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.

Slightly heroic views of The Great Wall and The Big Underpants

The one excursion from Beijing that gets the most outsized praise is a visit to the Great Wall of China. I easily overheard a dozen people around me say "bucket list" when they didn't know what else to say about the views. That's not to take anything away from the spectacle - it is a big ol' thing to behold up close and a somewhat challenging stairclimb. Chairman Mao Zedong gets consistently misquoted as having said that everyone who scales the Great Wall is a hero. Mao actually said you weren't a hero if you didn't climb it. Which is rather passive aggressive for someone who killed so many people in the camps. Anyhoo, I'm sure the term "hero" had more bite in the days before parking lots full of tour buses. As it is now, let's just say that all you prospective heroes should wear shoes for hiking and be prepared to hold your ground when the pushing begins. We picked the closest section - Juyong Guan. That section along with another nearby (Ba Da Ling), constitute the Great Wall for Dummies equivalent. The next time I go Wallin' you'll find me visiting the farther afield section (Mutianyu) where they actually have a giant metal slide coming back down. Seriously. For those day planning for Juyong Guan - expect seven towers up (that's how people measure the sections climbed) to get as far as you can go, 45 minutes each way if you're being truly heroic, save some time for pics, and you've got yourself an easy half-day excursion before heading back toward Beijing. If only Disneyland so easily minted heroes.

The remainder of our time in and around Beijing was mostly spent exploring the modern equivalent of what New York's garment district must have looked like in its heyday. Imagine men riding bikes pulling carts with huge bales of goods, while deals get done in open storefronts. At hand is the trade of goods worth oodles of "RMBs" - what everyone calls China's currency, the yuan. Beyond this life on the street somewhere north of wholesale, we also visited factories surrounded by countless brand-new high-rise apartment buildings anonymously scattered around the outer circumference of Beijing. All the energy and resources briefly re-directed to prepare for the Olympics in 2008 is now entirely focused upon building these elements of the business and residential infrastructure. I suppose it's too easy to say that if you wanted to see where jobs were being truly created in the world, look no further than these areas. But that doesn't make it feel any less true.

Tomorrow I'll move the recap beyond Beijing to Shanghai - a city with a lustier vibe for capitalism or whatever might best characterize what's going on in the business of China's daily urban and economic life. Yet I can't step away entirely from the good feeling I have for my short time in Beijing. The news isn't all good there. I was told Beijingers buy over 2000 new cars each and every day - the traffic reflects that consumption. I luckily hit a very short duration sweet spot for breathing without concern for the famously scary smog. And if you want a scary sight, just try using the public bathrooms in The Forbidden City. Still, even a few epically grumpy cab drivers couldn't take the edge off the way people welcomed me. The food came in waves of awesome, thanks mostly to our utterly fantastic tour guide (let me know if you're in the market, because my man Alan remains open for business, bright as China's future and good enough with the language to even dissect the folksiest American slang). For nerds, the history rocks. And the trajectory of Beijing is as upward and angular as the impressive CCTV Building. Which is not yet open, but does sport the single best landmark nickname in world right now - the Big Underpants.

Looking back at Beijing

Well, the whole "follow me as I tour my way through China" plan didn't exactly work out as planned. Sorry 'bout that. Funny thing about government censorship. It's not really a big deal for most of us. Yet when it affects something you care about, the insidiousness proves irksome.

So instead I'll now embark on a recap of my ten days in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Ten days isn't much time at all to get acquainted with such a vast and fascinating new place. I did, however, pay close attention and what I've got to work through in my own writing might offer a bit of perspective for others who are also trying to assess  the world's increasingly eastward tilt. Or at least I'll get a bit of what I'd intended to say out there, and do the ol' end around on those short-sighted Chinese censors. That'll show 'em.

For today, look to Bejing. Cooler than freon city. The run-up to the Olympics in 2008 turned over the landscape to historic dimensions. From what I heard repeatedly, residents are still trying to assess just how many changes occurred. Whole neighborhoods were razed for aesthetic considerations. The high gloss buffed onto Beijing for that brief fortnight has mostly dulled into a collection of so-so venues in an otherwise roiling landscape of growth and renewal. Walking around the Bird's Nest (the main Olympics stadium venue) a day after strolling through the Forbidden City put obvious bookends on the new and old for me. As it surely has for millions of others. Still, I was more struck by the contrasts between the meandering alleys (called hutongs) and the luxury goods retailers. Where else can you see people burning trash in the gutter alongside the same street where you can go window shop for Ferraris and Lambourghinis? The contrasts abound. One evening I passed by a bustling Starbucks nestled into the same lakeside strolling district in the Houhai neighborhood where I got solicited repeatedly with the catch phrase of "lady bar", just before wandering the dimly lit hutongs looking for a place appropriately called No Name Bar. Whipsawed forward and back between eras, it all works. Add in countless bits of unintended street theatre, deep deep history and a feeling of being surrounded but completely safe. I know I saw little more than a passing moment when I was in Beijing. A tripwire moment that I'll look to for years to come for when I started paying serious attention to the new edge being cut there.

For tomorrow, I'll touch on what I saw still in the north of China, but outside of Beijing. Along with elements seen as a part of my tour - the reason for my being there, in the first place.