Monday, May 7, 2012

Golden Week Day 1: Shanghai

In case you’re paying close attention to the date on this post, Golden Week was actually last week.  In Japan, a series of (unrelated) state holidays are all scheduled within the first week of May, so that a large fraction of the country has the week off of work.  Japanese hotels and tourist sites are booked to capacity, so a lot of Japanese people spend their week off traveling outside the country.  With a week off of work and Quinn in the US visiting her family, I did the only thing that seemed logical – travel to somewhere that Quinn really has no interest in visiting.  China.  My trip lasted a week, but instead of blogging about the whole thing at once I’ll do this in installments.

The first stop on my big China adventure was Shanghai, where I had an overnight layover before proceeding onward to Hong Kong.  The first thing that struck me about the place, as soon as I got off the plane, was the smog.  It felt oddly similar to being at a very high altitude – it was difficult to ever really take a deep breath and I could always sort of feel the air in my lungs in a bad way.  I suspect it was worse than usual.  

 I took the Maglev from Pudong airport to Longyang station (the only other stop on the Maglev).  I wanted to get a good picture of the train (see below) but everyone else had the same idea so it was impossible to avoid getting a picture with one of my fellow passengers in it.  After that, I caught the subway to People’s Square, because this is where Google Maps (erroneously, as it turns out) told me that my hotel was located.  I walked around and around the neighborhood, becoming increasingly worried that I might have booked a room in a non-existent hotel.  Eventually I talked to a French couple who lent me a cell phone with which I called the hotel and confirmed that they did in fact exist, but that the address I had was wrong.  The couple I’d spoken with knew enough Mandarin to help me talk to a Chinese guy who helped me hail a taxi and explained to the driver where I was trying to go.

After smog and helpful strangers, the third thing that impressed itself upon me was the traffic.  After living in Japan for almost a year, Shanghai traffic is terrifyingly chaotic.  Pedestrians cross everywhere; they often seem to avoid looking at the approaching traffic because making eye contact or changing your walking speed might be considered a sign of vulnerability.  There’s no reason not to jaywalk, since red lights are sort of optional anyway.  Add in the scooters and mopeds which are about as numerous as the cars and are apparently bound by no laws whatsoever, and you have a situation that is, ummm…. different from what you see in Japan.

 After dropping my backpack at the hotel, I set out to do some exploring.  I first went to the Bund.  (For the Germanophones out there, it’s actually “bunned”, not “boont.”  I got it wrong at first too).  It’s almost an opportunity-to-reflect-on-the-modern-China cliché of Tom Friedman-esque proportions: a raised promenade that offers two impressive views.  On one side, the 1920’s-era British-style architecture of the old downtown Shanghai.  On the other side, across the river, was the sci-fi-style skyline of Pudong, apparently all of which was built since 1990.  There were tons of tourists on the promenade once it got dark, mostly young and Chinese, and the vast majority of the digital cameras were pointed toward Pudong.  I imagine in five years people all over China will be looking at those pictures and saying “Wow, that’s what it looked like in 2012?  It’s so much bigger now…”


 After walking the length of the Bund, I turned and started walking back toward People’s Square.  On the way there, I stopped and got something to eat at a hole-in-the-wall noodle place where no one spoke a word of English.  Pointing at things will get you a long ways.  I got soup that appeared to have the vertebrae of some large mammal (pig or cow, I’m guessing) with some meat and gristle stuck to them.  Judging from how confused everyone looked when I said I was done, I was probably supposed to eat some part of it that I didn’t.  There was a kitten wandering around in there, too.  I also passed a seafood market that had not only live fish swimming around in plastic containers for purchase, but also a bin full of live frogs with a net over them to keep them in.  I was still a little hungry and found a stand that was selling spicy Uighur lamb kebabs.  People’s Square was much more relaxed at night than it had been in the afternoon; mostly just lots of young people hanging around enjoying the warmish weather.  

I got back to the hotel by walking down East Nanjing Rd., which was much livelier.  It’s apparently a big shopping area, and there were huge crowds of people walking around, even though it was well after 10pm.  I really don’t know when it starts to quiet down.  Every block or so, I was accosted by lots of men in cheap suits saying “You need lady massage?  I get you beautiful girl” and lots of young women who just started off with “Hello!” and seemed very interested in going to get coffee.  If I’d met them in the elevator I’d think they were just being friendly, but given the environment I suspected that something else might be going on.  Of course, maybe I’m just being cynical and Shanghai really is full of very friendly girls who can’t wait to try out their English.  I guess I’ll never know.  

There were also street performances – the staple seemed to be groups of middle-aged women doing a choreographed dance, usually to old-fashioned-sounding Chinese music.  I also passed some practicing in the park on my way from the Bund, but they were working on a country/western line dancing routine.  There was also something that looked like an impromptu choir with a very enthusiastic conductor.  The oddest one of all was a huge crowd of people with techno dance music emanating from the middle of it.  After climbing on top of something to see over the crowd and figure out what was going on, I saw a group of 10 or so people dancing in a not-particularly-organized fashion.  They weren’t uniformly young, good-looking, skilled, or even enthusiastic; I couldn’t even really tell if they were people who knew each other before or just the ones brave enough to step out of the crowd and dance (or with a girlfriend/spouse who dragged them out).  It really wasn’t that interesting; it was the crowd that was the fascinating part.  I’m not sure what the big deal was – maybe the crowd was a bunch of tourists from the countryside who had never seen that kind of thing before.  Or maybe the dancers were Chinese celebrities.  Or maybe no one cared about the dancers and everyone was trying to figure out what everyone else was so interested in.

I got a little turned around between the subway stop and my hotel, but met some very nice people who gave me directions that I sort of understood.  Good thing I remembered how to say the street name.  Lots of hand motions.  Anyway, while I was on the way there I rounded a corner on a back street and came across an area where people had set up lights and chairs and big grills and were just having a big neighborhood party.  It was probably 11:30pm by this point and I, unfortunately, wasn't hungry.  It seemed awfully late for that sort of thing on a Sunday night, but apparently lots of people were taking a four-day weekend for International Workers' Day.

 I eventually found my way back to the hotel and got some sleep in preparation for the flight to Hong Kong the next day.  Stay tuned for day 2!

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