Winding down in Shanghai: 01 August 2006 (Tuesday)


I have only two days left in this amazing journey. Reading this entry you might get the idea that I’ve been lounging around my friends Chris and Lisa’s apartment awaiting my departure. In reality it has just happened to be a relatively relaxing time of sightseeing, eating, drinking with intermittent appearances by Sarah. Shanghai is a big, okay, very big city whose history includes the Opium Wars, foreign concessions, bombings during the second World War and more violence at the beginning of Communist rule. It now contends with Hong Kong for control of the financial sector in both China and in the region. However, I do not think it has yet grown up to its full potential.

My first impression of Shanghai was one of chaos. I had arrived in Shanghai and managed to find myself in the subway station waiting to get to Chris and Lisa’s luggage in tow. When the train doors opened a literal horde of people stormed past me, pushing and bullying their way onto the train. At one point during the crush, I believe I was lifted off my feet and simply carried through the doors.

Despite the chaos, I have found Shanghai to be more modern, exciting, cleaner and generally more pleasant than Beijing. Heck, I have found myself forgiving the driving here! Mind you, all this might have something to do with the blue skies that was so lacking in Beijing. Chris tells me that I have been quite lucky, normally it is apparently misted over with smog. I must say that after so long in the wilderness of Russia and Mongolia, these big cities feel like giant human cesspits.

Rather than giving a day-by-day account, let me share some of the highlights so far. We have visited the museum honouring the first meeting of the Communist Party, walked along the promenade of the “Bund”, ridden the world’s fastest train (the Maglev), climbed the city’s highest point (Jin Mao Tower), rested in the ancient idyllic gardens of Yu Yuan and wandered through “old Shanghai”. The Chinese Communist Party museum was the only one that set my teeth on edge. Not because of the history, but rather the overt propaganda apparent even in the physical set up of the exhibits. Naturally we have similar propaganda but maybe it irked me because of the present-day lack of the so-called Communism that this museum so effectively celebrated as the cornerstone of China.

Shanghai’s waterfront Bund was the area built by the foreigners who set up shop to trade with China in the 19th century. The facade is European with lovely turn-of-the-century buildings lining the harbour. The Maglev is a German engineering marvel and is the world’s fastest train travelling levitated on magnets. We travelled at fantastic speeds of up to 430 km/h. A truly impressive display, if only the track had been placed in an area which would make mass commuting on the train feasible. Currently the train connected the secondary suburban area of Pudong with the main airport. It is apparently sometimes faster to take other means of transportation to the airport.

From the world’s fastest, we travelled to what used to be the world’s tallest, at least in 1999. Jin Mao Tower is Shanghai’s highest point at 88 stories. The height has been surpassed by other global buildings a few times since this one was built, but the next tallest building on the planet is under construction next door. Jin Mao Tower is a cool looking building and the elevator to the top is impressive in covering the distance in only three minutes.

Nothing shows the anachronism that is Shanghai than walking through “Old Shanghai”. Minutes from glass giants you can be in an area strewn with overhanging electric wires tied to fragile ropes. The economic might paled into a personal vision of life that did not seem to have changed in 50 or 75 years. In this area, streets were crammed with crooked alleyways populated by people in every nook and cranny. There was laundry hung across the streets as rickshaws and bikes careened wildly on one errand or another.

Looking at the skyline, I wondered what need there was for so much commercial and retail space. I cannot imagine the populace was wealthy enough yet to have a huge disposable income as we did in the west to use for the indiscriminate materialistic shopping that abounds here. What was contained in these incredibly tall building? Are they empty giants waiting for the might that was proclaimed yet not claimed? Or was Shanghai truly growing at a pace that was unheard of in the world? I suppose only time will tell. It is interesting that there are many banking institutions available throughout Shanghai and in China generally. According to Chris though, almost all of them are owned by the government. When you think about it, that is ridiculous.

Aside from observations of an economic and political nature, there are also the gastronomic ventures we have so far embarked upon. My favourite so far has been the “All you can eat and drink” sushi restaurant which costs a paltry $15. I cannot imagine how this place continues to stay in business! Maybe it’s a front for illegal sushi and wasabi smuggling. Generally, I have found food and drink to be more expensive than in Beijing but still cheaper than in Canada.

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