Eagles Land on Planet Bling

Where do you go to see the best of night-time Shanghai? Walking Street and The Bund, of course.  We arrived, utilising Shanghai’s ultra-modern subway system. Once on the platform, my head shook from side to side in amazement. Trains arrived every four minutes here, for just about every destination. Again, the contrast to our ‘Puffing Billy’ services at home, felt like a slap.

Once on this amazing boulevard, we felt that the Gods of sparkle had transported us to Planet Bling; viva Las Vegas, at its best. Hey, hold on a minute … this is supposed to be China; the so called third world. Within minutes, our necks felt sore from constantly looking up at the lights and … because half of the Chinese population seemed to be in the street at the same time as us, we fell into a stream of humanity, dragged along by the crowd, to the street’s end, some four or five city blocks from where we started.

We left Walking Street; our necks still stretched, as we attempted to take in the view over the crowd. As we entered The Bund, we saw a water-side expanse of beautiful flood-lit, French and British colonial buildings that ran along the western side of the Huangpu River. On the far bank we discovered Shanghai’s equivalent to Manhattan. Modern architectural marvels that disappeared into the heavens; some of which, rose over one hundred stories high. A giant Television screen took up the entire facing wall of one high-rise, and, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, their kaleidoscope of moving light, reflected back to us across the surface of the water. Beautiful, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to be burdened by the cost of the electricity bill.

Ah, Shanghai; modern, generic and stinking hot, yet the only real negatives we experienced here, were from foreign sources. I became appalled by the rudeness displayed, by some of the western ex-pats towards the locals. At one point, we witnessed a suited individual, push his way off a train and purposely elbow a young girl in the face. He didn’t even honour her with a glance, yet neither she, nor her young boyfriend reacted. We spotted quite a few of these middle aged, self-styled Taipans, invariably with a young Chinese girl on their arm. Perhaps I’m being foolishly judgemental, but I couldn’t help wondering if these beautiful young things would be discarded, once these businessmen returned to their wives and families.

The next day we zig-zagged our way to Zhujiajiao (pronounced: zyou zyow zyow), travelling in every direction other than the right one; finally making it to the old canal town, after an expensive direction adjustment, made in a local taxi. Zhujiajiao, the Chinese Venice, seemed nice, in a touristy kind of way, although almost deserted. We supposed the heat and the distance kept even the holidaying Chinese away. Strangely, we made it back to central Shanghai, by getting on the correct bus, which turned out to be an hour shorter than the forward journey.

That night we headed across the river from The Bund, to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which I’m told is one hundred and ten, or so, stories into the stratosphere. Here we enjoyed a scenic drink on the eighty seventh floor’s restaurant. I swear that the whole building swayed, despite the non-existent Shanghai breezes, which seemed especially heightened when I sat on the toilet; very disconcerting! Has anybody experienced this?

We both realised the lesson we received from our visit to Shanghai; a classy, ultra-modern, and definitely sophisticated city, yet, with few authentic cultural areas that weren’t primarily over-crowded tourist traps. China seemed to be developing and westernising so fast, that we feared for the loss of its culture; the ‘so called good life’ obviously has its price. I guess this is easy to say, when you’ve never been without.

Then we heard it; a call, ‘go west young man (and woman)’ for a more authentic Chinese experience. So, trusting the weird voices in our heads, we purchased the only tickets we could to the city of Chengdu, a small county town of ten million or so people, in the Province of Sichuan, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. Unfortunately, we would have to endure a thirty-two hour train ride to get there, on a hard seat. It sounded absolutely back breaking, yet we couldn’t wait to leave for the home of the Giant Panda.

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Eagles in Old Shanghai

The very idea of hurtling along on a train at three hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, is both scary and preposterous, especially given that our Albury to Melbourne fast-train service, struggled to reach jogging speed in places. Before we boarded, we began hoping and then actually praying that these Chinese tracks allowed for a slightly more reliable and less hazardous journey than ours. The ride exceeded any scenario I could have come up with. It felt remarkably like flying in a large jet-liner. It turned out to be very smooth and comfortable although the scenery flashed by so fast that we didn’t feel quite at ease, especially with the digital monitor at the end of each car constantly displaying the current speed.

Buildings of Shanghai

We reached Shanghai alive, which is always a bonus, but immediately became assaulted by the heat and humidity as we left the train. We managed Beijing’s dry heat, but this …? Within minutes, I become a human sprinkler system, spraying unsuspecting victims every time I moved. At the terminal we were picked up by an Australian expat, who put us up for a few days. Over that period, we received an education on all things Chinese, particularly the food. One of the local hot-pot restaurants called ‘The Little Sheep’ became our favourite. Each table came with a sunken pot, with a heat source underneath; something akin to a steam-boat in the middle of our table. Initially, we filled the boiling water with herbs and spices, and later with a range of local produce, which included some ‘not so local’ New Zealand Lamb. We also found a good dumpling restaurant, aptly named ‘Discovery’, with great varieties to choose from. In fact, we ate an awful lot in Shanghai, perhaps because of our exertions, or more likely, because of the air-conditioned facilities. Some of the dishes included spicy fish head, donkey, frog, snake-head fish, black wood fungus and goat, to name but a few.

On one of our days exploring the city, we discovered the ‘Alleys of Taikang Road’, which originally began, when an Australian opened an illegal restaurant to avoid zoning regulations, called the ‘Communard’. It became so popular that eventually all of the old houses in this tangle of streets become restaurants, quaint bars and galleries. Later that night, we visited ‘The Cotton Club’, which is particularly famous if you love live jazz; not unlike ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ in London. A classy mixture of Europeans and locals, belted out song after song, but the action really began, when an African-American woman joined the band from the dance floor and sang the roof off the place. Eventually, two other American gals and one stunning Bulgarian joined her. It turned out to be no accident; the girls became a group so that they could sing their way around China, at two cities per week.

In the middle of our Shanghai experience, someone recommended we head south on another fast train, to visit the city of Hangzhou. We initially found this small Chinese city of only four million people, very smoggy and unappealing; wondering why we ever ventured here. Then we discovered the ‘West Lake’, which is the city’s gem. It looked particularly beautiful at night, especially the fountain displays in the lake, which combined timed sprays of water, with coloured lighting and classical music. Despite the wonders of the lake, Hangzhou’s humidity almost did us in. Even the unimaginable crowds of local people and other tourists seemed to wilt; most, wetter than the eels in the bottom of the lake. Once again, the ever-present icy poles (roughly translated as La-bing-wa), saved us.

Chinese Dragonboat on West Lake Hangzhou

We travelled back to Shanghai with sobering news. Another fast-train, travelling from the same station as ours, crashed over a bridge after being struck by another train, with forty souls lost. Apparently, a lightning strike stopped the first train, but not the second, which couldn’t stop in time. We missed the same fate by moments and felt sick thinking about the grief suffered by all of the victims loved ones. It only strengthened our resolve to live life to its fullest and not waste a precious moment … while we still could.

Eagles Adorned

Feeling more than a little excited about the day’s possibilities, Katie and I headed out on foot, to explore Beijing’s Beihai Gardens. Along the way we discovered the National Calligraphy and Public Seal Cutting Exhibition. We enjoyed the displays and the National Library, especially the intricately carved seals and the skill and elegance of the calligraphy, despite not understanding the meaning of the characters.

Beihai GardensWe spent the rest of the day exploring the lake and the lovely gardens, experiencing beautiful Beijing at its best, even with the ever-present blanket of smog. We hardly noticed the oppressive temperatures, as we strolled through the subtle artistry of this master-work of palaces and gardens, which once belonged to Kublai Khan and then to a succession of emperors.

The next day we set out with an expectation of even more horrendous heat, crowded public transport, massive gatherings of humanity and above all, more of the capital’s grandeur and … it didn’t disappoint. With stomachs full to the brim with an assortment of steamed dumplings, we headed to the closest underground railway station; finding the train system relatively easy to negotiate, despite our lack of local language.

From the station, we plodded a long way in the heat; hardly spotting another person on our way to the lake and grounds of the Summer Palace. This quiet journey eventually morphed into one of the most memorable contrasts of my existence. The initial dribble of human activity we encountered soon rose to a flood; sweeping us along a river of smiling faces and picnic baskets.

Summer Palace It looked scary, yet to our astonishment, everyone moved in a most considerate and orderly fashion, which is a phenomenon that seemed unique to China. In the midst of the flowing masses, Katie and I became celebrities; accepting our new-found illustriousness with good humour. We found ourselves photographed between mum and dad and the kids, over and over, until, by the end of the day we became more famous than Brad and Angelina; about to be adorned on many a mantelpiece around China. Can anyone out there explain why this happened?

Snap-shot heaven is the only way to adequately describe the lake, the grounds and the wonders of the palace. It’s no wonder that after only five days of travel in China, we had taken around five hundred pictures each, which is a warning to all of our friends. Be prepared to avoid all future dinner invitations. You may be required to view them all!

Because of many millions of holidaying Chinese, train tickets to anywhere became more scarce and elusive than an honest politician. Procuring any ticket required standing in an endless queue, so that you could be told that you were in the wrong line. After three such experiences, we luckily managed to snare two fares on the super-fast train to Shanghai, which wasn’t Xian, our intended destination, but a great destination none-the-less.

We danced through the crowd, like a pair of dizzy school kids. It’s amazing how surviving the mob can make you feel. In truth it felt sad to leave Beijing, but adventure beckoned. Tomorrow we will be travelling at three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Come along if you dare!

What I’m reading at the moment:

  • Mice by Gordon Reece
  • Let’s get digital by David Gaughran