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Out of the Frying Pan

Other parts of this trip include:

1: Out of the Frying Pan

Pudong
Pudong, Shanghai

The overnight night train from Beijing to Shanghai is a dream, or at least our soft sleeper class is. It is comfortable, spacious, leaves exactly to the minute, and has a western-style toilet that is a relief; accuracy with Eastern toilets is dangerous enough without having to be inside a rattling vehicle while using one.

Stephanie and I have our 4-bed cabin to ourselves, so we stretch out and the rhythmic hum of the train on the tracks quickly puts us out. We are woken halfway into the journey by our roommate, who has spent the first 5 hours of the trip getting plastered in the dining car. He smiles, says "ni hao" and passes out before the lights are out. The man snores with the pitch and volume of a thousand cattle lowing. Steph and I sleep fitfully and are awoken in Shanghai at 7 a.m.

The city greets us with a humidity generally reserved for the bowels of Hell. Dazed and overheated, we flag a taxi that will hopefully help us find a place to stay. The first one pops his trunk and asks us where we are going. When we name our prospective hotel, he literally sprints back into his cab and drives away at full speed. We consider this to be a bad sign.

We find a taxi that will take us and we arrive at a hotel. I had understood it is very possible to bargain on rooms, but poker faces are generally more effective when the eyes don't have giant bags under them. I don't bother, we pay full price, check in and fall asleep.

Shanghai Scenery Photos

2: The Mutiny

Snickers
My Snickers bar doesn't quite survive the Shanghai heat

After a cold shower, a good shave is a priority as any hair in which sweat can be trapped is instantly considered the enemy.

Steph and I visit the Shanghai Museum, wander through the French Concession, eat at nice restaurants; we go anywhere with air conditioning. The heat is brutal and crankiness ensues. Steph and I get snappy and would probably Thai Box each other, but we're simply too tired. I no longer even pee as my body has rebelled against me in the hopes of retaining any available drops of liquid.

We relax at our hostel bar that is located mere steps from the historic street of The Bund. It offers a truly amazing view of the skyscrapers across the Huang Pu River in the district known as Pudong. We order a Tom Collins, which has slightly less lime and slightly more whiskey and granulated sugar than I remember, but other than that, life is good.

3: East Meets West... Somewhat

Nanjing Road
The Bright Lights of Nanjing Road

We wander the streets and it doesn't take long to discern some striking differences between Shanghai and Beijing, at least in the limited areas of Shanghai we see. Instantly, we notice how fashionable the Shanghainese are. They are all dressed pristinely and wearing real name brands (as opposed to the genuine Buma running shoes many Beijingers wear).

The city also seems much cleaner and quieter than Beijing. In an energy-saving move, many empty escalators move extremely slowly until someone steps on them, at which point they speed up; I am constantly pestering Stephanie about how cool I think this is. English is far more present in Shanghai, as well. Having no knowledge of local street names or of the tones I need to say them, I simply don't even try to say things properly, and yet cabbies understand me far better. This is probably a coincidence, I figure.

In Beijing, my friend Rob had told me of the apt Mark Twain quote:

"The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant... in Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."

For better or for worse, Shanghai is simply much more Western than Beijing.

The next day, however, provides a firm reminder that we are not in Canada anymore. Having decided to visit the Pudong skyscrapers up close, we take the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel to get there. The Tunnel turns out be a 10-minute epileptic's delight of dazzling lights and preposterous special effects. There is some kind of narrative in English but it is impossible to follow. "Meteor Shower!" a voice booms out (a million flashing bulbs light the tunnel). "Molten lava!" (laser light show and inflatable pirates). It is my single favourite thing in China, maybe anywhere.

The surrealism continues at night when we take a Huang Pu River cruise that promises sensational views of The Bund and Pudong, which it provides. Unfortunately, it also provides an unannounced Filipino karaoke band that takes up half the view. The audience reaction answers the age-old question of the sound of one hand clapping.

Entertainment Videos
Bund Sightseeing Tunnel Huang Pu Cruise

4: The Heavenly Smog

Out With The Old
Out With The Old...
(The Unofficial Motto of Shanghai)

Day 3 and the heat has not let up. Steph and I play the game of Guess How Long Until My Hair Gel Melts? We take a day trip to the quaint and quiet weekend escape town of Hangzhou, population 6.8 million. A city larger than Greater Toronto is where then Shanghainese go to get away from it all. We are reminded that this is a pretty big country.

The Chinese have a saying about Hangzhou:

"In Heaven there is Paradise, On earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou."

If it is true, I am considering a life of sinning as Heaven promises to be very beautiful, but only if it weren't so damn hot & hazy. My heat-induced crankiness has not yet disappeared.

We see a story in the paper about the President of China, Hu Jintao. I try to begin an Abbott & Costello-esque comedy routine of "Hu is the Presdident of China?" but nobody laughs. I wonder if the Chinese are born without sense of humour. I am hoping someone named "Wen" becomes Prime Minister, at which point t he routine will be unstoppable.

Hangzhou Photos

5: Let's Make A (Really Absurd) Deal

Good Eats
Enjoying the Good Eats in Shanghai

We come back to Shanghai and spend the next couple of days going to stylish bars and restaurants and bargaining at markets, which is always fun. Prices can often end up being about 20% of the listed price, so one needs to bargain hard.

A sample transaction goes like this:

***

I see a silk scarf that would make a good gift. It's listed at a price of 136 Yuan.

"I'll give you sixty," I say.

The woman working at the stall screams. She bangs her head with rage before sprinting around the store, telling me this is real silk and of only the finest quality. She shouts, curses, weeps at my ridiculous offer. She goes into the back room to phone her family in order to apologize on my behalf for the horrible insult I have laid upon them.

Finally, removing the nails from her hands, she returns.

"Sixty-two," she counters.

***

I am always fascinated by a hawker's unflagging ability to see what item you have already purchased and to subsequently be certain that you must need another one. This goes for anything, be it a watch, bouquet of flowers or today's newspaper.

Temple Photos

6: A Quantum Leap

Maglev
Cooking on the Maglev

For our last night in Shangahai, we go for a romantic (ooh!) and unbelievably delicious Shanghainese dinner. Still struggling with reading menus, our waiter orders for us and his choices are uniformly sublime: garlic cucumbers, braised duck, sweet & sour shaved beef, spicy chicken with peanuts and steamed mixed vegetables. Without doubt, it is one of the tastiest meals I have ever had.

Also for our last night in China, we receive a special treat: For the first time in our 2-½ weeks away, we see the moon. The haze dissipates just long enough for us to catch a glimpse of it, and of one star. We celebrate our moon sighting with a drink at an opulent hotel bar.

We wake up Monday and head to the train station. We have decided to take the Maglev train to get to the airport. The train rockets along the tracks at speeds up to 431 km/h, completing the 30km ride in under eight minutes. While having to leave China is a letdown, at least the way in which we do so is one of the trips higlights.

We are delayed leaving Shanghai and miss our connecting flight in Vancouver, and yet we still manage to, with the time difference, arrive in Victoria before we left Shanghai. Today, time travel; tomorrow, jet packs for everyone! As long as it means I no longer have to watch "Failure to Launch", I can hardly wait.