Sunday, 3 March 2013

The first week as a laowai

With all the things going on this blog post is a bit later than expected, but I will try to cover the things that happened during the first week.

First off, I'll start with a picture of our bathroom, as it seems I have omitted it in my previous post:

Now let's continue with where we left off. Sleeping in my room turned out to be no problem; I don't live near very busy streets and living all the way up on the 15th floor probably lessens the noise as well. My only gripe was the toughness of the mattress, which made it feel like I was lying down on the floor, but that didn't really keep me awake in the end. I must have been quite tired anyway, as I ended up sleeping for about 13 hours straight.

The next morning, as much as was left of it at 11:30AM, I went out and explored a bit of the city, immediately noticing the crazy amount of tall buildings that are everywhere. I've heard before that it's standard in Shanghai for many offices and apartments to have up to 30 floors, but just seeing it for yourself is quite different. Here are a few pictures of different places in my area, although the background of tall buildings is quite hard to escape:

After exploring my surroundings for a couple of hours, I went and purchased myself a VPN, which allowed me to visit sites which are otherwise blocked, such as Youtube, Facebook and some services of Google. After chatting with people for a while, it was time for me to get ready again for another dinner as another student arrived that day and it's the standard for the agency to organize a dinner every time someone joins us in Shanghai.

This time we went to a place called Yuan Yuan, which also consisted of several kinds of food being put on a rotating tray. As it was a dinner, we obviously ordered more things and I even managed to try out the dumplings which Shanghai is really famous for. At least, before coming here, I went and looked up several things one should do while in Shanghai and many sources were raving on about how great the dumplings are. These specific dumplings are called 小笼包 (Xiaolongbao) and contain meat (usually pork) together with some kind of soup. They turned out to be very tasty and I'm sure I will have them again in the future.

After the dinner, some of us went to a club called Phebe's. While it had a 100 RMB (12 euro) entry fee, it was open bar, allowing you to drink as much as you like for free. They served all kinds of cocktails and beer, but we were warned to stay clear of the vodka by the people that had been there before, as many people ended up getting sick after drinking it there. Inside Phebe's there was a lot of pretty, perhaps a little over the top, interior, which made it a pretty interesting experience. The club itself had probably about 25% expats vs 75% chinese people that night, which showed that it's a quite a popular place to go to for foreigners. In the end we stayed till around 3:30AM and all headed home by taxi.

The next day I luckily wasn't incapacitated by the alcohol and decided to move by foot towards West Nanjing Road. On my way there I came across the Jing'an Sculpture garden and couldn't help but taking some pictures:

It's obviously not the best time of the year to go to this park, but it looked quite nice already. The cat in picture #4 also shows that there are actually cats living on the street in Shanghai and not being chased by hungry Chinese people, unlike some of the stories that go around. It made me curious and look up whether cats are eaten at all in China these days. Turns out it's still done in a few places in the southern parts of China, but definitely not as common anymore.

Eventually arriving at West Nanjing Road, I walked through the crowded streets and checked out some big malls while enjoying the views. As I headed out pretty late, it was already getting dark, so I went on my way back to take some more pictures of tall buildings...

                                                                     ...and a dragon.
Shanghai dragon

When I got home, I relaxed for a bit and then went out to find a place to have dinner. It didn't take long as I found a shopping centre with several places to eat at the food court, which ended up being my favourite place to eat dinner at for the week after, as it offered a lot of variety at the price of 15-30RMB. (1.80-3.60 euro) It was also a great place to practice eating with chopsticks, which didn't seem to be that hard in the end, as I managed to get a grip on most things without any issues after a few days.

On my way back, the sunlight was already gone, although that doesn't mean there's nothing to see anymore:

The next days I just kept walking around in Shanghai, exploring it while trying find out whether there were any big stores nearby, as I had only seen many little convenience stores such as FamilyMart at nearly every corner. At the same time I was trying to find out where the working ATMs are, as nearly all banks in China didn't accept my debit card. The reason for this is that they're trying to move away from the magnetic strip to some kind of chip system, which apparently is different than what we're using in the rest of the world. Luckily there were still 2 banks, the Bank of Communications and the China Construction bank, that accepted my debit card.

This brings me to a stupid situation I was in, though. I had to pay my landlord for my accommodation, which consists of a monthly fee of 2860RMB and a one-time deposit of 2800RMB. Normally a wire transfer would do just fine, but I was told that isn't possible. The workaround? Taking said amount of cash out of the ATM and then putting the cash in a so called CRS machine, to deposit the money on my landlord's bank account.

However, there is a daily limit of 2000RMB (240 euro!) that someone can withdraw from his foreign bank account per day. This meant that I had to withdraw the maximum amount for a couple of days until I had saved up enough to pay my landlord. At the same time, the biggest banknote in china is 100 RMB, so eventually I was walking around with over 60 notes. (Which are already bigger than your typical 100 euro banknote...) My wallet was eventually about to burst, but luckily I could do the payment quickly, although not by machine. Apparently not every bank has a CRS machine, so I had to go inside and ask the staff to do it manually. Luckily the staff member who was helping me with my transaction was able to speak English just fine, so that part went smoothly.

My internship was supposed to start on Wednesday, although I got a call from the agency at 11PM, telling me that the start of my internship has been delayed to Monday. While it felt a bit weird as I was already in the mood of going to work the next day, I used the days to explore more of Shanghai.

On Thursday I planned to go the Bund and to Pudong, which you probably have seen pictures of at one point. I would go there by metro, as it is quite a distance and the metro is a really great way to travel around in Shanghai. For the first 0-6km you pay 3RMB and then 1RMB per 10km after that. 1 RMB equals about 0.12 euro, so that's extremely cheap in comparison to other countries.

After arriving at East Nanjing Road metro station, which is closest to the Bund, I got swarmed by girls asking me to go shopping with them. Next to that a lot of girls and guys were asking me if I wanted to drink some coffee with them or if i wanted a massage or even sex. Within a minute you just learn to avoid eye contact and ignore them, because there's no other way to get rid of them.

After a 15 minute walk I arrived at the Bund and could directly see the famous Pudong skyline:

After seeing Pudong like this, it didn't take long before I found myself taking the metro to see everything from up close. One of the first things I saw when leaving the metro station though, was the following:

After walking around a little though, I ended up looking back to the Bund...

Or seeing the buildings of Pudong from a different angle...

Wouldn't it be neat if I were to get to the top floor of one of those buildings?

So eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I went inside the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) Observatory. At the cost of 150RMB, which is around 19 euros, I was able to buy a ticket to go to the 94th, the 97th and the 100th floor. It is a bit expensive in comparison with other things in Shanghai, but I felt it was worth the cost, to see Pudong and the rest of Shanghai from above like that. After showing my ticket i walked into a very dark room, which showed a miniature version of the city during the night:

After that I watched a video for a minute or 2, which explained several things about the SWFC, such as how it was built, what it's exactly used for and so on. Following that I queued up to take the elevator to the 95th floor. It was a bit crowded when I got there, which ended up with me having to wait like 20 minutes to eventually get in the elevator. Going up from the basement floor to 95th floor only took like a minute though, so I guess they just delayed the elevators to avoid having too many people in the same area at once.

When I arrived at the 95th floor my ticket was checked again and took the escalator to the 97th floor. The windows there seemed to be very smudged, which kind removed a possibility for me to take a decent picture. I quickly continued to the 100th floor, hoping that I would be able to get a clearer view myself as well as taking some pictures. Luckily the windows seemed to be cleaner, allowing me to get a better view, although there seemed to be quite a bit of fog/smog, which kind of limited the distance which one could clearly see. Still it was a really nice view!

As it was already past 5PM, I decided to just sit down for a bit and wait for sunset to come, so I could get some pictures of Shanghai as the lights go on. I like to think it was a good decision:

After enjoying the view for a while from up high, I was getting hungry and the battery of my camera was running low as well, so I decided to go back and ended up eating some rice-based meal again at one of the many Chinese restaurants / food courts. As I resumed my way home, I managed to get a few more shots out of my camera before the battery depleted:

Sadly, this meant I couldn't take any pictures from the Bund that night, but I will make sure to correct that mistake in my following blog post. :)

Monday, 18 February 2013

The flight and the first day

I chose to fly with British Airways, seeing as I've flown with them before and knew what to expect, unlike an alternative such as Aeroflot. In the end the price difference was about 30 euros for that specific day and time, so the decision was quite easy to make. My flight would start from Schiphol in the Netherlands, then make a stop at Heathrow, where I would have to get a connecting flight to Shanghai. In the end the stop at heathrow would take about 2 hours, which isn't that bad if you take off the time you need to walk from one terminal to the other and pass the security on your way.
Thanks to my brother, who drove me to Schiphol, we arrived on time, before I could even drop off my luggage. After eating something at the Burger King, I was able to drop off my luggage without any problem and we took the time to look around before I went past the passport control. The security itself offered no problems either and eventually we boarded the plane to Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, we arrived at Heathrow. I immediately went through security again and obviously didn't have any problems this time either. The area after the security was really crowded, with massive queues in front of every shop and restaurant. Eventually I managed to buy a meal deal at Boots and after eating that I went on my way to the terminal and was allowed to board the plane quickly after.

It was the first time for me to be on a big intercontinental flight, so the first thing I noticed was the third row of seats in the middle, which I've seen several times before on movies, but never on my own. When I got to my seat, I immediately played around with the entertainment system, finding out that it didn't work. Luckily it was just a headphone issue and I got a replacement right away. It proved to be valuable as there's only so much one can do during a 11 hour flight. My seat was also a window seat on the left of the plane, although it was really cloudy that day so I couldn't see much from there during the whole flight. Even when the plane was landing at the airport, I couldn't see anything until we were at 400 meters above the ground.

Around 14 February, 9:25AM (Chinese time) we arrived at the Pu Dong International Airport in Shanghai. I had to fill in a small paper, showing my reason for entering the country, if I had a visa and my place I was going to stay at. After that I went through the immigration check and was able to pick up my baggage. I then had to queue up in a line, to go through the customs. During all this I was relieved to notice that almost every sign was written in both Chinese and English.

After passing customs without any issue, I was welcomed by someone from the 2-Shanghai Agency. This is the agency that helped me with finding an internship and a place to stay in Shanghai. Apparently someone else was also bound to arrive in around 10 minutes, so we waited for her to arrive as we talked a bit about the time I would spend here. During our wait I went to a small convenience store called Family Mart, which turned out to be really tiny, to get myself a 可口可乐, known as Coca Cola throughout the world. :p

When the other student arrived, who also turned out to be Dutch, we went to take the Maglev train, which is one of those trains that easily go over 300 km/h through the use of magnetic levitation. After speeding away from the airport with the train, we took a taxi and I got dropped off in front of a compound and was told to go to building #9.

After waiting there for a while, I was greeted by the landlord, who luckily was able to speak English quite well. She took me to my room, which turned out to be all the way up on the 15th floor. In China they count floors starting with the first floor, like they do in the US, so it's the 14th floor for most of you. The apartment itself was a lot bigger than I had expected, with especially the living room having a lot of space. An overdone saying mentions that a picture says more than a thousand words, so to save myself some words... :)
 My room:

 The view from my room:

Living room:


View from the living room:

My agency organized a lunch for all the newcomers, so I pretty much enjoyed a minute of the view, dropped off all my bags and took the taxi to a place called Grandma's Kitchen. Despite the name though, none of the staff seemed to speak English, so the people from the agency just ordered whatever we required. Everyone that showed up at the lunch turned out to be Dutch and as it turns out, there are only a few non-Dutch that make use of this agency. The lunch itself was quite nice, with all different kinds of food being placed on a rotating tray. It quickly became apparent to me though, that I needed to learn how to eat with chopsticks, as I clumsily needed several tries to pick up the most simple things.

After lunch I was given a small paper with my address written on it in Chinese. The taxi drivers in China generally don't speak or read English, so this is the best way to make it clear to the taxi driver where you want to go. After arriving at my apartment again, I realized I still needed bed linen to be able to sleep. I asked my roommates, who were both French. (with a third French planning to arrive 2 days later) Apparently they really love their French supermarkets, as they immediately gave me an address to the local Carrefour. I took a photo of the address with my phone and headed off again, showing the taxi driver the address again like I did earlier.

At the Carrefour they ended up selling nearly everything, including turtles and snakes. Luckily there were a few English signs here and there, which allowed me to find the required bed linen pretty quickly and head out again, as the tiredness from my jet lag was really kicking in. I took the taxi home again with the same method as the other times and quickly went to sleep after preparing my bed.