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).

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