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.