Trans-Contimental – Part 4

When we landed, Shanghai was greyer than an October day in Glasgow on a black and white telly: a fine drizzle coated the windows as we sped along the smooth, greased tarmac, towards the downtown area and Nanjing Road, where our hotel was located in the heart of the commercial district. The drive from Pudong Airport (no sniggering, children) takes around 40 minutes in clear traffic, but in the Monday morning traffic, it was more like ninety. The Chinese obviously followed their Arabic cousins manners with regards to changing lanes, observing the speedometer, and generally making sure that every overtaking manoeuvre was accompanied by expletives from the passengers within.

For at least half an hour before we hit the stop-start traffic of the central areas, we drove on an elevated highway that could have looked into the laundry-hanging high-rises of tower blocks, had the freezing and soaking garments not restricted the view. The sheer volume of residential blocks goes on for literally miles and miles and miles. It accompanies you all the way into the city, only gradually getting higher as you reach the central districts, and the skyskrapers that pierced the clouds like an architectural beanstalk.

With the greyness and mist all-consuming, the visibility of the scale of this city was hampered. In the following days, it revealed itself to be on such a vast scale, that one cannot comprehend the logistics of a single city that is home to over 20 million people. Staring from my 41st floor bedroom window, I could not see the end of it beyond the horizon.  From street level, it became less comprehensible.

It was dark by the time I left the hotel, following an essential power-nap, to become accustomed to my surroundings. Nanjing Road West is Shanghai’s Regent Street or 5th Avenue – all designer fashion fascias and aspirational, westernised, luxury stores. Specific high-end mall Plaza 66 was obviously where the well-to-do locals spent their time, and money. The freezing streets were jostling with rush hour pedestrians, avoiding the traffic that was ignoring red lights and ‘no u-turn’ signs. Mopeds sped between buses, and cut corners on pavements. The punctuation of car horns a constant companion, as the senses were blasted by hot air from stores, or the steaming aromas from soup-wagons and dim sum shopfronts.

As progressive, modernising pedestrians crossed at a variety of angles across the street, the old world interjected: the traffic was halted as a woman with a face the colour and complexity of a broken walnut, dragged a cart carrying fencing stacked so high, it could have probably been used to protect half of Glastonbury’s festival site. Walking at an angle normally reserved for the lorry pull in World’s Strongest Man, her forty-five degree straining was ignored by all, except me. It was so cold that I couldn’t stop and applaud, but this is a regular sight in the city, as the transition from tradition to modernity continues to consume the cities at such a rapid rate.

With coffee in hand, a wander was taken before the tiredness kicked in again, and added a hallucinatory edge to what was already a slightly surreal situation – there is something rewarding about travelling that distance, that length of time, to feel that you’re a long way from home and in a totally different culture. Travelling to Australia, while on the one hand rewarding for what is at the other end, feels slightly frustrating: being in the air so long you feel institutionalised – unable to understand why the world isn’t humming and slightly bumpy or wrapped in itchy blankets that don’t cover your feet – to arrive and see people driving on the left hand side of the road, to places like Doncaster and Newcastle, you could have been in the air for 6 months and just landed back in England.  With more spiders.

After 4 hours fitful overnight sleep in my room, I spent the day yawning through meetings. Apart from one session where I nodded off, only to scare myself awake with a chef-complimenting burp of chilli-beef, and a professional snigger as punctuation. We delayed the meeting for more coffee. I kept my job.

I had arranged to meet an ex-colleague of mine for dinner, who’d lived in China for seven years – two in Beijing, the last five in Shanghai. We met at the hotel, and there was a huge queue for cabs. He said it wasn’t far to walk, so off we went into the forest of neighbourhoods and streets that all looked very similar – tall buildings overhead with a mini-market in-built, mopeds scooting and hooting their way in and out of traffic. We reached the restaurant around 7.30, and it was packed. He hadn’t booked a table, but it was a small neighbourhood place that he felt was one of his favourites in the city. For a Baltimore native, he speaks incredible Mandarin. He negotiated that we could wait for a table to become available, and then traded verbals with a female customer that arrived after us, and basically said that she deserved the table before us. He gave her what for, I think. She got seated before us, but we took at well as you’d expect – by finding juvenile ways of saying offensive English phrases to her, through gritted teeth and false smiles.