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Published: November 3rd 2009
Time follows me around in Shanghai like a cloying beggar tugging at my sleeve. Down on the Bund the Rolex salesmen - dreambusters of the promenade - fall into step beside me, peddling their fake visions of corrupted time.
As I gaze at the Huangpu, they seem to be screaming: "Stop staring at the river, looking for memories of Sampans, Japanese warships, paper flowers and paupers' coffins! That's the past - come on, time is money, buy this watch!"Then I slowly raise my eyes to Pudong's Oriental Pearl Tower and see a totem to China's economic destiny - a phallic reminder of the days of power and glory to come. That's the future.
On the Nanking Road, time is traded, as always. Boys offer girls, girls offer boys, and everyone is up for sale - price negotiable. A boy sidles up to me, offering me a girl. Then two girls. Then himself. Then finally, inevitably, a Rolex. It is, though, vaguely reassuring to see the hucksters and spivs still working the Nanking Road. Some things never change...
And, like a semi-retired "madame", the city offers a sweeter side. Round the corner in the People's Square, a jazz band in red Stetsons is playing outside the Radisson Hotel. A solitary octogenarian dancer expertly guides a vanished partner. Arms frozen aloft, the old man gyrates slowly, mechanically, a cracked clockwork actor on some faraway glockenspiel
, marking the hour to the chimes of his youth.
Heading to the port, billboards line the road, imploring drivers to "Adhere to Scientific Development" and to "Build a Harmonious Society!" This "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is a farewell you'll never see from the window of the Maglev train on its time-bending journey to Pudong Airport (30 km, 7 minutes), or in trendy Xintiandi with its Eastern nostalgia and Western nightlife.
Instead, I trudge through the taxis and bicycles of the mud-splattered Dongdaming Road towards the International Ferry Terminal. By foot, river and ocean - what better way to leave Shanghai than to float slowly down the Huangpu River and out into the East China Sea, onwards, past Korea, to Japan?
The Xin Jian Zhen is no leaky tub, but neither is it a cruise ship. Still, my 4-berth cabin is comfortable (despite an ominously stained carpet) and the occupants - two young Swedes and a Japanese student with a folding bike who is returning from Tibet - are friendly, loquacious even.
However, soon after our magisterial glide out of Shanghai to the open sea the waves rise and the ship starts to bounce - pitching and yawing like an elevator in freefall as the tail end of a typhoon gives us a disdainful flick. The Japanese student takes to his bed, where he lies, groaning, for the rest of the voyage, immobile and immovable in green-faced misery, while the ashen-faced Swedes manfully play cards and swig the beers I supply from the vending machine.
Even MY sea legs give way in the end and I crawl into my bunk, rollercoasting through a night of soaring leaps and sheer gut-wrenching drops as the typhoon batters the ship. At 3 a.m. the long dark night of the soul meets Davy Jones' Locker and I start to wonder: "Could this thing actually sink?"
Early next morning with the storm still raging I go in search of a weather forecast. An eerie calm has descended on the ship, bodies lie prostrate - Pompeii-like - on sofas in the communal areas, while at the purser's desk the uniformed officer is face down on the counter, staring up at me with vacant eyes. There will, clearly, be no weather information this morning. The ship, it seems, has become a stage set - a silent cross between "The Flying Dutchman" and "Mutiny on the Bounty".
But slowly, slowly, as the morning wears on, the rain starts to abate, and bodies begin to stir, rising from their slumbers like zombies in "Night of the Living Dead". Cabin doors open, teenagers flirt and josh once again, and even the purser is alert and upright in his crisp white uniform. The Japanese student has stopped groaning; the Swedes are more frivolous in their card-playing. We're back in business.
Outside, the clouds part and a celestial light dapples the outlying islands to welcome us as we enter Japan's Inland Sea, a one-day cruise from Osaka, our final destination. This, in the golden light of late autumn, is perhaps one of the few views of Japan that is not man-made, while the lush green hillsides of Shikoku provide the best possible welcome: gatekeepers to the Land of the Rising Sun.
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