There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 28 July 2008

Shanghai: Prelude to The Chinese Silk Road

The Silk Road starts in Xi’an not Shanghai, but we had to arrive in China somewhere, and there are no direct flights to Xi’an.

Shanghai is a gargantuan city. Until the 1980s it was largely confined to a corner of land between the western bank of the Huangpu River and the broad mouth of the Yangzi. In those days it was merely huge. Then it jumped the river and tower blocks played leapfrog with ring roads until they reached the East China Sea and what is now the site of Pudong International Airport.

Celebrating a wedding anniversary with an overnight flight to Shanghai may sound romantic but spending the night in over-close proximity to three hundred strangers inside a metal tube is anything but. We emerged, blinking and dozy, into the hot moist air and blinding hazy light of a Pudong morning and, dragging our cases behind us, followed signs to the maglev railway.

The maglev is one of the several wonders of modern Shanghai, but at first sight we could have just entered any metro system in the world. The carriage was new and clean and the seats seemed very blue. An LCD on the bulkhead told us the time, and, perhaps a little unusually, the speed. It read 0 km/hr.

Lynne on the maglev, bleary-eyed but ready to fly
We moved off soundlessly, the acceleration pushing us gently into our seats. At 100 km/hr we were keeping pace with the cars on the urban motorway beneath. At 200 km/hr they appeared to be dawdling. At 300 km/hr we rounded a bend, the tilt of the train sweeping us breathlessly over the roofs of the now apparently stationary cars. At 400 km/hr we passed a train going in the opposite direction. It was gone before we realised it was arriving. At 430 km/hr the numbers stopped changing and we were cruising. Shanghai may be vast, but the Maglev goes only half way to the centre so even here the cruise was brief and soon we were watching the numbers fall back as the rest of Shanghai re-emerged from slow motion.

The Shanghai maglev reaches cruising speed
The terminal is above Long Yang Lu metro station but, burdened with cases, we decided to take a taxi. There was one taxi waiting, no queue and a policeman to marshal it. He asked our destination, scribbled something on a pad and ushered us into the cab. Tearing off the top sheet, he pushed it through the window. He had ringed a section which said, in English, ‘The Bund, pay no more than 40 Yuan’. In our experience Chinese taxi drivers are reliable and generally honest, but it was nice to know the city government was looking after us. 37 Yuan showed on the meter when we arrived, so 37 we paid. It is not customary to tip Chinese taxi drivers.

Once checked in and showered there is only one thing a first time visitor to Shanghai should do and that is take a walk along the Bund.

‘Bund’ is derived from the Hindi ‘band’ meaning ‘embankment’. The Huangpu river frontage was the site of the original British Settlement which, by the 19th century, had developed into the International Settlement and become the financial hub of East Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a series of fine buildings were erected along what is still signed in English as ‘The Bund’ though it is known as Zhongshan Lu in Chinese. These temples to commerce faced a road, some parkland and a vast area of wharfs and jetties. The riverfront has long been cleared and the embankment raised as a flood defence. The widening of Zhongshan Lu to ten lanes in the 1990s, finished the parkland and the high rises of modern Shanghai have rather diminished the Bund, despite height restrictions in the immediate area. Plans are afoot to restore the gardens, and somehow allow for even more traffic, but work is just starting and the area is littered with roadworks and scaffolding.


Lynne on The Bund
The Bund may have lost its former glory, but it is still pleasant to walk along the embankment, dodging the traders offering trinkets and cyclists peddling chilled water, and looking at a waterfront resembling some strangely misplaced Liverpool. It seemed important to several passers-by that we should accompany them to purchase Rolex watches and Gucci handbags, but we preferred to stroll. On the other side of the embankment the river sparkled in the sun and trains of heavily laden barges slipped down or laboured up the broad Huangpu. Beyond the river, where there was once only slums and marshland, the Oriental Pearl TV tower and several more of Shanghai’s, indeed the world’s, tallest buildings dominated the skyline just as the neo-classical Bund had done a century before.

The Oriental Pearl Tower across the Huangpo River
In the evening, two blocks from our hotel, we found the neon splendour of Zhapu Street, a purple phantasmagoria of a thoroughfare, full of parked cars and even fuller of restaurants. Some were fronted by huge glass aquaria where items from the menu swam backwards and forwards, tempting the diners. Between the restaurants were several ‘hairdressers’ that seemed to have no basins or hairdryers – or any other equipment - but did have a small shoal of scantily clad girls lounging behind the plate glass windows. Like the fish, they too were items on a menu of sorts.

Zhapu Steet, Shanghai
Down a side street we found trestle tables of food laid out on the pavement. We stopped at one and chose a couple of dishes; one of pork, one of eel. A sweating bare-chested man took them to a wok in a lean-to shed while his side-kick set up a table rather too far out in the road – westerners need to be prominently placed as we are considered good advertisements. We dined well, if a little in danger from passing motorcycles.

'Trestle tables of food laid out on the pavement'
In the morning we travelled under the river. The bridges crossing the Huangpu carry multiple lanes of traffic, but those without cars must use the metro or, possibly, The Bund Tourist Tunnel. For a fee ten times that of a metro ticket you can be transported under the river in a glass carriage on a horizontal funicular railway. The ten minute trip is accompanied by a 1960s style light show and sonorous declarations in Mandarin and English as the carriage passes through various geological strata. Only in China.....
Inside the Bund Tourist Tunnel
We surfaced on the Pudong side like water voles after a bad trip. Finding the Oriental Pearl TV tower is easy – just look upwards - though finding the Hyatt Hotel, whose Cloud 9 bar reputably offers a great view without the expense of the Oriental Pearl was not so easy.

The Pudong new development is not built for pedestrians. Barren concrete walkways weave between, around and over building sites, high rises and multi-lane roads; the direct routes are reserved for motor vehicles. After a hot and frustrating half hour, we gave in and bought tickets for the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The long, carefully organised, queue moved steadily – the Chinese love this sort of thing – and soon we were barrelling upwards in a high-speed lift. The views over Shanghai are truly impressive. We wandered round slowly, looking at the bend in the Huangpu, the Suzhou Creek and the roof of our hotel.

Where the Suzhou Creek meets the Huangpo River
as seen from the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai
Round the other side, we were eyeball to eyeball with the 421 metre Jin Mao Tower. Behind it the even taller Shanghai World Financial Centre, its top like a huge bottle opener, is the world’s second highest building, although at 492 metres its roof is the highest in the world (the Taipei 101 cheats by having a spire.) The 632 metre Shanghai Tower will dwarf them all, but is currently a building site between the Financial Centre and the Oriental Pearl. The Hyatt’s Cloud 9 bar is, we learned later, on floor 87 of the Jin Mao Tower. On the ground we had not even spotted a Hyatt sign.

Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai
At the foot of the Oriental Pearl is a small park with a jumble of food kiosks and long wooden tables set out in the shade of some trees. Eighty pence bought us each a bowl of noodles topped with a few slices of meat and drowned in a thin soup. Food is as important to the Chinese as it is to the French, and it is impressive the way even these kiosks take such care with their spicing – you just have to be careful not to crunch up the star anise.

Back through the Bund Site Seeing Tunnel, some hot, sweaty footslogging brought us to the Old Town.

Shanghai Old Town is either a perfectly preserved Ming city or a grossly over restored Chinese Disneyland, depending on whose opinion you seek. The cleanness of the streets, the perfection of the buildings and the awful tat being sold inside them, inclined us towards the second opinion. The place was heaving with tourists, overwhelmingly Chinese, and sometimes progress could only be made by literally pushing through the crowd whilst keeping a firm grip on your wallet and brushing off the continual suggestions that you urgently needed a Rolex watch or a Gucci bag.

The Old Town, Shanghai

Everybody who is anybody that has visited Shanghai has supped a cuppa at the Huxinting teahouse. The anybodies include a certain Elizabeth Windsor, and if it is good enough for her Maj, then it must be good enough for us.

Clearly marked on the street map, the teahouse was harder to find than we expected, partly because of the crowds, but mainly because our map had misplaced it by just enough to cause confusion. Advice from a friendly local soon pointed us in the right direction, but before we set off she insisted on becoming the four thousandth person that day to attempt sell us a Rolex/Gucci. Already having our undivided attention, she was a little harder to brush off than most, but eventually we took our leave and, weaving and occasionally heaving our way through the multitude, headed in the direction she had indicated. 

The Huxinting Teahouse, Shanghai
Built as a summerhouse in the garden of a Ming dynasty mandarin, Huxinting was renovated and enlarged by cotton merchants in 1784 to serve as a brokerage hall. It became a teahouse in 1855. Its name means Heart of Lake Pavilion – or Mid-Lake Pavilion to a more prosaic translator. It is usually described as sitting in an ornamental lake and approached by a zigzag bridge, although neither are precisely true. The relative areas of building and water make it more a carp filled moat than a lake and the people-packed bridge has a series of ninety-degree corners rather than true zigzags. Demons, as everyone knows, cannot turn through right angles, so Ming builders took this elementary precaution as a matter of routine. The crowd crossing the bridge was apparently demon free – despite the Western view of the Chinese back in the good old days of the Red Guards and the Little Red Book.

We pushed open the wooden door and entered the hushed and panelled interior. For a second it was like an entering an old English pub, then we were accosted by a flunky, ushered up the creaking wooden stairs, installed at a table in an alcove and equipped with a bilingual tea list.

The quiet and calm contrasted dramatically with the frenzy outside, and we did not have to read far into the tea list before realising why. With cuppas starting at motorway service station prices and heading upwards to the Château Lafitte level, it was only the best healed of Shanghai residents who could afford to be there.

We ordered a green tea and a ‘rose scented puer’ from the cheaper end of the list. Every tea, we could see, was presented differently. Some were in small glass teapots where an appropriate flower floated, others in porcelain of greater or lesser size. Our green tea came in a cup with a lid. The ‘rose scented puer’ arrived in a tiny terracotta pot, with an even more minuscule cup for drinking out of. Along with this came a plate of tofu based nibbles.

Lynne in the Huxinting Teahouse, Shanghai

The price may have been reminiscent of a motorway service station, but nothing else was. The puer was delicately scented and amazingly refreshing, the green required skilful use of the lid to avoid a mouthful of leaves which floated as densely as pondweed, though rather more fragrantly. A young man stood by with a hot kettle, ever ready to refill our cup or pot. We watched the milling crowds through the wooden framed window as we sat among a Ming elegance enhanced beyond the dreams of the original owner by modern conveniences like air conditioning and efficient plumbing. We stayed more than an hour, cool, relaxed and, like the Mandarins of the past, detached from the struggles of the common people.

Unlike those Mandarins we decided to leave before the proletariat staged a revolution.

Nearby a restaurant promised dumplings stuffed with ‘the ovaries and digestive organs of a crad’, a dish which may have lost something in translation.

What a treat
Around the corner a large window revealed a bevy of white suited and white hatted chefs stuffing the very dumplings and placing them in steamers. It looked more appetising than it read, but it was not time to eat yet.

Stuff those dumplings
Walking back to our hotel we watched the street vendors preparing ‘squid-on-a-stick’ and promised ourselves we would try it tomorrow. Halfway back, the green uniformed staff of a small restaurant were out on the pavement going through their pre-service warm up. A bored manager was choreographing a series of half-hearted jumps and some apparently random arm waving. There is a lot of this sort of thing in China, but this shower lacked the military precision we have observed outside branches of KFC.

Half-hearted jumps and some random arm waving, Shanghai

We dined that night at a ‘hotpot’ restaurant a stone’s throw from the hotel. The hotpot is a circular metal bowl divided ying and yang style and placed on a burner set into the table. One side is filled with a light stock, the other with something richer and darker with chillies floating on top and blocks of tofu lurking below the surface. They also have a few undivided bowls and as the Chinese are convinced that all Europeans hate chillies, our first task was to persuade them we actually wanted one that offered both. Then, as usual, we were sat in the window as an advertisement. The menu was long and, thankfully, bilingual. We chose slices of pork, potatoes, taro, lotus root, a dish of mushrooms and a quantity of noodles, and cooked it in the hot pot, some in the chilli, some in the mild. An over-attentive waitress stood by to ensure the idiot foreigners did not set themselves on fire either from the equipment or the unaccustomed chillies. It was a good meal, though I would have preferred to experiment rather than be continually corrected by a fourteen year old, despite her winning smile.

Hot pot, Shanghai
After dinner, we strolled through an area of low-rise buildings, several streets of crowded and dilapidated dwellings that represent an old Shanghai – hardly to be confused with the tarted up ‘Old City’ - that is fast disappearing. We did not then realise how fast, but when we returned nearly four weeks later, the demolition men had already moved in.

Near our hotel, we encountered a man sitting on the pavement on one of those tiny chairs which in England are confined to infant schools, but in China are favoured by those old people who spend their day playing cards in the shade. He was holding a hose that snaked back into the workshop behind and wearing nothing but his y-fronts. Work over, he was taking a meticulous if somewhat public bath before going home.

Looking across the Hunagpo River at night
Next morning we headed south down Suzhou Street, parallel to the Bund, until it met Nanjing Street where we turned right towards the heart of the city.

The streets here are narrow by Chinese standards and lack the usual grid pattern so a careful watch has to be kept for cars, push bikes and mopeds emerging from side streets and alleys at all sorts of angles. The bikes and mopeds present the greatest danger as they routinely ignore traffic lights and pedestrian crossing, and use either side of the road. Most lethal are the electric mopeds; they drift silently up behind you and can run you down before you know they are there.

On Suzhou Street we made a mental note of a restaurant offering Shanghai’s traditional pot-sticker dumplings and declined several offers of Rolex watches and Gucci handbags. Pot stickers are like the ubiquitous Jiaozi (a sort of over-stuffed ravioli) but instead of being steamed they are left to fry in – and indeed stick to - wide shallow pans. Lynne is not a great fan of Jiaozis anyway, and I was to discover that I prefer the steamed version. Not only are they healthier and taste better, but you do not run the risk of carelessly biting into them and spurting hot fat up your arm, into your eye and down your shirt.

Along Nanjing Steet the clamour to sell us watches and bags reached fever pitch but died down a little as we left the pedestrian shopping area and entered Renmin Park, the green, open space, claustrophobically surrounded by tall buildings. On the far side is the Shanghai museum.

There was a long queue at the museum that moved slowly, too slowly for some tastes so most early progress was made from people dropping out. It was mainly Chinese, but we found ourselves hemmed in by a group of wives and children from the British and American consulates. We learned some gossip, but regrettably few state secrets.

For the Olympics the government had declared that all museums would be free, so the hold-up could not involve tickets. It was, we eventually discovered, a matter of security. Metal detectors and X-ray machines were laboriously discovering that no terrorists wanted to see the exhibits that day. When it was our turn, they examined our water bottles and requested we drink from them. We did so without apparent discomfort and were waved through.

Outside the Shanghai Museum - the queue had gone by the time we left

And was the museum worth the wait? Well, the collection of money, from two thousand year old coins shaped like miniature scimitars, through great perforated weights that could be threaded on string, right up to the modern preference for grubby paper notes, was fascinating; the landscape paintings were somewhat repetitive, as Chinese landscape paintings tend to be; the textiles and pottery were similar to articles we had seen in the Shaanxi provincial museum in Xian some year ago, though the quality and shear antiquity of some of the exhibits could not fail to amaze; and the calligraphy collection was vast. I am never sure if calligraphy is better appreciated when you can or cannot read what is written. There is some historical interest, I suppose, and I can understand the point of Islamic calligraphers who are denied any representational art, but as far as modern calligraphy is concerned I have only three words: buy a computer.

We escaped and made our way down into the metro system. The Shanghai metro was built by the same company as Hong Kong’s excellent MTR so speed, efficiency and cleanliness were guaranteed. At mid-afternoon it was also as crowded as Hong Kong in the rush hour.

We emerged in the former French Concession, southwest of the old British Settlement. It is generally said that there is nothing very French about the French Concession, and between the wars it was largely populated by impoverished White Russians. This may be true but turning off the main drag, we wandered through streets edged with railings and shaded by mature plane trees. The villas behind the railings might have been substantial but it was architecture on a more human scale than in much of Shanghai. It was almost possible to imagine we were in a well-off residential district of a French provincial town – albeit one with a surprisingly large Chinese community.

Dr Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai both had houses here. Sun Yatsen was the first post-imperial president of China and as he died in 1925, long before the civil war between Mao’s communists and Chiang Kaishek’s Guomintang, he is considered a hero by both sides. Dr Sun’s French style house is modest, but comfortable and packed with memorabilia which was studied reverentially by the Chinese visitors.

Me and Dr Sun Yatsen
Zhou Enlai was Mao’s number two for many years and was a calming influence during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. His personal interventions are credited with saving many historical monuments from the frenzy of the Red Guards, including the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. He lived in a substantial pile on the same street as Sun Yatsen.
Lynne outside Zhou Enlai's house
The next morning we set off for the airport and the real start of the Silk Road, but not before our third splendid breakfast. The American Breakfast Bar in the New Asia Hotel is on the eighth floor, but we long ago realised that Chinese American breakfasts should be avoided. Do not think here of maple syrup and stacks of pancakes, think rather of a skilled Chinese chef cooking unfamiliar cuts of meat and bizarre egg dishes that he neither likes nor understands. Far better to take a Chinese breakfast and let a skilled Chinese chef do what he does best.

On the ground floor was a restaurant serving the best of all Chinese breakfasts, that Cantonese version of all-day lunch known as Dim Sum. It was here we presented ourselves on the first morning. ‘American breakfast eighth floor’ said the maitre d’. ‘We want to eat here,’ we said. ‘You have to pay’, he said, but as we had booked room only that made no difference. ‘No coffee’ he said. We shrugged. ‘Only chopsticks’. We shrugged again, in China you learn to use chopsticks or starve. ‘No western food at all.’ he said despairingly. Seeing he could not make us go away, he resigned himself to the situation, showed us to a seat and organised a minion to bring a pot of tea. On day one, we were unsure whether he resented out attitude or was quietly pleased, but by day three we were being treated like old friends.

The trick with a Dim Sum breakfast is to first attract ‘Congee Lady’. This is the girl who wheels round a trolley bearing vats of Congee, as it is called in Hong Kong, or Zhou, to give it its Mandarin name. Zhou is rice soup, which can be thin and unpalatable, but in Dim Sum comes thickened with gobs of gelatine, strands of green vegetable and lumps of chicken. It is a fine way to start a cold day - or a hot day in an air-conditioned restaurant. Then there are the trolleys of steamers containing dumplings constructed from various sorts of noodles with equally varied fillings; beef, pork, prawn, crab, taro and many more. It is not always possible to know what you are buying, but they are all wonderful, as are the trays of pastries wrapped round fruit, custard, red and yellow beans or a host of things we could not identify. Not every dish is a great success though, the pickled squids’ heads offer remarkably little to eat, their tentacles as edible as pipe cleaners. Lynne plays a vital moderating role. Left to myself I would buy more and yet more until I was surrounded by a hundred plates of good things that I was just too full to eat. I need her to stop me. She would, however, never stop me buying chickens’ feet. Some people sneer at chickens’ feet: ‘the flavour depends on what they’ve been standing in’ as my friend Brian would say, but slow cooked in black bean sauce with ginger, chilli and garlic they are toe-curlingly wonderful. Just suck off the richly flavoured outer skin to get at the unctuous chickeny-ness within, and then spit out the bits of cartilage. There is no better way to prepare for a flight to Xian…

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