Thursday, July 10, 2014

In China Finally! Sashaying Around Shanghai

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sashaying Around Shanghai, China

 The Narita Express train (easily accessible from Tokyo’s Main Station) whisked up off to Narita airport at. 7 15 am. It is a modern, sleek and efficient service and although the distance covered is great, the speed is so enormous that one arrives at Narita Airport within the hour. Our Japan Rail Passes were valid for travel on this line—which saved us a neat buck or two.

 Flying to China on China Eastern Airlines:

            The flight from Tokyo to Shanghai took about two and a half hours. Check-in was peaceful but already we could see a visible difference in the manner in which the Japanese handle business and service tasks (with quiet and extremely polite efficiency) and the way the Chinese do it (brusque, lacking smiles or finesse and much less efficient). We knew we were going to miss Japanese culture and work ethic after more than two weeks of being spoiled by their kind professionalism.

            Service aboard the aircraft was nothing to rave about either but there was an impressive level of efficiency at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai where we landed to go through Immigration formalities. That done, we left the airport terminal in search of the Airport Bus No. 2 (as instructed by the folks at the NYU faculty accommodation in Pudong where we would be staying). We found the bus stop easily enough and ten minutes later, were on our way after purchasing a ticket for 22 yuan each on the bus. And that was when our first impressions of Shanghai greeted us.

            Shanghai is clearly a city on the move and on the rise. A network of soaring flyover highways connect Pudong airport with the city center enabling traffic to move swiftly past concrete jungles that are mushrooming up quicker than you can say “Chop Suey” (which, incidentally, we did not find on any menu in China!). Cranes are everywhere, high-rise buildings reach for the skies in close clusters that form gated communities for the nouveau riche of this economically galloping society. What is marvelous is that while the population is burgeoning and youngsters are flocking into the urban metropolitan cities (Shanghai, Beijing) seeking employment and advancement opportunities, the infrastructure (roads, highways, bridges, universities) is keeping up magnificently with them so that they are taking for granted an extraordinary quality of life of which its nearest rival, India, can only dream. I was completely smitten by its attitude and its accomplishment.

            About forty minutes later, we were deposited at the bus terminal near Jing’An Temple, a beautiful gilded confection of pagoda roofs, columned terraces and wide walkways that made up one of the city’s landmark places of worship. No doubt, once upon a time, it buzzed with devotees—today, all I saw were tourists clicking pictures as China’s religious fervor has been suppressed by Communism. From the bus terminal, we found a taxi (plying in droves outside in the busy shopping complexes that included high-end names such as Armani, Zara, Gap, etc. For 20 yuan, we were dropped off, ten minutes later, at our accommodation, the Oakwood Residence, which is where Visiting NYU Faculty stay when on teaching assignments at NYU—Shanghai. It was they who had recommended this place to us—and we were wowed by these classy service apartments!

            A concierge on the ground floor helped us with our baggage and directed us to a fifth floor Receptionist who swiftly checked us in, handed us keys, a map of the city and instructions for taking a cab to start seeing the city center. Five minutes later, we were entering our beautiful studio apartment on the 20th floor with its gorgeous wide balcony that offered stunning views of the city’s Pudong area. We gasped at the superbly-appointed efficiency kitchen, the swanky bathroom and wonderfully comfortable bed. Llew switched on the giant TV to catch a Wimbledon preview in English—after more than two weeks of Japanese TV, it was wonderful to be able to understand what was being said.

 Off to the Old City:

            But, much as we would have loved to linger in our five-star accommodations (such a luxury after the handkerchief-size rooms we had endured in Japan), we got ready to leave for the taxi ride to the “Old City” which is constructed around the YuYuan Gardens, a famous landmark in the city center. We reached there within a half hour and made our way to the elaborately curved Chinese pagoda rooflines that we could see from the main road (Renmin Road). Once we got there, it was like being in Chinese Disneyland. The attempt to reconstruct Shanghai as it looked two hundred years ago when men roamed around in pyjamas wearing long pigtails and conical straw hats, has resulted in a wonderland that completely floors the visitor. Built entirely of timber early in the 20th century within the walls of what is referred to as the Old City, this space is a star attraction today as golden dragons and giant gilded lions decorate the structures.

            For the next one hour, we roamed around in a maze of narrow streets lined with modern shops selling jewelry, jade, souvenirs, tea, painted scroll wall-hangings, etc. and a variety of food items upon which the Chinese were just falling. The place was crowded as entire Chinese families had zeroed in on the area for an evening out. We found local delicacies being devoured and we could not resist purchasing long skewered, batter-fried crispy soft shell crab that is a seasonal delicacy that the Chinese adore. It was sprinkled over with a spice powder that made the entire dish delicious and Llew and I who shared a skewer with me thought it a very good buy indeed.

            More meandering around the area led us deeper and deeper into the heart of the Old City towards the Huxinting Tea Room, a temple-like pagoda-ed structure that you can enter for a cup of traditional Chinese tea. Because it was mobbed, we avoided it and bustled around through the outskirts of the walled city with the idea of wending our way towards the city’s next attraction, the Bund.

 Strolling Along the Bund:

              Arriving at the Bund meant leaving Old 18th century Shanghai behind and entering into the 19th century where, under British colonial control, a modern European quarter was created on the banks of the Huangpo River that slices the city in half. Think Marine Lines in Bombay with the ferocity of the Arabian City on the one hand and the row of Art Deco residential buildings across the busy thoroughfare. Well, the Bund is a similar creation. Only instead of the Arabian City, there is the placid river flowing along and instead of the residential buildings, there are solid, colonial, commercial buildings (mainly banks and financial edifices) that had made Shanghai (after London and Hongkong), one of the richest cities in the world.

            Arriving at the Bund also gives visitors their first glimpse of 21st century Shanghai which sits astride the Huangpo on the opposite bank in what has come to be known as Pudong. What was once swampland and later the heart of the Chinese underworld with its brothels, bars and gangster activity, today shows evidence of the miraculous resurrection of a Communist country that is determined to stake its place in the developed world as a power to reckon with. Its mindset is reflected in the towering skyscrapers that crowd Pudong, most noticeable of which is the Orient Pearl and TV Tower that resembles the Seattle Needle but is much more creatively illuminated. Every few seconds, its lighting is programmed to turn a different color—so that no two pictures of the tower at night can be exactly the same. Yes, it does offer an Observation Deck and getting up there is high on the list of the Chinese who visit from other parts of the country; but its neighbors are just as impressive—the Jin Mao Tower, designed by a firm of Chicago architects, the World Financial Building, etc. Just as in London where cheese graters, gherkins and walkie-talkies are rapidly transforming the modern skyline or Dubai where the rate of growth of the skyscraper city is so rampant that the skyline changes every week, so too here, the impact is awesome. Neon advertisements run along the facades of the buildings as slow junks ferry passengers along the river for dinner cruises.

            But by this point in time, it began to rain and being sans our brollys, we were grateful to take shelter on the Bund under a giant umbrella put up by a salesman. Soon rainwater pooled on the sidewalks and the lights of the buildings, so beautifully illuminated on the Bund periphery were reflected softly as to create a magical effect while we walked by each one of them taking in their Victorian solidity or Art Deco delicacy. As we moved along, we were part of the great crowds of local Chinese enjoying the wet summer evening, their enthusiasm none the worse for the general dampness in the air. If China is the world’s most populous country, it was definitely evident this evening as thousands surged forward and back in this busy quarter.

            Being instructed to enter the Fairmont Peace Hotel, we did just that and admired its Art Deco ambience. Recently refurbished at a great cost, the building scintillates with five-star charm. In a long gallery, referred to as the Peace Photography Museum, we saw pictures of the original hotel’s founder, Sir Victor Sassoon, with leading lights of his time: Charlie Chaplain, Noel Coward, even later politicians of the Revolution such as Chou El-Lai and Mao Zedong. It was a nice photo capsule of the life and times that the hotel had seen.

Night Time on Nanjing Road:

            Back out on the Bund, we decided to go out in search of some dinner and were swept, once again, by the momentum of the crowds to Nanjing Road which is the busiest thoroughfare of the city. Today, the road dazzles, especially at night, with the over-sized neon signs of designer clothiers such as Versace and Ralph Lauren who are catering to the money-ed Chinese consumer with his love for all things Western. Malls rise up at every street corner. Their garish neon signs announce food offerings through pictures of restaurants to be found in their food courts. Unfortunately, much of it is in Chinese and virtually no one on the streets can communicate in English. Going only by instinct, we found a place on the 7th floor of a mall—we don’t know the name of the mall or the restaurant. All we know is that it exhibited pictures of what Llew called “recognizable Chinese food” at very reasonable prices and so in we were.

            We found ourselves in a massive restaurant with at least 300 covers but most of the tables were empty as the Chinese end their dinners early. It was about 9. 00 pm when we sat down to eat—late by Chinese standards. Still, we were very warmly welcomed by the sweet girlish wait staff who couldn’t speak or understand English but were eager to please. They seated us, presented us with a packet of wet wipes, poured us Chinese warm green tea into tiny cups and presented us with the extensive menu, all the dishes of which had accompanying pictures.

            It did not take us long to order Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy) with Garlic and Chilli Peppers and a Dish of Stir-Fried Duck with Onions and Black Pepper. We also ordered one small bowl of steamed rice. Our dishes arrived within ten minutes and left us awed—they were so scrumptious. For the next hour, we took our time savoring the two courses, washing it down with green tea and then helping ourselves to some more as the portions served were huge. And when our bill arrived, we were stunned by how little we had paid for such a good meal. We were also stunned that we were charged extra for the tea and for the packets of wet wipes only one of which we had actually used!

            It was difficult to find a cab back to our hotel after our dinner as most merry-makers had the same objective. But soon we were in one of them and wending homeward. Our hotel staff had presented us with cards which were printed in Chinese that said, “Please take me back home to the Oakwood Residence”. The cabbies read these printed cards and took us home with no difficulty. Needless to say, we were grateful for our glamorous facilities, our steaming showers and our air-conditioned room and we fell asleep exhausted, quite charmed by Shanghai and the first impression it had made on us.            




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