SHANGHAI (pop 23 million)
One of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities, Shanghai profiles modern China in a way unlike anywhere else in the country. This is a city of action, not ideas, with non-stop shopping and skyscrapers.
History. Shanghai means ‘by the sea’, and as the gateway to the Yangzi River, it has long been the ideal trading port. With only 30,000 residents in the late 17th century, it wasn’t until the British arrived in 1842, that it blossomed. The French and Americans arrived soon after, so by 1853, it was the largest of all Chinese ports. Built on the trade of opium, silk and tea, it also lured the world’s great houses of finance. It was full of opium dens, gambling joints and brothels managed by gangs supported by the foreign powers.
After Chiang Kaishek’s coup in 1927, the Kuomintang operated with the gangs, foreign police and factory owners to suppress labor unrest. Exploited, poor, sold into slavery and excluded from the high life, they formed the Communist Party here in 1921. Once they eradicated the slums, opium addicts and child and slave labor, it became a colorless factory town.
The long slumber came to an end in 1990 when Pudang (the Shanghai financial district on the east side of the Huangpu River) started to develop. Since then, its burgeoning economy has put it miles ahead of everyone else. A mecca for Chinese and foreign economic migrants, by 2010, 3000 people lived in every square kilometer. Nine million migrants live in the city creating a jumble of dialects, lifestyles and cuisines.
Climate. Winters are cold and damp, summers hot, humid and sapping with sudden epic rains. The best time to come are the shoulder seasons of April to mid-May and late September to mid-November.
Sights. Although the municipality covers a vast area, the only sites seen by most tourists are the historical attractions just west of the Huangpo River (Puxi) and the financial district with its famous skyline just east of the river (Pudong).
The Bund. This is the one-kilometer long street (actual name East Zhongshan Rd – the Bund is an Anglo-Indian word for the embankment of a muddy waterfront) that parallels the west side of the river. This was the colonial center of Shanghai where all the powerful banks and trading houses were located and in the early 20th century, where art deco and neoclassical buildings were constructed. The Bund had its golden age in the 1920s and 1930s before war and occupation brought an end to the high life. Only in the past 15 years has it rekindled its past glory, restoring many heritage buildings. Today it is the designer retail and restaurant zone. Some of the buildings are open to the public: The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building has a beautiful mosaic ceiling with 12 zodiac signs and the world’s former 8 centers of finance. The Fairmont Peace Hotel is an art deco masterpiece.
The optimum activity here is simply to stroll, especially at night when all the electric views of Pudong across the river and the illuminated grandeur of the Bund shows its best. There is a big promenade right on the water full of Chinese taking selfies and pictures of the skyscrapers across the river. The colonial buildings themselves are lit up but not much was happening there at night. I walked the length of the walkway and returned to my hostel.
East Nanjing Rd. The other prime “street” in Puxi, this is where the first department stores opened in the 1920s (the Sun Sun in 1926 – today the Shanghai No 1 Food Store – and the Sun Company in 1936 – now the Shanghai No 1 Department Store). Now no longer the cream of Shanghai shopping, it remains a glowing forest of neon at night and is still one of the most famous and crowded streets in China. My hostel was one block off East Nanjing Rd. It too does not allow outside food – I have never seen hostels anywhere that have this rule. Usually there is a full kitchen and you can cook anything. I have never been hassled on a street so much as East Nanjing – old people and the blind hit on you constantly, people want to sell you everything. All the downtrodden of Shanghai society are there – bag ladies, schizophrenics and a whole lot of people going through the garbage cans. I was pimped five times for massage girls, basically prostitutes. But it is packed with normal people too and it is colorful with all the neon and designer stores. Who buys all these $2,000 watches, jewelry and overpriced designer clothes?
Everything to see is close by and easy walking. The Shanghai Art Museum had moved and the Museum of Contemporary Art was closed for a new exhibition. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall has old photos, a mammoth scale model of the city and all kinds of exhibits extolling Shanghai as one of the top cities of the world. The Shanghai Museum has tremendous exhibits of all the usual – porcelain and pottery, jade, furniture, paintings, Buddhist art from the Kokata Museum in India, seals and ethnic costumes. The Shanghai Post Museum is located in a magnificent 1924 post office. The Rockbund Art Museum had 4 floors of real clowns lying around. I asked for my money back saying that this was not art – they refused.
PUDONG NEW AREA.
On the east side of the Huaunpu River, it is best known for its skyscraper-stuffed skyline, one of China’s most photographed panoramas. The main activity is ascending to the observation decks. Clear smog-free days are imperative. The best time to come may be at dusk to see the city during the day and night.
Shanghai Tower. Slated to be open in early 2015, it will be the world’s second tallest building at 632m and 121 floors. Its novel design has two layers of glass making air conditioning unnecessary. It surpassed Guangzhou’s Canton Tower (600m) as China’s tallest building but will be passed by Shengzhou’s Ping An Finance Tower (660m) still under construction. The Four Seasons Hotel, occupying the 84th to the 110th floors will be the highest hotel in the world. It has 106 elevators (including the world’s longest at 548m), three with a top speed of 3540 ft/second.
Shanghai World Financial Center, at 492m, is the city’s second tallest building. The top has a bottle-opener top. There are three observation decks on the 94th, 97th, and 100th (has transparent glass walkways) floors with respective prices of ¥120/150/300.
Jinmao Tower. At 420.5m, the observation deck is on the 88th floor.
Oriental Pearl Tower. This poured concrete, atomic age retro rocket is the most prominent structure especially when lit up at night.
The 2010 World Expo Site has only five of the original pavilions still standing. Only two are open to the public. This is not worth visiting.
More observations on China.
I am sitting in the large social area of my hostel in Shanghai. All the Chinese are not socializing, sitting alone and on their screens. Most of the foreigners are sitting and talking to each other. We are mostly talking about Chinese people and their interesting, different culture. It is difficult to socialize even if they speak good English – conversations don’t seem to go anywhere.
From talking to some students going to school in Shanghai, some of their observations were interesting. Night clubs let foreigners in for free as they dance and socialize. Chinese pay. They buy full bottles of whiskey and drink all of it. If you want a whiskey, they will buy a full bottle and pour for you until it is all gone. They drive home drunk.
At school Chinese rush to get all the front row seats in a class. The foreigners sit in the back with a large gap between the two groups. If they have a class after lunch, they will come early and leave their packs in a front row to reserve it. But they often fall asleep in class. The library is full of students sleeping at the tables. There is huge competition for jobs. One extreme was 20,000 applicants for one position. Each was given 3 minutes to sell themselves.
White young guys had no problems having Chinese girl friends. One-night stands are common with sex routine. Condoms were supplied free in his apartment and there was always a box full in the lobby. They called it “yellow fever.”
Business meetings were, like Japanese ones, more about forming long-term relationships than actually doing business. The first day would be socializing and talking about your family. The second and third would be going to see the sights. A three-day meeting usually turned into seven.
Prostitution is rampant in Shanghai. In tourist areas you get hassled every 10 feet for a massage. These are only about sex. They quote 200¥ but I am not sure what this gets you. It gets tiring as they are so persistent. My response has become “How about you? Wouldn’t you like a white guy?” Sometimes I get a little lewd just for fun. I will leave it up to your imagination. The sellers are older and not the pretty girls in the brothels. They giggle and say “You joke.” But then they leave you alone.
The Fake Market is huge and full of copied everything. Bargaining is expected. 25% of list price is often what you will buy it for. A fake Canada Goose jacket was 190¥ (US$30). If they agree to your first price, then you have offered too much. The bargaining can be fun but gets tiring after a while.
I get tired of listening to Chinese speaking loudly on their phones. Old people yell into them. In fact, I am getting kind of tired of Chinese people and their lack of social awareness.
Food. It is nothing to write home about. Navigating a menu only in Chinese is impossible and the pictures don’t really give much of an idea of what you are ordering. I have had the best success using my Mandarin/English phrase book. Watch what you order as everything will come as separate dishes, often way more than you want. Soup is ubiquitous. The meat is often more bone than meat. Chinese spit the bones out on the table. I avoid anything that looks like the real animal. To tell the truth, I am not very adventurous and eat Western food when I can get it.
Everything is fried including the vegetables. Oil in grocery stores is only available in 1-2 gallon containers. Only white sticky rice is available. Street food is more reliable as you see what you are getting. I ordered a hotdog as the picture showed a bun. The “bun” was formed gelatinous bad-tasting rice. Add hot water noodles are a staple.
Milk is served hot. Coffee is not common except in coffee shops. Starbucks is more expensive here than at home which is hard to believe as labor costs must be less. I have said many times that grocery stores have very little that you would recognize. Most is processed and anything can be bought in vacuum-packed containers. There are more kinds of cookies and Twinky-type stuff than you could believe, but none of them are good. Street markets and large supermarkets have a good selection of vegetables and fruit, although some are not recognizable.
Train Stations. Most of the high-speed trains leave from new stations well outside the city centres. I departed from Hangzhou from the east train station, about 30kms from the lake. It is brand new and unbelievably huge. There are 28 departure gates each with an A and a B side, that is 56 gates and I assume 28 separate tracks. Trains are leaving every 30 minutes or so from each gate. There is nothing comparable in North America or Europe. And I would bet that you have never heard of Hangzhou. And this is only one of three train stations in the city – Main, North and East.
Security. X-ray scanners are everywhere – airports (that one is obvious), bus stations, train stations, museums and every metro station. The ones at Hangzhou East Train Station had 6 people working on each scanner – a guard, someone to check your ticket, someone with a little bat to control access to the scanner, someone on the screen, someone with a wand after the metal detector and someone at a desk behind. I counted 6 different scanners working at 06:00. Assessments are cursory and appear meaningless. So most of it seems like a sham although standards vary widely. Some metro stations have a machine that assesses water bottles. Twice I have had to have my shave gel checked. Some don’t allow lighters. Some don’t allow knives (I sometimes forget my Swiss Army knife but refuse to give it up). I estimated that 10% of the population were street and sidewalk sweepers; that many must be involved in security checks. With 1.3 billion people, manpower is not a problem.
Children. As almost all children are the only child, these single kids are cherished and it appears indulged, especially if male. Helicopter style parenting seems rampant. Grandparents seem to be major care-givers. There are no school buses and most kids arrive at school accompanied by a parent. Often on motorcycles, few have helmets and many stand in front of the parent. Safety would be a concern. This happens every morning and afternoon with massive crowds of parents blocking the streets. A lot of time and energy must be expended.
Pets. Dogs are common and appear to be also cherished. Usually on a leash, many have coats and booties. Often they are carried so that only the owner is getting exercise. The dogs leads the owners. Cleaning up dog poop is not done but there is little around to step on, so maybe the owner of the poop place does the clean-up.
Banks. I have had the need to visit a lot of banks. 20-30 minute waits for service are routine even though there are few other people in line. And then simple things take another 20-30 minutes as information is entered on paper forms and computer. Everything is checked four times.
ZHEJIANG PROVINCE (pop 47 million)
This is the small province just south of Shanghai on the East China Sea. The capital, Hangzhou surrounds West Lake, the province’s main draw. The north has a web of rivers and canals and a thousand islands off the NE coast.
History. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the area was China’s main trading center and port. Food was shipped to the depleted north via the Grand Canal which starts here. Due to intensive cultivation, the province has lost much natural vegetation and much of it is now flat, featureless plain.
Climate. Zhejiang has a hot, subtropical climate with hot, sticky summers and chilly, clammy winters. Rain is heavy in May and June (and typhoons can make landfall in summer) but slows to a drizzle the rest of the year.
Hangzhou (pop 6.2 million)
History. Hangzhou’s history dates to the start of the Qin dynasty in 221 BC. Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century, noting that Hangzhou had a circumference of 100 miles and 12,000 bridges. The city flourished after being linked to the Grand Canal in 610. In 1136 it became the capital of the Southern Song dynasty but a fire in 1237 reduced 30,000 residences to piles of carbon. During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, it remained a prosperous commercial city. The Taiping rebellion reduced most of the city to ashes and half a million died through disease, starvation and warfare ending Hangzhou’s significance as a commercial center. Almost everything here is fairly recent construction.
I took the high-speed train 1½ hours from Shanghai. They run every hour and are cheaper from Shanghai South Rail Station.
West Lake is a Unesco World Heritage Site but I am not sure why. It is not that impressive. Pagoda topped hills surround the willow, plum and peach lined lake. Originally a lagoon adjoining the Qiantang River, the marshy water was dredged in the 8th century. An island and two large causeways were constructed from dredged silt: the Bai Causeway in the 9th century and the Su Causeway in the 11th. They are traffic-free (well except for a the occasional car, frequent motorcycle and many bicycles even though there are many no bicycle signs – Chinese have a hard time following rules), lined by big trees and half-moon bridges. The islands and shores have museums, pavilions, gardens and parks.
It took me three hours to walk around the lake not counting a few breaks on a sunny but cold day (+6°C was the high. It has been below zero in Beijing all week). The Lonely Planet recommends bicycles but I think walking is much better. For a Friday, the place was packed. Opera singers sang, musicians played and groups danced on the east side. 13-passenger golf carts full of bundled-up people whizzed by. A more energetic walk goes through the hills on the northwest side through several temples and a pagoda. It is possible to take several kinds of lake cruises.
I was up at 05:00 to take a taxi the 40kms to the East Train Station for my 7½ hour high-speed ride south through most of Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces to Xiamen, the capital of Fujian on the South China Sea. At 200km/hr but with many stops, I can only guess at the distance. The train had 14 cars, each with about 62 seats (16 first class – 4 seats per row, 2 on each side and 48 second class, 5 seats per row). I can’t see any empty seats in my car. About 80% are asleep and the rest on their smart phone – playing games, checking their email obsessively. Aisle seats are a problem. Even though you tuck yourself in well, they step on your feet and can’t move around you. Often it is more like climbing over you.
Lakes, ponds and canals are everywhere and many homes sit on water. A lot of the homes are single dwelling Western style places. As elsewhere in China, every square inch of land cultivated and planted. Fields are small plots and mostly vegetables are grown on meticulous elevated beds with irrigation channels. We never leave civilization for long.