Friday, April 01, 2011

A morning at Expo and an afternoon on the Subway

It’s been a solid 3 years since I spent any real time wandering around Shanghai and I’d forgotten how much I really like the place. Xi’an is my favorite city in China because it wraps you up in warm blanket of history, culture and a comfortable pace. It’s an easy city to visit and there is a lot to do. My time living over here was spent in the north, where life really doesn’t offer much. It’s cold, it’s hard and it’s often bleak. I came to really like Beijing though as I spent a lot of transit time there on my way to and from the US. And when you get to know your way around a city, it finds a place in your heart. The capital city though was tough to love as it comes across as crowded and stark, a tribute I think to the generations of hard men who built and ruled the place. But being here in Shanghai after a long absence, I was instantly reminded of what a special place it is. Sophistication, excitement and a comfortable pace, not unlike what you might find in Paris or Madrid. Here you don’t visualize the power of the military parades or a line of imperial courtiers walking slowly past lines of subordinate serfs. Here you think of drinking Gin and Tonic on the veranda of 1930’s club set in a garden, men in white jackets and ties, women in shimmering silk. Erhu music playing softly in the background while a fan spins slowly overhead. Shanghai is a city built for pleasure.

The city received a nice tune-up courtesy of the government and their desire to put a fresh face on the place for the 2010 Expo. Between the beautiful lights on the freshly scrubbed buildings of the Bund, and the addition of dozens of new subway lines, the city is even more appealing now than when I was spending so much time there. I have to admit I was a bit covetous of the new Line 10 which would have taken me from my old place of work to the heart of the French Concession in a matter of minutes vs. the hours I used to spend in a taxi. Well-lit, sparkling clean and fast, there are few things better to be said about a subway system. While I like Beijing’s system, it’s always crowded and the transfers are a murderous slog of stairs and broken escalators. The Shanghai designers used their noggins and built a host of parallel horizontal and vertical lines which puts you never more than a couple blocks from a station. It also means that there are many more choices when traveling east to west and north to south so the main center line is never as bad as it is up north. It’s an easy system to like.

Our first few days had been heavily loaded with travel and attractions. To counteract the sense of exhaustion, we decided to keep our first day here leisurely and simple. The China pavilion was the last attraction still open at Expo so after a slow breakfast we left the hotel around 11 and caught a taxi across town. The streets were not busy and we made it there in no time. Now I had a plan to wander around the grounds, I had no desire to wait in what had been reported on-line to be a 1.5 hour queue. All I wanted to do was take some photos of the other pavilions and have a stroll. It wasn’t clear how to do that upon arrival so we simply fell in behind a small group who happened to be walking past the lines to buy entry tickets. They were waved through the security checkpoint, we were not. The guard asked for a ticket, I told him that we just wanted to walk around and had no intention of visiting the pavilion. He told me to turn around, go back a block, take a right and walk some more. I didn’t like the sound of any of that and in any event was in no mood for that amount of walking so we thanked him and turned back to where we had been dropped off. There didn’t seem to be a clear solution to do what I wanted to do so after a brief conversation we decided to bite the bullet and brave the China pavilion on the off chance that it might offer a way in. As we threaded our way through the mostly empty serpentine crowd control barriers, scalpers offered to sell us entry passes. I waved them off, knowing full well that their wares were almost certainly frauds. I made the purchase and we headed towards the entrance having no idea whether we were in for a quick tour or an endless wait. Judging from the hundreds of identically dressed school students on class tours the latter seemed likely but we kept moving and in only the time it took to walk from the ticket booths to the building entrance, we were inside. Along the way we provided entertainment for the school children answering what seemed like an endless series of “Hello” and “Where are you from?”

Our forward progress was finally stopped once inside as people were funneled into a queue for an elevator ride. Apparently you start at the top and work your way down. Even this inconvenience was slight – no more than 10 minutes – and following being crammed into the car and a quick ascent we were let out in front of a theatre. I wasn’t really interested in seeing whatever it was they were offering so we skirted the crowd and entered a hall called The River of Wisdom. It was the best decision we’d made in a long time. This floor was dedicated to the history of China and featured a 300 by 30 foot animated rendition of a famous 12th century Song Dynasty scroll called ”A Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival” by the famous artist, Chang Tse-duan. This modern version was done by the same artist who played a significant role in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and it was wondrous.

Lining the outer wall in a darkened gallery, a laser rendition of river water lapped at your feet. All the characters in the scroll went about their daily business as we watched from the far side of the river. Boats docked along the far shore, people sat in tea shops, a man rode a horse through the square, a child danced in a courtyard. Even a row of camels entered the town through the main gate, bringing wares from some bazaar far down the Silk Road. The scenes cycled from day to night every few minutes, with lamps appearing in the windows of houses and red lanterns being lit in alleys. Tiny ancient people stood on the far shore, looking across at us. It was superb and I think it would be easy to spend an entire day there just picking out the details. This alone made the trip here worthwhile.

At the back of the gallery, a people-mover carried visitors through a hall called “China’s National Treasures” which turned out to be a 15 second ride past the bronze chariot that normally resides at the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an. We’d seen the stand-in version three days prior, so that loop was now closed. We exited the ride and headed downstairs through a hallway of lofty green lit trees that opened up to another gallery lined with tall glass rods that changed from crystal clear to blue to green. An artistic representation of rice fields. The floor below was dedicated to green energy and not all that interesting. At least not following the River of Wisdom. It occurred to me that nothing else in the place could possibly compare. You could see the Expo grounds out the windows and from this vantage it was clear that the place was no longer open. My plan to wander around was dashed, but it didn’t matter because the visit to this pavilion had turned out so well. We caught the exit escalator down through a huge circular hole in the bottom of the building, lined with pink water lilies. Water cannons shot intermittent streams into the air, forming a wall of ever changing designs. At the bottom we bought a Coke and sat down for a brief rest. Within 2 minutes of being there a middle-aged woman came over and gave me that famous look. I invited her to sit between us and her husband took our picture. While the staring a gawking was certainly less here, the desire for a photo of the westerners never seems to wane.

We took the subway from the grounds to Xintiandi, the upscale Shikumen (stone ghetto) conversion done in the late 1990’s by the architect famous for Boston’s Faneuil Hall. It’s a wonderful place to shop and to grab a cup of coffee. The people watching is fantastic, being a mix of fancy Chinese and expats. It was mid-afternoon and we thought lunch might be a nice way to end our day out so we picked a “fusion tapas” restaurant and asked for a table. I told the greeter that we didn’t want to be seated near smokers so she invited us inside where there were no other diners. We grabbed a table by a window and ordered a big bottle of San Pellegrino and three dishes – chicken kabobs, baked stuffed rigatoni and slices of barbecued pork with mustard glaze. It was the perfect meal on a perfect day.

The day ended with a subway ride and an exploratory walk through the hotel neighborhood trying to find the best route between the two. Before emerging above ground though I took My Lovely Wife for a stroll through Shanghai’s version of a knock-off market. Xinyang Market used to be located in a nice park along the tony Huaihai Lu on the other side of town. The government cleaned them out in 2006 and they relocated here. I’ve spent a lot of time in this market, buying this and that, and haggling with the vendors. Today it was pretty much abandoned and the sellers seemed to barely have the energy to pester us. I don’t know what happened or why it came to be this way, but I have to admit I was a bit saddened by it. Another one of those fun memories gone.

After a walk that was longer than expected, we found ourselves back at the hotel and in the lounge, listening to the same tape loop that Federico, my Marriott floor manager friend from Costa Rica and I discussed so long ago in Beijing. He told me then that I would have to hack into some server deep in a bunker somewhere to get a copy. On that occasion I chose instead to have a glass of wine and enjoy the memories of the day. I made the same choice this time too.


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