A Few Hours in Shanghai

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Asia » China » Shanghai
January 19th 2016
Published: January 27th 2016
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We have become complacent as travellers. Incredibly, all of our flights have gone smoothly so far. Our border crossings may have had all of the ritual humiliations and arduous trials that can be squeezed within the Geneva convention but they have been problem free and we have been able to enter each country. This means we have stopped making sure we have offline access to our tickets. In the rare case we have needed our tickets the airport wifi has obliged. When we got to China we expected the same. This time though you had to input a telephone number and they sent you a code to get access. This was all very well except the number didn't arrive. Also, we tried to use 3G signal but this wouldn't connect. We couldn't complete the flight number on the departure card and this had to be completed before arrival.

Stuck, we joined the queue and hoped for the best. We figured that Shanghai couldn't have many flights to Vancouver that day and they'd have a list of flight numbers. Immigration did not like the fact our cards were incomplete. Strangely they stamped the passport and then handed it to their supervisor, who led us to what Lindsey described as "the naughty corner". They kept us guessing for a few minutes and then beckoned us forward, handed us the passport and then gave us a lecture on "being properly prepared to enter China next time". We breathed a sigh of relief and moved on quickly.

We were frustrated that Air China hadn't checked our bags from Auckland to Vancouver, which meant we had to waste time retrieving them and then finding a place to store them. Retrieval was problem free but then I had to go three times to the baggage drop to get them stored. It turned out the one I really needed was tucked away in a corner on the floor above. I eventually got there and got the bags stored.

As we didn't know which flight we were on we didn't know what time we needed to be back but we decided to figure this out later, as we'd now been on Chinese soil for two and a half hours and not seen anything except the sterile halls of the airport. I was keen to try the Mag-Lev train to get into the city. The ticket for this was 50 yuan (£6.50) each, each way. We had no problems buying this but then had to go to another counter to buy a Metro card. We tried the self-service machine but at first couldn't work out how to get it in English and then couldn't do our transaction on it so had to go to the counter. Eventually we got everything and could leave the airport.

We got on the Mag-Lev and were whisked at over 430km per hour into the city. I was disappointed not to see the train floating in mid-air but was seriously impressed by the speeds we achieved. the Mag-lev journey took about seven minutes but then we had to change onto the standard Metro. This was an ordeal as we could see signs for our platform but they would suddenly disappear and some of them pointed in the wrong direction. After wandering clueless through a market for a while, we finally found it by a combination of dumb luck and retracing our steps back to the platform. The Metro was much slower but took us to the city centre. I found the relentless video adverts which moved along the tunnels almost at the speed of the trains to be a bit disconcerting but generally the experience was much like the mass transit system in any large city.

We alighted at Nanjing Street East, one of Shanghai's premier shopping areas. Any illusion we had that China is still a communist society was quickly shattered as we emerged onto the chilly street. Expecting giant posters of the premier, party slogans, etc, we were disappointed... we were surrounded by advertising for familiar brands. Many of the shops we passed would have fit in equally well in Knightsbridge or on the Champs-Elysee. Aside from the Chinese characters we could have been in any global city.

Walking down the street, we found that the rules of the road didn't seem to apply to scooters, who were quite happy to drive through crowds of pedestrians, cross red lights and even mount the kerb. It was quite scary. We passed a woman selling panda hats and then found ourselves inexplicably drawn into a chocolate shop. We wandered around feeling a bit overawed by the neat stacks of shiny boxes and packets. We found a few with English writing on them and made a couple of selections, all the time under the scrutiny of the shop assistant who was happy to keep suggesting other additions to our collection. We walked out with some chocolate, something we hope is nougat and a weird confection supposedly made from cashew nut milk but not tasting at all like cashew nuts.

At the end of the street we were suddenly presented with an amazing sky-line. We had reached The Bund, the old British quarter. In front of us was a landscape of ultra-modern, multi-coloured skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes. Behind us the buildings would not have looked out of place in the Victorian centre of any British city. One in particular looked just like Liverpool's Liver building. Between the two sets of architecture ran a river with fast moving industrial traffic plying the waters. Alongside the river was a scenic walkway thronged with tourists. We walked down the path, noting that we were the only Western visitors. This was quite apparent due to the staring of many people. We also found that people were blatantly taking our photograph... one guy even dragged Lindsey into a picture with his mother!

We continued down the path, conscious of time slipping by and keen to see as much as possible. We followed signs for "City God Temple", which we never quite got to but it did lead us into the old town. We were walking through a small formal garden when a tourist stopped us and asked if we would take his photograph. His English was good and he helpfully pointed out a few things to us. It looked for a little while like we were going to get a very slow moving tour guide - which was not what we wanted as we only had a couple of hours. We managed to politely give him the slip and carried on our way, stopping only to buy a slice of watermelon on a stick.

Beyond the park we came to the old town. This was marked by a profusion of old buildings in the archetypal Chinese style, row upon row of scooters, Chinese lanterns and crowds of people pushing through a series of market stalls. It had been a while since we'd almost been knocked over by a scooter, but this area more than made up for it.

We wandered through the market, not particularly wanting to buy anything, but instead just soaking up the atmosphere and the culture. All of a sudden Lindsey became excited... She had spotted a stall selling flutes. For as long as I have known her, I have known that Lindsey wanted a Chinese bamboo flute. I knew we'd be stopping, I just hoped it wouldn't cost too much! The stall owner looked a little skeptical when we arrived but that turned to sheer delight when Lindsey tried out his instruments and could play them. She stood testing instruments for about twenty minutes. As she did so, quite a crowd was gathering. They took photos, even wanting me to pose with Lindsey. We were quite the celebrities. I particularly noted two bakers who came out and stood behind Lindsey, trying to look completely uninterested but in reality hardly taking their eyes away from this unusual scene. Quite quickly for such a momentous decision, Lindsey picked her instrument. We were given a 20% discount which brought the cost of the flute to almost exactly the amount of money I had left. We paid and then chatted to the owner for a while longer and watched him play a small clay wind instrument. Eventually we moved on, much to the disappointment of our loyal fans who were still snapping away like paparazzi.

We were very pressed for time now but figured we just had time to get to People's Square. As most of the things we had wanted to do were located here we were keen to do it. We walked and walked and walked. The distance on the map seemed to bear no relation to the distance on the ground. We crossed lots of interesting looking side streets, which we didn't have time to explore. We passed a Tesco store, which was a bit of a surprise. We found a long street where every shop was selling musical instruments. We passed public toilets which were quite weird. We saw whole streets of old houses, with washing hanging outside, obviously doomed as their neighbours had already been cleared to make room for the ever growing jungle of steel and glass skyscrapers. Finally, we reached our destination and saw the buildings surrounding the square but didn't have time to actually visit any of them. Sadly this meant we missed the Urban Planning and Propaganda Museums Which had both been on our to do list. They will have to wait for next time.

After taking a few pictures of People's Square we decided we really didn't have time for anything further so we got straight back on the Metro. After one change and a journey which seemed to go on for hours we finally got back to the airport. We retrieved our luggage with none of the problems we had had depositing it. Our next priority was to check in, for which we had to queue for a long time. After that we scoured the airport for a post card to send home but couldn't find one. Instead we settled for a little bookmark and wrote in the attached card. I took this to the post office where the assistant was nowhere to be found. We waited five minutes for him to come back and then he refused to post it. Finally, he put it in a larger envelope and then put that in another even larger envelope and was happy. He took my money but didn't affix any kind of stamp so we aren't sure it was sent. After that we dashed to the gate where we were hoping we'd been assigned a seat as our boarding pass didn't actually have one. Thankfully we got reasonable seats and we boarded the Air Canada flight which would take us to Vancouver. It had been a long, hard day in Shanghai but also a wonderful, enriching experience full of amazing sights, amazingly friendly people and unique memories.

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