travel junkie goes back to china...and heads to the French Concession

7:34 AM

I’ve been walking in borrowed heeled boots all day and for someone who always runs around in flats, the pain was simply unbearable.  So I think it was quite inevitable that I stopped and gawked at boxes heaping with ugg-like boots while on my way to the subway. The promise of comfort and relief from these softly-lined boots was too much to dismiss by my weeping feet. 

I walked up to the street side store and somehow managed to express my intent to purchase a pair. The woman answered in Chinese, which of course I didn’t understand. She eventually got the hint, reached for her calculator, and punched in the price, RMB20 (P120.) It was a very reasonable price, if I say so myself. But I couldn’t buy a pair without haggling, could I? I asked for RMB15 to which she vehemently shook her head, punched in RMB45, and pointed downward.  (I took that as, ‘I’ve already marked it down from RMB45.)  I tried to persuade her still, did the walking-away-tactic, but she held her ground. In the end, I came back, plunked down the RMB20, and slid into my new boots.  My ego might have suffered a bit of a bruising but my feet were deliriously happy. 

When I got to the French concession district, I found myself, again, lost. I climbed out of the Xintiandi station, into a swanky mall, and walked out to be greeted by a tree-lined street.  I expected to be looking at a sign or an entrance to the Xintiandi complex but I couldn’t see such a thing from where I was standing. To my right were another trendy mall, a gleaming condominium, and a parked Ferrari. To my left were quaint shops, pedestrians, and cabs. 

high-rise condos of the French Concession

I wanted to go back to the mall and into the subway. I didn’t need to see another moneyed district. They all look familiar and feel the same way, anyway – controlled, contrived, and unapologetically copious. Even worse, the wind was burning my face and freezing my hands; my feet were crying to be relieved from bearing my substantial weight; and all I could think of was sinking down into the generous armchair at the Captain hostel lobby.  

But I couldn’t escape the fact that I was there and that I wanted to be there. Therefore, I should give this district a chance. It might just surprise me.  

a crowd in front of the historical site of the Korean provisional government

a peak into an apartment row

At the next corner, I was delighted to see French-influenced architecture and people going about their daily lives. School kids were walking home, an old man on a balcony was taking a drag, and dolled-up young ladies were off to a proper night out. (I think.) 

fixing some transportation problem

ironing clothes while enjoying a view (of the street)

a game of cards right on the sidewalk

I also stumbled upon the best bun (or siopao as we call it back at home) shop, ever.  I just passed by a mechanic and a laundress when I spotted a boy kneading dough right next to towers of steamers.  A woman came up to the store window and bought three buns. The sight of a tray filled with white steaming buns was enough for my body to remind me that six hours have passed since I ate a bowl of noodles for breakfast. 

So I came up to the shop and stood next to the woman, pointed at her, gestured to the buns, and smiled. The storekeeper somehow managed to understand all that and handed me three buns.  It was the paying though that was a bit tricky. So I took out all of my coins, laid them on my palm, and she picked out what I owed her, RMB 3.30. 

There were three kinds of fillings – veg, sweet black beans, and what was seemingly like the best dumpling filling ever.  I wolfed down the three buns before I even reached the end of the street. They were that good! So what did this girl do? I retraced my steps and bought three more with the dumpling filling. (I was famished! Sue me.) 

the best bun shop ever!

This time, I decided to eat them while sitting down (at least.) Mercifully, I found a pretty spot and proceeded to eat two of my buns.  I was half-way through the second when I noticed a sign (or was it a map) of Xintiandi! Evidently, I was sitting at an entrance to Xintiandi. Isn’t that hysterical?!

the yummiest bun I've ever eaten!

the nice spot where I ate the tastiest bun ever

 Xintiandi is a complex of restaurants and shops, divided by alleyways and courtyards.  Stores were well-appointed and the clientele was designer-clad. There were a couple of familiar names like Shanghai Tang, Starbucks, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.  I wanted to warm myself with a cup of tea from Starbucks but was stopped dead cold when my conversion amounted to a good P200. (Goodness! For a cup of tea?!) So instead, I decided to head back to the hostel to fetch my luggage and head, yet again, for Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. 

an alley at Xintiandi

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in Chinese

The day before, I bought a train ‘sit’ ticket from Shanghai to Beijing instead of a ‘sleep’ one (which was double the price.) The ride was, after all, only ten hours. In theory, it’s much like taking a long-haul flight, right? Boy, was I wrong.   

The train seats were similar on Philippine buses, though in this case two passengers sit on the left and three on the right.  I had a window seat which was actually good. But next to me was a tweenie whose mobile rung every ten minutes and would wake everyone up except her. I had to nudge her every time the phone rung so she could answer it. To her left was an old man who kept on fidgeting every three minutes causing the entire row of seats to shake.  And that’s hardly tolerable when it’s 1030 in the evening and all you want to do is sleep. 

An hour and a half into our journey, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I asked the train attendant if I could move to a cabin. She said I could, if and only if there still was an empty bunk after we made our final stop.  Mercifully, at around 11:15, the attendant came up to me and guided me to an empty cabin. Unfortunately though, this promise of a good eight-hour sleep cost me a little over US$100. (It would’ve cost me less if I took the plane!) 

Together with me in the cabin was a couple. They appear to have been woken up by the attendants, too. Thus when we were directed to our cabin, we quietly went on our merry ways. They went straight for the upper bunks and I slept in a lower one.  

The bunk bed was really comfortable, wrapped in good white sheets and punctuated with a soft standard-size pillow. I had my own LCD TV, earphones, a reading light, and a magazine. Next to the window was a table with a thermos of hot water.  

train attendants having breakfast

my cabin number. slept on bunk 29

watched Chinese-speaking 'Jack' and 'Rose' on this one

good morning, Beijing! want a nice cup of tea?

I inexplicably woke up in the middle of the night and so turned on the TV to induce sleep. With headphones on, I channel surfed and stumbled upon ‘Titanic.’. So there I was, thundering my way to Beijing while watching Jack and Rose fight for their love against an iceberg, a sinking ship, and society in Chinese. I guess, there were worse ways to spend the night. 

I woke up the next day as the train approached Beijing South Railway station.

*Read about my adventures in Beijing on my next post.

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