Andrea discovers China
Nihao, China - at last we meet. Albeit briefly.
Ten days in three cities provided only a tiny snapshot of this huge and fascinating country. An evening riverside stroll down the Bund with its colonial-era buildings on one side and the beautifully lit famous view of incredible modern architecture on the other, one could be forgiven for forgetting it’s the Chinese city of Shanghai you are visiting. Ducking down to Nanjing Road for dinner and a spot of window shopping, the only visible thing majorly Chinese were the crowds of people. Western billboards, McD's & Starbucks are the trappings of many a modern city these days regardless of what continent you're on.
New Shanghai is a recent and westernised city, with the development of the Pudong area from low rise to its stunning high-rise skyline taking place in around thirty years. The city embraces the saying "today, tomorrow and yesterday" and appreciates the differences.
Getting down to business the following days started with getting to know the old Shanghai with its beautiful low rise buildings, serene gardens and bustle of the old city streets. Chinatown (seriously - although obviously it's not called Chinatown in China!) was brilliant. The crowds, food stalls, markets were stimulating and the superb teahouses, relaxing and divine. Prices glanced at in retail shops seemed to be similar to here but the wonders of the knock off shops never ceased to amaze. It’s true you can be the proud owner of any name you wish as long as you are not too fussy about quality and longevity. My $1 Rolex (which not being the most cunning or dedicated bargainer cost much more than $1) still ticks and is right twice a day. A beer stop in the trendy French Concession area was deemed a necessity with the local brew perfect after a day on your feet.
The slow train to Xian, travelling at 160km/hr, renewed my faith in overnight train travel. Clean bedding, western loos if you choose and edible snacks made the 14 hour trip rather relaxed for those of us who have seen our fair share of dodgy trains. Hopping off in Xian the next morning and not immediately checking in to your hotel was not the major downer it usually is. Home to the famous Terracotta Warriors and with a population of 4.4 million, Xian was an enjoyable surprise. At night they light up the city's surrounding wall and watchtowers so an evening wander will bring you in touch with crowds of serious majong players, dancing classes enjoying the evening warmth, families & friends chatting or enjoying a meal. A bike ride on top of the wall is definitely recommended with 14kms whizzing by in record time.
The drive to see The Terracotta Warriors was interesting with our local guide explaining how land use has changed vastly since her youth. The farmers now mostly live in apartment blocks with their land claimed for the building of these blocks. To compensate them, they were sometimes given one or two apartments so as they could continue to earn a living from the rent." This area used to grow winter wheat and corn" she said, "now we grow apartment buildings."
The Warriors were impressive and crowded. The continuing archaeological work on the army is obvious but the sculptures, who have watched over the tomb of China's First Emperor Qin for the past 2000 years, must have been a breath-taking sight when first created. The museum is excellent but the film on how they were discovered was disappointing. With some of the best computer wizzes in the world I'm not sure why a movie obviously made decades ago has not been updated for the thousands of paying tourists.
A good day stop from the train on the way to Beijing are the Longmen Grottoes. These caves and niches held tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his followers. The climbing walk ways are excellent but it has to be said that some Chinese women could teach anybody a thing or two about sightseeing in high heels. Immaculately dressed with not a sheen of sweat marring perfect make up, these tiny woman glide up mountainsides for photoshoots with friends and their iphones. It seems it is not enough to do it - one must look fabulous while doing it. I take my hat off to them!
Our final stop was Beijing. The Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, The Great Wall, Peking duck and the pandas were a must. The Chinese have implemented serious measures to improve the air quality of this massive city. Carless days, improved public transport, relocating or shutting down factories and, although some expats we chatted to still complained of it, I guess we were lucky with clear blue skies and no lingering taste of pollution.
One of my companions had been to Beijing prior to the 2008 Olympic Games and remarked what an impressive change the city had undergone. It was spotlessly clean with many green parks, no one spitting in the street and only one child seen peeing in the gutter. For a country with 1.3 billion people I found my small glimpse of 3 cities to be nothing like I had imagined. Sure the language is a bit of an obstacle, rush hour is dreadful, the endless apartment blocks frightening to contemplate and the heavy haze that hangs over the plains inland suspicious, but the majority of people encountered were good natured and polite while trying not to laugh at the endless charades, the food magnificent (it’s so easy to see why China culinary tours sell) and the streets were clean.
If you are heading through to Europe next year and fancy somewhere a little different, seriously consider Shanghai as a stopover - the acrobats and food are worth it alone! Or if you're of a more adventurous nature, jump right in - it’s not as hard as you may expect and more fun than you may imagine.