Shanghai

It was midday when the plane landed in Shanghai. I had abandoned my large sunscreen bottle two cities prior and stowed my backpack in the overhead, attempting to avoid any more lost baggage. The airport KFC made it obvious that I wouldn’t be living like a king, nearly 50 RMB for a meal compared to less than 25 RMB in Chengdu. The famous MagLev train runs into the city from the airport but is a tourist trap, cutting only 20 minutes from the same trip taken on the subway yet costing many times as much (still only ~15 dollars). Either way, I wasn’t going to pass it up so I gladly cruised at over 300mph toward my hostel.

I was staying very close to the famous Bund, the riverside walkway featuring Shanghai’s distinct European architecture on it’s own shore and the wildly modern skyline across the water. Emerging from the underground subway, I was several blocks from the water, and after settling into the bunk in my 8 person room, I headed out to explore.

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Arriving at the Bund through hoards of Chinese and Western tourists, far more Westerners than I’d seen in any other city, I was met with the slight disappointment of having to look at the amazing skyline through less than clear skies. I wouldn’t describe the day as foggy or rainy, possibly sunny if I looked up. The buildings ahead of me, however, sat under a thin film of white.

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The skyline feels as though it was all designed at once, built as a modern attraction to complement the traditional European waterfront it faces. From the water, I cruised along flat sidewalks toward the Old City, where strings of old style Chinese buildings create a mall atmosphere several blocks in area. The stores sold a huge variety of kitschy, tourist gifts, from medical spices to paper cutout art, but the huge size meant there were plenty of high quality finds.

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I was searching for a traditional Chinese watercolor painting for my mom, and stepped into the largest, most organized of the galleries I could find. I had been shopping throughout China for nearly two weeks at this point yet still found some surprise when one of the gallery employees followed me each step to deliver small pieces of info concerning the art. I had wanted to browse the store in peace, but in traditional Chinese style, it was assumed that I wanted my hand held and led through the store. I got bothered and left, but would end up back at that gallery two days later, unfazed, to purchase a painting.

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My hunger struck as I walked back home but I remained persistent in my search of small, authentic, Chinese dining. As with most food searches, it took me almost twenty minutes before I settled on a place, but the three other men that sat at the table beside mine, getting drunk on beer and liquor while crushing cigarettes, confirmed I’d made it to the right place. I ordered two dishes, each meant for sharing, cold cucumber salad and a sautéed pork and pepper dish. The men asked about my background and what brought me to China through the waitress, a twenty something girl that simply translated their questions through her phone. The cucumbers were awesome, a good helping of greens that I hadn’t gotten in a while (and probably a good way to get sick, eating raw veggies). The pork and peppers stopped me in my tracks with their heat. Two bites in, I bought an iced tea. Two more bites, I ordered rice. At least an hour more and I finally walked out the door, somewhat full but certainly finished. That night, I met with a local friend and got out with some of the local e Ex Pats.

Upon waking on Saturday, I focused on finding a way to ship some electronics to my friend in Tibet, badly in need of a decent keyboard and mouse for his computer. It wasn’t until later that day, after several subways and long walks, including accidentally bumping into a small protest on the streets, that I picked up one of my best travel tricks. I’d decided that it would be easiest to find FedEx or UPS, a couple American companies, rather than attempting to use Chinese delivery services (and China Post, the country’s postal service, was closed on the weekend). After showing up at more than one FedEx location on Google Maps, only to find no FedEx offices, I headed for the Westin. It was such a relief to talk with well mannered, locally knowledgable, English speaking people. Perhaps it was my tourist outfit or my courteousness, but the concierge pointed me toward the hotel’s business center, where I returned the next day and easily shipped the electronics. Looking back, the Westin business center, and those at other hotels I presume, are open to the public. While my hostel had slow, unreliable internet and employees with no idea how to ship things, I finally found success went I shed my independent attitude and located the people that aided uncompromising, helpless Westerners.

The heavy rain that day delayed my walking throughout the city until the evening, when I made my way to the French Concession for some food. A quick bite of crappy pizza at a pub showing soccer games prepared me for the long walk back to my place. Moving through this neighborhood felt like walking down an American city block, with small boutique stores, large well known retailers, beautiful stone sidewalks, and a proper canopy above it all.

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I had come too late; most stores had closed and the only other pedestrians were club goers. The pulsing music was easy to find and consistently led to lots of high end sports cars. Walking alone, at night, in one of the world’s largest party cities made me think about the wealth that afforded all those sports cars. If I had the money, I couldn’t imagine spending it on a car to shuttle me to loud clubs on Saturday nights. The first sight of the Ferraris and Lambos gave me pause, but the deafening base and thought of smoke filled clubs made me sure I would never envy the rich party lifestyle.

As I neared my hostel, I stopped for a snack of street food, cooked and sold by a family of three who happily fed a small crowd as midnight approached.

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Sunday morning, I popped up early, quickly got my shipping done, and headed to the People’s Park. I had read that there is a corner in the park, known as the English Corner, where English speakers gather to practice the language. My goal was to learn more about the country and people, particularly their response to Westerners’ view of ‘communism’ and the reality of a capitalist China. I wanted to meet individuals who lived through the Cultural Revolution and have seen their children and grandchildren free to seek material and intellectual wealth. Generations living in the country right now see different futures and potential for China, having sacrificed little to everything to arrive where they are.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the English Corner. I hadn’t researched well enough and expected it to be more well known. One young guy knew what I was referring to, but hadn’t the slightest idea where to direct me. Instead, I took in the park, a beautiful retreat from the high energy, international city. There weren’t many large meadows in the park, like many of those in American cities. However, beautiful ponds, rocks, tree groves, and walking paths made it feel like I’d left the city.

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The park had a surprisingly active side. Red track lanes gave patrons a comfortable walking option and signs proposed workouts for the patrons. Just off to the side, as I was hunting for something interesting, I was able to squeeze in my first workout of the trip, a few reps on the park bench press. Most of the guys standing around were not dressed to be active, but the man in the track suit was doing more than enough for the rest of them.

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I continued on, searching for the English speakers and any other treasures the park might have to offer. The most fascinating discovery, without a doubt, were the crowds of mothers and fathers looking for suitors for their children. Hundreds of parents lined the walkways in a particular corner of the park, each standing behind an open umbrella on the ground. I had heard about this, but somehow tucked it away in my mind and was met with complete surprise on arrival.  

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The umbrellas were surprisingly nondescript, very few were worn or broken, but equally as few were fancy. Clipped to each was a single sheet of letter paper with details about their child written in plain text Chinese. I was surprised no parents tried to distinguish themselves with opulent umbrellas, paper, or pictures. Only two of the several hundred umbrellas I walked past had a picture. Instead, the parents talked with one other, leaving to themselves the job their children were unable to complete. The entire scene gave me pause at first, but thinking that for each group of parents this is likely their only child, and that these children have probably spent their lives receiving everything they have, is a little help in the dating department such a surprise?

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Dressed as a complete tourist, camera across my chest, I did my best to observe and not get in the way. I attempted to take photos of the entire scene, rather than any individuals, but after one of my shots, two women felt like I was focusing on them and started yelling at me, the only time my entire trip I was reprimanded for taking a photo. I promptly deleted it and headed out, ready to catch another plane that afternoon.

The subway to the airport was a bit longer than the MagLev train, but got me there all the same. A quick weekend in China’s most international city had worn me out a bit and I was excited to get back to a smaller city with less white people. That night’s flight to Guilin would be my last within China, as I was just days away from taking the train to Hong Kong, where I would eventually depart for the US. Luckily, I could look forward to several days in one of the world’s most beautiful places.