I am in Shanghai and I have the most amazing hotel view from 27 floors up right down the river & across to the Bund. 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.
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. I am sitting on floor 32 of the Shangri La (say it Shan Gri-La or the taxi drivers don't understand) looking out over the river and the array of skyscrapers behind the Bund sipping an applegrass martini. This place has Dubai well beaten and possibly even rivals 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.
Shanghai is a really eclectic mix of old and new. I’ve been and tried all the teas at the Jade Buddha temple and trotted past Starbucks and McDonalds peeking out of old pagodas. 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 and tack. Otherwise China has changed a lot in 15 years. Or maybe it’s because its more that it’s because it’s Shanghai. Or probably both. They refer to westernisation as the McStruggle.
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?
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.
Aa late train from Shnaghai and there isn’t any food to buy. 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 travells at 350 kilometres per hour, but nevertheless I ampretty 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.
A tour of the best West Lake in China - there are 32 of them. It’s very willow pattern plate, lots of trees, fronds dangling at the water’s edge, 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. 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. If an only child marries an only child they may now 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 boat ride, another temple, some carved Buddha statues (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 don’t like the taste anyway. 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 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 again to Suzhou. They are still playing the same Ice Age cartoon. 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. A visit to a silk factory, to see the poor cocoons being collected and boiled. It’s fascinating, despite the string of tourist shops at the end. Another garden and a cruise through the canals. This is nearly the end of the famous Grand Canal - it finishes at Hangzhou.
Some pretty stone bridges and more weeping willows, but it all looks a bit small and dirty. 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 hotel has a nicer garden than the ancient one. 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 cafe 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 nasty and I can start my diet again even if I am inert.
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!
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