Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 6: Do I need my passport?

These are some early mornings!  We left the hotel in Beijing this morning at 6am to catch our train to Shanghai.  Shortly after 6am, anyway.  For any naysayers out there, I’d like to point out that I have never been the cause for holding up the group on this trip – I am always on time! I can’t necessarily say the same for some others, especially two obnoxious girls who have held us up several times already.  Once having the gall the say: “Sorry guys; priorities!” as they got on the bus where everyone else was waiting.  They had been shopping!  So it didn’t entirely surprise me that as we were driving to the airport, those same dolts realized they had forgotten their passports and money in the hotel safe.  Really??!!  The good news (for the rest of us...I don’t really care about good news for them) was that the other bus hadn’t yet left the hotel, and so the other guide retrieved their stuff.  Back in a good mood, and on to Shanghai on the bullet train!

The bullet train is the equivalent of the TGV in Europe.  Cruising at an average speed of 300km/h (we hit as high as 312, and sometimes slowed to 290 for curves), the bullet train is not only as fast as a plane, but it is also a much better way to see the countryside.  With around 1500km between Beijing and Shanghai, we saw a lot of countryside!  It is such a smooth ride, I had to remind myself that we were, indeed, traveling faster than the Via back home…until another bullet train passed up in the opposite direction – Wow! Sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing; always interesting countryside in China. We passed through a lot of agricultural land, and even saw the farmers with oxen working their fields. (With oxen!! Not tractors.) We passed through a number of cities that would rise up from the fields with a dramatic thrust to the sky – the perpendicular line of a 20-storey building would introduce the edge of the city; no suburban sprawl to herald the onset. Unfortunately, we also passed forbidding looking power plants and other smokestacks spewing filth into the sky.

In Shanghai, our Beijing tour guide Tony handed us over to Simon.  Simon is another excellent guide!  Knowledgeable on seemingly every topic, passionate about his city and his country; he was also realistic about some of the shortcomings of the Chinese government and socialist policies. (At one point, we were outside as Simon began to answer a question relating to the government.  After a moment he paused and said: “I had better answer this once we’re back on the bus.”) As our hotel was on the outskirts of the city (this tour was very reasonably priced, so I suppose it’s fair that we weren’t staying in one of the posh downtown hotels), we first went to the waterfront to see the skyline of “The Bund” – the new development on the banks of the river in downtown Shanghai. 

“Bund” means “dirty swampland, and that’s exactly what this land was back when it was first given to the Brits. In an earlier era, Shanghai landlords would gladly provide housing to British expats who were looking to make their fortunes in Shanghai.  Those landlords would then sell tickets to curious Shanghai natives who had never seen a European.  Partly as a product of the tensions these kinds of behaviours incited, the Shanghai government decided it would be easier to manage the city if it were divided into self-governing areas – the Brits in the British area, the French among the French, etc.  Incidentally, crime flourished in this setting, as police jurisdiction aligned with the borders of these districts. If you could run, you could get away with murder – literally! (Just saying…running once again proves to be valuable!) ;) The Brits were granted swampy, mosquito-infested land on the far side of the river.  It’s only been in the last twenty years that land development techniques and technologies have progressed to the point that this land can support skyscrapers, so virtually everything there is less than twenty years old.

Of course, these techniques aren’t perfect, and the whole area is very gradually sinking…. That’s ok, though – the half-finished building in the photo above will no longer be the tallest building in the world anyway, as a building in Dubai has taken those honours. The Dubai building, apparently, is less than half occupied, whereas this one is already fully booked.  Real estate in Shanghai is booming!  So much so that these fully occupied condos go for the equivalent of $9 million (USD):

The Bund isn’t the only place where interesting architecture reigns.  This building has a hole to allow a dragon to fly through.  You know…just in case!

Ok, back to the Bund!  Shanghai is focused on beautifying the city. Right along the riverwalk, there is a wall of flower pots that are watered three times per day!  About once per month or so, the plants are replaced – sometimes flowers, sometimes leafy plants. The confluence of cheap labour, government control, and central planning has its benefits.

I wandered away from the group, and was immediately approached by someone asking if I was interested in sexy girls for cheap.  Apparently they were really close by!!  Isn’t it a shame I had to get back to the bus? ;) (There are also downsides to this excess of cheap labour…)

Next on the agenda was the Shanghai museum.  I’ll admit it – I’m a big nerd, and this really excited me! J Especially when I learned it has an extensive collection of Bronze-age relics (made of bronze…in case you weren’t following).  It was like being back in archeology class all over again.  So cool!!

Though Shanghai is bigger than Beijing (24 million versus 19 million), traffic is actually lighter in Shanghai.  That’s because a license plate in Shanghai costs $15 000 (USD)!  “Lighter” doesn’t mean “light”, however.  The bus lurched through congested streets to our dinner.  At dinner, the woman sitting beside me explained that she doesn’t like Chinese food, and so only ate rice.  That’s how she’s been eating all week, because: “They prepare chicken and potatoes, which I eat, but they don’t taste like how I prepare them.  Why can’t they just prepare them the same way, and then I could eat them??” Great question!  Why do different cultures have to have these pesky cultural differences??  Sheesh!

Though what I really wanted was my hotel, a shower and…I’ll admit it, a clean hotel toilet (public washroom facilities in China leave a lot to be desired), I allowed myself to be talked into a cruise along the river to see downtown Shanghai lit up at night.  I’m inclined to say it was worth it. What beautiful sights! (I took videos to better capture the night, so forgive me that no photos ensue.) On the one side, there are brand new buildings showcasing the best of modern technology (a couple of buildings have converted their entire sides into giant advertising screens that are constantly changing), while on the other are the stately old waterfront buildings dating back several hundred years.  That these stately buildings continue to exist is a minor miracle in itself.  When the Communist Party took over, they began to demolish all signs of the colonial and capitalist past in China.  The Shanghai mayor launched a campaign to save these buildings as cultural relics reflecting Chinese development, and so paved the way for this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new.

I had good intentions of checking out the Shanghai nightlife after the boat cruise, but the 5am wake-up call (after 4.5 hours of sleep) was catching up to me, and the desire for a shower prevailed.  I headed with the group back to the hotel.  I think I feel asleep on the way…

Once showered, I did go for a walk around the hotel, looking for something more interesting than my room (I only have 48 hours in Shanghai, and want to make the most of it).  There wasn’t much, but I spent a while walking the streets of Putuo district in Shanghai.  Streets are pretty safe here any hour of the day or night, and I found myself in some very non-tourist areas. Though it wasn’t what I was seeking, it was a cool experience to be wandering through the city at street level.  Eventually I pulled out my phone and turned on data to map out my path back to the hotel.  Seems my phone was waiting to download some updates, as I immediately got notice that I had exceeded 5MB at $10 per MB.  That stupid walk cost me over $50. :P

Good night!

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