Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Week in Shanghai

We spent a whirlwind 36 hours in Shanghai in May 2009 as we returned to the U.S. on the Holland-America Volendam from New Zealand via SE and East Asia.  Looking back at our blog post about it (http://redtandem.blogspot.com/2009/07/shanghai-our-most-fascinating-stop.html), we're somewhat amazed at how much we saw in so little time.  Having now spent a week in Shanghai in November 2011, we're realizing that our second visit has been like a second trip through a buffet line, where you discover that you found almost all the best tidbits the first time 'round.  The key is "almost."  We still have a few new things to share with you our readers.

Our week was actually three nights at the Mason Hotel in the French Concession, then off to Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou as described in the past three blog entries, then three nights at the Astor House near the Bund, plus a final day of sightseeing before an evening flight across the Pacific and back to the U.S.

We arrived by plane from Yichang and decided to try the maglev (magnetic levitation) train from Pudong Airport to the city.  It's the world's fastest train, getting up to 430 kph (267 mph) in regular service, 501 kph / 311 mph on a test run in 2003.  It runs every 15 minutes, but only at 300 kph (187 mph) except for two periods of an hour 45 minutes, one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon, when they open the throttle all the way.  So the maglev we took only hit 301 kph on its run, though the acceleration up to that speed was pretty impressive.  You can see in the photo below that we've just started to move (1 kph) at 12:01:58 and have hit top speed 2 minutes and 17 seconds later.

The train truly levitates above the "tracks," and has no wheels.  Looks a bit tricky to change tracks, in fact.  It also does not run into the heart of Shanghai, so we had to change to a subway line and take the green line 7 stops to People's Square in the true heart of the city, transfer, and then the red line 2 more stops to our hotel.  When it was time to go back to Pudong for the flight home we decided to take the subway line (which actually runs above ground the last half of the way) the whole way, since we were going to miss the high-speed window on the maglev and the subway was a few dollars cheaper and required no transfer.

The hotel we had selected was great, right in the heart of the French Concession, right at a subway stop serving two different lines, and at a fair price.  Like most large cities on the coast of China, Shanghai was divided up in the 19th century by European nations into "concessions" where Chinese law did not apply and foreigners created their own blend of East and West.  Today the French Concession is a treed and trendy place, full of attractive leafy streets and of places to spend your money at. 

One section has been greatly "disney-fied" into a tourist destination, Xintiandi.  The photo display we captured at a museum shows the contrast starkly.  Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Xintiandi in July 1921, when it was a working class district, but today the area is home to chi-chi shops and a wealth of restaurants, including one named "Simply Thai" that was simply terrific.  Across the street we passed a few showrooms that featured automobiles that were anything but simple.

The French Concession has a deserved reputation as a nice place in Shanghai to live, and we enjoyed walking the streets and admiring the tightly packed but well maintained housing. 

A newcomer to the French Concession is the Shanghai Culture Square, opened in September 2011 specifically to provide a venue for musical shows.  We passed a billboard announcing that they were doing a show called Nutcracker Magic right when we would be in Shanghai, so we popped for $60 tickets to see Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker "with a Shanghai touch" during the second half of our Shanghai visit.  Alas, the day we were to see it, Louise woke up feeling miserable with what proved to be a 24-hour virus.  Jeff hopped the subway to the theater to see if they would bend their "no refunds" policy, but they politely though firmly said "no."  So that evening Jeff went solo to see it, and Louise missed out on quite the spectacle, not to mention a stunning venue.

Nutcracker Magic was a blend of Shanghai acrobatics and ballet.  We were blown away by the acrobatic show we saw here during our 2009 visit, and this production had equally wonderful material, but choreographed to that score of Tchaikovsky's that bounces between tunefulness and lush romanticism.  The plot was a bit odd, involving Drosselmeyer making a visit to Shanghai, and the Mouse King was stranger still as he swooped about the stage on lemon yellow roller blades, but then the original libretto is a wonderful pastiche of 19th century European fantasy, why not a 21st century Eurasian one?

The parks we visited in the French Concession were particularly interesting.  First we'll show you a small park with great charm and all sorts of exercise equipment that so many senior citizens were making good use of that we had to hop on ourselves.  Do take time to read the park rules -- a few of them are quite a hoot.

Another much larger park was reserved for Europeans prior to WW II.  Perhaps that's why the government made a point of putting a large statue of Marx and Engels there, virtually the only sign or symbol of Communism we saw in Shanghai.  Perhaps they would approve of the place where the daily newspaper is posted in full for anyone to come by and read it for free.  Not as sure, however, how Karl and Friedrich would feel about intense games of mah jong or of couples dancing on a park drive to "capitalist" fox trots and walzes played on a boom box.

If you start thinking that Shanghai is all leafy green and full of quaint small houses, a trip to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center will cure you of that.  The Center is in the heart of the city, in a corner of People's Park, and contains all sorts of interesting photos and models of the city.  First up is a model of the Bund, a section of the western bank of the Huangpu River where European companies set up their Chinese headquarters in the early part of the 20th century.  It runs about a mile upstream from where Suzhou Creek enters the Huangpu.  Next are some displays of the Bund through Shanghai's history, and a diagram showing how they recently reclaimed some of the waterfront from the automobile by putting much of the traffic in a tunnel (the same solution our hometown of Seattle is currently implementing as it gets rid of its ugly and earthquake-damaged Waterfront Viaduct).

If you go back and look again at that model of the Bund, just across Suzhou Creek are three buildings.  The one furthest to the right is the Astor House, where we spent our last three nights in Shanghai.  It is the oldest Western hotel in China, dating back to 1846 when it opened as Richards Hotel.  It has an illustrious history, with bragging rights to the first electric lights and first telephones in Shanghai, and as overnight lodging for eminent individuals as varied as General Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Charlie Chaplin (in rooms 410, 304, 404 and 310, respectively).  Not to mention the authors of the illustrious Redtandem blog . . .  A sign in one of the hallways listed all the movies and tv series that have been shot here, and we counted 63 from 2000 through mid-2010.  Here are two views of the Astor House from a century ago and as it appears today . 

Back in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center -- remember it? --  there's still more to see!  The pièce de résistance of the center is the scale model of the entire city of Shanghai, so large we couldn't capture it all in one or two photos, so we'll just focus on a shot of the heart of the city and two in areas a few kilometers from there, where urban planning has reached a level of dominance unknown in America or Canada.  We'll leave the Center after watching the sun go down and the lights come on in the skyscrapers.

From the Astor House it was, of course, a simple matter to walk over to the Bund and to enjoy the lighting effects on the century-old buildings at night, or to look across the Huangpu at the heart of Shanghai's skyscraper competition, its edifice complex you might say, the area called Pudong.

Pudong was still agricultural as recently as 25 years ago.  The authorities made it clear in 1990 that Pudong was an up and coming part of China when work started on the Pearl Tower, the tallest structure (468m / 1535 feet) in mainland China when it was completed in 1994.  Four years later the pagoda-inspired Jin Mao building took top honors, only to give it up in 2007 to the Shanghai World Financial Center, which will pass the baton to the 128 story Shanghai Center when it is completed in 2014 (at which time it hopes to be the second-tallest building in the world, at least for a year or two). 

We scheduled our visit to Pudong for our last day in Shanghai, and as luck would have it it was a drizzly day, hardly a time to spend $16-25 going 1,000 feet up in the air to look at the inside of a cloud.  So we took the ferry across, looked up at the Pearl Tower, then visited the wonderful Shanghai Municipal History Museum in the pedestal.  It was terrific.

The museum had a wide variety of items, such as this 1959 Phoenix sedan, built in Shanghai, or these old rickshaws, a type of vehicle introduced by the Japanese to China in the 1870s.

The museum had particularly good dioramas, such as the mother using a "child minder" to keep her child out of mischief while she worked on this odd device (sorry, didn't write down what it was in our notes), a merchant measuring out traditional medicine, a street scene in an "entertainment district," and a theater where the patrons are far more interested in their meals than in the Chinese Opera being performed on the stage above them.

As the exhibits moved through the 20th century we came to a number of models of mansions built in the French and International Concessions for wealthy Europeans, and then nearby a dramatic illustration of what life was like at the same time for approximately 1 million Shanghainese crowded into the 135,000 shanties that existed when the Communist government took over in 1949.

Six weeks earlier, we awoke in Qingdao as our cruise ship made landfall in China.  It was now time to fly home to the States.  We've seen much and learned more in these eventful 42 days, and thank you for reading along with us.  We'll close our trip to China with a few images.  First up are several "Shanghai Girls," attractive young girls in the latest fashions of the 1930s who advertised everything from cigarettes to soap, and a more recent face, Harland Sanders.  Colonel Sanders is now more visible in China than Mao, according to Bloomberg News.  And yes, Harland was one of the last faces we saw in China as we walked through the Pudong Airport.

Sorry it has taken so long to write up our October-November 2011 trip through China.  We have one more blog entry to come in order to complete 2011, a few shots of family as we caught up with our kids and grandkids in Santa Monica during the last six weeks of the year.  So check in a few days for that one.  And do come back in late June 2012 when we hope to have the first entries online from our 2012 tandem tour of New England.

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