A Shanghai travelogue

This is a long story about a short journey.  90+ hours of total door-to-door travel time for 36 hours in Shanghai.  Worth it?  You betcha!

Our illustrious, uncomplaining Director of Photography, Paul Arias, joined me at Exit 24 off I-95 at 4AM on Tuesday morning.   We arrived JFK three hours early as planned and found the check-in at that hour easy.

Our flight to LAX seemed a bit shorter than usual.  There already seemed to be about half the flight with Chinese nationals.  I was disappointed that there was no meal on the flight as I’d not had anything so early at the airport.  This was the first cross-country flight I’d been on where no meal was served.  Headphones were for purchase only as well.  But who’s complaining?  I slept half the way.

We were able to have a healthy lunch at LAX, and the cross-Pacific China Air flight of about 13 hours allowed me to start in on Keith Richards’ wrenching biography, Life.  That mixed with intermittent sleep made the time pass, if not quickly, at least fairly easily.  And they fed us!   There were three servings – breakfast (with great fruit), a snack and dinner (a decent noodle dish).  Beautiful Asian flight attendants; very attentive especially with the water.

Crossing the date line, we found ourselves arriving Shanghai at 7PM on Wednesday.  The Shanghai airport is modern and cavernous; miles of huge halls; easy early morning immigration and no stopping at customs.  Our visas worked!

I was immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the airport, and the large signs in both English and Chinese.  There was a Burger King at the airport and many large, tasteful billboards for jewelry and other bourgeois consumables.  Visa, other Western companies proudly advertise.  This is not your Father’s communism.

Per a suggestion from our IBM client, we took the MagLev train from the airport to downtown.  This eight minute ride at 300kph gave us a chance to see the layout of the surrounding countryside, the smooth-running traffic system, the modern, egalitarian housing and a wide range of unobtrusive billboards.   Many neighborhood downtowns were enhanced with neon and other colorful lights.  Older establishments seemed re-invigorated with large, colorful signs.  Much of the signage is also in English – easy to read; clear, concise words, usually all-cap.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the downtown station and easily found our way to the Taxi stand, we realized we did not have the hotel name or address printed in Chinese characters, and our cab driver did not speak or read any English.  So, we showed him a number to call and he was able to get directions from the hotel’s operator.

We passed a group banging on drums on a street corner and I surmised that these were nationalist protesters expressing their discontent at the recent inflammatory purchase by Japan of the disputed island in the East China Sea.

The Marriot Apartments offered modern, luxury accommodations with 270 degree views (21st floor) from a four room suite.

After a quick clean up and call to the loved ones, Paul and I ventured out for an ‘authentic’ meal.  With our hotel’s surroundings being one huge modern shopping paradise, we found that search a bit daunting, though getting there was fun, traversing the five lanes of intersecting avenues in wide pedestrian crossing zones.   The westerners stood out to me in dress, manners and height.  I noticed on the plane and here on the street that many Chinese have an odd sense of ‘personal space’.  There’s a different kind of flocking behavior going on.  Yes, some courtesy, but usually an ‘I was here first’, oblivious kind of attitude. Or was I the rude, oblivious one?

I said I’d eat anywhere but a chain or a food court.  But there, amidst the majestic lights and big screen video of, yes, ‘TIMES SQUARE’, we found ourselves eating at a large ‘Food Mall’.   The first floor consists of a huge variety of merchants selling all sorts of Chinese specialties from exotic, colorful candies and cakes to dried worms.   We agreed this would be a great place to come back to later for gifts.

We took the escalators up two flights, past the Starbucks and the McDonalds, til we came to the third floor with two Japanese restaurants and a few more traditional places.  At 9PM, many of the places were just closing, but one restaurant let us in as most of their staff ate their end-of-shift dinners and giggled quietly amongst themselves.  Our waitress didn’t understand English. We struggled with the menu, which had vague indications of ‘mutton’ or ‘shrimp’, but large pictures.   We ordered what we thought were chicken dishes.  Our wait staff brought tea and some small soup bowls with our chopsticks and a moist napkin in a paper packet.  We asked for rice, and one of the young staff quickly got up from his dinner to heat it up in the microwave for us.

The dinner was inexpensive.  I left a five yuan tip on the table and the smiling young waitress ran after me, waving it at me.  “No, no”, I gestured.  “That’s for you.”  I pointed at her, waving her off.  She was adamant.  I was to keep it.  I was told later that tips are not accepted because there is fear that authorities will consider the person to be receiving a bribe of some kind.

We took a bit different path to get back to the hotel, and found a well-lit, modern electronics store where we were able to buy a conversion plug after finally finding someone able to speak English.  There were neat, Apple Store -like displays of the latest and greatest consumer products.  Does anyone not like their Samsung Galaxy?  I want something just a little bigger or smaller than what’s out there now…

Sleep came easy, though I was up intermittently through the night, unable to let a work day go by in the states without feeding my habitual control-freak behavior.

Our breakfast buffet the next morning was truly world class.  I won’t turn this into a bad wedding video (where they show the food), but I did in fact feel compelled to capture it for all to see.   Forgive the indulgence, but I found it cool how they catered to a range of European tastes while incorporating local strengths:  lychees, large grapes, and other fruit.  I don’t think I’ve ever had better bacon.

I spoke briefly with a gentleman, originally from Vancouver, who was in Auto Parts and had been coming to Shanghai on business for years.  We agreed he was a lucky guy to get this breakfast every morning.

We found it interesting – and a bit ominous – that Leon Panetta was on Global CNN visiting Beijing where a bottle had been thrown by a protester at his car.  PressTV – Panetta warns of war in East China Sea

Because Sec. Panetta and other dignitaries were dressed in traditional suit and tie, Paul convinced me it would be best for me to wear a tie to the gig.  I’m glad I did.

It took a while, but the hotel taxi attendant was able to transcribe the address for the IBM location we were visiting.  The wide main avenue was full of traffic at 9am, turning the mile long drive into 20 minutes, but allowing for some ‘out-of-window’ b-roll.  The architecture of the large buildings is innovative and original; construction everywhere you look.

The security at the Hyatt-office building combo was seamless and we were soon at the HQ for IBM’s Global Growth Markets team.   Our local crew had already loaded in, and I was pleased to meet our crew-leader, Adam, a late 20 something guy from San Francisco who’d come to Shanghai four years ago with an ex – but stayed.  “Food is cheap and you can pretty much do anything you want here.”

He’d just come from Tokyo via Hong Kong, where his connecting flight had been delayed seven hours due to the East China Sea tensions.

We talked about our not being able to access FaceBook, or other ‘comments’ sections of blogs and local papers.   He called it ‘the great firewall of china’.   He mentioned that one could get a VPN – a virtual personal network – to enable access.

He and our charming local IBM hostess suggested:

The Bund – An historic colonial district

Huai Hai Lou – A long street known for shopping

Xu Jai Hui – Another historic district where Electronics could be found

We only made it to one of those, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back in Shanghai sometime. IBM’s presence there continues to grow.

The shoot went well as we captured two executives talking about mobile computing and how countries like China and India are ‘leap frogging’ western adaptation of mobile without having had a ‘PC’ revolution.  You’ll have to tune into the webcast to learn more about all that.

After set-up, we had some time for Paul to go to street level to shoot some B-roll.

There was a language barrier with the rest of the Chinese crew, but they were each bringing a positive, can-do attitude.  We noticed a certain colonial-era condescension born of frustration from our SF friend when our lighting person seemed to think they’d left a key component back at the shop.  Phone calls back to the rental house and directions to have it delivered ASAP were all for naught as it was discovered that we did in fact have the part.   Having things go wrong like that was said to be the norm (snafu’s), but things always work out and get done.  Roads are paved overnight, like clockwork.  People are marshaled and big things happen quickly, but the lack of attention to details drives this Westerner nuts.

The make-up person used the more studio-normal ‘liquid pancake’ technique that works well under hotter lights. I prefer powder when able, but that’s best with a softer lighting environment.

Both of our on-camera IBM subjects delivered beautifully and we were able to wrap up by 1PM or so.  Again, our lack of Chinese proved a problem in letting taxi attendants and drivers know where to take us, but Paul had the ingenious idea of using the Chinese address on the back of the card key to get us back to the hotel.  We had a quick hotel lunch (somewhat bland Wonton Soup with too many Raman noodles for me) and naps.  I was able to take a sauna and steam, and wished I’d brought my suit for the large pool.

In a text, Adam suggested we might stop by the offices of our local production team to discuss the partnership relationship I’d mentioned I’d hoped to cultivate.  This time, I had a text from Adam of the Chinese characters to show the taxi driver.  He took us quickly under two tunnels, through various neighborhoods, to the ‘artsy’ district where, above a photography shop, the 29 person production company resides.  Comprised of expats from a wide range of countries, they represent videography, editing, animation and audio support that I’m expecting will form the basis of our Shanghai production capabilities.

One of the company’s principles, Thomas, spent a half hour with us discussing ways in which we can work with them to support opportunities from both US and China-based multi-nationals.   An impressive team.  Great for business long term, but it cut into our daylight b-roll time.

Thankfully, the area just behind their shop, Tianzifang, is a unique historic district where near-claustrophobic alleyways feature small, attractive shops and enticing bars and cafes.  Oh, to be here with my life partner to really shop.  I nearly made twenty different impulse buys – the prices were low, the hand made quality undeniable.  ‘NO PHOTOS’ posted (we were warned they’d take your camera away), but I and other tourists took a few quick shots anyway.  Completely unique and charming.

We took a cab during rush hour to The Bund District, taking video along the way, arriving at the pier area just after sunset.  I wish I’d been able to get a shot of that large statue of Mao.   The riverside boardwalk is the largest I’ve seen… like the one in Brooklynn times a hundred.  Huge.  Grand.  Someone had a brilliant vision and was able to apply millions of people’s talents to make that happen.

It had been suggested that we visit the rooftop of the Roosevelt Hotel for a great view.  The impressive Victorian stone building was beautifully appointed, and, though the dining room looked opulent and the food smelled great on the way up to the rooftop bar, the $15/each beers persuaded us to find another place for dinner.  There was a business conference (name tags are a sure giveaway) of mixed westerners, but the music was loud Miami beach out of an amazing Bose speaker system.  We took shots of the panoramic cityscape in front of us with the beautifully lit skyscrapers and funky blinking ships cruising between the barges on the wide river.

We agreed we were truly fortunate to be able to visit this place at this time in history; to see something that most can only dream about.  The 21st is truly China’s century.  One only need stand atop the Roosevelt hotel after dark to see that.

We strolled past the historic, stone-columned ‘Custom House’ as a few beautiful, very healthy looking young women discretely whispered, “Massage?”

We hoofed it hungrily through city streets and avoided a couple foul smelling places, opting to leave one establishment that looked full of locals on the ground floor, but, when they took us to our Westerner’s isolation on the second floor, it gave us too much time to realize the place wasn’t clean and the smell became stronger than the desire for authenticity.

Soon, we found just what we were looking for:  though too bright, this place offered the ‘real deal’, with pleasant, albeit inattentive service.  We were the only Caucasions and the four plasma TV’s played nationalistic salutes to the military and patriotism.  I enjoyed sharing this photo via MMS and email with Tom and our transcriptionist…

We ordered: (clockwise from upper left) hot n sour soup, eel paste, green beans with hot pepper and garlic, and kung pao chicken.  The soup tasted much like authentic Boston China Town, but a bit ‘earthier’.  The eel paste was somewhat odd at first, but grew on me. Even Paul didn’t think it was half bad with its chewy little eel morsels in a semi-sweet sauce.  We both loved the green beans, a simple mix of very fresh beans, garlic and red pepper, al dente.   The chicken was also similar to a real deal China Town place, simple tender cubes with peanuts with a not overly sweet sauce.  We could have used some white rice, bud didn’t know how to ask for it.  I couldn’t finish the large beer, so Paul finished it for me.

We went for a long stroll after dinner toward what looked on the map to be an interesting tourist area featuring the Shanghai Town God’s Temple.

Toy helicopters were being shot off and descending all around us.  Deals were being attempted even before we knew what they were selling.  “How much you pay?”  “Only hundred each.”  I did my best to ignore them, but Paul was too nice to a street salesman who followed us for at least a full city block and from whom Paul ultimately haggled (your supposed to) a price of 70 Yuan (about 10 dollars) for two sets of light-up roller skates for his kids.   I bought a funky flexible small camera tripod for about five dollars.

The lit traditional temple-like buildings provided a great shopping and people watching area (auto free) that allowed us to wander amongst thousands of happy, mostly Chinese tourists.  Colorful lighting displays augmented the plaza areas and the whole effect was one of an exotic, modern Asian street fair.   Everyone could get their favorite food or an affordable toy.  People considered this a special, happy place.

It never stopped seeming odd to me that each family consisted of only one child.  We saw a few European-looking dogs being walked on the streets, with a couple off-leash.  Generally clean streets.

We laughed as one bicycle cart – with two riders – was loaded to the sky with boxes like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

We made our way West toward the river where we thought we’d have a better chance at finding a taxi.  As we progressed, I notice there were more single men walking through this upscale neighborhood.   Was he just cruising me?

Then, as we approached a hotel where taxis seemed to be stopping, there was a block where two or three men approached us with, “Massage?”   One particularly aggressive hustler seemed very eager to help Paul find a taxi.   We were in fact having a bit of difficulty as two older drivers with poor eye sight were unable to read the small print on the back of the hotel key.  After ultimately finding a young, 20-20-enabled driver, I noticed the young poser now leaning provocatively against the light post, like a scene from Christopher Street circa 1979.   Paul was completely non-plussed.

Sleep came easily, although, comparing notes the next morning at our last luxurious breakfast, we found that neither of us had slept more than three or four hours at a time.  Paul had gotten up around four that morning and run through the city. I again had micro managed from a distance, trying not to let the distance be a delayed response to my clients.  Next time, I’ll have a base ops person identified, but this trip, all at home were already pretty busy.

The forty minute taxi to the airport cost less than $30US and, again, I was struck by the grandeur of the construction projects.   The hundred thousand unit condo cities being built on the outskirts of Shanghai, the long, tall streetlamp-lined, straight-as-can-be highway leading into the airport.  Master visions, master plans, masterfully executed.   Coming into Terminal Two, we noticed that there were in fact two huge mirror terminals connected by a grand hotel.  Check in and security were painless.

Changing planes in Tokyo, I was able to send some email (love Boingo Hot Spots) and try Unagi (eel) sushi locally.  Of course, best ever.  Not from a packet.

Toward the end of our 12 hour flight from Tokyo to DC, after watching a sampling of Weeds episodes I’d missed from not having Showtime, I tuned in to Smash, the Glee for adults.  I lucked into seeing Katherine McPhee’s amazing performance of Run.   I’d always loved the song, but her interpretation is magnificent.  Go ahead.  Click the link.  She’s lip syncing of course.  But even Keith Richard lip synced a few times.   

With this song as a backdrop, having finished a breakfast that gives credence to the claim that in-flight meals have in fact reached a new plateau (a spinach and cheese omelet with a hint of tomato sauce, not-so-soggy hash browns and a hot-dog sized Viennese sausage), I watched the three or four flight attendants assigned to my side of the plane work in concert together to clear the empty trays.  I try to avoid superlatives, but never before have I witnessed a more in-tune flight crew.   So often, travelers sit and wait for the overly tired servers pushing the cart back to clear their trashed trays, usually taking 15 to 20 minutes to finally let us get on with our self-destraction.  Not this team.  I could tell they didn’t want their guests to sit with their trays any longer than they’d like.  What an impression they made on me.

Perhaps it was a combination of the long journey with the song that gave soundtrack to their ballet, but seeing these attendants tending to us as if they actually enjoyed serving…  well, it opened the floodgates of my tears.  No lie.  I cried watching a United flight crew work well together.  Great coordinated service – like the first time you hear a beautifully written song interpreted well by a cohesive group of performers – can do that for me.  I can only hope our customers get a fraction of that sense when they watch our team working together.

On my final trip to the restroom, I was able to tell one of the crew that they’d made me cry.  I could tell she was touched and she promised to share the compliment with her fellow crew members.  “Yeah, this is a good team.  We’ve all pretty much worked together over the years.”  They were more mature than most crews, lead by a fifty something Latin gentleman; more ‘old school’ perhaps.  But, as I told her, I haven’t seen coordinated service like that since a high end Mexico City restaurant.

A quick and easy immigration-luggage transfer process in DC, before catching a small commuter jet back to JFK.  It was here I believe that I realized that, when you’re standing at baggage claim waiting for your bag, you become the bag.  “Here I am!”  Just like in golf.  “Yep.  That’s you over there”.  Are we in fact our luggage?  That’s a whole other blog.

Finally, a short, not so jet-lagged ride home to New London.  90 hours or so door to door.   Easy.

Who says business travel can’t be rewarding – even as an end to itself?   It separates the cry babies from the merely emotional; gives patience a new name; ensures you must be comfortable in your own skin, in your own assigned seat, occupying your own thoughts for hours on end, drifting in and out of meditation and sleep as you wish, with no place to go but home – or to places we once only read about or saw on TV.  Either direction, I enjoy the journey.

Special thanks to Paul for being such an easy travel companion; to Monica and Santiago for facilitating our visas; to Michelle for coordinating shoot logistics; and most of all to the love of my life, Tom, for arranging the perfect travel details.   Thank you all for making this one truly memorable excursion!

Chip’s Business Travel Tips

Well, I can’t say I invented them, but I can attest to their benefits.  This is your bonus for being good readers and so I’m rewarding you with these 30 nuggets of wisdom.  Perhaps leave a comment with your own tip.  These have not been put in chronological order – feel free to do that for me and send it back if you’d like – and I’ll repost it. I can do that.  It’s WordPress.

1. Find out beforehand if the flight will have a meal.  Don’t count on it.  Peanuts and pretzels do not a meal make. The to-go sandwiches near the gates have generally gotten better.  If you can find sushi, go for it!  It’ll make everyone jealous and you’ll feel mentally stronger for the flight.

2. Set your watch to the destination’s time zone as the plane is taking off.  Start thinking of yourself in that time zone.

3. If you have a window seat, keep the window closed after take-off to keep yourself in your upcoming time zone.  They’re making people keep the window down during long flights after lights have been dimmed now anyway.

4. Turn the air on and direct it to your face so you can get a bit more oxygen and lessen that stuffed-in-the-can-like-sardines feeling.  Think of it as your personal spa treatment.  And it’ll help quell any defacatory invasions to your olfactory zone.

5. Drink lots of water on long flights.  Pick up a bottle before getting on the plane or use the free drinking fountains at the gate.  I’ve never gotten sick from a drinking fountain.

6. Do your best to get an aisle seat, no matter how far back in the plane, so you can get up, walk around and stretch out at least every two to three hours.  If you don’t have an aisle seat, don’t hesitate to let the person next to you know you need to get out.  Don’t suffer for them.  When possible, go when others go.

7. I have a trick for unblocking my ears during decent where I block my nose and blow gently into my ears, but I would suggest doing it carefully as it might destroy your ear drums.  In fact, scratch that.  I didn’t say anything about that.

8. Keep shifting your butt in your seat. It’s easy for it to fall asleep without you knowing it.

9. Don’t be afraid to touch the elbow of the person next to you.  When in doubt, use the arm rest, but be willing to share.  Try not to just give it up to be nice.  I’ve never had an elbow war, but a couple times I have given up the arm rest if the person is obese.  The person is already miserable sitting in that seat – it’s the least you can do… but in the absence of obesity, it’s as much your arm rest as theirs.

10. See if your seat has the head rest that is flexible.  If you can bend it and rest an ear on one side, you’ll get less stiff neck syndrome.  If you do get a stiff neck, just gently roll and stretch it out.  You get more used to it the more you travel.  Learning to sleep sitting up is a rewarding accomplishment.

11. Suggest to the person next to you that they can feel free to tap your elbow if you start to embarrass yourself by snoring.

12. Bring a long book and don’t hesitate to turn on your overhead light.  They’ll deal with it.

13. For security, wear easily slip on – slip off shoes (like in Up in the Air) and (if you’re not wearing a sport jacket), put your wallet, mobile, watch, keys and anything else in your pocket into your carry on bag with your mobile on top, keeping your boarding pass in a secure pocket as you walk through security.  Yes, some airports no longer require you to have it, but you’ll know where it is when you get to the other side and can check your gate info.

14. I know I’m old fashioned, but I like to dress up a bit for the flight. If you’re a guy, consider wearing a sport jacket.  You can always take it off, but the extra pockets are more secure.  Flight attendants treat you with more respect and, it hasn’t happened for a while, but you’ll likely be the first one bumped up to first class if there’s an extra seat.  Well, a guy can hope.

15. Be sure to be registered for any points you can get.  I’m not as fastidious as I should be.  Thankfully, I have people who help me with that.  Perhaps find a person who has a vested interest in sharing your points with you.

16. Use GoogleMaps and Starred Places for as many places you know you’ll be going before leaving the States.  You never know how much coverage you’ll get in any new location until you get there.

17. Before going to another country, update your phone’s global roaming.  Zero and pound out of the VRU (Voice Response Unit – my first impulse is always zero pound) and talk to a live person.  You’ll sleep better the night before.

18. Don’t drink a lot of coffee or alcohol if you want to keep your equilibrium and avoid jet lag.

19. If you get nervous about flying, do the crossword puzzle in the inflight magazine.  Or look at the route maps and think positive thoughts of all those flights multiplied by a thousand airlines multiplied by 365 days in a year of flights traveling these routes successfully around the globe, and you’ll realize that it would be hubris to think that YOUR flight would be the one to have a major problem.  More people die from shoveling snow than plane crashes.

20. Think of the baby crying behind you as if it were your own and you were the poor parent trying to just make it through this one flight so she can see her grandma for the first time.  Or consider trying to channel the primal scream therapy.  And remember, you cried like a baby at one time in your life as well.  Don’t blame the parents.  They do their best.  If you have a solution, share it.  Otherwise, deal with it.

21. Be open to learning something unique from the person sitting next to you, but don’t impose yourself.   And don’t be afraid to show disinterest if you’re not sensing a connection.  If the conversation and mutual interest is there, you’ll know it.  Just remember, you’ll likely never see this person again, so it’s often a good chance to get an objective opinion on something that might have been weighing on your mind.  Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk.  And don’t feel obliged to do so.  I’ve met some of my best role models at 30,000 feet.

22. Never get into an unmetered cab.  Get a receipt from the cab driver unless it’s on a credit card.

23. I check one bag. Sure, you can compact yourself and carry it on in one unit, but I like to be unburdened in the long trek to the gate and in the restaurant before boarding.  It’s been a long time since a bag’s not made it, knock wood.

24. Consider putting the ‘do not disturb’ sign outside your room after you leave if staying more than one night so the room cleaner doesn’t come in.  You’ll feel less entitled and more at home.  Yes, you can use the same towel twice and hang it to dry.  Still give them the tip you would for multiple days because you’ve shed just as much skin as if they’d cleaned it daily.

25. Try to avoid room service.  It’s expensive, and stinks up and messes up the room.

26. Don’t beat yourself up for forgetting to leave a tip for housekeeping, but try to leave extra tip the next time.  Most people are chincy.   Tip!   Karma.

27. Find some way to enjoy local music whenever possible.  Try the local food. Think of the things you ‘can’t get at home’.

28. Don’t forget your bathing suit.  Sometimes you’ll have time for a swim.

29. Use an ATM machine to get cash when you get off the plane.  They’re safe and usually have the best exchange rates.  Avoid the change offices – bad exchange rates and high fees.

30. Try to create an itinerary that might allow for your travel to be interrupted.  You might have to sit on the runway too long and miss your connecting flight.   Weather delays.  Any number of things can and do happen.  Thankfully, delays are not the norm.  And sometimes they’ll throw you a cookie if they really mess up your plans.

Please feel free to send this link to anyone you know.