Our arrival in Shanghai was met with feelings of nervous anticipation. For the first time, we were leaving the familiarity of the "Western" countries behind and were about to tackle the East! We were slightly concerned about how different things would be, especially the language and the food, as we had heard some varying reports about China from both natives and Westerners - but we were determined to get the most out of our visit. However, our initial nerves weren't helped when, having not even exited the Port gate, we managed to cause mayhem when attempting to book a cab!
After being subjected to some truly awful driving through the worst traffic imaginable, we made it unscathed to our hotel in The Bund area of Shanghai. We were very glad to find that although the hotel staff spoke little English, the hotel was modern and clean and definitely worth the price of £20 a night! After procuring a map with both Chinese and English street names, we headed off for our first long walk. This was what we did pretty much the whole time in China, mostly ignoring the numerous museums as the whole experience of China was a museum in itself. Shanghai has a great array of modern, space-age skyscrapers and top-end hotels mixed in with ramshackle apartments with washing hanging out of the windows and street vendors selling anything you may (or may not!) desire to eat.
Being a Communist country, we thought that everyone would be marching soullessly in single-file. This could not be further from the truth! The traffic is crazy, with a cacophony of horns and bells mingled with bikes (including scooters!) on the pavements, hence hapless pedestrians have little option but to get out of the way of all vehicles and make a run for it when possible. "Traffic Assistants" try to help out by blowing their whistles loudly at anyone who tries to cross the road at the wrong time, but even they can't prevent motorists from ignoring the Green Man! Despite all this we didn't see one single accident - somehow the citizens of Shanghai seem to function amidst this chaos! A ride on a Rickshaw powered by the under-nourished legs of an ancient Chinaman provided the first contradiction from our "Lonely Planet" knowledge - we read that the Chinese don't like to embarrass themselves by getting into a confrontation... tell that to the woman who was almost run over by our elderly driver who frequently mounted the dilapidated cycle onto the pavement! We now understand the calming benefits of the numerous Oriental Gardens - often the only solace in a sea of noise.
It became apparent quite quickly that English was not widely spoken (the main words of English that could be heard were "Money Money!" (from small children holding empty McDonalds cups while encouraged by their mothers to beg from Westerners - even to the extent that they would run across busy roads after us to get a coin or two) and "Hello! DVD.. Watch... Bag!" (from almost everyone else who wasn't a tourist)) which meant that we had to become inventive quite quickly, thus we came up with several games to aid us in our communication - (1) Lucky Dip: This involved looking at items being sold and selecting one randomly. This was generally successful, except for the odd purple-goo filled ice-lolly and innocent looking doughnut filled with soyabean paste (2) Give Us A Clue: Our favourite example of this game was Jamie impersonating a steam engine in order to get a taxi to the railway station (think arm pulling movements and "whoo whoo" noises) (3) Pictionary: After visiting several stationary shops in search of padded envelopes, Jamie ended up drawing an envelope. This was understood, but we had no way of successfully drawing the bubble-wrap filling, and then discovered that they give them out free from behind the counter in the Post Office anyway! We're sure that Ma Inglis would be proud of our creative achievements, but sadly (as you can probably appreciate) a version of "Scrabble" would be asking a bit too much! When it was too difficult to try to pronounce the Mandarin words (we reckon that the chances of being misunderstood while attempting a tonal language that has 5 different meanings for the word "ma" including "mother", "horse" and "hemp" (depending how your voice goes up or down at the end) is approximately 99%) we resorted to pointing at words and phrases in our invaluable phrasebook, which was pretty much failsafe! Sometimes we even got lucky with the odd bilingual Chinaman who tended to stumble across our path just before the point of frustration!
Our trips out of Shanghai highlighted a few differences between the small cities and the metropolis of Shanghai (when we say small, this is relatively speaking: Shanghai has a population of 13.2m, whereas Suzhou is a small town with only 5.71m and Nanjing a mere hamlet of 5.29m!). With lots of expats in Shanghai, we got stared at a bit (especially Susi, with her Snow White complexion) and posed for a photo with an eager bunch of lads, but in Suzhou and Nanjing, this was much more full-on, and coupled with many friendly shouts of "Hello!!". At first we were bemused by this, but then decided to play them at their own game by countering this with an equally friendly "Nee hao!!" which tended to stun, then result in hysterical almost childish laughter (from them, not us!). We concluded that the staring and shouting was not meant to intimidate, but was merely an expression of interest from a nation of people who were barely allowed to travel to Western countries until very recently. Also, white skin is seen as a sign of high status among the Chinese and other Asian countries - women often carry parasols to shield them from the sun (like it can get through the omnipresent smog anyway!) and Olay, for one, has a whole range of skin lightening moisturisers that are actively marketed to young women. Wacko Jacko would definitely feel at home here!
One of the main things of interest in China is of course the food, but there is no problem if you get sick of eating Chinese - we also treated ourselves to the Hyatt's multicuisine buffet in the city's tallest building, plus had Brasilian, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Malaysian and French food, as well as the odd bit of corporate American fast-food thrown in for good measure (Super-Size Big Mac Meal = £1 - the Chinese appear to be "Lovin' It" too!). As for drinking, it is almost impossible to find Diet Coke anywhere and tea is the most widely-drunk beverage.. during a single Chinese meal, it is quite possible to drink at least 8 cups of green tea, as they never stop re-filling your cup - plus, this is usually free, which makes it kind of annoying that we paid £7 (the average annual wage of 17 peasants) each for probably the most expensive tea in the world, in a touristy tea shop! This was accompanied by several unidentifiable sweet and savoury snacks including a squigy green Turkish Delight type thing and a small bird's egg boiled in a special combination of tea and herbs, stangely enough known as a "Tea Egg", and which Jamie described eloquently as tasting "Like an egg". What we did enjoy most though was the Shanghai delicacy of "xiaolongbao" (steamed minced pork dumplings), which require superior chopstick skills to avoid scalding with hot water that has seeped inside. At an average price of 50p for 8, these were part of our staple diet - along with fried rice, peppery beef and spring rolls! Our only disappointing meal was a Hunan dish consisting of at least 40 sliced red chillies bubbling in oil with some pieces of chicken that were mostly backbone and gristle - this was a monumental struggle to eat and we eventually conceded defeat in favour of sticky banana fritters and washed down with lots of Tiger beer (in the evenings, its common for the Chinese to replace rice with beer as their source of carbohydrate, and its also common for them to order more dishes than can possibly be consumed by the whole table and to have several fag breaks during the meal - not to mention washing their crockery and glasses with tea before using them and spitting anything unsavoury straight back onto the tablecloth!). The only meal we could not even attempt to eat was a dish of rank-smelling tofu which we had to get removed from our table as the smell was so awful, and they got very confused and kept trying to bring it back - they kindly didn't charge us for it though! In fact, we can't wait to go back to China to have dumplings again, and of course have Beijing (Peking) Duck!
Further observations into Chinese behaviour and customs unveiled that although PDAs (we learned this in the US - our avid readers will remember - "Public Display of Affection"!) were not the norm, it was perfectly acceptable to spit anywhere one might desire (now banned in Beijing to attempt to clean up the city for the impending Olympics!) and also to have a quick kip whenever the need arose (e.g. in a cart at the side of the road)! When ordering a meal, it is customary for the waiter to stand over you while you try to read the menu (which sometimes could take a while to decipher), and for them to bring the food out when each dish is ready, rather than all together - hence you might be finished your main dish before the rice arrives! Toilets were mostly of the "squatting" variety, which can be problematic when wearing jeans and trying not to end up with one foot in the stinky hole! Overall, what was all a novelty for us might be a bit draining for an expat unless they were able to speak the language - it would definitely be a challenge to spend a lot of time there when communication is such a big issue - but then again, they probably get by fine spending their time in the overpriced expat bars (such as the newest one in Suzhou, where an enterprising Dubliner was attempting to introduce pints of Guinness, popcorn, chicken nuggets & chips and the Irish table-service concept to the city!).
We were lucky enough to get tickets for the Rolling Stones gig (from a tout, which was an experience in itself with the language barrier!), which was an historic event (although we only heard about the issues about them not being allowed to play some of their songs with "immoral" lyrics from the UK, as they didn't invite any Chinese press and priced a lot of the Chinese fans out of the market with regards to tickets - although saying that, there were a lot of Chinese there!) and well worth it - can't quite believe that the geriatric Mick Jagger has so much energy!
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in China and would recommend it to anyone!
A Few Facts:
Passenger Notice In Taxi: "Passengers are not allowed to carry with them contraband goods, smoke spit or to dump inside taxis. Psychos or drunkards without guardians are prohibited to take taxis."
Shanghai: Literally means "By the sea". To be "Shanghai'd" means "To kidnap (a man) for compulsory service aboard a ship, especially after drugging him." OR "To induce or compel (someone) to do something, especially by fraud or force." (from the former custom of kidnapping sailors to man ships going to China). To score a Shanghai in darts is to get a triple, double and single of the same number on the same line!
The Bund: An Anglo-Indian term for "embankment of muddy waterfront".
Chinese Visiting UK: "In July 2005, a group of 80 people from Beijing and Shanghai landed at Heathrow to become the first Chinese to arrive in the United Kingdom on tourist visas. After protracted negotiations, the UK was granted "Approved Destination Status" (ADS) by the People's Republic of China in January 2005. The agreement will also allow travel companies to establish offices in China to promote tourism to the UK. Before the signing of the agreement, China allowed only students and people on business trips to visit the country. It is estimated that 135,000 people visited the UK in 2004 — just 0.6% of China's external tourism market."
Yangtze River Bridge: "The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was the first bridge to be built across the Yangtze River in Nanjing, China in 1968. It was the first double deck and double track highway and railway bridge designed and constructed by Chinese themselves. It has a length of 6,772 m (22,212 feet) and a span of 160 m (525 feet)."
The Nanjing Massacre: "The Nanking Massacre, commonly known as "The Rape of Nanking", refers to the most infamous of the war crimes committed by the Japanese military during World War II—acts carried out by Japanese troops in and around Nanjing (then known in English as Nanking), China, after it fell to the Imperial Japanese Army on December 13, 1937. The duration of the massacre is not clearly defined, although the period of carnage lasted well into the next six weeks, until early February 1938. During the occupation of Nanjing, the Japanese army committed numerous atrocities, such as rape, looting, arson and the execution of prisoners of war and civilians. Although the executions began under the pretext of eliminating Chinese soldiers disguised as civilians, a large number of innocent men were wrongfully identified as enemy combatants and killed. A large number of women and children were also killed, as rape and murder became more widespread. The extent of the atrocities is hotly debated, with numbers ranging from the claim of the Japanese army at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that the death toll was military in nature and that no such atrocities ever occurred, to the Chinese claim of a non-combatant death toll of 300,000. The West has generally tended to adopt the Chinese point-of-view, with many Western sources now quoting 300,000 dead. This is in no small part due to the commercial success of Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking", which set the stage for the debate of the issue in the West; and the existence of extensive photographic records of the mutilated bodies of women and children. The massacre is a major focal point of burgeoning Chinese nationalism, and in China, opinions are relatively homogenous. In Japan, however, public opinion over the severity of the massacre remains divided. The event continues to be a point of contention in Sino-Japanese relations." Note that Iris Chang comitted suicide in 2004, thought to be due to depression caused by her research. There is a statue to her memory inside the museum in Nanjing. The book is well worth a read.