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Shanghai – not quite like I’d pictured it…

October 6, 2009

Having arrived back home on Saturday, I was sure I’d be well and truly blogged up on the trip by now. The past four days have disappeared in a catching-up (on sleep, washing, giving-cats-attention) frenzy and it’s back to work tomorrow with no post yet written.

So… why not cannibalise an email in the interim? The following, therefore, is adapted from some possibly inarticulate thoughts scrambled together after a couple of days in Shanghai.

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Not only is the internet free with our room (at the rather wonderful Astor House Hotel), but there is also a computer supplied. I can only bear to have it on for a few minutes at a time, as it is incredibly noisy (and I thought I was inured to noise after walking the jackhammered streets here). I tried to check Twitter – blocked. Ditto for access to WordPress. Hmmm. I can send tweets via text message, but it feels rather strange not to be able to see others.

We’ve already had to make a slight change to our original itinerary. The plan had been to take the overnight train to Beijing because I’d heard of these fab deluxe berths – a cabin with two soft beds, an ensuite (ensuite! no trying to balance while squatting on piss-soaked floors!) and DVDs.  Unfortunately they seem to be a figment of my imagination as nobody here has heard of them, not even the English-speaking woman at the “Service Excellence Counter” at Shanghai station.  She was quite keen for us to shut up and pay for two beds in a four berth, but somehow spending the night with a couple of potentially throat-clearing strangers robbed the venture of romance, so we decided to stay an extra night in Shanghai and fly to Beijing on Saturday. The hotel is an absolute oasis – enormous room and so quiet and comfortable. Lovely to come back to. Apparently Ulysses S Grant stayed in this room (Celebrity Room, Famous Man Lived), so it must be good.

C is doing brilliantly with the Chinese, although of course when people hear him speak they just respond in rapid fire without modifying vocab for a non-native speaker. It has resulted in a couple of misfires, but then who doesn’t want lamb hotpot for breakfast?

The trip over was fine, the only major drama was over what I should fill in for the mandatory “health declaration”. I was honest, so was pulled over in the arrivals hall by a woman in a mask who asked me some questions and took my temperature. It was normal, thank god. The Maglev from the airport into town was amazing – 30kms covered in about 8 minutes. Of course, then we had to get a cab the remaining 5 kms, which took about half an hour. Traffic here is insane. There are road rules, apparently, but it’s not entirely safe to assume that a green pedestrian light means you can, or should, walk.

We changed our watches over on the plane, but I’d forgotten to change my phone time. This is how we came to be wandering around downtown Shanghai watching elderly people exercise at about 7.45 on a Sunday morning. They weren’t just doing tai chi, either: there were martial arts, ballroom dancing and calisthenics. There was also an open air hair salon being manned by young men in military uniforms, as well as a free (and very public) dental clinic for “Love your teeth week” in People’s Park.

Dancing in the park

Dancing in the park

Shanghai’s hosting the 2010 Expo, so half the city is a construction site, including most of the Bund. Roads are being dug up, buildings torn down, renovated or rebuilt, and the Shanghai mascot is everywhere, promising “Better City, Better Life” or, as a series of enormous mis-printed banners had it: “Beeter City, Better Lufe”.

I wonder who lost their job over this...

I wonder who lost their job over this...

One way to divert tourists from being disappointed over not being able to see one of the city’s main attractions at it’s best is to create another mascot:

Welcome to Shanghai Tourism Festival

Welcome to Shanghai Tourism Festival

This little chap – apparently a deer – seems to be rather pessimistically wearing a jetpack whilst riding a plane.  According to Sinotour, the festival “will be grandly staged from Sept. 12 to Oct. 6”, so we were clearly favoured when choosing the time of our visit.  So far we’ve seen nothing beyond the mascot at most major intersections to suggest a festival of any kind, but we’ll keep a lookout.

The Shanghai municipality seems to be generous when it comes to acknowledging the “modelness” of its work units.  It’s rare to go past a building without a sign declaring “model work unit” – I was relieved to see that our hotel has been so recognised.

I'm not sure what this model units was

I'm not sure what this model unit did

The food seems to be universally good. The first night we struggled to find somewhere to eat (I’d been warned that evening meal times are generally early, but had chosen to ignore that).  C negotiated for some fresh seafood at a local place and even though we were probably charged stupid-foreigner-didn’t-ask-the-price price it was relatively cheap. There are lots of Uighur places selling lamb on sticks as snacks, and we’ve had baby dove (pigeon),pork ribs, crab dumplings, noodle soups and, of course, this morning’s lamb. We were actually expecting some pan-fried dumplings we’d seen being cooked outside, but they are “guo tie” and C apparently ordered “guo zi”. The dumplings were just going to be a snack, so we also ordered hun tun (wonton) soup. Our breakfast table was groaning under the weight of it all but the other diners didn’t seem to bat an eyelid.  I’m quite confident that even the Fish fighting cock willow tree food at the food court in West Nanjing Road would have been tasty:

The fragrance explodes the squid food

The fragrance explodes the squid food

I’m lucky that C reads some Chinese and is happy to get the dictionary out to decipher words he doesn’t know.  This means we’re not limited to seeking out places with English and/or picture menus, which makes life both easier and more interesting.  And, given time – which waiters are not always keen to do – he’s also able to make a bit more sense of The fragrance explodes the chicken valuable food.

Today’s been wet and gloomy, so we wandered in the rain rebuffing repeated offers of 10Y umbrellas (yes, 10Y is less than $2. No, we’re not usually that stingy, it’s just that we’re not used to rain lasting for longer than a few minutes and umbrellas are annoying). Once we were thoroughly soaked, we decided that we should probably get some sort of rain protection. C did some on-the-run negotiations with an umbrella seller – I ended up with a plaid pattern and he’s being protected by a black umbrella with the slogan “no comment”. We escaped the rain into the Museum and spent a couple of hours with ancient bronzes, calligraphy, chops, jades and ceramics.

Ancient bronze

The subway is cheap, easy to use and trains come with almost alarming frequency.  Cabs are also cheap and seem to be everywhere, unless it’s raining.  Everytime we catch a cab or try to get information at a ticket office I whisper to C “tell them we’re on a race around the world”, but I think he hasn’t mastered that particular phrase.  Either that, or he’s strangely unwilling to indulge my reality TV fantasy.

I feel as though we’ve seen a lot (my aching feet seem to agree) but there’s still a lot of ground to cover over the next few days… and that’s before we even hit Beijing.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2009 7:28 pm

    Hah! I have the same adventure racing fantasy. JB gets to jump off things and drive in weird cars, I get to navigate. (He’s hopeless!) Great post 🙂

  2. October 6, 2009 10:50 pm

    I now really want to go to China – it sounds like you packed a lot in. Also handy that C knew a bit of the language. You need to be carrying a gnome to be racing around the world… to poke cab drivers with.

  3. October 6, 2009 11:41 pm

    So you made it to China in the end! I remember you telling me about your plans ages ago, but not when they got rescheduled to. It sounds like you enjoyed your holiday up to the point at which you wrote this email, so I hope that trend continued.

    I’m kind of astonished by the number of signs that are in both Chinese and English, even if the English on some of them is a little creative. I suppose it’s to encourage tourism, but still, the fact that they even translated the “Model Unit” signs is impressive.

    I also like that they sell umbrellas with the slogan “no comment”. At least, it amuses me.

  4. injera permalink*
    October 7, 2009 7:50 pm

    SJ – I, too, would take navigating duties over zip-lining, eating-steaming-bowls-of-something-fetid, pogo-stick-combat… but I think my partner would expect me to bring more to the team. Ah, well!

    Raver – will pack the gnome next time. I had a spare 1.4 kilos in the baggage by trip’s end.

    Jess – yes, finally! So glad I didn’t go last year when it was first planned – the smog really did play up with my slightly healed windpipes. The level of English there was surprising: street signs, subway maps/ticketing systems, announcements on public transport. Very impressive.

    And I was also very pleased with the “no comment” umbrella, lower case and all!

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