Travel Journal

Shanghai and around 24 June- 3 July

(Wednesday 6 July 2011) by Julia Bartholomew
In Shanghai I couch surfed in the flat of a very welcoming pal of a pal and really enjoyed the City. It’s a bit like a London that’s got out of control and taken everything- most obviously its architecture and abundance of neon- to extremes. Part of the time I was taken around by another pal of a pal - Chinese- who took me to the most typical restaurant I've been to yet. The food was excellent but the menu did incite a few horrified shrieks on my part: stewed bull frog, whole miniature turtles and then the more usual pig trotters, chicken feet etc. We walked along the Bund, which is the line of old colonial buildings by the river - a bit like the Thames embankment complete with a Big Ben type clock. Opposite, however, instead of the concrete of the once modern-looking Southbank centre is the seriously bling Pudong area which makes the Bund look quaint, a bit like the model village. Pudong is the skyscraper district, the iconic image of Shanghai, and they’re springing up apace, too fast for my Rough Guide to catch up, which lists the Jinmao tower as the tallest building when it’s now been superseded by the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which I went to the top of. It’s nearly 500m and shaped like a giant bottle opener, with a big rectangular hole near the top. It was originally going to be a circle but was thought to resemble Japan’s rising sun, which is clearly not quite what was wanted. The space-age lift with flashing lights and futuristic electronic music whizzed us up in about 60seconds. Quite an exciting feeling to be so high up and see Shanghai's endless urban sprawl. An odd moment at the top: there was a sudden scurry of people, shouting, and everyone on the observation deck crowded to take photos of something, which turned out to be a young Chinese Man U fan in his red shirt (Evra) wielding a fake Champions league cup, surrounded by his pals with their shirts on too.

But then a short walk away from all that are streets with chickens scratching around, going in and out of people's houses and everyone's squatting in the street shelling peas or doing things with fish or frying dumplings and there are telegraph wires dangling, grimy looking washing hanging everywhere, and rubbish piled up. Labour’s cheap and as a result many things, like food, can be really cheap. Or an hour-long shoulder and foot massage, carried out with a great deal of enthusiasm, costs under a fiver. But anything ‘Western’ like a Starbucks coffee costs the same as in the UK. I went past Tesco Metro in a taxi but didn’t have a chance to go in see hw many varieties of Dorset muesli they stock.

Elsewhere on my wanderings in Shanghai, I went to the French Concession area, which does, amazingly enough, feel a bit like France, with its shady boulevards of plain trees and charming though now touristy ‘art district’ with cobbled streets and over-priced drinks. Nearby in the French concession area is 'Xintiandi', where the buildings are reconstructed as they would have been in the '30's. Very pretty, it felt exactly like being in Paris or Covent Garden: upmarket boutiques, the same chain cafes and restos as in London, barely any Chinese, and loud English voices discussing dull-sounding business matters. On the way there though I finally encountered a remnant of the traditional, romantic China. In a park, someone had set up loudspeakers with traditional Chinese music and couples were gently doing a turn.


I spent a couple of days in Hangzhou, a town outside Shanghai with a lake, parks, temples, tea fields etc. for a bit of R and R. Still not very remote though- I managed to go to Costa Coffee 3 times in 2 days. Did lots of walking by the lake, looking out at the typical Chinese view of hills and pagodas ( and at dusk pagodas illuminated with traditional Chinese neon lights). I also had my first experience of being all alone ordering food in a place with no English menu and no Chinese–speaking companion. The Chinese don’t have quite the same approach to waiting table as in Europe. After handing you the menu the waitress then stands over your shoulder until you’ve chosen- ordering a drink will get you only a few minutes respite- usually suggesting you might like to order the most expensive things on the menu. It’s a symptom of a wider problem with their service industry: in every restaurant, shop etc. there are many willing and eager staff, usually outnumbering the customers, but no one’s had any training and no one seems to be in charge. Fortunately another Chinese characteristic is inexhaustible patience (helpful in situations like the hard seat train) so I was unembarrassed at keeping a waitress hovering for about 20 minutes whilst I perused the menu, cross-referencing with my phrase book.


I spent an afternoon in another smaller town nr Shanghai, Suzhou, which had been sold to me as ‘the Venice of China’. There is a canal, it’s true, but few other obvious similarities. There were some very attractive C16th gardens, though Chinese gardens so with rocks, ponds, big gold fish, bridges etc. rather than flowers. My impression of Suzhou might have been tarnished by my experience of joining a Chinese tour group with a couple of other Brits. It was fortunately mega-phone free but involved a good part of the day captive in various uninteresting souvenir shops, somewhat diluting the interesting bits.


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