Shanghai: A futuristic city but my future?

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Asia » China » Shanghai
October 1st 2009
Published: October 11th 2009
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This is the hardest blog I have written in some respects but since I write my blog primarily as a diary of my travels so I tell it with honesty. There is no other way. Let the story begin......

Day 455: Sunday 27th September - A warm welcome to Shanghai

I’ve travelled to many different places over the past 15 months but I can’t remember being as excited about arriving at a new place for a long time. There is nothing especially about Shanghai the city that excites me although I am intrigued to see this most modern of Chinese cities with a multi-national history as a trading port. Rather, it is seeing XueLan again, my Chinese friend who I met in Japan. I have arranged to pick her up from work at the end of the day. First, I have to arrive in Shanghai and I awake for my third day on Suzhuo Hao. I can see Shanghai port and many ships sailing to and from the port as I have breakfast. Three hours later and I can still see Shanghai port, but this is the biggest freight port in the world. This I soon discover is not the only thing that Shanghai does the biggest, the tallest or the fastest.

One thing that has definitely taken a turn for the worse is the weather. When we left Japan, bright blue skies, when we arrive in Shanghai grey, overcast skies; what a difference two days and a change of country makes. But even the weather can’t detract from my first sight of Shanghai’s amazing skyline. Sailing along the last section of the Huangpu River, first Pudong’s futuristic skyline comes into view and this is closely followed by the historic buildings of the Bund on the opposite side of the river. After 48 hours it is time to get off the boat. I will miss the friendship amongst the international community that has build up over the last two days, I’ll miss doing nothing in a way and I’ll miss the waitresses smile. What is it with Chinese girls and amazing smiles?

Immigration is straightforward and this time I don’t get the 5 minute interrogation of my passport that I had on my first visit to China. Whilst waiting for a taxi to arrive with Scott and David - who have decided to accompany me to the hostel I’ve booked to see if there is room for them - I cause great amusement to the group of porters stood around waiting. I help an elderly couple with some luggage into the boot of the taxi and the man thanks me, so naturally I reply bukeqi (you’re welcome). As soon as I do they all fall around in fits of hilarity. I don’t know to this day if I said it wrong or it was the very fact a foreigner said the phrase which they found funny. The problem with Mandarin is that it is a tonal language and I could quite easily have got my tones wrong and said ‘I’m a fat clown do you want to give me a slap?!’ or something similar. Ah well, I guess I’ll just join in the laughter and laugh at myself!!!

After a short taxi ride the three of us arrive at the hostel where they have room for the other two. We drop off our bags and go for a walk down the historic Bund. The Bund is a mix of neoclassical early twentieth century buildings and this road by the riverfront is symbolic of Shanghai. The Bund is an Anglo-Indian term but it is not just British buildings along the Bund. There are also American and other European buildings. The British were the first to arrive in Shanghai in 1842 to open a trading port and a ‘concession’ under the law of the mother country not China. By the end of the nineteenth century, the French, Americans and Japanese had all followed and opened their own concessions. The Bund may be symbolic but in its present state of construction the walk is more shambolic than symbolic. Once they have completed the construction and put in an elevated walkway along the riverfront then a walk along the Bund will once more become a must do in Shanghai. Right now it’s a must avoid, although it is interesting to see the colonial architecture if your view isn’t obscured by a crane!

The three of us return to the hostel and I get ready to meet XueLan. She works several stops away on the metro but her directions she has given me are spot on and even I can’t manage to get lost. I take the lift up to her floor and feel a bit strange sat in the reception area of an office building for the first time in a long time. This used to be my territory now it is almost like alien territory. The sense of unfamiliarity gets worse when XueLan insists on showing me around her office. Offices are weird to me now, I think I’m going to come out in a rash! God help me on my first day when I do decide to resume my career! In my natural exuberance I manage to say hello to one of her colleagues too loud and get a rebuke. What can I say....I’m just pleased to be back in China!

We leave her office and head towards a nearby shopping centre to a restaurant where we meet two of XueLan’s friends who join us for dinner. They both speak English and XueLan has been extremely thoughtful to pick a Cantonese restaurant after finding out that the Chinese food that British people are most familiar with is Cantonese. I leave the ordering to XueLan and before long a banquet fit for a king has been presented on the table. There must be approaching ten different dishes on the table and there are only four of us. The food is all excellent and as I’ve said before I particularly enjoy the Chinese way of eating where you can share different dishes so try a bit of everything. A first for me in this meal is having dessert at the same time as the other dishes. XueLan has selected a dessert similar to bread and butter pudding back home which is served with ice cream. It’s scrummy but with my sweet tooth it soon becomes the ‘go to’ dish to the neglect of the other delicious food. Tonight’s meal is definitely not backpacker terrain in more ways than one. I’d normally never eat this well and to be treated to a meal with such a warm welcome from the girls is special.

After the meal XueLan’s friends leave us and XueLan helps me buy a Chinese sim card for my mobile phone. It sounds complicated just listening to the conversation in Mandarin so God only knows how I would have got on with my pidgin (and that’s being kind) Chinese. I probably wouldn’t have got very far and left without a Chinese sim or I’d have paid way too much for something I didn’t need. It may be just a small thing for XueLan but to me it was huge, another act of kindness that I won’t forget.

After sorting my phone out we walk down to Xujiahui park, an oasis of calm and tranquillity in this busy city of around 15 million people (China’s largest in population terms). We sit talking in the park for the rest of the evening. It is me doing most of the talking, sharing my feelings with XueLan for the first time properly. The Chinese are naturally shy, especially girls and she just listens for the majority of the time. It’s all cool though, I feel very comfortable with this girl and it is another special evening I spend with XueLan. Her last act of thoughtfulness is to give me a map of my hostel with the directions in Chinese characters so I can show taxi drivers to get home. This girl thinks of everything!

Day 456: Monday 28th September - One of the best city skylines in the world

Myself, David and Scott head out of the hostel along East Nanjing Road in the direction of People’s Square. East Nanjing Road is Shanghai’s busiest shopping street. It has a real buzz to it and leads to People’s Square, Shanghai’s focal point. There are a couple of museums in People’s Square Park which come recommended and it was my intention to visit them whilst in the vicinity. Whilst wandering the park we are approached by two young Chinese girls who think the three of us look like monkeys!!! It soon transpires as we talk to them longer that they are trying to scam us into going to an overpriced tea ceremony. Luckily I know this scam and I can see the tell tale signs so direct the conversation towards a thanks, but no thanks and a goodbye.

We find that the Urban Planning Museum is closed today and I’m not really feeling in the mood for the Shanghai Museum so discuss with the other two about walking to the French Concession. It doesn’t have the same concentration of historic buildings as the Bund, there are a few leafy streets similar to French boulevards but overall I find it quite disappointing to what I had imagined. Modern day Shanghai with its rampant development, commercialism and numerous shopping areas has taken over. We stop to get lunch before boarding the metro and returning to the hostel.

I had asked XueLan last night about meeting again tonight after she’s finished work but she wouldn’t commit then. She wanted a formal/proper invitation. So I give her a formal invitation British style, like the one you would receive for a formal ball or a wedding. I think she quite likes it, well enough to say ‘yes’ anyway and I meet her outside her office after work again. As I meet her a bit later than yesterday, I catch the metro in rush hour which isn’t a pleasant experience as everyone pushes around the station and to get on to the train and personal space is non-existent.

My idea for tonight’s night out had been to go to Pudong on the other side of the Huangpu River. I hadn’t thought as far as dinner, hoping that XueLan would be able to provide the inspiration for that with her greater knowledge of the city. She isn’t too familiar with Pudong though so we decide to eat in the shopping centre next to her office again. I insist on it being my treat after XueLan paid for everything last night including my sim card. We go to a Brazilian grill with a Chinese twist and Xue Lan introduces me to a few new Chinese dishes in between the regular feeds from the barbequed meat and seafood that the waiters keep bringing around. I could get used to this high life again after a year of eating like a backpacker!

After dinner we get on the metro and go across to Pudong, on the east of the Huangpu River. Pudong was a backwater in Shanghai until the last two decades when it was earmarked for development. Now its skyline of skyscrapers in the Lujiazui area would rival any city in the world, and probably surpass most. This is the financial heartbeat of China, the country’s economic centre, a dynamic, futuristic city within a city which has you questioning if you are in the real China. But this is the real China, this is modern day China, which after centuries of being a sleeping giant it has awoken from its slumber and threatens to shake up the world order. Gazing up to the skyscrapers - the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with its 11 garish coloured balls, the crystalline Jinmao Tower or Shanghai’s tallest building one which earns the nickname of a ‘bottle opener’ in the hostel due to its interesting design - one could be forgiven for thinking they had just stepped into the 22nd century. These are all super skyscrapers, all 400+ metres tall, some of the tallest buildings in the world and there is another building next to them currently under construction which will surpass them all.

Shanghai isn’t futuristic in all aspects. Some of its electrical wiring would be outlawed as being extremely dangerous in most developed countries and its road-traffic laws must lead to many pedestrians being injured by vehicles. The ‘Shanghai Sideswipe’ as I label it; never ever think it is safe to cross the road on a green light. In some ways crossing on a red is safer as you have an expectation to be extremely cautious but on a green you think you’d be safe. But time and time again a vehicle will come from the side and apparently they still have right of way as they almost take you out. It would rival Vietnam as the most dangerous place in the world for a pedestrian.

We walk to the riverfront where on the other side of the river the Bund is beautifully illuminated, its early twentieth century buildings offering a complete contrast to the futuristic structures behind us in Lujiazui. I think I’d have to put Shanghai’s skyline second only to that of Hong Kong - this city definitely comes alive at night. I sit with XueLan on the riverfront looking across to the Bund, a ‘museum of buildings’. This is another romantic location she has brought me to after the park last night but I promised her no more heavy conversations after last night at the start of the evening. Part of me felt a bit bad after last night, here she is giving me a warm welcome to the city and there’s me laying it on the line and telling her how I feel about her and introducing a serious and heavy tone to the evening.

Tonight though it’s her turn, her response. Chinese girls are culturally shy so you don’t get the full story but you get enough to be able to fill in the gaps. Absolutely none of it is unexpected. She agrees that we’ve shared some special times together and that things could be different if circumstances were different but they aren’t, they are what they are. In my present stage of life I realise I offer nothing to her; and I also fully intend to finish my travels, the chapter of my life that I’m in at the moment. She encourages me to do this, and not to hang around in Shanghai. She has her life to lead, I have my travels to finish. She’s right I know that and I know that if I am to win this girl’s heart I will have to return to Shanghai one day.

So nothing has changed with my thought process but in a way everything has changed. For one it is a realisation that my life at the moment is far from ‘normal’. I exist in a dream-like bubble, living what to me now seems like an ordinary life but which to the majority of the world is a fantasy life. It also clarifies the Shanghai question: when I arrived here I was just going to see how things went with XueLan and take it from there, if that meant a stay longer than the few days I had planned then that was cool. Instead by the end of the week I’ll have moved on from Shanghai.

With travelling everything is played out at 100 miles an hour. A new destination every few days, new experiences every day, people passing in and out of your life frequently. However, some things in life can’t be rushed - there is a natural speed. Building a relationship is one of those things. I could hang around in Shanghai for weeks but it isn’t going to change anything as XueLan rightly points out. No I need to go away, finish my travels on a highlight like I always intended to and to have a damn good think about whether the next stage of my life could be in Shanghai. Right now it feels right.

So another night full of emotion but that can’t detract from another special evening. I treat XueLan to the ice cream I promised her in Kyoto (remember seahorse! ) and we eat them looking out across to the Bund. The British were very much a part of this city’s past history, will I have a page in its future? We get a taxi back to my hostel and we look through the photos from Kyoto (as well as a few other destinations from my trip) remembering the special day we spent together in Japan, which although just 10 days ago seems so much longer.

Day 457: Tuesday 29th September - A taste of normality and the real world

After missing the two museums yesterday, the plan is to pay them a visit today. Scott and David are keen too and before long there are about ten of us from the hostel who make the walk along East Nanjing Road together to the Urban Planning Museum. It sounds a bit geeky, but it comes recommended by some travellers who have been to Shanghai before, and is more interesting than you’d think. The museum documents the history of Shanghai, and attempts to chart its future, painting a bold picture of its future evolution. The highlight is the city scale model of Shanghai including the developments planned for next year’s world Expo....this city is vast. Is there a city in the world with more large scale construction projects than Shanghai? The museum is not all about urban regeneration - a series of excellent photographs from around the city on the ground floor, and some amusing propaganda posters on the top floor balance things out.

After one museum already today I can’t be bothered with the Shanghai Museum so all of us head back to the hostel getting lunch on the way. One of the boys from the hostel teaches English in Xian so has picked up a grasp of Chinese. Somehow we get talking about the Chinese names for each other’s countries. He tells us them and then explains the literal meaning. For example America is Mei guo, or beautiful country. France is Fa guo, lawful country. Germany is De guo, virtuous country. And the Chinese are particularly kind to us British as Britain is Ying guo - country of heroes. This conversation has me interested to find out more so I look on the net and discover some of the stranger ones such as: Mexico is Mo xi ge, or inky Western elder brother. Spain is Xi ban ya, or Western team tooth. Denmark is Dan mai, or red wheat. Turkey is Tu er qi, or Soil ear this. But my favourite has to be Italy which is Yi da li, justice big beneficial (as in justice would be a big help here). With their history of corruption, quite appropriate I think!!!!

Whilst I was in the museum XueLan called to invite me to play badminton and squash with her and some work colleagues after work. I explain that I have no suitable footwear but she says it doesn’t matter. No I mean really, in my flip flops or my hiking boots I would most probably break my ankle! But she insists I come along so again I meet her outside her office building after work. She is late after a meeting over-ran so we have to dash into a fast food place on the way to the sports centre. We meet four of her colleagues there and spend a couple of hours playing badminton and squash. I abandon my footwear completely but as ever I can’t resist the competitive side of my nature and there is no way to play just easy. By the end, I have developed a blood blister on my toe because of my inability to take things in a relaxed fashion. For me, tonight it is another reminder of normal life. This is the kind of thing I would do with friends or work colleagues after a hard day at work to unwind. It has been an enjoyable evening to cross over the boundary from my extraordinary life (which to me is now normal) and back into what is very much ordinary, everyday life.

After the sport, myself and XueLan go back to her office where she helps sort some things out on the phone and gives me some recommendations on where to visit in Suzhou, where I will go tomorrow for a day trip. We’re both tired after successive long days and we go our separate ways in time for me to catch the last metro back.

I booked to stay another two nights in the city this morning beyond my original four as I would like to be in Shanghai for the national day celebrations and also to take a bit of the sting out of what promises to be a nightmare week of travelling from the start of October when the Chinese have a week-long holiday. We haven’t arranged to meet again and I misinterpret this quick goodbye as a lasting one which it isn’t. However, we need a break from each other for a few days after the intensity of the last couple of days.

Day 458: Wednesday 30th September - A day trip to Suzhou

Suzhou is a city in the south of Jiangsu province which borders Shanghai. It is perfectly possible to do as a day-trip from Shanghai rather than stay there as it is only one hour on the train. Scott left for Xian yesterday evening but David expressed an interest in coming along. However, this morning he’s changed his mind, he had a late night, so I leave the hostel alone. I leave early to make sure I will get a full day in Suzhou and first I have to make my way across the city to the train station and buy a ticket.

Hitting rush-hour full-on on the metro is no pleasant experience and things don’t get much better when I get to the train station. First I try the automatic ticket machines which although have an English option are confusing. I’m not the only one having problems as I look across whilst in the queue to see both Chinese and foreigners struggling to work the damn machines out. I have no success either, because Suzhou is not a ticket option offered on the automatic machines for some stupid reason. So, I’ve already wasted 20 minutes queuing for no joy before I realise I will have to make my way to the proper ticket office.

Travelling is pretty much stress-free. People may read my stories and think that some aspects sound stressful but after a year on the road I’ve seen most of what the world can throw at you and you learn to take most of it in your stride. I feel like I’m cheating the system with my stress-free life but I’m going to enjoy it whilst I can. However, getting a train ticket in China though would belong in the stressful category. This is my first experience though as Mama Naxi arranged my only train ticket to date on my previous visit to China. I don’t know if Shanghai is a bad case but I believe that most train stations in China are probably like this.

So why stressful? First, it is the day before the national week long holiday so imagine what Kings Cross ticket office would be like prior to the Christmas break and multiply by 10. So I’m stood in a queue which promises to be a wait of probably up to half an hour hoping that the girl selling the tickets will be able to understand my request. I’ve done myself a favour in this respect my positioning myself in the queue for the only English-speaking ticket counter. All around mayhem is breaking loose, people shouting, losing tempers, police and security keeping a watchful eye, information boards relaying that most tickets for the next couple of days of travel are already sold out. Deep breaths, keep your calm this won’t take too long. But it does take longer than expected as the Chinese have not yet discovered the ability to queue as politely as us British! People keep pushing to the front with what to them are urgent issues but to the rest of us patiently queuing are a major pain in the backside. I can’t believe all hell isn’t breaking loose in here.
Eventually I make it to the front, make myself understood and manage to get a ticket to Suzhou on the next train but it is standing room only. I’m just pleased to get out of the ticket office. That is until minutes later when I’m kicking myself I didn’t book a ticket for Hangzhou in a few days time as well. That means I’ll have to do this all again later.....great!!!

At 10am I’m on the train and standing on a train for an hour is no problem especially when you consider some of the journeys I’ve done. An hour later and we are in grey and wet Suzhou. In fairness, Shanghai’s weather was just as bad today. It’s a typically wet British autumnal day. And, I’m feeling flat. Why am I feeling flat today? I’m feeling physically tired after a busy last few days but the physical tiredness is more to do with weariness from being on the road and on the constant move for so long. Added into the mix I’ve now got the emotional fatigue of the last few days. I’m questioning why I’ve come to Suzhou today - what’s the point when the weather is so bad? I’m also reappraising how long I can go on for. XueLan commented a couple of nights ago that I looked tired. I don’t know if she’s perceptive or that I clearly do look so exhausted at the moment. I certainly feel it today. Nothing has changed since arriving in Tokyo almost four weeks ago with my decision to return home, nor with the date I have in mind. Today though I’m thinking have things changed once more? Today feels like a chore and travelling is too wonderful a gift to feel like that. Should I go home after Shanghai? Should I scale back my ambitions for the remainder of my trip and only do what I’m really passionate about doing/seeing or is it just a bad day and I should carry on as planned? These thoughts buzz through my head throughout the day but they won’t be answered today in Suzhou. I won’t make rash decisions.

The reason I’m questioning why I’ve come to Suzhou today is that this city is famous for its gardens. Marco Polo once declared that Suzhou was one of the most beautiful cities in the world (though Hangzhou was better). However, Suzhou has changed in the centuries since Polo’s visit and modern day Suzhou is like most other Chinese cities, bustling, big (3 million+ people) and surrounded by factories and skyscrapers. Add this image which greets me on the walk from the train station, to the poor weather and my flat mood and well you can guess I’m really questioning why I’ve come here. Still, it is famous for having the most beautiful gardens in China. But, I was in Kyoto just 10 days ago where I saw enough gardens for a long time, so what am I doing here?? Too late to reassess my decision now. I’m here and I may as well make the most of it.

I head first to Suzhou’s largest garden and the one considered to be the most impressive - The Humble Administrator’s Garden. It is different in style to those in Kyoto with zigzagging bridges, pavilions, lotus ponds but I’m more a fan of those in Kyoto. But that may be because of the weather or too many gardens in too short a space of time. It is said to have cost a boatload of silver to build and today it costs a boatload of silver to enter! Well, not quite but 70 Yuan (£6) is more than I paid for any of Kyoto’s gardens and China is not as expensive a country as Japan generally. In fact far from it......well apart from admission fees.

I decide to walk from The Humble Administrator’s Garden to The Garden of the Master of the Nets (who makes these names up - well the Chinese of course and they love their descriptive names!) but the weather takes a turn for the worse so I shelter in a restaurant and get some lunch until the downpour eases. I continue my walk to the second garden and have to admit I’m not feeling the charm of the canals (dirty) and the whitewashed houses (strangled by modern development) which once made this city famous for its beauty along with its gardens.

The Garden of the Master of the Nets is much smaller but well proportioned and very well preserved. It was probably just about worth the long walk across the city but that’s it for me and gardens. They didn’t really do it for me today but that could be due to the multitude of factors I’ve already described. It is only mid-afternoon and my return ticket to Shanghai is not until 7:30pm so I still have some time to kill. Suzhou is also famous for its silk so I decide to pay a visit to the silk museum. I can’t say it really appeals to me but my guidebook gives it a good write up and says it is a must-see. It isn’t and apart from the silkworms chomping on the mulberry leaves is entirely missable. Never believe a guidebook, you’d think I would know by now. At least I’ve succeeded in wasting another couple of hours with both the walk and the visit.

By the time I make it back to the train station it is still two hours before my train. I consider changing my ticket for an earlier train and booking a ticket from Shanghai to Suzhou but I can’t cope with another queue in a train ticket office especially when none of them indicate that they speak English. That just promises to be too frustrating and too stressful all round. Instead, I wait patiently for two hours for the train I’m booked on. XueLan calls to ask me how my day was which for the first time today lifts me from my flat mood.

When I get back to Shanghai I’m tired after a long day but I really must book a ticket for Hangzhou for 3 days time. I could do it tomorrow but I’m at the train station now and another day’s delay will probably mean a lesser chance of getting the ticket I want at this busy time. So I brave the huge queues and put myself through the whole stressful experience for a second time today. It’s worth it though as I come away with a ticket for a seat on the train to Hangzhou I want to go on.

Walking back along East Nanjing Road to the hostel is the first time I’ve properly savoured the buzz of this most famous of Shanghai’s streets at night. I’ve walked along it at dusk in rush-hour but I’ve always been on my way somewhere in a hurry. In some ways this is my highlight of the day, I love the energy of this street, I just need some of it to rub off on me. An early night is in order that is if I can get one as the dorm I’m staying in is hot and the noise from the street outside frequently disturbs.

Day 459: Thursday 1st October - China’s 60th Birthday Party

A decent night’s sleep and a lie in were just what the doctor ordered. It is late morning before I surface and when I do China’s celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China are being broadcast on the TV from Beijing. It holds little significance for me. To understand what it means I think you have to be Chinese. I can understand why there are nationwide celebrations on such a scale but as a casual foreign visitor looking on let us not think that this is a country celebrating its 60th birthday. No this is a country celebrating 60 years of the People’s Republic of China or 60 years of the Communist Party ruling. To suggest that this country is only 60 years old is erroneous, for China is one of the oldest if not the oldest surviving culture in the world stretching back many thousands of years. After 10 minutes watching the TV pictures from Beijing I’ve had enough. I’m not interested in seeing demonstrations of pomp and ceremony in my own country for the Queen’s birthday and nor am I in seeing the Chinese equivalent.

The weather is no improvement on yesterday so I can my idea of visiting the old town and Yuyuan gardens in favour of finally visiting Shanghai museum which I have put off for several days now. I walk down a wet East Nanjing Road which has an air of excitement for the national day celebrations. Numerous Chinese flags are on display and people seem genuinely happy and proud. Great for them but after such a short time in the country I can’t even hope to understand so I just enjoy observing.

Shanghai museum is the premier museum of Chinese art and artifacts in China. With bronzes, sculptures, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, coins and paintings on show this museum takes you through the millennia of Chinese history. And China definitely has a history which predates 1949 and the People’s Republic. It is worth a visit but doesn’t interest me as much as the urban Planning museum as it is all about Chinese art in its various guises which I’m not passionate about. I spend a good couple of hours there in the afternoon whilst it does nothing else but rain outside.

When I get back to the hostel I check out to see what Shanghai has got planned for the national day celebrations. Of course I’m searching on English language sites which is a disadvantage and consequently I don’t uncover too much. There seems to be a firework show in a park which I don’t know where it is but otherwise nothing. This is China’s most populous city, there must be some sort of huge celebration planned as well as the official one in Beijing, surely? I check with a few people but nobody seems to know anything definite. I suggest to David about going across to Pudong as if there’s a firework show it would make sense to have it over the Huangpu River.

We walk along East Nanjing Road to People’s Square and past numerous police and military personnel who are out in force. In the UK I think we treat the armed forces with respect but in China it is a level further, they seem to hold them in awe. When we get to East Nanjing Road metro station I’ve forgotten which metro stop is the one we want in Pudong. I’ve been blindly following XueLan the past few days so haven’t been paying the most attention to where we’ve been going. Thankfully a kind local who speaks English comes to our aid. In Pudong we get dinner and then make our way to the waterfront where if there is to be any action it will be here. But there are no fireworks or anything else to give away the fact that this is the sixtieth birthday of modern day China.

Another reason why I wanted to come across to Pudong was to go up one of the skyscrapers and get another perspective of Shanghai but by the time we make our way back towards them it is after 10pm and David who has already been up the Jinmao Tower says that it closes at 10:30pm. The whole evening turns out to be a ‘if only’. If only I’d got my act together earlier instead of having a drink in the hostel I would have made it up the Jinmao Tower or one of the other skyscrapers. If only I’d have done my research properly I’d have found the park in Pudong where the fireworks were. I don’t usually miss opportunities but tonight I have. At least I’ve been useful tonight, helping give David some ideas of where to go in China and Southeast Asia in the 3 months or so he has to travel.

Day 460: Friday 2nd October - A farewell, but not a goodbye?

I have another lazy morning but I haven’t got much planned today. I got woken up in the middle of the night by a Canadian girl who the guy in the bunk above me let into the dorm. He buys me and David breakfast to apologise. Afterwards I walk down to Shanghai’s old town to get a different feel for the city. It definitely has a feel of yesteryear but is crammed with people today. It is difficult work walking through the tight alleyways and it all feels a bit claustrophobic. I escape much of the crowds in Yuyuan Gardens. Pathways wind through rock gardens, there are classic Chinese pavilions and pools churning with carp but they hardly live up to their name which means peace.....on the second day of the national holiday they are quite busy but nothing compared to the mayhem outside in the old town. I would love to have visited the old town on a quiet day as it has loads of character.

I leave the old town and walk back to the hostel via the Bund. Today is a beautiful sunny day, the first since my arrival in Shanghai but even the favourable weather cannot alter my impression of the Bund in its current incarnation - it’s just one big building site. On the way back to the hostel I decide to get a haircut. There are two salons within a block of the hostel and I choose the more upmarket option of the two. Wrong decision. It ends up costing me a small fortune - 260 Yuan (£25) for a haircut including a head massage and some emergency hair treatment!! The latter will never work, the former was just for a standard haircut and whilst the head massage was good, I only went in for a haircut. A lack of the language to question how much everything was going to cost end up costing me. Oh well you live and learn.

I have nothing planned for the remainder of the day. I have been in contact with XueLan about spending one last evening together before I leave Shanghai tomorrow but she’s been busy and still hasn’t committed to meeting up. I chill out in the hostel and then get a call to say that she’s on the way to the hostel which takes me a bit by surprise. I’m expecting her to be at least half an hour but she arrives in about 10 minutes as she wasn’t that far away when she made the call. She looks better for a rest, I think we both do. She tells me she had to work until after midnight the night after we last met, poor girl, I feel responsible but I also remember those late night shifts at SCA - though it almost feels like a lifetime away.

We head to East Nanjing Road and find a shopping centre which is full of restaurants. Every restaurant is packed as we wander around the shopping centre looking for a place to eat. We find a place where you cook the food at your table which I like the sound of so we sit outside until we can get a table. XueLan presents me with two mooncakes whilst we wait which is the traditional gift to celebrate mid-autumn festival which is one of the main Chinese festivals and is celebrated tomorrow. She explains to me what they are made of and some of the symbolism of giving a mooncake as a gift to someone (see Hangzhou blog for explanation). I’m touched, another incredibly sweet gesture by a very sweet girl, it means a lot an awful lot.

We eventually get a table and then we sit down to yet another banquet. XueLan explains the intricacies of eating this way and how we must pick the sauces and relishes to accompany the meal. I leave the ordering of the food to her as she is more familiar with this type of meal. But XueLan hasn’t quite mastered how to order for two and we soon have a banquet in front of us for the third time during my stay in Shanghai and there is easily enough food to feed a family of four! I’m not complaining especially as she insists on treating me again. This girl is far too kind to me. I insist that it is my turn to pay but she refuses and instead tells me I have to send her a ‘British’ present for her birthday. That’s a deal, that’s a promise. It is the least I can do after all she has done to make me feel welcome in Shanghai and allow me a closer insight into Chinese culture which I very much appreciate.

Following the meal we walk back up to my hostel where XueLan wants to show me some places in China to visit. Her recommendations sound fantastic places even if she hasn’t been there herself. The pictures on the internet of both Jiuzhaigou and Zhangjiajie look amazing but my plans for the remainder of my trip are already ambitious enough, maybe too ambitious. I will have to travel fast just to fit in everything I want to do before I plan to return home and adding more places to visit into the equation is the opposite of what I should probably be thinking. I tell XueLan that it is just another reason to return to China one day, not that I need another one, as the main one is sitting right beside me.

Normally I arrive in a city with a list of things I want to see or do. I had that too with Shanghai but I leave without having achieved many of them. I wanted to see the world famous Shanghai acrobats, I wanted to see Shanghai from Jinmao Tower or one of the other skyscrapers, I would have quite liked to ride the maglev train which links the airport with Shanghai and is the fastest train in the world and I wouldn’t have minded taking a cruise along the Huangpu River to get another perspective of the city. However, none of that really matters. I came to Shanghai and had a really special time and one girl is responsible for that.

Why does this girl not belong with the many cool people that have moved in and out of my life at the blink of an eyelid on this incredible journey? She’s a special girl for one, at least I think so and I believe there could be a special future together at some point along the line. But, is it not crazy to even think this way? Well, I said before I started my travels that I saw the next stage of my life as working overseas. I’m sure I have changed in some respects these last 15 months but I haven’t changed my mind about what I want to do post travelling - I still want to live and work overseas. I’ve had opportunities to work overseas in the past but never pursued them because they didn’t involve a different culture. I could work in Europe, North America or Australasia but all represent a culture too similar to my own for the experience I would want from a spell working overseas. Asia has always had an appeal, and yes China and Shanghai in particular would fit the bill as it is a Asia-Pacific headquarters for many multinational companies. But, in life nothing is guaranteed - career opportunities like the one I’m after don’t grow on trees. At the same time, nothing is impossible but there are several obstacles to overcome before I can say for definite that I will return to Shanghai. I can only hope.

Tonight has been the proper and yes emotional farewell that I wanted but strangely I’m not sad at saying goodbye to XueLan. Instead I have a real excitement and hope that this is a farewell, see you again and not a goodbye. I prefer the optimistic outlook on life. But, who knows, only time will tell...........

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