I’m not sure where to start really, so here’s a few adjectives to get us going: amazing, jaw dropping, hysterical, ridiculous, inebriated, intoxicated, unstable, sobering, depressing. Overall, Shanghai was a roller coaster ride of experiences and emotions.
The trip didn’t get off to a great start. Brian, Jonnie, Jorge (all Aston teachers) and I sat down one evening to decide whether or not we’d get a plane, or a train, to Shanghai. The train worked out much cheaper and we could get it overnight after work on the Friday, meaning we’d arrive Saturday morning. However, the train had sold out. Thus, we decided on a plane, which was more expensive, but the trip could be completed in the space of 2-3 hours. Simple. It’s never that easy though, is it? Sitting down to a meeting at work on the Friday, my manager asks, “When are your flights?” As I had my laptop on me I decided to show him the email so that he could have the exact details of our departure time the next day.
“That’s next week”, he says. I paused for a moment, “No, can’t be, you’re looking at it wrong.” The thing about booking flights is, never assume you’ve selected the right dates and then go ahead and book everyone’s tickets for them. Never assume anything. He was right. During our “organisational evening” of booking flights and conspiring grandiose plans for Shanghai, we’d failed to “organise” the dates correctly, booking the flights on incorrect days. Our collective cockup was probably down to a variety of reasons: lack of sleep, beer and the nostalgic episode of “Ren and Stimpy” being played through my hard drive and onto the television. Evidently, that moment was probably not the best time to book a late and expensive flight to Shanghai.
However, as luck would have it, an error occurred during the payment process. The ticketing website, therefore, asked PayPal to refund the money, saying that all passengers could pay in cash on the day. Not the sort of procedure I’m use to, but hey, it's China. So I phoned the website and explained our mistake. Very kindly and calmly the website offered to change the dates of the flights. Additionally, very kindly and calmly, the website informed me of the additional charges: 20% on each departure ticket, 10% on each arrival ticket and a service charge. Now that’s the sort of conventional procedure I am use to. In reply to their offer of charging large sums of money to change the dates, I said that we’d rather cancel the tickets and buy them elsewhere. But guess what? That’s right, there’s a cancellation fee.
The ironic thing is that I spotted the same mistake with our hostel booking, which I corrected the same day hassle free. For some reason I assumed we weren’t stupid enough to make that mistake with our flights. There it is again: making assumptions at the worst possible time and refusing to believe you’re not that stupid. Never assume you’re not that stupid, because now and then you really can surprise yourself.
Anyway, back to the story. The website wanted to charge a cancellation fee, but how could they if they didn’t have any of my money and only my PayPal details? I guess I’ll find out, because we ended up booking the flights with an alternative website. No more than three hours after booking the tickets did someone arrive with them, asking for cash. I didn’t even ask/pay for the tickets to be delivered on the same day, so that really is a testament to the delivery system here in China.
Tickets sorted and ready to go, the next day we flew to Shanghai. There were no spaces on the airport shuttle bus and we ended up in the car of an illegal taxi driver. The experience was especially interesting as another teacher, John, was also on his way to the airport. All in all, there were five large Western men in the vehicle, which is very high risk for a taxi driver that doesn’t want to draw attention from the police. We arrived safe and sound, paid the taxi driver 150 kuai and were on our way. It wasn’t long after checking in and boarding the plane that we were in Shanghai.
You’re overwhelmed from the word go. Like Beijing airport, Shanghai is enormously spacious, causing you to forget that you’re in a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people. From the airport we caught the metro into Shanghai city centre. Even the metro journey was spectacular, providing me with glimpses of scenery I never knew existed in China, because all I had seen up until this point was Xi’an. The journey into Shanghai produced countryside landscapes, farms and even houses. These were the first houses I had seen in China. The thing about Xi’an is that it loves its tower blocks; it has them in abundance and it continues to build them in abundance. I can’t emphasise this last point enough.
After about a 30-40 minute train journey we arrived. Luckily, someone spotted that we were tourists and advised us that we had to change platforms along the way. Leaving the metro station we were once again astounded by the distinct disparities between Shanghai and Xianese architecture. You instantly got the feeling that Shanghai was a much more international and modern city hub, which is surprising when you consider that Xi’an used to be the capital of China.
Heading towards the hostel our expectations were high due to the ratings and photos displayed on the website. Our expectations were, by far, surpassed. I haven’t done a huge amount of travelling, but as far as hostels go, this is easily one of the best I’ve stayed at. The rooms are comfortable, the exterior is peacefully picturesque and the staff are friendly, kind and helpful. Best of all, however, they do an English fry up. Here is where I had another Chinese first: a Chinese-English fry up. It doesn’t compare to the real thing, but after a big night out, even a little reminder of home can give you a massive boost for the day ahead. At least that’s my reasoning for eating it five days in a row.
Oh, and all those “grandiose plans”? Well, grandiose is the right word, because all of them seemed almost impossible to accomplish. On the first day, leaving the metro station, we walked into a shop. In the shop, we bought a beer. Well actually I resisted because I knew the copious amount of drinking that’d take place slightly later on. In hindsight, it seems that this initial decision to start the trip off with a beer would become symbolic for the trip as a whole. After settling into the hostel, we decided it might be nice to sit in the garden … and have another beer. You can see where this is going. Regardless, this was a perfect start to Shanghai. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and we were sitting outside in a small cove adjacent to a fishpond. Again this isn’t the sort of setting we’d ever experienced in China. From here we went to sample some Shanghai cuisine, settling on hot pot.
Hotpot isn’t actually a Shanghai dish; it’s an extremely popular and common dish in China more generally. For some reason or another I was yet to try it. The hotpot dish is basically, well, a hotpot. It’s filled with water, onions, meat, spices and herbs. It’s a dish that cooks in front of your eyes, whilst you select more and more things off the menu to be added to it. This can include other meats, dumplings, eggs, noodles, tofu, beans, ginger, potatoes, mushrooms and almost anything you can shake a stick at. There was one thing I was surprised to see translated into English on the menu, which was dog meat. Funnily enough, none of us wanted to sample this particular delicacy. At the end of the meal, when all the food has been eaten from the pot, everyone shares the left over water, which is now infused with all the different flavours from all the different foods. The hotpot is a traditional, communal and flavourful Chinese dish. If you come to China don’t leave without having a hotpot!
After another Chinese first we jumped into a taxi and headed to Lǎowài Jiē, which translates into “Foreigner Street”. It’s basically Shanghai’s equivalent of Wine Street in Swansea, but for foreigners and not students. The street has enough bars and restaurants to quench just about anyone’s culinary thirsts. This includes European pubs, Iranian cuisine and lady bars. Lady bars pretty much speak for themselves – bars with a lot of ladies in. We entered a German pub and drunk the evening way whilst playing tóuzǐ. The game goes by many names, but is known in English as liar’s dice. The Chinese love liar’s dice and you can find this game in almost any bar, in any city, in China. Without going into too much detail, it involves attempting to guess the sum of certain dice that all the players have rolled. However, with each turn, the sum must always increase, until at some point a player calls “bullshit”. At this point all players reveal their die to be counted. If the person that calls bullshit is correct then the person who this claim was made against has to drink. Obviously if the person who calls bullshit is incorrect then they must drink. I probably haven’t explained it that well, and if so, please feel free to learn more about it here: http://www.my-new-chinese-love.com/liars-dice.html
After racking up a large bill consisting only of German beer, we ventured away from Lǎowài Jiē, in search of a nightclub. We’d gotten wind of a party somewhere in Shanghai, which actually turned out to be a gig that was just about to finish. Back in a taxi we jumped, for the third time of the evening, in search of a club. Eventually, we found our way to “The Bunker”. Perhaps it was the tremendous amount of beer I consumed, but for some reason, the name didn’t seem to click. So, unsurprisingly, I was surprised to discover that the nightclub went underground, and was indeed, a bunker. Alcohol has the power to make you infantile, and after discovering this nightclub was an actual bunker, we were like kids in a candy store. Easily pleased I guess.
After a few more drinks and a bit more money idly spent, we headed back to the hostel, which turned out to be much harder than we’d originally envisioned. Having left the club at about 3 a.m. and having caught a taxi near to the hostel we somehow managed to get in at around 5 a.m. - it’s amazing what you can achieve under the influence of alcohol.
The next day I felt less than satisfactory, as did we all. However, great company, a half-decent fry up and an urge to see Shanghai meant that this was easily overcome. Regrettably, we didn’t leave the hostel until after midday, which seemed to be a trend for the duration of the trip. When we did finally leave the hostel, we went in search of “The Bund”. To be quite honest, we didn’t have a clue what it was or what we were looking for. The only information we had was a near by metro station and a few rough notes made by the hostel. After a few hours of walking and absorbing much of Shanghai’s unexpected mixture of scenery, we stumbled upon The Bund. In actual fact, it wasn’t hard to miss. All we had to do was walk along the city riverside towards the colossal and futuristic architecture in the distance.
When we got there, we were pretty much speechless. Well, most people would have been, but by this point of the journey we had already begun to develop a series of on going jokes that we’d hurl at each other at the most inappropriate times possible. These jokes and one liners were said so many times that by the end of the journey they’d lost all meaning, and yet, they were still absolutely hilarious. We had to agree to leave these jokes in Shanghai, as hearing any of those one-liners would remind us of the repetitive, idiotic boobs we'd become. One of these one-liners is dotted in and around this particular blog, but rather than exemplify and explain it, I think it’s probably best to leave it where it lies, for both our sakes.
By now you’re probably getting a feel for the kind of trip that this was shaping up to be. How our plans of experiencing Shanghai and what it had to offer were beginning to crumble. How our shortcomings were transforming the potentially cultural and educational trip into a lad’s holiday. Well, you’re half right, but despite the heavy drinking, we actually managed to see and do a lot during the day. Whilst at The Bund we also came across a museum hidden underneath a towering statue. The museum was circular and it displayed a timeline of The Bund’s history, portraying the influx of trade and business that had come through Shanghai's port over the years. It also described “The Public Gardens”, which when originally built, were out of bounds for all Chinese people and were only accessible to Westerners.
After the museum we went in search of the public gardens. Initially we thought we’d found them, as we spotted what looked like a park. However, the next day we realised that we hadn’t found the gardens at all, as we came across an entrance to what should be described as “Shanghai’s Secret Garden”:
The picture shown above are The Public Gardens. If you dropped me in the middle of those gardens and told me I was in Shanghai - a major city in China - I would not have believed you. The gardens were serene and what remnants of my hangover remained that day had now completely dissipated; it was blissful. Only when you look up and out of the exterior walls can you spot any sign that you’re still in Shanghai, but no noise or any other sign of a major city intrudes.
Prior to discovering what turned out to be the actual Public Gardens, we’d visited The City Temple, which is the largest Buddhist temple in the city. Again, it was fitting as this too was especially peaceful and had a lot to offer the typical tourist. Something that stood out straight away (besides the giant Buddhist statues) was the Chinese people attempting to throw coins into what I can only describe as a tower. I’ve seen Chinese kids in Aston attempting to throw/catch and most of their hand eye coordination is even worse than mine. As you can imagine, some of these people were there for a very long time attempting to throw their coins into the tower.
Asides from The City Temple, The Public Gardens and The Bund, we also went hunting for tourist toot, or “tunting”. Jonnie and I made a pact too find three completely useless, or pointless objects, which we then had to haggle down to the lowest possible price and purchase. Admittedly this was more fun than we expected and it wasn't hard to go over our three item limit. Some items were purchased by both of us, purely for their novelty and comical value. These included poorly made wallets, playing cards, Chairman Mao badges and a small book entitled, “Quotations from Chairman Mao”. Underneath the Chinese characters, my wallet read:
“since the mentally ill feeling refreshed”
On a similarly incorrect and ungrammatical note, Jonnie’s read:
“duiring at working I feel sad see beautiful woman makes me exciting”
Strangely, this became instantly hilarious, making it an instant purchase. From the same shop we also purchased our “Shanghai: The New Tity” playing cards. They weren’t remotely graphical; it was simply a comical spelling mistake (apparently the Chinese aren’t eager to proof read). Another purchase included an automatic bottle opener, which technically doesn’t count as toot because it actually (surprisingly) works.
Before going to Shanghai we’d also been made aware of “Suzhou”, which is basically China’s equivalent of Venice. However, when we eventually left the hostel and made it to the high-speed train station, we failed to realise that we’d need our passport to catch the high-speed train. The thing about China and being a foreigner is that you need your passport to do almost anything. In effect, we failed to make it to Suzhou altogether. Instead we went in search of an antiques market. Not only did it offer the potential for more tunting, but it also offered the potential for something worth actually buying. It did just that. At the market we were all able to practice our knowledge of Chinese numbers by haggling for authentic Chinese items. There were a lot of intriguing items on offer, but due to a distinct lack of money I was only able to walk away with two classic 80’s posters of China and Chairman Mao.
As the trip drew to an end and four days of drinking were taking their toll, we were overcome with a feeling of melancholy. Although we did manage to joke once more about writing a leaflet: “How not to do Shanghai”. On the fifth day of the trip we had little more to look forward to than a four-day, built-up hangover, the prospect of getting the last train back to the airport at 10 p.m., sleeping in the airport, flying home the next day at 8 a.m., Xi’an’s murky, polluted skies and teaching over the following weekend. Melancholy is probably a bit of an understatement for the condition of our being at that particular time.
I realise this isn’t happiest the note to end on. So instead I leave you with some wise words from The Great Chairman Mao:
Learn to “play the piano”. In playing the piano all ten fingers are in motion; it won’t do to move some fingers only and not others. But if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination […] Some play the piano well and some badly, and there is a great difference in the melodies they produce. Members of Party committees must learn to “play the piano” well.
Couldn’t have said it better myself…