Shanghai - Day 1
It seems TameGoesWild has been deemed unsuitable for The People: I can't access anything on the TameGoesWild network from here! I wonder whether I should be proud of this fact or just annoyed! Must be the references to horses.
Arrival in Shanghai
The sunrise yesterday morning was absolutely superb. Due to the fact that we'd been travelling due east, it was considerably later than the previous day - something I hadn't considered when setting my alarm! In the end, it was only after we'd entered the absolutely huge harbour (seems to extend for miles out into the East China Sea) that it showed up, putting on a spectacular show for us in collaboration with the cargo cranes.
Shanghai glows on the Wester Horizon
It was really interesting entering Shanghai - it took about an hour to reach the dock from the outer wall. First, there was the 'offshore' container port. Row upon row of enourmous cranes, servicing some of the biggest ships you've ever seen.
As the dirty brown channel began to narrow to take on a river-like appearance, so activity seemed to increase. (It was at this point that I shot the video below, which I posted to TDM yesterday)
It was amazing watching the place come alive. Passing by the stinking gas works and clanking cargo cranes, smaller boats began to appear mid-stream; moored together in little communities their occupants just waking up. Brushing their teeth, hanging their clothes out, walking around on deck in their underpants; it struck me as being all very homely, especially with the appearance of potted plants on the roof.
Morning teeth brush
Just as I was starting to think that we'd never reach our final destination, a huge welcoming gateway appeared in the form of a dramatic suspension bridge across the river - and beyond it, on the hazy horizon, the 420 meter Jinmao Tower (4th largest building in the world) and its twin, the almost-complete 100-storey Finance Tower, rose up to defy all rules governing how high humans can build. It was a spectacular sight. One's eyes couldn't fail to be drawn upwards, in a constant bid to come to terms with just how tall these skyscrapers were.
Finally, the boat began to slow, and the International Ferry Terminal (known to most people as 'that great big building site just down the river') came into view. It too was mightily impressive, the largest of its buildings taking on the form of a 2m x 4m portacabin with a sign saying 'immigration' bolted to its roof.
China had clearly heard who was about to arrive on its shores, as a welcoming committee had been arranged.
(Shame it turned out to be for some US Navy ship that was following us...)
It didn't take long to be reminded that I had left Japan. It seemed that the staff were very keen to get rid of us, hurrying us along into waiting taxis, translating our destinations into Chinese so the drivers knew where to take us, and shouting at anyone who should jump out of line. I wanted to talk to the taxi driver, but with my vocabulary being limited to 'thank you', I didn't fancy my chances. So, I just sat back, and gawped out of the window.
What a crazy place! The first thing I noticed was the laundry - it was everywhere! Not just hanging out of windows, but dangling off power lines, draped between trees, attached to fences - and this was all along the filthy main road!
Then there was the contrast between rich and poor. We've all heard the stories of the poor in China being trampled on by the rising wealth of the new upper class, but I never would have guessed that it would take on such a dramatic appearance. I've seen areas of the city that just a decade ago were home to hundreds of families, almost shanty-town like in appearance, that are now pristine parks complete with sprinklers and teams of uniformed attendants. Huge tinted glass-walled banks rise up in streets that stink of garbage - on the pavements below sit the impoverished poor trying to sell enough fruit to afford another day. The main shopping street in this area is a new glitzy affair, packed with Western brand shops and strikingly modern architecture. But take the street behind it on your way to the river, and you find people rummaging through sacks of rubbish.
The gap between rich and poor can be seen inside the banks too - they have "Elite Club" Windows next to the standard ones. And sure enough, the lady next to me was being handed huge wadges of 100 yuen notes as I changed my few remaining yen (speaking of banks, I noted that they still used wooden abacuses to make calculations. I'd like to see that introduced at Barclays).
It's all quite a shock for me coming from Japan. Japan, the country where no-one would ever consider asking one for money. Here I have been approached by amputees, by mothers pushing disabled children around in wheelchairs, by little old women rattling plastic cups. They have to be on their toes in the posh new tourist sectors though - if spotted, they will be shooed away like hyenas by angry officials. Then there's the 'traders'; you know all that plastic crap you see in cheap toy shops in the West - it's all being sold here on the street. The current favourites are: a pair of wheels that you stick to the bottom of your shoe to turn them into rollerscates; plastic mini-models of the Eiffel tower that light up in a rainbow of colours; and most common of all these squelchy plastic creatures that you slam into the ground so they become as flat as a pancake, before slowly regaining their shape as if by magic. It never ceases to amaze me how much the traders seem to expect me to be interested, even though they can know full well that I have been approached time and time again whilst walking down this street. And does a 29-year-old male really want to buy a squelchy plastic blob to throw at the ground? One is almost led to believe by the looks on their faces that these people are just so amazed by the metamorphic power of these things that they went through a lengthy interview process to get the dream job.
Walk past any up-market jewellery store and you will be accosted by touts selling fake Rolex; walk past a sports shop and be offered some shoes. I pointed out that I had a pair of shoes - he retorted by offering me a shoe case. Not long afterwards I was pestered by a chap trying to polish my canvas trainers; turn a corner and a 5-year-old boy says "Hello Bags. DVDs?" And I thought my name was Joseph.
It gets to you after a while, the constant heckling. I don't like to ignore them completely though, so I talk in Japanese instead. They recognise the fact that it's Japanese and become confused, this leads them to give up. With the approaches so frequent and persistent I need to humour myself in order to not say something offensive - that's how tired of the game I am.
"My name's John. Let's be friends! I support Chelsea, and Tottenham Hot Spur. I don't like Wembley though. Ok, so we go for coffee now?"
I turned down his kind offer, only to accept a similar one from "Linda" and "Laurence" a few minutes later - it was that that led to the £45 cup of tea incident, which I have since read warnings about on the youth hostel notice board. It was a clever ruse though - I wonder why I didn't put a stop to it when I was told (before anything had happened) that it would cost me a lot of money. What makes me laugh is that today I went to another ('official') tea ceremony, identical to yesterday's, that was completely free. Yesterday's tricksters seemed to have modelled their routine on this original as the script was almost identical. The only difference was the price should one want to buy a tin of tea. I couldn't help but grin at my own stupidity when I learnt that the government dictates tea prices, setting them at less that 10% of that that I had paid.
"Linda" the "student" - I can only hope that she needed the money much more than I did.
Mistress of the tea ceremony
I've lost count of the number of times people have said 'Hello where are you from?" as they walk past me. Oh to be back amongst the peaceful, repressed Japanese!
The most memorable greeting I received was shouted loudly by a women picking her nose. "UGLY!" she bellowed when I smiled at her. I was struck by her knowledge of English - I wondered what other gems she might have up her sleeve, but decided against smiling at her again.
All of this heckling, and the constant stench that fills the air, the dirty water and the suicidal maniacs that fill the streets in buses, cars and on bikes, makes me glad that I didn't choose to study Chinese and be sent here on my year abroad! Two days of this is bearable - but a whole year of being asked hey where are you from Mister...?!
Of course, every city, every country, every culture has its bad elements. I've not been harmed in any way, and only been taken advantage of through my own stupidity. The majority of Chinese people have been very nice and friendly to me (and cliche though it sounds, some of my best friends are Chinese). They have said nice things about my big nose, they have asked to have their photo taken with me, in some cases they have even made absolutely no hint of recognising the fact that I am not Chinese. They have laughed at their inability to speak English and my inability to speak Chinese and sought out interpreters. They have not objected to me putting my lens where others might, they have instructed their children to look at my camera, and have laughed with me as I held my penguin for a classic shot. They have shown genuine selfless friendship when I asked for it in a moment of desperation.
I would be wrong to draw any conclusions on China from my experience here in this one city of millions in a country of x billion. The fact is, is that Shanghai has seen tremendous upheavals over the last couple of decades. Take the new financial district as an example: in 1990, this huge plot of ground that now hosts numerous skyscrapers (including the 4th largest in the world) was a boggy marshland housing many people in slum conditions, whilst providing the city with vegetables. Where did all those people go? What happened to those interdependent communities? They're certainly nowhere to be seen in that area now: when I paused to rest on the low wall surrounding the Jinmao tower earlier today it was only a matter of seconds before I was told that sitting there was not allowed - I had to use one of the officially sanctioned marble benches.
The stars of the financial district
With such impossibly tall symbols of wealth springing up in the city, is it any wonder that there are so many touts and traders on the streets? With idiots like me around is it any wonder that fake tea parlours do a thriving business? It's a wonder I haven't been persuaded to invest in an ant farm yet!
Pepe meets Push
Arriving at the International Youth Hostel I was greeted by Push, a Chinese university student who had come to Shanghai to see Avril Lavigne in concert. Despite having a sore throat from all the screaming the night before, he was only too happy to chat away in his perfect queen's English. It was a bit surreal really - he said he'd picked up the accent from British people he'd met in China, but unless all the backpackers he met happened to be on a royal visit I don't really see how that's possible.
After an hour or so of checking emails and failed attempts to upload photos to TameGoesWild, I decided to head out into the city. Mike, a chap I'd met in the reception had told me about a great little walking route to take which included a few of the major sites of Shanghai. Stepping out into the scorching sun, I soon learnt that if one valued one's life one should develop eyes not just in the back of one's head, but the sides too. Whatever traffic rules there are seem to be ignored by the majority of motorists - more than once I've almost been hit by a taxi darting across a pedestrian crossing when the lights are on red. Some of the junctions really make for great comedy sketches, as cars from all 4 directions jostle for a way through, and no-one gets anywhere. In addition to the traffic lights there are whistle blowing traffic wardens, frequently ignored when they turn their heads the other way.
"All together now: It's MY right of way!"
Then there's the bikes. And I thought there were a lot of them in Tokyo! Here, there is an abundance of the three-wheeled trailer variety, into which are piled watermelons, mountains of cardboard boxes, towering crates of beer. Now and then you'll hear the ringing of a bell as one of these couriers pedals slowly down the road looking for business. Scooters are popular too, often ridden with the engine switched off to save on fuel. There is little patience for people who get in the way; the same goes for badly parked vehicles, as the absent owner of a gleaming motorbike discovered when returning to his pavement parking place, where seconds earlier another biker, frustrated by not being able to squeeze through the gap had kicked the Honda to the ground. I had been considering hiring one of the youth hostels bicycles to get around; 5 seconds into my walking tour I'd come to the conclusion that perhaps this wouldn't be such a good idea.
My first stop was People's Square, a fairly new park development sporting a multi-million pound museum and a 5-storey exhibition detailing the rather ambitious plans for Expo 2010. Here again, a huge section of the city has been cleared to make way for some mad architecture. Standing in the 360 degree cinema I thought how sci-fi this computer-genereated cityscape seemed, yet now, having witnessed the amazing rise from the marshes of the financial district, it doesn't seem so unlikely. The amount of money being poured into this project must run into billions of dollars - one can't help but wonder whether this is money well spent.
The 3rd floor of this exhibition housed a huge scale model of the city - over 100 square metres. I couldn't help but think what a clean and comfortable place the city looked like when situated in an air-conditioned room. Shame they can't do that with the real thing. (Having said that, the story about the authorities setting up a 15km rain exclusion zone around Beijing during next summer's Olympics, using rockets to shoot the clouds down, does make one think twice.)
As the afternoon wore on, I made my way down to the Bund, the long paved boulevard that stretches along the Western bank of the river. In the late 19th and early 20th century this served as the nerve centre for the colonial powers, as is only too clear from the old Western buildings that still occupy the waterfront. This area attracts tourists in their thousands - the majority of them being Chinese, wanting to have their photo taken with the backdrop of the financial district on the opposite shore. Those that don't have their own camera need not worry - there is an abundance of young boys with digital cameras and portable printers just waiting to make you look beautiful.
As the evening wore on, so the light-up began. Initially, it was simply a case of the floodlights coming on at the bases of the colonial buildings. Then, the "Oriental Pearl" started to flash. Pretty, I thought, but not overly impressed. However, 15 minutes later it was a different story, as the faces of two skyscrapers turned into giant TV screens! Then came the pleasure boats with their flashing neon, and the floating billboards advertising cargo ships, skiing trips in Japan, and Rover cars.
It was about 10pm by the time I returned to the hostel, "All Shanghai'd out". Exhausted from such an intense day, beginning with that beautiful sunrise some 16 hours earlier, I couldn't bring myself to be social. I wanted some time alone, without being told I needed some cheap DVDs or a Rolex watch. I settled down with my mac and a dodgy internet connection, content to sort through the hundreds of photos I'd taken, and to think through all that had happened.
Sitting there in the common room surrounded by Westerners, I noted how uncomfortable I felt. All these foreign tourists speaking English, talking about how they'd 'done' Beijing the day before and were flying to Bangkok the next day. Surely, I wasn't one of them was I? I was there for a reason, I was on my way home, I had a right to be there as myself - not as just another tourist.
But of course in the eyes of everyone else I was just another tourist. I had spent a year 'belonging' in an Asian country, feeling as at home as is possible for someone with a foreign face. Here though, I didn't have my language ability to set me apart. I had no friends, I was not familiar with the street layout. Realising this, I became queasy and decided to concentrate on my photos. It was easier to be in China through them than by being there in reality.
I was mightily happy to get to bed that night. In my dreams I could be at peace. No fake watches. No tea ceremonies. No one wanting to be my 'friend'. Just a quiet Swiss mountainscape where language was no barrier between myself and my surroundings.
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