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.
Post-dinner, he asked what I wanted to do, and as the city is the newest in China in terms of recent history, there is less heritage or cultural spots to visit on the tourist trail. I wanted to see something unique, or as with a friend in Hong Kong some years ago, where did he go when he was feeling homesick to remind himself of why this distant outpost is called home. We jumped in a cab and went to the older parts of the city, on the banks of the Bund river. First stop was the Vue bar atop the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Having managed to shake off the two, er, professional ladies that were trying to attach themselves to our Western wallets in the lobby, we made our way up and into the dark, barrel-lined, brickwork walkways. The bar was full of tourists, socialites, prostitutes from Eastern Europe and closer to home, and was not what either of us had in mind as being our kind of bar. Until, that is, he pointed out the view. It was truly incredible: overlooking the river, where old meets new, the historical and classic buildings on the right are dwarfed by the glowing and illuminated skyline and landmarks synonymous with Shanghai on the left. Taking a photo was advised before 10pm, when the government shut the lights off to save the energy. It was truly breath taking. As was the thick cigar smoke. I’d forgotten how grim smoking in bars was since the ban. We drained our overly-expensive Tsing Tao beers and progressed to the location of a more sedate nature.
The Waldorf Astoria is a wonderful hotel. Beautifully preserved, the lobby instantly transports you to the 1920’s, the chandelier crystal as bright as diamonds. You need a cigarette holder and a waistcoat to not feel out of place, and defy anybody not to start humming ‘Lady Of Spain’. We sat at the ageing oak bar, listening to the jazz singer croon away, sipping scotch, and toasted each other for being our Valentine for 2012.
One side of travelling is the gifts for those left behind. With both sons obsessed with Kung Fu Panda versions 1 and 2 – both to be recommended on the parent-friendly film list, and infinitely more enjoyable than that terrible Gnomeo gnonsence I ‘reviewed’ recently – traditional Chinese lanterns were requested. You have no idea how difficult such a traditional piece of tat would be to find on Shanghai High Street. So, off I trotted until I reached 580 Nanjing Road – here is the home, the Harrods if you will, of Shanghai’s counterfeiting retail business – but be warned, you sometimes get what you pay for – iPids, Murbelly bags, Parda sunglases are not uncommon.
However, once you have chosen your product and vendor, haggling is essential. It is what they do, what they live for, and to not engage is just not worth the sale. The game and the ritual is all. So here are some ground rules:
– Ensure you have taken the exact amount you want to spend out of your wallet – it’s difficult to negotiate the price down, then show a wad of notes – swearing might be involved.
– Let your sales person show you on the calculator – they know all the numbers, but it is part of the game. Feel free to rebuke such terrible offers, like I did, with a well muttered swear word or two. It doesn’t help the negotiation, but certainly helps the adrenalyn.
– If you’re not getting near where you want to pay, after tutting, rolling eyes and huffing, give it the ‘walk away’ – as long as you’re prepared to leave without the possible product, this is the final solution. You’d be surprised how much of a resignation you get from the vendor, the look that you are taking (more) food from their family’s table, etc. Yes, it is a drama for the sake of a couple of quid, but if going for higher value items, then give as good as you get.
With the transaction completed, and an air-punch of self-congratulation, I returned back to the hotel, to pack and prepare for the early morning flight to Seoul. Whilst Shanghai has highlights, it is a city I am glad I visited, and with more time might enjoy getting to know more, but I didn’t feel any warmth towards it. The food, the presentation and pride that the city obviously has resonates, but there is a heartbeat missing that I’d like to find one day.
Having established that sleep was over-rated for days now, getting up at 5am for a 7am flight was going to be no problem. Let’s hope South Korea presented as few problems as Shanghai did. We’ll see…..