Spent a week in Shanghai. Amazing city. 23 million people, (a little less than the whole of Australia!) and skyscrapers for literally miles and miles. The main things that I immediately noticed was how extremely ‘Westernised’ the city is and, certainly in the City centre area in which I stayed, very wealthy. There are massive, marble-floored, designer shopping malls everywhere with every designer name you can think of and some you would never have heard of unless you’re especially fashion conscious and very rich.
It’s clear that time has turned full circle from when ‘The Pearl of The Orient’ of the roaring 20s and 30s was one of the World’s most fashionable and fun cities and now, 90 odd years later, can re-claim the same reputation.
Fabulous restaurants specialising in every type of food abound and the many trendy and sophisticated rooftop bars are jammed with high flyers or those on their way to flying high as work and success are everyone’s main focus.
I was lucky enough to be treated by my hosts, a couple of high flyers themselves, to the most jaw droppingly, saliva generating, magnificent Sunday ‘Champagne brunch’ at the Jade restaurant on the 36th floor of the 5 star Shrangri-La hotel on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river, opposite The Bund.
Because there are SO many people, competition is intense and no one wants to be left behind. As far as the men are concerned if you haven’t got a high paying job, an upmarket car and an apartment of your own, you stand little to no chance of ever getting a girlfriend let alone a wife!
Strolling along The Bund one hot sunny morning I saw a group of surprisingly quite noisy, gum-chewing Monks out for the day who were calling down to people below on a ferry-jetty, taking selfies on their cell phones and generally enjoying what I suppose was a rare spot of freedom in the outside world. Obviously they didn’t come from a silent order but nevertheless I was surprised that they had mobile phones; I thought it was all quills and parchment up the monastery; what sort of texts do they send each other I wondered? possibly ‘see you at the 3am prayers’, ‘do you know what’s for lunch?’ or ‘whose on grape-treading duty today?’ These chaps soon linked up with their other colleagues and boarded a coach presumably to get back to change their filthy habits.
Travelling around the city its best to get used to using the subway, which thankfully has a recorded English translation of each station warning you of its proximity before the train stops so that you can start the elbow-digging process of extracting yourself from the other crammed-in passengers and edge towards the doors. But I found that you still really have to listen and follow your route on the map above the windows (as in the London tube) as some stations sound and are spelled very much like another; it’s all a bit tense at first and I found myself sweating with concentration sometimes, as if you get it wrong, unless you’re very lucky, no one it seems, understands or speaks English and you could end up miles away from where you thought you were going! It’s different in business circles or when you’re being hassled by people who want to sell you something but generally I was faced with expressionless or perplexed stares any time I asked anyone anything. I suppose we’re the same when confronted with a desperate looking ‘foreigner’ blabbing incomprehensibly.
There was one exception to that when I really did get lost in the South Bund fabric market where I went to get measured for a tailor-made jacket and some shirts. (£75 for a superbly cut sports jacket and 2 smart shirts). A very kind hearted Chinese businessman who was obviously looking forward to getting home to his wife and family after a hard day’s work, took me by the arm and marched me for about two blocks out of his way to a subway station. (It was the wrong one – but still!) Lovely chap. And I found just about everyone very friendly even if they hadn’t a clue what you were saying.
To be fair most of the street signs are in both Chinese and English but you have to be in the right area in the first place for that to be of any use. Oh and most menus have an English translation which is useful if you don’t want to unwittingly chew something you don’t recognise. Wandering around the Old City area I was hungry but couldn’t find any ‘individual’ type restaurant. The only places to eat, would you believe, were fast-food places such as Mcdonalds or KFC and having traveled 5000 miles or so I just didn’t want to go into one of those which are of course the same the World over. Finally I found a massive Chinese ‘refueling eatery’ – a bit like a motorway self-service place but with very different food choices! There was a very long counter displaying every type of food you can imagine and some you can’t; everything from whole crabs to splayed, complete fried frogs, squid, prawns, and many strange barbecued, fried, boiled or raw fish and meat dishes amongst various vegetable, rice and noodle offerings. I finally settled on a bowl of hot noodles with cabbage and meat and some kebab skewers of pork (I think). Instead of buying your water and soft drinks at the main counter smiling waitresses stroll around with loaded trolleys of them, which is a nice touch.
Taxis are everywhere and not expensive so long as you make sure you get the right ones! always try to take green or blue ones. Red cars will certainly scam you! No Cabbie I used spoke English, so, impolite as it might seem, it’s best to write out the address of where you want to go and just show it to them.
Wandering around the streets having visited some of the main tourist attractions something else struck me. I hadn’t heard a single emergency vehicle siren all day. Mentioning this to my nephew with whom I was staying, who’s lived there for 8 years, he said there’s hardly any point because of the volume of traffic; they can’t get through any faster anyway. But other than the very unlikely risk of being caught up in an emergency, the city feels very safe both day and night.
Away from the skyscrapers (or rather still in their shadow but tucked into the old part of the city) behind Chenghuang Miao – or The Temple of the City God, and some magnificent oriental pavilions, is the Ming-style Yu Yuan garden dating back to 1577 with its landscaped rockeries, tranquil ponds full of golden koi, trickling waterfalls and ‘secret’ nooks and crannies. If you are lucky enough to be there either before or after the crowds it really is a beautiful and peaceful place to be – which is why it is fittingly named – ‘The Garden of Leisurely Repose’
When you go to this amazing city you should really treat yourself to a massage. I went to a posh place with soft music, dim lights, extremely polite staff and a cage full of twittering budgerigars. It was close to the impressive ‘Kerry Centre’ which is one of the biggest and smartest shopping mall complexes I’ve ever seen. Having had a refreshing shower and modestly wrapped in a large soft towel, ultra-polite ‘Monica’ knocks, comes in and offers me a choice from 3 types of perfumed oils. After a silent and very discreet hour of kneading my tired body (from walking all day – 15,000 steps as recorded on my iphone Health/Activity App) I emerged feeling terrific and more than ready for my regular intake of Vesper (a la James Bond) cocktails (3 oz Gin, half oz of vodka, quarter oz Lillet Blonde, all ice cold + lemon peel; shaken, not stirred – of course!) at the ultra-smooth 1515 bar at the Shangri-La Hotel (Jing An). Two or three of those definitely set you up for the night!
Coming back from Shanghai my plane was delayed for an hour and a half which meant I missed my connecting flight at Beijing to get to Heathrow. No more flights until the next day so a bus took me and others who were affected, to an hotel. Very luckily I teamed up with two great women – one a native Chinese called Leoni who, thank God, translated everything for myself and Julie – a very creative French photographer with a great sense of humour. We all became chums and because we had nothing else better to do, even though we were tired and it was about 9pm, got a taxi to Tiananmen Square and walked all around the outside of it as the square itself was closed. Many security checks and police all over the place but the lovely Leoni gave us all its history and we had an interesting couple of hours.