The first thing that struck me when I got off the plane and into the taxi was how flat Shanghai is. Flat and bleak. It certainly doesn’t scream ‘welcome’. The difference in temperature between here and Hong Kong was quite surprising as well. I’d known China got worse weather but it never occurred to me how big the gulf was. I left a moderate temperature and greeted one that left my teeth chattering at two in the morning. But more on my motel later.
The theme (that theme being ‘Hopeless Westerner’) was set by my basically talking my way into the country. I didn’t know the name of the hotel to put down on the little sheet of paper where I had to fill in all the important details the government needed to know, like where am I staying and when am I sodding off again. After half an hour queuing up in immigration I got the friendliest looking girl so maybe that’s what swung it because I don’t think many other people got away with ‘No I don’t know the hotel name. The lady who is meeting me outside would be able to tell you. What’s that? No I don’t have a number for her…’ In the end she just rolled her eyes, stamped the passport and let me through. The sheer number of people waving placards with names of people and companies was a little overwhelming. A large crowd was pushing against the barricades at arrivals all trying to find the one they were sent to pick up. Having to essentially hunt for needles in haystacks it was no surprise that the stream of passengers filing through slowed to a trickle as we all peered and squinted around for our picker-upper. I couldn’t see any signifier that anyone was looking for me so imagine my relief when the PA system chimed in with ‘Mr David something something information desk. Mr David, information desk’. Yes, I’m Mr David, that’s me. I think I might go by that from now on in actual fact.
The taxi ride was way longer than I expected it to be and would be the last time I would see a road so quiet. All was grey and flat. My picker-upper was indispensable, calling her husband so he could talk to me about internet connections, drawing me little maps, checking in for me because of my previously mentioned Hopeless Westerner status and my total ineptitude at languages. Motel 168 didn’t look bad from the lobby but the illusion was sadly shattered by the maintenance access feel of the hallways on my floor as well as the slightly reddish glow of the lightbulbs, which gave my room a slightly porny feel. After unpacking and pondering whether or not the toilet was blocked I dumped the contents of my laptop bag onto the bed and collapsed onto it. That was a mistake. The difference between the bounce and the softness I expected and the brick-like, cold reality was alarming. It was like someone had wrapped a slab of concrete in a sheet. Why would someone do that? It only felt like such a betrayal because of the enthusiasm with which I had chucked myself onto it. It’s like when you steady yourself to pick up something really heavy only to find it’s really light and you nearly fall over or slap yourself in the head with it. Like that only with broken vertebrae.
It was so ruddy cold outside, as I have mentioned, that I decided in the middle of the night that the bed was not made out of concrete. It was in fact made out of ice and the temperature was what stopped it from melting. I suspected the air conditioning was capable of supplying sweet, sweet, warm, reprocessed air but could I fathom out how to work it? Could I buggery. Thankfully, when I woke up at 7.30 with about three hours of sleep, I found out the shower was surprisingly powerful and capable of some truly impressive heat. I let it hammer me for nearly half an hour.
On my way to the office that morning I got confirmed for me what I already suspected from the previous night’s food foraging attempt, namely that Shanghai drivers’ familiarity with the rules of the road is purely theoretical in nature. Green man? Fuck your green man! What we have to do here is walk out and hope for the best. Weave around the mopeds as much as they weave around you and if a bus comes barrelling around the corner as you cross the best way to deal with it is stare it down and show it who’s boss. That crossroads in front of the office is about as bewildering and terrifying an experience as watching pre-school children’s television past the age of 20 and on a not insignificant amount of drugs. The other thing to note about Shanghai is the car horn was only invented last week and as such everyone is still getting used to it and enjoying the novelty. Much like imaging what lies beneath Alan Moore’s beard, I imagine if there were no car horns here it would be terrifying. All eerily quiet so that the relative silence was deafening.
With every morning a life and death struggle, the days can only be considered a success no matter how you spend it. That just leaves the evenings. I suppose the biggest downside for people who travel for business is eating alone. I don’t know if everyone sees it this way, I’m sure there are more than enough people who prefer it that way but as someone who enjoys few things more than going out to eat, it can be a slightly awkward experience doing it alone. If I want to get something not sandwich based or Burger King I’m going to need to go and sit down somewhere to get it. I get by by smiling and pointing and nodding amiably, the people who work at these restaurants of course have seen them all before so they know how to deal with idiot Westerners like me. I fiddle about with strange-looking money and scuttle off out of their hair rather quickly. Not the way I would have it ideally but hey, I’m an adult now and I have a rock hard bed in a freezing room I need to get back to so I can get into a regular sleeping pattern where I wake up at a reasonable hour. At 5.30 in the morning during my second stint in that bed I was woken up by the air conditioning rattling to life and breathing out, oh joy of joys, warm air. It seems whatever I did when I was hitting it and swearing at it had put it on a timer or something. I wasn’t going to question it, I mouthed thank you to it and haven’t dared touch the settings since.
Today, being a Saturday, I decided to go for a walk and take some pictures. I came across a plaza near the massive train station and did a bit of shopping for breakfast. The overpoweringly loud Chinese lady warbling a ballad on the speakers was made all the more impressive by the male shelf-stacker singing along perfectly in tune. I mimed giving him a round of applause. He looked at me like he was going to kill me. I made a hasty retreat to the counter. Realising I hadn’t eaten all day I caved and went across the road to the familiarity of a KFC (don’t judge me!) The guy and the girl at the till were friendly enough and laughed at me trying to order something, not in a mean way, it was pretty funny. Here I got to mark one in the ‘experiences I’ve never had before and wish it was still that way’ column, as I have never eaten at KFC while being watched by the police. And I thought there was a heavy police presence in London these days. These guys were stood in the doorway and basically watching everyone, in particular me. Or maybe I was just paranoid.
At any rate Shanghai has so far taught me some important lessons. First and foremost I really need to get my arse in gear and learn Mandarin or Cantonese already. Secondly, it was happily reaffirmed for me that a polite attitude can get you much further than a shitty one. Third, where possible, find a bridge to cross the road with, those moped riders seem to be under the impression that this is a real life rendition of Carmageddon. Number Four: I can indeed live without Facebook! The Internet connection is so piss poor here I am forced to rely less on the Internet in general. Seriously, it reminds me of the dark old days of 56k dial-up modems. I’m not exactly nostalgic for the days when your mum wondered why the phone was making such horrendous noises as you waited for that one picture to peel down and reveal itself. I’m greedy and impatient and I can’t wait to see how long it’s going to take to upload this damn thing. It is however allowing me to enjoy books and TV shows I have previously downloaded more, wait I think I may have broken my moral there.
Right I’m going to wind up the rubber band of WordPress and hope for the best. If it works at all I’ll see you all shortly for the next installment, cheerio.