Crab Ovary Dumblings--with Straw Please

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of China  , Shanghai,
Thursday, July 30, 2009

We feel much more at home in Shanghai on our second full day, and we head back to the scene of Wednesday's tourist carnage. Our destination: The Huang Pu River Cruise Company, offering sightseeing tours of the river that bisects the city. It is another harrowing trip, especially when we realize we need to cross traffic and walk through a construction zone to get to the temporary pier that is home to the cruise office. Sandbags, rubble, and mounds of broken red bricks mingle with discarded office furniture (?) and shards of glass. This better be some f’in boat ride! Tickets in hand (for 8pm), we head to old town, and the Yuyuan gardens.

Old town Shanghai is a pedestrian mall, restored to how one might have seen it several hundred years ago…if the Disney Corporation ruled China. It is a beautiful assemblage of four-storey buildings, all interconnected by passageways crossing above the street. It’s also home to a collection of what by now has now become the usual suspects: Starbucks, Haagen Daaz, DQ, McDonalds, and all manner of hawkers ("No, the pretty lady does not want fake watch!")

It’s also home to a gem of a restaurant: Nanxian Mantou Dian (Nanxian Dumplings). People line up outside of this place for a whole block to get in, and we dutifully waited for our table. It was worth it: Steamer baskets of soupy vegetable, mushroom, and “meat” (turns out this means pork) dumplings; flaky fried curry beef puffs; and the amazing-but-unappealingly-named glutinous rice balls. I had the opportunity to use a card I had written for me in Mandarin while in Hong Kong. The card reads, “I am allergic to shellfish. This means I cannot eat crab, lobster, or scallops or I will die.” It came into good use when the staff warned me not to eat Maribeth’s massive snowball-sized “crab ovary soup dumpling” served with a straw sticking out of the top for drinking the soup.

Onto the garden. What was most amazing about our time in Yuyuan was not the garden itself, though it was an oasis of calm in the midst of the city. Most impressive was the show that Mother Nature gave us. Around midday, the skies began to darken, and while in the gardens, we could hear the rumble of an approaching storm. In a flash, the skies opened. It rained…hard, and kept raining for over an hour at a torrential pace. Fortunately, the gardens themselves were a perfect place to witness this event, as they are full of pagodas connected by covered bridges that traverse the many ponds. With nothing else to do, everyone just stopped. Tourists and locals, families, couples, and workers…we all just grabbed a seat. Maribeth and I lounged on a bench overlooking a small pond. The turmoil in the pond, water streaming in rivulets off the overhanging roof, the sound of the rain so loud it drowned out even the nearby waterfall…it ushered in a near meditative calm.

Until we tried to leave. As the rain let up slightly, we realized just how much had come down. Old town was flooded in a number of places with ankle-deep water. On top floated electric orange puddles of what we hoped was cooking oil. Many people were traversing the deepest stretches with bare feet. We waited for the waters to recede a bit, and then delicately moved along the edges of the sidewalk. Some stores had flooded, and we watched as merchants swept waves of water onto the sidewalk. Only today did we learn that this was the most rain the city has received in 70 years!

Dried out, we headed to dinner at Shanghai Uncle, arguably one of the best examples of Shanghaiese cuisine. The restaurant was a cavernous hall, draped in red cloth. The service bordered on intrusive, as at least 5 people kept an eye on our table. This was awkward since we’re by no means expert at using chopsticks on even large objects, much less on fish needing to be liberated of tiny bones, or slick little wheat berries. As has become customary for us, we ordered a silly amount of food (whenever we ask if we’ve ordered too much, the answer is always “enough.” Enough for Jabba the Hut maybe!)  The food was hit and miss: The pork ribs in a soy pine nut sauce was spectacular. The wheat berries fried with beef, peppers and bacon was great, and the tempura-fried mushrooms (they call it, unappetizingly, fungus) with a cumin dipping sauce were good. Maribeth’s fish baked in spaghetti and cheese was, as you might guess just from the description, not great.

After dinner, we made our way back through the shit show that is the Bund to our river cruise. Once safely on the boat we enjoyed ourselves greatly. The Bund was lit dramatically with yellow floodlights. The Pudong (new financial area) across the river is an explosion of color. Some of it gaudy, some very classy, what is most remarkable is that not a single building was there just 15 years ago! The pace of change in this city is fast enough to give you whiplash, and we heard and saw the evidence of this frenetic citywide makeover. Arc torches lit up like mechanical fireflies. Construction crews continued to add floors to buildings and lanes to bridges, and diggers broke ground on holes for new skyscrapers. It’s both impressive and overwhelming.

Tomorrow: China’s Venice and Maribeth gets pooped on.
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