Shang ‘Em Hai

The Huangpo river, a couple of weeks ago

Six days in and I was averaging five hours sleep each night. Things were getting weird, even by my standards. The daunting prospect was a 15 hour flight to Shanghai, direct from Cape Town. Having been out for a last supper with excellent hosts, I decided that, with the flight leaving at 1am, red wine was the best course of medicine to cure the insomnia.

Of course, I had forgotten that before you go to sleep, you actually go through the drunk stage. An increasing effect, that accelerates once you’ve stopped drinking. Holding it together, through passport control, security, and finally into my seat was worthy of celebration. With more red wine and a Kit Kat (Chunky, in case you were wondering). We took off, and I decided to continue with the airborne cinematic marathon.

– Flags of Our Fathers, starring nobody I knew, apart from the bloke that plays Frank Sobotka in Season 2 of The Wire. There might have been more but at this stage I couldn’t see out of more than one, squinted eye, which was slowly glueing itself shut with Cabernet Sauvignon.

To the right: not a bottle opener, but a very large building, far away.

I awoke in more darkness. The last eye to close was the first to open as I surveyed my estate. I would have politely called it a “crime scene” – my standard issue flight blanket was claret stained, and I had managed to turn my Kit Kat into a chocolate necklace, having obviously missed my mouth, thus turning my tee shirt into a confectionery version of Bobby Sands prison cell. The film, by this point, was a flag-bearing after thought.

I was asked by the flight attendant if I wanted anything to eat. I was hungry, but having sat for seven hours straight, it was time for breakfast. Wasn’t it? With the various time zone changes, it was 4pm. What the fuck did that mean? What do you eat? I’d missed lunch as well as breakfast, but it was too early for supper. I was ruined. Broken. Only thing for it: “Do you have any crisps? And a can of coke, please.” All day breakfast of Champions. Settle in and get ready to land in Shanghai. It was midnight when we got there, and in reality it was actually some time mid-afternoon, or something. A theme that would haunt me for the rest of the week.

The morning, I think, broke bright sunlight. It was humid – and the you could feel the heat through the windows. Having got to the hotel so late, I had no idea where I was geographically, so a stroll and coffee might work. Within 50 yards of leaving the hotel lobby, I was drenched. Not a cloud in the sky, but absolutely sodden. So, in true British spirit, I continued my walk – it was only going to get worse, so I might as well carry on.

Walking towards the Huangpo river, I was on the opposite side of the historical Bund area I visited earlier in the year. As I reached the water’s edge, a terrible humming began in my head. Remember the morning after that gig, or club night, the one where you were battered in front of the speakers? Well, it was that: tinnitus on a massive come down after a monster session. It was gut-churningly horrendous. So I turned around and walked a different direction and it faded. Thank the ear-protecting Lord. But, it started rising again as I continued walking. And then it struck me that the high powered electricity pylon buzzing feedback was actually being produced by concealed speakers, designed to keep the birds away from the trees that lined the streets. Admittedly, I didn’t see a bird for days whilst there, so it obviously worked, but apart from trees, I’d suggest that no other living thing could function with these things grinding away. Quite how the bloke I saw sleeping on a bench with it going on, one can only imagine how bad things must actually be in his head.

Sleeping, just before his head exploded

I said it last time I was here, but the sheer scale and size of Shanghai is literally mind-blowing – maybe more than bird-scaring-brain-bending screeches. It just goes on and on. As you cross the river, on one of the higher bridges, the horizon meets a continual line of blocks of buildings. The bridges are preferable to the tunnels, though. Thankfully taxis are cheap – about the only thing in Shanghai that is – as you can spend a considerable amount of time in them. Having changed shirt for a lunchtime meeting, my taxi driver subjected me to a Julio Iglesias album, which he hummed along to. For my part, I clapped along, out of time, with the look of a murderer in my eyes every time he checked to see if I would stop. He turned it up. I clapped worse. We were both relieved when the journey finished. It was to be my first stand-off.

Constructing dim sum scientifically, Din Tai Fung

Thankfully lunch with my American friend Colin was a relief. Din Tai Fung have a chain of dim sum restaurants, and they are excellent. Simple, fresh, and so flavoursome, it is an absolute must. Their speciality is the xiaolong bao dumpling – small dumplings that contain a broth, surrounding the filling of choice inside them. Put them in your mouth, and as the membrane pops, your mouth fills with the hot soup, followed by the tender pork, or crumbling crabmeat. Even the mushroom version, contained the single strongest concentration of flavour I have experienced. And as it is fast in both preparation and serving, constantly ordering is the spirit.

Unfortunately, this was to be the culinary highlight of the trip – as with business meetings, there is a great deal of ceremony that goes with entertaining us Western clients. Sitting down, eventually, after several handshakes and two-handed business card exchanges, at a table for ten, the lack of menu causes alarm bells to ring. Our host had taken care of everything. What was then delivered to the table I am sure was a selection of delicacies. However, to this pallet, it was a long way from that – smoked chicken, boiled in brine, then chopped in slices, bones included. Whilst I pushed this around my bowl for a while, my non-English speaking diner to the left, slurped, burped and crunched his way through it, even asking for more. He could have mine, I offered. This was followed by what I believe was sea cucumber, with various mushrooms. What it actually resembled was grey mucus, hoiked from the throats of a thousand homeless men. The sort of consistency that won’t sit in a spoon without taking the rest of it out as it slops around.

Are you looking at me? Suckling crackling only, no meat.

Next was half a suckling pig. Result! Even the cherry tomato that had replaced it’s eye couldn’t put me off. As I started to look like I was going to dive across the table and give it a hug and a lick, I was informed that I was only to take the crackling, but not the meat. I beg your pardon? Sooooo, it’s ok for Mr Slurpy to cramp his way through the chicken, but when I am presented with an edible dish, I only get the skin? I felt like Buffalo Bill.

When food disappoints, as in this case (and more than once as it happens), booze can retrieve some situations. Having been stuck in hotels and meeting rooms, predominantly in the soulless business districts, it was time to branch out. Our local colleagues had given us the address of a bar, in the middle of a tree-lined, residential side street in the heart of the French Concession area. A roof top terrace bar, with locals and ex-pats sipping beers and cocktails, it was a side of this humungous city that I knew existed but had never seen. And gave me encouragement that there is a lot more to investigate in this place.

Upon exiting a few drinks later, however, I encountered stand-off number two. Whilst trying to get in a cab, a toothless man who’s skin was doing an impersonation of a walnut with eyes, started offering me flowers to purchase. I was not in the mood to buy. I was soon to discover that ‘hwa’ means flower, and that I would never forget it.

“Hwa hwa?”

“No hwa hwa”

Regrouping, he tried again. With a pregnant pause, a wider smile, he attacked. “……….hwa……..hwa?”

“No hwa hwa”

This went on for several rounds. I even started to swear in between ‘hwa’s. He then brought in reinforcements. Another face that you would have been happy to use as a brass rubbing in a school project, decided that saying “hwa hwa?” simultaneously, in different tones, was going to close the deal. It didn’t. But, it amused my colleagues as I stood there for a further five hwa-ing minutes, shaking my head and raising my increasingly amused and voice.

But, as I ended the merry dance and moved towards the cab, behind me a couple pushed a small child to and fro, sat in an empty Stella Artois box. It took me a while to actually work out that this cardboard was the worst go-kart in history, yet the smile of wonder on the child’s face showed that the improvisation, born of poverty, had justified the persistence of the salesmen.

It was time to leave Shanghai, and end another mammoth trip. Fortunately, the next time I would be on a plane was the family holiday to Mallorca. Surely that would provide the relaxation that your scribe needed? Well, we’ll soon find out.

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