Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Shanghai Surprise (Dec 4 2010)

Good morning Shanghai! Or rather good afternoon. We landed at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport after a rather deconstructed trip through Heathrow Terminal 5. Have you been to the new Terminal 5? I don’t mean travelling business class (as I did flying to New York last Summer – hard work but someone has to do it) which is rather grand whisked away as you are through Fast Track Service and the bountiful luxuries of the British Airways lounge. Apparently it’s even better if you’re travelling first class though he tells me that Virgin Airlines Upper Class will actually check you in from the chauffeured limo that they send to pick you up... but these are all useless in terms of experiencing the full, authentic T5 experience as designed by Satan’s evil little helpers. For it, you need to travel cattle class, also known as Economy.

Firstly the layout at the newly built T5 is dastardly convoluted and designed to be impenetrable... I think to distract passengers from various flight delays (it’s the snow, it’s Gatwick’s closure, it’s the de-icing on the wings that can’t be done for another 20 minutes, it’s the taxiing now that we’ve lost our departure slot...)

Then there’s the obstacle course of the security checks: take your shoes off, take your coat off, take your belt off, take your jewellery off, take out your lap top, and if there’s anything left on you to set off the alarm when you go through the security gate, you get frisked within an inch of your life. I didn’t set it off for once as I was naked (just kidding) but the man next to me did set it off and let’s just say that he had a close brush with the law. They pat you down all over, and I mean all over... down there, front and back. I guess it’s the legacy from Mr. Almost- blew-up-my –pants-on –Christmas-Day: they’re just making sure you’re not some joker trying to smuggle a fire cracker down your briefs.

So the plane was late taking off, late landing, and they’d forgotten to load the landing cards at Heathrow so we had controlled pandemonium as we all got off the plane and tried to fill out the cards whilst jostling for position in the queue for border control.

This is my first visit to China and the first blog entry of many chronicling my visit. So let me just set the record straight: this is an amazing place, with amazing people. It hits you from the moment you step off the plane: it’s going places. Everything is spotlessly clean, modern, on a huge scale, and super efficient (whilst your passport is being processed, there’s a little machine with 4 buttons (very good/big smiley face, good/small smiley face, not so good/frowny face, very bad/angry face) and a note inviting you to rate the service you are getting. We pressed “very good”. Twice.).

After the 11 hour scheduled flight plus the hour and a half delay we decided to be bold, daring and adventurous. Why take a taxi? (Other than because all our money was in Chinese Yuan travellers cheques which only the Bank of China can exchange for cash. I’m exaggerating; we had just about enough for a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel). We wanted to experience the Maglev which sounds like some Russian import until you realise it stands for Magnetic Levitation and is the name of the super fast train shuttle that zips between Pudong Airport and Pudong (the newly built ultra-modern quarters across the Huang Pu river from The Bund – more on that later.) When I say super fast, how fast do you think we’re talking? First of all, it goes so fast it’s in kilometres per hour, no one uses miles here so if you’re a Yank or a Brit and still use the Imperial system, get with the programme and learn metric because you are being left behind faster that you can say China is where it’s at. 100km/hour? Faster. 200km/hour? Faster! Try 300km/hour and there’s even a small digital display that shows you the speed at which you are travelling.

After a brief Bill Bryson moment attempting to convince ourselves that we could find our way on a map covered exclusively in Mandarin pictograms, we managed to purchase 2 tickets (at a 20% discount because eagle-eyed me spotted the sign that mentioned the discount for those holding an airline ticket... as well as a whole set of very clearly laid out instructions in English with which we could have avoided the Bill Bryson moment), put our luggage through the x-ray machine and board the Maglev.

Having successfully navigated our way through the first level (was watching Inception on the plane, my mate Tom is in it – it’s full of levels...) we cranked it up a notch and purchased some Metro tickets to take us to the station nearest to the hotel. All 8 stops of it. We even made a little friend along the way. She was in her third year of a Bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Her English was quite good if limited. I’d been playing with her hand (I thought it was his hand but he moved it when I wasn’t looking and the poor girl didn’t say a word. Luckily he noticed after while and pointed out I should probably stop stroking a complete stranger’s hand before I got arrested for soliciting.) We talked for a few stops... “Where are you from?” she’d asked, and as most of you know, there’s no straightforward answer to that question where we’re concerned. Then she got off at People’s Square and cheerfully waved good bye.

Talking of lovely, the hotel is beautiful. In full faux Christmas regalia replete with grilled chestnut vendors, a choir of Carol singing little schoolgirls and hotel staff in Santa Hats handing out Christmas fare around a ginormous tree. Like our Christmas, only bigger, better and with more spirit. And Christmas isn’t even one of their national holidays.

After our second Bill Bryson moment of the day when we discovered that the Bank of China, the only place to exchange our travellers’ cheques was now closed until Monday morning (today is Saturday) -thank goodness for credit cards even if they charge usurious fees abroad... we took ourselves to Din Tai Fung where we had the best ever Dim Sum (Shanghai style not Hong Kong style for the aficionados amongst you). We’ll be back. One word for you: xiaolongbao. Google it. Could come handy in a game of Scrabble too. And if you can, get over here and try one for yourself: they’re soup filled dumplings.

Then we walked to The Bund, the main historical tourist drag across the river from the futuristic Pudong skyline. Nice walk. Lots of lights (it was dark... all of China is on Beijing time, some 8 hours ahead of London). Big crowds. The only downside? Pedestrian crossings that will make foreigners twitchy. Consider this: in spite of traffic assistants who’s job it is to blow their whistle and prevent anyone intrepid enough from even thinking about J-walking (on the spot fine of ¥50)... every time you cross a road, you imagine that you could be taking your life into your own hands. Why? Because although the majority of drivers respect traffic lights, some taxis have a tendency to go around corners without slowing down regardless of whether you have a friendly green walking light or not so then you start to think that at any moment, a car could run you over from left, right, back or front, or possibly some other dimension you have failed to notice and that there’s no safety in numbers either.

Still we made it safely to and from. (We cheated and took a taxi home.) Now typing this entry immersed in my oversized hotel bathrobe. We’re checking out the nightlife courtesy of Shanghai City Weekend magazine and just came across the following listing: ERSHOUMEIGUI “Second Hand Rose”, a transvestite comic folk band from Beijing that blends Beijing rock with sing along folk tracks. They’re playing tomorrow night. What a relief! That’s our Sunday entertainment sorted.

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