I’m just back in Xi’an after a wonderfully recuperating few days in Shanghai. For once I’m not starting a blog wondering what I’ll find to write about, but instead wondering how to fit a great six days into one trip report. I think I’ll split the six days across three blog posts, each with a different theme. I guess you could call this blog the first of the trilogy, and it’s about Shanghai itself.
I arrived on Friday in the early afternoon and met my friend Andy who I did the CELTA with in Barcelona. He’s in Shanghai for a month of training before moving on to a teaching position in Ningbo. The first thing I did was head back to Andy’s apartment for a shower after the long train journey. Andy’s apartment is nice, certainly nicer than mine in Xi’an, and only a few minutes walk from People’s Square, the centre of downtown Shanghai.
My first impressions of Shanghai are inevitably in comparison to Xi’an where I’ve spent the past five months. Shanghai feels a lot more ‘liveable’ than Xi’an, but while I can see lots of obvious differences, at first it’s difficult to put my finger on how those differences all work together to create a more ‘liveable’ city.
Five minutes after I arrive at Andy’s, his new flatmates arrive. It felt a bit strange saying, in effect, “hi, welcome to your apartment, I’m just visiting as a mate of Andy’s, I hope you don’t mind if I stay the night!”. Anyway, they’re all very nice. After my shower me and Andy headed out for lunch and to see the sights along the Bund. For lunch we popped into a random corner restaurant. The speed with which we were presented with an English menu and served in English led me to suspect the restaurant was frequented by tourists, but I do enjoy saying bits of Chinese I’m confident with when ordering. The bill came to ¥57, and the waitress told us in English, so I asked “wǔ shí qī?”
The Bund is really lovely to walk along. On the west side it’s the old buildings from the time of the British concession and the broad raised walkway looks out at Pudong across the river. Pudong is a new development of skyscrapers creating a dramatic skyline. The area has a similar history and development goal as Canary Wharf in London – from poor run-down area to centre of a new financial industry – except Pudong is on a much grander scale than Canary Wharf. Andy is pretty new to Shanghai and China, and I was trying to explain some differences to Xi’an. As there were plenty of other westerners around I wasn’t being stared at anywhere near as much, and just as I said to Andy that I suspect fewer Chinese people are interested in having photos with westerners a couple of Chinese people came up to us and asked for their photos with us. After admiring the view from ground level on the Bund for a while we took the ferry across the river to Pudong to check out the view from a tall building.
The ferry dropped us seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we had to walk quite a way to get back to the north of the peninsula. We checked out the price for the viewing deck in the Oriental Pearl TV tower, but it was ¥150; the Rough Guide from 2011 had said it was ¥60. We didn’t dare find out how much the viewing gallery in the Shanghai World Financial Centre was; the Rough Guide said ¥150, but the guide was out by almost three times for the Oriental Pearl. Instead we decided to try our luck going to the lobby of the Hyatt on the 56th floor of the Jin Mao tower. Andy was a bit concerned two scruffy young tourists wouldn’t be allowed in, but after watching too many episodes of Hustle I was pretty confident we could pull it off. “Just walk in like you belong here, look non-plussed like you come here every day”. In we went to the elevators and up we went to the 56th floor, and for five minutes the view was excellent, then we started to feel a bit self conscious so left before we were given no choice but to leave.
Also in Pudong is the spectacular new conical glass Apple store. We went in for a look and for Andy to consider buying an iPhone, but something to do with the warranty not being valid outside China put him off.
On Friday evening we went to Hengshan Road to eat western food for dinner and have some drinks. We found a nice Italian restaurant and the food was excellent, but we did have a bit of confusion with the waitress. Both me and Andy speak enough Italian to get by ordering food in a restaurant, I now speak enough Chinese to do the same, and in a western restaurant in Shanghai it was almost guaranteed the server would speak English. It turns out our waitress was Italian, and with three common languages between us our waitress at one point declared “too many languages!”
In a bar I tried to teach Andy the Chinese dice game that everyone plays. I don’t quite know the rules myself, so some of them I skipped over or made up to fill gaps. One of the bar staff came to our table and started playing with us. “Cool”, I though, “nice friendly communal dice game.” Except after a few rounds she announced that we’d lost and we owed her a drink. “Not a chance!” I exclaimed, “we don’t even know how to play!”. But Andy bought her a drink, so to make sure we were even I said “gānbēi!”, which is the closest Chinese has to “cheers!”, but also means “down it!”. She duly downed her drink and then walked off sulking. On reflection I think we all lost!
Saturday was a gloriously sunny day, so I went for a walk around downtown Shanghai and also to Century Park on the other side of Pudong. Walking through People’s Square – which is actually a park – I was struck by how many pretty young women with excellent English were approaching me asking me to take their photo with something in the background and then inviting me to go to a tea festival. There were a number of possible scenarios running through my mind. I discounted the first scenario – “I’m really handsome and all these women really like me” – pretty quickly. That left two possibilities: there really is a tea festival and people in Shanghai are really friendly; or there’s no tea festival and there’s some scam going on.
I thought there’s no harm in humouring them and agreeing to go to the tea festival and walking with them at least as far as the edge of the park. If they’re scammers of some kind I’m delaying their next victim by half an hour, if they’re genuine, well I got to practise my Chinese and them their English. It’s funny, this tea festival seemed to be in many directions outside People’s Square. The first pair of girls took me south east, the next, a group of three girls, north, and the final pair west. Each time I faked noticing the time and remembering that I had to go meet my friend for lunch back in the park. Later on I double checked with my friend Neil who has lived in Shanghai for two years. He said there’s definitely no tea festival. I later read in the Rough Guide of a scam in central Shanghai where pretty young women approach western men and invite them for tea. In the cafe the tea arrives, the women disappear and in their place some very large men and an astronomical bill turn up.
After frustrating the scammers for a bit I went to the Yu Yuan garden, an area in the old part of Shanghai with quaint narrow streets. It was reminiscent of a Chinese York, pedestrianised with old buildings overhanging the streets and thousands of tourists milling around. It has obviously been cleaned up a lot in recent years to appeal to tourists, but it felt a lot like the proper old China I picture in my mind from time to time. At the centre was a very pretty stone bridge over a pool with fish and turtles and it was nice just watching the world go by for a little bit. I was pretty hungry by now and I saw a nice place to get steamed dumplings, but the queue looked to be about an hour long. There was a pretty young woman near the front of the queue who smiled at me a couple of times, and I thought about giving her ¥10 to order on my behalf, but my mind was still half cynical from the scammers earlier on and half shy about approaching her.
Instead I went to Century park to look at the outside of the Science and Technology Museum (it’s a pretty nice piece of architecture) and also the Oriental Arts Centre, which is in the shape of a flower. Outside the Science Museum there was a wedding couple having photos taken and I sat and watched for a while as they struck weird poses. The strangest was the bride standing looking lost with the groom and all his male friends hiding around a corner ready to pounce. After the museum and arts centre I went to Century park and had a nice rest in the shade.
On Saturday evening I headed down to Song Jiang, a commuter town at the end of a metro line, where my friend Neil lives.
On Sunday me and Neil headed intro central Shanghai. He wanted to buy a Chinese textbook and I wanted to go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. My major at university was human geography, focussing a lot on urban development, and I continue to cultivate my interest when I can. The Exhibition Hall is impressive, over five floors it details the history of urban Shanghai and the visions for its future. The level of detail was surprising. For instance, in one section are maps of the utilities serving Shanghai, from the water and electricity network, to internet and telephone routing points. A similar museum in a major western capital would probably shy away from displaying such information publicly on security grounds. The Exhibition also includes a tennis court sized model of the vision for Shanghai in the future. I was also intrigued by the lack of variety of visitors the Exhibition attracted. For the entire time I was in there I never heard anyone else speaking English. In fact, all of the other westerners were speaking German. Perhaps Germans (and the Austrians and Swiss) are more in-tune with and take a greater interest in how an urban environment can make a real difference to the happiness of the people who live there. That reminds me, I must read Alain de Botton’s book The Architecture of Happiness.
From the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall me and Neil went to the Shanghai Museum, described by the Rough Guide as perhaps the best museum in China, and in my estimation on about the same scale as the Urban Planning Exhibition. Neither me nor Neil were in the mood for antiquities and were cracking jokes whenever the opportunity arose. In the antique furniture section we mused about whether the Stockholm Museum will one day have an Ikea section.
Instead we went to the Blue Frog restaurant and bar for some very delicious burgers, and to the City Shop to buy cheese, and wine (for my leaving party in seven months), and HP Sauce, and Patak’s Curry Sauce, and Haribo, and various other western delicacies. The whole shop catered to the western ex-pat living in Shanghai, and after five months in Xi’an where the only readily available cheese comes as plastic slices for burgers my eyes were wide with wonder.
After the three days wandering around Shanghai I finally realised why it feels more liveable than Xi’an. It feels finished and there’s a sense that the urban planners and architects care. Xi’an feels like the builders completed about 90 per cent of the job then stopped and said “eh, it’ll do”. Shanghai feels complete and finished. In Xi’an the roads are for driving on and pavements for parking on; pedestrians have to battle their way through randomly parked cars and annoying sections of plastic chain delineating different car parks. In Shanghai the pavements are for pedestrians. In Xi’an most buildings completed (to 90 per cent) since the invention of concrete look like they came from the ‘big new book of slightly spruced up default communist concrete architecture’. In Shanghai almost every building is individually designed and has some aesthetic merit. Finally, in Xi’an the sky is grey and the sunlight dulled by the pollution. In Shanghai I exclaimed that I could see puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky, and I could breath the clean air in deeply.
So, that’ll do for Shanghai itself. I took lots and lots of photos that I’ll upload soon, but I’m still going through and organising them.