I must be a glutton for punishment. Despite my memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons bus journey from Udaipur to Mumbai in India, when I heard there was a night bus from Wuhan to Shanghai that was marginally (and we’re talking nanofractions of a hair’s breadth) cheaper and quicker than the train, I decided to take it. Who knows why? Maybe after my caterpillar and dog culinary adventures, I decided to put myself into training for ‘Fear Factor’. This was no better. I’d learnt enough from my first trip to insist, via sign language of course, that I would only have the bottom bunk. Agreed. No problem. The bunk, though short, was more comfortable than in India. No problem. So what was the problem, exactly?
Well, in China, they seem as a nation to be going all out to win the cigarette stakes. Everybody smokes, and I mean everybody. Just about everywhere allows smoking. Including on a confined night bus. Now I’m quite a liberal, live and let live, kind of person, except when it invades my breathing space. When the couple next to me lit up, I looked at them in a combination of shock and disgust, but thought that maybe it was just until we set off. Not so. This went on all night and would maybe have been ok if the window next to me had opened, but again, not so. I was the oddity for not smoking. I didn’t get much sleep, and arrived in Shanghai feeling grubby, sleepy, and pretty nauseous.
Still, I was able to check right in to Captain’s Hostel, where I’m staying, and have a hot shower. And doesn’t the world always seem a better place after a hot shower? Even better when, sitting in the lobby for breakfast (the chocolat chaud and croissants an indication of Shanghai’s multicultural past), I bumped into Alex and Paul, who I’d met in the hostel in Beijing. Actually, it’s a strange thing for such a big country, but here more than anywhere, I’m seeing more people over and over. Maybe we’re all just so incredibly unimaginative that we all end up coming to the same places in China?
Alex and Paul had just arrived that morning as well, so we all headed out together to see some of the sights. First stop was the great Shanghai Museum. Spread over four floors, and housed in a fabulous building that combines history and modernity, there are some great displays, both permanent (historic Chinese ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, and costumes), and visiting – two spectacular ones when we were there were a gem collection, owned by the first president of Apple Computers and which made me want to go out and buy an amethyst the size of my fist, and the other a collection of drawings which spanned masters such as Picasso, Cezanne, and Jackson Pollock (I’m not a fan, think he’s very much the Emperor’s new clothes, but maybe I’m just a philistine).
From here, we stopped for a lunch of dumplings….mmmm, dumplings…. and then headed down to The Bund. This is the main riverside road in Shanghai, and is most people’s first stop. It was mainly developed by the British in the 19th century and, one of the reasons why I like Shanghai so much, someone has taken the trouble to put up signs on every building telling the original date, owner, and use of the building, plus the style it was built in. The first headquarters of my bank (the wonderful HSBC, in case my bank manager is reading this and gives me lots of money for the plug) has a couple of bronze lions outside, which are considered lucky, so I rubbed their legs lots. Just further along is the sublime Peace Hotel, which a few years ago was voted The Most Famous Hotel In The World by, and I kid you not, The Most Famous Hotels In The World Commission (get me a job there, please!). Originally owned by one of the Sassoons, it’s a beautiful building, very art deco, which used to play temporary home to Shanghai’s wealthy foreign visitors. One of my heros, Noel Coward, actually wrote the play ‘Private Lives’ here, in just four days when he had the ‘flu.
We went up to the roof of the Peace Hotel to have a proper look down at The Bund, and something clicked with me straight away. Shanghai is the mirror image of Liverpool. The buildings, for a start – I know Liverpool well, but show me a picture of The Bund, and I would swear blind I was looking at a picture of the Pier Head. The dates of the buildings, and the purpose, are all similar. It doesn’t stop there, though. The whole feel of the place is similar. Shanghai is having a huge amount of investment at the moment, as to a certain extent is Liverpool in advance of Capital of Culture, but both places have the air of somewhere that got its fortune back in the glamorous days of shipping, attracting wealthy and less salubrious elements alike, but have since fallen on harder times. Despite this, the popluations of both seem to be cosmopolitan, funny, and optimistic.
We crossed by ferry over to the other side of the Huangpu river, to visit the tallest tower in Asia, the Pearl TV Tower. This is an indication of the huge investment happening in Shanghai right now – I think in order to make it a serious opponent to Hong Kong – it looks like something out of the 22nd century, or a Smash advert (as in, ‘For Mash, Get Smash’), and is surrounded by something akin to a mini USA – Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Hooters (and if there’s Hooters in China, how come I haven’t seen one in the UK?). We paid a slightly extortionate 100 yuan to go the ear-popping 342 metres up to the observation platform, and were rewarded with a very smoggy view over Shanghai. Still, as the sun began to go down and the neon lights went up, it looked pretty. Very pretty indeed.
Not wanting to walk the considerable distance back to the ferry terminal, I persuaded the guys to go back under the river via the supremely tacky Tourist Tunnel (there should be an extra ‘Spectacular’ or ‘Experience’ in there for it to be an accurate description), which is basically an underground cable car that takes you past a tacky light show – think Blackpool Illuminations but in a tunnel. A couple of Chinese girls in our cabin were oohing and ahhing, but I think it would have only been impressive if you had never seen electricity in action before. I loved it, naturally, but that was for its sheer tack than any other reason. Alex and Paul were distinctly underwhelmed.
So that was my first full day in Shanghai, aka the Liverpool of the East. And no, nobody stole my handbag or offered to mind my car.
Tags: China, Travel