Words and photography: Blair Alley
The talented filmer Nick Lamm went to China last winter at the behest of American-born, former San Diego resident Danny Zhang, now one of skateboarding's go-to men in China. Danny was involved in organizing the first International Skateboarding Open in Nanjing (a city you've probably never heard of), and reached out to Nick, who reached out to Mike Fitz and myself with the all-expense paid invite to China, with a crew of our choice, to skate the ISO and stick around on our own street skating mission--one of those too-good-to-be-true opportunities. We enlisted the skateboarding skills of Tommy Sandoval (China veteran), young gun Alexis Ramirez, and the always solid Anthony Schultz. Cameron McIntosh (of Blanket Shade and Rotunda fame) joined on as our second filmer and the excursion was on!
As was previously stated, you've probably never heard of this city. By Chinese standards, it's a small city. It has 8.3 million people. That's as big as NYC. And it has spots for days that have never been skated by Americans. The Metro cost 20 cents to ride, was clean and efficient, and we hit the expansive Chinese marble plazas you've all heard about. Benches, curbs, banks and gaps for days, with Starbucks and liquor stores nearby. You really only need to hit one of these spots a day, because the whole crew will get tricks and everyone else will be having such a good time cooling out, bumping music, and interacting with the curious locals, you won't feel the need to make any moves! Major shout outs to Danny and Jay Glesener for loading us up with spots in Nanjing. Any time the metro stop seemed too far to skate to, we just piled in a couple cabs--they only cost about two dollars.
After sundown, we inevitably ended up at an ex-pat bar/restaurant called Secco. It was an Italian joint, owned by a nice German dude, and was packed every night with people from The States, England, Russia, The Ukraine and more. We met people here from all walks of like, with all kinds of interesting stories. Most were in China for a few years studying or teaching English. You make good money and it's super cheap to live there, so a lot of them were taking extravagant vacations to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam on their days off. If you're bored at home in America, look into this. Could be an exciting few years of life!
Our last night in Nanjing, Danny and Ma took us out to a teppanyaki dinner. Think Benihaha, but on steroids. It was all you can eat and drink. We just flipped through the menus and pointed at wagyu beef, conch, shrimp, filet mignon, fruity cocktails, sake, you name it. We went it. Most of us proclaimed it was one of the best meals of our lives. And from what I heard, this type of meal in Nanjing only costs about 30-40 dollars US.
After a few days skating in Nanjing, our plan was to take the bullet train to Shanghai. Truth be told, we were having such a pleasant time in Nanjing, we could've spent the whole time there. But the Pearl of the Orient called, and with most of us being in China for the first time, we had to see what surprises Shanghai had in store for us. Everything in China is bigger, and when we got to the Nanjing train station, and were faced with a seven-hour delay, we decided to use the enormous terminal as our own personal skatepark. There were little wooden manual pads that Anthony and Alexis filmed on for hours. No one cared or gave us the boot. We finally boarded the train at 8 p.m. and in a little over two hours, pulled into the futuristic metropolis that is Shanghai.
"I don't want to be disturbing elegance, but this one can not skate."
The next morning, we were up and at it, some of us with facemasks to battle the blanketing air pollution, and we hit the famous spots along Shanghai's riverfront boardwalk. Perfect ledges of all shapes and sizes, nearby vending machines that sold iced coffee, and the always curious and happy Chinese citizens. It's pretty close to a skater's paradise. The vibes were high each and every day. The grey skies are a trip though. Shanghai's famous financial district skyline would just be a mile away, but you could barely make out the buildings through the humid air. This trip was in April, and temps were in the 80s--not bad--but the locals told us in the summer it's over 100 degrees everyday with the same stifling humidity. So take that into account when you plan your trip. At the famous triple kink mini-hubba (Shane nollie crooked it), a politely frustrated security guard wanted us to stop skating it. He typed his message in his translator-app and showed us: "I don't want to be disturbing elegance, but this one can not skate." How quaint!
Shanghai nights consisted of dining at Blue Frog, an American-style restaurant that Tommy found on Yelp. We'd skate through the never-ending neon streets, skitching on scooters and cabs (no one really cared) and get to the destination. It would usually be happy hour, two for one Tiger beers. Tommy would get in michelada-man mode, and we'd stuff our faces after a full sweaty day of clipping up. Danny, Tommy Zhao and several other ex-pat skaters from around the world would be waiting for us in front of Family Mart--basically a 7-11 with a table and chairs out front. It was right in the posh nightclub district, so we'd just kick it out front with beers, bullshit and people-watch. It really was a perfect way to spend the late night hours. Tommy always had the reggae pumping from his black market Bluetooth speaker, and even started a coupe dance parties with the homeless beggars that hit up our crew.
For our last night in Shanghai, Danny took us to Windows, a bar he's taken all visiting skaters that everyone has seemed to like. Up the glass elevator, ten floors in the sky, it's a sports pub with darts, pool tables, shuffleboard and four beers for five dollars or something like that. They told us it was "guys night" too, where they gave out free tequila shots every hour--what?! No! After a couple hours, and intense shuffleboard games later--Cameron had his HPX out, filming one of the waitresses trying to skate, and Tommy and I had commandeered the DJ booth, going one for one on our iPhones, rocking the joint. Keep in mind the place was basically empty, save for a group of Russian skaters that recognized Tommy when we walked in. As is par for China, you can kind of do whatever you want, and the locals probably didn't know what to think of us--but in that way everyone's happy and ends up having a pretty great time.
The next morning it was time to leave--which was no easy task. Up early on minimal sleep, and badgering hangovers, we were in the street in front of our hotel with all of our gear trying to flag down cabs. The language barrier is real. You basically need your destination, or pin, in Chinese characters to show the cab drivers. Google maps won't work because they can't read the street names. An hour and 20 minutes later, we were all calmly in the Shanghai Pudong airport, and this magnificent trip was coming to an end. Ten hours later we landed in SF and said later to Anthony as he headed back to OC. The rest of us landed in San Diego that afternoon and said our goodbyes. On the airport curb, Alexis' homie scooped him up with a fat banger ready to be sparked. Alexis lit it with the quickness, blew a huge cloud of smoke out the window as they sped off that lingered over all the people's heads who also just landed, waiting for their rides to pick them up. We all looked up and saw brilliant blue skies and the reliable California sun. Two things we hadn't seen in a while.