When your travel day starts at 3am and continues until 2pm of the following day, you’re probably going to be a little loopy when you get to your destination. But as disorienting as all that travel was, it wasn’t nearly as disorienting as actually being here. The size of the cities, the language, the culture…it’s all so different…
The magnitude of the difference didn’t really hit me for the first few days, though. Christina and I flew into Shanghai and were greeted by Andrew, her brother, and Phil, Andrew’s friend. They filled us in on some of the history of Shanghai, and we learned that Shanghai is one of the most international cities in China due to its place in the Opium Wars and its revitalization in the 1990s. I think this international presence created some mixed perspectives about how different China felt. I’ll probably reflect on this further in future blog posts, but for now I’ll just note that Shanghai was a very good place to ease us into our Chinese adventure.
After a brief stop at the Shanghai airport’s Burger King (see what I mean about the international feel?), Andrew and Phil navigated us from the airport to our hotel. Along the way, we got to experience a MagLev train that topped out at ~250mph and one of the busiest subway stations in the world. The jet lag was starting to hit us pretty hard by this point, and we turned in pretty early the first night.
Our first full day in China was packed with activities. After breakfast at the hotel, we visited the Yu Garden, a massive 5 acre personal garden that was built in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty and has since been turned into a national monument. Seeing something in person that was created a few hundred years before the United States was founded really gave some perspective as to the history of the country. It’s crazy to think how long China has been around and a consistent world power. Views of massive modern skyscrapers in the background helped underscore this point.
Historical significance aside, the garden was beautiful. While we were admiring the views, Andrew and Phil taught us a few things about what we were seeing, including that lions represent stability, fish represent abundance, jade allegedly has healing/health benefits, and ghosts cannot jump.
After touring the garden, we went to a famous steamed bun restaurant for lunch and ate our first “real” Chinese meal. I can’t tell if the Chinese food is really good or if I’m just ascribing pleasure to the food when it’s actually just relief of being able to maneuver my chopsticks well enough to get a bite. Regardless, I’m really enjoying the food here. Too bad the food is like 90% carbs and 5% MSG. Not a good place for the slow carb diet.
In the afternoon, we toured the Pearl Tower. After walking through ancient gardens and seeing modern skyscrapers in the background all morning, it was a fun change of pace to visit one of those skyscrapers. The Pearl Tower looks kind of like the Seattle space needle, but rather than having a pancake at the top it has a series of pink balls. The best part about it is this walkway that goes around edge one of the balls and has a transparent floor. Fortunately, it was a pretty clear day and we got some great views of the city.
Shanghai is the most populous city in the world (a little under three times the size of NYC), but it’s so spread out (only about a third of the population density of NYC) that it often doesn’t feel like it. So getting to see skyscrapers stretching through the horizon helped reinforce the proper perspective.
Our next stop was the famous Nanjing Road, which is a massive road with a long history. East Nanjing Road is restricted to pedestrians and is one of the world’s busiest shopping strips. We stopped in one particularly entertaining store (Meters/bonwe) that had a series of t-shirts with unintentionally hilarious English phrases (favorites include “skateboard burger” and “Some candy talking” where the “S” in “Some” was the Sulfur periodic table symbol).
At this point, it started raining for the first time. Rain in East Asia during the monsoon season is to be expected, but unfortunately it’s been showing up at some inconvenient times. I was hoping to get a blue hour shot of the Shanghai skyline from The Bund, but it was raining so hard that I could barely snap off a single shot without the front of my lens getting peppered with water spots. This made the kind of bracketing necessary for such images (the massive luminosity difference between the shadows and the bright fluorescent lights makes it pretty much impossible to capture in a single frame) particularly difficult. I took about 40 shots, but I doubt I’ll be able to salvage anything worthy of a portfolio shot. This was definitely disappointing, as this is one of just a couple locations that I was really hoping to shoot, but if you’re only budgeting one night for a shoot you can’t get too frustrated if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
That touches on an internal struggle I’ve been having during this trip. There’s a huge difference between a vacation where the emphasis is on photography and a vacation where the emphasis is on normal sightseeing. When the focus is on photography, you do things like get up at 4am and visit the same location every blue hour for a week (or until you get that great shot). When the focus isn’t on photography, you sleep in and look for as much variety as possible. This makes vacationing as a photographer very tricky, particularly when you’re traveling with non-photographers. Christina and Andrew have been very kind and have humored me when I want to stop to take some pictures…and I haven’t been asking anyone to get up at 4am…so I think we’ve been striking a good balance so far on this trip. I’ll just have to accept that I’m probably not going to get a portfolio shot from this trip, and I’m ok with that.
So, instead of waiting around for the rain to (maybe) clear up, we headed back to the hotel for some local Tsingtao beer and another well-needed night of sleep.
We spent the next day in Shanghai as well, but I’m going to write a separate post to cover it because this post is already getting pretty long… Hope you found this post interesting, and stay tuned for updates on the rest of the trip!