Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Days 358 to 360: Shanghai

It is, of course, ridiculous - but I love this building.

This is the Oriental Pearl Tower, and if the title of this entry hasn't already given it away, this is Shanghai. Shanghai has taller buildings and Shanghai has better buildings, but nothing else in the world has anything as outstandingly outlandish as the Oriental Pearl Tower. Whether as magnificent monument or just clown on a unicycle, no doubt, it catches the eye. An astonishing 468 metres high - that's like Big Ben on top of the Empire State Building - and looking it's been ripped off from some 1950s science fiction B-movie, seldom have I ever encountered anything so delightfully preposterous. And I love it.

Danielle and I arrived in a chilly Shanghai from Melbourne on a Sunday evening. I had enough clothes to layer up; Danielle, with bag missing courtesy of Tigerair, did not. Shanghai (and Guangzhou in the south) have new rules in place, as of January last year, that allow people from various countries to stop over for 72 hours, no visa required. It seemed the perfect way to break up the long Melbourne-to-Paris journey. Hopping off our plane, through the vast but oddly empty Pudong International Airport, and onto the 301 km/h ( it goes up to 430 km/h but only at specific times each day) Maglev which as the name hints at levitates by magnetic action without actually touching the tracks, we were in the city in no time. It was just like being in the future.

Shanghai is very futuristic. The Pudong district, just across the river from the historic Bund strip, looks like this.

None of that existed before 1990s and most of it has only appeared in the last decade  In that sense, the Oriental Pearl Tower is a veteran, being completed in 1994. Its relative maturity compared to the rest of the Shanghai skyline perhaps partly explains why it's regarded as an icon of Shanghai, but I think we all know its iconic statue within the city is mostly due to it looking like a space bauble. Some might call it ridiculous... and they'd be right. But Shanghai is unafraid of gambling wildly with its architecture, and I think pulls it off with aplomb.

Here, in the middle, is the 421-metre Jin Mao tower, built in 1998. Behind it is the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 492-metre bottle-opener lookalike, finished in 2008. And to the right and also in the second picture is the Shanghai Tower, due for completion this year, and a monstrous 632 metres high. Sorry, these aren't the best photos.

There are plenty more sleek-looking skyscrapers in the Pudong district too, although not every one can be a highlight of course. On a warm afternoon and a day in which I think we were lucky to have the sun burn away the morning's persistent white cloud to give us heat and blue sky, we took a stroll. Being a modern district and a business one at that, you might not be surprised to hear that Pudong doesn't exactly have a great deal of heart and soul. Offices and malls and wide streets, with a feel much closer to the antiseptic of Singapore than the bustle of Bangkok. But the height and ambition of the area is certainly striking, and we found it a surprisingly peaceful place to stroll around.

Arguably, while not the real Shanghai, Pudong offers the visual punch that any great city needs. Standing across the river, it's an astonishing skyline - perhaps one of the best I've ever seen.

It also offers the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. In essence, this is a tunnel connecting Shanghai's centre to the Pudong district, going underneath the Huangpu River - with entertainment provided. Perhaps that should be "entertainment." The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is a little like being trapped in the grip of a particularly intense hallucinogenic nightmare, halfway between a journey to hell and a children's education video from the 1980s. You enter a small glass-walled carriage which makes the five-minute journey along a dark tunnel lit up with sparkling and swirling lights, packed with images of lava and shapes and inflatable people on the line. Voices in Chinese and English swirl around like the lights, simply uttering words like "METEOR STORM!" and "PARADISE AND HELL!" Is it hilarious or terrifying? I'm not sure, but I know that it will haunt the dreams of any children unfortunate enough to be taken along. Danielle was perhaps less enthusiastic than me. These pictures don't do it any justice at all, but if you want to get the idea, loads yourself up with LSD and take the metro.

But the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is not exactly the "real" Shanghai, although I think it may offer a glimpse into the mindset of China. And Pudong, although sitting pretty for all the tourists' photos, is certainly not the heart and soul of Shanghai either. I won't suppose to know what makes Shanghai tick after just two days of wandering, but I know that it's across the river from Pudong, in the central and historical districts. It's not so photogenic and it's much more rough round the edges, but it's where you sense the people wake up, work, speak and shout at each other, eat, and sleep - no skyscrapers or suits necessary. That's where the charm lies. That's where the life is.

On our second day, we visited both the 16th Century Yuyuan Gardens and then part of the district called the French Concession. I won't ramble on about these, except the say that the gardens were very pretty and the French Concession - or the small part we visited - was a mixture of delightful and dull.

Here's the pretty gardens:

Here's a charming alley in the French Concession, one of many converted from run down accommodation into lively independent shops and bars:

And here's a boring street full of mainstream shopping. Oh, wait, I didn't take any photos of the boring streets. They had all the usual clothes shops and stuff, I'm sure you get the idea.

Visiting Shanghai for two days is a little like visiting London or Paris or New York for two days: inadequate for anything but the most superficial of impressions. There's time only to run around a look at the highlights - Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or whatever. But two days is better than no days, and it is enough for Danielle and I to add Shanghai to our growing list of places we simply have to revisit. It is enough for me to say that, yes, Shanghai is a pretty great, and often preposterous, city. And it's enough for me - just as a girl does upon gazing at sparkly high-heels - to fall in love with the B-movie disaster of the Oriental Pearl Tower.

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