August 2009 – *7.30 a.m. Shanghai railway station and the city waking up to early morning sounds and rituals. We arrived from Beijing on the second part of our journey and stifling a yawn and sidestepping persistent cab drivers, stepped out of the station.
An unimpressive surroundings and while waiting outside for friend, who had gone to check train tickets for Hong Kong, watched a man and woman playing with a kitten and wondered if it was being readied for the ‘wok’. Shaking of the gruesome thought I followed my friend to the waiting cab. The ride to the hotel, somewhere near the Caohejing Development Zone, southwest Shanghai. seemed endless and the ‘concreteness’ blotched up any romantic images of silk embroidered parasols, of sleek silhouettes of ‘Shanghai Tang’ accessory line, or of a city portrayed by Lisa See in “Shanghai Girls.” The last is a work of fiction set during the Japanese invasion and the Shanghai sisters moving to the USA.
The gossamer thin haze shrouding the city was another cause of discomfort reminding me of ‘Shanghai Shroud’ game I had read about in some magazine and no idea if it is really played. A player farts in a plastic bag and covers the head of another and punches him so that when the person tries to inhale he gets in all the smelly air. Sounds gross but Shanghai air was breathable.
Day 1: We had 36 hours in Shanghai and had to pack in as many sites as possible. A hurried breakfast and we boarded the 12 noon tourist bus from Shanghai Stadium for Zhoujiajao, a water town 48 km from Shanghai on the banks of Dianshan Lake in Qingpu District. The tourist bus ticket was valid for entry into the ancient section of Zhoujiajao of narrow cobbled lanes, closely packed crumbling or preserved houses, cubicle shops along the canals displaying silk gift items, calligraphy art, a shoe-maker who shooed me away when I attempted to click his picture, I did manage on the sly, chinese tea shops and eating places. The legendary Fangsheng or the ‘setting free bridge’ over the Cao Gang River is one of 36 bridges connecting the town from all angles. Constructed in 1571 it is the only five arch bridge of its kind in Shanghai. Fishes were set free under this bridge, hence the name ‘setting free bridge’ and followed a tourist group into what appeared an antique ‘show’ house with an art house display of antiques.
We took a boat ride on the canals, nothing Venetian about it, cruising past shops, restaurants, tea shops and trying to peep through semi-open doors into houses …a man bathing turtles, boys fishing and an old woman diligently washing pots and pans in the canal water…. snippets of daily life. The red-cheeked smiling boat-person, seeing our bored expressions, regaled us with a lilting melody resonating with the surroundings.A few more turns and we felt we have seen it all and made our way to the waiting bus for return journey.
It was late evening by the time we reached Shanghai and took taxi, they are convenient, from the Stadium to the Bund or Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (East Zhongshan 1st Road) on the northern side of the Huangpu River. This area is a pot-pourri of Gothic and Neo-Classical architecture, relics of a successful past when Shanghai was the bustling port of Asia and the ‘Pearl of Orient’. Majority buildings have been converted into hotels, malls and financial hubs. The jostling Sunday evening crowd aided by the ongoing refurbishing restricted movement and all we could see and hear were Chinese dialects and screeching traffic of people and vehicles. The subway from the Bund was off bounds, repair work in progress, and we could view the Oriental Pearl Tower and modern glass, steel structures and twinkling lights across on Pudong side from in between people’s heads. Touts were persistent, followed us the minute we got out of the taxi, selling river cruises with varying price tags.
It was past dinner time and searched for McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried, most convenient and known food items, and managed a Chinese eatery on one of the parallel roads. It was nearing 9.30 p.m. and probably closing time, a plausible explanation for the grumpy attitude of the serving staff. The dishes did not look ‘chickeny’ and our fears were confirmed when a youngster, who had just entered, told us in broken English that one was pork and other beef. We had spent nearly 15 minutes drawing chickens and making flapping signs and still could not get our message through. I do not eat beef and had to eat the veggies of the main dishes while my friend enjoyed the pork and beef. We obliged them by leaving no tippo or tip.
Shanghai of glitzy malls, skyscrapers, landscaped parks and antiquated sections of more than 20 million people was a challenge to our mind-set. To add to the non –positive was the ongoing constructions, preparation for the 2010 World Expo and we did the quickest and closest tourist oriented places.
Day 2 visited the Jade Buddha temple, the Yuyuan Garden in Anren Jie and the Historical and Cultural sections with its grey stone architecture and cart market. We had the names and directions written in local language by hotel reception staff to save on time and patience and to push it under the taxi driver’s nose for directions.
The original Jade Buddha is kept on first floor (no photography) with larger replica, in recumbent position of Sakyamuni symbolizing Buddha’s enlightenment or nirvana, downstairs for tourists. A guide informed us about the original statue and wanted us to savor some medicinal Chinese tea. We did go to the tea room but no one came forward to offer drinking samples. Maybe we did not come across as potential customers.
Next was Yuyuan Gardens, a mini garden by Chinese standards, set in 20,000 square meters with rockeries, halls, pavilions, ponds with largest number of carp, and cloisters. The cool-mint-tea ambiance of the temple, constructed in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for his parents, is ideal to spend a hot summer day.
Adjacent to the Garden is the Shanghai Old Street or Fangbin Road with decorated archways at both ends. The east section is the residential area with Ming and Qing style architecture with West showcasing antique and curio shops, restaurants and tea house plus the ever-present McDonald’s, the new landmark of major Chinese cities.
The last stop: the Historical and Cultural part of Shanghai referred to as Shanghai Xin Tian Di in what was the French Concession and the arty area of Shanghai. It is a pedestrian street with outdoor cafeterias, boutiques, bars, restaurants and carts set amidst old Shikumen and modern architecture. Redesigned by an American architect Benjamin Wood in 1997 the setting is a blend of 19th and 21st century lifestyle with sturdy and graceful stone archways or stone gates at entrance; shades of Faneuil Hall of Boston but minus the vibrancy. Stylish boutiques, malls, art galleries and cafeterias, it was mid-afternoon and the chairs were still folded up, a treat for tourists.
6 p.m. time to return to hotel to board 9 p.m.train to Hong Kong. We had to arrive at Shanghai station an hour early because of immigration check and to maneuver our way through the crowded waiting area.The mammoth edifice, Shanghai Station, is no place to get lost in.