One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Full of turtles

I was pressed for time earlier and left out a lot of stuff. Then afterward, more stuff happened. Here it is, all of it.

I was looking at the wares of a DVD vendor yesterday afternoon, and flipping through his newer stock I came upon that 40-Year-Old Virgin movie -- the one with the guy from Anchorman. The vendor looked up at me and said, "I am a 45-year-old virgin... Are you also a virgin?" I said, "That is an indelicate question, sir. Indelicate and lewd."

I saw a bar with a sign in the window that read, "Happle Hour."

I haven't been offering many travel tips on the blog, but here's one: Even if you're not staying at a fancy hotel, you can use the resources and facilities of fancy hotels to solve problems. Big fancy hotels, like the Garden or the Jinjiang here in Shanghai, always have English-speaking staff who can give you directions. They always have taxis waiting out front. They often have city maps available. They often sell stamps. They often have business centres where you can use the internet, although sometimes at an outrageous price. (The Garden charges 4 yuan per minute -- I wasn't that desperate.) They often have public phones that accept credit cards. They often have a currency exchange desk. In short, they can provide solutions to some common problems for the independent or semi-independent traveller.

I'm really under the spell of my book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. It's a wonderful book, and I was hoping it would last me until Japan so I could show off to Japanese people that I was reading something by a famous Japanese author. I'm reading it too quickly, though, and it will be gone by the time I leave Shanghai. I have to find out what happens. So many terrible things have been happening to the hero that it's been affecting my mood. I've been kind of introspective, quiet, and melancholy for the past couple of days. The hero's fortunes seem to be improving now, so I'm hoping that I'll follow along. I'm very susceptible to that kind of influence.

I've seen lots of construction scaffolding here made of stout pieces of bamboo. I think you must have to grow up around bamboo to feel okay about trusting your life to it. A person like me might have a hard time relaxing up there on the fifth storey, working away.

I'm writing to you now from a China Telecom customer service centre on Nanjing Road near the Bund. It's open 24 hours, and the internet costs 10 yuan per hour. Aside from the internet, this is also a good place to buy and use phone cards for international calls.

Nanjing Road itself is a bit overwhelming. So many crazed shoppers and enormous neon signs. A big chunk of it is off-limits to cars, which is great, because everywhere else in Shanghai, you have to be seriously on your guard or risk being run over by a bus or a taxi or a scooter. I think it's true of Asia in general, but here in particular pedestrians need to exercise extreme care -- drivers are counting on you to watch out for your own safety a lot more than they do in North America or Europe. There's no margin for error here.

A middle-aged man with high pants approached me this afternoon on Nanjing. He asked me the standard questions, and then said, "We go have coffee? Talk? Make friends?" I said no -- I told him I was looking for presents for my family, which was essentially true. "Ah, family," he said, and walked off without another word. Hours later, I ran into him again, he extended the same invitation, and I refused a second time -- he just gave me a weird, bad feeling. He said, "Ah, but earlier you said, 'Next time, I will join you.'" I replied, "I never said that." He said, "Ah," and walked off into the crowd.

Alex was another person I met on Nanjing Road. He was a young calligraphy student from Xian Fine Arts University -- I seem to run into a lot of calligraphers. Anyway, like the ones in Beijing he encouraged me to come look at his work. I declined, but in a friendly way, because there was no call for rudeness or hostility. When he said he was from Xian, I said, "Ah! The terracotta warriors!" He said, "Everyone says that!" I explained that this was because the warriors were famous all over the world, and he seemed astounded by this fact. Then we talked about martial arts movies. I asked him if Chinese people prefer Jet Li or Jackie Chan, and he said, "Both." I speculated that one's preference might depend on one's mood -- Jackie Chan if you're in a light-hearted mood, and Jet Li if you're in a serious mood. He agreed that this made sense. He told me that the Chinese don't call Jet Li by that name -- he has a different Chinese name.

I popped into the Peace Hotel, a landmark of pre-Communist Shanghai, and took photos of some beautiful light fixtures.

For the first time since leaving Canada, I have a functioning television in my room. I flipped around the channels last night, and oddly, on five channels in a row there was a Chinese woman crying. Some were bawling, some were sobbing, and some were totally silent but with tears rolling down their cheeks. I don't know what this means. So much crying. Then, I found an English-language news station, but the news was so dry and boring and pointless that I couldn't stand it. I preferred the Chinese-language news, which I couldn't understand at all, but which at least had video images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I really wish that I could have understood the voice-over, because I'm curious about whether the television news is used to score political points against the United States -- and if it is, how overt is this behaviour?

I forgot to tell you earlier that the Huangpu River appears to be full of turtles. I looked down from the riverside walk into this big hole leading down into the water, and in that small area of water I could see at least six turtles, all with shells about the size of a standard greeting card. One of them had climbed up onto a little platform and was slowly, slowly exploring it. The rest were swimming around lazily in the murky green water.

The Chinese government has stated publicly that it means to step up the protection of intellectual property. You'd think that one obvious move would be to shut down or closely monitor the vendors at the Xiangyang market and similar markets, given the rampant trademark violations in these places. I'm not saying that this is the best solution, or the one I advise -- I'm just saying that it would be a powerful symbolic gesture, and I'm a little surprised that it hasn't happened.

I found a big movie theatre near the end of Nanjing Road and went to the 4:15 showing of War of the Worlds. It was the only movie playing in English, with Chinese subtitles. The ticket cost 70 yuan, which I thought was pretty expensive -- probably much too expensive for most Chinese people, even the movers and shakers here in Shanghai who earn much more than the average national wage. Maybe it's because I hadn't seen a movie for over six weeks, but I was totally entranced by it. I was glued to the screen. I love going to the movies.

Lindsay Beck warned me that I would see men walking around the city in their pyjamas. Not Shanghai particularly, but any Chinese city. Anyway, she was right. I've also seen men, on hot days, flip up the bottom of their t-shirts to create a bare midriff sort of thing. It's not an attractive look. Any man in Canada who did that would be the target of derisive clucking sounds.

I think they must have a problem with counterfeit 100-yuan bills here. Every time I pay for something with a 100, it gets held up and scrutinized very carefully under bright light, and sometimes they run it through a little machine.

Tomorrow I plan to visit the Dongtai Lu antiques market and another market in the same neighbourhood that sells live fish, birds, and insects. The next time I write, I may be the proud owner of 100 fighting crickets, or an owl, or a carp.


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