We began our Odyssey in Chicago on January 19th, flying 14 1/2 hours in Business Class on American Airlines. The plane flew almost due North, rather than West as one might expect. during that long plane ride, I read a book about Magellan, the famed explorer, whose ship was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Unfortunately for Magellan, he didn't get to finish the trip. He was killed in the Philippines when he foolishly intervened in a war between two local tribes. The airplane food was excellent. The appetizer was char sin duck and crab bundles. The main courses were chicken panang or beef filet with fayot sauce or ginger pesto salmon. I had the salmon.
We flew over Lake Superior, Canada, the North Pole, Siberia, and eventually Shanghai, China, which is at the same approximate latitude as Dallas and San Diego. You'd expect it to be warm, but no! We thought we had left the snow behind in Chicago, but when we arrived in Shanghai, it was snowing there also. Virtually the entire flight was in daylight, except over the Arctic.
At Pudong International Airport, no marching bands awaited us. In fact, in mid-afternoon, this huge airport in this city of 19 million was almost deserted. The authorities had difficulty with the portable stairway because of ice, and eventually they had to tow the plane back to the gate so we could disembark. airplanes have no reverse gear. We sat on the tarmac for an hour, waiting for the tow truck.
The reason for all of this was that they closed the airport because of the snowstorm--they had maybe 3 inches but they don't have snow equipment.
In any event, the Shanghai Hilton sent a car to pick us up but the driver was not there when we proceeded through customs. Fortunately the airport people were friendly and they directed us to the Hilton booth and then walked us to the car with out 4 suitcases. We drove through Shanghai on modern expressways past large apartment complexes. We crossed the spectacular Lupu Bridge, the world's second longest arch bridge with a main span almost 2,000 feet. We reached the Hilton, a classy hotel with 800 guest rooms and a huge lobby with several restaurants in it. At check-in, they whisked us up to the 38th floor to the Executive lobby which offers free computers and Internet as well as a huge complimentary buffet breakfast. The hotel gave us a personal shopper, Anna, who showed us to our room, a suite with all the amenities including 6 foot bath towels. Tourism is important to the Chinese, and they treated us very well. We were extremely tired from jet lag and crashed about 7 P.M.
The next morning, we signed up for a Gray Line tour, which we like to do in any city unfamiliar to us. We were picked up in a 10 passenger van by our guide Roy and the bus driver Mr. Xu (pronounced "Shu"). Two other tourists were on our tour, Gopi from Mumbai and Gladys from Malaysia. We got to know these ladies as well as the city of Shanghai. Incidentally Shang means "above" and hai means "sea". City above the sea! Shanghai is the world's second busiest seaport, close behind Singapore. We were bundled up for the cold, but most of the snow had been removed.
The city was preparing for the coming Chinese New Year in 10 days of so. Bright red lanterns, dragons and other decorations adorned most buildings and spanned the streets. This New Year is the Year of the Rabbit, and cute bunny rabbits were part of the decorations. It is customary for Chinese people to return to their hometowns for the New Year to be with family. This is not like Americans leaving town for the Fourth of July weekend--the New Year celebrations go on for about 40 days. The Chinese have an annual mass exodus, and Shanghai was not as crowded as it might have been. The streets are very clean, but the air is polluted, though not as bad as other Chinese cities like Beijing. A haze lingers over the city, partially obscuring the tall buildings. Many locals wear white masks covering the mouth and nose to filter the air or because the mask is perceived to prevent airborne diseases. Some ladies wear them to keep their skin fair--a sign of beauty.
Shanghai has a long and rich history. For more than a century, the European powers and the Japanese took advantage of the Chinese and established trading concessions in China, especially in Shanghai, but also Hong Kong, Macao and other cities. There's a French area, a German area, a British area, even a Jewish neighborhood. All this ended in 1949 when the Communists took over.
Some of the highlights of Shanghai include:
We visited the famous Yu Gardens, built 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. In the middle of the city is a peaceful, classical garden with pagodas, fountains, ponds and snow covered flowers. Just outside is the Yu Yuan Fashion Street and antique zone (Old Town)
with small shops selling arts and crafts and fast food restaurants featuring the popular dish dim sum (steamed or fried dumplings) and also a McDonalds.
We were taken to a tea house. Needless to say, tea is popular in China. The Chinese have an ancient ritual of making tea, and the lady demonstrated that for us. She reached into a jar and pulled out what appeared to be a walnut and dropped it into a pot of hot water. In a minute or so, it spreads out and blossoms. The water is poured into our cups and we have tea. We brought home a box.
JADE BUDDHIST TEMPLE
Most Chinese are Buddhists, as well as Confucians and Taoists. These religions are not mutually exclusive the way Western religions are. they are syncretic. People are often all three. The Chinese go to this temple to pray. They grab incense sticks and light them at a communal fire and present them to the Buddha statue. The temple is unheated, and on this cold day, any fire was welcome. There are several golden and jade Buddhas in the temple including a Laughing Buddha and a Reclining Buddha, not to mention a large reclining marble Buddha donated by Singapore. These were brought to Shanghai by the monk Hui Geng who obtained them on a pilgrimage in Burma. We took photos but were careful not to disturb the parishioners.
This is a four story building with exhibits covering the entire history of China for the past 3-4 thousand years. Galleries are dedicated to ancient jades, calligraphy, furniture (Ming and Qing Dynasties), bronze, paintings and even arts and crafts by the 54 or so Chinese minority groups. We couldn't do justice to this huge museum in an hour, and we probably couldn't have absorbed it all, but we did experience a broad overview of Chinese culture.
This is the waterfront quay on the Huangpu River which runs into the nearby Yangtze. The term Bund comes from the Hindi-Urdu language and means "embankment" or "levee", and is not to be confused with the German Bund. The Bund is a promenade along the river flanked by numerous Art Deco buildings from the 1920's and '30's which comprised the headquarters of the major banks of the era. Prominent among them is the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC) which you're probably familiar with today. Also one can see the Sassoon House, now the Peace Hotel, built by Victor Sassoon, a prominent British-Jewish merchant banker. He was instrumental in bringing thousands of European Jews to Shanghai (under Japanese occupation) during World War II. You may recall the famous hairdo of the 1970's by Vidal Sassoon, a distant relative.
Across the river is the relatively new Pudong New Area, the financial district with its beautiful skyscrapers. All built within the last 20 years, these buildings are architectural wonders. There is a statue of Mao Zedong and a memorial to the war dead. Shanghai even built a tunnel under the river to accommodate last year's Expo (World's Fair). They did it in less than a year, but then they didn't have to contend with impact studies, environmental lawsuits, labor unions, local politicians and other causes of delays. Contrast that with the shorter Boston tunnel which took about 20 years to build.
CHINESE COMMUNIST MUSEUM
This is an obligatory visit to pay homage to the predecessors of the current government which is Communist in name only. The Party was founded in 1921 in the French Concession in what was called the First National Communist Party Congress, which sounds more like a bank to me. The museum features plaques and documents, but none of us tourists cared to visit it in depth, and we walked past the building but did not venture inside.
At lunchtime, the our Gang of Four sat down at the table and the waiters kept bringing us food. the guide told us the Chinese eat anything that moves (except for the car). Chicken sausage wrapped in bacon didn't agree with me. But I did enjoy fried beef, mushrooms and noodles, shrimp balls, spinach. We had pau, tasty Chinese spherical buns resembling large marshmallows, filled with custard or red beans. They did have spring rolls, or egg rolls as we call them. On every menu is the popular dim sum, the steamed dumplings. We saw no chop suey or chow mein, which were actually created in San Francisco.
We were treated to a demonstration of unraveling silkworm cocoons on large looms, stretching them, and creating silk. then we were ushered into a large department store selling finished goods like dresses, shirts, scarves and ties.
Oysters are raised in a tank and seeded with the materials to allow them to make pearls. This particular species of oysters are not good for eating. The workman would slice open the oyster with a special type of knife and take out as many as 20 pearls from one oyster. Then we were taken next door to a showroom where an army of salespeople attempted to sell pearl jewelry to us.
The Waibaidu Bridge, the first drawbridge in Shanghai was built in 1907 by the British. It marks the North end of the Bund area. the Chinese (but not the Europeans) were required to pay toll to cross it. Eventually the Chinese purchased the bridge as a symbol of their nationalism. Many young people are eager to get married there because of the bridge's iconic status.
SHANGHAI METRO (SUBWAY)
On our second full day in Shanghai, we decided to explore the city on our own. The subway station is located 2 blocks from our hotel, across from the Jing 'An Temple, a famous Buddhists monastery looking misplaced amongst the high rises. Shanghai is an enormous city of 19 million people, and it has 9 subway lines fanning out in every direction. Of course, the maps and instructions are written in Chinese. There are no ticket agents--you must use automated machines. Hey, I have difficulty using these back home, but at least I can read the directions.
So I'm standing there with some 100 yuan notes (about $15), and I'm not sure if the machine makes change. We asked several people if they spoke English, and finally a young lady helped us figure out how to buy the tickets--only 3 yuan apiece. But I had to go outside and buy a bottle of water to get smaller bills. I put in a 10 and it spat out 4 coins change.
We decided to go to the Pu Dong Financial District and see the skyscrapers. We couldn't figure out which way on the Number 2 train. fortunately, another friendly person helped us out. We passed East Nanjing road and People's Square stops and arrived at Lujiazui Station. This is the financial district, all built since 1990, and these buildings are 1000 feet high or more--some of the tallest buildings in the world.
The major intersections have pedestrian overpasses reached by escalators. The through streets are 7 lanes each way, and those overpasses have probably saved many auto-pedestrian accidents. We walked around the intersection and found the Super Brand Mall, a large indoor shopping mall, the largest in Asia. It dwarfs anything in the U.S. Other than its size, this mall could be in any major American suburb except that all the customers are Chinese. The stores, however, are familiar to all of us. We window shopped at Best Buy, Sephora, Nautica, Louis Vuitton, Armani. We roamed through a department store featuring every familiar brand of lingerie. The food courts have McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, as well as Jiu Jitsu and several Asian food chains. I couldn't figure out the KFC chicken meals--the menus were, of course, in Chinese, so we went to McDonald's for burgers and fries. Actually, most foreigners point to a picture of the item and order it--we'll have the Number 3!
After lunch, we wanted to visit the distinctive iconic Pearl TV Tower--1000 feet high with large spheres around a concrete column. Street vendors were selling pictures of it outside. We didn't buy. The Shanghai Ocean Aquarium is next door, and we went inside. The admission is 140 yuan--about $22 apiece, and we had a beautiful experience there. We saw the shark tank and the sting rays as well as other exotic fish and marine life.
The tallest building, the Shanghai World Financial Center looks like a giant can opener, with a large cutout around the 100th floor. Nearby is the Jin Mao Tower, the 3rd tallest building in the world. Shanghai has the tallest buildings anywhere, including New York City. We later found out that Hong Kong and Singapore are certainly comparable as tall buildings go.
That evening, we took the night tour cruise on the river to see the brightly colored night lights covering the enormous buildings of the financial district. Shanghai was the leading financial center of Asia until 1949 when the banks all moved to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover. In recent years they have returned--with a vengeance.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT SHANGHAI
We found the people to be friendly and accommodating. Most of the young people speak English although the older folks don't. We make it a point to observe people, and they appear to be prosperous and happy. They joke around like people do everywhere. The young Chinese girls are fresh faced and beautiful. The school kids wear uniforms and are as mischievous as kids everywhere. They are as curious of us as we are of them.
In 2010 Shanghai hosted the World Expo, attracting 73 million visitors. As infrastructure goes, no expense was spared. the superhighways, tunnels and pedestrian overpasses are well maintained and clean. If Chicago is the City of Big Shoulders (as Carl Sandburg described it), Shanghai is the 800 pound gorilla. Everything is huge. Despite it all, I was told that street crime is rare, and felt safe everywhere.
The government is Communist and totalitarian but perceived as beneficial as long as one doesn't rock the boat. To limit population growth, the government limits the number of children a couple can have and can force a woman to have an abortion. Back in the 1970's, Deng Xiao Ping essentially embraced capitalism although he didn't dare call it that. He figured out that a market based economy works better than the Communist system, and his famous quote was "I don't care what color the cat is so long as it catches mice." In the process, many have said that Deng Xiao Ping helped more people prosper than anyone in history--1.2 billion.
NEXT: The Ocean Princess cruises to Okinawa, Japan.