Thursday, September 16, 2010

More About Shanghai

Note: for those who understandably would rather look at the photos than read the blather, I've put about 150 things on Flickr here, here and here. There are too many for me to process and too many I'd want to attach to this post, so I'll just leave 'em there and direct you to them.


I'm surprised to read in my Chinese guidebook that Shanghai is a relatively new city, at least in comparison to other places in the country (Hong Kong, the book says, is also relatively recent in its present form, though I understand there has been a trading base on the island for a long time). It was apparently only in the 19th Century during British Colonial rule that the city became a major metropolitan area. Now it is China's largest city. My experience in this country is so limited, and I expect everything to have ancient origins. My guidebook, a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide from 2006 or so (a rummage sale acquisition) is full of intriguing stuff, though with so much to cover Shanghai warrants a scant 20 pages. Still, after spending my first few visits to the place occupied by my trademark aimless wandering, I felt I should be more focused for this, my first 48 hour layover. And so I looked thru my guidebook to see what highlights I've been missing.

A few things stood out. Nanjing Road terminates on its East end at the Huangpu River, and the road running along the river--perpendicular to Nanjing Road--is Zhongshan Lu, otherwise known as "The Bund." This is a fabulous collection of Western-style buildings built about a century ago which constituted the business end of Shanghai during its British Colonial days. I've walked up to this point a few times, but never turned the corner to look around. This is yet another unexpected face of a city already brimming with foreignness to a Westerner.

Across the Huangpu is the section of town called Pudong (our airport, which is 20 miles or so off in this direction, is called Shanghai Pudong Airport), and this part of town is noteworthy for one of the highest concentrations of tall buildings in the world. Chief among these is the 1500 foot Oriental Pearl TV Tower. My book says that, in 2006 anyway, this section of Shanghai was home to roughly 1/3 of all the construction cranes in the world. What a difference four years makes. While there is a huge amount of construction going on, most of those cranes seem to have moved to Dubai (where they now sit idle after the retraction of the world economy). I tried yesterday to find a way to walk across the Huangpu, either under or over, but alas I found none. So this morning I headed for a packed-to-the-gills rush hour train and rode the four stops to emerge right near the base of the Pearl.

Apart from the improbability of the structure's architecture, the views from the high observation deck (860 feet up) almost defy belief. The density of buildings--many quite tall--in every direction is like something from the planet Coruscant in Star Wars. On the ground one is immersed in such a block-to-block density that the bird's eye perspective is shocking to see how far it extends. My group was among the day's first, but the observation deck became more and more raucous as the elevators brought up car after car of almost entirely Chinese tourists. (Many people were with tour groups, each of which had a leader with a megaphone, thus adding to the din.) One floor below, on the exit route, there is a semi-outdoor observation deck (added in 2009), complete with a 360° cantilevered glass walkway that suspends one out over nothing. Jesus. That's just a view a fella would need time to adjust to. Several men were urging me to walk out on the glass (and gesturing at my fatness!) and they applauded when I did. I made a thumping heart gesture at the view and confirmed that little bit of communication was indeed universal.

After the Pearl, I had determined to walk along the river away from downtown Shanghai for a bit, hoping to get to a shipyard I saw on a map. The shipyard was on the other side of the river, and I walked for a couple miles taking in the sights and looking for a place to cross. No bridges or tunnels, of course, but I did see a couple little ferries that shuttled people and cars back and forth, so I took the second of these. I was quite afield from the tourist areas at this point, and the ferries were packed with locals, mostly on bicycles and scooters--a couple hundred in the cramped space. The fare for a walk-on was half a yuan, or 7.5 cents, making me wonder at the sense of charging a fare at all. The ride was shades of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, with one fabulous scene retreating behind you and another approaching. The Shanghai boats are newer than the Star Ferries, and a good deal beamier, but the vibe is very much the same. (My guide book talked about boat tours one could take, but I again find I could just spend a day riding trains and ferries and be perfectly entertained.) People sat quietly or talking to the person next to them, many smoking, their scooters sitting on kickstands with keychains jangling lightly with the waves.

I couldn't get near enough the shipyard to see anything (luckily I saw a bit from the river), so I headed back toward town on the opposite shore and took in another new (to me) part of the city. The Huangpu is a busy thoroughfare for shipping of all sizes, from powerboat-sized vessels up to cruise ships and oceangoing freighters. In the 90 minutes or so I was walking along the shore I saw probably 40 boats of various sizes, and this was around 9 in the morning.

By the time I got back near Nanjing road I was already past seven miles for the day (after a seven or eight mile day yesterday), so I headed directly towards the hotel to put my feet up and relax.

Lastly, I've noted before the widespread use of bicycles and scooters in China, but I'm still adjusting to the idea. While the first ferry I passed accepted cars, there were mostly scooters and bikes waiting to board. The second ferry--the one I rode--had no cars and seemingly no provision for them. I'm amazed at how these two-wheeled modes of transport are so prevalent here and virtually nonexistent at home. And everyone (unless you're very rich) looks at their conveyance as an anonymous, utilitarian device. Bikes and scooters alike are rusted and rattling and filthy--pretty much without exception; you never see a new one or a well-maintained one or a personalized or modded-out one. Seats are covered with plastic bags and mirrors are broken and body parts held on with tape. Clearly there is no social status attached to how one gets around, which is so different from American culture (where we almost all care something for our cars). There are seemingly-makeshift repair shops out on the sidewalks all over town, where people are adroit at keeping the scooters and bikes running without buying new parts, so everything seems cobbled together. There are quite a few electric scooters and hybrid bikes, and all of these vehicles are used for every conceivable purpose: you regularly see all of these weighed down with boxes or festooned with plumbing pipes or jugs of potable water. The three-wheeled tricycle truck (for which I have a fetish) is often piled ridiculously high with garbage or recycling or construction waste. Many couples commute together on electric bike or scooter, and I saw one woman lugging her battery inside, presumably to charge for the trip home while she worked. I remember similar feelings at seeing folks in Amsterdam clearly dressed for business meetings showing up in their bike helmets with one leg strapped.

A couple other things. For years I've heard from people unfamiliar with the place that New Yorkers are "rude." Quite apart from this being contrary to my experience--I've always found New Yorkers polite and helpful if put to the test--I remember thinking long ago that what people mistook for rudeness was very likely a kind of shorthand for living in a high-density environment. But I encounter things here in China that even I am tempted to think stem from rudeness. But I catch myself and remember that we're dealing here with some of the highest population density in the world.

Anything involving a line will serve as an example (subway queues, concession lines, food service places, etc.): if there is any kind of line formed, it seems quite normal for other people to walk right past the line and try to get immediate service. One sees this all the time, and nobody seems to complain. And yet the line remains a line, even if there is a steady stream of cutters. Waiting to buy my ticket for the Pearl today, I was cut in front of by two different women who seemed not even to see me (doubtful given my bulk). I was in no hurry and I wasn't particularly irked by this, but I'm still trying to get the lay of the land. So on the second one I quietly attempted first to resist and then to cut her back, and when the cashier was finished with their current prospect (the line-cutter was so eager as to be trying to cut into the PRESENT transaction) I plunked down my money in front of the woman who had cut in front of me. All to no avail. The cashier dealt with the squeakiest wheel, and the woman did not look at me in any way askance for my studied rudeness. First place belongs to whomever takes it.

And this is like driving. I haven't driven here, of course, but I've been in a number of cabs (including one yesterday) and in the crewvan to and from the airport. And the driving mores here strike me as just this side of anarchy. Nobody pays any attention to lane markings; nobody signals lane changes (in fact, lane usage seems absolutely arbitrary, with our crew van weaving from lane to lane even on an empty freeway at night). The position belongs to whichever driver is successful in taking it from the others. So you point your car and keep driving until one of you has to yield to avoid an accident. In the US, this modus operandi would get you into a road rage fistfight very quickly, but here it's just how things are done. Buses and trucks just plow across traffic and you'd sure as fuck better get out of their way. Cars trying to merge onto a freeway engage in little battle to decide who gets the space, and the losers cede the spot when they must, no hard feelings.

Likewise, one must remember here that pedestrians do NOT have the right of way. The cars expect you to get out of their way regardless of what the street signs say, and they'll honk well in advance if they don't like the look of their pathway (I can't help wondering if this is a vestige of automobile traffic being until very recently the domain of the wealthy and powerful). Because the streets are so crowded, the intersection will often be clearing well into the opposing green light, and the cars and scooters effectively clearing on a red light will demand their way be clear, even if you've had a walk signal for 20 seconds. Even on the sidewalks, where the scooters apparently are allowed to drive--and in any direction--you are expected to get out of their way. It's all a bit stunning to our sensibilities, but nobody looks askance here; it's just how things are done.

So, a great two days. I saw a few other things on my list, but the view from the Pearl hinted at how very long it would take to get to know a place this vast.

An approximate map of the day's walk is here.


Jon said...

Great pictures! I am always amazed at the amount of people and no one seems to give a hoot that your taking pictures. I especially liked the pic of the guy with his chickens and his pumpkins being watered by the hydrant. It also seems that building another road is more important than where to live. They build roads right by houses. I guess they have to. And there seems to be abit of the poor side as there is everywhere, yet people survive and thrive.

wunelle said...

Sometimes I attempt to be a little discreet about my picture-taking so as not to offend someone. But more often than not it is as you say: no one seems to pay me any attention.

Road construction is one of the most amazing things to me--freeway construction. There are huge freeways going up all over China, and they seem to just build them over the top of existing roads or over communities. The expense of making all these multi-lane roads above ground level must be staggering, though the labor costs are free for them, I guess. But money is what they have, and they are spending on infrastructure in a way that boggles the mind. Roads and trains and buildings.

shrimplate said...

Another great little travelogue. Thanks!