Adventures in Kunshan

Today’s adventure was once again based on a shopping trip, but this time closer to “home” as it were. My companion (DC) and I decided to visit some of the local stores in Kunshan.

I stopped by the hotel front desk mid-morning armed with the business card of a local DVD dealer who came highly recommended. The address was written in Chinese characters. The hotel manager gave me directions (the shop is only a short distance from the hotel) and at my request, wrote the street name in English on the card. We discussed my desire to go to a bookstore near Tinglin Rd so I could pick up a Chinese-English dictionary to complement my English-Chinese dictionary. I remembered a bookstore about a block or two from Tinglin Rd. I also intended to revisit a few shops along Tinglin Rd. She mentioned the name of the street for the bookstore and it sounded familiar so I assumed it must be the same bookstore I remembered from my last trip.

DC and I planned to meet at 12:30. I made use of the available time by looking up the area on Google Maps and familiarizing myself with the lay of the land. I noticed the street name the hotel manager mentioned was *not* where I remember the book store, but it was only a block from Tinglin Road so I didn’t worry too much about it. DC and I met in the lobby, as agreed, and I stopped by the hotel manager’s desk to get her assistance with the taxi. She wrote out the address of the bookstore (in Chinese characters) on a sheet of paper for me to show the driver. The concierge called a cab and we were soon off on our Sunday adventure in Kunshan.

Sure enough, when the driver dropped us off in front of the bookstore, it was not the same bookstore. This bookstore was much larger. The first floor was filled with Chinese people and Chinese books. I headed straight for the service desk. Before I got there, the poor clerk’s eyes grew wide and she called for reinforcements. I suppose she could tell by looking at me that we’d need a translator. I asked if they had Chinese-English dictionaries, using my English-Chinese dictionary as a sample of what I was seeking. After a round or two of clarification she informed me that I’d find what I was looking for on the first floor. DC and I circled the first floor. Fortunately, all of the section headings had English as well as Mandarin text so we were able to determine that there were no dictionaries on the first floor. After studying a map of the store, I realized the clerk had probably said “fourth floor” not “first floor” so we escalated ourselves up a few flights and found what we were looking for.

With dictionary in hand we trudged back to the first floor to check out. But first, we went back to the service desk to ask if they had street maps of Kunshan. It turns out they do, but the text is all Chinese characters. Unphased, I purchased one for future reference. Since we aren’t able to actually read the map, we ask for directions to Tinglin Rd. Fortunately another customer had far better English skills than the clerk and he eagerly jumped to our aid. We were only a block from Tinglin Rd so the directions were straightforward (“go to the end of the street, turn left, then right”). Meanwhile, a different clerk took the street map of Kunshan and consulted with DC – pointing to one spot “you are here” and another spot, “Tinglin Lu”. We left the store highly confident in our ability to find our desired destination. Before we got to the end of the block I’d regained my bearings, recognizing the intersection ahead.

We walked the length of Tinglin Rd and doubled back, stopping at several stores and doing a bit of shopping. The details don’t matter so much as the general entertainment value of shopping while communicating through the English-Chinese dictionary. What impressed me the most was how often we inspired the sales staff to overestimate our ability to understand their native language. In general, everyone was very friendly and gracious in their efforts to communicate. At one shop, as I was pulling out my brand new Chinese-English dictionary to hand to the proprietor so she could look up the Chinese words and I could figure out what she was saying…another customer jumped in and translated. Although relieved, I was also disappointed. It turns out we were getting drying instructions for a specialty hairbrush. It might have taken an hour to work through the translation.

Once we’d made our purchases on Tinglin Rd. we headed back to our hotel. I’d already determined that the walk was comparable in length to our trek from the day before and the weather was delightful – perfect for a Sunday afternoon walk through the city. The first stretch was familiar to me because I’d walked that route several times during my stay at the Swiss Hotel. Once we passed the Swiss Hotel we were back to having an adventure. It wasn’t a wild adventure, mind you, but it was new territory. As planned, the route took us past the recommended DVD store. We browsed for a while (~an hour) and made our purchases. Of all of our shopping efforts I suppose buying DVD’s was the most straightforward – no conversation required. When I showed the proprietor my list of movies, pointing out a few I hadn’t found, he “Googled” the English title and found the Chinese translation. Apparently my browsing skills are quite good because none of the ones I couldn’t find were in stock.

Things didn’t get exciting until we were ready to check out. I’d forgotten about the beggars that frequent that part of the city. As DC received the change for his purchases, a very aggressive little old lady poked her head into the store and started hitting him up for money, shaking a little plastic bowl containing a few coins. The proprietor of the store yelled at her in Mandarin. This went on for a few minutes. At one point he acted like he was going to give her a 100RMB bill but he must have been saying “What? Are you crazy? You think I’m going to give you 100RMB?” He sure didn’t. There was quite a bit of yelling on his part and ignoring on her part.

I’d say she won that round because when we left, she stuck to our sides like a burr. DC and I were saying “no, no, no” except it was really “no, no, no, bu xie, bu xie, bu xie”. It was hard to even walk because she was crowding us, hindering our progress. Eventually I pulled DC into a restaurant along the way so we could catch our breath. As she tried to follow us in, an employee took to chastising her. While he had her engaged, we made our escape.

The rest of the walk back to the hotel was uneventful. This last image is taken from the foot bridge at the end of Huang He Bei Lu (“Huang He North Road”). My hotel is the 5-story tan building seen through the trees).

(This adventure took place Sunday, 12/6, but due to network connection challenges the posting has been delayed).


Adventures in Shanghai

The trip to Shanghai began with the process of purchasing bus passes. We’d been told that we could catch a shuttle to the Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai, which picked up passengers once an hour from our hotel lobby in Kunshan. I stopped by the desk early in the morning to determine the time of departure and duration of the bus ride, but I couldn’t get an answer (either lost in translation or a lack of knowledge). After breakfast my travel-companion (DC) and I stopped back by the front desk and were able to secure one-way tickets for two.

We left for Shanghai at 10:40a.m. During the hour-plus ride we were able to watch a fascinating extended commercial for baroque flooring, which looped continuously. I guess it was effective because I am now filled with a desire to replace our flooring when I get home. The ride was otherwise uneventful. When we arrived at the airport we were able to catch a cab to the Bund Shiliupu Clothing Material Market. I’d brought my tourist map from my last visit to Shanghai, which helped tremendously. I was able to point on the map for the cab driver and he took us straight to our desired location.

We planned to meet a 3rd co-worker who had opted to spend the weekend in Shanghai. I’d been in communication with her throughout the morning and I alerted her that we’d soon be arriving at the Fabric Market, which was close to her hotel. She set out to join us. DC and I had just finished touring all 4 floors of the market when she called to let us know she was there. We agreed to wait by the escalators for her to join us. She called to let us know she was at the top of the escalators. Could there be two escalators? We gave her the shop number of the stall we were standing by. She soon called to tell us she was at that stall. No she wasn’t.

We soon determined that she’s not at the same fabric market. She gave us the street address for the market and we compared it to our location. Sure enough, she was not where we were. Doh!

We could have caught a cab to get to the other market, but I’m all about adventure. With our map as reference it didn’t look too far to walk so we set out on foot. She told us she was at the intersection of Lujiabang Rd and Xizang Rd. When we got to that intersection we determined she was not at that intersection. We finally determined we needed to double-back (we turned right when we needed to turn left. I’m still not sure why she thought she was at Xizang road – she was actually at Zhongshan Rd). We made our way to the Shanghai South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market after walking about 3 miles. Literally. I just looked it up on Google maps.

By now it was well past lunch time so we decided to find something to eat before we dove into the fabric market. Since 1/3 of our party is vegetarian our dining options were limited. We spotted a coffee shop which looked acceptable and made our way across and down the street. I should mention that crossing the street in this part of Shanghai is a case of taking your life into your own hands: pedestrian-beware. We entered the building only to find ourselves in yet another fabric market. This place drips with fabric markets. Who knew? The coffee shop took up most of the 3rd floor of the building.

At lunch I was able to exercise my mandarin skills for the first time this trip. The wait-staff spoke very little English. I made use of my handy English/Mandarin dictionary as well as my existing grasp of the language. We successfully ordered drinks. I was able to let the waitress know we wanted our drinks immediately while we pondered the menu. I was eager for my mango slushy to curb my appetite. The menu had everything listed in Mandarin and English, but it was still quite an adventure to get our meals ordered. Everyone got what they ordered (I had duck) and the meals were delicious.

With our bellies full we went to the fabric market and found the stall of the seamstress who made the shirts I bought on my last trip. I had already decided I would treat myself to 5 shirts. I don’t regret that I ordered 8 instead. It was very crowded and busy in the market. There are many Europeans who live in Shanghai and this is clearly a favored shop. It’s fun to listen to all of the accents. I refrained from jumping into a conversation with a French woman. One of my companions majored in Japanese and she had the opportunity to bridge the communication gap between a Japanese customer and the Chinese seamstress. It is also worth noting that personal space is not a familiar concept to most of the locals. Pushing you gently with full-body contact is their way of saying “Excuse me, you’re in my way.”

The process of ordering shirts includes picking out styles, colors and making desired modifications (such as “¾ sleeves instead of long” or “full-length but flared”), then getting measured, then haggling over the price. The seamstress and I were both pleased by the end of the deal so I’m hoping that means we struck a fair bargain. For an extra $3 the shirts will be delivered to my hotel in Kunshan, thus saving me another round trip to Shanghai. As much as I might enjoy such an adventure I doubt I’ll have time.

With our mission accomplished (we’d each made purchases) we split back up to return to our respective hotels. DC and I caught a cab back to the Hongqiao Airport. We made our way to the shuttle station and bought tickets back to Kunshan. Again, I was able to practice my Mandarin, both spoken and written. We’d just missed the 5:30 shuttle back to Kunshan so we had an hour to kill until the next bus. We hung out at the Airport McDonald’s drinking “milk tea”.

We got back to the bus station with 10 minutes to spare. I was able to recognize the characters for Kunshan (“昆山“) on the front of the bus, and when I double-confirmed with the driver he tried to tell me the bus was full. I produced our pre-paid ticket and he let us on; we claimed the last 2 available seats on the bus.

Recognizing/Identifying the name of the city I’m staying in is the type of information I consider very important when traveling internationally. That, and how to ask for directions to the restroom (“WC zai nahr?”). Oh, and how to order beer and wine. Anything else?