The sheer scale of it all overwhelms me. Super fast traffic, winding flyovers like serpents, gigantic billboards flashing latest western fashions, a rainbow of red, orange and green neon wrapping the city in a rainbow haze, Shanghai is certainly China’s showpiece city! Our introduction to this fast-paced city is the ride on the sleek, German designed and Chinese built Maglev train (short for magnetic levitation) which floats friction free and brings us from the glitzy Pudong international airport to the city in a flat 8 minutes reaching upwards of 400 kms per hour! This makes it the fastest commercial train in the world. We ride on the gargantuan cable bridge, the Nanpu Bridge, past traffic gridlocks and a landscape from a sci-fi movie- a glittering mass of high rise buildings. Difficult to believe that until 1842, Shanghai was just a sleepy fishing village! It was the Opium wars of 1842 that led to its origins as a cosmopolitan city. The British, French and the Americans were given separate concession zones whose influence you can see today in Shanghai’s eclectic architectural buffet.

Big City Chronicles

The name Shanghai literally means ‘by the river’ and the city is bisected into halves by the Huang Pu River. The Bund, the classic riverfront is a good place to watch the cityscape. On the other side of the river is Pudong, with its futuristic architecture- the 101 storey Jinmao Tower with the Park Hyatt, the Shanghai World Financial Centre building shaped like a bottle opener and the Oriental Pearl Building jutting into the sky like an invading spaceship. This was marshland about 15 years ago and has grown six fold since then- when the Chinese decide to do something, there’s no red tape or bureaucracy, and they just get on with it! As we watch the lights come on one by one, the buildings metamorphose into giant screens with advertisements and multi-hued images of butterflies and orchids all bathing the city in neon haze. On the other side we can see the lighted colonial era buildings, a legacy of the city being the financial centre in the late 19th century. Past, future, present all comes together in a mesmerizing melee. We are in Shanghai at the time of opening of the Shanghai Expo which showcases modern urban living- ‘Better city, better life’. We see the endearing blue mascot everywhere and watch the city geared for about 70 million visitors! The eye- catching red China Pavilion, pavilions shaped like sand dunes, even green apples, and the Australian pavilion in shades of the outback made of steel and copper are all the talk of the town. As we walk on the main shopping mile-Nanjing Lu with giant screens, milling crowds, even a tourist tram, it’s easy to imagine we are in some big American city. All the Western symbols of success are visible-glass and steel edifices, glittering mass of luxury stores selling designer clothes, sunglasses, hip eating joints. There’s a top-end Nike store with colourful window displays- you can design your own shoe here, at a price of course. But we catch glimpses of sudden parks, a Chinese hawker, someone pushing a cart, peddlers hawking knock-offs, which reminds us that this is Asia.

Past perfect

For a taste of Old Shanghai we visit the overpoweringly crowded Yuyuan market around the City God Temple. Laundry draped around windows, bowls of steaming noodle on plastic tables, fruits piled in baskets on shoulder poles across the backs of wizened women-this is a slice of China as we imagine it to be! The market is a crazy labyrinth of shops in the Ming and Qing architectural styles with upturned roofs, wood latticed windows and curved beams. There are endless rows of souvenir shops, traditional snacks, and a giant pond with people feeding the carp food shoulder to shoulder. Pearls, tea, bags, beads, calligraphy brushes, silk dresses, old bank notes, tea-pots in every shape and colour and silk umbrellas- a mind-boggling array is on sale. The language barrier is as pronounced as the high rise buildings in this city- any attempts to negotiate is met by the whipping out of a calculator followed by theatrical “you killing me” or “My boss kill me”. We get adept at bargaining and slowly fill up our shopping bags with small treasures!

Venice in China?

We drive to Zhujiajiao Water village on the shores of the Dianshan Lake which is more than 1700 years old. This is a Chinese Venice with 30 old bridges, waterways, alleys with old houses in Ming and Qing architecture, black tiled roofs, all in theme park perfection. We trawl through the narrow streets, past half closed wooden doors through which some unknown, tantalizing, aromas waft through. There are peddlers selling rice dumplings with beef, sweet sticky rice filled in hollow bamboo sticks, gelatinous rice pudding, candied fruits on skewers and crustaceans of every size. We beat the afternoon sun with our new headgear- Chinese hats with a pigtail hanging from the back! The photogenic Fangsheng Bridge here was built out of a monk’s alms gathered over 15 years. A wealth of handicrafts is on sale- embroidered Chinese landscapes, bejeweled mirrors and wood carvings, multicoloured bags, musical instruments and kitsch memorabilia like fake propaganda posters, little Red Books, faces of Mao on almost everything and the ubiquitous Chinese Lanterns. It’s fitting that we saw Shanghai as a prologue to our Chinese sojourn- it can never match the history of Beijing or Xian or the sheer scenic beauty of Guilin, but this is a city of energy and constant flux which makes us want to return here someday…

Published inThe Hindu Metro Plus, 2010