Once we were done with Tianjin we didn't have any great ideas for the remaining five days of our vacation. Beijing was about 100 degrees and hadn't been as fun as we'd expected anyway. I couldn't face another flight just for a few days in another part of China. I studied the map and the only other major city I saw within easy train distance was Tangshan, which I knew very little about. However, a city of more than two million people was certainly going to have markets, good restaurants, and some kind of attractions. When I asked Mei Ling about Tangshan, she told me that one of her close friends from Miami was there for the summer and that sealed the deal. Tangshan would be our final stop of the trip.
Tangshan is one of the largest cities in Hebei, a horseshoe-shaped province that surrounds the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin. Hebei doesn't have any defining characteristics because it's an artificial province that was carved from different areas around the capital. If anything, Hebei is known for manufacturing and mining which is the reason for its dubious distinction as China's most polluted province. One mysterious chunk of Hebei floats between Beijing and Tianjin but is completely separated from the rest of the province. This exclave contains the cities of Sanhe, Dachang, and Xianghe and has a large population of Hui Muslims. There's virtually nothing in the English language internet that describes this region, except for a couple of stubs on Wikipedia. It may be that there's absolutely nothing in this area worthy of discussion, but I find the complete absence of any information somewhat odd.
Mei Ling's friend insisted on sending a driver all the way to Tianjin to pick us up. I followed our progress using my Google Maps GPS and soon realized that we weren't on a course to Tangshan at all, but rather headed far north of the city. That's when Mei Ling told me that we were actually going to a smaller town called Zunhua about 50 miles north of Tangshan. That's not Tangshan, I told her. It's in Tangshan prefecture, she answered. That's kind of how things go when we're in China. I didn't have high expectations for Zunhua, but the city was even worse than I expected. If Mei Ling's hometown of Mudanjiang is the Cleveland of China, Zunhua is Newark. A thick haze of pollution hung over the entire city, which seemed to be entirely composed of grim blocks of Soviet-style housing. At least the hotel that we'd been put up in was comfortable and relatively modern.
Mei Ling's friends treated us to yet another banquet which ended in another birthday party for Spenser. One of the more unusual dishes was a Barbie dressed in a flowing kimono of raw meat for the hot pot. As usual every effort was made to get me drunk on the grain liquor baijiu which I raised cheerfully to my lips but didn't imbibe. In China it's a big thing to get the guest of honor wasted at dinner, but unfortunately for my hosts I haven't let myself get intoxicated for many, many years and I wasn't about to start now in front of my three kids for the sake of politeness.
Across the street from our hotel was the community market which was fairly small and lacked any unusual items, but it was better than nothing. There were some live chickens and rabbits and a salad bar. By this point I'd learned to stop the salad lady from dumping the heaping spoonful of salt onto my selections before she tossed it.
Our hosts did a good job of keeping the kids entertained despite the paucity of attractions in Zunhua. We spent one day at a hot spring and another at a creek where the kids caught tiny little minnows in nets. Evenings were occupied with multiple course dinners that lasted for hours. It was a very laid back and easy lifestyle with all our needs being attended to, but I missed the excitement of our stops in Dalian and Osaka. Most of us were starting to get coughs and runny noses after the first day as well, and I wondered if it was just a cold or something to do with the relentless grey smog that hovered permanently over the city.
We did make it to Tangshan for one day which for me was the highlight of our visit to Hebei. On the outskirts of town we visited an enormous food hall and conference center that was something of a domestic tourist trap. On the ground floor there were numerous food preparation stations selling various regional dishes. Upstairs was an Escheresque labyrinth of chambers containing exhibits, private dining areas, conference rooms, and even craft stations. The kids had a messy blast making clay figurines. The koi pond on the ground floor was packed with colorful and ravenous fish which allowed me another shot at fulfilling my fantasy of feeding them with chopsticks.
There's not much for travelers to see in Tangshan except for a grim memorial to the devastating earthquake of 1976 which killed a quarter of a million people. Instead we spent the evening at a large street market which was mostly dedicated to clothes and household goods but also contained a sizable and variegated food court. I realized this was my last chance to buy a Chinglish T-shirt on this trip and began to search all the vendors for one with the most random and inappropriate messages. The vendors were confused when I immediately rejected all the T-shirts they suggested for me because they weren't silly enough. The best one I'd seen the whole trip was a girl in Dalian whose shirt said "I've got stupid wrhen all over my face" but I wasn't lucky enough to find anything like that. I settled for one that claimed the brand "Burbeery" and had some incoherent nonsense about "Londineblamb" inscribed underneath.
Our trip came to an end on an anticlimactic note, but it had still been a remarkable experience particularly with respect to Dalian and Osaka. Trying to base ourselves in Beijing had been a mistake - I had some notion that we would leave the bulk of our luggage behind and travel light to other cities but that proved impractical. On our next trip to China in 2021 we're hoping to spend five or six days in each of four southern provinces that we've never visited: Szechuan, Hunan, Guangxi, and Yunnan. Hopefully we'll be able to combine that with a two week stay in northern Vietnam. Of course, there's still a lot of time for those plans to change but I'm really looking forward to experiencing a different side of China with incredible mountains and landscape, mouthwatering cuisine, and diverse ethnic groups.
Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.
We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning, the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.
We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.
As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.
I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us the next two days, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge it's height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
Once we figured out how to get to Water Park, it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian, but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.
We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.
With a couple more days before we were due in Tianjin, we made an impromptu decision to spend the weekend with Mei Ling's friends at their family home on Chongming Island. Chongming is the largest of a group of islands that occupy the wide mouth of the mighty Yangtze River.
We took the metro from my brother's house almost an hour to get to the bus station in Pudong, from where we had a ninety minute bus trip to Chongming Island. We stayed in a very basic, local hotel which the kids loved because they had an old-fashioned miniature arcade game.
Almost all of Chongming Island is criss-crossed by wide canals. We walked alongside one to the center of town where the main market was still in progress in late afternoon. Unsurprisingly, much of the market was devoted to seafood although there was a sizable section for produce. One fisherman incongruously dressed in a sport jacket was gutting eels that were held in place on a long board by a nail through the head. A cheerful woman showed off her fish that was so fresh that the decapitated head was still gasping on the counter.
One of my favorite Chinese dishes that is impossible to find anywhere else is drunken shrimp. In fact, it's only popular in the areas directly to the west of Shanghai like Suzhou and Hangzhou. Live shrimp are marinated in wine and soy sauce to make them sluggish and then eaten alive. The strength of the wine determines how much the shrimp are moving when they are eaten. The first time I had drunken shrimp in Hangzhou the shrimp were so active that one actually jumped out of the bowl. The dish isn't just enjoyable for its bizarreness. The fresh taste and crunchiness of the small freshwater shrimp are complemented by the wine and the spices in the marinade. When we came across a basket of the shrimp at the market I decided the next best thing to a bowl of drunken shrimp was to try a raw shrimp without any seasoning at all. The texture was there but the flavor was very bland without the wine, so I decided to wait to find the dish in a restaurant rather than finish the basket.
As rural as it may seem, most of the residents of Chongming Island are quite wealthy. The homes are roomy and modern, and there are quite a number of elaborate mansions scattered around. Many of the homes come with a plot of farmland nearby that can be used to grow corn or watermelon, among other crops. Some take their farming more seriously than others. After the market we walked along the canal to check on Mei Ling's friends' watermelon crop. Almost all the watermelons were over-ripe so the watermelon harvesting trip turned into a watermelon-smashing trip.
On the way back we checked some of the traps that people leave in the canals to catch small aquatic creatures. We didn't find much in there except tiny crabs and minnows, but it was interesting to see how the locals use every tool they can to increase the variety of their food supply.
We did finally have drunken shrimp that evening at the banquet Mei Ling's friends threw for us, but the shrimp were so sluggish they would hardly twitch no matter how much Ian poked at them. More fun was to be had from digging tiny snails out of their shells with toothpicks. The bathroom decor was also interesting. The walk home was quite long but the kids got to ride on the scooter as Mei Ling's friend walked it back.
In the morning we went back to the community market to see it operating at full steam. There were more stalls open around the market now, including vendors making delicious breads and pancakes. The seafood section was decidedly more energetic as well.
We still had plenty of time before returning to Shanghai so we drove to Chongming Dongtan Birds National Nature Reserve. We hiked across wooden bridges and through some interesting wetlands for a couple of hours until the heat became too much for us. We had a long afternoon and evening of travel ahead of us before we could rest again in Tianjin.
When we left the last two weeks of our itinerary empty, we had no intention of visiting Shanghai despite the fact that my brother lives there with his two sons. I had been to Shanghai three times before and although it’s one of my favorite cities I was intent on covering new ground. Our hope was that my brother would find time to meet us in one of the other cities we were visiting, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to get the time off work so we flew from Osaka to Shanghai instead of back to Beijing.
Michael has been living in Shanghai for twenty years. He’s divorced and currently lives in a three story townhouse well to the west of central Shanghai with his sons, his girlfriend, a nanny, and an ayi. Although the location wasn’t convenient, we stayed with him to maximize the amount of time our kids could spend with their cousins. The townhouse was in a large complex of neoclassical buildings that could have been quite beautiful if they weren't so grimy and dilapidated. The three rooms on each level were arranged around a central winding staircase whose banister railings were far enough apart that any of our kids could have fallen through them easily. I spent most of our waking hours at the apartment making sure that the kids stayed in my nephews' bedroom to play rather than chasing each other up and down the stairs.
Being far from the center was an opportunity to see the modern, residential side of Shanghai. About half a mile away was a commercial area with enormous malls, restaurants, and supermarkets. For our first dinner in Shanghai we chose a supermarket where we could buy live seafood from tanks and have it cooked to order. Even though we had more adults around to keep things in check, it was still a daunting task to keep the critical mass of five ebullient kids from knocking over the displays.
The next day we never made it out of the local area. Mei Ling's brother took a train up from Hangzhou with his fiancee and we spent most of the afternoon in the local mall. The big event was an appearance by a Hong Kong actor named Andy Lau, who I'd never heard of but is apparently one of the biggest stars of Chinese language movies ever. Every balcony of the multilevel mall was packed with people awaiting the actor's appearance, which finally took place about ninety minutes after it was scheduled and lasted about two minutes. None of us even caught a glimpse of him from where we were standing. Afterwards we took turns on the virtual reality rides which were thankfully a lot less expensive than they had been in Qingdao.
By the time we left the mall a torrential downpour was competing with the colorful hourly fountain show in the plaza. We hurried to a local restaurant where the food was cooked at the table with an enormous blowtorch that ignited the cooking oil into a mass of flames. Not a good place to be wearing hairspray.
The next day we finally used Shanghai's world class metro. The Chinglish signs warning against jumping onto the tracks that I remembered from 2011 were gone. Now there were European-style barriers between the platform and the train, a welcome sight given that we had five kids to keep track of. We met up with one of Mei Ling's Chinese friends from Miami at the Shanghai Natural History Museum. I wasn't too enthusiastic about the choice because I'd just taken Ian and Cleo to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan a year earlier and they hadn't clicked with it at all. Sure enough, the six kids seemed more interested in tussling with each other and scattering in every direction than they were in any of the exhibits. Before long the adults were all exhausted with corralling their offspring and we decided to search for a more interesting location. Before hitting the road we spent a few minutes appreciating the sculpture park in the plaza outside the museum.
Most of what is interesting to travelers in Shanghai is concentrated in a relatively small area between the North-South Expressway and the Huangpu River. The museum was just outside that area so we had a long but not unpleasant walk to Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Along the way Mei Ling's friend rented a city bike and the kids alternated riding on it as they grew tired of walking. Along the way we passed by People's Park and got a close-up look at Tomorrow Square, a futuristic skyscraper that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade.
Nanjing Road was satisfyingly hectic and lined with a mix of classically elegant buildings and eclectic skyscapers, but it was decidedly more modern and Western-appearing than I remembered. Most of the sidewalk vendors that used to clog the area were gone with the exception of one small side street. We bought a cool little car from a kiosk where the demonstration model was driving straight up and down walls using suction, but once we got it back to the apartment it didn't even turn on. When we took it apart we found that it was missing the lithium battery. It was kind of hard to understand the point of selling a defective version of a toy that only cost twelve bucks, but my brother insisted that the battery was two thirds of the value of the entire car.
We continued moving east towards the river and soon encountered older neighborhoods that were riddled with narrow pedestrian alleys. We dived into these areas whenever we found them and found an excellent restaurant to squeeze into for an early dinner.
By the time we'd left the second restaurant of the evening darkness and fallen and we had reached The Bund, the historic western bank of the Huangpu that hosts the majestic remnants of Shanghai's colonial era. Although our experience thus far in Shanghai had been fairly sedate, here we found a huge mixed crowd of locals, Chinese tourists, and Westerners. Across the river was the brightly illuminated and futuristic skyline of Pudong, Shanghai's hypermodern expansion with huge international hotels and financial skyscrapers. We let the kids feed off the energetic atmosphere for a while and then returned to the metro for the long trip back home.
Friday morning we took the metro to a rather nondescript area in northwestern Shanghai for the weekly Muslim Market next to the Huxi Mosque. In the face of China's apparent homogeneity it is easy to forget that the country has a sizable Muslim minority. The most visible Muslim population is the Uighurs who have migrated from their home region of Xinjiang into practically every Chinese metropolis, often as providers of the highly coveted barbecued skewer street food. The Hui Muslims number more than the Uighurs but are less well-known because of the extent to which they have assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese culture. There are currently about 80000 Muslims living in Shanghai, but of course the market also serves many non-Muslim locals who enjoy Uighur food as well as Westerners. Aside from the omnipresent lamb skewers, there were enormous lamb shanks and mouthwatering deep fried chickens on display.
Ignoring the drizzle, we feasted on skewers that were better quality than the usual late night street food fare. I couldn't resist the temptation to buy a huge, meaty lamb haunch. I rounded up the kids and we took turns ripping hunks of meat from the leg with our teeth as other marketgoers looked on in amusement.
Stuffed to the brim with lamb, we were energized to press on to Yuyuan. On my last visit to Shanghai I was amazed how the huge koi in the pond at this historic garden aggressively piled on top of each other when they were being fed by visitors, sometimes until they were practically out of the water entirely. I thought to myself that I could even put food into their mouths directly with chopsticks. I got kind of obsessed with this idea and eventually resolved that on my next trip to Shanghai I would feed koi rice with chopsticks. It was still raining when we arrived at Yuyuan but the touristy bazaar around the garden was jam-packed. Despite the plethora of fast-food kiosks we couldn't find a single one that was selling steamed rice and eventually we had to settle for a loaf of crumbly bread.
The garden was also more crowded than I remembered from our last visit, probably because we were there at the peak of the summer tourist season. Despite the intermittent drizzle it was quite enjoyable to walk along the paths among the ponds and pagodas, admiring the artful rock walls and graceful trees. The bridge across the pond with all the koi was much narrower than I remembered, and as soon as the kids saw I was going to feed the fish they all rushed over and I couldn't convince them to go back. Not only did I have to grasp chunks of crumbly bread with the chopsticks instead of sticky lumps of rice, but I had to keep one eye on the kids as they jostled each other on the rain-slicked and crowded concrete path. Feeding the fish with chopsticks wasn't quite the experience I had imagined but it was still very entertaining, especially when a couple of enterprising snapping turtles made an appearance and dominated the session.
The area around the Yu Garden contains many of Shanghai's most beautiful traditional buildings as well as one of its most famous tea houses. We spent some time hunting for an amazing street market we remembered from our last trip without success. Eventually a security guard told Mei Ling that the market had been disbanded, just like our beloved street markets in Beijing. It was yet another unwelcome change from the China we remembered. We consoled ourselves by exploring a few alleys of the old town where we found a seafood store that allowed the kids to play with their live shrimp.
Around this time the skies opened and we were drenched with a torrential downpour that our raincoats were no match for. We'd also lost track of the metro station and had to ask other people on the street for directions. Predictably enough, we had to trot for almost half a mile before we finally found the metro to take us back to my brother's suburb. Still damp and bedraggled, we had to dash through rain and puddles one more time to meet my brother and his crew at the hotpot restaurant where we would have an early birthday celebration for Spenser. This might have been the last time we would be able to pass off a dinner with a cake at the end as his birthday party. By next summer he'll probably have to have his own party at home after we come back just like his older siblings.
There's a lot more to Kansai than Osaka and Kyoto, but since we only had ten days in Japan we limited ourselves to two of the most popular day trips. I could still remember visiting Nara with my parents as a fifteen year old. Although the iconic temples of the ancient capital are its primary draw, my most vivid memories were of the crowds of tame deer overwhelming my attempts to parcel out crackers fairly.
We had an easy train ride from Namba and now I was in Nara again thirty-five years later, this time with my own children. While Nara is a good-sized suburb of Osaka, most tourists confine themselves to the small complex of temples and gardens at the northwestern edge of the town. We wandered around the peripheries of the more famous temples such as Kofoku-ji and Todai-ji but didn't go in, even to see the giant Buddha in Todai-ji. Neither Mei Ling nor I get too excited about religious iconography and the kids are too young to care. On the other hand the kids were enormously entertained by the hungry deer that roamed throughout the complex.
The largest concentration of deer were in Noborioji Park next to Kofoku-ji. A vendor was selling packages of crackers which contained an instruction pamphlet. The paper warned us not to tease the deer with the crackers and to show them our empty hands when we had nothing left. It seemed a little silly until we actually got out there with the crackers and had to contend with being swarmed by deer aggressively darting at our hands. At the same time that we were trying to keep the packages from being snatched out of our hands, other deer were circling behind us and investigating our pockets and bags. At one point I had to jump away from a deer that was slowly working my Japanese phrasebook out of my back pocket. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden flash of movement near Spenser but by the time I could focus on him he was brushing himself off unperturbed. Only later when I watched the video did I see that he barely dodged a large doe lunging at him with its front hooves. He hadn't even done anything to provoke her. I guess I should have been watching my kids a little more carefully instead of filming, but at least we have a video Spenser can be proud to show his own kids one day.
There are two neighboring walled gardens adjacent to Todai-ji. We chose Yoshiki-en Garden for the simple reason that it was free for foreigners while Isui-en was fairly expensive to enter. We enjoyed a relaxing walk along the pebble paths of the beautifully landscaped garden before our return to Osaka.
Over the ten days we spent in Kansai we probably visited about as many temples and castles as the average tourist visits in two days. However, we didn't hold back when it came to visiting Japan's largest and most beautiful castle on the last full day of our visit. After a hearty breakfast in one of the food halls in Umeda Station we took the direct limited express train to Himeji. This meant we would be leaving Japan without taking a single bullet train which is something of a tourism sacrilege. On the other hand, we saved about forty bucks for an extra forty-five minutes of travel time. Maybe the shinkansen would have been worth it if we had been riding on the roof of the train, but from the inside of the carriage I don't see how the extra speed would have felt much different.
Himeji is a sizable city of half a million people that sits at the end of the continuously developed coastal area that begins at Osaka. The castle is about a kilometer from the train station but try as we might we couldn't find the stop for the bus that shuttles tourists from the station to the castle. Instead we walked up the wide thoroughfare Otemae Street with the hilltop castle directly in our sights. When I first researched Osaka and came across Himeji Castle I was taken back by how enormous and beautiful it was. Seeing it in person, what struck me the most was the visual impact of the gray-tiled eaves and gables against the pristine whiteness of the castle walls.
The interior tour of Himeji was quite exhausting. There were six floors and after the second the staircases were more like ladders. Between trying to position myself behind the kids while they climbed and keeping track of them on each crowded floor I don't recall very much about what was inside, aside from the facts that the floors and walls were a dark wood. I don't even recall if photographs were prohibited or not worth taking, but I don't have any. It was a relief to get back outside and walk the rest of the compound underneath the overcast sky.
Adjacent to the castle compound is a large complex of gardens called Koko-en. These were the best gardens we saw on this trip to Japan. There was a seemingly endless chain of gardens, each one greener and more pleasingly manicured than the last. The koi in the numerous ponds were colorful and enormous. It was a very relaxing way to conclude the day trip.
On the walk back to the Himeji train station we realized we hadn't eaten any soba since our first night in Kyoto. Not wanting to miss our last opportunity to eat these delicious buckwheat noodles in the country of their origin we found yet another underground food court close to the station. There was an unusual system in the restaurant where we had to buy tickets for our dishes at a vending machine and give them to the cook, where they were thankfully prepared in the kitchen and not in the bowels of the machine.
We arrived back at Umeda in the evening and stepped outside for one last look at the plaza with the fountains in front of Osaka Station. We often have mixed feelings about leaving a city that we've enjoyed, but we were sorry to be leaving Osaka. While we had packed everything on our list into our eight day stay, I was acutely conscious that we had still only seen a small fraction of the city's area. Who knows what secrets of Osaka we still hadn't uncovered? It would have been great to have had another week to find out. I had never expected to visit a city on this trip that would crack our top ten, let alone our top three, but we both agreed that Osaka and Kyoto taken together had more to offer a traveler than Tokyo. That left only New York City and London as greater cities to visit thanks to their incomparable international character. Now it was time to fly back to China and revisit our fourth favorite city in the world, the electrifying metropolis of Shanghai.