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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Price gouging the Buddhist way

Pictured above is Jìng'ān Temple 静安寺, one of Shànghăi's 上海 most striking Buddhist temples, with a history as colorful as its outward appearance. With a history that dates back to the 3rd century, Jing'an Temple became notorious in the 1930's under its gangster-like abbot, Khi Vehdu, whose almost 7 foot-tall esteemed personage, not to mention his seven concubines, were kept under protection by White Russian bodyguards. The Communists didn't take kindly to these interpretations of Buddhism, and the temple was converted to a plastics factory before eventually burning down in 1972. What you see today is an expensive reconstruction, primarily in Burmese teak, which makes for a remarkable contrast with the surrounding high-rise buildings (restoration work is still going on in the rear of the complex). During this Lunar New Year, it's also one of the city's biggest rip-offs, with the usual 30 RMB ($4.95) admission price ballooning to an astounding 100 RMB ($16.50).

The reason for the hefty hike was supposedly for a special New Year's event being held on the first floor of the main building, involving flowers, incense and various other miscellany, which required a separate admission ticket. The catch was that there was no way to avoid paying for the additional ticket - it was 100 RMB to get inside the temple, with no other options provided. Clearly, the business-savvy abbots running the modern-day version of Jing'an Temple have learned how to cash in on the holiday travel cash-cow bonanza.

With nothing else better to do (both wife and child were occupied this afternoon) and having made the effort to get there, I ended up paying to go in. At least the high price kept the visitor numbers relatively low - while it was busy, it wasn't packed like so many other famous spots are during the long holiday break. 

Once you get over the sticker shock, there are things worth seeing. The main Mahavira hall features a silver Buddha that stands 8.8 meters (28.9 feet) high and weighs 15 tonnes (16.5 tons). 

One side hall features a 6.2 meter (20.3 feet)-high statue of Guānyīn 观音, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, carved out of camphor wood...

...while the hall on the opposite side of the main plaza contains an image of Sakyamuni made out of jade that stands 3.86 meters (12.7 feet) tall. The sculptors were Burmese, judging from the names written at the base of the statue. 

People were trying to toss coins into the giant incense holder standing in front of the main hall.

The many visitors prostrating themselves in front of the above-mentioned icons appeared sincere in their devotions, but the temple as a whole reeks of commerce, where profit comes before salvation and is no doubt a reflection of where modern Chinese society is rapidly heading. Nevertheless, Jing'an Temple is an impressive sight and probably worth a visit if you have time to kill while passing through Shanghai. Just avoid it during the Lunar New Year to save yourself a nasty case of price gouging. 

After visiting the temple (and fleeing the conveniently located gift shop, where prices were also similarly inflated), I crossed the street to Jing'an Park 静安公园. Despite it being filled with families and couples, I was able to snag a bench, where I dined on a sandwich and a couple of cookies purchased from a conveniently-located Subway franchise. 

One last look at Jing'an Temple before heading down Nánjīng West Road 南京西路.

Close by is the Shanghai Children's Palace 少年宫. It's an activities center for children housed in a mansion built in 1918 by the Kadoorie family, Sephardic Jews who were one of the biggest investors in Shanghai prior to World War II. I would've liked to have paid the entrance fee to have a look at the rooms inside, but without Amber along, I didn't see much point in going in this afternoon. 

With time to kill and in no particular hurry to get home, I decided to walk back from the Jing'an area instead of taking the Metro or the bus, a distance of 7.7 kilometers (4.8 miles) according to Google Maps that took me about 100 minutes at a leisurely pace. Pictured above is a typical Shanghai street scene.

When was the last time you stayed at a Howard Johnson's this impressive? Come to think of it, when was the last time you stayed at a HoJo's? I'm old enough to remember when going out to eat at a Howard Johnson's restaurant was a big deal for the family.

Traffic on normally busy West Yán'ān Road 延安西路 was noticeably lighter today, probably due to the Lunar New Year holiday, which is perhaps why this elderly gentlemen felt unperturbed walking in the left-turn lane.

Tasteless public art in a public park

The point where the Yan'an Elevated Road 延安高架路 meets the Inner Ring Elevated Road  内环高架路.

Apparently, someone thought that statues of stampeding horses were just what one intersection needed.

Hideous though it may be, this flower sculpture does serve as a very useful landmark when navigating the way home.

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