Shanghai: Capping it Off

Two weeks in China have flown by. Through the course of the last few days, I have witnessed slices of this country that are constantly changing my overall opinion of it. From the somber hutongs (streets) of Beijing to the cities in the skies in midland China (Chengdu and Chongqing) to the urban, international metropolis of Shanghai – Commercial China has been, overall, steeped in new money and quick development. The developing China left me impressed but there was still something missing to tie me inherently to the country. In Thailand, the history and markets of Ayutthaya were the trigger; in Cambodia, the ruins of Angkor Wat; and in Spain, the vibrant oranges of Sevilla.

 

 In my last two days in the Land of the Pandas, I have found that trigger – it’s called a tiny city of Shanghai. This city is the perfect blend of modernism, Europeanism, and ethnic Chinese culture. And there is a further element to it that renders it a perfectly suited city to my sentiments – its love for art and architecture. Ranging from an exposition on Miro’s modern swirls to ancient Chinese urns, sweeping from wooden houses of old China to Nuevo-Greco architecture brought on by European colonizers, the flavor that Shanghai gives is that of historic east blended with aspects of the west.

What sweetened my already favorable opinion of the city was seeing the place through the eyes of a local Shanghainese. My friend and I had the goodfortune to meet a friend of a friend who is from a smaller town in China but has spent about 10 years is Shanghai. He showed us bits of the city here and there to indicate why this city really has a character that is truly its own. We went to an area in Shanghai that was less accessed by tourists – cobbled roads, narrow streets, intricate wooden buildings. And within these structures lay galleries, artisans, and restaurants that were so unique (and some, so Chinese) that we spent hours roaming a very small circle

A perfectly spiced lunch was fueled by conversation that for both my friend and I was riveting. For the last 12 weeks, we had been studying Modern China and its business growth diligently. We had spent the last 2 weeks in country visiting stalwarts like IntelJohnson and Johnson, and Baidu to better understand growth, government, and, to an extent, stagnation. We had even had the opportunity to meet with the Chongqing government (currently in the center of global media frenzy due to the sacking of a top official, Bo Xilai). Getting a perspective from our friend, a budding entrepreneur in a country where innovation is now a top priority was a fascinating cap to our ideas. Through him, we saw a China whose young people were passionate, driven, worldly, and above all, very confident in their country’s future prospects.

The China that I got to see in two short weeks is one that has an underlayer of tradition and order while opening its arms to embrace modern ideas and thoughts.

The youth wore the latest designers but in their own unique way, the buildings (especially those in Shanghai and Chongqing) could give some western cities a run for their money, and the interior street- and food-markets, selling a vast array of animals and vegetables that I had never seen consumed before. It was an interesting visit and in Shanghai, I felt that pang of saying goodbye before one is ready to do so.

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Cambodia: Of Glorious Kingdoms and Degenerate, Hateful Despots

That Cambodia has such a contrasting history was known to me when I first planned my trip out. That it would affect me so hard and so emotionally was something that was unexpected. I am a whirlwind of emotions. I know not what to feel.

In a nutshell, I primarily toured two of Cambodia’s biggest and most historic cities – Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, the current capital. The contrast of their histories, that a country could undergo such changes through the course of time – going from the impressive Kingdom of Cambodia to the despicable Democratic Republic of Kampuchea – truly shocked me.

I spent 2.5 days touring the magnificent Angkor Wat and its sprawling temple complexes.  Armed with an awesome guidebook that explained the temples and a great tuk-tuk driver who understood my craving, I set out to fully immerse myself into the glory of Cambodia’s past. The many temples in Angkor Wat Complex date from ~900 A.D – ~1200 A.D. The majority of these temples were created by kings who had adopted Hinduism after seeing how successful the Indian traders were back then and consequently attributing that success to a divine power brought on by Hinduism. I loved this – loved seeing the far-out influence of India so far back. It truly brought delight to me seeing images of Kurukshetra (the battle in the epic, Mahabharata) etched marvelously on the walls of Angkor, to see the god Indra depicted on pediments of the temple at Ta Phrom. Angkor Wat – the defining temple of this complex – is the primary and most astounding homage to Hinduism.

Apsaras at Angkor Wat

What made my visit transcend the ordinary for me was figuring out when to beat the crowds at the different temples. I pranced around in the temple of the many faces, Bayon, during early A.M. hours – having the whole terrace to myself. I moved about in Angkor Wat during late sunset hours – climbing on window sills and pedestals to get a better look at the voluptuous Apsaras (divine goddesses) that dot the edifice. It was wonderful.

A corridor at the Tuol Sleng Prison - the barbed wire was to keep prisoners from committing suicide by jumping off

And then Phnom Penh happened. And it brought my glorious thoughts of Cambodia crumbling into the depths of deep sorrow for the Khmer people who underwent the horrific reign of Pol Pot from 1976-79. 3 years and over 3 million Khmer killed.

I thought that I had prepared myself well for what to expect – I had read a gripping, first-hand account of the Reign of Terror in Loung Ung’s autobiography: At First They Killed my Father. I realized, however, that the images from the book were fresh in my mind – bringing to life the people (her parents) and the atrocities that had occurred at both the Killing Fields and at the Tuol Sleng Prison. The Killing Fields was were 126 graves were found, each with over 100+ bodies of men, women, and children. Now the site houses all the bones of these victims in a tall, glass pagoda. I couldn’t step in to see this pagoda, filled with skulls and bones. My heart couldn’t bare it – I couldn’t stop my tears, I couldn’t stop my pain. I walked around and saw that some graves had been dug up and were now devoid of the skeletons they housed. But text markers had been placed to designate what they contained. There was also a tree that was marked – this tree was one where guards smashed the heads of babies against in order to deliver a quick death.

A typical prison cell at Tuol Sleng - cramped and one tiny window

Moving on to the prison was akin to adding salt to an already deep gash. The prison was converted from a school and housed all the prisoners under Pol Pot’s regime. It was also where they were interrogated, tortured, and then murdered. Innocent young girls, handsome young men, kind old grandparents – each and everyone was a victim under this regime. Each and everyone (save 7) did not survive this prison. Approximately 20,000 people were killed at this site (and then buried at the Killing Fields).

It was too much; I have never felt such sadness, despair, pain within me. Nothing has moved me so deeply as the sites at Phnom Penh had. I cried for Loung Ung, I cried for her family, I cried for the many others who faced the same plight as her.

And, Justice, Ha! True Justice still fails to be delivered. Pol Pot died a peaceful death in 1998 (albeit under house arrest).

Finding a Gem in your own backyard

When I used to live in India, I used to dream of Venetian palaces, French chateaus, Chinese summer homes. It took 24 years to open my eyes and see the history surrounding the place where I spent my childhood summers, the city of my birth. Often we passed by the Laxmi Villas Palace in Vadorara in rickshaws but never did I have the curiosity or the fascination to go visit it. Vadodara back then was associated just with long, lazy summers lounging in Grandma’s apartment and going shopping for pretty Gujarati dresses on R.C.Dutt road.

Laxmi Villas Palace, Vadodara

That dusty, boring Vadodara too could have its own fascinating history, beautiful architecture, and an on-site royal family never struck me.

Darbar Hall, Laxmi Villas Palace, Vadodara

It was the permanence of the backyard that strongly hindered my exploratory spirit when it came to this palace. It took a physical, permanent removal from India to get me dreaming about one day visiting the sprawling construction in the heart of the city.

Laxmi Villas Palace, build circa 1890, is gorgeous. One of the seven wonders of India, the palace is a fusion of styles – going from Italian stained glass window (the most in any private residence) to Islamic arabesque carvings. Yet, it retains within itself that charm that makes it a true Gujarati construction – that airy feeling, those open aangans (courtyards), those sculpted wooden arches.

Amusing call-back to America: The palace tour is conducted via an audio guide (in English!), reminding me of my Fall ’09 visit to the gilded mansions in Rhode Island.