Part #18: Thoughts on China

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai
Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai
Part #17: Loving the Indigo in Shanghai

I spent a week and a half in Beijing and Shanghai, which makes me nothing close to expert. But it allowed me to form some very definitive views about traveling in China.

1) First and foremost, traveling in China is hard. This surprised me. I have been to other foreign cities that were neither as big nor as urban as Beijing and Shanghai and had no trouble getting around. I had heard that English was a rare commodity in China, but I convinced myself that the mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai would be different.

I was wrong.

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English fail! This is supposed to say: “Across People’s Ave… Please Walk Through Pedestrian Tunnel.”

If I didn’t have my destination written down in Chinese letters, the cab drivers had no idea what I was talking about. One day, I hailed a cab for a quick ride across the river in Shanghai, thinking I could simply point to the towering Oriental Pearl Tower to guide my driver…disaster ensued.

Shanghai and Beijing are also huge. Transferring subway lines underground might mean a 10 minute walk. I’m embarrassed to admit that crossing the street was sometimes a challenge. We often underestimated distances, thinking we could walk what turned out to be a 30-45 minute “stroll.” We often accomplished less in a day than we intended, and were often more tired by the end of the day than expected.

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A wide boulevard in Shanghai and the pedestrian bridge above it.

2) Jet lag is a bitch. There are some magical people out there who have no trouble traveling to foreign countries. I am not one of those people. The jet lag was at its worst when I returned to the U.S., but it was no fun in Asia either. We often fell asleep at six p.m. and woke up around three a.m. starving. Good thing we brought snacks. Thank god for Trader Joe’s trail mixes.

3) China is big and it’s getting bigger. As I walked around Shanghai I was surprised by how much construction and development there was. New apartments, new hotels, new shopping malls – there are signs of a bigger and better China everywhere.

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4) China is a mix of modern glamour and old-school poverty. High-end shopping centers mix with decrepit poverty. I suppose every city has elements of this dichotomy, but the images are so striking and so close to one another.

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Shanghai’s swanky French Concession neighborhood with its high-end shops and restaurants.

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How the other half lives in Shanghai.

5) The Great Wall of China is worth it. Go hike it. Now.

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6) The wifi is shitsville. The wifi was incredibly slow and drove me a little nuts, never mind the limited access to gmail and Facebook in some locations. I know some people love disconnecting when they go on vacation, but I love being connected. The contrast with the wifi in Japan was stunning.

7) The Shanghai skyline is impressive. I prefer the Hong Kong skyline with it’s mountains, but it is a sight to behold in its own right.

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Summary: The trip to China was fascinating and eye-opening and not at all what I expected. I expected a little more Hong Kong and a little less cultural isolation and grit. But those unexpected details are part of what made the trip interesting. As a student of politics, it is fascinating to watch China enter the twenty-first century, bursting with technological advancement and modernity, while it drags the rest of its expansive population in its wake. China is growing and building at such an accelerated rate, the China of today is nothing like the China of 10 years ago. Similarly, I would not be surprised if the China of 2035 will be vastly different from the China I experienced in 2014. Perhaps in 20 years, I will go back and see for myself.

 

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Part #17: Loving the Indigo in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai
Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai

I LOVED – yes capital L-O-V-E-D – the Indigo hotel in Shanghai. The Indigo brand is part of the IHG hotel group, offering a boutique, modern hotel experience. Thanks to my IHG credit card, I used my free annual night at the Indigo for my last night in Shanghai, and fell deeply and irrevocably in love. Sure, there are other hotels that offer better free perks. And the location, while stunning, is not ideal for sightseeing in Shanghai. The Indigo is located in a newly developing area on the riverfront, at least a 17-20 minute walk from the closest metro station. It would not have been ideal for a long stay, but for my last night in Shanghai, it was perfect.

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Why? Because the views were stunning and the decor was to die for. I am moderately obsessed with modern, funky furniture and design. And if I could, I would have happily taken every piece of furniture for my own home.

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The entrance to the Indigo Hotel

The funky decor hits you as soon as you walk in: Modern art with an Asian twist.

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The hallway:

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And my room – did I mention I’m in love?

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Oh, and check out that view.

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And that view:

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Is it weird that the bathroom was my favorite room? It was huge, with a separate area for a super large bathtub and stunning views of the Pudong. You know, just in case I wanted to leave the blinds open while I took a bath.

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And a TV in the bathroom!

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And one of those new-fangled toilets that prepared me for my trip to Japan. Peeing was never so complicated.

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Even the slippers made me smile.

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The rest of the hotel was just as beautiful, including a library, a lounge area with computers and massage chairs, an uber-modern restaurant and a penthouse bar.

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I wandered outside and walked along the water for a bit. It is hard to beat this view.

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When I came back at night, I was surprised to find a present waiting for me. I’m not much of a wine drinker, but it was a nice touch.

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I was excited to hang out at the rooftop bar, taking picture after picture, but the weather had turned rainy and painfully frigid. I snapped this mediocre shot before I relented and ran indoors. It must be amazing to sit outside on a warm night, nursing a diet coke and watching the lights of the Pudong come to life.

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Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai

There is one distinct advantage to traveling solo: Going on a much awaited photoshoot of the Shanghai skyline.

There are few people in my orbit who have the patience or desire to spend several hours attempting to capture the perfect picture. And I don’t blame them. On a rational level, I can see how sitting on the floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center while my butt grows numb from immobility might grow tiresome after the first hour or two. But I find the process strangely calming and satisfactory – especially when that perfect shot shows up on the LCD panel and I say to myself – “That’s it. That’s the one.”

Even my extreme hatred of the cold is dulled by the irrational need to capture the perfect picture, to never be satisfied with an okay shot, to keep trying different settings, different angles, until I get that feeling inside of me that says, “okay, I can go home now.”

That’s how I spent my second-to-last night in China: Thoroughly alone and content. It was also my first introduction to the Pudong and made me wish I had carved out a little more time to explore the towering skyscrapers, luxurious shopping centers, and vast array of parks and museums.

I timed my arrival for shortly before sunset so I could capture the skyline as it changed from sunset to dusk to night. Here is a good reference for the tallest buildings (not structures) in Shanghai.

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At 2,073 feet, the Shanghai Tower is the tallest building in Shanghai and the second tallest in the world. The Shanghai World Financial Center, nicknamed the bottle opener building, is the seventh tallest at 1,614 feet. China’s third tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower, clocks in at 1,380 feet, making it the 17th tallest in the world.

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Shanghai’s three tallest buildings

I paid the admission fee and rode the elevator up to the Shanghai World Financial Center’s observation deck on the 10oth floor – the third tallest in the world. I found a relatively uncomfortable spot on the floor with a perfect view of the skyline beneath me. And then I snapped, and waited, and snapped and waited, and snapped some more.

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Little by little, the lights started to come on.

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After a couple of hours, I ventured outside. The potential for picture taking seemed endless, even as the wind snapped across my cheeks and nibbled at my fingers. So what if I risked frost bite. I was in photography heaven.

This is one of my favorite shots: Shanghai’s three tallest buildings basking in the moonlight.

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Part #15: Ancient Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam

Yuyuan Gardens in located in the ancient city of Shanghai. When I got off of the subway, I didn’t know what to expect, and all of a sudden, the modern malls give way to ancient architecture.

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I love the contrast between the soaring Shanghai Tower and the ancient Chinese buildings.

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As I walked over to the gardens,  I meandered through narrow alley ways jam-packed with stores and people.

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I finally found the gardens and paid my 30 RMB admission fee. It was a chilly day, but the blue skies, gentle landscape, and the emboldened sense of freedom warmed my spirits.

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The gardens were beautiful and incredibly peaceful. I would have definitely spent more time there on a warm day, luxuriously taking pictures and stirring in my thoughts. Instead, I put my gloves back on and walked the 30 minutes back to my hotel.

The walk back was an opportunity to see less touristy parts of Shanghai. Instead of massive boulevards and modern buildings, I navigated through tiny streets that were not meant for cars and people and bicycles. I wandered through traditional street markets, and successfully avoided getting trampled on. All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon for my first solo international adventure.

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What Happens in Vegas… Ends up on the Blog

My boss and I went to Las Vegas for work… or that’s what we told people. In truth, we both really wanted to check out the Centurion Lounge in Las Vegas.

It was awesome.

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Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao

My adventure as a solo traveler officially began Tuesday morning when I put my sister in a cab for the Shanghai airport, and I promptly freaked out.

What was I doing? I’m the girl who called my parents every day from sleepover camp because I was so homesick. Now, I had two days in Shanghai and five days in Japan to fend for myself. Seven days seemed like an eternity stretching out in front of me. I cursed myself and my incurable wanderlust. It’s easy to enjoy the promise of wanderlust in the comfort of my apartment; it’s  alot harder when I’m alone in a foreign country thousands of miles from home.

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But then I grabbed my camera and told myself to make the most of it. And I’m so glad I did. Traveling solo is scary, but it is also empowering and relaxing. I missed my sister, but there is a freedom in waking up when I wanted to, going where I wanted to, falling asleep when I wanted to. If I wanted to spend an hour (or three hours – who’s counting?) trying to get the perfect picture… well, I could. There was no one to stop me. Plus, it’s hard not to revel in the extraordinary pride I felt swelling in my chest. As I hit the streets, I found myself thinking: I am wandering around Shanghai all by myself. I’m awesome.

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I did discover the downside of traveling solo in China: I quickly became the target of a famous – and somewhat beguiling — traditional Chinese scam.

As I wandered over to Yuyuan Gardens I was stopped by a couple of young Chinese natives who told me they were students in Beijing on break. They told me how much they love meeting English speaking tourists so they can practice their English. I took this all in stride. Then, they invited me to join them at a famous Chinese tea festival. That’s so cute, I thought. “A Chinese tea festival! But I don’t like tea, and I had my heart set on seeing Yuyuan Gardens. I politely declined. They insisted I’d be missing out and they really wanted to practice their English. I thanked them and went on my merry way. What a nice bunch of kids, I thought.

Not ten minutes later, I was stopped by another small group who gave me the same shpiel. They were on break from school and headed to a traditional tea festival. I must come, they told me, and they would love to practice their English. Wow, I thought. The next generation of Chinese citizens are really committed to practicing their English. Again, I politely declined.

As I continued on my way, I thought: That can’t possibly be a coincidence. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what kind of scam they were attempting. I checked my backpack and all my essentials were still there. They clearly were not trying to pick-pocket me. Why in the world would they want me to go to some tea festival?

Later that night, I googled the words “tea festival scam,” and was shocked by the results.

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Apparently, the Chinese tea festival is a famous scam that has hoodwinked many a tourist. The Chinese “students” lure unsuspecting tourists to a hole in the wall (this would be the alleged “festival”) where a local offers an array of tea flavors to sample. After all this, the tourist is charged an exorbitant sum for the pleasure of partaking in this event.

For some reason, I found this hysterical. And a significant boost to my self esteem. On my first day as a solo traveler, I escaped the famous tea festival scam unscathed!

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Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhujiajiao

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai

On my sister’s last full day in Shanghai, we took a day trip to one of the many ancient water towns on the outskirts of the city. If you google “water towns near Shanghai,” you’ll find an abundance of options, each with advantages and disadvantages. After going back and forth, we finally decided on one of the closer towns – and we were very happy with our choice. Traveling by bus in China is not an easy feat for an English speaker. I was convinced we were going to end up halfway to Tibet before we realized we were on the wrong bus.

Thankfully, that did not happen.

zhujiajiao map

Zhujiajiao is a one hour-bus ride from the bus stop just south of the People’s Park. Thanks to some very detailed blog posts (here and here), we knew we were looking for the pink bus on Pu’an Road with the express symbol (it looks like this:快). And just to be sure, we asked every Western looking person on the bus, “Zhujiajiao?” and took their tentative nods as a good sign.

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Note: The bus will be very crowded. Leg space is non-existent.

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Once we got to Zhujiajiao, we took a pedicab to the entrance of the ancient city because we were afraid of getting lost. Okay fine, I admit it. I was also freezing. The directions are actually pretty straightforward and an easy 10-minute walk.

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One of the common complaints about Zhujiajiao is that it’s overly touristy and crowded, but we didn’t find it to be either of these things – maybe because we are tourists, and the cold weather kept the throngs away.

The thing we enjoyed most about Zhujiajiao was its effortless charm: the narrow alleyways that wind every which way; the elegant bridges; the houses and souvenir stores tucked into tiny corners; and the cultural oddities that make you stop in your tracks. We had a great time simply walking around. We splurged on a boat ride for 65 RMB just because it’s the kind of thing to do at least once in our lives.

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I’m obsessed with this shot. I love that there is a chair in the middle of all the laundry.

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Me taking pictures on a bridge:

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Here, we stumbled upon some kind of calligraphy shop:

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Our Chinese version of a gondola ride (without the crooning and so much cheaper):

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Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

Most people go to Shanghai to see the mesmerizing skyline. I desperately wanted to see the Shanghai marriage market. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese citizens gather in the People’s Park with descriptions of their children (or themselves), in search of the appropriate mate. For some reason, this fascinated me.

People’s Park is huge, so I asked concierge where exactly I could find the marriage market.

Concierge: Which market?

Me: The Shanghai marriage market.

Concierge: I don’t understand. Which market?

Me: The marriage market?

Concierge: Which market? What are you looking to buy?

Me: A Chinese husband!

So I set out to find the marriage market on my own. Luckily, it was hard to miss. Despite the afternoon rain, there were tons of people gathered in the park under umbrellas hawking pieces of paper.

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I was pretty impressed with their ingenuity. Everything in sight became a platform for hosting posters.

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I did not find a husband in Shanghai, and I got yelled at in Chinese, but I had a great time. The Shanghai marriage market should not be missed.

Glutton for Punishment

As many of you know, I do not like running. Not even a little bit. But I love the idea of being a runner. I love the idea of being in shape and conquering the miles one by one. Of course, I have never quite become the glorified runner of my imagination. Instead, I hobble along, complaining about each mile and wondering why I put myself through this. Why? Because, clearly, I’m a glutton for punishment.

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That must be why I signed up for the Nike 15K race in Toronto in June. Fortunately, I have two good friends who agreed to participate in this torturous journey with me. I’m super excited to see my friend Daveeda in Toronto even if I need a 9.3 mile excuse to make the trip. So now the training – and the complaining – begins in earnest!

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Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review

Our Sunday morning in Shanghai was a special day – and one of the reasons we traveled across the globe. For years, my mom has been telling us about how my grandparents escaped Nazi-occupied Poland by securing illegal visas to Japan and ended up living in the Shanghai Ghetto until they were liberated in 1945. When I was kid growing up in Chicago, I never imagined that one day I would travel to China and walk those same streets as my grandparents.

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Many people have never heard the name Chiune Sugihara, but for thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, Sugihara was a hero. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who became the vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania in 1929. During World War II, he handed out thousands of transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews seeking travel to Japan. This was no small thing. According to official Japanese rules, visas were only supposed to be granted to people who had the appropriate funds and a visa for a third destination to leave Japan. Most of the Jews receiving Sugihara’s visas did not fill the bill.

Years later, Sugihara was asked why he worked so hard to save so many lives. He said:

“People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

My grandparents were lucky enough to secure two of Sugihara’s illicit visas and rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia before taking a boat to Kobe, Japan. The Japanese were not all that interested in taking in thousands of European Jews so the government shipped them, including my grandparents, off to Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation at the time.

So that Sunday morning, my sister and I rode the subway to Shanghai’s northern Hongkou district. Today, there is nothing particularly spectacular about the area. It is a crowded and poor residential area filled with old apartment buildings and corner stores.

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The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the old ghetto neighborhood.

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All visitors are required to put plastic covers on their shoes to protect the synagogue. For some reason, we found this hysterical.

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The restored bottom floor of the synagoguge

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The back entrance to the synagogue

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A wall of names of many of the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai

The second and third floor contain photos of  and letters from the ghetto’s residents and other important people and places from the time period.

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The yellow portion represents the old Shanghai Ghetto

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Pictures of children born in the Shanghai Ghetto

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A photo of a former resident of the Shanghai Ghetto video chatting with a childhood friend in 2011

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When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the Shanghai Ghetto in 1993, he inscribed these words: “To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.

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A photo of Chiune Sugihara

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A photo of Jewish refugees waiting in line for a pass to leave the ghetto

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Then-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal visited the home of his youth in 1979

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The former home of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal in the Shanghai Ghetto

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This building housed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

A Jewish monument was built in Houshan Park in memorial to the Jews who lived there.

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The museum is small, but it was an incredible — not to mention personal — experience. I left the following inscription in the guest notebook at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.

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