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Published: June 10th 2006
"Whore of the Orient, Paris of the East; city of quick riches, ill-gotten gains and fortunes lost on the tumble of dice; the domain of adventurers, swindlers, gamblers, drug runners, tycoons, missionaries, gangsters and backstreet pimps; the city that plots revolution and dances as the revolution shoots its way into town" is how the Lonely Planet on China describes Shanghai prior to the Communist revolution. Since then, a lot has changed. After the Chinese government dropped some of its Communist principles and decided to embrace capitalism in a form which it calls "socialist market economics", Shanghai has been unstoppable. It is now one of the largest, most modern, and richest cities in China. It grows and changes at an astonishing rate. The Pudong area of town, which used to be farmland until 1990, offers an impressive 21st-century skyline, which makes cities like Geneva or Amsterdam almost look provincial.
We arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday on a train from Hong Kong, 2000km away. We left Hong Kong at 3pm on Monday and took an incredible 26 hours to complete the journey. Crossing China by train is comfortable enough though: Travelling in Deluxe Soft-Sleeper Class, Phil and I had a private compartment
with 2 proper beds, and the on-train restaurant kept our stomachs filled with some ok food. Upon arrival in Shanghai, we went to the Captain Hostel, near the Bund, hoping to find a room for the next couple of nights. Unfortunately it was fully booked and, after making a reservation for the following night, we found a nice room in the Pujiang Hotel. Apparently, the hotel's banquet hall used to house the Shanghai Stock Exchange for a couple of years in the 1920s and 1930s. Afterwards, we walked down the Bund to admire Shanghai's skyline. Many photos later we had a quick dinner in a small restaurant, before making our way to Cloud 9 Bar on the 87th floor of the 420.5m high Jinmao Tower, currently the 4th-tallest building in the world. The drinks were slightly pricey, but the setting was luxurious and the view was very nice.
Our day started off rather unproductively on Wednesday. First of all we moved our luggage to the Captain Hostel where we would be staying for the next 3 nights. While checking out of the Pujiang Hotel, we encountered an employee who took the rules of the hotel slightly too seriously: while
I was settling the bill, Phil tried to change some traveller cheques at another desk. The silly cow claimed that we could no longer change traveller cheques as we were no longer staying in the hotel. When running into these kind of slaves of the system in China, the best thing you can do is to stop talking to them and to ask for the manager. Being afraid to lose her job, she suddenly changed her mind and quickly obliged. Upon arrival at Captain Hostel, it turned out that they had made a mistake with our booking and they claimed not to have a room after all. When I pointed out that that was their problem and certainly not ours, we got a room, with the receptionist probably thinking that she could find a more gullible toruist with a reservation to turn away later... After these two minor victories, we set out to book tickets for the train to Xi'an. A serious problem when trying to get around Shanghai is the fact that any guidebook is out of date even before it's published. During our time in Shanghai, we found that our 1-year old Lonely Planet was only correct half
the time, while we had hardly had any problems in other cities and countries across Asia. As for the train ticket agencies: third time lucky! The first two agencies we visited had already fallen prey to Shanghai's rapid evolution and no longer existed.
After dealing with the morning's practicalities, we had surprisingly little time left to do any sight-seeing that day. We had arranged to meet ShuYing, a Chinese friend of ours from our Masters degree in Southampton, at 5pm. Beforehand, we visited the Shanghai museum, which has spectacular collections of Chinese bronzes, sculptures, ceramics, paintings etc. Many of the pieces were thousands of year old, and yet very detailed and beautiful. I found it humbling to realise how culturally advanced the Chinese used to be compared to us Western Europeans. After spending too little time in the museum, we met ShuYing who took us for a nice dinner, followed by a visit to an area of town called Xintiandi, a stylish complex of restaurants, bars and shops. Well after midnight, after watching a cabaret show and having a couple of drinks, we arranged to meet again in the coming days and went back to the hotel.
the day on Thursday, we didn't get up to a great deal worth noting. Outside it was once again pissing it down (It felt like being in England again with all the rain), and a slight hangover from the night before didn't help either. Phil visited the old part of town, while I strolled down Nanjing Donglu, China's most famous shopping street, to People's Square, visiting a couple of huge department stores on the way. Next I went through the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel under the Huangpu River, which connects the Bund to Pudong. On the way, tourists are treated to a rather tacky lightshow. When I got to Pudong, I was so fed up with the weather that I decided to go back to hostel to dry up. In the evening, while we were having a quick dinner and drink on the top floor of our hostel, which has a magnificent view of the skyline of Pudong, a loud bang caught our attention. A huge fireworks display, in honour of International Children's Day, was just getting under way. For the next half an hour we were treated to fireworks from boats, the shore, and the top of every building of
the skyline. I have never seen fireworks as impressive. When I mentioned this to a Chinese person, he simply sad: "Wait till you see the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008". I can't wait...
We met up with ShuYing on Friday, who took us to Nanxun, a town about 2 hours away of Shanghai by car. The town has an extensive system of rivers and canals with numerous picturesque bridges, which create the impression of being in a Chinese miniature-Venice. The town's many old houses and Jiayetang Library are nice to visit, and after futuristic Shanghai it was good to see a place embracing its rich cultural heritage. When we got back to Shanghai, we had a hot-pot dinner: a massive bowl of stock, bones and all, is served at your table in which you then cook meat, fish, vegetables etc yourself. It was delicious. After a really fun day it was unfortunately time to say bye to ShuYing. She made our visit to Shanghai a lot more enjoyable, and I hope to be able to return the favour in Europe soon.
On Saturday, given that we had to get on a train to Xi'an
in the afternoon and realising that I still hadn't visited all the sights I wanted to visit, I ran around town trying to get as much done as possible. First of all I took the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) Train from Longyang Lu MTR station to Pudong International Airport, and back. The train, built by Siemens, travels the 30km to the airport in 8 minutes sharp, reaching a mind-blowing 431 kilometers per hour on the way. It is at the moment the fastest train in the world. Apparently the Chinese are planning to build a similar connection between Shanghai and Beijing, which will cut the 12-hours it currently takes to travel the 1500km between the two cities sharply. On my way back to central Shanghai, I went up the Oriental Pearl Tower. It was pretty expensive, and as the observation deck is lower than Cloud 9 Bar in the Jinmao Tower, it was hardly worth it. I had a nice view of the Bund and Jinmao Tower though, despite the bad weather and limited visibility. Next, I visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, which has a pretty impressive scale model of how Shanghai is expected to develop in the next
20 years. The highlight however was an exhibition on Russian Socialist Art of the 1940s and 1950s. The paintings on different themes (Stalin, military victories, ordinary Russians behaving as good Communists etc.) were unlike anything I had ever seen before. To finish off, I went back to the Shanghai Museum to have another look at some of my favourite galleries there, before going back to the hostel to meet up with Phil.
Later that afternoon we left Shanghai for Xi'an, which arguably used to be the centre of Chinese civilisation in ancient times. Shanghai turned out to be great fun. It paints a picture of China which is no doubt very different from the countryside: it is modern, relatively rich, and clearly one of the hotspots of China's current remarkable economic growth. If I'd return next year, I would possibly find the city to have changed beyond recognition already...
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