Shanghai

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The skyscrapers of Shanghai

We had a great time in Shanghai. Its huge, horribly hot, expensive and full of incredibly fashionable people. Even the old folks shuffled about in the latest Nikes.

There is a certain energy and panache to Shanghai, it’s brash and fast moving and I’d imagine a difficult place to live if you are not earning well and living the metropolitan life.  A good place to have money. Possibly a soul-destroying place if you don’t.

Amid the Pizza Huts and KFCs and western goods, it’s hard to remember that we are still in communist China, with all the restrictions and curtailment of individual freedoms that pertain elsewhere in the country. While the one child policy has been relaxed, for example, to allow certain families have a second child under certain conditions, the state is still very intrusive and controlling of peoples’ private and public lives. Media is heavily controlled (the only way to access any google service, facebook, twitter, Instagram and many other websites is to use a VPN which must be downloaded and activated while outside China, making this option available to a very, very limited number of Chinese – plus its illegal) and journalists and activists are routinely arrested and tortured. Most people my age here have no knowledge of the Tiannamen Square protests and massacre – an event burned into the brains of people my age in the west. Everywhere you go, you have to show your passport, and there are security checks and x-ray machines at every metro entrance.

The Shanghai skyline is even more impressive than Hong Kong’s, but the city has retained (tiny) pockets of ‘old shanghai’, whereas what we saw of HK was unashamedly new and shiny.

Our first day we spent exploring the new and shiny – a long walk along a canal down to the river, along the bund (riverbank, corniche, marginal), across the river on a packed ferry, and up the tallest building in Asia, and 2nd tallest in the world (a rather sour note at the bottom says the tallest building in the world is in Dubai ‘but they put a spire on it’ and then goes on to explain how spires are included in the ‘international’ definition of how tall a building is).

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The Shanghai Tower, all 132 floors of it …….

From the top, you can see in all directions, looking down on enormous skyscrapers, including the bizzare ‘shanghai pearl’ that gives Shanghai its iconic skyline. We timed it so that we got the great 360 views from the top during the day and then at sunset – spectacular and photos through the glass can’t do justice to it. I’m not a building fanatic but it was pretty amazing – especially the ‘fastest in the world’ lifts that reached 70 km an hour as they sped upwards. We reached the 118th floor in an minute, and everyone’s ears popped.

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On day two we headed to the Jing’an temple, taking some time to read about Buddhism and its beliefs and the Bhudda’s life. This is a working temple, with many resident monks and local people coming in at lunchtime to pray. Squeezed on all sides by enormous skyscrapers and a shopping mall, the temple itself was an oasis of shade and calm, and we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around admiring the carving, gold work and bells.

After that we headed to the French quarter, one of the better-preserved parts of old shanghai, mainly full of (to our European eyes) rather nondescript old buildings in European style. Nonetheless, amid the brash and shiny, this is clearly seen as a more sophisticated area, and we saw numerous newly wed couples posing for wedding photos, decked out in wedding gear, as well as Chinese tourists posing against perfectly ordinary apartment blocks. Some of the poses were hilarious, and we couldn’t resist trying it our ourselves, although looking that ridiculous obviously takes practice as I am not sure we succeeded…..

After stopping for ice cream at an uber-cool ‘european style café’ complete with communal tables and artisanal breads, we wandered back through the leafy lanes and jumped on the super-efficient and super-airconditioned metro back to our hostel.

Loved Shanghai, wouldn’t want to live there.

Hong Kong to Shanghai by Train

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I am writing this on the Shenzhen to Shanghai overnight train.

The noise is extraordinary.

People shouting from one end of the corridor to another, kids screaming and running up and down the corridor, the carriage attendant’s radio and her shouted responses, hawkers shouting their wares while winding with their trolleys through passengers stood in the corridor, at least three different mobile phones streaming video, people having conversations on their mobiles, and best of all, the kids in our compartment playing 2 different electronic games with the sound on.

Has China not discovered earphones?

We are in second class (believe me, the other carriages are worse, apart from first which is triple the price). There are four beds to a compartment – Lauren and I have the two top bunks in ours, leaving the whole ‘ground floor’ to assorted members of an extended family – currently there are three women, and three kids, all nattering loudly, playing games and (the baby) wailing. Its not quite my romantic image of an overnight train journey, chugging slowly through the night, swallowing up the miles to the sound of the train’s horn and the clatter of the rails….

A policeman just caused an increase in the volume to even more staggering levels by shouting for about ten minutes at the smokers who congregate between the carriages, which is not allowed. As they don’t shut the doors along the corridors, this does lead to smoke finding its way into our compartment, it’s not oppressive but unpleasant.

Earlier we tried to escape the noise by heading to the dining car. There were no tables as people were sat everywhere, many slumped on the tables fast asleep. We left, then I decided greater assertiveness was required if we wanted dinner and went back and insisted on sharing a table with a woman and child who glared at me but didn’t demur. There were three things on the menu, with grainy black and white pictures that did nothing much in the way of explaining the dishes. We pointed to the one that looked least likely to contain offal or chicken’s feet and hoped for the best. What we got was basically a plate of hot chillies, stir fried with very fatty bits of pork.

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Some pork fat with your chillies, ma’am? 

I managed a few chillies – I like hot food – but was wary of causing too much intestinal disturbance – my insides have never been quite right since Bolivia, and the less said about Chinese train toilets the better. Luckily it came accompanied by a mound of rice, so we fished out what meat was edible, and divided these few mouthfuls between us, along with the rice. Supplemented by some dried mango and apple, plus a couple of McVities digestives from Hong Kong, it wasn’t a bad dinner.

Now I am hiding up here in my bunk, trying not to get annoyed at the noise, and convincing myself this is ‘all part of the wonderful experience of travel’.