My backpack tore when I reached the hostel. I knew it would give way considering I had filled it to the gills with everything from my hair serum to a dhinchak frock just in case I went clubbing. So my dorm mate helped me buy a bag. In the back alleys of East Nanjing Road, inside a room in a house and a room in that room lies the seller-of-fakes. Or cheaper-than-departmental store fare. They hustle for customers on the street and then you have to follow them furtively-as if the local police don’t know these establishments exist. Thus I bought a new suitcase. Too big and a trifle expensive-I did not bargain hard enough.
Now the backpacking title of this blog is no longer applicable but I’ll continue with it. For the sake of continuity.
I boarded an Air New Zealand flight on 7/08/09 from Auckland to Shanghai. Exhausted, tired, working until 8pm that night to finish all my tasks and make sure the cash flows in while I am away. My backpack was packed to the gills. Having graduated backpacking 101 on the YHA circuit and on my own in New Zealand it was time to try it overseas in mixed dorms. Shanghai was not originally in the plan but Auckland-London entailed a stopover in Shanghai so on the behest of my dear friend Rebecca ( “You must stay there!”) I re-budgetted and scrimped and saved some more to include it in the itinerary. Although Professor Paul Spoonley did warn me that ‘Shanghai is not China’.
The Captain Hostel is on the Bund. A long way from Pudong International Airport. The instructions on the website were to take Bus 3 to Longyang Metro station and Line 2 to East Nanjing Road. Easy peezy except for the heat and humidity. I should be used to it. Grew up in Bombay! But. There is much transalation and sign language when I catch and get off the bus. Ni shuo ying wen ma? (Can you speak English?) and shie shie (thank you) are going to be the two most common sentences I use during my time in Shanghai. And duo shao qian? (How much?). You can bargain at departmental stores in Shanghai-at least on East Nanjing Road. I almost bought a frock for 150 yuan (cheap as!) until my dorm mate, a South African who teaches English in South Korea haggled with the saleswoman. So I bought the frock for 50 yuan. It took a black man to teach an Indian woman how to bargain :-), as my dorm mate told me.
Asia is Asia, bloody Asia. It is home-anywhere in bloody Asia. You see the people, you see what they are doing and it is reassuring. An old woman selling mogra by the underground Metro, loads and bundles balanced precariously on bicycles and lots of cycles, people crossing the road arbitrarily, utter disregard for traffic rules, streetside vendors near railway bridges, pot holes, diversions, half destroyed abodes, labourers, construction everywhere, piles of rubble…dust, rain, heat. Chaos, confusion, humanity. Fast and slow all at once. Ancient and new all at once.
So is Shanghai except that I could not access Facebook or Twitter. And there are police everywhere. Police and what look like private security guards. The Chinese government must be spending tons of money on regimenting the country. There are no beggars in sight-although I caught a homeless man or two on camera. It is glitzy, glittering, wannabe sleek. All kinds of architectural styles sit by each other. Classical, neo-classical, art deco, modern and even the crazy looking Oriental Pearl Tower. At night the Bund is like out of a scene from a film in Las Vegas with the deliberate spectacle of lights. During the day the structures look a bit more real. Yet. My camera could not capture the bizzare, surreal character of the Bund in Shanghai. A whole lot of Chinese gawp at the edifices too. A kind of reassurance about the enormity/greatness of China and her growing power. I see that at an exhibition at the Oriental Pearl Tower. The story of Shanghai told through waxworks and other life size models. Not much to say about the curating but the sub-text sure was overtly nationalistic. Great China, the sufferings of the past and how-we-overcame-the foreigner etc. Still, for a two-minute tourist like me it was worth the 35 yuan. And the trip to the other, Pudong side of the Huangpu river, the walk to the tower, lunch at the streetside stalls…wu bo chi niu rou hi zhu rou (I do not eat beef or pork) I said to the stallkeeper, my accent not quite right. This time I saved myself from Hindu hell 🙂
For once I did not plan what I will do in which city through my travels. There was no fixed itinerary, no things-to-see…I just wanted to float around and do what I can. So I missed out on the Shanghai museum, the Dali exhibition and the French Quarter. Instead I simply wandered around observing the people and the buildings, the insatiable aspiration for all things consumer, the middle-class prosperity and the carefully hidden poverty. The Pudong side of the Bund is like another film set, like, I don’t know, Dick Tracy perhaps. Or it could be like Nariman Point/Cuffe Parade in Bombay without the slums or the fishing boats. Of course there is horrible traffic and the masses and even a Hooters in the multinational outlet mix with foreigners (white people) cycling along in the middle of all that. A man, what looked like a Muslim minority (a Uigher?) person, was selling kebabs made on a portable coal barbeque, would not let me take a photo 😦
Public transport in Shanghai is so good that travelling everywhere is easy. The underground Metro is just superb and the Magnet train takes you from Longyang station to Pudong International Airport in 10 minutes.
I can see why the world is wary of China and her increasing power. The government can mobilise people ‘for the country’ very easily. The Shanghai Expo in 2010 is the next thing to showcase China and Haibao the mascot is everywhere. Even the roadside vendors sell little models every few metres on East Nanjing Road. There is a mass recruitment to speak English, from what I gather. How this model of ‘capitalism within communism’ works and whether it will implode, whether the people of China will know anything better vis-a-vis freedom of expression and human rights, equality, making decisions for the self and the country without any pressure from the government or whether this kind of governance becomes the norm and acceptable to other countries on the anti-Western bandwagon is the subject of another blog. Whatever it is, I shall definetely visit China again. The people are warm and lovely and there is so much more to see. A road or rail trip through rural China is on my wish list now.