Sprawling Shanghai

Traversing an enormous metropolis

A speedy six hour train journey whisked me from Beijing to Shanghai Hongqiao station. The high speed trains in China work very efficiently. The formal boarding process, uni-directional seating, open walk-through carriages and modern interiors make them feel more like areoplanes than trains. As beautiful Chinese countryside flashed by at 150mph I couldn’t help notice the yellow sky above, and the huge power plants and industrial towns presumably fouling up the air.

Shanghai feels like a more civilised and diverse version of Beijing. Motorists are less reckless and horn less frequently.The vibe is less frenetic with more personal space on the streets. Foreign business travelers significantly outnumber tourists here so there’s many more western faces to be found. Traversing the city centre by foot is much more pleasurable thanks to the tree-lined roads that provides some relief from the blistering heat.

The main attraction in the city is the walk along the historic Bund waterfront which provides an iconic view on the Pudong skyline. For an even better view, I headed up to the top of the spiralling Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world at 636 metres. Up here it’s easy to get an appreciation of the sheer size of the city.

View from the top of the Shanghai Tower

View from the top of the Shanghai Tower

A leisurely stroll in People’s Park on one Saturday morning brought me to an unusual sight. It looked like an umbrella sale, which wasn’t surprising considering how the Chinese adore them as sun shades. But I looked around and there were hundreds of them, each surrounded by older men and women. Well, this seemed a bit excessive for even the fanciest umbrella market. After closer I inspection however, I saw A4 paper attached to the front and there were markings for size, weight and age. Clearly I hadn’t got this right. These weren’t umbrellas for sale. After some Googling it turned out I’d rocked up at a marriage market where like-minded parents match up their unknowing children over a cup of tea. It was weird at first to see this unusual form of match making first hand, particularly given the apparent lack of consent. I was taken aback to see and hear almost how children are being commoditised to be traded, almost like regular, non-human assets!

An...umbrella market (?!)

An…umbrella market (?!)

The middle aged and elderly Chinese like to break out into dance at any hour of the day beside the street – often to some awful techno music. But if it keeps them fit, then it’s a great idea I suppose. I couldn’t help but join in!

One afternoon I took a quick trip down to Jiading in West Shanghai to check out the F1 circuit, which happened to be an enormous, fenced off VW car park off-season. Instead of anything racing related, my memory of this is seeing the mind-boggling urban sprawl of Shanghai. It’s beyond comprehension. Everywhere there are huge high-rise blocks either recently built or under construction. It’s as if the city had been painted with concrete behemoths in a game of Sim City.

While I don’t agree with some of the political positions of the ruling party in China, they deserve full credit for investing so extensively in inter-city and regional public infrastructure. Things just get built, and quickly. A great example is the 430kph Maglev train that connects Shanghai city centre to the nearby Pudong airport. Within 7 minutes the fastest train in the world rockets through the neighbourhoods at a frightening pace, even while banking through various meanders along the route. This is just one of many huge infrastructure projects to be found all over the country. I wish the UK government could ‘think big’ much like the Chinese do. We might actually get another runway built!

A walk through Shanghai feels remarkably similar to a stroll through Singapore or New York. The gleaming skyscrapers provide the aesthetic centrepiece, the suburbs stretch endlessly and the whole thing is underpinned by a vast rapid transport network. While it has all the appeal for multinational businesses to concentrate their workforce, the relentless development has sanitised it to an extent that it feels rather mundane to visit as a tourist, especially given the lack of interesting sights outside the Bund. The cultural experience can be difficult to appreciate amongst the heavy western influence. Realising this, I figured it was too soon to be done with China. It was time to venture to the green and not grey jungles, and have a taste of the rural life. So, I set off to experience what would end up being the most memorable journey on the whole trip so far.


Next: Zhangjiajie

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