Posted by jswt | Posted in China - Shanghai, General | Posted on 02-10-2011


So we wrapped up our wedding, had a couple days to chill out and then were back in the air on our way to Shanghai…

Just want to point out first that you can’t really grasp the scale of the city by reading this. I can’t even think back clearly on it now as it seems almost surreal. It’s a city of 28 *million* (officially counted – that doesn’t include “other”). The population of all of Canada is 32 million. It’s one city that’s pretty much the same population of my entire home country. If you’re sitting in Vancouver shrugging and going “yeah, that’s big”, you can’t wrap your head around how seriously big that actually is. Anyways…

Chris had to get straight into work, so rather than figure out the Maglev and metro, we hopped a cab for an introduction to chinese driving. We’ve been to Italy and Spain and Turkey, but nothing had us ready for the chaos of Shanghai highways. 4 lanes really means that there’s kind of 8 or 9 lanes, and people are either slowly trodding along or flooring it, but there is no slow lane, there’s just drifting around everyone else and pushing into spaces that don’t exist. There are no signals, just a honk. It’s mental, but it works, as apparent by the (odd) lack of scratches or dings on anyone’s vehicle.

An hour trip into the city got us to our hotel which was a beautiful treat: fully 5 star, on the 44th floor with a great view of the city and a pimp room, literally right at the intersection of Nanjing East and Nanjing west (the main shopping street). We couldn’t have asked for a better location in the city…

Chris showered and ran off to work, so I kicked the jetlag haze by wandering out onto Nanjing street to see what things were like. I wasn’t a step of the property when the offers began: “Bag?” “Purse?” “Watches?” “Laaaaaaaaaady massage?” “Hashish?”… Walking solo and sticking out as a tourist made me a magnet for a constant stream of vendors who’d slide up alongside me out of the throngs. Luckily, my mom had given me a bit of advice to take along, and even as “no. no. no. no.” wouldn’t do a thing to dissuade their sales effort, a simple “Bu Yao” muttered in their direction and they’d disappear into thin air. Effective magic.

So once I could look past the vendors, I could see Nanjing road as a giant open air shopping street similar to what you’d find in most cities, with the addition of shoulder to shoulder black haired chinese shoppers. The other difference was that it wasn’t just roadside shopping – each of the buildings along the sides were 6-7 stories, and every floor/level/space/corner was a different shop and you had to dive way in deep to find out what was actually there. And of course, the biggest difference between this and most other shopping streets was the lights – the lights were huge and brilliant and constantly shifting in a way that makes Vegas look quaint. Even once I got back to our hotel room and could look out across the city over the Bund and to the Pudong side of the river, the skyline was breathtaking like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and that I could only explain as what would happen if Burningman was given a skyline of 100 story buildings – a continual psychedelic shifting and glistening wonder of light and marketing and messaging. Absolutely brilliant – literally.

The next day I went out for a wander across the street with C (one of the very few other tour partners to be tagging along in Shanghai), and was lucky that she was game to be adventurous, especially when it came to the food. We found a place that served these insanely good Xiaolongbao that proved borderline addictive as we both lived off them for the next week. I was a little worried about the food in China, having heard the horror stories about gelatinous bits and things my stomach might have found challenging, but overall I had no problem sticking to stuff that wasn’t too freaky and my stomach was actually loving it. There’s an endless number of small little restaurants and street vendors who’re just set up, hanging out and making food. Yes, some of it’s dodgy, but I took someone’s advice and stuck to the places that were busy and/or had a lineup and I had nothing but *amazing* food every time, for next to nothing (usually < $2 for a full kickass noodle/stirfry/whatever). Of course, between the food in the air, the 32 million people living in the city, the layers of chaotic traffic, the people bathing in the street, the public washrooms that service a neighborhood... well... it's pretty aromatic. Some smells are fantastically delicious. Many are not. But it doesn't matter, because in a couple seconds or a couple steps in any direction, your nose is being filled with a whole new set of sensory overload. [flickr-gallery mode="photoset" photoset="72157627948026786"]

C and I had a great wander, doing some shopping, eating more and more dumplings, and then settling into a great little tea house in a park across from the hotel for an afternoon of lychee sangria and shisha….

Also in the park was the City Planning Museum, which I popped into to see. It was low on information, and high in propaganda, but was still completely worth the visit to see the IMMENSE model of the entire city that took up the whole 3rd floor of the building. I can’t imagine how often they have to update the model, but even the recently built stuff I saw around town was already in the model…

Internet was somewhat limited, in that sometimes you could reach sites like google, and then othertimes they’d just disappear from the net. Also of interest, was that if you were typing in Skype and said something negative about China, your connection would go dead – you can make your own assumptions about that. So, without really wanting to have all of my surfing sniffed, I spent a lot of the week wandering the city… Some highlights include working my way deep into residential neighborhoods
and eating mysterious street food, taking a ferry without knowing (or caring) where it went, bouncing around on the metro, ending up near the 100-story Trade Centre building and going up to the viewing area at the top [!!!], taking the maglev train out to the airport at 400+ km/h to pick someone up… Just a seriously great city to wander – it’s busy, and knew to watch my back a bit, but never felt unsafe.

Sunday night Chris was tired, but I was feeling like going out, so I went for some drinks with some people and then ended up taking a cab over to meet up with other people who were at a rooftop club at the Bund overlooking the river. Rambunctious Revelry occurred.

On the Monday that everyone had off, someone arranged a trip to the Happy Valley Amusement park which was a real trip: 2 parts Disneyland, 1 part industrial wasteland, and 1 part weird propaganda machine. We rode some rides, giggled at strange translations, caught a show that some people from the tour had friends/family in. They did have one of the most terrifying rollercoasters I’ve ever been on, both because of the insane drop and the realization that I was trusting chinese engineering and safety standards… came close to a heart attack, but did enjoy the ride.

We did the obligatory day of knockoff shopping, which was made better by having a tour guide/personal shopper who’d been recommended by someone from back home. She took us to a couple of the knockoff malls which were a trip, because they’d take you into the back room, and there’d be secret compartments and moving walls and secret tunnels and always “better quality, you wait”… The art of negotiation was a game we got really good at, and that Chris really loved… Getting them fired up, jumping up and down, fake crying, chasing you down if you went to leave… it sounds horrible upon reflection, but that’s just how it works – every single time it’s the same thing: they offer way high, you go way low, and then there’s this crazy dance of calculator swapping and sighing and grumbling until you negotiate a price. Seriously, seriously draining, but a very memorable day of shopping for sure.

We were also there over National Day (translation: same as 4th of July in the US, or Canada day in Canada) which was cool because it brought 700,000+ people into the city one night to celebrate, and also because of the fireworks displays that would go for hours lighting up the whole skyline (and were a real treat to watch from the lounge at the top of our hotel).

There was a night after the show where we were invited out to kareoke by the promoters and we learned a few things:
1) those particular Chinese men can sing like mofos
2) Chicken feet aren’t my favorite snack food
3) The Lonely Goatherd is the only thing I can sing

On the last night we were in town, Chris and I went out to a really weird night at a gay bear kareoke bar where they were having some competition/game show and Chris ended up being some big gay superhero. There’s actually a surprisingly open gay scene in Shanghai with a number of bars around town (including one in an old bomb shelter) and a number of big euro style clubs. Luckily there is no photographic evidence of this evening, aside from our ticket stub…

So yeah… Shanghai… Been there, seen it… Don’t have a huge need to go back, but definately wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to revisit as I feel I barely scratched the surface of the immense breadth of the city and it’s got a pulse that’s just… electric and alive and unique. I’m really curious to compare it to cities like Beijing that are a little less westernized, but that will have to wait… No matter what, if/when I do return to Shanghai, I doubt I’ll recognize it as it continues to build up and over and through itself towards whatever unique unmistakable and unignorable entity it’s evolving into.

I will thank it for teaching me a few things:
1) Where I call home is quiet and the air tastes delicious.
2) I understand my neighbors more.
3) Driving in Richmond makes way more sense now.