Saturday, June 30

Living the high life in Shanghai

Back in 2007 Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman took the “bucket list” concept mainstream in a movie of the same name. The Bucket List followed a road trip made by two terminally ill men determined to fulfill a wish list of activities before they finally "kicked the bucket”.   These days everyone's talking about their bucket list.  My father is no exception.  Several years ago, in the midst of his initial cancer treatment, he spoke of his desire to visit China, Canada and New York.  I promised to take him to these destinations once he was strong enough to travel.

Fast forward three years we're now focused on completing Dad’s Bucket List.   As a result, I took my parents to China in May. In September we will take on Canada and New York.  More items were ticked off the list when, unexpectedly, my brother in Austria announced that he and the family will migrate to New Zealand in December.  This means that for the first time in two decades our immediate family will all live in the southern hemisphere again.  My father’s bucket list is nearing completion.

This post is first of a series that capture our time in China.  Over the course of ten days we toured the city of Shanghai, the ancient capital of Xian and Beijing’s many cultural icons.  As a regular visitor to China I arranged our entire itinerary, acting as tour guide in Shanghai, and managing private guides I hired elsewhere.  We were on the go every day from dawn to dusk, seeing everything we’d hoped to experience and more.

We kicked off our first two days in China by basing ourselves in the Shanghai Grand Hyatt.  I wanted to give my parents a real taste of the wealthy, modern economy that’s rapidly rising across the nation.  The Grand Hyatt was Shanghai’s most luxurious hotel when it opened in 1999.  The five-star, 555-room hotel occupies 34 floors of the Jin Mao Tower in the new business district of Pudong.  The building was China’s tallest when it opened, but has long since been surpassed by several others.  Similarly, the hotel’s opulence has since been surpassed by others, resulting in far more affordable room rates.  However, the hotel remains a stunning location, with all the appropriate trimmings and impeccable service you’d expect.

Our rooms were located on the 64th floor.  The hotel itself continues up the building to a cocktail bar on the 87th floor.  The rooms surround a barrel-vaulted atrium that starts on the 56th floor and rises up through the core of the building to skylight above the 87th floor.  The interior spans 27 metres in diameter and extends 115 metres overhead.  Our rooms looked over the east bank of the Huangpu River and out across Shanghai’s high-rise clutter stretching on to the horizon.

We kicked off our ”modern China” experience by taking a maglev train from the airport to the outskirts of Pudong.  This train glides along a broad concrete rail propelled by magnetic levitation.  It has no wheels yet reaches a top speed of 430km/h.  Unfortunately, our train was speed limited to a mere 300km/h during the journey into town.  From here we caught a taxi to our hotel, experiencing a taste of the traffic snarls that blight every major city in China.

My parents commented on the tall building and dirty air.  I took great delight in explaining that these weren’t particularly tall building and the air quality was actually better than normal.  As we approached our hotel and its soaring neighbours my parents’ jaws dropped.  Now they understood what a tall building looks like.  The Jin Mao tower rises 420 metres.

However, it’s dwarfed by the Shanghai World Financial Centre next door.  This more recent building rises an astonishing 490 metres, and is currently the fifth tallest building in the world.  Incredibly, an even taller tower is now being built beside it.  When completed, the Shanghai Tower will top out at 623 metres.   From my hotel room I was able to watch construction workers toiling away 250 metres above the ground.  It was hard to grasp the fact that they’d completed barely a third of the building’s ultimate height.

After coffee on the 54th floor we made our way into People’s Square, the heart of the Shanghai’s commercial district.  The square itself is a popular park filled with mature trees and a series of ponds.  This enormous green expanse was once the city’s racecourse.  However, the victorious communist party thought the entire affair far too bourgeoisie.  It banned gambling and coverted the course into the current park in 1949.  We briefly wandered through its midst enroute to the Shanghai Museum.

The Museum is famous for its exhibits of ancient Chinese crafts including some of the country’s most revered cultural artifacts.  We toured only its most popular galleries that feature stunning bronze and ceramic pieces.  Highlights included ceramic works that trace China’s invention of porcelain and large bronze cooking pots more than three thousand years old.  These pots, known as dings, are so synonymous with China that the museum external facade was even designed to replicate their distinctive shape.

Across the road, lies the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.  I had to show this attraction to my parents.  In my experience nothing says more about the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for China than its main exhibit.  Inside visitors are presented with a scale 3-D model of Shanghai’s central districts.   The model carefully reproduces very building, both existing and approved for construction, across the entire city. It fills a room larger than a basketball court.  Only in China would a local government display its ambitions with such an elaborate labour-intensive show piece.

Dinner that evening was held in the Club Jin Mao, a Chinese restaurant serving Shanghai style cuisine on the hotel’s 87th floor.  Here we dined on steamed dumplings, pork ribs and other delicious delicacies while a trio of immaculately attired waiters fussed over us.

On our second day in Shanghai we wandered across the street to the World Financial Centre.  I wanted to show my parents the view from its observation deck located 474 metres (1,555 ft) above us.  The deck it so high it actually looks down on our 420 metre high hotel.  The view is literally out of this world. 

Modern China stretches out in every direction; the dramatic white arch of the Lupu Bridge, the gaudy pink bubbles of the Oriental Pearl television tower and the distinctive remains of the 2010 World Expo site. Once we had our bearing we returned to the ground floor, travelling in one of its 91 elevators at more than 36km/h.

We walked down to the river bank and caught a ferry to the Bund. The Bund’s distinctive art deco and neo-colonial buildings were once the heart of China’s business community.  For many years after the communist revolution these magnificent buildings were left to decay.  However, a recent gentrification program has restored them to their former glory making for a striking street front stretching for several city blocks. 

We walked along its newly refurbished river promenade as far the Bund Tourist Sightseeing Tunnel, stopping briefly to photograph a large statue of Chairman Mao.  Surprisingly, this is one of very few such statues of Mao.  Unlike his Russian counterparts, or the current North Korean despot, Mao was never keen on his likeness being cast in bronze.

The Tourist tunnel can only described as kitsch. Imagine if you will, a series of small, automated rail cabins taking passengers under the river to Pudong; nothing odd about that.  However,  along the way, you’re subjected to a sound and light show as random and senseless as the flashing lights and lasers lining the tunnel’s 900 metre length. 

Once rested, we ventured out via the local subway to wander the shaded streets of the French Concession. This was one of three foreign enclaves that once dominated Shanghai. During the 1920s, the French Concession was Shanghai’s premier residential district. Its colonial past can be clearly seen in the aging, grand mansions that still line its streets.

The concession was established on 6 April 1849 when the Governor of Shanghai conceded the area to France’s recently arrived Consul.The French were following in the footsteps of the British and American who’d established themselves in Shanghai, one of the treaty ports created by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.The treaty ended the first Opium War which effectively opened China to international trade following centuries of self-imposed isolation.

We stopped for a late lunch in a shaded courtyard of a popular expat café called Abbey Road, before returning to our hotel via the Jing’an Temple.
Despite wandering past the temple's gates several times I’ve never ventured inside.  Therefore, it was a delight to wander around its many grand buildings, watching its monks symbolically offer the day's prayers up to the heavens by burning them in a brief, spectacular bonfire.

The temple is built around a large central courtyard in classic Chinese fashion, with a main hall sitting in the middle.  Inside the hall can be found a 6.2 metre high Buddha carved from camphor wood.  Another hall houses a 3.8 jade Buddha, the largest jade idol in China.   The current buildings are a recent construction, however the temple's history stretches back to 247 AD.  The surrounding city of Shanghai wasn't officially founded for another thousand years, in 1292.

Our final morning in Shanghai was spent enjoying a leisurely hotel buffet breakfast by the window, before a leather-clad town car whisked us effortlessly off to the airport for our next Chinese adventure.

Wednesday, June 20

Adelaide for Easter

Back in the heady day when Garry and I were both employed full-time we took advantage of some Qantas discount fares and booked a five-day Easter break in Adelaide.  I’ve only been to the South Australian capital once before.  The occasion was the funeral of my best mate’s father and as a result I saw very little of the city itself.  Garry has been before but seemed to recall very little.  Now that we’re back in Australia, it seems appropriate to begin filling the gaps in our domestic sight-seeing repertoire.

We made the most of our trip by hiring a car.  This let us get out of the city on a couple of occasions which proved rather prescient as the inner city was almost deserted for much of the weekend.   However, the empty streets did have their merit as it meant parking was easy to find.  This proved a boon as South Australia has an odd tradition of making city parking free of charge on public holiday.  As a result, we avoided hefty valet parking charges at our hotel and always found a parking spot within 50 metres of the front entrance.

We flew into Adelaide mid-morning on Good Friday after enjoying a hearty breakfast in the Qantas Lounge.  I think I’ll miss top tier lounge privileges most of all once I’ve left Text 100.  I won’t complain too much as the impact will be a while in coming.  By December this year I’ll have done enough flying to renew my Qantas Platinum status for another year.  Then in 2014 I’ll simply revert to lifetime Gold member status, thus retaining some lounge access privileges.  That is, until Qantas changes its frequent flyer program, or goes bust.

After checking into our hotel we decided to venture out of the city.  Good Friday is one of those rare calendar dates when almost every retail outlet is closed.  We headed south towards Victor Harbour with vague plans to visit a few vineyards before ending up at the mouth of the mighty Murray River.  However, this plan fell apart once we realized every vineyard was closed for the day.  It appears that liquor licensing restrictions on Good Friday cover more than just bars and clubs.

Ultimately, the change of plans did us no harm as we switched focus to finding the most scenic roads to take us between Adelaide and the south coast.  Highlights included the quaint homestead of Penny Hill.  We currently have a case of its Cracking Black Shiraz cellared in our pantry.  Victor Harbour proved to be a bit of a disappointment.  We found many of the beaches layered deep in seaweed deposited by the Southern Ocean’s relentless swell.  The seaside cafes were also heaving with visitors who’d clearly decided to make the same excursion we’d planned.

We eventually found ourselves on the wharf overlooking Goolwa channel, a body of water that separates Hindmarsh Island from the mainland.  Here you can see the infamous Hindmarsh Bridge curving high over the water.   Its construction created huge controversy in the 1990s.  For almost a decade its construction was delayed by claims that its location violated a sacred indigenous site.   However, those opposing the bridge refused to clarify these claims in what became known as “secret women’s business”.   Eventually a royal commission found that the “secret claims” had been fabricated and the Federal Government went on authorize the bridge’s construction.  It finally opened in March 2001 at a cost of $14 million.

We dined on lashing of fresh seafood at Hector’s Café soaking up some glorious sunshine.  Afterward we wandered through weekend produce markets spilling across a nearby park.  Needless to say we didn’t leave empty handed.  We bought a large jar of delicious local honey and a fiery chili paste that the stall owner promised would transform our curries and stir fries. Three months on, the last of the honey has been eaten, while the chili paste was tested for the first time only last week.  Let’s just say it has quite a kick!

Our road trip was completed with a drive across Hindmarsh Bridge and on toward the island’s southeastern corner.  Here the road abruptly ends in front rolling sand dunes.  A small lookout on the dunes provides a panoramic view of the Murray Mouth south of the island.   Thanks to extensive water diversion further upstream, at this point the river barely flows out to sea.  Instead its mouth is marked by shifting sandbanks, upon which row after row of foaming waves continually break.  In 2002 the mouth actually closed over and two dredging barges were brought in to reopen it.

We set aside Easter Saturday to enjoy the inner city.  The day kicked off with a late brunch at the Central Markets.  These fresh produce markets are feast for the eyes and ears as much as for the stomach.  The rest of the day was spent wandering the banks of the River Torrens and soaking up the sights and sounds of Rundle Mall.  I was fascinated to learn that the river is only 85km in length; its source is in the nearby Adelaide Hills.

Easter Sunday was spent driving through the Adelaide Hills, spotting its many vineyards and enjoying its rural attractions.  We began our road trip with a brief stop at the Mount Lofty lookout.  The viewing area offers views across the Adelaide Plains, the city and the Gulf St Vincent.  We traced the ridgeline as far as the aptly named Corkscrew Road.  From here we turned inland winding down into the valley, past Kangaroo Creek reservoir, and on to the village of Woodside. 

Woodside is famous for Melba’s Chocolate factory.  Inside we watched technicians coat chocolate balls and dress freshly molded chocolate Easter rabbits.  Naturally, we didn’t escape its well stocked store without purchasing several packages of tasty goods.  We suffered a similar fate in Cheese Wrights, a local cheesemaker located next door.

Our tour of the Adelaide Hills finished in the incredibly quaint town of Hahndorf.  The area was settled by Lutheran migrants from Prussia and so the town is heavily influenced by German culture.  After a walk to soak up the local atmosphere and Autumn colours we eventually stopped at the Hahndorf Inn, a Victorian style pub serving German fare.  We both went for the classic Six Weiner Platter.  Germans do sausages better than anyone.

Our final day in South Australia saw us make the most of our hire car.  We started with a visit to Botanic Gardens to see its famous Amazon Lilypad House and elegant Tropical Palm House, before heading north to Port Adelaide and then down the coast as far as the seaside suburb of Glenelg.  In Glenelg we found a fish and chip shop selling the perfect seafood.  However, the highlight of the day was a dolphin we spotted frolicking in the local marina.

Sunday, June 17

Deja vu: the adventure begins (again)

I'm sure regular readers have noticed it’s been some time between posts. Why?  Put simply, 14 years of predictable, stable lifestyle are about to radically change.  In July I leave my current employer with no fixed plans for the future.  As you can imagine this change of fortune has consumed my focus since the decision was made in late-January.  It’s been more than 21 years since I was last out of work.  Understandably the prospect of finding my next pay cheque is proving both daunting and exhilarating.  Since January I’ve experienced the full spectrum of emotions; from relief and anticipation to utter terror and despair.

What should I do with my career?  As you can imagine I’ve received advice by the truckload.  It’s all been rich, varied and at times terribly contradictory.  As time passes my options have coalesced into three distinct categories:
  1. Take a year off, either to study for an MBA or to consult on a freelance basis until my next step is clearer.
  2. Go into business for myself, ideally buying a going concern I believe I can successfully grow and develop for the long-term.
  3. Strike out in a new career direction with another employer, leveraging the international business skills I’ve accumulated over the years.
Naturally each option has merits as well as pitfalls.  With so many choices to explore I’ve decided I need to take a couple of months off and clear my head.  Some might say I’m simply procrastinating.  However, taking a moment to still, or perhaps distract, my mind seems to be the right way forward.  I’ve enjoyed a surprising sense of peace since taking this decision and I'm already seeing new opportunities and connections appear without me forcing the issue.

As a result, I’ve finalized plans for two travel adventures in August and September. First, in August Garry and I take a three-week road trip up the West Coast of the USA from Los Angeles to Seattle.  We then return to Sydney for two weeks before I’ll depart again to take my parents on a vacation through Canada and New York they’ve always dreamt about.  The second trip is a recent development, reflecting in part the success of a ten-day vacation I took with my parents in China last month.  My father coped well with the travel, the food and the long days of sight-seeing.

Dad turned 75 in May. In the midst of his ongoing cancer therapy there was a time when none of thought he’d see this day.  Each year gift is a precious gift.  Therefore, while reflecting on my own career future I realized that I’d created a unique opportunity to more spend time him before life settles into a new routine.  It seemed foolish to pass up the chance to take him on a journey listed on his bucket list. 

My parents and I will kick of in Vancouver in mid-September.  Here we’ll catch a train through the Rocky Mountains to Banff; then on to Toronto and Niagara Falls, before taking time to explore New York.  Our journey will finish with a week driving from Montreal to Toronto via Ottawa enjoying the spectacular autumn foliage.  I then return to Sydney and start making more concrete plans for the future.

Garry’s life is also taking a radical turn.  While researching options for acquiring a company I stumbled across a stationery wholesaler.  Some initial due diligence quickly revealed a host of simple changes, which if undertaken, would dramatically improve the company’s growth potential.  After some agnosing internal debate I ultimately decided it wasn't the business for me.  However, Garry became somewhat passionate about the opportunity and ultimately made an offer.  In July he’ll start life as a small business owner.  Watch as Gazena takes on the world.  It’s somewhat ironic that my current journey of discovery has ended up setting Garry on a new career path.

My next path of exploration proved somewhat more compelling.  By chance I spotted an executive role advertised on LinkedIn, the business networking social media site.  The brief was written in a style that captured my imagination.  On whim I drafted a cover letter and submitted my resume.  Weeks later I received call and was asked to come in for an interview.  To cut a long story short, I was subsequently short-listed on the spot and invited to meet more of the executive team. 

It was both motivating and inspiring to find myself in this position the first time I’d seriously applied for a job.  However, I found myself somewhat conflicted by the prospect of leaping straight from my current employer into another role without a pause.  In the days that followed job applicants were narrowed down to me and one other person. I was not successful. A part of me breathed a sigh of relief. This experience made me realize I needed to take a break and clear my head before truly committing myself to another career path. 

As you can see, it is been quite a journey so far, hence the blogging hiatus.  However, as I finally start to wind down my current employment commitments, I’ve decided to revive the blog.  In the weeks ahead you’ll see me update you on a host of travel adventures, including:
  • An Easter weekend in Adelaide.  Garry and I took time out to explore the garden city, as well as exploring the southern coast of South Australia and the picturesque Adelaide Hills wine country.
  • A series of ANZAC weekend excursions with my brother and sister-in-law during their five-day vacation in Australia.  Garry and I took them on a day trip down the south coast to Wollongong the day they arrived, before heading to Canberra for a picture perfect weekend of blue skies and sunshine.
  • My final business trip to the USA.  I found myself in San Francisco with a weekend to fill.  On the spur of the moment I booked flights to Southern Utah to take in the dramatic eroded landscape of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  The experience proved more memorable than expected and the photos simply speak for themselves. 
  • Ten-days in China with my parents.  I took on the role of tour guide, escorting my parents through the urban wonderland of Shanghai, the historical realms of Xian and the cultural highlights of Beijing.
  • A brief excursion en-route to Hong Kong airport where I rode the Ngong Ping cable car to Po Lin Monastery. This Lantau Island institution is home to the Tin Tan Buddha, a 34-metre high bronze statue that sits serenely on a nearby hill. The more hardy visitors climb more than 240 steps to its base to marvel at its colossal size.
  • Stories from far North Queensland where Garry and I are travelling this week to witness the marriage of his younger brother to a wonderful, lively lass from Cornwall, England.  They currently live in Port Douglas and so family and friends have been invited to join an informal ceremony on boat anchored along the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Highlights of our forthcoming road trip up the West Coast of the USA, followed by a summary of the follow on trip to Canada I’ll be taking with my parents.
A year initially devoid of travel seemed to have morphed into a final hurrah before life truly does change for good.  However, future posts won’t just be about travel.  I’m keen to also share the journey of my new career as its direction begins to unfold.  Let the adventure begin (again)!