Shanghai, the biggest city in China. In Asia. In the World. It’s scale is indescribable, think New York City, now multiply that by three, and you are still short of the 25 million people that live here. It really is like nothing I have ever seen before. Towering buildings that seem to go on and on, before they fade into the hazy horizon. And it is all brand new.
The 16 hour flight from Chicago leaves one slightly out of sorts after landing. I am here with my cousin Joe. He is here on business, and ostensibly, so am I. He is busy for the whole week, and I only have two meetings, giving me plenty of time to take in the sights. I am lucky to be here with Joe, he is an old pro concerning all things China, having spent years here throughout his career.
We take the high speed mag-lev train from the airport into the city. It covers the 20 mile stretch in 7 minutes, hitting a maximum speed of 268 MPH. From the station we hail a cab to take us to the hotel. We are equipped with the address and directions in Mandarin. We check into our hotel in Pudong, one of the large business districts of the city. We rest for a few hours and wake up in the early afternoon. Unfortunately it is raining, and we are forced to stay in the hotel. We finally make it out at about 9 PM to grab some dinner. Almost everything is closed, the only thing we find open after an exhausted search is that bastion of southern culinary pride, Kentucky Fried Chicken. We walk in and the manager explains through hand signals that they are about to close, so we quickly order, using hand signals. It turns out the only food that they have made in the entire store is eight chicken wings. Joe and I each take four. Not an epicurean highlight.
The next day Joe and I attend a trade show at the convention center. The 45 minute cab ride costs only 10 dollars. The center is gigantic and we end up getting lost, but we finally make it. In the afternoon we start to take in some of the sights. It is early February and everything is decorated for the new year, the year of the Snake. We spend most of our time in The Bund. This is the old colonial center of the city right on the banks of the Yangtze River. The architecture on this side of the river is very “Old World” compared to the sprawling mega city across the river. We go to dinner and finally get some real Chinese food. Everything is so inexpensive here. We order six different dishes to sample. One of the biggest differences between “our” Chinese food and the real stuff is that they leave the bones in everything. They take a side of duck breast and just chop it up, bones and all to cook. It’s not easy eating around broken bones in the first time you are eating bull frog with chilie sauce. Despite the extra effort, the food was excellent.
Joe and I awake early the next morning and have breakfast at the hotel. The hotel is used to catering to Westerners, and their breakfast includes Chinese traditional food as well as US breakfast staples. I stick to the local food, and it is excellent. Sticky Rice with soup dumplings, dragon fruit, and a whole host of fruits that I have never seen before but are quite tasty. Joe has meetings all day, but has arranged for a guided tour of the city with a girl who does some translation work for him. Normally she attends meetings with him, but today all his business in English. Her “English name” is Candy. She is a senior at one of the universities in Shanghai, majoring in English. She speaks very well.
We start off at the Yu Gardens, essentially an imperial palace with excellent gardens. It is foggy with light drizzle, but we manage. It is a really a charming place, and if the weather were better I can see how it would really shine. Next we go into the heart of Pudong, the central business district. Almost all of the city’s famous skyline is under 20 years old. It houses some of the tallest buildings in the world (Number two is Shanghai Tower at 2073 ft, number seven is the famous World Financial Center, or bottle opener, at 1,614 ft). The buildings shoot into the sky their tops concealed by the low clouds.
It is nearing lunch and I see a restaurant in one of the buildings and go there. Candy is a little uncomfortable, most of the patrons are business people and she tells me she feels like we are intruding. To me it seems like a normal restaurant in an office building, but that may be because I work in an office, so it seems normal. We sit down for lunch and order some a few items for lunch. Thankfully Candy is there to translate the menu. She is shocked at how expensive the food it and says we should leave. Our lunch of soup, noodles and dumplings cost ten dollars. Spending the day with her and hearing about her family really puts some things into perspective for me. This is the first time I have been outside of the West, and it is the first time that I feel “Rich”. In China I would be in the top 1%. People in rural China, like Candy’s family, are living on a small fraction of what I make. It makes me feel that I am lucky, and really puts things into perspective.
We leave and go to some temples and see more of the city. I cant stress enough, it is absolutely ginormous. There are buildings 10 miles outside of the center that would be landmarks in smaller US cities. We end our day at a market in a more residential area. I give candy about 50 US Dollars for her time. She is shocked and says she cannot accept such a large gift (Roughly 500 RMB). I tell her that she earned it and I really enjoyed the day. That evening Joe tells me that it is the equivalent of someone paying me about $400 dollars for a city tour. Oh well, maybe I over paid, but it was worth it.
Joe and I have a meeting the next morning. After it is over, I return to the hotel and go out to explore more on my own. Finally the weather has broken and you can see the city. This is my last day here and I want to get a better feel for the place. I grab a taxi and head to a temple across town. It is the temple of the Reclining Jade Buddha. Many are here paying respects and lighting incense. I am one of the only tourists here this morning, and am able to get a sense of the culture. I feel like perhaps I am intruding, but that feeling goes away when I am told I need to pay an entrance fee.
I return down town and go to the top of one of the buildings for the observation deck. Here is really where the scale of the city is revealed. It Sprawls in all directions, fading into the hazy horizon. I have never seen anything like it. The sheer enormity and modernity of the city is incredible. It really is the newest and most modern city in the world. This is our last day here, we are off to Hong Kong for more meetings.