We met Mr. Chang when we were standing outside his house near the Forbidden City, admiring his squashes. He asked us some friendly questions – do you play music? (a bit) Speak French? (seule un petit peu) What’s the English name of these squashes? (bottle gourds) – and ended up inviting us inside. We’d finished our touristry for the day, we didn’t have any urgent reason to be anywhere else, and he seemed nice enough, so we took up his invitation.
Inside he had more squashes and other plants growing with the help of an impressive amount of natural light, along with a large number of dried bottle gourds, or calabashes, that he’d grown. He’d clearly moulded the space over the decades, with a surprisingly labyrinthine system of steep, narrow stairs, walkways and small rooms tucked away around a courtyard-like central living room.
He showed us some of his daughter’s artwork – she was off studying art – as well a painting of his own, a fairly accomplished landscape with birds in the classical style. Then he told us about the ballet school he was setting up in Beijing, the first of its kind, with French ties – he was a dancer along with everything else, and he’d lived in France for many years. He spoke better French than English, lapsing into it when he couldn’t remember the word for something, so our conversation was in an odd mix of English, French and occasional Mandarin. He had a day job working for a big company.
After we’d been there for a while I reached to get a card to write my contact details on, only to realise I didn’t have my wallet. I ran back to where we’d come from in case it had somehow fallen out of my pocket, but eventually realised it must have been taken by a pickpocket among the crowds thronging out from the Forbidden City. I came back to Chang’s to cancel my credit cards; we swapped emails, and he gave us ten calabash seeds to take home.
Shanghai is a long way south of Beijing – about 750 miles, the distance from Dundee to Paris, which still only gets you half-way down China’s coast. It’s even hotter than Beijing in the summer, and it’s even bigger, too – in fact it’s now considered the biggest city in the world, depending on how you count it. So we travelled south from the capital, already vast and overheated, with some trepidation.
Our train pulled in at the tail end of a thunderstorm, which was a good start – the air was cleaner than any we’d tasted in weeks, and cooler. Beijing’s air pollution is uniquely terrible, largely thanks to industry in the surrounding countryside; despite its even bigger population and comparably congested streets, Shanghai’s air never got so bad. Being wetter, it is also better able to sustain greenery, without teams of people regularly watering every roadside verge and replacing all the tufts of grass in neat lines at least once a year, so many more of the streets are lined with trees to provide shelter from the sun.
One of the first things we did on arriving was visit a sculpture park with many large, inventive and varied sculptures and a remarkable number of outdoors-living but evidently well-fed cats. Bowls for them were scattered throughout the park, and we passed more than one person in the process of feeding them. Shanghai turns out to be a pretty cat-rich city.
Another thing the city is well endowed with is tiny, oddly specific shops, whole neighbourhoods crammed full of them: plumbing pipe shops, one selling only fans and fan accessories, one selling a wide range of fruit and veg – but only ones which are green, white or both.
We happened across a bridge where people were fishing by reaching down from above with nets on enormously long poles. I found it hard to believe they would catch anything at first, but with the help of a small crowd of people who shouted and pointed when they spotted something coming, they soon netted several turtles and a fish or two.
It’s the giant commercial buildings that everyone notices, of course. Shanghai has the biggest, shiniest business district I’ve ever seen, Pudong – endless rows of towering skyscrapers clad in coloured glass, and frequently topped by something round with a spike sticking out of it. The biggest tourist attractions are the Oriental Pearl Tower, a particularly tall building with a notably long spike at the top and two big round bits; and the Bund, a well-maintained waterfront area that seems to exist mainly to offer a view of the big glass buildings across the river, and their giant animated ads and light shows.
I recently listened to a fascinating episode of the Sinica podcast on ‘Shanghai and the Future Now‘, which filled me in on some of the background to the city centre’s aesthetic, which is so determinedly modern that it verges on retro-futurism. Most of that has come about since the 1990s, and the city is still very visibly under construction.
We stayed on the edge of the French Quarter, which still has a lot of old colonial buildings, with some pretty nice cafes, in a skyscraper with quite nice views, mostly of other skyscrapers.
In the evening we met Sonya’s friend Oli at a pretty good vegan restaurant before going to KTV, where I experienced a karaoke booth for the first time. They’re a huge thing there, rivalling bars for popularity. I sang two or three songs; most of the songs were in Chinese, half of our party being native speakers. I enjoyed the singing, and seeing the characters while they were sung, but it was a fairly disorienting experience overall.
On our second day we went to the Insect Museum. It has a lot of wonderful insects with rather scant information accompanying them, mostly about their popularity as pets. Downstairs they have turtles in too-small boxes, sad snakes and a workshop where kids get to stick insect specimens on cards, with fake flowers, and put them in frames.
We visited a couple more vegan restaurants, the best of which turned out to be three floors up in an electronics mega-mall in Pudong, ‘If Vegan‘. We had truly excellent smoothies and Vietnamese-influenced food there, and marvelled at the audacity of the couple who sat down at the next table with a bag of barbecued meat to go with the few vegan dishes they ordered, and munched their way through their chicken while one of the waitresses valiantly tried to convince them this was unacceptable.
We stuck around in Shanghai for a few days – visited the mostly quite good science & technology museum and some the main tourist traps, got lost trying to find a way over the river, mostly just explored. After that we took the opportunity to go somewhere with fewer people and more interesting tea, heading a hundred miles southwest, to Hangzhou.
On our first full day in Beijing, partly by way of helping me get a feeling for the city’s geography, we climbed up Jingshan, the large artificial hill in the historical dead centre of Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City. The views are stunning from the pavilion at the top of its highest peak, but it’s one of those spots which somehow manages to attract more locals than tourists. We arrived a little while before sunset to find it crowded, but with a relatively peaceful air.
Once the highest point in the whole city, it is still the highest point for a couple of miles around thanks to strict controls on building height in the city centre. Outside the official city centre seems to be a free-for-all though, with the result that from the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring, you get uninterrupted views over the whole of the oldest part of the city, and beyond it a seemingly unbroken wall of skyscrapers. Beyond those, on a particularly clear day – and this was one of them – you can see rolling hills out to the west.
As the sun goes down, swifts swing lower and lower in the sky till they are swooping right under the arches of the pagoda, chasing the evening’s insects. Big butterflies settle on photographers too focused on distant views to see them.
Once the sun was fully set, we set off down the hill to explore more of old Beijing.
This summer gone I had the rare chance to spend almost two months in China with Sonya – mostly in Beijing, but with some travel towards the south.
We arrived in Beijing exhausted but not exactly sleepy. While we waited for our sleep deprivation to catch up with the difference in time zones, we went for a walk in the local park, Xitucheng (literally ‘Western Earth City’, more or less). It’s a long thin park that runs along a canal, incorporating an embankment that was once a city wall. When we visited it was around 9 at night, but it was busier than most British parks get even during the day time – the only times I’ve seen that kind of concentration of people in parks there would be things like Festival fireworks or New Year, but this was just an ordinary Saturday in June.
Still, most of the park wasn’t exactly crowded, just… busy. Most of the people seemed to be congregating for the purpose of public mass-dancing, with groups of about thirty to fifty locals assembling around small sound systems, moving with varying degrees of synchrony. Once I’d ruled out that they were doing Tai Chi, I first assumed they must be actual classes, but they don’t seem to have anyone leading them; it’s more like everyone just copies everyone else in a seemingly self-organised fashion.
They were dancing in a range of styles, but nothing I could really pin down – one group seemed to be doing ceilidh dancing with elements of ballroom thrown in, while others were arguably doing line-dancing, but probably only by the broadest definition, ‘standing in lines, dancing’. We suspect that anyone who turns up in a park with their own music and just starts dancing will soon attract a crowd of people trying to learn their moves, but we haven’t put this hypothesis to the test yet. It may be that it would only work with bad Chinese pop music. Further research is required.
Besides the dancers there were also an impressively large number of bats; at least two choirs, one of them singing a selection of well-known revolutionary hymns; several groups of people playing Chinese hackey sack, which uses a shuttlecock rather than just a weighted bag; one group practising percussion; and just one old guy doing Tai Chi on his own.
We returned to the park on our very last afternoon, which is why the photographs here are all taken in daylight. It was less busy than on that first night, perhaps mainly because public mass-dancing is a night time activity. With the benefit of sunlight it became clear what a carefully sculpted and generally well-maintained park it is, and I also had the opportunity to read more of its fascinatingly odd signs.