If you’ve been following this blog assiduously… well, even if you’ve just taken a peek recently … you’ll know that Mrs Wilson and I were in China, earning an honest shilling doing teacher training roadshows for the British Council.
Between us, we visited ten different cities in a week. Dede went to five in the south, and I went to five in the north.
Eventually, we met up in Guangzhou for de-briefing (So … Mr Bond… the roadshow…). Then we found ourselves with a week off and nothing organised apart from a visit to Leon and Karen, friends from Prince Edward Island who live in Shenzhen, an hour away from Guangzhou by train.
Dede came up with an ambitious plan to visit a really old village called Pingyao, but it was all a bit complicated, involving an overnight train ride, so we decided against it.
Instead we went to Shanghai. Thank goodness! How could I have ever planned NOT to go back to Shanghai? It’s one of the most amazing cities I’ve ever been to.
It’s easy to see why Shanghai is such a hit with Europeans. For a start, it has a proper identifiable centre, with parks and buildings that you can walk past and admire. Most Chinese cities have grown so fast that they have developed a series of sub-centres, usually dominated by vast shopping malls.
Beijing of course has the vast and austere Tiananmen Square at its centre, not a very people-friendly place, and tainted somewhat by the memories of the government’s brutal treatment of peaceful protesters there in 1989.
Shanghai is a port and has hosted merchants, thieves, pirates and other interesting folk for centuries. It’s also a verb – to shanghai someone means to take them against their will and make them work, usually on board a ship. As far as I know, Shanghai is the only verb-city in the world, although I’m sure there’s someone out there who knows better.
The city has – at least for me – that special aura that great ports all over the world have. It’s why for many people cosmopolitan ports like Barcelona, Marseille and Tangier are more interesting than the capital cities of the countries they’re in. In my own case – terrible confession coming up – it’s why I prefer Liverpool to my home city of Manchester.
This time, Dede and I flew into Shanghai eleven years almost to the day since I had arrived there the first time, on tour with the English Teaching Theatre in 2000. I wrote about that experience in two earlier blogs (see below for links).
And this time, there were lots of Shanghai firsts:
1 We travelled on the Maglev, the world’s fastest train
Maglev stands for ‘magnetically levitated’ and the train from Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai is the only commercially operating Maglev train in the world.
Magnetically levitated trains, once they get going, retract their wheels and travel friction-free. They could – theoretically – get up to speeds of 5,000km per hour.
The journey to downtown Shanghai takes less than 10 minutes, and the driver still managed a speed of more than 430km per hour. Here’s a picture to prove it.
Maybe one day, Europe will be criss-crossed with Maglev trains. I do hope so.
2 We took a walk in the People’s Park
China has a great park culture – there’s always something going on. People are teaching each other to dance and there are noisy games of mah jong or Chinese chess, with dozens of spectators. If you’re foreign, friendly locals come up and practise their English.
We met this interesting group – an engineer with green hair whose ambition is to work in London and two friends from his home village in the northern city of Harbin that he was showing round town.
3 We visited the Peace Hotel
I’m a sucker for hotels with a bit of history. Last month, I sat in the bar of the Ambos Mundos in Havana, Cuba, the hotel that Hemingway called home for a very long time, and where he reputedly drank a dozen frozen rum daiquiris every lunchtime. Eventually, his wife Martha Gellhorn went out and bought a house in a Havana suburb so he could stay sober long enough to do some writing.
The Peace Hotel in Shanghai is a similar magnet for artists and writers. It has been a stopping off place for all kinds of famous people, from Charlie Chaplin to George Bush Snr, plus assorted dictators and presidents of former Soviet republics.
And Noël Coward. Coward caught the flu there. As a result, he stayed long enough to write Private Lives.
As soon as you walk through the doors of the Peace Hotel, there’s a wonderful sense of calm. Aptly named place!
The hotel is on the Bund, the riverfront road that is at the heart of the European-influenced city centre. If you sit in the restaurant on the top floor, you look directly across at the ultra-modern Pudong area, which was completely undeveloped until 20 years ago.
4 We visited really Old Shanghai
If you walk out of the Peace Hotel, turn right onto the Bund and walk about a kilometre, you come to the Yu Yuan Park. If you walk across it, you arrive in an incredible shopping area, which consists entirely of Ming dynasty buildings – or copies, I can’t believe that they’re all original. It is quite extraordinary to see these amazing buildings, all housing KFC, Macdonalds and Häagen-Dazs outlets. In the centre of this wonderful place is a small lake, with this tea house in the middle.
5 I bought a fake Rolex
I’m a bit embarrassed about owning up to this. Like most travellers to certain parts of the world, I’ve been offered fake watches many times, and always thought there was something faintly naff and morally wrong about buying them. But, as Oscar Wilde said, I can resist anything except temptation, and I finally succumbed.
Actually, I had already bought a fake Bulgari in Guangzhou. I then wore both of them, and whenever anyone else tried to sell me one, I showed them both of the ones I had and offered to sell them one back. It usually made the would-be vendors laugh.
I know China isn’t the easiest place to get to and people like me go on and on about the places we’re lucky enough to visit, but if you do get the chance to come to China and you like cities with a bit of style that are more than just giant shopping malls, do visit Shanghai.
These are the links to my original posts about the English Teaching Theatre visit to Shanghai in 2000.
And this is a link to the World Heritage Site of Pingyao