My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours
I arrived in Shanghai by accident, really. I had a decent gig at a small newspaper outside Atlanta--they paid me to try a new activity each week (bull riding, skydiving, nude water volleyball . . . ) and write about my experiences. Not bad. Of course, I also had to cover high school tennis, but there are always tradeoffs in life. Nearly four years into my Georgia stay, with another high school sports season on the horizon, I suddenly decided I needed to make a change. I didn't know what, and I didn't know where. I just knew I wanted something . . . different.
An e-mail here, a contact there, and faster than you can say "career suicide," I had signed a one-year contract to teach English at a place called Shanghai University. Different, indeed.
Four years later, my teaching days far behind me, I'm still in Shanghai. And I have no plans to leave.
Western journalists have taken to calling Shanghai "the most exciting city on Earth," and while I generally think anyone who writes such hyperbolic swill should be fired on the spot, it's true that Shanghai is certainly never boring. The city is constantly changing, always reinventing itself. The relentless pace of the place is addictive. I have fallen in love with Shanghai (and no, that's not hyperbole).
I had a personal website before I moved to Shanghai, so I kept it going once I got here. Hard to believe now, but back in 2002, there was a dearth online of English-language information about the city. My blog, Shanghaidiaries.com, quickly attracted a dedicated readership. Last summer, I launched Shanghaiist.com, a blog that has since become one of the most popular English-language websites about Shanghai.
It's kind of funny: Four years ago I was the guy asking all the questions, and now I'm the one other people look to for answers. I receive e-mail after e-mail from people the world over wanting to know about Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. I respond to most of them, too. Think of the following 3,000 words as a giant mass e-mail about the city that I happily call home.
You probably aren't visiting Shanghai for its hamburgers--which are getting a lot better, by the way--so I'm focusing on Chinese restaurants. Whittling my list down was no easy task; Shanghai is a great city for anyone who loves to eat.
Shanghainese cuisine gets a bad rap: too oily, some say, or too sweet. But when prepared correctly, it can be delicious. (You'll hear that word a lot: It's one of the first English words students here learn.)
On a small, dark street in Luwan District, Chun ("Spring" in Chinese) serves the best home-style Shanghainese food in town. Reservations are essential, as Chun has just four tables. Simply ask the owner what she recommends. If you don't speak Chinese, have your hotel concierge write "please feed us well" on a piece of paper. You'll be taken care of.
There are a dozen more tables and an English menu at Jesse in Xuhui District, but you still need reservations. The braised pork is, well, delicious.
If you're out late, hope for a seat at Jing'an District's Bao Luo, a cavernous joint that stays open until 6 a.m. and often has lines out the door. I like the sauteed tofu and crabmeat.
Ye Olde Station Restaurant, in the heart of Xujiahui, is a little more upscale. Despite its name and the old train cars that double as dining rooms, it was never an old station. It was a French monastery, founded in 1921. (The equally regal St. Ignatius Cathedral is across the street.) Savor the tender Mandarin fish--a steamed river fish that the server will debone--then explore the grand building, which is the epitome of Old Shanghai.
You must try xiaolongbao, often called "soup dumplings." While the steamed delicacies--thin pastry skins filled with meat and scaldingly hot soup (be careful!)--can be found on many a corner, ordering them in English will get you nowhere. The easy solution is tourist-friendly Nanxiang Mantou Dian, in the kitsch capital of Old City, Yu Yuan. Nanxiang is famous, and recognizable by the long take-out line (pay more to get a seat upstairs). Gourmands grumble about a decline in quality at Nanxiang, preferring the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Luwan's Xintiandi development, despite a sterile atmosphere and higher prices.
The xiaolongbao's fried cousin is shengjian mantou, which is worth the wait at Yang's Fry-Dumpling . While we're on the subject of dumplings, I could live on jiaozi, minced meat and/or veggies in ravioli-esque skins. They're boiled, steamed, or fried and served with an addictive soy-vinegar sauce. Da Qing Hua is a chain--I go to the one in Jing'an--but it has a wonderful selection of jiaozi and other hearty specialties from the northeast. Don't miss the bizarre "penis shrine" in the men's room.
Spice things up even more at Shu Di La Zi Yu Guan, a multistory Sichuan joint in northern Xuhui that specializes in la zi yu, a vat of tongue-numbing, flaky fish drowned in an oily broth and red chili peppers. (The huge bullfrogs you see in tanks just inside the entrance? They cook up quite nicely.) Slightly more sophisticated, Guyi, a Hunan restaurant in Jing'an, can make you breathe fire. I've enjoyed everything I've had there, especially the pork ribs with cumin.
Personally, I had always identified with that line from Lost in Translation: "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" Oddly named Dolar Shop, however, recently converted me to hot pot. You sit before an individual pot bubbling with broth. Toss in meats and vegetables, wait a couple minutes, and enjoy. Nice view, too.
Speaking of fun, Afanti serves Xinjiang food, which is more Middle East than Far East, in a raucous atmosphere well worth the 25-minute cab ride to Hongkou District. Stuff yourself with roast mutton and Xinjiang Black Beer, and enjoy the belly dancers. I've been to Xinjiang, in the west, and Afanti rings true, down to the clientele.
After Afanti, a time-out from meat will be in order. My fiancee, a vegetarian, thinks Vegetarian Lifestyle is the best place in town. Drinks include a variety of juices and teas, but no alcohol, and it's one of the only nonsmoking establishments in China.
Dim sum is a breakfast and lunch tradition here, so get to Xintiandi's Crystal Jade early. I'm a big fan of the Sichuan dan dan noodles--so what if they're not technically dim sum--in peanut broth.
In Xuhui, Taiwanese restaurant Charmant (I don't understand the name, either) has an equally expansive menu, with creative desserts. Just don't try to drink the "smoothies"; you need a spoon.
The restaurant I go to most often is Xing Xing, in the old Jing'an lane area I call home. Everything is fresh, and I love the huntun soup (akin to wonton soup, but a whole lot better). Poke around the Hua Ye Xiao Qu neighborhood: If you see a tall white guy walking a cute dog, say hello.
Assuming you won't want Chinese food for every meal, let me suggest a hip new place, serving Western fare, that may not have found its way into your guidebook. A Future Perfect, in the beautifully renovated first floor of an old Shanghai lane house, is a cozy--verging on cramped--cafe, restaurant, and bar that serves up equal parts style and substance. Five of us ate there recently--appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks--and the bill was $120 (No. 16, Lane 351 Huashan Lu, near Changshu Lu, 011-86/21-6248-8020). A Future Perfect also boasts one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in Shanghai. The restaurant shares the 1930s brick house with the Old House Inn, one of the city's only boutique hotels. The 12 charmingly decorated rooms range in price from $65 to $130 (011-86/21-6248-6118, oldhouse.cn).
Next time you're at a museum, don't assume that the guy listening to an iPod is too into his music to enjoy Monet. Podcast tours are available for a growing number of museums, from the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka to Paris's Musee d'Orsay. Tours tend to avoid the stuffy "enter here and notice . . ." lecture format so frequently heard on rented headsets. Instead, the new audio guides are big on discussions with artists, casual conversations with critics and academics, and sometimes even the irreverent comments of amateurs. And for now at least, most are free. Downloadable tours sanctioned by museums are available on websites of institutions like New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Louis's Contemporary Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A recent "artcast" about the latter's exhibit, "1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures," included the first winning entry from the museum's ongoing podcast competition--in which the catastrophe is re-created with narration, music, and sound effects. (SFMOMA even knocks $2 off admission if you show you've downloaded one of its podcasts.) Minneapolis's innovative Walker Art Center has iPod docks in the lobby so you can download tours on the spot. Perhaps even more interesting are unauthorized audio tours. In Slate's guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan (slate.com/id/2123266), which includes a printable PDF map of the tour, you can listen to art critic Lee Siegel seethe over "Therese Dreaming," a 1938 Balthus painting. "I think Balthus is one of the most overrated painters in this museum," he says. "Please pass into the next room." Like his TV shows and guidebooks, Rick Steves's podcast tours of Paris's Musee d'Orsay and Louvre are informative, with a dose of cornball humor (ricksteves.com). BBC host Paul Rose leads wacky, 25-minute tours in six U.K museums in his "Take One Museum" series (bbc.co.uk). Because these podcasts are so new and topics change frequently, a comprehensive list of where they're offered is hard to come by. MuseumPods.com welcomes museums to submit audio tours; at last check, there were 22. A search for "museum podcast" at iTunes returned more than 30 tours. For those who don't own an iPod, some museums, including the Walker Art Center and the San Jose Museum of Art, offer cell-phone tours. Dial the numbers listed in museum handouts or on plaques near sculptures and paintings to listen to artists and curators discussing the works at hand. Like podcasts, cell-phone tours are free for the time being, but the minutes are on you if you go over your monthly allotment. iPod tour help desk Getting audio files onto your iPod can be complicated. If you're downloading MP3 files directly from a website, rather than from an aggregator service like iTunes, you might have to save the files to a folder on your desktop. If you have a Mac, click on the files and they should move to your iTunes and start playing. If they don't, or if you have a PC, drag them in yourself. You can also download podcasts automatically through iTunes: Go to the "Subscribe to Podcast" option, and then manually paste the feed (links ending in .xml) into the box that pops up.
To Boycott or Not to Boycott
Last spring, North Korea announced it would grant visas to Americans attending the Arirang festival, which is held daily from August 10 through October 10 and consists of an astounding synchronized stadium performance with a cast of 100,000. With few exceptions, Americans may enter the country only if they book tour packages overseen by the North Korean government. Tour groups are assigned two state-approved guides, and itineraries are limited to sites glorifying the regime. There are almost no opportunities to interact with locals. For bragging rights alone, such a trip is tempting. But just because you're allowed to go doesn't mean you should. Foreign dollars spent in North Korea aid a government widely regarded as one of the world's most oppressive. Still, deciding whether to visit a country isn't a black-and-white choice. Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has asked Westerners to avoid travel to Myanmar while its repressive regime remains in place. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is famous for opposing Chinese rule in Tibet, yet he supports responsible travel to the Himalayan nation in order to increase awareness of the issues there. Travelers also help locals feel less isolated, and they bring in desperately needed money. So how do you figure out the right thing to do? Human rights organizations rarely advocate an all-out boycott of any nation. Instead, they encourage people to educate themselves and make informed decisions. Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) and Amnesty International (amnestyusa.org) publish in-depth reports on more than 150 countries--including the U.S.--keeping tabs on issues such as torture, minority oppression, and freedom of speech. OneWorld United States (us.oneworld.net) is part of a global network of some 1,600 progressive organizations that lets you search by topic through hundreds of articles written by journalists and activists. You can also browse studies by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (state.gov/g/drl/hr), going back to 1993: Pick a year, choose a world area, then click. Select Cuba, for example, and you'll be briefed on political prisoners, questionable arrests, and detentions. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Freedom House (freedomhouse.org) provides detailed national dossiers; a map that shows which countries are "free," "partly free," and "not free"; and rankings for civil liberty from 1 (highest freedom) to 7 (lowest). In 2005, China, Cambodia, Egypt, Laos, and the United Arab Emirates, which are all popular with tourists, rated a 5 or worse. There are also resources if you're concerned about specific groups. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (http://www.www.iglhrc.org/) focuses on the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive groups worldwide. You can find up-to-date information about the many countries that still have antigay laws on the books, including the Bahamas and Jamaica, on the website sodomylaws.org. MADRE (madre.org), an international women's rights organization, posts articles about reproductive rights, violence against women, and working conditions for women around the world. The organization also arranges themed trips, such as one to Kenya last June that combined a safari with a visit to a village that had established a violence-free zone specifically for women. "Travelers must understand they have an impact and a choice," says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of the Ethical Traveler (ethicaltraveler.org), an organization committed to strengthening human rights and environmental protection. "As much as possible, put your money where your heart is." It's not all shades of gray Freedom House, a nonprofit formed in New York City in 1941, rates countries according to political rights and civil liberties. A map on its website shows which nations are free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (purple). Click on any country at the site for more in-depth info. If you do decide to go . . . Get your dollars to the people: "Buy local, stay local, and hire local," says Malia Everette, director of Global Exchange's Reality Tours. Choose privately run B&Bs and inns over government-owned hotels and buy souvenirs at community markets. Go independent: With most packages, tourists have little control over where their money is spent. Book with socially responsible companies that take travelers to meet activists and join programs beneficial to locals, such as Global Exchange's Reality Tours (globalexchange.org) and Culture Xplorers (culturexplorers.com). This fall, Reality Tours' two-week tour of Libya includes crafts demonstrations at Berber settlements and discussions with members of the Libyan American Friendship Association about efforts to improve relations with the U.S. Make a connection: North Korea won't allow foreigners to meet and socialize with civilians because the government knows how powerful personal interaction can be. Ask questions, share stories, and express interest in people's lives and cultures; the benefits go far beyond satisfying curiosity. But never push yourself on anyone who appears uncomfortable. It may be dangerous for a local to be seen associating with a foreigner. Spread the word: When you return home, host a night for friends and family to hear about your experiences, or offer to give a talk at your church, school, or community center. Raise donations for school supplies, over-the-counter medications, or other items most needed by the communities you visited. And let others know that the best travel guide is their own conscience.
Get the Most out of Your African Safari
What's the best destination? Every country has something special to offer, but many safari connoisseurs say the top overall choices are Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, and Tanzania. All have established tourism industries and opportunities to spot the "big five" (elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo). South Africa stands apart for its relative abundance of conveniences--ATM machines, Internet access--as well as hospitals and a variety of accommodations and activities. "You're better able to mix it up in South Africa, with visits to cities, beaches, and cultural attractions," says Julian Harrison, coauthor of Fodor's African Safari and president of Premier Tours. Middle- and upper-class South Africans who drive to the country's reserves make up a large part of its safari market. By contrast, safaris in Kenya, Botswana, and Tanzania primarily cater to international tourists. The game reserves are often in remote locations, and the experience feels more like you're in the middle of Africa, not a park tucked off the highway. Private or public reserve? Public parks tend to be larger and have more animals. South Africa's Kruger National Park consists of about 7,700 square miles and is home to 12,500 elephants. Sabi Sand Wildtuin, an adjacent private reserve, is tiny by comparison, spread over 250 square miles. Africa's largest elephant population on private land is in Botswana's Mashatu Game Reserve, which has a herd of around 500. The downside of public parks is that they're generally more crowded and restricted. "You can't drive after dark," says Harrison. "There's no walking and, in eastern Africa, there are no open vehicles." Private reserves afford more freedom, along with luxury and exclusivity, but you'll pay for the privilege. An all-inclusive suite at Sabi Sabi's Bush Lodge in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin costs as much as $735 per person per night, whereas an apartment with space for six in Kruger's Berg-en-Dal camp costs $292 in high season. Self-drive or guided? Most international visitors book safaris led by rangers; if your guide works for a respected tour operator, he'll be an expert tracker with near-encyclopedic knowledge of the wildlife. Self-drive tours are possible in a few national parks--Kruger and Namibia's Etosha, to name two. Beyond costing less, the benefit of a self-drive is that you set the schedule. On guided trips, you follow the group itinerary, often waking before 6 a.m. Yet going it alone is quite a risk if this is your one and only safari; no one wants to travel all the way to Africa, only to miss out on the sights. Customized safaris are the ultimate, allowing you to control who's in your group, and when and for how long you're out on patrol. How do guided safaris work? You'll sleep either in one home base, which could be anything from a permanent tent camp without electricity to a five-star lodge, or in mobile campsites that allow your group to keep moving. "Game drives are typically done in the early morning and late afternoon hours," says Stacey Bisley, tour consultant for safari operator Gametrackers. Each drive lasts three or four hours. Some lodges also offer guided walks or night drives to view game with a spotlight. For many people, two days on safari isn't enough, while ten days in a row of rambling on bumpy roads may try your patience. What other activities are available? When not on game drives, folks on safari eat and relax--a lot. This may prove challenging if you like to exercise or simply can't handle down time. Going for a walk solo is too dangerous, and only the priciest lodges have spas, gyms, and pools. Is it suitable for families? Children are allowed on most safaris, but it's hard to justify the expense for youngsters who'd be as excited watching The Lion King. Alana Hayden, president of Born Free Safaris, suggests a minimum age of 5, though teens will better appreciate (and remember) the experience. Many kids aren't ready to sit patiently in a vehicle for hours. What shots are necessary? Most safaris take place in malaria zones, and antimalaria medication is strongly recommended. To play it safe, head to one of South Africa's malaria-free zones in the Eastern Cape and North West Province. Consult your doctor no matter which destination you pick. Is travel insurance required? Many tour operators need you to prove you'll be covered for trip cancellation, medical expenses, and lost or delayed baggage. Contact your health insurance company to find out if your policy already provides such coverage, and purchase travel insurance to fill in gaps. Even if your tour operator doesn't require you to be insured, it's still a good idea. Browse policies at quotetravelinsurance.com or insuremytrip.com. When's the best time to go? The high season for most countries runs from June through October, when the weather is cool and dry and animals are easier to observe because they congregate near water sources. In low season, animals are more dispersed and tougher to track, but there are advantages. "You have cheaper rates, less people, and the landscape is lush and green," says Harrison. How much? On self-drive tours, expenses are limited to lodging, rental car, gas, and a park fee ($20 per day at Kruger). If you're splitting costs within a group, costs could be under $100 per person daily. Guided safaris with game drives, meals, and alcohol included range from $200 all the way up to $1,200 a day. You also need to figure in airfare of $1,300 or more, as well as tips for drivers and guides; $10 each for every day on safari should suffice. Many flights to Africa are routed through Europe; check to see if two round trips (one to Europe, one onward to Africa) are cheaper than a single purchase. Consider staying a few days in Amsterdam, London, or whichever city you're connecting through en route; airlines sometimes allow free stopovers. Packages that include airfare and a guided safari, like those featured in our 40 Best section, are often the best value. WHAT TO PACK FOR A SAFARI Check ahead of time if your game reserve lodge has laundry facilities (many do). That way, you can cut back on clothes and have more room for binoculars and other gear you'll want out on game drives. Shades and a hat with a big brim: You'll be out in the sun a lot. Chapstick, moisturizer, and sunscreen: The plains are dry and dusty, and the sun can be broiling. Layers: You'll need a sweater and a light coat for chilly evenings, as well as a raincoat or poncho for unpredictable downpours. Cover up as much as possible to avoid insect bites. Binoculars and a camera: Bring a zoom lens, too. The most exciting action is off in the distance. $200 cash per person for tips: Have lots of $1 bills handy for porters, waiters, and maids, as well as larger denominations to tip guides at trip's end. Luggage that's easy to carry: Waterproof backpacks and duffel bags are best. Bags with wheels are great at the airport, but not in the bush. Earth-tone clothing: Black absorbs heat, while white and other bright colors scare off animals. Don't wear camouflage: Locals may think you're in the military. Rugged, waterproof shoes: Take ones you don't mind getting dirty, as well as sandals or flip-flops you can switch into back at camp.
This Just In!
Within five years, 38 EasyHotels are expected to open in Pakistan, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. Effective July 1, visitors arriving in Mexico by plane or cruise ship don't have to pay taxes on purchases over $110. Frontier Airlines has five nonstops per day between San Francisco and L.A. starting June 29. Through the end of October, Hilton Garden Inn guests staying any night Thursday to Sunday are eligible for a free round of golf for two at 250 North American courses. British Airways cut fares to 65 European destinations (a London-Bordeaux flight costs as little as $52). Kiosks in 37 Hilton Hotel lobbies permit guests to check in for most flights--and even change seats and print boarding passes. JetBlue's rewards program, TrueBlue, now gives you two fully transferable passes when you earn 100 points; each is valid for a one-way flight anywhere the airline flies and is bookable online. EasyCruise is charging as little as $24 nightly per cabin on its new river cruises in Holland and Belgium. Eos, the all first-class airline flying from New York to London, has staffers who meet passengers curbside and fast-track them through check-in so they can arrive only 45 minutes before departure. Swiss Pass holders receive 50 percent off most cogwheel trains and cable cars, and free admission at over 400 museums in Switzerland. Adventurers in the Adirondacks now have something to see on rainy days. The Wild Center, a natural history museum opening July 4, has an indoor trout stream with an underwater viewing area (wildcenter.org). The world's third-largest waterfall was recently discovered in Chachapoyas, Peru; it's a five-hour trek from the nearest Amazon River-basin village. Named the Gocta waterfall, it will be open to visitors, via a road, in 2007. Every room at the new Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro hotel, in the West Loop, has a balcony and free "sleep kits" with a mask and lavender spray (crowneplaza.com). Through November, the FreeStayMaine program gives cruisers a voucher for one night at select hotels across the state (freestaymaine.com). At the Ingenuity Festival in Cleveland, July 7-16, look for slow-motion break-dancers in robotic costumes and a 3-D virtual-reality cave created by NASA (ingenuitycleveland.com). This July, the National Aquarium in Baltimore inaugurates a family sleepover program called Down Under Dreaming, with a behind-the-scenes tour, dinner, snack, and breakfast (aqua.org). It's now illegal to smoke in all public spaces in Colorado. Chukka Caribbean Adventures, a tour operator in Jamaica, will begin running dogsled tours this summer (chukkacaribbean.com). On July 8, pranksters will line up along the train tracks in Laguna Niguel, Calif., to moon Amtrak passengers; it's an annual event (moonamtrak.org). Berlin has a new $900 million central train station. Called the Hauptbahnhof, the glass-and-steel structure will eventually see over 1,000 trains a day passing through.