Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Tues 22nd - Goodbye Shanghai

This is the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, where I spent the first of two spare hours before I had to depart. It does a pretty good job of convincing visitors that despite the incredible pace of development, the city still cares about its heritage, is working hard to become an example of clean, green, sustainable urban living; and is definitely not bulldozing the homes of forcibly relocated workers to make way for it. There are plenty of models and displays to make the case.
Upstairs is a huge illuminated model of shanghai in the near future.
This is the old concert hall that was lifted up and moved 30m back away from the overpass.

With my final hour in Shanghai, I decided to race around the Museum in People's Square. It's designed to look like a local cooking pot, though I didn't find out why. Sorry.

The big draw here today was an exhibition of impressionist paintings from the collection of Sterling Clark. He was heir to the singer sewing company and after armed service in The Philippines and China started collecting art. I didn't have time for the huge queues so went instead to a side show of photographs of his post-army expedition across China a hundred and five years ago. The curator had taken contemporary photos from the same vantage points and hung them alongside, which made fascinating then/now viewing.

Then back to the hostel, and off to the airport. So long Shanghai! China, it's been a pleasure.

Monday 21st - Shanghai: The Bund and Pudong

Viewed from the Huangpu river, Shanghai is a city of two very distinct halves. On the west bank are the noble bastions of early C20th colonial financial might. On the east side, Pudong, recently marshland, now the dizzyingly tall towering ultra-modern heart of China's market economy. 

First a quick tour of The Bund (meaning embankment or causeway).

This is the Peace hotel, formerly the Cathay, built by Victor Sassoon, wealthy business man, keen photographer and something of a Jay Gatsby if the stories of his parties are to be believed.

On the far left (with the dome under green scaff) is the Hong Kong & Shanghai bank, latterly the HSBC.

It's forbidden to take photos of the beautiful mosaic ceiling in the entrance hall:

I wonder what the 1887 staff would have made of the international banking crisis, and whether they could have predicted that one day they would take over my first ever bank The Midland.

This building is the former Shanghai Club, built in 1911 to look after the wealthiest British expatriate business men and their guests, as they surveyed their empires and brokered further fortunes. No Chinese or women allowed thank you very much.

It was closed recently for a few years, before being bought by, (God forbid!) the Chinese, and is now managed exceedingly well by Waldorf.

It features what, at the time was the world's longest bar. Businesmen sat according to status with the most successful nearest the river. And that is where I sat to imbibe a few very dry martinis and read a feature or three about Vietnam in the National Geographic, whilst pondering the state of the establishment.

In the daytime you may think Shanghai has been totally sanitised, but after dark, and the tourists have gone home, the seediness of the dark old opium days returns. Walking back down the Bund, I'm asked a dozen times by asian girls, or more usually their pimps whether I 'want massage.' The most novel was when I was asked if I wanted a girl, 'you no have to have massage first'. Naturally, I was not in the least bit tempted.

Pudong today is perhaps how The Bund would have looked to people 100 years ago. The extraordinary buildings are going up extremely quickly, with one tallest building rapidly being overtaken by the next. This building is the elegant Jin Mao tower, until 2007, China's tallest, now both of its immediate neighbours are taller.

These are currently the world's second, sixth and sixteenth tallest buildings:

Just before dusk, I bought a ticket to the viewing platform on the 100th floor of the (japanese financed) Shanghai World Financial Centre, aka the bottle opener. It's already being dwarfed by it's unfinished neighbour the (chinese owned) Shanghai Tower.

The view was quite spectacular as the day drew in and the famous light show began. This is a vision of the future for the worlds' privileged urbanites.

The Shanghai Tower, topped out, but still being completed.

Pudong at dusk

The Jin Mao tower, as elegant as the Chrysler building.

The Oriental Pearl, the earliest of the big towers of Pudong

Raised walkways channel pedestrians between the skyscrapers and through luxury malls of international super brands.

I decided against blowing a month's wages on a Christian Dior coat and instead went in search of aforementioned martinis. To get back to The Bund, I had to use the Metro, which after just twenty years of construction has just become the longest such network in the world, and will soon surpass Moscow's and Tokyo's as the busiest. Like all the other metros in China, its also seriously cheap. A ticket to anywhere on the metro cost about 40 pence. Why they can't do it for that price in London I don't know.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Sun 20th - Tues 22nd - Shanghai: Megalopolis!

This city is breathtaking and in so many ways superlative. On my second day I tried to push my flight to Vietnam back because I was enjoying it so much. Now as I write this on that flight, having left the Pearl of the East, I still feel the same. It's a city only 170 or so years old, but now in the compelling midst of its third big evolutionary push, it feels vibrant, modern and is racing towards its future, but is also maintaining a strong grasp on its past

In 1840 it was only a small fishing town; then followed a spot of bother with the Brits over control of the opium trade. The treaty of Nanjing gave us a toehold in the Far East and control of this port on the mouth of the mighty Yangtze river. Over the next few decades concessions were granted to the French, the United States, the Japanese and the Germans, where trade rules were relaxed but determined by their various sovereignties. The architecture of these enclaves is still very much apparent and defines the heritage of Shanghai. Later in the 1920s it grew again as a centre for international finance - the Wall Street of the East. It was then that most of the (now listed and owned by a single company) buildings on The Bund were built. The HSBC's headquarters, the Customs House, the Cathay (now Peace) Hotel, and of course the Shanghai Club, a bastion of British gentlemen's snobbery and a satellite of Piccadilly and The Mall in the far reaches of the Empire. More of which later.

Shanghai sits on the south bank of the vast Yangtze river delta. Dividing the city in half is a tributary called the Huangpu river, itself twice as wide as the Thames and a highway for tourist and trade boats. Several notable and sizeable creeks also flow into the Huangpu, so it's fair to say Shanghai has been defined by its waterways. The Bund and the old town sit on the west bank of the Huangpu. Pudong is the name given to the east bank of that river, until recently it was just farmed wetlands. Since 1990 though, it has had the fastest growing skyline in the world, easily outclassing Dubai, and has become a symbol for the irresistible return of China to the throne of world superpower. It's hegemony is already undeniable, from the phone in your pocket, to the shoes on your feet, the car that you drive, to maybe even the office that you work in. 

What could go wrong? Probably nothing. Yet it's worth bearing in mind a few thorny factors that may effect this megalopolis in the coming years. Property prices as you may expect have shot through the roof, and look like bubbling. The land is low lying - Pudong is built on unstable marshland and the Nanjing road is apparently lower than the Yangtze River. Flood defences are certainly in place, but can they be raised to match the level of glacial melt that this furious furnace of resources is causing?  Politically, the people of the Party in power in Beijing are apparently a little uneasy about this usurping sibling. What steps might they take? Admittedly NYC, Auckland, Sydney, Rio, and several others are more powerful than their respective capitals, but they are not communist countries with a firmly centralised government. Anything could happen, and it'll surely happen fast.

The worlds first commercially operating Magnetic Levitating train serves Pudong airport. If strapped for cash, one could get the no.2 subway from the airport, through the centre of the city and all the way out to the other airport for about 60 pence. If slightly flusher and in a hurry, you could leapfrog the first nine of those stations by getting on the Maglev. The fact that either way you still have to get on subway line 2 to get close to the centre was not lost on the shanghai public, and that's why ticket prices on the Maglev were recently slashed. Another drawback is that it's only the world's fastest train for two hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. A fact that caused me to wait at the airport for the best part of an hour until the fast service resumed, after all I'd already been on a conventional Chinese train that went faster than the 300km/hr slow service. 

Whatever, for me it was worth the wait, and I can tell you that 431km/hr is really bloody fast.

I spend my first evening at the well reviewed Rock & Wood hostel. Although I can use this as a base to explore the French Concession, it's perhaps a little too removed from the action, so resolve to move to a more central location the next day. The French Concession is rather charming after dark, leafy streets filled with interesting boutiques and quasi-french restaurants. La Petit Fleur for example specialised in pizza.

The Boxing Cat brewery is an american run micro-brewing pub and a fine place to while away a couple of hours sampling some excellent beers with pugilistic names.

The next day I move downtown to the Blue Mountain hostel, sited inauspiciously on the sixth floor of a grubby old mixed use tower. It turns out fine though. It's actually a brilliantly run hostel with a huge roof terrace, friendly staff and great rooms. Located within easy walk of the People's Square, The Bund and the Old Quarter.

Old and new, the view from my 6th floor balcony on the south Shanxi Road.

A very pleasant promenade down The Bund. 
For more about the Bund and Pudong, see tomorrow's blog.

The towers of Pudong from the Bund embankment (apologies for the tautology).

Saturday 19th - Pubotang, Xingping, Guilin. Take me to the River! (don't drop me in the water)

I spent the night in an unfamiliar and very hard bed, just slats, a thin blanket, and a mosquito net, loaned to me by this family who's names I will never learn. Not much sleep had, a large part of the night I spent rebuking myself for imposing my reckless ignorance of Chinese cartographic practise on them. Being a traditional rural family, I knew we'd be rising early, so I'd set my alarm for 6.30. At 4.30am, the lights next door went on, doors opened and slammed closed, and I heard voices chatting away. Who gets up at 4.30? Even here? Were they monks, or dairy farmers, bakers or breakfast DJs?

Not nearly as comfortable as it looks, but a bed nevertheless:
None of the above fortunately. A few minutes later, all was and dark again, I fell asleep listening to the rain dripping off the roof into a trough outside.

I stayed in bed until I heard mum and dad rising at 7am, then got up and dressed quickly. All the tea from last and I still hadn't figured out why they'd put bricks in the latrine, so went outside in the rain and peed in the bushes. 

It was light, and my bike was still inside where I'd left it, it hadn't been sold on the sly to a neighbour at 4.30am, so it was time for me to get back on the road. But not yet. Not before breakfast.

Mum put some rice in the cooker, sliced some meat, and chopped some leaves and put them in the wok on the electric stove on the low table. At 8.30am the rice was cooked and breakfast was ready so Dad cracked open a bottle of lager and poured half in my glass. Tea at night and beer at breakfast, this is a little tipsy-turvy.

Mum was a little more conscientious and stopped Dad from giving me the rest of his beer, making wobbly wavey signs and pointing at the bike and me, laughing. Fair enough I thought. And with that, we packed up and I said thanks and goodbyes, as I left with Dad and eldest son. We walked the hundred yards back down to the river and jumped into one of the bamboo rafts that belonged to Dad. 

I handed over a newly inflated amount of cash for their troubles, and five minutes later reached a tiny jetty slightly to the north. Leading from the jetty was a narrow overgrown muddy path. There is no way in hell I would have found this in the dark last night, even if I had secured a crossing. 

Ahead of me though was not the flat road back to Xingping I'd been hoping for though. First I had to slog my way up a couple of mountain paths and negotiate through the uncertainty of pixelated google maps. 

An hour later a smile came to my face as I realised I was back in terra cognita.

One final bit of excitement on this journey remained. Cycling through a small village well off the main road, I noticed a lot of red tape lying in the gutter and a few people standing around.

On closer inspection, I saw the tape was actually thousands of firecrackers, probably for use later that night. Just as I passed the last house in the village I saw a guy lean down and ignite the first one, just as a decorated car and bus rolled slowly into the village. I was at a wedding.

All hell broke lose, it was like being in an ambush. Extremely loud bangers were going off right beside me at a rate of four or five a second. I was getting covered in bits of red debris and the air was thick with smoke, and reeking of cordite. Just praying that I wouldn't get swabbed at the airport the next day, because after two or three minutes of this I was covered in firecracker shrapnel.

This ceremony was to welcome the happy couple to their new home.

After all that fun, I made it back to the hostel in time for lunch. Read some pages of a rather shocking Mao biography, then jumped on the bus back to the metropolis of Guilin for a final night there before the flight to shanghai the following morning. 

What an adventure!

(Detail of one of the maps that started this whole debacle. Note well, that is definitely not a bridge to the  northeast of Pubutang.)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Friday 18th - Xingping - On a Road to Nowhere

The thing is, I was always led to believe that when looking at a map, a line marking a road, that crosses over a blue line marking a river, denotes a bridge, or at very least a ford. This assumption combined with a little bit too much faith in the accuracy of Chinese tourist cartography got me into a bit of a pickle today.

I wanted to do a full day of cycling. The hostel had several mountain bikes that looked good and sound, and I'd plotted out and cross-referenced a few routes and maps of the area, all of which looked like my kind of fun.

I'd got up at 6.45 to hike up Laozhai hill again, to see if I could catch a different light and a glimpse of the rising sun. I couldn't - the clouds and mist were even heavier than yesterday, and as I descended it started to rain, slowing my progress on the slippery stones, and extending the return journey to about an hour. Good exercise nevertheless. I put my hood up and had a quick look around the quay, as piles of bricks were loaded into boats which would later be loaded with tourists, and locals did their laundry at the banks below the bridge.

As it turned out, it was a very wet morning and the mist hung low and heavy over the hills. Looking down from my balcony, even the xylophone woman had stopped playing as the domestic tour parties hurried past her stall, huddled under shared umbrellas. The rain cascaded down the curved terracotta roof tiles and gurgled through gutters.

So I put the kettle on and picked up a copy of The Old Man & The Sea, and waited for it to clear up. Three and a half hours later, I'd finished the incredibly well told and moving tale, (last read my parents' copy twenty odd years ago) and the rain had to reduced to barely a drizzle. Time to move, better late than never.

I cycled out of town, my black shorts and rain jacket quickly getting thorougly covered in spatters of light grey mud from the unpaved road. Ten minutes later, not finding the junction I'd expected, I lost my nerve and returned to Xingping to seek the correct route. Ten minutes further in the opposite direction and I worked out I'd been right to start with, just not gone far enough. So that was another forty minutes lost, by now it was 2pm and I was a long way behind schedule, but happy to be out on a fast hard-tail with good disc-brakes in mesmerisingly beautiful scenery. Surreal rock formations rising out of rice fields and the surrounding mountains. These are archetypal scenes of rural Chinese life, peasants in coolie hats and water buffalo in paddy fields.

I reached the small town of Full and couldn't resist having a gander at the market. Lots of vegetables and spices outside, inside were live chickens, ducks, geese, and tanks of fish, all looking rather sheepish as the next one of their kin was taken out and strangled.

[Dog lovers and vegetarians look away now please.]

And yes, there were dogs too, all of one variety (the only breed around here) fortunately already dead, but nonetheless being skinned ready for the pot. 

[I originally didn't post these furtively grabbed snaps, because I know that some will find them upsetting, but I'm trying to be objective, and one man's dog is another man's pork etc. Also, If you're not yet a vegetarian, or are interested in the ethics of food production, I recommend reading "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer ]

Here's a photo of a kitten. Cute, alive, well, and hopefully not destined for the table.

Meanwhile, I crossed the river Li by a ¥10 ferry, the little boat was busy with children coming home from school. There were a couple of other westerners crossing with bikes, an Israeli guy and a French girl and they took the lion's share of making faces at the excitable kids who crowded around them.

Now on the far bank, I cycled a few short km through back streets of villages, past ponds and paddy fields towards the big tourist town around here - Yangshou.

Yangshou is the southerly downstream dropping off point for the big boat tours that originate in Guilin, 35km to the north, where I started from yesterday morning. It used my be a fairly quiet town nestled amongst the picturesque karst hills that cause the river to wind in loops around them. Now it's a throng of tour parties and the tat inevitably follows. West street is the busiest pedestrian thoroughfare, the lovely old two storey buildings bedecked with stalls selling postcards, figurines, confectionary and colourful silk scarves, interrupted by the occasional pole-dancing bar and a McDonalds. I was tempted by neither, it was time to sate the rumbling in my belly that I know well could drastically impede my return speed.

It was admittedly getting a bit late now - I reckoned I had about two hours of light left, but I knew I had to get some energy, so I stopped at the Dynasty noodle bar just off West street. Parked my bike outside and ordered a delicious eggplant stew and some fried rice. I got out my paper maps and brought up google maps on my iPad. The proprietor took an interest and I indicated my  plans, tracing out my return route up the west side of the river before crossing it at a small town close to Xingping. He looked on and nodded positively when I drew a bridge and pointed to its location on the map. Then a teenage boy at the table adjacent left his girlfriends and gestured if he could join me at my table. I welcomed him and he sat opposite me, obscuring my view of my bike. If Yangshou kids are anything like Hackney kids, I thought, this could mean a long walk home for me. The girls took snaps of us on their phones while he gave the thumbs up, and poured half of his beer into a glass for me. He talked to me in Mandarin for a while as I nodded, and we chinked glasses a few times before they waved goodbye. My bike, wallet and iPad were right where I left them.

It was starting to rain again. I resolved to cycle up the west side of the river, I'd plotted a course on the maps and though I couldn't be sure, there seemed to be two three options available to get back across it to the Xingping side. If I'd been feeling less brave, or had to travel the following day, at this point I would have turned around and gone back the way I came. But I didn't, I wanted to see something new so I took the gamble.

A few kilometres north, I began to get a little more nervous, I'd made a couple of minor wrong turns, and stopped twice to cross reference road signs with Chinese pictograms on the maps, but was back on track. I wanted to get across the river and back onto the road familiar from my outward journey before losing too much light. The heavy clouds though brought in the dusk much quicker and by the time I got to Pobutang, the village where the maps indicated a crossing it was pretty much dark. I parked my bike and walked down the stone steps to the river. There was no bridge here, just a lot of moored bamboos and a big tourist boat.

Standing on the shale beach, I pointed my head torch at the map. The line across the river must indicate a ferry crossing, but there was no ferryman left here, they'd all retired for the night. I considered my options. Wade/swim across? An almost instant no - too wide, too fast, too deep, too dark, and besides I couldn't really make out anymore than jungle on the opposite bank, if there was a connecting path or a road there, it was not visible. Further up river there was another possible crossing, but if there wasn't a bridge here, there wouldn't be one there. Cycle back the way I came? Too far, too dark, if I rode slowly, with my torch it would take til past midnight.

I left the bank and went back up the steps. I reasoned if I could find a boatman, I could convince them with a few yuan to give me a quick ferry to the other side. They're probably all drinking in a tiny village bar, exchanging stories of idiot tourists, I thought. This village of Pobutang though was tiny, no bars, no shops, no public buildings of any kind that I could see.

The first house that I came to was tiny, the door was open and I could see two adults and a child sitting round a stove in the floor. I was to interrupt dinner. With a big smile, sign language and map in hand, I tried best I could to communicate my problem and determine where I could find a crossing. Spectacles were unfolded and the map perused briefly under a bare bulb before I was given short shrift and shown the door. I was well and truly up shit creek.

Round the corner, another house, much larger, perhaps semi-detached, front door wide open. Again, it's dinner time, a family of five sitting round a stove on a low table. My best Ni Hao Ma was returned and I was gestured in. Mum, Dad, two boys less than five, a girl perhaps 8 or 9 and grandmother were there. I was immediately offered food and drink, before I'd had a chance to explain myself. I indicated my belly was already full, and besides I really had to get going, it was late and it was dark outside, I just had to find my way. They put in a reply - it's late, it's dark, you won't find your way. I was offered a small stool to sit on, I declined, I kept my jacket on, I really had to be going. But it's too dark, Mum put her hand over eyes and gestured outside. Yup, she was right, it was pretty black out there. Sit down, have some food they insist. I got my map out, and a pen, on it I drew a bridge, a nice medieval stone arched bridge. Confused looks all round. It looks like a bridge to me. I drew a bike going over the bridge, and a river flowing gracefully below. They're still not getting it, and I'm glad I'm not playing Pictionary. 'Where's the bloody bridge?' I think, knowing well now that a tiny settlement like this couldn't feasibly justify a bridge big enough to cross that river and the big boats that it carries. 

Grandma looks at me kindly, she points to me, puts her palms together and lays her face upon them and closes her eyes. I look around the room, bare concrete walls, floor and ceiling, one wooden chair and five tiny wooden stools. Not much in the way of soft furnishings here, nothing in fact, unless you count the spiders webs. I really, really don't want to sleep here. Not because of the meagre comforts - lord knows I've happily slept in much, much worse surroundings - it's more the social awkwardness of being utterly reliant on them, with no viable method of transmitting or receiving information, practical or theoretical; or judging the delicate balance of an etiquette to which I was unaccustomed. 

At this point I am feeling completely and utterly outside my comfort zone. Tired and confused and dismayed at thought of not getting back to my lovely prepaid room at the hostel. This family were offering me food, and drink, and shelter and my churlishness was met with smiles from Mum and the kids. This is turning into rather more of adventure than I'd planned for. Then the daughter brings me a piece of paper, on it she's written "my father carries you tomorrow". Gestures of sleeping are repeated and I gradually acquiesce. Just then I remember I've got the phone number of the hostel, they speak Mandarin and quite good English. I called them and tried to explain my predicament, Dad gets on the phone and has a long chat. That TMobile bill is going to hurt. The phone is returned to me and I establish that I'm welcome to stay there, for a small fee and Dad, the 'driver' will get me back in the morning. It seems he's the owner/operator of one of the little bamboo rafts that we took to get down here.

With that agreed and all parties seemingly happy, I feel a little happier. I settle on a wooden bed base in the corner of this front room and look through the kids' English school workbooks. The girl and the elder boy sit either side of me. We take turns in reading sentences and I try to help with pronunciation. We go through the alphabet a couple of times, though its clear that the elder daughter has only got up to M. I like to think that I'm helping them, but if I'm remembered by them it'll certainly be as an exotic uninvited stranger, rather than an inspirational transformation in their understanding of the language of international travel.

[I just heard on the news that the Chinese government is considering scaling back the importance of English language in their national curriculum]

After a few minutes of rudimentary English tuition, I lose the kids attention to the low budget samurai period soap opera playing on the TV. If you can't beat them join them I thought, and settled onto one of the wooden stools to watch the incomprehensible drama unfold. Dad offers me a cup of tea, brewed from the local leaves which have a pleasant aniseed flavour, I have one cup, and then another. Before long, it's time for bed. 

All the water here comes from a tap out in the vegetable garden. Dad fills a very large plastic pail from the garden, and brings it inside. From this master supply, it is decanted using a saucepan into one of several smaller buckets each with a seperate purpose. I dont believe there's any central water boiler in the house, instead water is boiled in a kettle as required. I'm shown a large plastic bowl of the kind we may do the dishes in, its filled with warm water and the elder son gives me a towel and mimes washing his face. He shows me to a tiny room behind the kitchen area of the main room. This is the bathroom, again just blank damp concrete, no decoration at all. The only useful thing in it is a squat latrine, but this is blocked with two wall bricks, I readily take this as a sign not to use it. Instead I brush my teeth and wash my (still mud-spattered) face in the bowl. 

While doing so, I hear a rustling noise behind me, I turn and see a frog in the corner. As it jumps towards me, I jump forward and find myself nose to nose with an enormous spider on the wall, body about the size of an AA battery, legs the span of a lady's hand. I hastily bounce back and notice its equally sizeable buddy eyeballing me from the low ceiling.  I empty the bowl into a drain in the corner and a beat a retreat to the relative safety of a bed.

I say good nights and close the door behind me, wondering just how I got here and worrying whether I've displaced anyone from their own bed. 

Adventures only really happen when things don't go as expected.