Posts Tagged ‘Shanghai’

The Shanghai Express departs Lhasa shortly before lunch on a Monday morning but despite the swift name implied we won’t see Shanghai till two days later on a Wednesday afternoon. I suppose to be fair we do have to traverse over 3600km and the world’s highest rail pass. I can only be grateful that such a journey is not being embarked upon in a bus. It will be to date the longest and most economical segment of our trip. To cover as much ground in any of the other countries we have travelled through would have taken a week and possibly longer.

Lhasa Train Station

Boarding the train at Lhasa

At the end of the carriage is an electronic board that shows our current speed and altitude. I can’t think of too many trains that display altitude but then again this is no ordinary train. The Tibet Qinghai railway is the highest train line in the world, rising to a height of over 5200m or around the same height as Everest base camp. The carriages are supplied with supplementary oxygen to aid the many passengers who suffer from the rapid climb into thin air.
The Tibetan plateau is bleak this afternoon. I think at first the dull ceiling of clouds above to be low in the sky but then I realise its more that we are high. The jagged mountains are gone now with only a few small hills making any impression on the surrounding plains. Having said that, these small unremarkable summits are higher than any peak in the Alps or Rockies. Grazing by the tracks is a vast army of yaks. They watch with little interest as we pass, chewing on sparse patches of grass.

Tibet Plateau

Heading North across the Tibet Plateau

Beside us I can see a marker on the road that reads 3391…3391km to Shanghai. It seems so far, can we really get there in two days. Our current speed suggests otherwise but we are after all going uphill. Eventually we climb so high that even the clouds must surrender to the land. Outside its dark and grey and it begins to snow. I would like to say it’s beautiful but there is little visibility. I can still make out the occasional yak and a few trucks crawling along the wet road that runs beside us.
I start to make more regular trips to the small video screen and note 5208m. I wait for some sort of official announcement that we are now cresting the highest section of track in the world… but none is given. Fifteen minutes later we are at 5150m so I guess the big moment has come and gone. I think the People’s Republic of China has missed an enormous opportunity for propaganda here and quite frankly I am a little surprised.
As the sun goes down we make our way to the dining car. It might all sound very civilised until you discover there is no one who can speak English and no menu to order from. We take a seat and survey the plates of food being consumed around us. One girl is sucking dimpled skin off a chicken’s foot and spitting the refuse into a tissue. Another man is slurping some type of soup with unknown floating objects. I can see another dish of something but am unsure of its origins. This is certainly not the Chinese food you come to expect at home. The hardboiled egg containing a chicken embryo is certainly out. Finally I spot a dish that looks familiar. It appears to be stir fried pork with red and green peppers.
We order two plates and some boiled white rice which we season with brown vinegar provided. When the pork arrives it has the added benefit of some cashew nuts added which is a pleasant surprise but also comes with something else that looks to be fried pig skin. Fortunately we are able to pick out the unwanted items with our chop sticks. The locals seem to find it surprising and amusing we can use them. One chap smiling picks up a serving spoon and starts showing us he is able to use our implements as well. I congratulate him with a smiling nod and continue to remove the pig skin from my dinner. Certainly there is no chance of getting fat on this trip.

Dinner Tibet Railway

Pork with pig skin

It’s been many months since we last slept on a train. I think the last time was on the way to Bodhgaya in northern India. While falling asleep I notice that the trains in China are much quieter than those in India. That familiar clicking and clacking of wheels is missing and the rails are so perfectly aligned that there is little movement in the carriages. Inside the passengers are much quieter as well and while this is a blessing I do miss the always affable but noisy Indians.
The next morning and I draw open the curtains to uninspiring landscapes. Semi Industrial scenes and eroded hills lacking any colour. To make matters worse we are now in a depressed channel with embankments on both sides affording occasional glimpses of the surrounding mediocrity. It persists for most of the day and by late afternoon I am convinced that this part of China at least has to be one of most disappointing regions in the world. I can only hope that Day 3 will provide better results. It doesn’t!
An hour before arriving into Shanghai we thankfully have some exciting moment in geography and cross the third longest river on earth. The Yangtze is only marginally shorter than the Nile but is much wider. It appears to be half a mile from one bank to the other. Like us it started its journey up in the Himalayas. It’s a significant moment to sight this huge river for the first time.
Shanghai is the eastern most point on our entire journey. The long path to the Pacific Ocean that started almost a year ago in Turkey is over. I can recall that afternoon so well when we left Adana on a bus, travelling east through fields of tulips. It all seemed so far away then with so much time left. Now I am reminded that our trip is getting closer to the finish. From now on we will be travelling in a southerly direction down through south East Asia to Singapore.
We disembark into a world completely different from the one we left 50 hours ago. The first thing that strikes us is the heat and especially the humidity. We exit the station amid towering apartment blocks and dense traffic. It is at first very disorientating and remains so for some time. It’s bizarre to arrive into a city this size as a complete stranger who can’t read signs nor speak the local language. More so is that unlike other countries, most people here can’t speak our language and are generally not interested in doing so. I think as an English speaker we are normally given the luxury of others speaking English for us… but here in China that does not happen so much.

Shanghai Train Station

Leaving Shanghai Train Station

We hail a taxi and say Nihao, which is Hello in Mandarin. I then ask Nanjing Rd, which is the central retail area in Shanghai and close to the hotel we have booked. It’s like saying Time square in New York but the taxi speeds off with no attempt at trying to understand. This happens another six times. What is going on? One driver waves his hand rudely and motions for us to move aside and let another man get in, which he does without hesitation or the slightest regard. This has me desperate and fuming. There is nothing else to do but go across the road to McDonalds and regroup.
After two days of eating white rice and picking out pig skin from our meals we are ready for a Big Mac. It will be in fact my first since leaving Egypt and a much awaited experience after the disappointments in India where only a poor poultry version was provided. It might seem odd but being here while lost in a foreign city consuming familiar food in air-conditioning is like a sanctuary. The culinary foreign embassy of the golden arches.
One of the girls serving is able to speak a little English, so we ask if she can write in Mandarin that we want to go to East Nanjing Rd. She writes down our request on the back of the sales docket. Having fed and rested we pick up our bags and enter the fray now armed with a desperate plea scribbled on a fast food receipt. A few taxis reject us before we have time to show them the message but the next driver is pleasant and patient enough to take the message and read it. He smiles and motions for us to get in. It’s a huge relief but it does leave me wondering about just how difficult travelling through the rest of China will be.

Peninsula Shanghai

Top of the Peninsula

Shanghai used to be described as the Pearl of the Orient and the Paris of the East. A bustling metropolis of bright lights, jazz bars, opium dens, and prostitutes. It was a magnet for those seeking opportunity and fortune. Modern Shanghai has replaced the opium dens with night clubs and removed the Union Jacks that once fluttered over banks along the Bund but the rest is the same. Shanghai is making a comeback and experiencing a renaissance. There can be no doubt this is an exciting city, a happening city. The Huangpu River is flanked by the elegant buildings of the past on one side and quite possibly one of the most beautiful and dramatic collection of Skyscrapers the world has ever seen on the other. It’s a striking opposition of past and present dressed in dazzling lights.

The Bund

The Bund in Shanghai


Grand Hyatt Shanghai

Hanging out at the Grand Hyatt

It’s difficult to conceive that we are still in a Communist country where the only reminder is the red flag of China flying over old colonial buildings. It looks very much out of place among all this decadence and commercial glamour. I wonder what Chairman Moa would think of his China now. Our thoughts are to celebrate in style and so the daily budget is slashed and abandoned which is just as well as drinking in Shanghai doesn’t come cheap. Almost every building on the Bund has a roof top bar affording superb views of the city. We start off at the Peninsula, then move across to the Ritz Carlton in Pudongbefore eventually finishing off at the Grand Hyatt. In one debauched evening we have spent over a week’s budget on cocktails and Martinis which is why we end the night for dinner at Subways.


Fast Food dinner better than pig skin

Any foreigner wanting to see Shanghai must leave their hotel armed with an essay of requests written in Chinese or you can master the metro which we undertake the next morning. The taxi situation is futile and annoying. Once it gets dark they refuse regular fares and insist on vastly inflated prices and that’s if you’re lucky. Our attempts at purchasing tickets are also futile as the screen is completely in Chinese.

Old Town Shanghai

Old Town in Shanghai

Then we notice hidden in small print at the top right hand corner English. We touch the screen and the metro map is converted to recognisable characters but it’s still puzzling and confusing. By now a long line or cranky Chinese is forming behind us. I can feel panic and terror setting in. It’s no use asking for help and we just stand aside feeling defeated. But there is one last chance. I remember reading about a travel card that can be used on busses, taxis and the metro. If we can purchase one of these we won’t need to buy a ticket each time we travel. I open our guide book to the section on travel card which conveniently is also written in Chinese. I point to the page and ask a few locals where I can get one. Ignored several times we persist until one lady point us around the corner and down a flight of stairs. I point to the picture of the travel card and request two by holding two fingers then take out a two 50 Yuan notes. She seems to understand and you might think me condescending for being surprised but I have come to find that the Chinese are rubbish at playing charades.

Pudong Shanghai

Pudong Skyscrapers

Life in Shanghai just got a whole lot easier. Now with just a single effortless swipe of a card we can go anywhere we please on the metro which I have to say is excellent and easy to navigate. Later that night we spend another week’s budget on drinking and nightclubbing before dinner at McDonalds. It’s a pattern we seem to follow for the next few days. Sightseeing during the day followed by drinks in lavish hotels and cheap fast food dinners… although the amounts spent are greatly reduced owing to fear of bankruptcy.

Ritz Carlton Shanghai

Top of The Ritz Carlton

Without doubt the most stylish and certainly historical residence for any guest is the Peace Hotel. It is to Shanghai what the Ritz is to London or the Waldorf Astoria is to New York. Recently restored and reopened in 2010 it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco. Once inside the foyer you step back into the heyday of 1930’s Shanghai. Jazz and swing music waft through the corridors like ghosts from the past. It’s easy to be transported back in time. I guess that’s what travel is all about. To find yourself in a different place and even in a different time. If time and especially money were of no concern I should want to stay longer in Shanghai, but we must as is so often the case leave a place we have become accustomed to. We leave Shanghai behind and head south towards the Yellow mountains and onto another great city of the world…Hong Kong.

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