How does the metro system cope? The Shanghai Metro seems to be utterly packed, regardless of the time of day. My big bag certainly isn’t drawing welcoming looks – that is until my hood slips and my dirty blond hair (for clarity, I mean in colour, I do shower) is suddenly visible. It’s about then I start to become aware of people ‘texting’ at odd angles. My ‘I didn’t sleep on the flight and want to nap’ face must be on so many smartphones. And I’m not even that blond any more…
Coming out of the metro station, looking for the hostel I’m staying at, I get hit in the face by a selfie stick being carried on someone’s shoulder (the difference in the average heights of our two countries is to be an issue several times in China) and generally get buffeted about in the crowd before my brain has had enough and I start using my elbows like everyone else. Shanghai is possibly the most crazy place I’ve ever been.
There’s an bit of a problem doing the job I did for the best part of the last four years – when you work with travel clients you get wanderlust. I worked on so many things from cheap flights to £10,000 a week yachting holidays, via a whole lots of other places in between. The simple result of this is that there are many places I wouldn’t have likely ever really thought about had it not been for doing research and content for these clients – Shanghai is one of these places. And now I’m here.
It’s not a particularly appealing name, is it? But this is the view of Shanghai that most of us will recognise – the skyscrapers with the Pearl Orient TV Tower at one end (yup, that’s what the big pointy thing is called). As you look across the Huangpu river at night, the sky and water are illuminated by all the lights, it’s truly quite a site to behold. But it also is a symbol of Shanghai – it’s big, bold, bright and modern. A combination of English and Chinese on the signs, the sky’s the limit and money is no object. It’s big, bold and modern – everything this city and its inhabitants are vying to be.
There’s a big viewing platform right along the edge of the river (although I reckon it’s flood defences as much as anything), and standing on it you see the two sides of the river – one old stone buildings, a style you find all over Europe – the other is the Bunt. There seem to be a lot more flags on the old side; I guess you can’t really see a flag on top of a 100 story tower.
In typical Shanghai ridiculousness style, the way to get from one side of the river to the other is extravagant. It runs on the rails of a little railway, but has the sort of gondola you would expect to see transporting skiers in the Alps – it is “Made of France” apparently…
But that’s not the extravengant part. To make the 5-6 minute journey more thrilling they’ve created a crazy light show throughout the tunnel. It’s like a modern art exhibit on the history of earth. The narration talks of ‘erupting galaxies’, ‘mystic sea scenes’, ‘heaven and hell’ (I feel artistic license has been used in the story), and ‘the glory of beasts’. I leave confused, glad I am not epileptic (there was A LOT of flashing lights), and could see little flashes for several minutes afterwards. It was totally unnecessary, utterly baffling and down right mental. The tunnel suits Shanghai well.
I love a good museum, so as I walked passed the Shanghai Museum I thought it seemed like a good idea to see what it was like. Part art gallery, part museum, it was certainly an experience.
The Chinese Calligraphy Gallery appealed immensely. It is utter beauty, with examples of technique and eras and how they contrasted is plain to see. However, I must admit my two favourites were not from the official scripts of laws or history, but – surprisingly for me – poetry. “Poem of Goodness of Wine” and “A Poem Written in Rain and Drunkenness” seemed highly appropriate and I had to suppress a laugh, being closely watched by security as I was. Sadly you cannot buy replicas of these in the museum shop, believe me I tried.
Other notable galleries included the Chinese Seal Gallery, with many fine official seals, a surprising number of which were adorned with Tortoises; many of the larger, later and more intricate seals (mainly from the technology of the Ming & Qing Dynasties, 1368-1644, 1644-1911, respectively) included dragons. Jade and Coins have their own exhibition spaces, with a variety of jade on display, including serpents, Phoenix and dragons, and the evolution of currencies laid out with great care. The coins especially give a great insight into the changing, warring and evolving ‘China’ as we know it today.
Fascinating as the museum was, what really struck me going though were the rare and scant references to “the nobility”, “shaman” and religion, they were almost as conspicuous in their absence as ‘political power’ and ‘peasant uprisings’ are in their repeated regularity.
There are markets on every corner. Turn off the main strips and you find little shops, live fish in tubs outside.
But there aren’t just fish, there are huge spits of what I suspect are duck, some of tiny chickens, some of utterly unidentifiable meats. You can look at the range of skewers, pick the one you want and get it cooked right in front of you. My Chinese is non-existent which made life tricky, but I joined a small markets tour one night and ate like a king. It was mouthwateringly delicious, often ear-smokingly spicy, sticky, sweet, packed with umami and everything you could want. I had one particularly interesting ‘chilli pepper, vegetable and meat skewer’, with was incredible, and whist I picked one with identifiable meats one bite was enough to establish that the beef most certainly wasn’t. It was pretty delicious though. I thought about asking what it was, but I am a coward – I think it’s better I didn’t know.
How do you end a night of delicious eating off? By joining in a group of middle aged woman doing a dance-like martial art group thing in a park, of course. We were walking passed and one waved the group to join, there was hesitation, but seemingly ever willing to make a total prat of myself, I said OK and attempted to mimic what was going on. Think those slow movements to music look relaxing and simple? Yeah, they’re really not. Tragically there are no photos of this.
Shanghai is possibly the most crazy city I’ve ever been to. The pace of life is relentless, and you either learn to move with it or you are left behind. It feels all about the here and now of 21st century life on the surface, but the older city remains visible – history scattered amongst the bright lights and modern trappings. I only really had four days here, but there’s a certain buzz about Shanghai that I still can’t put my finger on. I think I’ll just have to go back again to try work it out.