Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Quick Tour Around Shanghai

Having been told that my guide would meet me at the station it was disconcerting to find that Shanghai train station has, in fact, at least two exits. At first I made for the nearest one, but then noticed this one wasn't very popular so changed directions. Then, at the bottom of a set of stairs, there was yet another choice, and by the time I had slowly manoeuvred my case to the bottom there were few people around to follow. One exit was quite close, while the other was at the end of a long corridor. After a few moments dithering I decided to take the easier option - and was much relieved to see a small young woman holding up my name outside. She called herself Pink.

Pink's English wasn't terribly good and she explained to me quickly what we would be doing then went back to chatting to the driver. Outside the scenery rapidly turned into something ressembling a film set of 'The Future'. Every building seemed to have at least 50 floors (I counted them - this was easy because by now the traffic had come to a stand-still) and seemed to be entries in a 'most weird' competition. There were roundels, holes, crowns, asymmetric sides in an assortment of glass, steel and concrete, and some of them seemed so closely packed that I am sure anyone leaning out of the windows could link hands with their nearest neighbour's.

'You hungry?' asked Pink. I wasn't but I said yes because that seemed to be the expected answer. We were clearly going to a restaurant anyway. It was a restaurant which clearly catered for tourists with an entrance selling postcards and fake Chinese hats. The ceiling was low, and the place crowded with westerners.

'Dancers,' Pink said, and waved vaguely in the distance. Then she exchanged a few words with a waitress and I was shown to a table. The waitress set the table for two and I went to wash my hands. Toilet paper was dispensed communally, from a roll outside the cubicles, and the basins too were outside for use by both both genders. Judging by the sounds, someone appeared to be violently regurgitating a recent meal, but I later decided that maybe this was just someone thoroughly clearing out their nasal passages. Either way it did not increase my appetite.

When I came back three dishes of food were waiting for me. 'Traditional Chinese food.' Pink said, and gestured for me to sit.
'What you like to drink? Cola? Sprite?'
'Cola please,' I said then thought about the noises by the wash hand basins. 'And please could I have a can?' Some of the drinks I'd been offered had been spirited from nowhere and I wanted to avoid the water.
The waitress looked puzzled, but then Pink sorted her out. 'Ee bay!' She said.
It was a term I recognised. 'Did you just ask for a cup?' I asked.
She looked a little startled. 'You know mandarin?'
Just one word, but just at that moment that Michel Thomas course seemed worth all those hours of effort.

The cup of cola was duly brought, though it was poured from a bottle in front of me, and, since it did hiss when the top was opened I guessed it would be okay.

When I looked around, Pink had disappeared. For a short while I waited, and when she didn't reappear, started to eat. Unlike the food in Hangzhou, the food in Shanghai seemed to be of famine quality: and was composed of gristle fried in batter, vegetables in a suspiciously hot black sauce, and rice.

Above the hubbub of conversation I noticed music, and when I looked in the direction Pink had pointed I saw there were indeed dancers. It seemed a strange sight at lunchtime, and although they were not particularly erotic-looking, it somehow managed to convey a sort of low-level seediness, which for me now symbolises Shanghai.

I picked at the food, decided to settle mainly on the rice, and finished quickly.
'You not eat much!' Pink said accusingly when she at last returned.
'Large breakfast.' I said, then pointed at the second place stting: ' I was expecting you to join me.'
'I just guide. I sit with driver, over there.'

In the evening I asked her and the driver if they would like to join me, but her answer was a brief 'No!'
It made me wistful for Hangzhou - there the guide, the driver and I had sat together and shared our meal, the guide explaining the foods and the traditions, and we all seemed to enjoy ourselves very much.

We moved swiftly on to the rest of Shanghai: to a high tower

where escalators, and then a lift, moved with ear-popping speed

up through many levels

to an enclosed platform with a tree festooned with wishes

to see Shanghai

in all directions.

And then down amongst it all

where Pink opened the car door and pointed out a street

'for shopping', and so I duly wandered shops full of clothes with western labels, and felt conspicuously alone.

Then, after that, the museum with embellished thrones

and screens

and lacquered chairs.

It was a short tour and just a single floor, because immediately afterwards Pink, without a word, walked towards the door. The driver, she said, was waiting.