Shanghai - sexy with a touch of scary

Next up in my after-the-fact travel recap - Shanghai. Before going, I tried to read rather broadly about China. However, my feel for Shanghai was the most tenuous. Its history is much less linear, given the control that the West enjoyed there. I couldn't have hoped to really see it as much more than a series of snapshots.

One superficial note on domestic travel in China. It was on my flight from Beijing to Shanghai that I encountered what a fellow passenger derisively called "Chinese fast food". A form of mystery meat with a terrifying reddish-gray color, smooshed up inside a lump of coal-shaped sandwich on not-quite-bread. Just horrible. Like everything else encountered along the way, I tried it. Most of the other passengers on our China Airlines flight felt no such obligation or resulting compunction. Good for them.

After spending four days in Beijing with a truly awesome tour pro offering ongoing commentary, the downgrade was massive when it came to my Shanghaiese guide, Leo. Whenever he tried to explain Shanghai, the word "sexy" became the primary modifier. As in, the sexiest women in all of China love the lucky men who happily did all the sexy cooking and cleaning and sexy shopping. Or something to that effect. I tuned it out pretty quickly. Still the appeal of the city is indeed aesthetically pleasing and very much charged with modern, um...raawwrr. That said, it's far too easy to concentrate on the countless and readily available Western restaurants and nightclubs meant to appeal in an urban Pan-Euro-American style of everywhere-ness. There's still ubiquitous more traditional street market options. Yet Shanghai feels much more governed by trendiness and up-to-the-moment cool. If there's a roiling edge that bleeds red hot futurism, it is definitely to be found in this city of 21 million people. If you go, run away from the Western hotels. They are a security blanket, and should be viewed as such. But one that can also smother and block out what else is going on. Just a tiny bit of which I felt somewhat exposed to in the short time I got to wander there.

Shanghai has grown ridiculously fast. On the "west" side of the Huangpu River (which largely splits Shanghai) lies Puxi - best represented in postcard form by The Bund (a riverside avenue lined with largely classical 19th Century architecture) and the main shopping thoroughfares likes Nanjing Street. Think classy Vegas, if it had a complex colonial history dating back over a century. So actually nothing like Vegas. On the other side of the Huangpu lies Pudong - the kaboom town, white-hot center of modern China built on a buried, probably forgotten but what do I know array of former slums. One-third of the world's entire collection of large construction cranes were in use there at any one time starting in the mid-1990s. We took a cruise to see just how gorgeous the contrast between each side of the Huangpu looked on a clear night. It's all stunning. But you get about as close to understanding what's going on either side of the river as you'd expect when you're floating along in the middle. Which is, not really much becomes clear at all. It sure does look purdy, though.

So I happily, naively rode the subway and got off in various parts of Shanghai. Which would have been merely been a launching point to bring up here with more detail. Had the news not come that a major accident on one of those subway lines occurred just a few days after I left Shanghai. No one was killed, but the 10 Line lost communications and at one point before two trains collided on the same track, they were traveling in the direction of each other. Ouch. Which also then reminds me of seeing, hearing, and marveling at China's new high-speed rail line running alongside the highway we took on one of our trips outside of Shanghai. That world's fastest rail line suffered a recent collision that was far scarier - 40 people were killed. The Chinese kept the trains running thereafter, but at marginally reduced speeds. Very little was officially said about the causes that everyone has opinions about - uneven engineering standards seems to be choice number one. An associated point being that Shanghai's entire subway system has been built in 15 years. Hell, most of the city's premier buildings were built during the same time. We Americans (most of whom have no business doing so) have spent a decade debating how to rebuild whatever will eventually reside on the World Trade Center site in New York City. I can't accurately quote a comparison for that time, but I'd wager that the Chinese have built enough residential and business space to house the entire population of NYC in that same timeframe. Do you think that pace of growth involves cutting a few corners? Surely it helps when you have a secretive, centralized, unquestionable government calling the shots and greasing the skids. Still, fast-track contruction of infrastructure is a serious - and sometimes dangerous - business. Don't ask me which is a better system. I'm just typing out loud.

Tomorrow, I'll get beyond the broad overview and describe more about the day trips we took outside of Shanghai. In effect, Shanghai was a bedroom for me to use amidst the larger purpose of seeing these other sites. A very, very cool bedroom with lots of room to unpack. And one that I hope to return to as soon as possible.