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Shanghai January 8, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Shanghai.

Happy New Year! This is the final post from our trip to Shanghai back in early-November. We just returned from a week-long trip to Japan which I’ll be writing about shortly.

After safely arriving in Shanghai after our debacle at the airport which you can read about here, we found our hostel and got settled. It was about 4pm so we still had some time to explore our surroundings and find a nice place for dinner.

There’s nothing quite like going into a completely foreign place and figuring stuff out. It can be frustrating at times, but with patience and the right attitude, it can be very satisfying once you acclimatize yourself to the unfamiliar surroundings.

We had done a little bit of research on Shanghai prior to our arrival, and when I say we, I mean Katie. As with previous trips, I made all of the travel arrangements, figured out accommodations and most importantly in this case, got our tickets for golf on Saturday. That was an experience in itself, but I won’t bore you with the details. Just imagine calling Ticketmaster in China and trying to convey that you live in Korea and want to buy golf tickets for an event 6 months from now – with someone who can’t speak English. Somehow we managed to figure it out and secure our tickets.

Shanghai is the largest city in China, and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with over 20 million people. Located on China’s central eastern coast just at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the city was originally a fishing and textiles town. The opening sentence of the Shanghai section of our Lonely Planet travel guide describes Shanghai as the “Whore of the Orient”. This may explain why Tiger has flown halfway around the world to play here 3 out of the past 4 years. Zing!

Shanghai grew in importance in the 19th century due to its favorable port location. The city flourished as a center of commerce between east and west, and became a multinational hub of finance and business by the 1930’s. However, Shanghai’s precipitous rise was interrupted with the Communist takeover in 1949 and the subsequent cessation of foreign investment. In 1990, new economic reforms resulted in intense re-development, culminating in Shanghai becoming the world’s largest cargo port in 2005.

The city has evolved into a tourist destination renowned for its historical landmarks and its modern and ever-expanding skyline including the Oriental Pearl Tower. Shanghai has established a reputation as a cosmopolitan center of culture and design and is now the largest center of commerce and finance in mainland China. With such a diverse mix of cultural history and modern development, Shanghai has been described as the “showpiece” of the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

Our first destination was the popular French Concession. This is one of the more popular tourist spots for foreign tourists and we could immediately understand why. It was an eclectic neighborhood with a nice mix of trendy retail and restaurants along with your typical old-school Mom & Pop establishments. Both sides of the streets were lined with beautiful trees which gave it a nice cozy feeling as you took in the unique sights and sounds around every corner.

We eventually settled at a nice Irish Pub with a street-front patio and a large group of men huddled around a game of checkers. We kicked back and relaxed with a beer while we reflected on a crazy day that almost didn’t materialize. We then took out our maps and planned our course of action over the next 48 hours.

After some more wandering we came across a crowded Mexican restaurant with a cool outdoor patio that practically spilled on to the street. After a brief pause to acknowledge the guilt of being in China and craving Mexican, we succumbed to our hunger. This now brings the grand total of Mexican restaurants we’ve eaten at in different Asian cities to 3 (Beijing, Seoul & Shanghai). I guess I’m still a little scarred from our first authentic Chinese food experience back in Beijing, and didn’t want any similar occurrences (read: bowel movements) while walking on a golf course for most of Saturday.

After a long day of unexpected twists, we headed back to our hostel to get some much needed sleep. Much to our delight, there was a 24-hour massage parlor located immediately next door. We popped in for a dirt-cheap couples foot massage in order to physically and mentally prepare for another grueling day of walking. For those of you who missed it, you can read more about our day with Tiger here.

Upon our arrival back in downtown Shanghai after an incredible time following Tiger, we went for dinner at a place called Simply Thai. I had beef with chili peppers and coriander which I think is arguably one of the most polarizing spices out there. Often referred to as cilantro, most people either love it, or claim that it smells like a dirty J-cloth. I’m in the former group. I can’t wait to take full advantage of the cheap thai food as soon as we arrive in Thailand. Although with our track record, we’ll probably end up eating mostly Chinese food.

On Sunday we tried to cram as much as possible into one day as our flight left was leaving at 9pm that evening. Katie was intent on visiting the famous Yuyuan Garden & Garden and sample an authentic tea house. Seeing as we had spent the previous day on a golf course, I was more than willing to oblige. We arrived at the closest intersection to the garden and did our best to look like tourists with our hands full of maps and lost looks on our faces. This strategy paid off as an old man approached us and asked us what we were looking for.

When traveling in foreign countries, I’ve noticed that we become much more skeptical of strangers and their advances. I don’t blame anyone for keeping their guard up as tourists are typically prime targets for would-be scam artists or locals just trying to make a quick buck. But so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the kindness of strangers and their willingness to assist and show outsiders what their culture/country is all about. They are proud people who aren’t out to make any money and simply want to provide you with an authentic experience. This older gentleman was one of those people.  His name was Kahn and he was a retired English teacher. He ended up giving us a guided tour through the entire garden and described details that no travel book or tour guide would provide.

He steered us away from the obvious tourist traps and took us to an even better tea house than the one our travel guide recommended.

Outside of Nestea I’m not a huge tea enthusiast, but this stuff was incredible. We sampled over ten different varieties and each one was better than any tea I’ve ever experienced.

It was now nearing lunch time so we headed for the trendy Xiantiandi district to grab a bite and wander around the area. We had a cool lunch at a place called Kabb’s which featured make your own Bloody Mary’s. They provide 3 shots of vodka, tomato juice and all the fixins (Worcestershire, Horseradish, Salt & Pepper) and you get to put it together as you please. No rimmer, so Katie was a little disappointed, still delicious though.

Afterwards we found a nice patio and had a few beers while doing some people watching before starting our trek home. As you’ll see from the pics below, this area has a new distinctly European feel to it. So much so that we had to constantly remind ourselves that we were still in the heart of Communist China.  As the afternoon slowly faded to evening, I went inside to use the bathroom and watched Phil sink his putt to win the HSBC Champions event we had attended the day before. Even though Tiger didn’t win, it was a fitting end to a memorable weekend.

Finally, one last thing I wanted to share with everyone. I don’t know when it happened. Maybe it’s been going on for awhile and I just never noticed. Regardless of when this affliction materialized, I think everyone will agree that it’s a little disturbing. It seems as though my wife has a fascination with laundry. She stops to take pictures so often that sometimes I don’t really pay attention to the object of her desire. But when I was going through all of our pics from Shanghai, I came across a disturbing trend of pictures featuring wet clothes. Have a look for yourself. Viewer discretion is advised.


Stay tuned for our upcoming Japan mailbag. I’ll be answering questions from readers about our recent week-long trip to Japan. Feel free to submit your questions in the comments section of this post.

Tiger in Shanghai December 8, 2009

Posted by jorkat in Shanghai.

As outlined in my previous post, we arrived in Shanghai mid-afternoon on Friday with the intent of following Tiger during his third round of the HSBC Champions event on Saturday. I had been planning this trip since Tiger announced his participation over 6 months ago. So needless to say, I was looking forward to this day quite a bit. 

Tiger has competed in this event every year since 2006 with the exception of last year as he was recovering from knee surgery, but has never actually won it. After solid opening rounds of 67 on Thursday and Friday, Tiger had a share of the lead and was playing in the final group. Phil was just a few strokes back and playing in the second to last group right in front of Tiger. This was better than having them play together because it dispersed the crowd somewhat between the two groups and allowed us to watch both players throughout the day. 

Tiger actually received a $3M appearance fee just for showing up. He also played the following weekend in Australia and collected another $3M for that as well on top of the prize money he earned for winning the Australian tournament. Therefore, he collected in excess of $7M for playing in two tournaments. He then boarded his private jet after two weeks abroad and went back to his perfect life with his loving wife and children. 

Back when I wrote about Tiger and my top 3 man crushes, I discussed how much I missed having Tiger and Tom Brady in my life while they were recuperating from respective knee injuries last year. I missed watching their clutch performances on sports’ grandest stages, even if it was almost always from a far. Sure, I had seen Tiger  live at Augusta, but those crowds were overwhelming. I got even closer at the Presidents Cup in Montreal, but I had never met any of my top 3 in person…until Shanghai. 

I had no idea what to expect in terms of crowds, but we had every intention of following Tiger as closely as possible. An article on ESPN on Friday mentioned how the crowds following him were extremely large and that security was having problems with people using cameras and cell phones. In most PGA tournaments in North America, cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited. If you get caught using either, you can get kicked off the property. At the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, they have metal detectors and pat down every patron. The security is tighter than an airport. This wasn’t the case in Shanghai. There were signs posted all over the course banning the use of cameras and cell phones, but that didn’t stop anyone. Golf has a very small following in China, but it’s growing quickly, so I think they implemented the no cameras/cell phones policy to appease the players, but turned a blind eye to it to encourage more people to come and get pictures of the world’s best golfers. I obviously took full advantage of the situation, but was much more discreet than most. 

 It wasn’t much of an issue with any of the other players, but Tiger and Phil had very large followings and more than half the people had some sort of electronic device. They didn’t mind if you took pictures in between shots, but as soon as the player was about to address his ball, security would go around to everyone in the crowd and try to get them to put away all cameras and cell phones. Not a fun job. Every threesome has two security people assigned – Tiger and Phil had six each. Luckily I was able to get some footage of him on the practice green and sneak of few action shots throughout his round without being noticed by security. 

Check out this lag putt that he hits from over 40 feet away. And yes, I’m likely responsible for the majority of the 100-plus views of this video on YouTube so far. 

The best part of watching a golf event live in China is that if you’re over 5’10”, you never have to deal with obstructed views. No matter how large the gallery is, finding an open sight line isn’t a problem. I estimated that between 5-10% of the crowd was visible minorities, meaning that we stuck out rather easily. Tiger may not have known who I was before the round, but he surely did once it was over, as me and Stevie (his caddy) were almost always the only white dudes within 20 feet of him. 

 In fact, we were able to get so close that Tiger and I had a nice chat after he finished up on the practice green en route to the first tee. I don’t remember the exact wording of the conversation, but I’m sure if you ask him he would remember it word for word. It went something like this… 

Me: Good luck Tiger. 

Tiger: Thanks. 

After I regained consciousness surrounded by Chinese paramedics, I reflected on the depth of our exchange and the undeniable bond of our burgeoning friendship. Here’s a picture of where the exchange took place. 

Taken shortly before “The Conversation”.

As Tiger readied himself on the first tee, Katie and I immediately started down the left side of the fairway. I explained to her along the way that Tiger has a tendency to be a little wild off the first tee and that if he hit an errant shot, that he would likely push it left. We walked to about the 300 yard mark and I looked back towards the tee waiting for Tiger’s ball to receive clearance for take-off. Sure enough, as soon as he completed his swing, he immediately pointed left with his driver indicating to the crowd and tournament officials that he had indeed pushed it left. Since most of the patrons had never attended a live golf tournament before, no one even knew the ball was in the air. I did my best to warn everyone but I didn’t know how to say “Head’s Up!” in Mandarin. No one budged until the ball came screaming into the crowd like a scud missile about 10 feet from where we were standing. I watched it the whole way and we immediately positioned ourselves to be right next to it for his approach shot. This was the first of many close encounters with Tiger and Stevie throughout the day. 

 From this position, he ripped a wedge through the deep grass and put his ball safely on the green for an opening par. 

Golf is a made-for-TV sport but watching them live gives you an even greater appreciation for how good these guys really are. I love hearing the conversations between player and caddy as they discuss club selection, weather conditions, and targets. It’s also amazing how much control of the ball they have. One of my favourite shots of the day was Tiger’s famous 2-iron stinger. He uses it whenever he needs to put the ball safely in the middle of the fairway and doesn’t want to risk hitting a driver or fairway wood. He can hit this shot in his sleep and rarely makes a mistake. As soon as I saw him take out the 2-iron from his bag, I knew it was coming. He uses a ¾ follow-through and keeps the ball real low so it stays under the wind and he gets maximum roll. It’s like watching an airplane taking off. It goes dead straight and slowly rises off in the distance, over 250 yards straight down the middle of the fairway. He doesn’t even watch to see where it will end up. He already knows. 

The more time we spent following Tiger, the more I realized how much we have in common. We both love golf. I bought a white Nike Golf hat at the airport. He wore a white Nike Golf hat on Saturday. He ate banana bread on the 6th hole. I had banana bread while the players made the turn after the 9th. The only real thing that separates us is the fact that Tiger gets paid $3M just to show up and I had to pay approximately $120 for 2 tickets. That, and he sleeps with whores. Aside from that we’re virtually twins. 

 Tiger isn’t very accommodating when it comes to signing autographs or posing for pictures, especially while he’s playing. Fortunately, he was nice enough to make an exception and pose with Katie for a picture on the 12th tee box. He even agreed to make it an action shot. He was a little unsure of which club to use, so I recommended a 7-iron and moving the ball back in his stance to keep the ball flight low as the wind had picked up slightly. Here’s the famous picture – Katie and Tiger have never looked better. Look at that incredible form. Tiger looks good too. 

 Where’s Katie you ask? That’s her ear on the left. Check out his mammoth security guard in the background too. This picture will soon adorn our mantle right next to our wedding picture. 

Tiger and Phil battled for the lead back and forth for most of the day with both players making some nice birdies. Phil ended up with the lead going into the final round on Sunday and eventually won the tournament. He also won a waffle eating contest in the clubhouse the following morning. Tiger settled for 6th and was a non-factor on Sunday. I didn’t actually see any of his final round but from what I heard from those he did watch, he didn’t play well at all. Maybe he had something else on his mind. 

All in all, the entire experience was exactly what I was hoping for. When we started planning to live and teach overseas, I never imagined getting to see Tiger play live and get as close as we did. Getting to speak with him and becoming friends was an added bonus, although he still hasn’t added me on Facebook yet. 

Here are some more pictures from our day with Tiger…and Phil in China. 

 Stay tuned for another post about the rest of our weekend in Shanghai.

Getting to Shanghai… November 19, 2009

Posted by jorkat in Shanghai.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m organized almost to a fault. Whether I’m packing for a one-year teaching contract in Asia or just a weekend trip, I never leave anything to chance. I always make lists of everything to bring and double-check to ensure that everything is packed.

So you can imagine our frustration when after having woken up at 5:30am, and arriving at the airport at 7am that the first question the check-in girl asked us was…

“When did you make this reservation?”

Oh no. Not a great feeling. We had presented her with all the proper documentation – the e-tickets from our travel agent and our passports. There was only one small problem – the airline had no record of our reservation ever existing, and it was completely sold out.

We had been planning this 3-day weekend trip to Shanghai to explore the city and see Tiger Woods play in a World Golf Championship event, since he announced his participation over 6 months ago. As I alluded to in this post about Tiger, there was never any doubt in my mind that we would be attending. Until we got to the airport.

I started to think that this would be the only "Tiger" I would be seeing in Asia.

Under the circumstances, I was surprised by how calm we were. I think part of that had to do with the fact that this wasn’t the first time this travel agent had made this kind of mistake. The Mulloskey’s went through a much worse experience when he neglected to book their flights out of Vietnam and they were forced to sleep on the floor of an airport…which they broke into…because it was closed. Did I mention they were in Vietnam?

Anyway, we were well aware of this travel agent’s track record when we started dealing with him. The reason we (and lots of other foreigners) kept using him is that he almost always has the best prices and he speaks very good English. I was always diligent in following-up with him to ensure that he had received our payments and sent us the e-tickets for our flights. We had used him for several other trips with no complaints whatsoever, until now.

Here’s the issue. Apparently travel agents can make flight reservations with certain airlines without making an immediate payment. So what I think this guy does is he quotes you a price, and then based on his experience will either pay the airline immediately if he thinks the price is going to go up. Or he gambles and waits until the last possible moment hoping that the price will go down, and he gets to pocket the difference. I’m not sure of the legality of such a scheme but if you play the game right, he probably makes a nice chunk of change on top of his commission.

There’s only one MAJOR PROBLEM with this so-called scheme. It doesn’t quite work out when you forget to pay the airline entirely and the reservation gets cancelled altogether. This is what happened to us. He quoted us a great price. We agreed to the price and transferred him the money. He took our money and sent us the e-ticket reservations. This was back in July. In our minds we were all set, until we arrived at the check-in and heard those dreaded words – “When did you make this reservation?”

No time to panic. It was 7am so we still had the whole day to figure out how to get to Shanghai. We had already made hotel reservations and our golf tickets were paid for, so we were going to get there regardless. We found the nearest internet cafe in our terminal and I checked to see if I had our travel agents cell phone number in my contacts. Unfortunately, I only had his office number which obviously wasn’t open yet.

We then started pricing flights online with various travel websites and it wasn’t pretty. We had paid less than $500 for 2 round-trip tickets to Shanghai and now we couldn’t find anything online for less than $500 each. Not to mention that we weren’t sure if we were going to get our initial payment back either. The flights being quoted online also weren’t ideal because some of them had connections or were leaving too late on Friday and/or coming back too early on Sunday. This was already a short trip to begin with, and most of our day on Saturday would be spent following Tiger.  We wanted to make the most of Friday and Sunday in the city.

After sending the travel agent a tersely written email asking him to call our cell immediately, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat and strategize. I wasn’t hungry as it slowly started to dawn on me that this trip might not happen. We decided over an Egg McMuffin and hashbrown to go to certain airline counters directly and ask them if they had any flights while we waited for the travel agent to call us back. If we didn’t hear from him by 10am, we would book one of the early afternoon flights from the internet and get to Shanghai ASAP.

Quick tangent. Every time we visit the airport I always look forward to the concept car they have on display called the KIA VG. It stops me in my tracks every time I see it. We had some time to kill in the airport and this post is a little short on pictures so here you go. I never thought I would see the day when I would take a liking to KIA’s. Don’t be surprised if you see me driving one of these when we get back to Canada.

As you’ve probably guessed based on the title of this post, we did end up making it to Shanghai and things couldn’t have worked out better.

We visited the counter for Korean Air and were quoted similar prices to what we found online. We explained our situation to the lady assisting and she recommended that we visit some of the travel agencies located on the basement level. I didn’t think they would be open this early, but much to our surprise they all were. The first one we walked into was called Hanatour where we met a nice young lady named Ji-Eun. She did a quick search for us and found a flight leaving at noon on Friday and coming back at 9pm on Sunday night. It was only $150 more than we had initially paid and the best part was that we weren’t losing anytime. Our departure flight was 3 hours later than our initial flight, as was the return.

The only decision left to make was, do we wait for our travel agent to call and hope that he agrees to pay for his mistake, or do we take our chances and book it right away?  Ji-Eun made the reservation for us and said we could wait about an hour to see if he called. Shortly after 9am, we decided to book the flight and take our chances with our travel agent upon our return. Lone and behold, minutes after we made the booking we received a call. It was him. I calmly explained what had happened and he agreed to fully reimburse us for the flights we had just paid for, which he did. Disaster averted.

It was quite an ordeal but we boarded our flights a couple hours later without a care in the world. We hadn’t lost any time and we now had most of Friday and a full day on Sunday to enjoy as much of Shanghai as possible.

The best part of the day was that Tiger and Phil were actually at the airport in Shanghai to greet us upon arrival.

I swear this was Katie’s idea.

We were relieved to finally be in Shanghai, and that Tiger had opted for his black hat that day. I had just purchased his white Nike Golf hat at the Duty Free shop in Korea a few hours earlier. Now that would have been embarassing.

Stay tuned for our next Shanghai post and an unforgettable day with Tiger, Phil and lots of Chinese people.