Backpacking 201. First stop-Shanghai.

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.


In 1962 China invaded India from two sides. On the north-west through Ladakh and the north-east through Arunachal Pradesh. It was a horrific war between two countries that were pretending to be friends. India lost the war, her sons and some territory. As a consequence of this loss the Chinese in Calcutta were interned/incarcerated by the then Government of India. A very shameful act. The Chinese have been in India, mainly Calcutta, since the 1700s. I have never been to Calcutta but the Chinese there are famous for their food, beauty parlours, shoes and furniture and expert dentists.

( Check these links for really interesting stories especially the letter from an Indian-Chinese. Or Chinese-Indian? Or Chindian? 🙂 ;,prtpage-1.cms)

When I was little my mother would take my sister and I to Eve’s Beauty Parlour in Sukhsagor to cut our hair. It was run by a Chinese lady and her Chinese staff. Then one day the parlour shut down. Now I think back maybe they followed their Calcutta relatives, who might have been incarcerated, to America/Canada/Australia? I recall getting my hair cut at the Hong Kong Beauty Parlour in Colaba by another Chinese lady. She spoke impeccable Bombay Hindi. Wonder if the place is still open? Then there is Dr Chang, the dentist in Chira Bazaar who has been there for as long I remember and whose son apparently runs the clinic. Last time I went through Chira Bazaar, in March 2008, the clinic looked shiny and prosperous with Dr Chang’s board very much in place.


In 1959 the Dalai Lama crossed over from Tibet into India through Arunachal Pradesh (if I got the route right). Jawaharlal Nehru offered him and his people a home. The Tibetans settled in Dharamshala and then in Karnataka. Every winter they came (come?) to Bombay to sell warm clothes to hot, harried Bombayites whose winter is experienced at 25 degrees. 🙂 They were a curiosity, these Tibetans. With their smiling faces, wiry bodies and sad eyes. Not all monks but still surrounded by an aura of peace. Even cynical Bombayites could not resist the woollens. It was like we knew what they were suffering and helping them meant serving Gautam Buddha himself. For years after encountering them I wanted to visit and live in Dharamshala. Far away from Bombay, in the Himalayas. I was actively discouraged by the family. Which good Indian girl just wanders off to the Himalayas to live like a ‘monk’?

I visited Sikkim in 2000. Just me and my backpack. The good Indian girl. 🙂 I was ‘allowed’ to go only after promising my mother that I would call her every day. Sikkim brought me closer to Tibet than Dharamshala. A trip towards Nathu-La, above Chhangu Lake, nauseous with mountain sickness, eating sheera in the army camp and listening to stories about how the soldiers defend the country I imagined Tibet. A hop, skip and jump across the border, far above the clouds, literally the roof of the world. The Sikkimese are not fond of the Chinese. They revere the Dalai Lama. Sikkim, in independent Himalayan kingdom, was annexed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 but was once claimed by China too.


The weekend before last young Chinese students were protesting against the bias of the Western media towards the China-Tibet issue at Aotea Square in Queen Street, Auckland. While there is no doubt that media is biased-anywhere and in any country (I mean Rupert Murdoch rules right? Or whoever has more might and money?) the students seemed to believe what the Chinese government was telling them. Would they know about Tiananmen Square?

I have a lot of Chinese friends in New Zealand, many generations removed from China or fresh from the mainland. We have always worked together for better representation of Asians but never discussed democracy, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Falun Gong, human rights, Sudan, Burma…or Kashmir, the Red corridor, Nagaland…or just relations between India and China. I wonder why. Because it is uncomfortable? Because these things don’t matter when the white man and colonialism are the ‘common enemy’? Because we rely on government agencies to bring us together and tell us what we should do? Will there be space to talk ever?


It has taken me some time to figure out an ‘unbiased’ view. Reams have been written by experts and those not. Frankly, I sympathise with the Tibetans. Not so much because I am a bleeding heart or because I understand the teachings of Gautam Buddha (but I am not a Buddhist-for those who would want to label me straight away). No. It is because I have seen the Tibetans as refugees in my motherland. (I have also seen the Kashmiri Pandits as refugees in their own country, in India.) I have felt the warmth of the Dalai Lama permeate a section of Eden Park. Yet I also reminisce about the Chinese women who cut my hair. And stories my grandmother told me about Chinese tradesmen selling their bundles of silk. If I feel sick about the way the Indian Government treated the Chinese of Calcutta after losing the war, if I feel that as an Asian and an Indian in New Zealand I should take charge of my own representation and negotiate my culture and complex identity in this space, then it is natural for me to empathise with the cultural genocide of the Tibetans.

The Beijing Olympics, like any massive sporting event are an exercise in nationalistic jingoism and so called sportsmanship, a money-making occasion, a tourism opportunity. Just like the Commonwealth Games will be in 2010 in Delhi. That is no excuse to crush ‘undesirables’. The Dalai Lama has always asked for dialogue with the Chinese Government. It is the latter who keeps putting in condition after condition.

I am a sucker for sweet endings. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that the Chinese Government will talk to the Dalai Lama or the Tibetans. China is not a democracy. Those protesting Chinese students were using a tool of democracy to talk against Western media but were probably unaware of other tools and requirements that are attached to democracy. I can sit here and type this because I come from a country that has chugged along on a democratic path. Never perfect, never quite understanding how to deal with many issues yet having the space for discourse and argument. I live in a country that is a democracy. Imagine not being able to ask for your rights and representation, not being able to tell a bureaucrat who actually pays her salary! 😀 Chetan Anand made HAQEEQAT, a film on the Indo-China war of 1962 and how India lost the war. I am not aware of any literature that has openly come out of China that speaks about Tiananmen Square or Tibet.

A democratic China would be make an immense difference to Asia and the world. I think then India and China would be real friends rather than be cautious of each other like two sparring partners. It would also keep meddling Western powers at bay. Otherwise, imagine if Western/vested interests infiltrated the region and turn it into another Israel-Palestine or Iraq. It would be easy to arm Tibetans after the Dalai Lama dies. Then the Tibetans might not want to be non-violent. But if there was dialogue and if India lead the way and if we should recognise our cultures within rather than just fighting against Westerners, then it would be hard to beat Asian ‘power’.

Or is it just a stupid, unattainable dream?