Shanghais and Byes (and Buys)

Monday, July 28, 2008

From my remote station in Fei Lai Si I made the trek back to the relative civilization on Shangri-La (Shang-guh-li-La since the name itself is not Chinese) with a minivan full of Chinese. I, however, was beside a Malaysian-Japanese couple who were very friendly and indeed didn’t leave me alone until they were sure I was okay once we arrived. I was faced with a bit of a dilemma... on the one hand, I was behind schedule and discovered Chengdu would take an extra day of travel above what I’d expected as a result of my remote origin. On the other hand, with a pricey plane ticket I could be close to back-on-track though still rushed to make it to Beijing with time for sightseeing. Complicating matters, Charlotte and Gerri were back in Kunming the next day and it would be great to catch up with them. And finally, it should be noted, that to get to Chengdu without the pricey flight, I would need to backtrack to Dali or Kunming anyway. So it was that, at the bus station, I found myself on the last seat of the last bus out of Shangri-La, en route to Kunming and old friends.

I slept quite well compared to my last sleeper bus experience in China and, coincidentally, bound for the same city. This time, a seat to myself. This time, no Chinese spooning. This time, ridiculous amounts of traffic. The traffic was so bad coming in that our bus driver gave up attempting to reach the bus station, parked, and led us all on foot to the station about 1 km away. I went to have a look at bus and train tickets to Chengdu and couldn’t help but notice all the security in the place. I had been here before, but I didn’t remember seeing them. Hmm. Eventually, I gave up attempting to interpret the signboards and caught the number 3 bus to the Hump Hostel. This, by contrast to the bustling and jammed roads, was empty. Where last time I’d barely secured a seat, this time I had the bus almost entirely to myself. None of this really registered as especially suspect, rather, it was a small series of observations that accrued like snow on a mountain slope until enlightenment finally triggered the avalanche. There had been two busses bombed in Kunming only a few days prior.

It all made sense then, though it didn’t change anything. I still had places to go and in particular two people to see. I waited around at the Hump, getting caught up on photos, internet, and day-to-day life until I looked up to see Charlotte standing over me and shaking her head in quiet shock. It was a happy reunion with her and Gerri and we caught up over a customary bowl of popcorn, beer, and swapped travel stories. Xixuanbana and its black and white pagodas had been a disappointment to them, even if the weather was a lot more balmy than the Himalayas and they did come back with a funny story about rice whiskey and being obliged to drink with the locals. We went out that evening to a happening district and attempted to ‘club it’, but between loud/horrible music and being interrupted every five seconds so that some other Chinese person could come and campay us (bottoms up!) it was a pretty disappointing night too.

The next day, perhaps out of shock from the day prior or perhaps because we had all been rushing around China for the last three weeks straight, we did not leave the hostel. Not for breakfast, lunch, nor dinner. We spent the day lounging on the patio looking over the square, and snacking, discovering little by little that most of the food at The Hump is pretty poor indeed. Draught beer started around 4 PM and then we used up the rest of our supplies from the night prior – they sell beer in 12-packs at bars here, like it or not, and we hadn’t gone through much. It was a relaxing and quiet day and nice to just sit around, visit, and snack. All we needed was some knitting, but in its place I attempted to caption photos and create a Facebook account for Charlotte. And I attempted to decide where I was going next. Chengdu was no longer in the cards, or at least that decision appeared best. I had likewise heard from fellow travelers that going to the Three Gorges to see the world’s largest dam was not quite what you’d expect: you are actually not allowed anywhere near the dam itself so you have to settle instead for a binocular viewpoint. The three-day cruise was a relaxing break from traveling China, but given my day of relaxation and waning time, probably not the wisest decision either.

For these reasons and because I would not be reaching Hong Kong this trip, I decided to fly out to Shanghai. I booked my ticket on the internet but received no confirmation even after a few hours. I’d booked with my AMEX and had been asked for the CVN. On American Express, I thought, that was a four number code printed on the front of the card but the site had wanted only three so I entered the three on the reverse side. Maybe the payment hadn’t gone through? Another hour and I decided to try booking with my VISA, and again no confirmation. I attempted to call the booking site but no answer. Hmm. I sent an email and no answer. Uh-oh. I woke up the next morning to a reply stating that my booking could not be found and urging me to login and see if I had really booked. So I wasn’t going anywhere, apparently, but then logging in I had both tickets booked. I was even more afraid of this. Urgent response, please cancel the more expensive ticket. And then the three of us were off to the airport.

At the airport, scanning my passport revealed I had two tickets under my name – though you’d think this would flag some sort of security warning, I never had any problems. In the end, I chose the earlier flight and, after a scuffle with some Chinese line cutters (the line cutters part is redundant in this country, as the concept of a queue is mostly foreign – here, the sharpest elbows win) we passed through security. The girls’ flight, contrary to their opinion, was not for a few hours, so we walked to my gate, said farewells, and once again I was on my own, sitting on a jet, just as I would be in ten days bound for home. I captioned yet more photos on the flight, arousing the interest of the Chinese woman beside me. I had to explain where they were from to her as I went along and then suddenly she got up to – I presumed – use the facilities. She returned with her English-speaking daughter and had her sit beside me while she took photos and then disappeared. The daughter, about my age, also wanted to see the photos and then we talked a bit about life in China as the plane descended to Shanghai.

Or so I assumed. There was no real way to know there was anything below us as the sky was carpeted in brown cloud also known as smog, and the girl was quite embarrassed by this. Charlotte had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to see much of anything skyscraper-wise due to the heavy pollution and it appeared she was right. That we found an airport at all is largely thanks to computer guided ILS (instrument-landing system). Off the plane and onto bus 925, which drove 2 km and parked behind a mob of busses and everybody got off and boarded bus 941. Now I had no idea where I might end up but managed to discover from the ticket lady that we would be passing a metro stop where I could reach my hostel near Peoples’ Square. This lady became quite protective of me, which was kind of cute. A little later I offered my spot to a father so he could sit next to his wife and kid and when the lady came back she berated the poor man for taking the spot from me though I tried to defend him. They both eventually insisted I take the spot and there was nothing I could do about it but thank him, apologize, and sit.

When my stop was approaching – I had dozed off due to a lack of rest the past few days – it turned out that she had found someone else who spoke English and was getting off at the same stop. She organized that girl to walk me to the metro which, again, wasn’t necessary but just try to say no in this country. So I had a guide to the metro and then on it since she was heading the same direction as me and, it turned out, getting off at the same stop to meet some friends. But before she did that she insisted on walking me the 10 blocks to the doors of the Hiker Hostel I was hoping to stay at. Ah, China, so full of people happy to overcharge you exorbitant amounts and then turn around and bend over backwards to help out a visitor. It was lucky she left because I had no reservation and therefore no bed that night in the crowded hostel. I booked a bed for the next day and then went off in search of a reasonably priced hotel nearby.

I awoke the next morning surprised that I had no only fallen asleep again while taking a rest before hitting the town but also that the rest had lasted twelve hours. I was refreshed, showered, and had myself a bed in the Hiker Hostel before noon and finally did hit the town. It seemed I had been blessed. The brown skies were vanished without a trace leaving blue sky, sun, and scattered cloud that was perhaps bluer than anything I’d seen in Kunming. After munching on some giant but delicious wontons and treating myself to a blizzard, I walked to the Bund, the famous Shanghai riverfront, and admired the skyline stretching in all directions but definitely peaking straight ahead around the gaudy Pearl Tower. I stayed as long as I could bear the hear and seriously considered walking around like a Chinese man, with my shirt half-rolled up to unleash my belly upon the world. I decided that cooling the belly was a good idea, but opted for internal treatment instead and resorted to a DQ Blizzard liberally applied.

Then further down bustling Nanjing Rd, a pedestrianized and wall-to-wall strip of shops and neon signs with the towering Shiamo building capping the west, and guided me toward Peoples’ Square. Everywhere, the city feels like Disney’s Tomorrowland, trapped in a perpetually 1960’s view of what the year 2010 could look like, except that it has actually materialized here – and only here. Oh sure, the flying cars are missing, at least in the literal sense, and one can only be thankful for that in the hustle and bustle here, but here we have a city with one of the world’s first Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains whisking travelers across the city skyline at the mind-boggling speed of 430 km/h. Here we have a city with, it has been said, more skyscrapers than Manhattan. Here we have a city where, if a flying car were to buzz 30 metres above the freeway, nobody would look up from their bowl of noodles.

Yes, here, the home of the 2010 World Technology Expo, in a city that is pushing the boundaries of things that are still dreams in other parts of the world, is still a city where, beneath twinkling skyscrapers, 40-storey television screens, and an endless barrage of light and activity, you can still sit down in the streets on a dilapidated chair across from a shirtless man who is slurping up Shanghai noodles after a long day moving goods from factories to various stores on his bicycle. A positive side-effect of the indoctrinated Chinese mentality to not question the universe, the law, or the system is that when something like rising world gas prices become a reality, they accept and react rather than sitting around moaning about price-fixing, greedy oil companies, and OPEC. So bicycles, electric motorbikes, and increasingly green methods of transport are definitely on the rise here.

But, back to Peoples’ Square. There is not much here but a small urban park surrounded by tall buildings, a few museums and theatres (including the highly recommended Shanghai museum which I just couldn’t fit into my schedule). A wander a little further along Nanjing Road to the west yielded nothing but more megamalls and so a turn south was in order, bringing me smack into the fringe of the French Concession. On the periphery, it’s a motley collection of old European and modern Chinese buildings, but heading east eventually yields the untouched tourist-heart of the area, a collection of French buildings with stony courtyards, cafes, bakeries, and expensive wine. Walking along with a chocolate ├ęclair, the area started to grow on me though I think I prefer to be a few blocks away from this trim and lean heart where boutique shops and Chinese restaurants sit side by side.

It was nearing sunset and I found myself back at Peoples’ Square, so I hopped the metro across the river to the base of the Pearl and watched the sunset with camera in hand (or rather, on tripod). I’d actually contemplated paying the 150 yuan to ascend but wouldn’t have made it in time, missing the actual sunset to wait in line for an elevator. Afterwards, I did something that must surely have been on fellow travellers’ lists whilst here in China mid-2008: I went to the theatre and watched Kung-Fu Panda.

From the hiker hostel I’d been west and east. To the north was nothing of note, blocked as it was by a small river a few blocks up, and so the next morning found me heading south into the town’s oldest Chinese area. I just want to take a quick second here to say that the hostel is in the perfect location, walkable from all the major attractions, and though it is pricey at 60 yuan/bed/night and the warm water is more adequately described as “not freezing”, I recommend it. Anyway, the old town. More shopping, and for once I gave in. I was going to be home soon and not only did I want to pretty much eject all my clothes before boarding the plane, but I still wanted to get something at least small for friends and family back home. First stop, a tea house where you sit and sip various teas with a little Chinese lady who extols the relative virtues of hundreds of types of teas.

All the while, walking the streets of Shanghai, you are constantly assailed by people trying to sell “watches, DVDs, shoes, t-shirts”. I did actually want a pair of shoes to wear home as my hikers are destined for yard work and my sandals should’ve been fumigated and discarded ages ago. So it was that, after munching on some mangosteens I was approached by number 82 who asked me what I was looking for. “Somewhere to wash my hands,” I replied and she offered to let me wash them in her shop so we went up the stairs, dunked my hands in a faucet, and started browsing. It really felt like a black-market shop… narrow, ill-lit staircase leading up, a hallway-sized space filled with shoes, shirts, DVDs, everything promised and more. I looked at some ‘Diesel’ shoes which they swear are authentic and for which the asking price was 450 Yuan ($60). Ha! After a lot of work and them pretending to be grumpy taking my money, I got these rather flimsy but good-looking shoes for 80 yuan ($12) with a pair of socks thrown in and I still think I paid too much. Then it was time for shirts and DVDs, the latter of which I left alone, but a Beijing 2008 Olympics shirt couldn’t hurt, and again on the wheel from 80 down to 20. It should be fine until it’s washed. Plus they threw in the new Batman movie for free, which I definitely won’t watch (I hate cam jobs).

Back at the hostel, I met my new Swiss roommate and a Dutch girl and the three of us went for dinner somewhere good but really pricey (by which I mean it cost $5/each) before I went off to Shanghai’s famous acrobats. It was a bit of a rushed dinner, so rather than catching the metro and walking, I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and whizzed through the nighttime streets of Shanghai. This is NOT to be missed, it doesn’t matter if you have nowhere to go, zipping around the beautiful buildings and neon signage of Shanghai is a surreal experience that the metro robs visitors of. And from this surreal experience to yet another, a woman balancing six plates full of glasses while doing some extremely bendy work. The show had started when I arrived, but it was only the start of the first act. It is something special to be in a foreign country and, for a pretty reasonable price, behold the type of spectacle that maybe only 50 years ago, would be reserved for a dictator or emperor and his court. We sat as one and oohed, ahhed, and gasped as we witnessed everything from a man riding a unicycle upside-down on a tightrope to nine chairs stacked precariously on a table one by one as women climbed up to, well, you name it. It was a spectacle.

I joined in “the races” when I returned to the hostel and went out that night with three English guys and two Polish girls. Tired or not, Shanghai has a world-famous nightlife and I was determined to see some of it. Unfortunately, the place we ended up was just a crappy little bar called “Windows Too” about which there is nothing positive to be said except that drinks weren’t too expensive. And then, before I remember going to sleep, I was awake again, packing up for the trip to Xi’an. But there was one more thing left to do in Shanghai. I rode the Maglev train, finally, passing cars so quickly that they appeared to be driving backwards. Even planes coming in for a landing were no match for us. As I stepped off the magnetic train and turned to look at it in wonder, I was struck by how unassuming it looked. A white bullet sitting in a giant gun barrel about to be fired back into Shanghai’s heart like a shot of adrenaline. The magnets buzzed, a jet engine whined in the distance, and I departed the city of tomorrow for a city of a long-passed age. Xi’an awaited.

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