Day 228 (24th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
I woke up this morning still fretting and slightly stressed over the US visa situation which I embarked on trying to solve last night. I decided to play it safe and skip my second class of the day so that I could go and figure out how to pay my visa fee and schedule an interview at the Consulate.
As soon as reading class ended, I rode my bike to Hongkou Football Stadium where I had heard that there was a CITIC Bank Branch. After half an hour of searching, I didn’t find a bank branch but rather just an ATM. Thinking that I didn’t want to have come all that way for nothing, I pushed my card into the ATM to see if anything relevant came up. The English language option didn’t work, and so I was stuck browsing through pages in a foreign language racing against the timer which indicated when my session would expire. And then I saw the golden characters: “美国签证” (American visa). It turned out that you could pay your visa fee directly through the ATM. I followed the prompts and before long was given a receipt to say that the payment had been made.
I quickly logged on to the US Travel Docs website to schedule my interview with my receipt number. I was able to score the last slot for Wednesday. It made me feel much better after a confusing and stressful period of trying to figure everything out. While I was “in the zone”, I decided to make preparations for the interview and make absolutely sure that I had everything I would need. The email appointment notification said that I wasn’t allowed to bring anything electronic (including a phone or a USB drive) to the Consulate, as well as no bags or umbrellas (despite this being the wettest week in Shanghai since the 1800’s). I therefore spent the next couple of hours trawling through all my documents from any of the even slightly sensitive or questionable trips I’ve done this year – to Iran, Jordan, Israel, Russia and Belarus. I also printed out any information of any of the plans I have so far in the US.
I felt like being absolutely prepared with even the most minute details of my trip was necessary. After all, the visa application consisted of dozens of pages of questions like this.
My favourite of those questions is “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?” I pity the fool who mistakenly ticks “yes” for that one.
Before long I was on my bike again heading to the post office to send off my $80 Australian Consulate-verified NSW License Photo Kit. This snowmobiling in Finland had better be worth this effort. I’m sure it will be.
There was no time for rest – I raced from the post office back to my room for some afternoon work before just making it in time to dinner with Jake, Emma, Joe, Abbey, Carrie and her new boyfriend (I think?) Peter. Dinner was at Lotus, making it the third time I’ve eaten there in one week. It sounds excessive, but I’m not going to turn down an offer to eat at this place. We ordered all new things on the menu except for the purple pineapple rice which, by now, could be considered a compulsory dish to have here.
The highlight dish for me was the desert – a coconut milk drink with sweet bread. We all braced for that risky first sip when you work out what’s at the bottom of your drink, but it ended up being the standout dish of what is already a top restaurant in my books.
Day 229 (25th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
It was during a morning bike ride around the campus between classes that my $50 bike finally gave way. The back brake snapped when I was riding down a main road and my front brake pad had already worn out. It meant that I had to rapidly turn back and forth and drag my feet across the ground in order to come to a stop.
Figuring that replacing the brakes would cost as much money and take time which I didn’t have, I dumped the bike on the footpath and cut my losses.
I treated myself with a couple of donuts for lunch.
I was told at the beginning of the semester by the Office of International Student Affairs (or “OISA”, a sound that’s often scowled in disgust by a lot of the international students) that I would have to return two weeks before my departure to notify them. I went into the office today to explain that I was leaving on November 1. My departure is actually November 12, but for a variety of reasons it’s more beneficial if I hide that from them. For one, exams are from November 7 until November 11. If I were to sit them, I wouldn’t even get my results back. And even if I did get some accreditation for exams, they wouldn’t count for anything since I can’t do Chinese at uni back in Australia (and even then, two months wouldn’t count for any credit points). Another reason that it’s better to say that I’m departing earlier than expected is because I am completing some work experience during exam week. Stopping class earlier also means that I can spend more time exploring the last bits of this city and enjoying myself. I’ve not found myself so infatuated with a city until now, so every minute is valuable. Further, November 2 and November 3 don’t have classes because of a sports carnival, so if I wasn’t sitting exams I’d only end up going to one day of classes in a two week period.
After putting forth my case to the office that I had signed up for a two month course and had arrived on September 1, they reluctantly agreed with me.
“How are we meant to give you your certificate if you don’t do exams?” the administration woman asked.
“I don’t know. I guess you can’t. That’s OK.” I said, and turned to walk out.
“Wait! But you need some sort of evidence that you went here, don’t you?” she asked.
“Well it would be nice I guess, but I’m not fussed.” I replied, hopeful that I might get my hands on something.
The next thing I knew I was handed a blank report card.
“Ask your teachers to fill this in with their best estimates of your exam results.” the woman told me. “Get it back to me by the end of the week.”
Beauty, I thought. I had practically been handed a blank cheque.
Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent organising the South Korea trip. It was a good session actually, I booked the bulk of the trip’s accommodation. We’ve got some really fascinating experiences lined up. Let me run you through what I booked today.
- Seoul Accommodation
Choosing which area of Seoul to stay in was a tough battle between Hongdae, Myeongdong and Gangnam (yes, Gangnam Style‘s Gangnam). Lachie, Dyl, Ben and I decided on Hongdae. It’s the fashion-forward and forward-thinking district defined by the students spilling out of nearby Hongik University. It’s the creative and cultural heart of Seoul. As AirBnB’s neighbourhood guide reads, “What you see today in Hongdae, you’ll hear about tomorrow everywhere else.”
We booked a guesthouse here, as is typical accommodation in this city, and hopefully will make some good Korean friends.
- DMZ and JSA Tour
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a 4km-wide, 250km-long heavily mined and guarded buffer, splitting a hostile North from South Korea. The JSA (Joint Security Area) is a special part of this Zone which is a neutral area built after the 1953 Armistice for the holding of peace talks. It can only be visited with tour groups. Located at the JSA are a group of bright blue buildings.
Half of the floorspace of these buildings is in South Korea, and the other half is in the North. The tour group allows you to enter a building and step foot into North Korea. So, for all you doubters out there, by the end of this gap year I WILL have been to North Korea.
One of our very own have visited this place in the past. He was famously stared down by North Korean soldiers just beyond the windows.
The whole experience looks eerie and surreal. I was reading a fellow travel blogger’s post about his visit there. He said that all the tourists were given a long presentation on safety before entering the building. You are told that if you enter the blue door behind the South Korean guard, which you are free to do at any time, you are deep enough in North Korea that South Korean military can no longer retrieve you. At that point, you will have defected to the North.
Also included in our tour will be a trip to one of the “infiltration tunnels”, holes dug by the North Korean army in an attempt to sneak into the South and only recently discovered.
- Temple Stay
This is by far what we’re most looking forward to doing in Korea. I was finally able to secure the booking today after much back-and-forth. We will be sleeping in Guinsa Temple for one night. This place, located on Mt. Sobaeksan, is the main temple of Korean Buddhist Cheontae Order. It serves as a religious center for 2 millions of Cheontae Buddhists who follow the Grand Patriarch Sangwol-Wongak. Up to 10,000 monks can live here at any one point while the kitchen can serve food for twice that number when needed. As with many Korean temples, free simple vegetarian meals are served for all visitors in Guinsa for breakfast lunch and dinner. I have read countless fascinating stories about what it’s like to stay here as a foreigner. I have heard that you are handed robes and sleep on the floor with hundreds of monks around you. I’ve heard that you rise with all of the monks at the dawn gong and hike up the mountains to drink tea with them and discuss Buddhist philosophy. It’s all so mysterious and foreign. I have no idea if our visit will be at all similar, but I can’t wait to find out.
- Busan Accommodation
We quickly determined that staying in Seomyeon was the go in Busan. Being a very Gold Coast-esque city, Busan has a few tourist centres around the beach. Apparently, though, it’s significantly more exciting staying in the city centre during the winter.
In Busan we will be staying in a classic inner-city Korean duplex.
Would ya just look at those ornate dishes!?
I genuinely don’t know how I would have done this gap year without AirBnB. These sorts of places, when divided amongst four people, often equate to less than $30 per night. A lot of people’s perceptions that travel is overly expensive is rooted in our Western habit of flocking to big chain hotels. There’s a wealth of unused accommodation capacity at our fingertips in other peoples’ unused homes.
- Jeonju Hanok
Jeonju is one of South Korea’s more traditional cities and the capital of Korean cuisine. As such, it seemed only fitting to choose to stay in one of Korea’s traditional “Hanok” houses. Jeonju has a village of 800 of them right in the city centre.
Getting between all of these places is meant to be via train and coach, but it seems like online tickets are hard to purchase, so getting between the cities will be done in a very Amazing Race-style.
The night was rounded out with an appropriate Asian dinner and soy milk.
Day 230 (26th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
I was only able to attend one class this morning due to my US Consulate interview appointment. Before this class, I made the tactical decision to approach my Intensive Reading teacher to be the first one to provide my “exam estimate”. I did this because he likes me the most out of any of the teachers. He’s more likely to give me a better mark which should hopefully influence the others if they make a decision on a whim. My bet payed off – he awarded me a 92/100. I immediately took the sheet and brought it to my Speaking/Listening class. My teacher looked at me confused as to how I could escape before exams, then looking down at the page and seeing a signature from her boss next to a “92/100” prompted her to reluctantly scrawl “90/100” next to her subject.
HD average. Sweet.
It does all feel a little bit unfair. I’m still going to be in Shanghai while my class is suffering through a week of gruelling study. But then again, I’m on a gap year.
The class itself was good fun. We were all playing detectives and had to argue our case to the class of who we suspect committed a fictional murder. The cartoon used to demonstrate this was interesting.
I didn’t have enough time to go and dupe any other teachers into giving me free marks because I had to rush off to the Consulate. I felt naked leaving my phone and bag back in the hotel while I ventured out.
I eventually arrived at the US Consulate building all ready to step on to some refreshing Western soil. It was anything but. Actually, it was one of the most hideous processes I’ve had to go through in Shanghai. Outside in the rain was the first security gate. The queue, despite being clearly divided into appointment times, was an absolute shambles. Tour groups who were flying out from China in the coming week had assembled to organise their visas together. Every Chinese citizen needs a visa to get into the US, so no wonder it was so busy. I received my fair share of elbows in the chest and one bloke spitting on my foot before I lost it. I was fuming by the time I got a hold of my security card. My Chinese vocabulary was stretched to the limit while in argument with the people blatantly shoving me out of the way so that they could get their security check.
Eventually I found my way to the second security gate. This one was indoors, thankfully. But it was a glum room. Completely grey and steaming hot, the only colour being from the browning and stiff US flag draped on the back wall. It was about as strict as an airport in Israel. Half an hour later and I was through. I was fingerprinted and interviewed. The interview sounded something like this.
“Hello! Finally I can speak some English. Ooh you’re Australian!? Your passport looks beautiful. I don’t get to see many of these. Wait, I don’t get to see many of these because you Australians get a visa waiver to get into the US. What have you done wrong which brings you here?” she questioned.
“Uhh, I went to Iran.” I replied.
“Now. Why on Earth would you go to Iran?”
After I’d explained my situation and handed over my itinerary for my tour in the country, the Consular official simply nodded and typed some things into her computer.
She handed me a piece of paper and told me that the interview was finished.
“So is the visa all good?” I asked.
“Yep, should be no problems. It’ll be ready in three business days.”
Thank God. I resisted the temptation to sprint out of the horribly depressing US patch of soil into the fresh Chinese air. Never thought I’d say that line.
On the way back to the hotel I received a very exciting email. My Wall Street Journal work experience is actually in Shanghai instead of Hong Kong, and the program spans everything from debriefs of China’s wanted and terrorist lists to a lesson on how the media keeps a track of the dealings of the executives of the big State-Owned Companies. Sounds like me through and through.
Having already booked my flight to the States from Hong Kong, it was cheaper that I book another flight to Hong Kong the day before instead of cancelling the flight and rerouting it from Shanghai. It means that I’m now flying Shanghai-Hong Kong-Beijing-San Francisco. The one upside is that I’m able to extend my layover in Hong Kong and catch up with a friend who I’ve been meaning to see.
Set aside for this evening was an event I’ve been looking forward to for some time: the Australia-China Chamber of Commerce drinks.
I’ve been recommended looking into this group, and more specifically these drinks, as a great event not only for networking but also for making a great group of friends. I went with Bronagh, Ellen, Ellie and Dion from the ACYA event. I dug into an Australian beef sandwich while I chatted with everyone.
While talking with Ellie, the most remarkable coincidence began to unfold. Ellie and I traced our childhoods back to the same preschool – Little Ark in Leichhardt. She even remembered “Runa”, our teacher. Ellie is a few years older than me so we wouldn’t have crossed paths, but she helped paint the animal mural at the back of the yard which I remember so vividly. It took some time to process the fact that I had run into this person all the way in Shanghai.
The coincidences didn’t stop this week – I also found out that Vidya Datta (shout out to Vidya, I know you’re reading) is coming to the SAME city, to the SAME university and to the SAME guesthouse as me just a month after I leave. I can’t believe it. I was initially devastated that our times didn’t align, but thinking of it in retrospect I’m mainly just happy that she’ll get to experience all the great parts of Shanghai which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. I’ll no doubt be jealous, though!
A few other interesting conversations were had at the drinks. It turns out that Ellen started an internship today at the Shanghai office of King & Wood Mallesons, the very same firm which I visited earlier in the year and who I’ll be doing some work for back in Sydney next year. She was able to give me a lot of insight into what it’s like to work there as a young person still doing their degree.
Ellen is someone I’ve always gotten along with particularly well. She’s an Adelaide girl at heart but has a sort of hunger to see random parts of the world which I rarely see in other people. Next semester she’s heading off to Sri Lanka for study… how about that.
After telling her the story about my broken bike, she recommended an app called “Mobike” to me. I had seen hundreds of these little orange bikes parked everywhere around the city but I hadn’t realised how they worked until she explained it to me. It turns out that you can hire these bikes for just 20 cents per half hour, and you can pick them up from anywhere on the street. You just need to scan their QR code, and they’ll unlock. When you open the app, it has a map of all the bikes near you.
When you’re done using one, you just dump it on the side of the road and it will lock itself until someone else comes along to use it. It’s a fabulous idea. I’d imagine that helmet laws would make it difficult to introduce in Australia, but there’s still some potential.
The night ended with a live performance. It made me realise just how much Australian culture there is to be found under the surface of Shanghai. I’m not alone here!
I wasn’t about to drink-ride home, so I saved my first Mobike ride for another day. Instead, I resorted to catching the metro.
It’s not so bad, though. In fact, Chinese metros are blazingly fast. Just look at this Beijing Subway advertisement which I stumbled across.
Day 231 (27th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
This morning I embarked on getting the last two exam estimates from my other teachers. I tried to get my Audio-Visual teacher to estimate a mark for me, but was met with a disgusted look of disapproval.
“Why would you only come to study for two months? That’s so short, you haven’t learned anything yet. At least stay a semester. What’s the point of even coming?”
I kept my cool, it wasn’t in my interests to even try and argue my case. This woman was about to hand me my mark. I knew that she would be the toughest one to deal with – I could always tell that she didn’t like me. I’m not sure why… I’m very quiet in her classes and just keep to myself.
“I’m going to organise an early exam for you over the weekend, then you can complete it and it will determine your mark.” she declared.
I started panicking. Please, anything but an exam.
“Umm, I’m so sorry laoshi, but this report card is due by midday today.” I lied.
“Oh, rats.” she sighed. “Ok, give me your report card.”
I saw her go to write a number before stopping to look at what my other teachers had given me. It was handed back to me with another “90” written on it. Booyah.
There was one more teacher I needed to see. I messaged her on WeChat only to find out that she wasn’t in today, but she directed me to her colleague’s dormitory who would fill it in on her behalf. It felt a little odd trying to navigate my way through the teachers’ residences, especially since this “colleague” was no older than 23 and clearly a trainee. Either way, she gave me a 91 and I left cheering. An HD average and not a single exam sat. I submitted the marks to OISA as soon as I could.
I attempted a quick power nap before the long afternoon of tutoring began, but was successively interrupted by a number of things. You can’t complain when it’s someone cleaning your room for you, though.
Tutoring ended up going well overtime. By the time it finished, I was in a rush on the way to the French Concession to meet Florian and his friends. We were celebrating Esther’s birthday, a Spanish girl who I hadn’t yet met. I was asked to chip into the present, and after almost giving in I decided to stand my ground and politely refuse since I hadn’t even met the person who was receiving it. Everyone understood, thankfully. It did make things a bit awkward at first, though.
The initial drinks (i.e. the only bit I stayed for) were held at the Union Trading Company, an English style bar in just near Hengshan Lu. It was just the sort of atmosphere I was looking for.
I dug into a pulled pork and cheese sandwich for dinner.
I spent much of the dinner talking with a group from Rome. I found that when they were speaking Italian I was able to decipher a surprising amount just through having a keen ear for English and French. My vocabulary is non-existent, though. If only Nonna Rosa was there.
Everyone (bar me) seemed eager to move on to the nightclub “MINT”. With perfect timing, I received a text from Ellen telling me that she was nearby celebrating a friend’s birthday if I wanted to join. I made an excuse to bail and changed venues.
Ellen told me that she was “at the apartment” and sent me an address, so I turned up with some customary food and drink as gifts for the host. Well, it turns out “The Apartment” is the name of a bar.
Before long we were grooving along to some good music in the company of lots of Australians. A West Coast hip hop act even came on at one point.
Included in their repertoire was Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, where they used the line:
“You used to call me on my WeChaaaaaat, late night when you need my love.”
The others were lucky in that their (actual) apartments were in walking distance from the bar. But then again, my guesthouse was only a cheap Didi away. It’s useless using Uber any more now that they’ve been sold to Didi. The sale has brought the app so much regression. They took away the ability to use an international credit card and they’re now very strict on identity checks and text verification codes when booking. It’s reached the point where Uber in China is no longer usable if you’re a foreigner without a Chinese bank account. A huge shame for all Western tourists.
Day 232 (28th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
From 8am until 5pm today I was in and out of work and classes. Class in the modern age can be quite entertaining – a lot of kids send pictures over WeChat to the whole class and all of our phones will vibrate at once. These are just some of the pics which were shared today (our teacher’s are also in the WeChat groups, by the way).
It was with much relief that I was finally free for the weekend. I relaxed with some music in my room while I waited for others to start getting back to me with their plans for the evening.
Some of Yang’s dumplings also hit the spot.
The people who got back to me were all going to the mainstream clubs. Not only is there a part of me which will never be the same after the roofie incident, but I was also in the mood for something different to the standard music you get at Chinese bars. I spotted an event which looked like me all over.
After a few friends rejected my invitations, I decided to go on my own anyway to enjoy some good music. I layered on my coats and made my way out. It’s starting to get cooler in Shanghai – hovering around 14℃. The perfect temperature.
I arrived to where my phone said that the bar was and couldn’t find any sort of entrance. C’s is an underground dive bar, so I was expecting that it might be difficult, but for the life of me I couldn’t find it. I spotted another Westerner looking clueless and asked if he was looking for the same thing. It turned out that he was and that he had also come on his own. We decided to grab a drink nearby while we Googled it to see what we were doing wrong.
Michael and I ended up chatting for an hour or so. He grew up in Spain but is English himself. He’s been in Shanghai teaching English for a week after completing his economics degree. A very interesting guy with admirable guts to jump continents in the hope of finding a stable job.
After a drink, we found the hidden entrance to C’s. C’s is an institution in Shanghai. Just have a read of the description.
It was AWESOME. My favourite venue in this city. It’s like a laser tag map. It’s run down and graffitied everywhere, giving it a very cool vibe.
I spent much of the night giving Michael an introduction on how to survive in Shanghai. He left the conversation feeling very much in need of some genuine Chinese street food. I found him a full fish on a stick to fry up.
Day 233 (29th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
I let myself sleep in until 10:30am when I woke up and headed out to the South Bund Fabric Market. I needed to pick up my shirts and jacket. My shirts were ready for pickup and were a great fit.
I arrived to the jacket shop only for the boss to start profusely apologising to me. He told me that my piece wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. It was incredibly frustrating – he had told me to come back today. It’s a long way by metro and not something I can do conveniently on any given day. After a bit of negotiating he agreed to have it delivered to my guesthouse for no extra cost.
I bought a Xinjiang kebab as a snack for the way home.
Much of the metro ride was spent trying to sort out an issue with my phone’s SIM Card. A brief stop in the Shanghai Railway Station’s tunnel where all the SIM Card sellers are located was of no help. My saving grace ended up being China Unicom’s new English customer service hotline. It turned out that I’d churned through my 6GB monthly limit (I get that much data for $20 per month… can you believe that?) Luckily I only had a few days to wait until my data limit would refresh for next month, so in the meantime I’ll just have to purchase daily 1GB packages for $1 each. I’ve never seen such cheap 4G data.
Most of the big Halloween parties were tonight because it’s a Saturday. My American group of friends insisted that it was a compulsory night out. Having had a few in a row already, I was reluctant but not phased. I really do want to make use of the limited time I have left to have a lot of fun with what are some really solid groups of friends. That doesn’t mean you have to get slaughtered every night, it just means that you have to spend a bit more than usual to go out to dinner and enjoy other people’s company.
I was getting ready to head out to a Halloween party at Zappata’s with Jake and his colleagues when I received a message.
“What are you wearing tonight?” asked one of my American friends.
“Oh, my Taobao costume is yet to arrive. I don’t think I’ll dress up tonight.” I explained.
“What? You won’t be able to get in anywhere if you don’t dress up!”
Uh oh. I spent the next half an hour scheming what I could buy from Carrefour as a quick, poorly attempted Halloween costume. And then, perfectly on time, a phone call.
With absolute clutch, my “spooky skeleton” costume arrived.
Don’t show any young children that photo. They might get nightmares.
I met Jake at Zapata’s and we danced the night away.
We ended up back at Abbey and Kelly’s apartment with the group. The night descended into hula hoop battles and dances.
I left just before this photo was taken, but look at that spectacular view. I’ll never get over it.
It’s amazing seeing that Pearl Tower poke its head above the tops of buildings when you’re at street level too.
Day 234 (30th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China
I was a little more generous with my sleep-in this morning, pushing it as late as 11:30am. At that point, I dragged myself up out of bed and straight back into the French Concession. I returned to the barber which gave me a reliably good haircut just two months earlier. Unfortunately, my hair was cut far too short this time. It was my fault, though. I always just say to hairdressers to “do what you think is best”, but I guess that’s not always going to work out in your favour.
It’s not that bad, I guess.
I took a stroll through the streets near Changshu Lu to find myself back outside Zapata’s.
The Feiyue shop is here, and I’ve been meaning to return to it for some time. If you don’t remember, Feiyues are the OG Shanghai shoes which have been the city’s fashion trademark since the 1920’s. They were considered the ideal shoe for martial arts due to their flexibility, robustness and comfort. The shoes were adopted by many Shaolin monks and KungFu masters, making them famous across the nation.
I made sure to pick up a pair of original Feiyues for $13. Best Shanghai souvenir there is.
Walking to the metro station to head back to the guesthouse, I passed so many romantic French Concession scenes. I would love to be one of these expats riding funky e-bikes in a few years.
After tutoring had wrapped up for the day, I went down to Level 2 of the hotel to test out the dinner on offer. After seeing the prices, I awkwardly shuffled out. Got to be harsh on yourself when you’ve been going out every night for a week! While leaving the restaurant I noticed our very own Tabbott on one of the Chinese mags.
Just outside the hotel was a Chinese sandwich shop which I was yet to try out. I ordered a very tasty teriyaki chicken sandwich there. I’ll definitely be returning.
The rest of the evening was spent blogging and chatting to folks back home. There’s not long to go until my gap year takes its most action-packed turn yet. Think of that – the big bit hasn’t even started.
Times are very exciting.
Until next time,