KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
When we first flew into Shanghai, we approached the delta city from the Pacific Ocean on a clear September afternoon and I noted the vast amount of brown, muddy water flowing out from the Yangtze River into the blue ocean. This time, we were on a domestic flight from southern China and we saw nothing but a sea of clouds hanging low over the landscape. In fact, we couldn’t make out any of the buildings until we broke through just above the tarmac. This time we landed at Hong Qiao airport which is centrally located just to the west of the French Concession. It was much closer to our destination and before we knew it, we had our luggage and were heading for the taxi queue. There is no problem carrying four adults in a Chinese taxi, but we had too much luggage so we considered taking two taxis. I did not like the idea of travelling separately, but there seemed to be little choice. As we headed for the taxi stand, we were approached by a man who gave us a rate for hiring a van. His opening price was ridiculous but when he realized I knew the fare to our hotel, he understood that we were familiar with the city and he quoted us an acceptable rate. Once we had agreed on a price, he called the driver on his mobile phone and he arrived to pick us up in an area outside the taxi station. It was then we realized that we were in an unlicensed, private vehicle – someone just trying to make a living chauffeuring people around. We weren’t worried because it was broad daylight and the Chinese are noted for their honesty. We piled in and gave the driver directions to the Super 8 hotel on Dalian Road.
I should mention at this point that Andrew and Heli Dong Dawrant had invited us to stay in their ‘guest’ apartment once again and we would have been more than happy to do so, but this time there were four of us instead of only two. While the apartment has two bedrooms, I know that Aunty Audrey would not have been too pleased to have to share a bed with nephew David, and vice versa. There were times during our three weeks together that they shared a room with twin beds, but they both drew the line there. Completely understandable.
We had not prebooked rooms at the Super 8 so we were really happy that they had space available for us, but we were disappointed that the standard was not what we had come to expect of Super 8 hotels in China. I know I have raved about the hotel chain after staying in their hotels in Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Kunming, but this hotel was more like what you might expect back in the good old US of A. It was clear it had been a hotel for many, many years and when I asked, I learned that it had been purchased by Super 8 just four years earlier. Too bad it hadn’t been renovated like the others have been, perhaps it is in line for a makeover soon. The location is excellent, on a main thoroughfare not far from the tunnel than runs under the Huang Pu River to Pudong, the part of Shanghai that is pictured on most travel sights with the distinctive Oriental Pearl and Jinmao Towers. There were four other Super 8s in Shanghai but we were not in the mood to start running around the city and for our purposes, this location seemed to be the best. We decided to take the rooms for a couple of nights and decide what to do later.
After unpacking and settling in, we went for a walk up one of the side streets off Dalian Road. We loved the feeling of the neighborhood almost immediately even though the Lonely Planet had described it as ‘gritty’. This was a neighborhood where average Shanghaiese lived, worked and played and we felt we could peek into everyday life here. We picked up water and snacks at a convenience store, bought fruit at a street side vendor and ate a light meal in a local restaurant. This was a glimpse of the real China that Audrey had not been able to see when we stayed at the tourist cities of Guilin and Yangshuo. She was enchanted. Phew!
We spent the next ten days showing Audrey and David the great places we had discovered when we were in Shanghai in September but also discovered places that we had missed or had not had time to get to. Shanghai is a massive city, but if you break it down into its smaller districts, it is manageable and extremely interesting. I could easily come back again and again and I am sure that I would continue to discover more delightful things to see and do. The key to enjoying Shanghai is being sure to come at the right time of year. The summers are unbearably hot and humid and the winters cold, with biting winds and overcast skies. Spring and fall are the best seasons to enjoy Shanghai, and we had been fortunate to see them both in a short span of time.
One of the best memories we will always carry away with us from our second visit to the city, is our discovery of a small noodle shop about a five-minute walk from our hotel on Dalian Road. David spotted a young man making handmade noodles and encouraged us to eat there for lunch one day. The shop was teeny-tiny with just four tables and a dozen or so chairs of all shapes and sizes. This was the kind of place I would have been happy to eat at in the past, but lately Anil and I had gone a little more ‘up-scale’. As it turned out, I am so happy we had David along with us to get us back into experimental mode, because we had the best meals in all of China in that little noodle nook. The shop is run by a gracious man with graying hair and his two young sons. They are probably in their twenties. One son is in charge of making the noodles; the other takes the orders and collects the money. Dad seems to oversee everything and take delivery of the fresh ingredients and sets up a table on the sidewalk outside when things get really busy. We know all this because we ate a huge bowl of noodles there every single day we were in Shanghai.
It is the most amazing thing to watch the noodles being prepared by hand. The dough is made ahead of time and sits on a stainless-steel counter covered in plastic. When a customer places an order, the young man selects the appropriate dough and goes to work. He breaks off a large piece of dough and begins to knead it, stretching it from one hand to the other across the full width of his outstretched arms. Then he folds the dough over and stretches it again. He does this countless times and taps the center of the length of dough into some flour now and then. Watching him work, you can’t help but wonder why his arms don’t get tired. When you least expect it, he suddenly slams the center of the length of dough on the counter and it breaks apart into a couple of dozen noodles. It’s like magic. He swiftly breaks off the folded ends and throws the lot into a pot of boiling water.
In a second pot bubbling away beside the first, the hearty broth is waiting to be scooped up and poured over the cooked noodles. Then toppings are added to satisfy the different tastes of the customers. There is thin sliced beef, barbecued pork, chopped green onions, minced fresh coriander leaves and a wicked looking mixture potatoes, peanuts and diced red chilies. The large bowl of noodles is delivered to the table piping hot and steaming. Each table has a container of disposable chopsticks, a jar of soy sauce, a jug of cider vinegar and a couple of bowls of fiery chili paste and is passed from table to table so that diners can customize their noodles even further. After only one bite of our first bowl of noodles, we knew we had found the mother lode. I did manage to take a few pictures of this little gem and one of the young noodle maker, but I can’t believe that I never managed to remember to take a photo of the bowl of noodles themselves. I guess I was always too eager to dive right in and eat after waiting for my bowl to arrive.
After eating at the noodle shop for a few days, we started paying more attention to the dishes ordered by other hungry diners. It was then that we noticed that there were at least two different kinds of dough, one was very white like bread dough and the other was yellow. I think that the yellow noodles contained eggs; the yolk would give the dough the yellow colour. We also noticed that some people ordered their noodles very thin and others thick. The most interesting noodles were the hand-cut ones. I had eaten them before when we were in Chengdu, but had not seen them made. Instead of kneading and stretching the dough, the young man held a large piece of dough in one hand, up against his chest and using a cleaver-like knife, cut off thin slices. The shorter noodle, about six to eight inches in length would go flying off the wad of dough and straight into the boiling water one at a time. I still can’t decide which method of noodle making requires more skill, but I do know that I liked the hand-cut noodles best. The noodles end up being a little fat in the middle, with thin wavy edges. They are chewy and for some reason, my favorite. I think it’s like pasta; everyone seems to have their favorite pasta even though the dough is pretty similar and cut into different shapes. I have always been partial to penne, probably because penne is a little chewy too.
We were not able to see our friends Andrew and Heli Dong Dawrant until almost the end of our stay in Shanghai. They had been extremely busy with their work as interpreters during the months we were travelling and had decided to take a four-day break to Bangkok. Their getaway coincided with our stay in Shanghai so we planned to see them just before leaving China. I remembered the directions to their home very well; in fact, we had made a couple of trips to the small restaurant on Wuding Road where we had eaten several times in September. The restaurant is between the apartment where Andrew and Heli Dong live and the ‘guest’ apartment where we stayed previously. We took at taxi to Wuding Road and then walked the short distance to the Dawrant’s home. We were really excited to see Jiahe, Andrew and Heli Dong’s young daughter. We were looking forward to seeing how much Jiahe had grown; she was just starting to walk when we were in Shanghai in Sept.
When we arrived, Andrew greeted us at the door with Jiahe in his arms. She had just awakened from a nap and was still sleepy and not at all sure about these strangers coming into the house. She quietly observed us hugging her Mom and Nanny and then slowly she began to accept our presence. I knew it would spook her to make too much of a fuss about seeing her, she would come around once she was more awake. We introduced my brother David to the Dawrants and they started chatting about the trip David had taken to China in 1978. Audrey had stayed behind at the hotel as she had been feeling dizzy for the previous two days and didn’t feel up to going out in the evening. I was sorry she couldn’t join us, but knew from my migraine days that it was best to be left alone when you feel nausea.
While we visited, Jiahe gradually became livelier and then suddenly she looked at me and you could see a little ‘click’ of recognition go off in her tiny head. She smiled at me, came over and climbed into my lap and called me ‘Nai Nai’ (grandmother). I was overwhelmed. Heli Dong told me that she had been showing her pictures of us that she had taken during our last visit, in order to prepare Jiahe for our return. I couldn’t believe that I was given the honorific, grandmother. What a treat. For the remainder of the evening, little Jiahe cuddled with me, put her head on my shoulder and showed me all her favorite toys. I was smitten.
Some time later we headed out to a nearby restaurant and took baby and nanny along. We ordered our food and chatted about their work and our travels before baby became restless and nanny took her home. It was a nice meal with lots of new dishes to try. Once again Andrew was challenged to find dishes without fish or seafood; things that are Shanghai specialties. It was then that Andrew told us about Heli Dong’s new venture. While we were away, she became part owner of a small bar that was just preparing to open. Heli Dong had been fortunate enough to study for her Master’s degree in England on a scholarship. The group of about eighty investors was mostly people who had studied abroad under the auspices of the same scholarship committee. The bar is called ‘Chevenings’ after the name of the scholarship.
We left the restaurant and went to see the new bar and to listen to Andrew perform in the small band that was playing there. What a treat! The bar is located in an old building that used to function as a French School during the pre-communist period. It’s a lovely building with plenty of character and the decorator has created a room that has an atmosphere of an upscale lounge in a colonial club. Plenty of dark wood, huge leather chairs and sofas and high ceilings. It’s a quiet place where people can come to spend time listening to great music and still be able to talk to each other. We were thrilled to see Andrew sing in both English and Chinese and also to play a harmonica-type instrument. He is very musical, a man of so many talents it’s hard to keep track of them all. We stayed much later than we had intended because we enjoyed the atmosphere and the music so much. Shortly after midnight, we said goodbye to our hosts and headed out into the quiet streets of the French Concession to look for a taxi to take us to our hotel.
The night was warm and we walked a few blocks in search of a taxi. We commented on how we had never seen any Chinese men out of control with too much drinking, even though we know that there is a lot of drinking in China. There are liquor shops everywhere and inexpensive alcohol is sold in all grocery and convenience stores. We also noted that we hadn’t seen any public urination during our entire time in China; I guess our minds were on things like this because we had forgotten to use the toilets at the Chevenings before leaving and we had consumed our share of beer and wine. Just after making these comments, we rounded a corner and came upon two men urinating on the gates of an apartment building. We were appalled that they would do such a thing in such a nice neighborhood and then we noticed that they were almost unable to walk; they were so drunk. When they came out of the shadows, we were surprised to see they were young foreigners in their late twenties. Not surprising in the end that the only time we had seen this inebriated behavior over a period of four months, was from men visiting China. It was our last night in China; too bad we had to witness such disgraceful behavior.
The next morning, we packed up and arranged for taxis to take us to the MagLev station. We could have taken taxis all the way to the Pudong airport, but we wanted David and Audrey to experience the high-speed train as we had done earlier. Travelling at 430km per hour is not something most people are able to experience anywhere else in the world. Audrey needed another thing to add to her ‘Audrey’s Incredible Adventure Around The World’ tour for 2008. We were a little anxious how she would handle it with the dizziness she had been suffering, but she was on the mend and managed just fine. We never did figure out what caused the problem, it must have been something with her middle ear.
The time had come to say goodbye to my brother David. We were flying to Osaka and then on to Tokyo while he was taking a flight back to Bangkok to await the arrival of his wife, Jeong Ae from Canada a few days later. We had enjoyed a wonderful three weeks together in southern China and Shanghai. It was great to be with David when he revisited Shanghai after a period of thirty years. He had a photo with him of the Huang Pu River and the Bund that showed an absolutely empty Pudong district on the right bank of the river. This is the area that has changed the most, it is now home to the skyscrapers that have added a new dimension to the city. We enjoyed the view, but we all agreed that our ‘gritty’ little neighbourhood, just off Dalian Road held much more charm for us than ‘soulless’ streets of modern Pudong.
We are already talking about coming back to Shanghai one day, let’s hope it’s long before little Jiahe forgets her Nai Nai Kapoor. Our only regret was that we didn’t get back to our favorite noodle place for breakfast on the morning we left. We had eaten late, stayed up even later and had to leave for the airport before we could even think about eating. I would have liked to let the shop owner and his two sons know we were leaving. We had eaten there every morning for ten days and then we were leaving without saying goodbye.