Whistle-stop tour of wintry China

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Whistle-stop tour of wintry China

China wasn’t my preferred destination, to be honest. In the weeks leading up to my vacation, I had pictured myself on a warm beach sipping coconut juice under the sun. All I wanted was to escape Seoul’s bitterly cold weather.
I had planned my trip in advance, but not advanced enough. Most flights and tour packages were fully booked when I finally made inquiries. I later found out from an official at Incheon International Airport that 400,000 Koreans traveled abroad last week during Lunar New Year.
That left me with just one option: a four-day package trip to wintry Zhejiang Province in eastern China. I was on a group tour with 20 other Koreans bound for Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Huzhou.
Our guide, Ahn Mi-ran, greeted us at a chilly Shanghai Pudong International Airport dressed in a red cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress. Red represents happiness and luck in Chinese culture.
“Xin nian hao [happy new year],” she said in Mandarin.
Ahn, 31, is of Korean descent. Her grandfather emigrated to China decades ago and her name is marked in Korean on her identity card.
My first taste of China was a super-fast ride into Pudong, the commercial and financial hub of Shanghai that lies on the east bank of the Huangpu River.
We rode the German-made Shanghai Maglev Train, the first commercial train to be powered by electromagnetic force. The train reaches speeds of up to 420 kilometers per hour and the journey from the airport to downtown takes a rapid seven minutes.
As we sped to our destination, I spotted hundreds of red lanterns strung between trees and lampposts and hung outside stores. They zipped by in streams of crimson.
Our first stop was the Oriental Pearl Tower, a 468-meter (1,535 foot) television tower. It fell far short of my expectations. We took an elevator 263 meters up to the observatory floor. A gloomy Shanghai stretched before me, devoid of sparkling lights and points of interest.
I don’t want to sound nationalistic, but the view over Seoul from Namsan is much more charming.
This wasn’t the Shanghai that I had pictured in my mind, nor was it the Shanghai my friends had talked about after their visits.
I cast a puzzled look at Ahn and she told us that the Shanghai city government had cut electricity supplies by a third in response to the devastating snowstorms that had struck much of northern and western China a few days earlier.
Much of China beyond Shanghai had been engulfed in darkness as regional governments struggled to maintain utilities.
Next we visited Wei Tan, known as the Bund, on the western bank of the Huangpu River, perhaps the most famous site in Shanghai, and one featured on many postcards and books about Shanghai.
The streets are packed with colonial-era buildings that once housed trading centers from eight European countries, including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
The imperial powers of the late 19th century created foreign settlements around Shanghai, making it, for a time, the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. It had a reputation for gambling, drugs and brothels, until the start of World War II in Asia when the Japanese took over the city until their eventual defeat in 1945.
Twenty-six European-style buildings in Wei Tan have been preserved around the Bund, which means embankment, and they provide a striking contrast to the ultra-modern skyscrapers in Pudong.
Shanghai, though darkened by the power shortage, appeared grand. It’s 10 times larger than Seoul and plays host to 55 ethnic groups.
One of my favorite spots in the city was Yuyuan Garden, which is tucked away among the antiquated buildings. It reminded me of Insa-dong in central Seoul, a series of narrow streets packed with tourists, traditional restaurants and craft shops.
Pan Yunduan, a government official during the Ming Dynasty (1366-1644) built the five-acre garden and its many pavilions, halls and ponds for his father. Pan had become wealthy by selling wheat, rice seedlings and African millet.
But the majestic Yuyuan Garden was nothing compared to the 1,400 year-old Nanxun Ancient Town in Huzhou, 120 kilometers (74.56 miles) southwest of Shanghai. This was our first destination the next day after a quiet night spent in Shanghai.
Nanxun is a hugely popular cultural city, famous for its silk trade. Four wealthy families ran 67 silk factories here, and the plants are popular stopping-off points for tourists. There you can buy scarves, cloth and bedsheets. For 100,000 won ($105.80) you can buy a high-quality silk shirt.
It’s a very photogenic city, especially the ancient wooden houses that line the riverbanks.
After a morning spent here, we took a bus trip north to West Lake in Hangzhou. As we journeyed through rural China, I imagined myself on a palanquin heading inside one of the extravagant houses in Nanxun. I would have worn a silk scarf around my head.
The fancy thoughts continued as we boarded a ferry tour of the lake for an afternoon cruise. Su Dongpo, one of the greatest writers of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), wrote lyrically about the lake, comparing it to Xi Zi, once considered the most beautiful woman in ancient China. “Rippling water shimmering on a sunny day/ Misty mountains shrouded the rain/ Plain or gaily decked out like Xi Zi/ West Lake is always alluring,” Su wrote.
In the evening we head to Suzhou, known as the Venice of the East for obvious reasons. We took a trip on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, a 1,764-kilometer-long man-made waterway. It runs from Hangzhou to Beijing, interconnecting the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, Haihe and Qiantang rivers. The canal transported foods and goods from south to north in the past.
The making of the 1,000-year-old canal is said to have been the second-most brutal construction project to have taken place in China. Two million people were mobilized to dig out the land by hand. The construction of the Great Wall by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, is considered to have been more brutal.
I spent my last night back in Shanghai. I was off to see a circus at the Shanghai Circus World in Gonghe Xin Lu Road. The show integrated circus arts, acrobatics, magic, dancing and music. Acrobats, both young and old, flew through the air, drove motorcycles inside a transparent pentagon and spun endless towers of plates on poles.
The troupe rocked.
But at the same time, I felt ashamed thinking about the lost tradition of Dong Choon Circus, the one and only circus troupe in Korea.
It reminded me of an interview I had with Park Sae-hwan, 62, the master of the troupe and also the chief director of the Korea Circus Association. He said that the Korean circus lost its popularity due to the influence of Western culture like films and musicals.
Though my trip wasn’t leisurely, I’d do it again. Long weekend, whistle-stop tours around famous tourist sites are not to everyone’s taste. You get to see a lot but in such a short time that it’s not always easy to fully absorb and appreciate what you see.
But even though the trip was physically tiring ― we had to rise before 6 a.m. each day ― I learned a lot and got to see places I had only ever read about.
The beach holiday can wait another year. China, with the Olympics approaching, has so much to offer.

Flights to Shanghai
A flight from Incheon International Airport to Shanghai Pudong International Airport in eastern Shanghai takes two hours, as does a flight from Gimpo International Airport to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport in western Shanghai.
You can choose among Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Shanghai Air. Flights are daily.
Ticket prices vary. The cheapest is China Southern Airlines, which charges 208,000 won ($220) excluding airport tax.
Pudong International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) from downtown Shanghai. A taxi takes an hour and costs 200 yuan ($27), and an airport limousine bus costs 30 yuan one-way.
A one-way ticket on the Maglev Train costs 50 yuan. You receive a 20 percent discount if you have an airline ticket. The train operates from 6:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday.

Visas
All foreign nationals must acquire a tourist visa to visit China.
Visa prices differ according to your nationality. If you are Korean, a regular single-entry visa costs 35,000 won under the condition that you hand in required documents at least four days before departure.
An express visa can be acquired in two days and costs 59,000 won. A rush visa takes one day and costs 70,000 won.
U.S. citizens pay between 120,000 won to 155,000 won for a single-entry visa.
Group visas cost less.

By Lee Eun-joob Contributing Writer [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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