildings in Asia, which has now been surpassed by Taiwan’s Taipei-101 tower. The Tower is designed with a typical Chinese building architecture in mind. Strangely the Taiwanese kind of copied the style for their Taipei-101, which is now the tallest building in the world. Personally I like the Jinmao tower better than Taipei-101. It has a more interesting design (I will put some photos up later for comparison).
The Jinmao tower is cheaper than the Oriental Pearl Tower at only 70 or 80 Yuan, and it does bring you quite a bit higher than the Oriental Pearl Tower. If you can see the rest of the city remains to be seen though…
When you travel to the Pudong district (e.g. to visit the oriental pearl tower), you could choose to take the pedestrian tunnel. At 30 Yuan it is 15 times as expensive as walking to Henan Road station and taking a 2 Yuan subway, but it is actually quite interesting, and lets face it, 30Yuan is only 2 GBP. Hardly worth a second thought unless your middle name is Scrooge.
I already discussed Old Town with its bazaars. There is more than bazaars though. You can go to the Yuyuan gardens, which again has an entry fee, but is worth the money. It is quite sizable and you spend more time than you would initially expect. The buildings are intriguing and original. A lot of it is restored but it looks nice. Unfortunately when I came, most of the buildings had closed doors. Each building has a small description of what the room represents and what it what it was used for.

Some things are more worth going to in the evening, when it is dark. Like Nanjing road, which is the biggest shopping street in Asia. It actually has a small ‘train’ running along the street! During the day it is no more than most other shopping streets, but at night it looks like the light strip in Las Vegas! Quite impressive I have to admit. Some things are not directly touristy and obvious. At some point I went to visit a friend and her parents. She picked me up and accompanied me to her parents for dinner. Along the way we walked past some rather old building blocks. Smaller houses between the tall flats. Between the ancient rows of houses were tiny little narrow alleys. And they were pitch black! Occasionally you could see a light up in the distance, but generally it was just plain dark. It is amazing people could actually walk through those alleys without stumbling over the rubbish! It was an intriguing sight and I actually felt myself drawn to those ancient alleys between the old houses that surrounded them. Ofcourse wisdom, and my friend as well, told me I better didn’t. In these cases it is wise to have a guide with you. To be honest, I doubt anything would have happened to me if I would have dived into such an alley. Shanghai is really not that criminal.

Hmm, it seems like I have created my longest post so far. SO I better leave it at this. More next time…

October 22, 2004

Prices and haggling in Shanghai….

I am still amazed about the truth in what the Lonely Planet guide of Shanghai stated.
Haggling is indeed one of the things you have to perform on the streets of Shanghai. Though modern department stores will laugh at you, you can make deals with less rigid stores, like the Huanlong department store opposite Shanghai Central Railway station (not to confuse with Guanlong).
However, if you go to Old Town, you have-to haggle. In fact, they will be insulted if you don’t.
The thing is, when they see a western guy, they will immediately zoom in on him/her. If you have a Chinese companion, they will ignore that person. Also they will double their prices for westerners.
Haggling can be quite tricky if you haven’t done so before. Prices you see may be cheap , especially for the place you come from (e.g. the UK), but you have to remember that for them, those prices are extortionate! You shouldn’t just think ‘what would I like to pay for that?’. You actually have to think ‘If I was Chinese, with an average Chinese salary, what would I want to pay for that?’ Take that number and then offer the retailer 50% of the price you want to pay for it. Effectively you will probably have to offer 10% of the listed price. They will decline but immediately give you 30% reduction. Increase your price just a little bit, only a few yuan, say 5 yuan (depending on the product). They will drop their prices even more, and so on and so forth. You will probably end up paying 30-35% of the listed price. Sometimes, after their first reduction they won’t go lower. Be prepared to walk away. Go to the next shop (that will most likely sell the exact same item). They will almost certainly follow you decreasing their price with every step you make, and they will probably meet your price. Sometimes they won’t but that is the risk. Then again, I’m sure you can get the item in another shop.
Also remember that as long as they decrease their price, they make a profit. And you have to be really hard. Don’t give in to sweet sad looks, they probably still rip you off. You have to haggle for every single penny/yuan/cent, seriously! Also keep in mind that you always have to stay friendly during the whole process. Keep smiling even if they don’t meet your price. Be polite, and don’t insult them, because gone your bargain will be…
Whenever you are interested in an object, and you try to haggle for it, scrutinise the object. Even if it looks good. Try to find every single defect or deficiency and point it out. It will get you another discount extra. Even if the defect seems to be only in your head (like, one chopstick is less shiny than the other, things like that).
When you look at wooden objects, make sure you know something about the wood characteristics, or have someone that knows something about it. You don’t have to be an expert, but even an amateur can distinguish between lacquered pine and mahogany! This is important, because they will claim everything is mahogany. You can notice the difference between high quality hard wood (like mahogany, oak, etc) and pine and other soft woods. First of all, a softwood dents easily. Ofcourse you can’t just try to dent the product and see how easy that is. But you can feel it from the texture. Often softwoods are also a lot lighter (because of the lesser density of the wood), and with hard woods you can distinguish line patterns of the wood much better. You can also see that often, even if it is real mahogany, the object is lacquered, just look for drips and drops. If there is a texture, the paint will be lighter on the higher parts and darker in the lower parts. Anyway, you get the picture…

In the normal shops they don’t always accept credit cards, like the Huanlong department store, near the station. These are small shops in one big building, a bit like a mall. None of these shops accept electronic payments, simply because the facilities have never been installed in the building. You can get good prices there for brand new products, but normally they don’t give you a Tax receipt. If you Do require such a receipt, the price will go up. Reason for this is because they have to buy Tax coupons from the tax office. Obviously this costs them money, which they will reflect in the price. Since these shops are not really market shops like you find on the streets, you can’t haggle, like in Old Town.
If you do more business, you may be able to get some reduction, but in fairness, it won’t be much, and the price you pay, will be good anyway. I did some business buying and selling some camera lenses there, and generally they are like regular camera shops in Holland: They will give you a good deal if you buy something from them, and if you buy more, you can negotiate a nice price, but we are talking pennies here, so don’t push it too much. Also note that you won’t get a warranty with any electronics you buy from this place. But really, if you live on the other side of the world, there is probably little you can do anyway if it breaks down.
Modern department stores, like No. 1 Department store on Nanjing Road (the biggest shopping street in Asia, stretching over 1,5-2 miles…!) will have modern prices: the same as at home. They will provide you with all the (tax) receipts.

More to come soon…

October 20, 2004

Winters in England are cold.... and wet!

Well, just to have a break in my stories about Shanghai.
Winter has set in here in the UK. Ofcourse I noticed this on the evening I landed at Heathrow. It was bitterly cold. In honesty I have to admit that the temperature today isn’t too bad really. But it is wet! Its been raining all night and all morning. I was surprised to find it brought up some nostalgic feelings. It kind of makes me homesick to a time a and place in my youth. At the time I was living in Arnhem and I had a very good childhood there (with some exceptions ofcourse). That combined with the photos I see of trees changing colours. You may wonder why I said ‘photos’ rather than the real thing. That’s because the weather in England doesn’t really allow an opportunity to watch autumns colours unfortunately.
I remember when in Arnhem there was a big park just north of the central station. We always had excursions to this park with the school, especially in the autumn. We would be picking up leaves and all kinds of tree seeds, like acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, etc. We would examine them back in school.
I remember there was a little waterfall in the park, and you could walk underneath it, and it was small enough to cross through on the top, without fear of being swept away.
Back then it could rain just like it is now. Only back then we would still get real winters in Holland, unlike nowadays. In Arnhem we would even get snow! Knee high! (ofcourse I was only 10 back then, so knee high back then is now ankle high…) We could ride our snow sledges from the dykes or some of the few hills we have in Holland. Normally we first would get snow in winter, and later we would get ice. Sometimes, if they didn’t put any salt on the streets, the snow would freeze up and one of the neighbours would tie all the sledges to the towing hook of his car and tow us through the streets in the area. The joy we had…
First snow fall was always amazing. My brother and I would be playing outside and you could smell the snow building up in the clouds, and suddenly at the end of the afternoon, just after twilight, big fat snow flakes would tumble down from the skies. My brother and I would immediately grab our shovels and start asking people if we could clear their paths for them (for a small fee ofcourse). You may think why as it just started. But within half an hour there would be 10 cm of snow! So if we start early, we can come back an hour later and do it again for them, again for a small fee ofcourse ^_-
It makes me somewhat homesick thinking back to those days. I will make sure to go back during Christmas and New years eve. Though I might spend new years eve with friends. It is more convenient if I have to go back to the UK the next day. Last year we actually got to see some snow when we were on the train back to the airport. That was quite a delight! And the atmosphere was soo nice in Holland, during those festivities. I hope that recent government plans to cut budget on, well, everything, haven’t made people too bitter.Recently I found some photos made in Japan, showing the golden temple covered in snow. It was absolutely gorgeous! This is why I would very much like to go there. At least Japan still knows real seasons!

October 17, 2004

...part 2: Taxi's

Taxis in Shanghai, a bit of an experience. There are taxis in abundance in Shanghai, wherever you are there will be dozens of Taxis driving around. Now normally in England I would never think about getting a taxi, because it is just too damn expensive. A 5 minute ride in the UK costs you around 5 GBP! Not in Shanghai though. On average a 10-15 minute ride would cost around 10-15 Yuan, 3 yuan more after 23:00. 15 Yuan on average equals 1 GBP. In fact, at some point I started to get worried when a ride became 17 Yuan! (Which is still peanuts...).
Taxi's are quite easy to identify. They are all Volkswagen Santana's, it being the Santana 2000 or otherwise, so the shape is very distinct. The colours you can recognise quickly as well. They are always bi-coloured, with silver and aqua blue, or dark red. Sometimes with yellow or another colour. Personally I have never heard of a Volkswagen Santana before, and I doubt they actually exist outside China.
The taxis all have white covers over the seating. This could be to spare the original cover, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has something to do with last year's SARS epidemic.
The taxi drivers, like everyone else, speak shanghainese. It is useful to have your destination written in Chinese, because they are bount to not understand you when you pronounce where you need to go.
The taxi drivers can be a bit rude though. The first time I took a axi, I only had 100 Yuan bill son me and the guy didn't have any change so he got totally upset and nervous because he had to change. So the moral here is to always make sure you have smaller with you when you take a taxi. Later on I discovered by the way that not all taxi drivers care that much...
Despite that, the taxi drivers are surprisingly honest I have to say. The meter is always set to 0 (you should check before you actually get in). However, they don't always follow your instructions, which means sometimes they take the long road, and they don't always let you off where you want to. Because of 'the rules'. Funny enough at some point I started giving the driver instructions where to go...

More next time...

October 14, 2004

Shanghai...where east meets west...part 1

Well, I got back from Shanghai. I'll be telling about my Shanghai experience in a series of posts, this being the first one. ALthough I could summarise it in a sentence: Read the Lonely Planet guide of Shanghai, 2004 print. It is spot on, to the letter!

My trip started and ended with the aircraft I actually helped design myself: the A340-600. I was quite exhilarated when I found out I got to fly an aircraft I helped design myself. Unfortunately, I let myself get blinded by that. Buy did I get a cold shower...
The A340-600 is supposed to have an in-flight entertainment system that is top notch. Too bad it is optional. I was flying with China Eastern and they apparently cut drastically on the in-flight entertainment. There were only a few LCD monitors in the centre row. What's worse, is that the programs played on it were mostly chinese. Nothing wrong with that, except that most programs didn't have subtitles. Plus the quality of the recording was soo bad (they must have bought some dirt cheap VCD copies from Shanghai Old Town, because I never saw something as bad as that), I couldn't even read the subtitles when they were there.
On the way back it was worse though. They played some chinese celebrity interview show, over and over again. Ofcourse again no subtitles. And it lasted for 6 hours!!! So at some point I asked the stewardess if she could change it, maybe put some movies on. She immediately did so and appologised for it (They are very polite and correct I have to say, no complaints about the service I got!). Again the films were poor quality. In fact, they showed some American movies, which were dubbed in chinese ofcourse, and then subtitled in english, very very poor english... It was almost funny!

You can notice though that they are a budget airliner, as beside the in-flight entertainment, they also cut costs on food. You get 2 meals and twice you get a drink, that's it, nothing more. Though you can grab drinks yourself during the whole flight, as they have trays with water and juices standing ready for the thirsty ones.

What was funny though was that on the way to Shanghai, I talked to one of the stewardesses and I asked her how the company (China Eastern) liked the aircraft. I told her I helped design the aircraft. That is... I tried to tell her. She couldn't understand english very well. Now I know I have an accent, but it really is not that bad! She constantly looked at me questioningly "what the hell is this guys saying???" And she would ask me to say it again a bit slower and she vrought her ear closer as if it was really noisy and she could hear me well. Finally a passenger walked up to us and started translating what I said to her.
No... it wasn't noisy...

October 11, 2004


Yes! I didn't know it was possible, but wonders do still exist! I can retrieve all my data from my presumed lost E-drive. I have my photos back!!! I am currently recovering all files and directories and I will back them up this evening. Then I will continue to recover all other files before I format the harddrive again. But before I do that I will make the harddrive an external one.
I'll keep you posted, first recovery operation!