The bunks next to ours on the overnight train to Shanghai were reserved by a young couple and their daughter. Sensing an opportunity to finally get an upper bunk I used hand signals to offer to trade my lower bunk for their upper bunk. My offer was politely refused in English. This was the first sign that we were heading to the capital of the new China. However, for now we were on an old train and I had to open the hallway window opposite our compartment to exhaust the smoke from the “smoking” area. The attendant came by, said something curt in Chinese (probably “who opened the window” ) looked around for the culprit and closed it. I reopened it after she returned to her compartment. She closed in on her next round and so began the window war of attrition. The next morning we were awoken to the sound of the attendant banging on our cabin door to collect our thermos before arrival in Shanghai. I could have sworn she had a smirk on her face.
In Shanghai station, it was impossible to go against the flow of commuters with our packs. We let ourselves be swept along with the flow and until we got deposited outside the station. After a short taxi ride we arrived at the Pullman Shanghai Skyway Hotel, a 70+ floor tower. The lobby was massive and decorated in a Chinese Las Vegas style with marble floors and led lights that changed colours in the chandelier. We had one of the cheaper rooms. Yet it was huge with sweeping views and enough free shampoo and soap to fill our kits and last us for the next week.
The next two days were spent touring sites, including the Bund, the main pedestrian mall and the French Concession. We travelled by foot and subway. The system was new and easy to navigate with english signs and colour coded stations. Holographs projected ads for hair products and cell phones on the subway walls. The malls had international brands including the Japanese Chain Uniqlo (business and politics are separate as one our guide from Beijing told us). Food courts had french food, sushi. We tried “red lips” for its cutesy label. Turns to the label was descriptive as the spicy noodles made our lips burn and swell up like the plastic surgery gone wrong stories in the National Inquirer.
Outside a busy subway stop we were asked by a young chinese couple to take a photo with their smartphone. The background was unremarkable, the phone camera did not work. Eliot sensed a con. Sure enough they wanted to know where we were from and started a conversation. Eliot said “Beijing tea house” and we walked away.
We saw luxury brands and cars everywhere. We did not see many people on bicycles- a thing of the past when China was poor. Everyone wants a car, as reflected in the name of the locally made “LYD” – Live Your Dream. I could not help but think of the consequences for our planet if every family in China was able to live the dream of the western lifestyle. It is hypocritical to expect Chinese and other people to continue to maintain a low carbon footprint while we in the West live it up. However, when you see the scale of development in China you realize that climate change may be inevitable and you hope that they will not make the same mistakes we made.
Tall sky scrapers with odd shapes were lit up in multiple colours. It was a very impressive show. It reminded me a bit of a visit to East Berlin in 1986. At the time it was the show place for communism with its shops stocked with foods and asparagus shaped tower. Four years later, everything changed when the wall came down. In China, the firewall is still up, and I could not access google or facebook until I got a VPN from an expat. He explained to us that to live in Shanghai is an unattainable dream for most Chinese. If you move to Shanghai without authorization you will not be eligible for social services and housing.
There were other glimpses of old china. On a side street we saw a man with live chickens being brought into a market, noodle shops with large boiling cauldrons and people getting haircuts from free-lance barbers in alleyways. Amongst the skyscrapers there were buildings built by the British. Occasionally, someone would enter a subway carrying large bundles of things held together with twine.
Our final memories of Shanghai are of a 5 am taxi ride in the rain. The cab smelled like smoke and the driver must have been up all night because he was falling asleep. After being honked at by buses a couple of times for drifting into their lane, I started to cough and make loud noises to wake him up when I saw his eyes close in the rear view mirror. We did arrive in the airport in one piece and boarded our Dragonair flight for Hong Kong. On board, I read an English newspaper from Hong Kong that criticized the Chinese government, a change from the Chinese language newspapers that we had available to us in China.