I am in Shanghai on the first leg of my south east Asian tour. I have the most amazing hotel view, from 27 floors up, right down the Huangpu River and across to the fabled Bund. This is the colonial era (beaux art buildings) waterside promenade, founded by the British This area developed into a financial hub so successful that Shanghai become the largest city in China and its commercial centre.
Well worth the money. I amble out, meander along the riverbank and take over a hundred photos of the city lights. Hordes of sightseers are doing the same and converging in large swarms. It’s a bit of battle to find a path through at times. And I need an ATM and some Chinese yuan. Then, that sinking sick feeling. I can’t find my bank card. I must have been pick-pocketed. Quick panic. Call the bank and cancel the card. Hope I don’t lose my others!
The rest of the hotel is also pretty amazing. The café has 10 different themed kitchens. Scallops or M & M sundaes anyone? The guests are mainly officials from the world swimming championships being held down the road. The president of the association is in the room next to me. I know this because the security people marauding everywhere tell me. At least my room won’t get burgled too I swap my bedchamber for the bar. Same great view from floor 32 of the Shangri La (say it Shan Gri-La or the taxi drivers don't understand) but now I'm sipping an applegrass martini.
The Shangri La is on what is known as the Pudong side, in the midst of a futuristic skyline, including the 632 metre Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, both sporting distinctive pink spheres. This place has Dubai well beaten and possibly even New York. It’s certainly more colourful. Almost as gaudy as Vegas – they have to ration the electricity during the day to power it all. It’s pretty spectacular. Twinkling neon pleasure boats zipping down the river, interspersed with the great black shadows of coal barges. The Bund buildings across the way are more tasteful than the garish scrapers in Pudong where I am. These are all boxy with white lights. and mostly British built.
Woke up this morning to find my credit card exactly where I left it yesterday. Damn. Not lost at all, I didn’t take it out with me.
Shanghai is a really eclectic mix of old and new. I've trotted past Starbucks and McDonalds, peeking out of old pagodas. My tourist trail first includes the the Jade Buddha temple in Jing'An. It dates from 1882, founded with two Buddha statues brought from Myanmar.
But most of my exploration centres on the old city (once walled), south of the Bund. The intricately designed Yu Garden (Garden of Happiness) alone, constructed in 1559, could take up seral hours. Though it's too busy to be a peaceful retreat. It's next door to the Tao City God Temple. (All the cities have a temple dedicated to their protector spirit.) It also abuts the Yuyuan Tourist Mart, the Huxinting Teahouse (once used as British base of operations during the First Opium War) and the Yu Garden Bazaar. I have to taste some of the teas in the tea house- and part with some cash. They have cures for every possible ailment.
I’ve also visited several malls that look very American from the outside, but don’t quite live up to their promise. They smell a bit musty and everything is arranged like Primark. Cheap and gimmicky. The Chinese still love their glitter. Otherwise, China has changed a lot in 15 years.
The Shanghainese are gentler and friendlier than the Chinese I remember. Perhaps I’m not so much of a novelty as I was then? And more of the people can speak English. They have been chatting to me in the bars and restaurants. Which is just as well as I can’t read the menus - and as for the pictures they use instead - well I’m not sure they have the Trades’ Description Act here. I ordered some beef fried rice in a mall restaurant - brave. Something very slimy arrived. The drink was delicious though - limeguat - whatever that is? Or maybe it’s just different in Shanghai. Or probably both. The Chinese refer to westernisation as the McStruggle.
Oh, and I have also been on the cable car. It runs through a tunnel under the river, complete with meteor showers and audio commentary. Probably the tackiest thing here, but great fun.
A late train south from Shanghai, after my side trip up the Yangtze Gorges and there isn’t anywhere to buy food. The station is next to the airport, but I'm not allowed to walk and we have to take a bus to get there - 15 minutes to go round the one way system and back again. The train travels at 350 kilometres per hour, but nevertheless I am pretty hungry and tired when I arrive at Hangzhou, at 10.30. at night.
Just realised that all the bathrooms have scales in them. I am going to ignore them.
Hangzhou, population 11 million, is part of another huge Chinese conurbation, with an economy equivalent to that of Nigeria. It's the capital of China’s Zhejiang province and the southern terminus of the ancient Grand Canal waterway, which starts in Beijing.
The main draw in Hangzhou is the West Lake, 'celebrated by poets and artists since the ninth century', There are 32 West Lakes in China. I'm told this one is the best. It’s very willow pattern plate, plenty of trees, fronds dangling at the water’s edge, little islands, temples, pavilions, arched stone bridges and koi carp, but hard to see in the smog, which is ever present. The guide says the view is better in the ‘mist’, more mysterious.
There are three notable pagodas. Arguably the most famous of the Pagodas is the five-storey Leifeng, though it's only a modern reconstruction of the original, built in 975 A.D. The Liuhe Pagoda, literally Six Harmonies Pagoda, stands at the foot of Yuelun Hill, facing the Qiantang River. This one dates back to 970 but has been destroyed and restored several times. I'm compelled to climb it (there are 13 storeys), as part of our lakeside perambulations. Then I'm rewarded with a boat ride.
I have to have my picture taken holding Chinese babies, like a politician. They are very heavy. The Little Emperors are certainly well looked after. Their parents cater to their every need, including fanning them constantly. (It’s still sweltering hot. It’s 35 degrees centigrade and very humid.) One of my guides has told me that they have changed the law. You used to be allowed only one child per couple- hence the Little Emperors. But now, if an only child marries an only child they may have two children. He is thrilled. My current guide not so much. She is one of four, as her parents kept trying for a boy. They got lucky on the last go.
A car takes us to the Lingyin Temple complex, some carved Buddha statues in little grottoes, (surrounded by milling Chinese tourists), some pagodas and a tea plantation. Everyone here says that green tea helps you lose weight. But at £80 a box they can keep it - no wonder Posh Beckham drinks it – and I'm not keen on the taste anyway. Wikipedia says this is one of the wealthiest temples in China. I'm not surprised.
The highlight of the day is when my driver gets lost. He is new to the job. We end up back at the temple, when we were supposed to be going to the plantation. He has to phone for instructions.
A foot massage and an evening wander along Wulin Road, the Hangzhou equivalent of Oxford Street, very buzzy. Lots of imitation silk. The way to tell if it’s real is to set it alight, I’m told. Silk burns evenly, polyester doesn’t. I wonder what they’d think if I tried ?
On the train, north again to the city of Suzhou. They are still playing the same Ice Age cartoon in the carriage. I’ve noticed quite a few Chinese wandering around eating cucumbers whole. It seems to be a popular snack. Today’s guide tells me he isn’t sure of the difference between the words cucumber and concubine. Where do I begin?
The guide also tells me that this is a small city. It’s population is only six million. Suzhou, is known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens.
This is nearly the end of the famous Grand Canal, which finishes at Hangzhou. So a cruise is obligatory. Some pretty stone bridges and more weeping willows, but it all seems small and dirty.
Possibly the most famous garden is The Master of the Nets Garden, first begun in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song dynasty government. I'm told he was inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman. There's also the Humble Administrator’s Garden, dating to 1513, ( zigzag bridges over connected pools and islands), the Lingering Garden (ornate viewing pavilions) and the Crown of Clouds Peak, (a striking limestone rockery).
A visit to a silk factory, to see the poor cocoons being collected and boiled. It’s a really fascinating and informative visit, despite the string of tourist shops at the end.
I return, dripping wet again, but this time it is because the thunderstorms have followed me, rather than because I am perspiring. So another foot massage is called for. My Bamboo Garden Hotel has a garden that's almost a snice as the ancient ones. It also has a pub called ‘Jolly Good Time’. The breakfasts are all amazing. You name it, it’s available Salad? Pickles? Cakes?
Another high speed train journey. There has been a big crash further up this same line. The lightening from one of the many storms stalled a train on a bridge and the one behind went straight into it.
Back in Shanghai. I love this hotel. I could quite happily live here. This time, I have the championship person’s room complete with walk-in wardrobes and Chinese vases. I’ve been attempting to diet again and was very good last night and had salad. So today I went down to the ten-kitchen café for a light lunch. But unfortunately, they were offering a buffet which turned out to be the best value ever. Whatever you wanted from any of the kitchens for about £25.
Well, I went bonkers with all the seafood and the sushi to start. Next, I looked at Thai, Indian, Chinese and Malaysian, but opted for amazing huge lamb chops with some equally amazing mushroom risotto. I thought I wasn’t doing too badly till I then meandered over to the dessert kitchens. (M and Ms are still there). Men in big white hats were blow torching teeny crème brulees, creating amazing towers of ice cream and presiding over the most artfully crafted patisserie you have ever seen. So I was sunk. I went for a walk and a swim to serve penance. Tomorrow, I am on the plane to Indonesia, so hopefully the food will be less plentiful and I can start my diet again.
In summary, China has changed a great deal in 15 years. The people are friendlier and seem to be quite a bit taller too. Many are positively lofty. Westernisation has turned Shanghai into a dazzling and sophisticated city. It hasn’t been so kind to the other places I have visited. They seem diminished and shabby, the ancient buildings and rural landscapes dwarfed by industrialisation and less atmospheric than I would have hoped. The McStruggle has taken its toll. There is a burger or coffee bar on every corner. I have had a good time and it’s all still fascinating, but would I come back? Probably not, except to Shanghai (and the buffet) if it was en route, and especially not in the summer!
(Read more about China here.)
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