The China Logs: Shanghai

Yes, friends, the Captain’s Log is back (for those of you who remember my original postings online way back in the late 90s). Orlando and I planned to update the websites as we went along in China, but unfortunately we didn’t plan for the vagaries of Chinese internet access. We can’t access our website write pages!!! Actually, we can’t even access the BBC news website so in that context I guess we were hoping for too much. So I will email you all on a regular basis instead, and copy everything later on to the website for posterity. (Nic or Paul please copy to the usual PTS distribution list – thanks)

So, China.

I am getting used to it.

I am not sure if I was just very tired and emotional by the time we got here or whether our marathon 6-hour walking odyssey yesterday did me in completely, but I am struggling at the moment. We arrived here in uneventful style on a perfectly comfortable flight (those of you with China Eastern flights booked, bring plenty of entertainment as all the TV is in Chinese!). It gets dark here at about 5pm so we saw little of the taxi journey to the city.

Our hotel is absolutely lovely – the Pujiang Hotel (or Astor House as it used to be known) is an old colonial Victorian style edifice, all dark wood and marble and vaulted ceilings and old-world east-meets-west charm. Our room is enormous, with a huge desk upon which Orlando writes daily (I prefer the sitting area for my musings), a minibar (Chinese red wine is quite nice, I found on the plane!), a vast TV with cable (ie lots of Chinese stations and CNN) and a huge bathroom which is bigger than some hotel rooms I have stayed in. We love it!

We are about 5 minutes walk to the Bund which is the heart of the city – a river-side walkway along the river Huangpu (a tributary of the Yangtze) which is lined on both sides by amazing buildings: on the old Shanghai side there are venerable old hotels and banking buildings dating back to the 1800s and the height of Shanghai’s heyday; on the new Pudong side there is an amazing array of 21st century skyscrapers that outdo anything the west can offer, dominated by the Oriental Pearl Tower, a 430m TV tower which looks for all the world like an inverted hypodermic needle pointing skywards. The Bund is where the whole of Shanghai congregates in the evenings to take in the view and promenade amongst the hawkers selling tacky souvenirs, photo opportunities and a chance to fly a kite shaped like a shark.

The rest of Shanghai is a little weird for me; I guess I was expecting something a little more Oriental and Communist and Chinese and, well, different. But a huge proportion of the city is given over to the worship of consumerism like any big Western city. Elaborate shopping malls jostle for space with smaller stores, all selling Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada, Tag Heuer, Levi’s – and I mean the genuine article, not rip-offs, all at Western prices. The main shopping areas look like any city centre shopping streets to me, with pedestrian walkways, shopper mini-trains for the weary, nice seating areas, McDonalds, KFC and – yes – even Starbucks Coffee. It’s just the fact that most of the signs are in Chinese and most people speak little or no English that gives it away. I am struggling with the language – we both are, but Orlando is making a valiant effort and it is paying off.

I had a bit of a panic attack last night when it was way past time for dinner, and we couldn’t find a restaurant with an English menu. We hesitantly approached one place and were finally sent upstairs to the (much more expensive) first floor to read the English menu: my face and my spirits fell when I read lists of such appetising dishes as boiled chicken claws (the one thing I dreaded but it was the nicest thing on the list!), chicken gizzards, stinky tofu in beer, sliced eye fish in sauce… I am quoting directly from the menu. Would we ever find edible food in the city?? I had been haunted since the night before by the memory of lumps of beef fat glistening amongst my noodles at dinner, and had resolved to eat only vegetarian food from now on, but even the veg dishes had sounded worrying.

Thankfully Orlando was still feeling buoyant and he managed to allay my fears until we happened upon a clean, bright, 24-hour fast food place with – wait for it – PICTURES of food in the window (to think I used to deride this practice in Spain). I ran in and found to my delight that they had a list of English words to go with the photos. In bad Chinese and hand gestures we ordered a dish of beef with rice and tea eggs (eggs boiled in tea and star anise – quite tasty it seems) for Orlando, and a simple plate of beef and fried noodles for me. The food came and it looked exactly like it did in the photos!!! I fell on it and devoured my noodles in minutes. Delicious. I was so relieved.

We had a long day yesterday so we are taking it easy today – nothing like lounging on your sofa in your colonial hotel room eating chocolate raisins (Orlando) and drinking coffee (me) and reading magazines and Lonely Planet whilst Shanghai life buzzes outside your window. But not all day – shortly we will take a stroll (not too far today!) and sample a few bars and coffee (sorry, tea) houses before starting today’s search for edible dinner. I promise: no visits to Starbucks!!!

Tomorrow we fly off to Beijing where a new city awaits. More then.

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