Pudong Airport is beautiful, modern and empty when we arrive. There’s not even anyone at Customs to show an interest in us. We hop on the Maglev (a futuristic train which runs by magnetic levitation, poised just above the tracks) for the eight minute trip to town.
Numbers appear on a screen as the speed goes from zero to a phenomenal 430 kilometres an hour, and people stand with their phones and cameras aimed for a photo. When we reach 430 the flashes go off. Then all is calm for the rest of the journey.
We speed through flat country with market gardens, small ponds that look like fish farms, transmission lines, and rows of gargantuan apartment buildings. People are out hoeing the soil like they’ve done for centuries.
The super modern metro takes us to Nanking Road, the Oxford Street of Shanghai. An older man with a laptop smiles at us benignly and asks us if we know where to get off. Then John puts his Maglev ticket in the slot by mistake and can’t exit out the gate. Immediately people stop to help.
Some first impressions: quite a lot of people speak a bit of English; the women all wear trousers often embellished with pieces of leather and embroidery; the power lines are all exposed in massive tangles of cable; bicycles, tricycles and scooters carry huge loads. People are relaxed, cheaply dressed and very tired. There is every conceivable style of uniform. John points out a guy sweeping up rubbish dressed like a lieutenant colonel.
The Shanghai Hiker Hostel turns out to be fantastic in every way. It even provides towels and toilet paper, something we weren’t expecting. Our double en suite room costs 12 pounds a night. We drag our overstuffed suitcases up to the 3rd floor and collapse onto the huge bed with its old white cotton sheets. Bliss.
We had virtually no sleep on the flight from London, and not much in the previous couple of days, but we’re too hypo to sleep now. After a short rest we venture out.
Next door is a tiny cafe with a cauldron on the boil outside. It’s 30 pence for Muslim beef and noodles. One of the cooks is making the noodles, stretching a big lump of dough between his hands back and forth, then plunging his fingers into it like cat’s cradle. Hey presto, thin noodles!
As we sit in the tiny space devouring the delicious noodles and meat in broth, a young man from Tasmania talks to us. He tells us this is the best noodle shop around.
We walk down to huge Huangpu River and the Bund, the old colonial area, which has banks and other grand old buildings from around 1900. The river is full of ships and barges of all sizes going up one side and down the other. Some of the barges are very old and low to the water, laden with shingle. We just love it.
Along the promenade people are selling kites and toys to the tourists. When the police appear they instantly pack up. We make a bee line for home and sleep for seventeen hours. When we wake up we eat the typical budget travellers’ picnic: Pringles crisps, marmalade sandwiches, shrimp pretzels, orange juice, bananas and beer.
Next day we walk the backstreets. It’s fascinating to see endless rows of tiny engineering shops selling every spare part imaginable. We stop at Yang’s Fry Dumplings for ginger pork dumplings with molten gravy in the middle.
It doesn’t feel like a repressive country. The atmosphere is a bit like London with everyone going about their business. Everywhere there are small traders making a buck. People squat in backstreets selling live fish, shellfish, and turtles out of tiny tanks, and there are little food stalls, some on the backs of bicycles.
The People’s Square used to be a racecourse built by the Brits in the 1860s. Now it’s a mixture of park, lakes, high rise buildings and a government building complete with guards who do a ritualistic changeover. We catch a lift to the 38th floor of the Marriott Hotel to look at the view. Low trees have been planted in pleasing groups and birds fly around. The old Shanghai Racing Club complete with its clock tower is a reminder of the colonial past. We see a man asleep on a chair in a phone box.
Back in the engineering shops it’s all tubing, pipes, valves and endless tools. Someone is cutting lengths of stainless steel on the footpath. A twenty foot long bamboo ladder is being carried on a bicycle. The most mind boggling sight is two men with a stainless steel pole slung between them on their shoulders. Hanging from the pole is an engine. They carry it upstairs. All the scaffolding on buildings is made of bamboo.
We check out a supermarket. Even the salted peanuts contain MSG. In a pet shop the assistant hits the top of the puppies’ cage with a fly swat in a vain attempt to stop them jumping and barking.
By 3pm the pollution in the air is obvious and sulphurous. Some people are wearing a mask over their mouth and nose.
Next morning after a breakfast of chemical marmalade on bread, we walk along the Huangpu River to the Yu Gardens. They are small, old (16th century), and intense. The pools of golden fish are beautiful when viewed from above. The buildings are very old with lots of nooks and crannies. The camellias, magnolias, japonicas in flower and bonsai flowering cherries appeal to us. The predominant colour is grey. It’s a completely different style of gardening from the Western traditions we’re familiar with.
After an Earl Grey tea and a raisin scone at Starbucks we set off on the Huangpu River cruise to the Yangtze River mouth and the East China Sea. The cargo on the ships and barges consists of containers, very fine coal, shingle, sand, coils of wire, lengths of concrete and gas bottles. People live on the barges and we see their washing hanging out. A couple of naval boats pass but no small or pleasure boats. We’re each given a bag of snacks – individually vacuum packed items which are very strange to us. I eat all the green bean ones but John can only manage the red jelly bar.
At the mouth stands a 1000 metre breakwater with a lighthouse at the end. A hundred or more ships are anchored out to sea. As we move away from Shanghai the sky becomes cleaner and at the mouth it’s blue. There’s hardly a bird, just the odd gull.
After the three hour boat trip we need to warm up at Kentucky Fried Chicken with coffee and chips. We watch men plodding home from their jobs on building sites, pulling carts and bicycles laden with tools.
Then we have a posh meal out at No 3 the Bund, on the 7th floor roof terrace of an old bank building. We look across to Pudong on the other side of the river with its futuristic neon lit skyscrapers. The Pearl building, so like something out of the Jetsons, glows at us. We have an entree of tiny duck spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce and coriander, then sea bass with a potato cake, whole peas and a turmeric sauce. Fabulous.
On the way home we stop at a money machine which has the instruction: Dip your card in the machine and remove. We feel like we’ve just dipped ourselves into China.
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