Thursday, December 23, 2010

One China: Shivering through Shanghai

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My plan was flawless: secure my China visa, get to Kobe, and settle into my reserved bunk on Tuesday morning for a two-night ferry ride to Shanghai.

But as Monday morning dawned, there was no visa in my passport (and no passport, either) and no boat ticket in my pocket. And I was still in Tokyo, four hundred kilometers from my ferry. Now, if this had been the Philippines, something inevitably would have gone wrong – my ferry would have been delayed, the bus to Kobe would have left from the other side of town and I’d’ve missed it, my passport would have been misplaced in a refrigerator or something. But here’s the thing: I still would have made my boat somehow. For all the lack of organization and the casual attitude towards trifling things like schedules and laws, things always just seem to work out.

In Japan, by contrast, nearly everything travel-related ran smoothly. But in order for things to run smoothly, everything must be planned. And that means, had I missed a step, I could easily have been stuck. I didn’t get the sense that some good-humored cajoling could get me where I was going, whereas that is a surefire way to get things done in the Philippines.

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Of course, everything did work out: the Chinese consulate released my passport back to me with a tender new visa nestled into its leaves and my ferry was booked with the help of a very patient travel agent in Roppongi. I traveled back up to Tokyo Station, bought a seat on an overnight bus to Kobe, lurked at a bank of in-use baggage lockers until I was able to snipe one from a schoolgirl withdrawing a big fluffy pillow, and stashed my stuff away until the evening. I spent the rest of the day immersed in coffee, reading and Yoshinoya.

And then I was off, riding the smooth highways back to Kansai. My ferry was sparsely occupied – there were a few Chinese passengers, a young Japanese couple who spent their time making skateboarding videos on the deck, a French duo looking for new sights after a stint in Africa, and a British lad gap-yearing his way through the East. Two days is a long time on a boat, and since Tokyo Station’s locker #7059 retained my just-finished copy of Into the Wild, I had only William S. Burroughs’ Junky and a Philippine notebook to occupy my time.

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I spent a good amount of that time shivering out on the Xin Jian Zhen’s decks. The suffering (such as it was after the two years of constant Philippine swelter) was worth it for the view of the East China Sea rushing under the hull, and the scarcity of riders made it easy to prowl the decks for provocatively-lighted life preservers.

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But my favorite part of the trip was the crawl up the Yangtze and its tributary, the Huangpu, which swerves through and splits Shanghai. These rivers hummed with activity even in the early hours of our arrival: shoreside cranes, to the symphony of their whining gears, lifted massive containers from flatboats; ferries scurried hither and yon with tugboats following in their wakes like dutiful yayas; the yells of sailors cut tunnels through the thick smog-yellowed air.

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I stayed at Mingtown Hiker Youth Hostel, a for-real international youth hostel – meaning scads of foreigners. Its big draw is that it lies only a few blocks from the Bund, a rash of stately old European buildings lining the west bank of the Huangpu. The Bund is one of the many leftovers of previous European occupation, from the French Concession district to the German bakeries scattered throughout the city. As a legacy, the Bund is certainly a troublesome artifact – back in the heyday of Shanghai’s Little Europe, Chinese were discriminated against matter-of-factly by the rich foreigners hammering out business deals in the best riverside hotels – but I must admit that the elegant buildings provide aesthetic relief from the skyscrapers that have heralded Shanghai’s entry into the clique of Important World Cities.

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The effort to maintain this status is obvious. Many parts of the metropolis are as blankly international as business sections of Tokyo or New York. Signs for the recently concluded Shanghai Expo litter the city – literally, as many of them are decaying and falling off the walls – and the UK’s Seed Palace and other Expo constructions can still be seen hugging the river. And in Pudong, the financial center east of the Huangpu, the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower proudly proclaims Shanghai’s arrival to modernity. It’s a sham: from up close, the spidery legs that from the river’s opposite bank give the skyline its most striking sight are revealed to be just massive cylinders of faceless concrete supporting a gaudy and giant baby’s rattle.

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After spending two weeks in Japan, Shanghai also seemed inordinately loud. This I appreciated, actually, because the deathly quiet in Tokyo got a touch creepy at times. And although I had heard horror stories about Shanghai’s busy streets, they were nothing compared to Manila’s screech-and-rumble roadways. Shanghai’s metro system is also efficient and extensive (it’s now the longest in the world by cumulative track length, or at least nearly so), though not as friendly as Tokyo’s.

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I spent most of my time in Shanghai, like I spend most of my time anywhere, walking and looking. The touristy shopping-oriented East Nanjing Road was unimpressive – and packed with sketchy men offering women and sketchy women offering themselves – but I stumbled across a little artists’ colony, the name of which I never learned, that was packed with galleries of paintings and photography and calligraphy as well as little eateries and shops. I visited many camera stores, including a Lomography gallery and a huge multifloor complex with dozens of independent sellers hawking lenses, studio supplies and everything else.

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I also fulfilled perhaps my dearest ambition for Shanghai, which was to ride the maglev train. It runs from east of Pudong to the Shanghai airport and reaches 431kph, which is about the fastest the average human can travel on land (or very close to land, at least) anywhere in the world. Some of its impact was lost by the fact that the elevated track tended to avoid obstacles instead of zooming under bridges and skimming past skyscrapers (which I felt would have improved the ride immensely), but the surprising wobble and frequent banking injected a mild and pleasant sense of danger. In all, well worth the ride.

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My encounters with locals were unfortunately limited and mostly consisted of poor people asking me for money. In one instance, a man approached me as I ate breakfast outside a bakery, pointed to my bilingual bakery bag and proudly pronounced the word “bread” in English. He continued to show off his language skills with various English words until I gave him a muffin. He thanked me brightly and offered me RMB2 for the transaction, which I politely refused, and he shuffled away after taking also an unused sugar packet.

Another time a young man outside a train station gestured for money, pointing to a sign around his neck that proclaimed him to be deaf and mute. I was writing in my journal at the time and he sat down and admired my writing skills while telling me with signs that he himself couldn’t write. I copied down my name for him and asked for his, which he wrote bashfully on his hand in spidery characters, and soon afterwards he took his leave with a big smile and a wave.

One old man asked me for coins, but not as alms: he was a coin collector, he informed me in rusty but intelligible English, and he was trying to find a set of state quarters from the US. I regretfully told him that I couldn’t obtain a set for him. Instead we exchanged pens, leaving me with a 1mm gel monstrosity that felt thick as a paintbrush while he benefited from my .5mm Dong-A, but I think he appreciated having a foreign souvenir. And I did too.

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After about four nights in Shanghai, it was time to move on. I visited a booking agency and told them I wanted an overnight train going west or south. After a flurry of confusion, one of the clerks asked me clearly: “Anywhere is okay, sir?” I said yes, anywhere west or south. They held a brief conference behind the desk and decided that I was going to Xi’an, one night’s ride to the west. I cheerfully agreed, knowing nothing about Xi’an except that it was the site of the terracotta warriors and was probably quite touristy, and boarded my sleeper train with a pleasantly blank mindset regarding my destination.

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