Shanghai to Qingdao

Another early morning. That makes three in a row. I’m knackered.
At 7am I slip out of my hostel room as quietly as possible, trying not to wake anybody. I sleepily head downstairs and through the hostel’s tranquil central courtyard filled with patterned shadows from the dawn light filtering through the lovingly tended trees. The night receptionist, not fully awake herself, pays me my deposit. The peace and calm is serene, and I almost whisper xièxiè so as not to interrupt the quiet.

Then I head out into central Shanghai. Bam.

The hostel may be asleep, but the rest of Shanghai is certainly awake. Along the couple of streets from the hostel to People’s Square I dodge delivery vans, children cycling to school, fat cats in big black cars, hundreds of commuters on electric bikes, workmen pushing wheelbarrows. The square itself is no better, thousands of commuters all more important than everyone else power walking to work.

Down into the metro and I already have the ¥4 in coins I need for the ticket to Shanghai Hongqiao railway station. Despite the masses of people, the ticket machines are deserted. Everyone using the metro at this time in the morning are commuters with pre-paid cards, the tourists normally clogging up the ticket machines are still sleeping. Somehow, as I’m almost carried along by the sea of bodies, I manage to help a pretty girl carry her ridiculously large suitcase down the stairs. Perhaps she’s the only other tourist at this time in the morning.

I reminisce living in London, commuting daily on an overcrowded metro system, getting annoyed at the pettiest things like backpackers or tourists with wheely suitcases slowing me down. “Damn it, I’m going to be late” I’d curse as if the 5 seconds lost were really going to make a difference when the train wasn’t due for another 2 minutes anyway. Being a part of the commuter rush, but somehow also on the outside looking in, puts things in perspective. I’d like to say I’ll never glare at another slow tourist again, but in reality, at some time in the future, living in the moment, I’ll no doubt get as caught up in the commuter rush as everyone else does.

At Hongqiao station, like at every major station in China, I have to pass through security. The queues are long but moving fast. There are 12 distinct lines, with people moving back and forth trying to choose the fastest. As a relatively tall person compared to most of the Chinese, I can see that there are only actually four security check points but somehow each has three lines that merge into one.

Inside the station I’m in awe of the scale of the building. I look at the departure board. My train will leave from platform 3, at the other end of the concourse. I start walking and what seems like a long time later look back to gauge my progress. I’m a third of the way. I reach my platform and realise I have an hour to spare. I look around for some options for breakfast. I see a KFC high up and think, sod it, I eat Chinese all the time, now I’m on holiday I’ll eat whatever I want.

The population of KFC is a 50-50 split between Chinese and westerners, with most of the westerners looking a little hypocritically disdainful at the others for indulging in KFC. With my KFC to go I head to the little supermarket to buy snacks for the journey – Orion Pies (like Wagon Wheels in the UK), some chewy sweets, and a couple of bottles of water.

Downstairs again I wait for the gate to the platform to open. Twenty minutes before departure people start queueing, and I decide to join them. I reach the gate and put my ticket in. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it looks different to everyone else’s ticket. Oh boy, this is going to be a problem, what if my ticket isn’t valid, then I’m stuck in Shanghai. I force my way through to the assistant, and she clips a hole in my ticket and lets me through. Boarding the train, I find that my seat is the middle of five across, next to the aisle and with no view at all. I decide to sit by the window anyway and hope I don’t have any seat neighbours. Of course, another passenger turns up and looks perplexed at finding a westerner in their seat. I point at the window and mime looking out of it, then look back at them and shrug in a way that I hope conveys that I’d like to sit by the window to look at the view, if that’s ok by them. Seven months of improving my non-verbal communication must have worked wonders and they reply “hao de”, meaning ok.

At 9:39am the train departs right on time and is wonderfully smooth. It’s a six and half hour journey so there’s lots of time for window gazing. Watching China go past the window, and having just spent a couple of days effectively on an urban geography fieldtrip, I’m in a reflective mood about China and where it’s going. While my thoughts appear in my mind randomly from every which direction, eventually they start to form a bigger picture. Before I forget them I get my laptop out to write an email to Tass, even though we just spent two days talking about China, there’s still more to the story.

While I have my laptop out I also write a dull blog post about maglev train technology. I apologise if you managed to read that one to the end!

Even though I’m peering through the window in the direction of the sea all the way to Qingdao, my first glimpse of it doesn’t come until the train has arrived and I’m walking to the hostel. There’s too much industry on the coastline to see the sea from the train.

The hostel, Kaiyue International Hostel, is alright. It’s in an old church and the building has lots of potential for creating a great hostel. But there’s something missing; it just doesn’t have any soul. The lounge is too big and there are too few people that you’re not forced into sitting near anyone. I take my laptop out to do some writing, and ask a fellow brit if he knows the wifi code. “It’s three ten times” he says curtly. I ask if he knows the football result. “Italy won”. Does he know the score? “Two-one”. Well, he’s a friendly fellow. I try to initiate conversations with a few other backpackers and get similarly curt responses.

Clearly this isn’t the place for socialising, so I bury my head in my laptop and find that my writer’s block seems to be over.

I have so much writing to catch up on that I don’t notice the hours flowing past. By 9pm I’m simultaneously knackered and hungry. I decided earlier that I’m on holiday from China, so I have no qualms ordering western food. A pepperoni pizza later and I’m ready for bed. Three early mornings and two days of Tass fieldtrip have done me in.

By 10pm I’m asleep in bed.

A Day in Shanghai with Tass

The day certainly started early enough with a 5:30am alarm.
We had a flight booked at 8am from Xi’an to Shanghai. As ever with a flight, we worked out our schedule backwards. Even though we only had hand luggage we figured an hour at the airport to be safe, half an hour in a taxi getting there, and half an hour to find a taxi at that time in the morning. That meant leaving the apartment at 6am. So I set my alarm for 5:30am, allowing just enough time for a shower and turning off all the electrical stuff in the apartment. But before 6am is not the most wakeful time of day for me, and as I write this in my hostel in Qingdao I wonder if I remembered to close all the windows.

We found a taxi and I negotiated a price to the airport. Actually, while I say I negotiated a price, there was no negotiation involved. Nick had said he managed to haggle a taxi down to ¥120 to go the airport. That was my benchmark. I had to try and get it for ¥120 or less. The driver’s opening price was ¥100. I was so astonished at the low price I just said yeah, ok, hao de!

We arrived at the airport at 6:50am and proceeded to the electronic check-in. It was as painless as it should be, but isn’t, everywhere else. Enter your passport number, choose a seat, print your boarding pass. Done. We headed to go through security and were directed towards the VIP security lane with a red carpet. Me and Tass certainly didn’t look like VIP passengers, but maybe they put the English speaking staff on the VIP line and when it’s quiet in the morning it’s less hassle to have English speaking travellers use the VIP line. Who knows. Anyway, UK airport security could learn a thing or two from Xi’an airport’s VIP security check. Efficient, prompt, no hassle, no nitpicking over bags 5cm too big.

With an hour to the flight we decided to get a coffee. We headed into Segafredo. The Chinese waitress greeted us in Italian. “Buongiorno!” she said with a pretty good Italian accent. “Buongiorno, come stai?” I responded, but that seemed to flummox her. “Uno cafe latte per favore” I followed with. Nothing. It seemed I was going to have to do this in Chinese. “Wo xiang yao yi bei cafe latte huh yi bei cafe americano”. Progress! The coffee’s were ¥40 apiece, so Tass paid to even out me paying for the taxi. Drinking our coffee we discussed how much longer Chinese society can continue so economically unequal. With our taxi driver’s fare for a 40km journey he could just about buy two coffees.

After the coffee we headed to the gate and found we’d be sharing our plane with a load of stereotypical Americans. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just hoped I wouldn’t be squashed in next to one of them. Apologies to all of my normal-sized American friends, but this group, every one of them, were clinically obese.

Arriving in Shanghai I immediately noticed the humidity. When I last visited at the end of April, Shanghai had been lovely and warm and I don’t remember noticing any humidity. This time, it felt like stepping into a hot rain shower, just without the rain. It was oppressively hot and humid. I could probably have survived without drinking if I could swallow the air.

In the terminal we searched for the left luggage deposit so Tass could leave his bag to collect for his flight that evening instead of lugging it around all day. I had no such benefit. I planned on staying in a hostel for the night before taking the train to Qingdao the next day, so had to lug my backpack around Shanghai for half a day, with the added annoyance of the straps irritating the sunburn on my neck and shoulders.

With everything sorted, we bought our tickets for the MagLev train that goes part way into Shanghai. We were a few seats away from the Americans we shared the flight with, who whooped and hollered as the train reached its maximum speed on that run of 300km/h. Me and Tass sighed in disdain, commenting that we’d both been faster on the Eurostar, TGV, ICE, AVE and various other high speed trains in Europe that were both quieter and smoother.

Continuing our journey to Pudong, we once again did the trick of going to the hotel lobby on the 56th floor of the JinMao tower to look at the view for free instead of paying the exorbitant price to go to the official viewing gallery. The viewing gallery, at the top of the building, would have been pointless anyway in the cloud. Exiting the wonderfully air-conditioned JinMao tower, Tass commented that going outside was like entering the tropical glasshouses at Kew Gardens. That’s exactly how it felt. Going outside in Shanghai in the summer feels like going inside an artificially hot and humid environment in London. With the dull dank sky and the close air it feels like a you’re in a dome. Any minute you expect to see the Chinese Truman Burbank come around the corner.

After Pudong we headed to People’s Square so Tass could go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and I could go and check in to my hostel and drop off my bag. The hostel, the Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel, was fantastic, with friendly staff, a lovely courtyard, nice rooms and clean bathrooms. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’m disappointed I only got to spend one night there!

I met Tass an hour or so later and we went to the Bund. As Tass said that a section of the urban planning exhibition had talked about the Bund and it recently being done up with a bit of waterfront redevelopment, he was anxious to see it in person. As we seemed to spend a lot of time during my degree talking about waterfront developments as the initial step in wider urban redevelopment, me and Tass were looking at it from a completely different perspective to everyone else.

From the Bund we headed to the Old Town area, with Disney-fied old buildings. When I was in Shanghai last time I also found a really run down area near the old town, so I took Tass through that on our way back to a Starbucks for a coffee. Again we talked about the inequality in Chinese society. In sight of people living in shacks are the gleaming towers of Pudong. At 7pm we met my friend Neil to go to Blue Frog for a nice burger, and at 8 Tass had to leave for the airport, so me and Neil stayed for another drink to catch up properly ourselves. Finally, it was time for me to head to my hostel and Neil to head home.

At the hostel I met some lovely Dutch girls on holiday, and some French guys who have been studying in Beijing for a few months. I forgot how much I enjoy the fleeting friendships made for a day or two in hostels when travelling. But with a 9:30am train the next morning, and needing to leave the hostel at 8am at the latest to make it, I reluctantly retired to bed much earlier than most other backpackers.

Photos from Shanghai

It’s been far too long, but I’ve finally edited and uploaded all my photos from Shanghai. Click the photo to view the rest of them. Edit: Something weird is going on and the photo will only link to a bigger version. Click here to see the rest of the photos.

Sleeping Trains, Metro Trains and a Tuk Tuk

It’s a little later than I expected, but I’m finally writing the second instalment of my Shanghai trip. This one’s all about getting to and from and around Shanghai.
I’ve said before that I really dislike flying, and much prefer to take trains whenever possible. By the time I confirmed my days off work and that I’d be able to stay with my friends in Shanghai my preferred trains were fully booked, so instead I booked train T166 to Shanghai for Thursday evening, arriving in the early afternoon on Friday, and train T138 back to Xi’an for Wednesday afternoon, arriving on Thursday morning.

I had nothing to do on Thursday before catching the train, so took the opportunity to head into central Xi’an, get coffee and watch the world go by before walking to the train station through some neighbourhoods I haven’t explored yet. There’s a really cool Starbucks by the Bell Tower, so I went there. It was quite busy, but not too bad. As I waited for my coffee I scoped out the different seats available, and of course when I finally received my coffee all of the available seats had been taken. I thought ‘sod it’ and went outside and sat opposite a pretty woman who didn’t even have a Starbucks mug. She summoned all the English she could and managed to ask if I spoke Chinese. I thought for a moment before replying ‘no’, and she then made a phone call. I only understood one word of her conversation – waiguoren – so I guess she was phoning her friend to say that some foreigner had taken her seat. I got my Kindle out and started reading a book. About fifteen minutes later her friend turned up and they went off together.

My train was due to leave at 9pm, and at 4pm I set off to walk to the train station. I was heading through some parts of the city I hadn’t been to before, so was quite curious. I discovered the Revolutionary Park, and again sat and watched the world go by while I read my Kindle. Eventually I tired of the park and continued towards the train station. I got there at about 6pm, so only three hours to wait. The scene inside the station building reminded me of news clips covering refugee crises. There were people strewn everywhere, sleeping on newspapers or sitting on tatty old suitcases. The light in the station didn’t help, filtered through small dirty windows in the roof leading to a dingy yellow light.

I found a plush waiting room that was empty, wondered why no one else was in there, and bought some snacks for the 16 hour train journey ahead. At 8:30pm I went to the gate to go down to the platform. My train was due at 8:58pm. At 8:53pm, as hundreds of people were still waiting, an announcement was made over the tannoy. I didn’t understand any of it besides picking out my train number ‘T Yi Liu Liu’, but from the reaction of everyone around I understood perfectly well what was going on. The dejected sighing and slumping of passengers despairing at their late train is the same all over the world. The electronic sign changed from 2058 to 2105, but I didn’t have a clue how they were going to get a couple of hundred people down from the waiting area to the platform and onto the train in four minutes. Eventually at 9:03pm the gates were opened and the stampede started.

The stairs to the platform level were by coach 2. I was in coach 15. I had a long walk ahead of me. At coach 13 I heard a whistle blowing somewhere behind me, so looked around and some doors were starting to close. I tried to board coach 13 but wasn’t allowed aboard. I legged it to coach 15 and hopped on board, panting for breath a little bit. I found my bunk, put my bag onto it, said a cheery “good evening” to my fellow passengers, and waited another 15 minutes for the train to depart.

The ‘hard sleeper’ on the train was surprisingly comfortable. The carriages are divided into 10 open compartments, each with 6 beds. I was on the top bunk, which I knew because I showed my ticket to a fellow passenger who pointed at the top bunk. There isn’t much space up there, but since I’d just be sleeping, it didn’t really matter. There was a feature I’d never seen before on a train – oxygen outlets by each bunk so people could plug in over the high mountain passes to prevent getting altitude sickness.

The journey was interesting. The train had started its journey in Lhasa, which explains the oxygen outlets, a day and half earlier, and there were quite a few characters on board. While no one spoke much English, there was one girl called Jing who spoke enough English for me to communicate. I think people watching is more interesting when you can’t understand what is being said; you have to rely solely on observing actions and movements and body language. As the train slowly chugged its way through the night towards Shanghai it quickly became apparent who had established themselves as ‘leader’ of the two last compartments; a big smily guy who was here there and everywhere and seemed to know everyone even if they didn’t know him, and who tried to talk to waiguoren even if the waiguoren didn’t understand anything he was saying. At 11pm the lights were turned out and everyone retired to bed.

I slept really well, there were no snorers and no smelly feet, and the gentle rocking back and forth of the train lulled me into a lovely soothing sleep. As station stops came and went the train gradually emptied out. A lot of people left at Nanjing, and then it was just me and a few others in the carriage. We were due in to Shanghai at 11:17, but we eventually arrived at 12:45. An hour and a half delay on a train that departed 48 hours earlier doesn’t seem so bad.

In Shanghai I found the metro and went to meet Andy.

Getting around Shanghai was really easy. The metro in Shanghai, unlike in Xi’an, is finished, but just like Xi’an, is really cheap. A single ticket is ¥2. By all accounts it’s a pretty nice metro system, the trains are big enough to stand up in and air conditioned (cough-London-cough), it’s clean, it’s punctual, it’s cheap, it’s goes everywhere it needs to.

Apart from the metro and the odd taxi, the only other interesting transport I used was a tuk tuk. My friend Neil lives in Songjiang, and it’s either a half hour walk to the metro or a few minutes in an electric tuk tuk. I hadn’t been in a tuk tuk yet, even in Xi’an, and they strike me as a very good idea. Electric so completely non polluting, small and nippy so they don’t cause congestion, and perfect for journeys that are a bit too long to walk but not far enough to bother with other public transport.

The journey back to Xi’an was much the same as going to Shanghai. Shanghai’s main railway station is really quite nice, it feels much more like a modern airport than a railway station, with light and airy waiting areas and loads of places to buy snacks. On this journey no one spoke English, but I didn’t mind as I was content reading my Kindle and writing my diary from the past few days. The train wasn’t quite as nice as on the way to Shanghai, the toilets were foul and there was nowhere to plug in my phone, but the bed was comfy and my fellow passengers cordial and once again I slept much better than I was expecting to.

Next up I’ll write a short post about a weird place in Songjiang called Thames Town, which is like a replica Milton Keynes in the middle of a Shanghai suburb.

Shanghai – 上海

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.

Off to Shanghai

Last week I mentioned I was thinking of going to Shanghai during our upcoming holiday. Well, I’ve booked my train tickets and I’m off tomorrow. I can’t tell you how much I need a holiday and to get away from Xi’an for a bit. I realised the other day that since November when I arrived in Xi’an, the furthest away I’ve been was in January when I went the 50km to the Terracotta Warriors. Since then I haven’t been more than about 10km from the spot I’m sitting in now, in Starbucks. I think part of my getting down about petty annoyances is to do with the pressure cooker environment of having a small circle of friends in a small geographic environment.
I’m actually quite excited to be taking the train to Shanghai. Everyone said I should fly since “it’s only two hours”, but I’ve booked the train as it’s cheaper and far more interesting even though it does take 16 hours. I absolutely abhor flying. The whole process is tedious, and in today’s world of heightened security the constant harassment by personnel playing their roles in the theatre of security dehumanises the experience and adds a load of irritation to the proceedings, but there’s still something appealing about taking a train. And a two hour flight doesn’t take anything like two hours. When flying you spend ages getting to the airport, ages waiting while you check in, ages waiting to go through security, ages waiting to board the plane, then ages waiting for your bags once you “arrive”, then ages trying to get from the airport to the place you’re actually going. “But it only takes two hours to fly” people say. No. A “two hour” flight is actually closer to five hours of harassment by airport staff, security personnel and airline staff.

When travelling by train you go to the station, which is almost always in the centre of the city, get on the train, and then arrive in the centre of the city you’re travelling to. On the journey you see the world go by the window and feel it go by underneath. You see the landscape change and different people getting on and off the train at each stop. There’s something a lot more human about taking the train; travelling huge distances but still on a human scale and interacting with different passengers. In fact, when I went from London to Barcelona and back to do my CELTA I took the train instead of flying. It’s just so much more pleasant. I’m still a little excited to think that the train I’m taking left Lhasa at 11am CST this morning and I’ll pick it up in Xi’an tomorrow evening before it arrives in Shanghai on Friday morning.

I have no idea what I’ll get up to in Shanghai. My friend Neil lives there and I just found out that a friend from my CELTA, Andy, is also there at the moment, so no doubt I’ll catch up with them. As usual when I visit a place I’m less interested in having an itinerary of specific locations to visit then just soaking up the atmosphere and getting a feel for the place. I know I want to eat some good western food as I’ve heard it’s pretty good in Shanghai and I haven’t had a roast dinner in almost half a year. I also want to see the famous skyline from the Bund across to Pudong, and I’d like to go to the viewing gallery in a tall building to take in the view.

As I’ll be back from Shanghai this time next week this is just a short blog update but I’m sure there’ll be a double-bumper blog next week!