My Awesome Trip Part 2: Shanghai

8 Dec

This is Part 2 of a trio. Click here to read Part 1 (Beijing).

I'm in Shanghai!

I’m in Shanghai!

The train to Shanghai moved at a speed of no less than 400km/h. Lo and behold, the man sitting next to me knew English, and we were able to chat about this and that on the way. He was mad at Canada for rejecting him a visa twice – and that was about all he had to say about my country of origin. What could I do but apologize on behalf of my country? I fully agree with him that the system is flawed, and becoming even more so now. But that’s another story. Other than that, this man was very friendly, and it made me feel more confident about travelling alone.

I passed the train ride reading (finishing!) my mystery book, and looking out the window. I also tried to ignore – and failed – the dawning reality that my body was taking arms against me in the form of a rapidly streaming nose. Despite the fact that my symptoms never got beyond a sore throat, a runny nose and sneezing, I later decided it had to be the plague because, in a country where I couldn’t read the medicine labels and nothing looked like Nyquil, there was no cure. I put up with that feeling of near-death-by-streaming-nostrils until my last day, when I finally broke down, went to a drug store, found the first person that could speak English, and trusted her about these mysterious yellow tablets that would apparently take care of everything. Whether they actually did anything or not is curious, since the conditions were perfect for a placebo effect – and that remains my only experience with Chinese medicine thus far.

Not hostile at all!Once in Shanghai, already dark with night, I braved the subway system, making three transfers in order to find my hostel. I have no idea how I made it, but somehow I lucked out (or God was leading me) by randomly choosing to exit the subway in the direction of the biggest, nearest road. There before me was the billboard that pointed the way to the Utels Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel!

Well don't that look inviting!

The hostel was very warm and welcoming, what with flag-streamers hanging in the lobby, African and Asian art hanging on the walls, and book shelves sectioning off a big, comfy-looking reading area! I was home!

My room was a four-bed female dorm; plain but comfortable and secure. In my three nights there, I met women travelling from Germany, New Zealand, Latvia and Macau. Towels, I learned the hard way, were not. I didn’t know that hostel travel requires you to bring your own, so the first day there I ended up using a t-shirt. A trip to the nearby mall dollar store (yuan store?) remedied that quickly: a face cloth it would have to be.

So started the chapter of my travels called “MCC isn’t paying for this”. Another strategy in this stream of thought was to fill up on the free breakfast. This meant I welcomed each morning with two pieces of toast (jam and butter), two to three steamed buns (my favourite!), an egg, a glass of soy, and these little donuty things they made there. The more calories the better, since my goal was to not exceed a limit of 2.5 meals per day. (The point-five being a snack if needed.) This was solely to save money, even though eating out in China is not exactly expensive. I like to think this is an acceptable way of travel given my young age, family-less-ness, and carefree spirit (in theory, at least).

But enough about my terrible money-saving techniques! You want to hear what I did!

The first full day I had there, I walked around. I took the subway to People’s Square station, and strolled down Nanjing Road to the Bund, which is the urbany area beside the Huangpu river (which separates Shanghai). The city is apparently always competing to erect the world’s tallest building. This has made for a really interesting skyline! The great view is what people go to the Bund for, and with gardens and coffee shops all over the place, it’s a fun place to sit and people-watch.

The problem with this notion, however, is that Shanghai is not the type of city where people will leave you alone if you stand out. Being a lone-travelling NAP (North American Person), I was basically wearing a neon sign on my forehead which must have read something along the lines of “COME SCAM ME USING COMPLIMENTS”.

You see, there exists an inordinate number of young scammers in the supposed “Paris of Asia”. In the 2 full days I spent out and about, a total of FIVE individuals (and a couple duos/trios) approached me, all using the same basic working script of endless questions like, “What’s your name?”, “How long are you in Shanghai for?”, “How big is your group?”, “Are you travelling alone?”, “Where have you seen so far?”

Basically they start asking the next question without even listening to your answers, so this “small talk” can hardly be classified as conversation.

Even so – no matter how little you encourage them – it inevitably leads to a compliment such as “you’re so beautiful!” or, in one case, “you’re so beautiful, with your big nose and golden hair!” (Sweep me off my feet, why don’t you? You obviously haven’t noticed that my nose is bright red and raw.) After they’ve noticed your beauty, an invitation follows – either to a tea ceremony or a special exhibit. I think the objective is to use up a lot of your time, then somehow demand money from you as a way of paying for their showing you around. I don’t fully know, since this is where I took my exit, usually saying I had to go meet a friend. Lonerism restored, it was never long before hawkers quickly spotted the conspicuous NAP that must be DYING to buy a jasmine-scented car-freshener or something equally stupid. One man followed me for a good five minutes, asking three times if his rapidly decreasing prices suited me. (The answer was still no.) At one point, after a man showing me a brochure of “Rolex” watches wouldn’t stop walking just one step behind me and trying to grab my attention with greetings in English, French and German, I finally pointed to my ears and shrugged. He immediately fell for my deafness hoax, went totally silent mid-sentence, and walked the other way. Three cheers for quick thinking! It might be a little exploitative, but this became my new method, and remains my number one tip for lone travellers anywhere hawkers might be a problem.

Eventually I found a silent haven in the form of a small park. I’d found the nearest coffee shop offering gingerbread lattes, and sat for a while with one in my hand, just soaking up China. So this was it: full of people, a billion in fact, and until that point it had felt like it. But then there was this other side: calm, quiet, beautiful. Now I understood why the Chinese attach so much meaning to words like “serenity” and “harmony”. Without this break you’d…um, break. No wonder there are so many gardens there.

Rocking the serenity thing.

Rocking the serenity thing.

I later took the “sightseeing tunnel” across the Huangpu to the other side. I don’t know why I got sucked into paying money for a tunnel. They tricked me by putting pictures of fish everywhere, and for some reason I had this notion that it would be a high-tech, see-through thing that you could walk through casually and look at undersea life (like that underwater aquarium in Jaws 3). Ha! My foolishness truly astounds me at times. What I really got was a regular non-scenic tunnel, fitted with a slow-moving capsule and hundreds of blinking Christmas lights, strobes, and at least two of what my sister calls “wacky inflatable flailing-arm men”. As I passed through all of this in the dark, a man’s voice announced random sayings to eerie space music: “METEOR SHOWERS”; “TWINKLING STARS”; “HOT LAVA”; “VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS”. As if this weren’t weird enough, each announcement of a geologic event was followed up by the Chinese interpretation, about which my only other co-passengers, a pair of elderly Chinese gentlemen, yelled incoherently and confusedly over the din. I wanted to laugh, because it was so bad it was hilarious. I wanted to cry, because it was such an awful waste of my money and a complete tourist trap. But in the end, I simply took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one in that capsule who wanted their money back. Now it’s one of those things that gets funnier with each remembrance, so in the long run I can’t really regret it.

The other side of the river is also lovely, with just as many people and a few really neat office towers that you can go to the top of (I didn’t). Everything was already decorated up for Christmas, and there was a mall, so I spent the rest of the day shopping.

The next day, a Wednesday, I set out to see the Jade Buddha Temple; which was not an easy thing to find! Luckily, after walking around aimlessly for a bit, I spied another blondish couple holding a map and wearing the same confused expressions as me. Together, we found the place! Euphoria at our discovery quickly dissipated in the face of so many beggars lining the entrance gate to that temple. Every poor person with a sick kid seemed to be sitting there, jiggling their sons’ neck tumours at you, taking anything you were willing to give them. It was disturbing on so many levels. Viscerally, I felt disgusted at being subjected to that sight. Morally, I felt angry at a father for humiliating his already disadvantaged child – a child who was obviously way past embarrassment. Emotionally, I was disheartened that so many people are obviously lacking proper welfare.

Then, walk through the gates, and I was thrust into spiritual turmoil. From a visual and cultural standpoint, the temple was beautiful. It had everything I love about Chinese architecture and decoration. In the middle of the main courtyard, smoke billowed and the rank of a thousand sticks of incense burned in my already-agonized nose. Lanterns hung all around, and potted green trees were everywhere. But then I looked at all the people, literally pushing their way to the front of the crowds lining up to beseech their gods. It hit me in a way all the Buddhist stuff so far hasn’t hit me. I felt compelled to talk to Jesus as I walked through that whole place. I affirmed the Spirit’s presence even in that temple, and God’s love for those desperate people – inside its gates and out.

To China, where many Christians are alive and well and sharing the gospel, I say this: “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6)

That day I also visited the ginormous Shanghai Museum (it’s free!), which is filled with ancient carvings, paintings, sculptures, costumes, seals, writings, and currency from all around China. A lot of it was super boring and not Shanghai-specific, but I did fall quite in love with some pretty funny sculptures. I also treated myself to a good souvenir in the gift shop: a coffee table book of “calendar beauties” from the early 20th century (it’s basically ads featuring the top models of colonial China).

Did gnomes originate in China? What's with the camel?

Did gnomes originate in China? What’s with the camel? I have gnome idea!

Despite my three days there, I didn’t do much of anything else in Shanghai. There was a lot of wandering, getting lost, and wishing I was better at planning directions and time. But alas, the wandering did lead me to a lot of side-streets and neighbourhoods that let me glimpse a way of life most tourists don’t get to see, or don’t take the time to notice. Apartments everywhere had laundry hanging outside. Some sidewalks even had laundry tied up in their trees to dry. On every corner there was another food cart with fishy-looking offerings (in both senses of the word). Every little kid was, impossibly, cuter than the last. Every green light yielded a barrage of cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles all navigating through the traffic at once. I quickly discovered that getting anywhere in China is an opportunist’s venture. Don’t look both ways before you cross – look ALL ways! – and then get your butt across that road at the first possible moment. You do NOT want to get stuck in the middle. (Which I did a few times, since it’s inevitable. The key is to stand firm, and to wear a bright blue hat.) The other strategy is to sidle up next to a local, nice and cozy-like, and just walk when they walk. In the end, I didn’t get hit, so I was doing something right.

My Shanghai sojourn at a close, I moseyed over to the train station. Into my hard-sleeper (bunk bed) I settled, for I was about to spend 19 hours en route to Hong Kong! I won’t go back on my claim that train travel is the way to go, but it definitely has a feeew drawbacks. Don’t worry; I’ll tell you all about them in part 3.


5 Responses to “My Awesome Trip Part 2: Shanghai”

  1. Mama December 8, 2012 at 6:28 AM #

    I laughed (your tunnel experience) and I cried (your temple experience), and all the emotions in between. This is what makes a great writer. You are what makes a great daughter.

  2. alyssa301 December 8, 2012 at 3:40 AM #

    Even though I desperately need to be studying for my exam right now, this was the best distraction possible. Debs – you are the best. Sounds like an adventure! Can’t wait for part three!

    • Deborah December 8, 2012 at 9:53 AM #

      Me neither! Good luck on your exam – go study!


  1. My Awesome Trip Part 3: Hong Kong « Deborah in Korea - December 13, 2012

    […] This is the third and final installment of updates from my recent trip to China and Hong Kong. For part 1 (Beijing), click here. For part 2 (Shanghai), click here. […]

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