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Beyond Index!

6 Dec

As I am writing this, I am trying not to give in to panic. As I mentioned in my last post, we have had very high pollution levels in Shanghai during the past month. Before that, I was in Beijing on the fateful 22nd of October, during which the AQI (air quality index*) was so bad that foreign media spoke about it. Further north in Harbin, people couldn’t see further than 3 metres and the airport had to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on that day. Whenever this has happened up north, I kept saying to myself good we live in Shanghai instead of Beijing.

Yet somehow, it seems that the tables have turned. Today in Shanghai we have a whopping 503 AQI which is simply described as “Beyond Index”… It’s far off from the 900+ that north eastern China has experienced earlier this year but still it is beyond “hazardous” and poses risks for absolutely everyone. According to the American Embassy, it is recommended that “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.”

The US Consulate AQI reading today

The US Consulate AQI reading today

At work and amongst friends, we have been commenting on the pollution levels but we also seem to be in permanent and increasing state of shock as the AQI levels have been going up and as our health has been declining. One of my colleagues has had serious respiratory problems, another one currently has bronchitis, a friend has chronic lung problems too and I have inflamed lymphoma below my jaw.

Two weeks ago, I was able to work from home for a full week but since then I have had no excuse not to get out. So I have finally bulged in and started to wear a mask when going out. I first wore the one that my colleague bought for everyone in the office, then have upgraded to one with a valve which enables you to breath more comfortably but leaves two horizontal marks on my face by the time I get to work. For the past two weeks, I have been waking up every morning with the hope that the situation would improve but it’s been getting worse, so much so that today you can actually SEE it. The white smog has been getting thicker and thicker, significantly affecting visibility and, in spite of the mask, giving me a very mild but present sore throat. (For sake of comparison see pictures below of the view from today and on a clear day)

The colour of the sky today near home

The colour of the sky around 1:30 pm today near home

My first and second masks

My first and second masks

On the street, while I admire Chinese people’s stoicism, I wonder how most of them as well as a few foreigners still don’t wear a mask and let their kids out. I’ve been asking if the local media have been mentioning anything but it appears that there’s little coverage, let alone outrage. The only explanation proposed has been that people north of the Yangtze (about 100 km north of Shanghai) have been using coal to warm their houses and it’s therefore affecting us. I find it very unlikely given that it’s not even that cold (around 15 degrees Celsius during the day) and during the worst days of winter in the past two years we have never had that. So, I don’t know… Is it because it’s Christmas soon in other parts of the world and factories are working double shifts to supply Christian people with gifts?

In the meantime, I have cancelled my plans for tonight and I intend to limit outings to the strictest minimum. One thing is sure, if things don’t improve, anyone usually receiving a Christmas gift from me shouldn’t expect anything from China this year. What I really wish for right now is a massive storm with lots of rain to clean up the atmosphere and hope things will get better soon because I actually like Shanghai and would like to stay here for a few more years.

*For more explanations on AQI and measures of pollution levels, see my post Giving In.

Post-scriptum: It’s just 2 hours after writing the post above and I saw that Le Monde has an article on the unusual levels of pollution. Apparently, the Municipality of Shanghai has recommended people not to leave their houses, construction and factories to stop all work (although I did hear works from home). Apparently, the high levels are due to industrial activities combined with unusual weather conditions. The article doesn’t mention what conditions but I suspect it’s the lack of rain.

Today around 2pm

Today around 2pm – from home

On a clear day

On a clear day

Today

Today 2pm also – other view from home

...and on a clear day.

…and on a clear day.

The acupuncture diary 1

4 Dec

This summer two of our very good friends, L. and M., told us they tried acupuncture and recommended it. L. was towards the end of her pregnancy and feeling back aches. After her treatment, she wasn’t anymore although the pain should’ve increased with the pregnancy advancing. M. was feeling nervous and restless and he felt acupuncture calmed him down. The doctor told L. that acupuncture could be used to cure all sorts of little aches and pains and “boost your immunity system”. This in particular stuck in my mind and, being open to alternative and less chemical healing methods, I thought I’d go try it out to help me go through winter. In addition to feeling permanently cold in the winter (permanently cold hands, feet and tip of the nose, bad blood circulation), 2013 has been an annoying year as I have suffered from unusual incidences of cold sores – sorry for the details but the story doesn’t make sense otherwise and hey, we all have our little health issues. Although it seems we can now cure AIDS, we still can’t get rid of the two viruses of cold sore and, apart from trying my best not to be stressed or tired, there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. So this summer, I decided I’d try acupuncture to give a kick to my immunity system and fight the insidious yet inexplicable chronic fatigue.

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And so last week, I had my first session. The doctor, a very nice lady speaking a perfect English, started by asking me all sorts of questions about my health, lifestyle, eating habits and (in)tolerances, level of stress in Shanghai compared to other cities I lived in, etc. I told her what brought me to her, she listened carefully and took notes on the little booklet the receptionist gave me. She asked me whether I had tried Chinese medicine before. I said no and she explained to me that the symptoms I described above were due to my lungs not functioning in an optimal way. Being my normal cynical self as well as realistic, I thought that was hardly abnormal given the high pollution levels we’ve been experiencing over the past month. But I refrained from commenting and nodded politely.

The doctor then invited me to lie down to start the acupuncture session. Being highly sensitive and squeamish when it comes to body manipulations, I naturally asked whether it would hurt. She said not really, you have sensations but it’s not pain. I lied down and, as requested, moved my sleeves and trousers up to my elbows and knees respectively. She then wiped with alcohol the areas where she was going to put the needles, i.e. 4 pairs on either sides of my nostrils, just down the elbows, on my shins and on the inside of the ankles. As she said, I felt the needles being positioned (I closed my eyes obviously) but no pain whatsoever. Then again, they’re not planted very deep – thankfully. She then switched off the light and, much to my surprise, asked me to relax for the next 20 minutes.

She checked if I was not too hot or too cold and then left the room and let me be. At this point, I was wondering “hmmmm bullshit, not bullshit? Hmmmm… now that I’m here, let’s not over-think it.” And so I half fell asleep until she came back. She delicately and unpainfully removed the needles and told me it was over and that, for optimal treatment, I would need three other sessions. We set up the next appointment and as I was leaving she said that I might feel a little surge of energy after this session. Again, true to myself, I thought that if I did feel revitalised it was probably because of the snooze rather than the needles, but whatever… In fact I actually felt quite exhausted on my way back home.

To be continued…

The Return of the Chickens

25 Jul

About three months ago, all residents of Shanghai and east China turned totally psychotic because of the resurgence of the avian flu and its mutation from H5N1 to H7N9. Four of our five friends coming to China were equally worried about the outbreak of the virus and regularly updated us about the number of dead in Shanghai. While we were vaguely following the news, we were not that concerned. As Shanghai residents we were not short of a food or health related scandal. In fact, at this specific time, we had:

  • The resurgence of the avian flu,
  • Tens of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River (Shanghai’s main river). We never got to the bottom of this story,
  • Who knows how many mysteriously dead fish in the Huangpu as well,
  • People had received text messages about rotten beef meat from Suzhou.

And, to make it exhaustive, we should include the permanent air pollution we live in, our friendly neighbour Kim Jong Un then playing about with his nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it and the contamination of the Nongfu Spring water (apparently the most widely bought bottled water in China) with lead. Nevertheless we were trying to re-assure our friends by telling them that you had to be in contact with live poultry to have any chance to get the virus, that even if you ate an infected chicken it would be ok because the virus is killed when you cook the meat above 70 degrees Celsius…

In the meantime, I was secretly planning to avoid taking them on any road where I knew live poultry was sold (Chinese like to buy their poultry and fish live and have it slaughtered on the spot). However, within a week or so, we noticed important changes in our immediate environment. All the loose and caged chickens on the street suddenly vanished. It was as if the whole species became extinct overnight. On our street, the lady who sells vegetables and chickens didn’t have any. My Chinese teacher told me it was increasingly difficult to buy chicken meat anywhere. Where I work in Jiashan Market, we can usually see and hear the poultry live and then be killed at the daily wet market. I arrived one morning at the same time as about 30 policemen, coming to check whether there were any live chickens still being sold. Although I don’t usually tend to panic too much about these things, I have to admit I was reassured to see that there was a certain level of control as I still didn’t want to spend several hours about 10 meters from any live poultry.

April 2013 - Jiashan Market 2

Jiashan Market, some time in April 2013

Jiashan Market, that same day

Jiashan Market, that same day

Our friends’ trip went well, although we did come close to a living chicken somewhere in the countryside near Yangshuo in the south of China, but no one got sick. By now, the whole matter seems to have disappeared from public concerns as well as from local and international media. People consume chicken again and in fact, they are back at Jiashan Market, as if they had never been away, tucked in their usual corner and being slaughtered the good old-fashioned way. And as per all things food and health related, we will never get to the bottom of that story either.

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.

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The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings

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Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street

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Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

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This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives

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In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

Giving in

3 Feb

If you have been vaguely following the news lately, you may have seen that China has been featuring regularly in the headlines. Not so much because of the unexpected growth in January, contrary to 2012 anxieties and predictions, but because of the terrible pollution that has blighted first and foremost Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Shanghai. (Although distinct, I don’t think the two issues are entirely unrelated.)

A healthy air quality index (AQI) is between 0 and 50, which has probably not happened in Chinese cities in the last 30 years. You may also know that the American Embassy in Beijing has been independently monitoring the air quality in Beijing and, more recently, in Shanghai. According to their website, an AQI above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” and above 300 “hazardous”. About two weeks ago, Beijing reached a terrible 993!!! for which there is simply no descriptive term. One of the reasons, besides the number of cars and factories, is because coal is still heavily relied on in power stations and to heat houses. A lot of coal mines or mining cities surround Beijing and obviously make the situation worse.

From what we know, Shanghai has never reached such toxic levels as Beijing has. Its periphery is still heavily industrialised and so are many of the cities surrounding it, like Hangzhou, Suzhou etc. However, we are far from healthy air quality levels. There are a few mobile apps, which tell you what the daily AQI is hour by hour. I have a few friends who have downloaded it but I refuse to. We all know the air quality is shit so why know precisely how bad it is. On bad days I can see it from home, which is on the 18th floor. Even on those days, life goes on as usual. J. goes to work and so does anyone who has to go out of the house, for whatever reason. You may have seen in the press this picture of people doing their taiji in Fuyang (about 3 hours on the train from Shanghai).

In Fuyang

In Fuyang (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

In Beijing

In Beijing (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai probably some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

The other side - also on that clear day

The other side with Suzhou Creek – also on that clear day

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

From home 2 - bad day_small

The Suzhou Creek side

So we, or to be more accurate, I have given in. Unlike two of our friends, I still have not bought the face masks, but as of today we are equipped with this:

Spot the odd looking object

Spot the odd looking object

Air purifier 2_small

This is an air purifier that we’ve just bought. J. doesn’t really believe in it but I do because I think it can’t do any harm and we should put chances on our side. Doctors recommend that you should have one if you have kids at home, so why not adults?

The poor transparency and apparently lack of or few improvement measures about all things health related are definitely the most worrying aspect of living in China. There’s no easy way around it. One has to hope that, as my father says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Shanghai Randoms #3

28 Dec

Merry Christmas everyone, friends or random readers! Hope you’re all having a fabulous time off. I’m too busy spending quality time with family and friends to write anything lengthy but here are a few totally random pictures of Shanghai mostly, which I’ve been collecting for a while. Hope you’ll enjoy them and happy new year to all!

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

Vendeuse lotus Pudong

In the subway

In the subway

Waiting for the train to arrive

Waiting for the train to arrive

On summer holiday

On summer holiday

In Sanya

In Sanya

The method of those who can't afford pampers

The method of those who can’t afford pampers (it took me a year to finally get this shot).

Crazy laundry

Crazy laundry

On how to combine a loft and Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two

On how to combine a loft and a Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two (Shaanxi Bei Lu).

Global city, major attraction. Still I'm always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

Global city, major tourist attraction. Still I’m always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

I just can't get enough...

I just can’t get enough…

Prosecco at the Peninsula

Prosecco at the Peninsula

The ashtray I intend to steal some day

The ashtray I intend to steal some day.

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