Saturday, September 09, 2006


When I was last hosteling almost 30 years ago, what usually happened was that drunken louts would come in at 3 am having loud conversations in German. Fortunately, the younger generation, although occasionally chaotically tattoed, is quiet and well-behaved. Not only that, but there was a fair smattering of the over 40 crowd, and everyone seems to get along just swimmingly.

We were up and out on the street by 7:30, and a half block's walk took us to the Bund. For those unacquainted with Shanghai history, the entire city was a late nineteenth century creation of the Western Powers, and the Bund--a stretch of big grey 20's type buildings along the Huangpo River--was a bit of European city in the midst of alien Asia. It kind of fell apart during the Mao years, has recently been spruced up, but now looks pretty dinky compared to the Shanghai that's a'buildin'.

For instance, across the river is the Pudong Business District, which contains, among other things, a skyscraper made out of giant balls, the fourth tallest building in the world, and weird trapezoid top office spaces that Tom Cruise jumps off of. We took a ferry 'cross the Huangpo, walked around a bit as the city was waking up, and had a scone at a Coffee Beanery.

Then we walked some more, past the giant ball building, past the convention center, down to the river, and looked back across at the Bund. A building with a lotus crown stood behind them, and behind that in the not too serious haze we could see other strange forms. Although there was no chance of the sun coming out, the weather had cleared up from the night before, and it was a pleasant, balmy day. We decided to head back over there.

The map said that there was a pedestrian underpass, which we assumed would be free, since the ferry had only been 2 yuan. When we found it, however, they wanted 30. Oh well, we were there, so we paid. It turned out that it wasn't exactly pedestrian, though. We entered a futuristic module that whisked us through a darkened tunnel, which then erupted into a non-stop psychedelic light show. Just think how much more fun father and daughter would have had if we had paid 15 more yuan and had the tour of the Shanghai Sex Museum thrown in!

Back in downtown, we started walking down Nanjing Street, which is their department store row. And we walked and walked and walked, taking in our first day in China all the way over to the French Concession. The impression I had had last night was more than correct: this place was relentlessly moderate. No jostling crowds, no crazy traffic, nobody in your face. Indeed, one of the calmest cities in the world.

And all around us arose postmodern skyscraper extravaganzas. Buildings with holes in the top, holes in the middle, strange square appendages sticking out of their middles, everything all shiny glass and/or iridescently colored glass. Apparently every architect in the world is camped out here in the process of selling their personal even more over the top design.

That being said, Shanghai wasn't nearly as overpowering as I had been led to believe. It still has a long way to go to approach Hong Kong's sizzle and wealth, and I didn't even notice all that many construction cranes. Nonetheless, considering what a Maoist dump this was less than 25 years ago, it's pretty impressive.

And when we took a cab to the train station to get the train tickets for tomorrow, the 'regular' part of the city also impressed greatly. Apartment blocks were not even close to being drab concrete monoliths; highway overpasses and other necessary infrastructures were steadily being built. So far I had to hand it to the Commies in charge.

Anyway, after the train station it was back to town and a quick tour of the Shanghai Museum, which is brand new and snazzy and doesn't try to overdo it with 80,000 examples of early Han pottery. Which suited us even better because by now we were getting really tired and hungry.

So off to the Godly Restaurant, a vegetarian Shanghai institution since 1920. For those of you unfamiliar: ancient Buddhist Chinese tradition is to make wheat gluten and suchlike into approximations of all the weird animals that all the rest of the Chinese people eat. There's a certain amount of self-defeating flagellation involved with trying to be vegetarian in many of the world's countries, so Sumi and I were quite happy to find this place.

We were thinking of the Deep Fried Sparrow, but the waiter said that the Crab Meat was very popular. So we tried that. Unfortunately, when it arrived it had the look of a plate of vomit: AND they got the taste right! We looked at each other and said, Should have gone to Pizza Hut.

But we did find enough to eat there, and then headed back down Nanjing St. By now it was dark and the closed to traffic pedestrian walk way was a cacophony of neon. More light show! More calm moderation around us! So far China was better than I had feared.

(By the way, just to show you what's involved here: I first wrote this post on a Chinese computer whose '' site was in Korean. When I went to edit it the whole thing erased. Then this morning I re-wrote the whole thing, only to have the computer freeze and erase it again. Hopefully, third time's the charm.)


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