We are finishing up our first leg in China today. For me, Shanghai has been quite surprising. ‘Seeing is believing’ is an apt phrase for experiencing the capitalist economic miracle of this city in a Socialist country. We had done very little ‘homework’ preparing for China. The only Chinese words we came prepared with were ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ In the waiting lounge at the Singapore airport, we were madly downloading information on the cost of the taxi ride from Pudong airport into Shanghai, the dollar-yuan exchange rate, and ’10 things to do in Shanghai’ lists so that we could read about them during the plane ride to Shanghai. We knew Shanghai’s reputation as a city of skyscrapers, the European influence from the ‘concessions’, and that it had 20 million inhabitants. Our friend Stuart in England said Shanghai was his favorite city in Asia. Our friend Pearl in Singapore said that Shanghai was like Singapore, just dirtier. This about sums up our preparation for Shanghai.
Maybe it was because of this shallow preparation I experienced a very brief panic attack in the plane coming here. China was so outside my comfort zone. These things kept running through my head: ‘nobody will speak English’, ‘communist country’, ‘air pollution’, ‘dead pigs floating in river’, ‘rat meat passed off as muton meat’, ‘people spit everywhere’, ‘lead paint in children’s toys.’ Western newspaper headlines are generally do not paint China in a positive light. The rat meat-as-mutton story broke just days before we left Singapore. The air pollution in Beijing story hit a few months back, and in comparison it made Los Angeles air quality sound pristine. Two articles in the paper I was reading on the plane talked about the ban on communist party members hosting banquets and a university student who was not arrested for suspicion of murder because her grandfather was a communist party official. Those article topics really would not affect our travels, but they did put the seed of worry into my mind about being in a one party state. I must say, too, that for most of my life my image of the Peoples Republic of China was a closed country, populated by people wearing Mao caps riding bikes, a country diametrically opposed to American values. This was a pretty deeply rooted prejudice in my psyche. How did the western media and my own indoctrination fare against what we have experienced so far?
When we got off the airplane at Pudong airport, we breezed through passport control. Whew! First gauntlet of the police state cleared. Cash machine was 10 meters past the passport control and our bank card worked! Electronic connection with international banking system no problem! (does the Chinese government now have my PIN number? Paranoia!). Big, clean, and empty airport. Where are the hordes of people? First billboards seen advertised Lancome, Bulgari, Brad Pitt pitching Cadillac. This is a Socialist Workers’ State? Taxi ride into city took 45 minutes on a freeway, cost $40, and the driver took us straight to our hotel. Check-in, up to the 7th floor to our two bedroom ‘service apartment.’ Safe! Apartment clean and roomy, two flat screens with cable providing ESPN, CNN and HBO; beds a little firm, but comfy. Dinner in hotel restaurant was a mix of hamburgers, wonton soup and crispy duck. We cruised through our first day’s challenge of navigating China. Let’s see… Language barrier did not prevent communication for basic needs of transport, food, and shelter. ‘Dirty’ did not exist to our hotel. Food was good. Tsingtao beer was cheap. We are connected to the outside world with wifi connection in the hotel lobby. Gigi can even use our VPN to access Facebook. Feeling pretty normal so far. We went to sleep at ease.
On our first morning, we decided to walk to YuYuan garden and forage for breakfast along the way. Within two blocks from our hotel we found a Chinese run French style bakery and had croissants and muffins for about $3.50. We were on Jinling Street, which had several music stores, which was very cool. Jordan went in and played on a Gibson Les Paul. He was hoping the guitar prices in Shanghai would be cheap and he could buy a Gibson, but he was disappointed. YuYuan garden was quite beautiful. Outside the garden was a large pond with giant koi that Justin just loved. An elderly French man offered to take a family photo of us on the zig zag bridge. We started talking and found they lived in Paris and were doing a 21 day guided tour of China. The wife got to hold a baby panda in Chengdu, which really had Justin jealous. He is still mad that we did not put Chengdu on our travel itinerary so that we could visit a panda reserve. He will just have to wait until the Beijing zoo to see a panda. Another small world anecdote came about when we told the couple we had stayed in Grimaud for 3 months. They vacationed last summer for two weeks in Port Grimaud, so we had that to talk about as we stood surrounded by tourists and koi.
Outside the garden, we saw a long line of people waiting to buy shanghai soupy dumplings from a take out window. We went into the restaurant and sat down for a meal of these dumplings. Yum! The boys are now dim sum fans. After lunch, we walked Fang Bang/Old Shanghai road. Gigi bought name seals for the boys. We wandered through and old neighborhood of single story buildings on our way back to the hotel. Right next to this neighborhood was a giant hole that would soon be a high rise. I imagine in 5 years that neighborhood will meet the same fate.
We had decided that for China we would not be tourist warriors. We were going to take it easy on the sightseeing and just see how we would feel in China. Thus, we spent quite a bit of time in the hotel, the New Harbour Service Apartments, perhaps half of each day. The apartment was quite roomy and comfortable. With ESPN, CNN and HBO available, we watched a few movies and sports, including two Tottenham football games, one against Chelsea, the other against Stoke. Tottenham is trying to qualify for the Champions League and these games were crucial. Why do we care? Jordan ha a poster of Gareth Bale on his bedroom wall at home. The wifi in the lobby had us going downstairs often to sit in the poofy leather couches and get on the Internet. Perhaps best of all was the pool and exercise room. The pool was a large oval about 17 meters in length, so you could swim laps. At most, we had one other person in the pool with us. There was also a dry sauna and a Jacuzzi tub, which we again always had to ourselves. We exercised in the equally empty exercise room to a workout video called ‘Insane Home Fat Loss’ that we have on the laptop. Hey, Hawaii is only a month away and I need to get swimsuit ready. J
We took a 50 minute boat cruise on the Huangpu river our second day. The other boat passengers included a tour group of Quebecoise, which had Gigi very excited. We chatted with one couple, mostly in French, and found they came from Sherbrooke, which is where many of Gigi’s relatives live. We visited Sherbrooke a few summers back, so another small world story finds itself here. After the boat ride, we headed for Nanjing Road, and here we found the hordes of Chinese crowding the Bund waterfront and strolling the pedestrian section of Nanjing in the early evening. We ate dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant on the 5th floor of a mall building. It was modern and rather elegant. We were the only foreigners in the restaurant, and it was packed. The boys loved cooking the fresh meat on the real charcoal heated griddle in the middle of the table. Justin said he was getting a cooking lesson. We had a fantastic meal for only $40, probably a good sum for the Chinese, but a similar Korean BBQ meal in California for four would easily be $100.
On our last full day in Shanghai, we went to the Shanghai museum and walked over to the old French Concession part of town. The museum was a 4-story building with a central atrium. We visited the bronze, jade, and painting sections of the museum and learned quite a bit about these Chinese art forms. Our stroll through the Xintiandi area was not so successful. Truly, trying to walk for walking’s sake while discovering neighborhoods and their architecture is very difficult with the boys. They have absolutely no interest in this type of tourism and regularly let us know how they feel about it. We did not find the French architecture or boutique stores were hoping to find. We did cut through Fuxing park, and if we had had more time I would have loved to just hang out in that park. It was cool and shady and vibrant with both locals and expats. Frisbees, American footballs, rugby balls and kites were flying around the open field. A lady was singing opera under a tree, a man was playing a violin-like instrument, and kids were trying to net small fish in the pond. We found our lunchtime meal again in a mall, this one very upscale on Huaihai Road. The boys were excited because we had stumbled upon a Crystal Jade restaurant. We ate at this restaurant chain twice in Singapore, and the boys loved the fresh noodles and soupy dumplings. This was yet another high class dining experience in Shanghai for about $50 for a family of four.
We finished the day with an acrobatics show at the Shanghai Circus World. The show was called ‘ERA.’ This troupe has to have ties with Cirque du Soleil; the production had all the elements of a Cirque show. The acrobats were 100% Chinese, though. While the transitions and costumes did not quite match the flair of a Cirque show, the acrobats were fantastic. The finale, and absolute best part of the show, was the motorcycle riders inside the spherical metal cage.
The final ‘To Do’ thing on our Shanghai list was to take the MagLev train to the airport. Jordan was most excited to do this. A tourist brochure stated that the train could go up to 450 km/hr. This was the fastest train on the planet. The ride from town to the airport lasts only 8 minutes. The taxi ride into town had taken us 50 minutes with no traffic. The train only reached 300 km/hr on the journey, but it was still quite thrilling. You could feel the speed of the train, and the tracks are actually banked on the turns.
Getting back to my ‘seeing is believing’ comment, I would say that as a tourist I had no idea that I have been visiting a one party socialist worker’s party state. Seeing Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royce on the roads, seeing the billboards for upscale designer fashions as well as Beyonce promoting H&M, seeing all the Chinese dressed very individually and quite chic, spending time in the packed Apple store on Nanjing Road; and peeking down the side alleys and seeing quite grey and Spartan living conditions, all this speaks of a society plugged into the world capitalist economic model. I did not find Shanghai seductive, and thus would not really consider coming back to the city, but I sure am glad that we got outside our comfort zone and took the chance of travelling here. My preconceptions of China are past history. Our boys, too, now have a firsthand view of the present and future China.