Have a look at the accompanying photo gallery!
Pudong International Airport is pretty impressive. It’s new, clean, and efficient. Interestingly, all the plumbing fixtures are made by the Japanese company Toto; even the flush buttons tell you to push them in Japanese! It’s a theme that I’ll return to later.
It’s actually quite a long way from the landing site to the main airport concourse, quarantine and immigration, requiring several travelator rides. A word of advice: there are many toilets all the way along the route; everyone rushes for the first set straight off the plane, but wait for the second or third and you won’t have to put up with four-person-deep queues. Quarantine is trivial: you hand over a form that you fill out on the plane. That’s it. Immigration is simple, too, but slow. In my case, a Korean two places in front of me had some special situation that required the immigration officer to call for a colleague to bring over the magic metal box of secret rubber stamps. He stamped a big, multi-page, A4 document in about ten pages, and eventually the Korean was on his way. My immigration was much more straightforward, thankfully.
The maglev (magnetic levitation) train probably isn’t the best way to get to and from the airport, because although it’s cheap enough—Y50, or about €5—it only goes as far as Longyang Lu subway station, which is a long way from the action. However, that’s not why you take it, is it? It’s the world’s first commercial maglev train, and it started running a few months ago. It’s worthwhile for the experience. Incidentally, you can get a “VIP” ticket for Y100. Don’t bother. The ride takes seven minutes in total, and the economy seats are comfortable and clean.
The maglev really is fast: 430 km/h. The track is also steeply banked on the curved sections, although you don’t notice this from inside the train itself, as the effective force is still “down” relative to the carriage floor, thanks to the magic of Newtonian physics. But when you look out the window... it’s quite a shock to see the ground sloping away at 30 degrees or so!
Taking the subway was something of a challenge. There were a couple of British girls—backpackers—also puzzling over how to get a ticket. You can use the machines, but you have to have coins first. If you have a Y5 or Y10 note, you can use the change machines. But if you only have Y50 or Y100 notes, such as the ATM dispenses, you have to go to the ticket window. Actually, it’s easy. All tickets seem to be Y2, Y3 or Y4. But we didn’t know that, so I wrote out “I want to go to Henan Zhonglu, two people” in Chinese on a piece of paper for them to use. I also did something similar for myself for my destination. It worked. Writing is far easier than trying to pronounce the language comprehensibly, at least for me, although I’m biased by knowing many characters already.
I’m staying in the Yangtze Hotel near the People’s Park. It’s expensive by Chinese standards, but cheap relative to Europe. So for my modest amount, I get a huge room with two double beds (completely superfluous). Rather nice. (Unfortunately, there’s a building site over the road. I was woken by the noise of someone welding at about 1 am last night. Nothing’s perfect!)
After arriving at about 5 pm, I took a rest in my hotel room before venturing out for dinner. It was harder than I thought. I walked down Nanjing Donglu, right to the end, without finding anything that wasn’t either a low-grade American fast food chain (KFC and McDonalds), a Japanese chain (Yoshinoya; Ajichi Ramen; KO:HI:KAN) or a back-street eatery with an indecipherable menu that looked just too squalid to make the effort. I headed back again, taking some side streets. I came to the conclusion that it might be easier to get drugs than food in Shanghai, at least for a foreigner. One two separate occasions, some shady character on a street corner called out to me, “Marijuana? Hashish?” Eventually, however, I found a “food court”: an indoor area where a number of small, cheap restaurants are clustered together. Food courts also have a unique payment system, and I’m glad that I’d read about it in my guidebook beforehand. You have to buy a prepaid smartcard, which you use to pay for the food. Then, at the end, you can convert the smartcard back into cash. I’m sure that there is some reason for this, although I can’t work it out myself.
Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, the Chinese simplified their writing system after the revolution (which is why the traditional characters are still in daily use in Taiwan). Well, simplified is the wrong word. They reduced the number of strokes required to write some characters, with the side effect of making many of them completely different to the originals. Of course, the Japanese also simplified some characters, but, in general, a lot less brutally. In other words, a lot of my effort spent in learning Japanese kanji is completely useless in the PRC. Nonetheless, there are some characters that I can read, and when I found a interesting-looking restaurant in the food court, I pointed to a beef dish on the menu. It turned out to be cold roast beef with garlic and a spicy sauce, and very nice. However, it was on its own, so I asked for “mifan”—white rice—to accompany it. After finishing that, I asked for another bowl of rice. The staff obviously decided that I needed some vegetables, and brought me out a small plate of vinegared carrot strips as well, which was a delicious accompaniment. Altogether, the very satisfying meal cost me an unbelievably cheap Y15. I headed back to the hotel, stopping off at a convenience store on the way for a half-litre can of Tsingtao beer for Y6.2, some bread for my breakfast, and some oolong tea, thereby avoiding the outrageous 300% markup on the same item from the hotel minibar.
As I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of Japanese influence in Shanghai. The streets are full of Japanese stores, whilst Japanese brands proliferate in the shops. Oolong tea is Chinese, and yet the preeminent brand here is Suntory—a Japanese company. In fact, that fact made it convenient for me, as the label is printed on one side of the bottle in Japanese, and on the other in simplified Chinese characters. I could read the Japanese side, and knew which bottles were sweetened, and which were sugar-free. In the shops, the majority of beer brands are Japanese, although they don’t correlate exactly with those on sale in Japan itself.
It’s not just Japanese influence, either. You can buy Korean (Xylitol) or American (Wrigley) chewing gum; the most popular restaurant chains are foreign; soft drinks all seem to come from Kirin (Japanese), Coca-Cola or Pepsi. And most of the cars here are Volkswagens. At least, they look that way. They have the circular VW logo, and the names are familiar (Polo; Passat) except in the case of the ubiquitous Santana (I think it was marketed as the Jetta elsewhere) which makes up 99% of the taxi fleet. However, you won’t see “Volkswagen” marked anywhere on them. Instead, the left-hand side of the boot of each VW is marked with “Shanghai Dazhong” (上海大众) (literally “Shanghai People’s”, which is semantically close to “Shanghai Volkswagen”) in a typeface that seems reminiscent of Wolfsburg’s lettering, or as close as Chinese can get. If you don’t like VWs, you could buy a Chrysler—I mean “Beijing Star” (literally translated)—or a “Beijing Jeep”. Toyotas and Citroëns can be seen on the roads too, but, again, even though the logo is familiar, the name on the back is different.
Interestingly, I heard on the news today (BBC radio via the internet) that Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation is planning to buy MG Rover. Visiting China makes me think that, if you’re worried about China’s increasing economic power, then you ought instead to be terrified. Although there’s an obvious—and huge—disparity between the middle classes and the lower classes, between the ultra-modern and the dilapidated, it’s far from being the third-world backwater that the media might lead you to believe. Recall that most electronic items are made in China these days, and you might get an idea of the level of technological advancement. And since all this high-tech stuff is made here, it’s presumably cheaper for them to buy. Walking down Nanjing Donglu yesterday, I passed a public videophone, for example.
A big annoyance in my plans for today came in the fact that the weather has been awful. It rained hard from the morning through to the late afternoon. It’s especially a problem in Shanghai because of the generally poor quality of the pavements. In some places, the pavement is obviously shoddy; however, even where it looks reasonable, it isn’t remotely flat. And when it rains, you end up with deep puddles too deep and wide to cross. However, there’s always a way, as I saw near the Shanghai Museum.
I went up the grotesque Oriental Pearl Tower. It must be the world’s oddest-looking building. For Y70, you can go up to 350 m and look out over Shanghai. For Y150, you can do that and enjoy an all-you-can-eat lunch in a revolving restaurant as well. So I did. Although the weather limited the view slightly, it was still impressive to see the tableau of Shanghai laid out below. And the lunch was nice.
I also splashed out on dinner tonight, paying a whole Y32. For that I had a huge bowl of noodles and a plate of fried prawns with a litre of beer. Back home, that wouldn’t have covered the drink.
Tomorrow night, I’m travelling to Beijing on the overnight train. It takes twelve hours or so, but you get a bed, it’s cheaper than a hotel room, and you can travel to another place. Not bad at all. I’m also keen to experience an overnight trip on a Chinese train. I wonder if I’m more interested in the journey than the destination...