The train from Yi Chang to Shanghai involved an 8 and a half hour trip setting off at 6:40, which meant a 4:30 hotel leave, never much fun. However, the hotel had arranged a taxi for us before hand and with no traffic on the roads it was a quick trip to the Yi Chang East station. It is hard to really describe the modern Chinese railway stations. They all have one thing in common, they are HUGE, bigger than some international airports we have used. They have enough tracks and platforms to cater for a great many trains at once and, unlike the usual train travel experience around the World, the whole system works like clockwork. The older slow train system still operates, although we have found it tends to get booked out rather quickly because it is cheap compared to the high speed jobs. In some cases, the high speed train is around the same cost as air travel but the train is about the same speed (counting wait time) and much, much more comfortable. The current High Speed Rail network stands at 19,000km (more than the whole of the rest of the World combined) with 30,000km planned for 2020.
Our trip went really well up to a point. The landscape outside was unremarkable, mostly flat Yangtze floodplain covered in rice fields or smoke belching power houses. We passed the time with sleep, easy because the seats were super comfortable and the train whisper quiet and smooth, or watching movies on our tablets. The crunch came when we got an email from Booking.com to say that we had left a wallet in the hotel back in Yi Chang. We both had that “Oh shit!” feeling. The said wallet contained a few useful papers but also over $1000 in notes of various currencies, US, Vietnam Dong, Malaysian Dollars and a healthy chunk of Aussie Dollars. Christine looked so grim I didn’t have the heart to blame her, although the opportunity was clearly there. Christine spent the next hour emailing and phoning the Guo Mao Hotel in Yi Chang until she finally managed to get a good dialogue going with a very helpful girl who promised to package it up and send it on to the Novotel Hotel in Shanghai. No mention was made of the contents of the wallet but we were hopeful.
Once an Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, we donned the pack packs again and set off to master the Shanghai Subway Network. It gets easier every time, mostly because the subway systems are the same China wide. We had pre-planned our route, which only required one interchange and negotiated the 40 minute trip with ease. The strange thing about arriving in a strange city and travelling from the rail station or airport into the central city by subway is that you enter the system on the outer edge and finally emerge into the daylight in the middle of a huge metropolis, and you don’t get much bigger than Shanghai. We stepped out of the subway tunnel and were surrounded by the super city that is the Pudong bank of Shanghai, an amazing sight by any standards. No Chinese city has excited me to date but Shanghai is a very beautiful city, sitting astride the Wangpo River and sporting more surrealistic skyscrapers than the average person can even imagine. No one wants to be ordinary here. Everything has to be outstanding and unique. It is a visual feast.
We settled into the Novotel Atlantis, a nice spot giving wonderful views of the river. A great street jammed pack full of little local eateries was opposite and the subway only a short walk away so we were set. We chose one eatery at random and a couple of dishes with almost as much care. What we got was two absolutely wonderful dishes, one a chicken thing with lots of rich sweet gravy and the other a noodle dish with bok choy that was full of amazing flavours. It was good to get away from the hot and spicy flavours of Sichuan that we have had for the last couple of weeks.
The next morning we set off on the subway and headed for the People’s Square, a large green park in the heart of Shanghai. The temperature was already hitting the high 30s and the shady greens of the park were a welcome retreat area. We wandered around admiring the gardens and the ponds for a half an hour or so. Emerging, we bought a couple of 48 hour passes on one of the double decker “hop on hop off” busses that tour the city. These are popular everywhere in the World but the service varies from city to city. This one promised a regular 15 minute service with an option of four routes and an English commentary. They were dreaming! We got a 30 to 40 minute wait time at each stop, a disjointed commentary on one of the routes we took and rude and disinterested drivers.
In fact, much of the day was spent waiting for a red bus to appear or trying to find a red bus stop on the dodgy map they had given us. We got very hot, very thirsty and very annoyed along the way. It was made even worse by the regular sight of an opposition red bus company cruising past. Ours was the “Spring Tour” mob but we should have been with the B BUS group I think. At one point, with a huge ugly thunderstorm looming and no shelter immediately obvious, we decided to just get in a cab and go home, but after 20 minutes of trying to get a cab, we gave that up too. As soon as rain appears, cabs are in high demand.
Although moving around the city was a chore, we did see some some great things. The famed pedestrian shopping area of Nanjing Road is fun and colourful. Christine proved her bargaining skills by sticking to the rule of starting out at a quarter of what they originally quote and actually walking off when you put in your final offer. They always call you back.
The Bund is a must see strip of wonderful old stone buildings dating from the early 1900s, when Shanghai was the European controlled financial powerhouse of Asia. These days, the buildings remain and can be seen in all their glory from a long viewing walkway that borders the river for several kilometres. Enough of the old charm remains to feel a sense of what it was like back when Shanghai was the “Paris of the Orient” yet the surrounding glass and steel towers seem enhance rather than detract from the scene. Everywhere, the streets were filled with tour groups, each one led by a guide sporting a colourful flag on telescopic pole. We were glad not to be part of a group. This is a place that just wandering around by yourself brings its rewards.
The thunder storms came and went with lots of lightning and noise and a moderate fall of rain. Fortunately, we had managed to get back in a red bus by the time the rain fell so we avoided a drenching. Having finally made it onto a red bus, we were determined to just sit and do the circuit, but the driver thwarted us by stopping on the Bund and ordering everyone out, before driving off, much to the dismay of all.
Eventually, we made it around the bus circuit to the Yuyuan Tourist Mart, a vast collection of market stalls and shops all surrounding the City God Temple. We sampled a few of the many food offerings, actually rejecting some, including some spring rolls. Who ever had a bad spring roll? These were awful, with some horrible musty tasting vegetables of some unknown origin spoiling the whole effect. Christine did her thing with the bargaining again to pick up a few things at the markets but we probably lost our savings by paying too much to put more data on our phones. At one point we went off to consult a wall map to locate a toilet. A seemingly noice helpful man came along to assist, but it was soon obvious that no one in a market area helps for nothing. He then proceeded to follow us around talking about “buy a shirt” or “I show you jewellery”. Every time we thought we’d lost him, he would pop up again. He was relentless. I wonder if there is a course one can take to learn how to be so obnoxious. Eventually, we found the entrance to the subway and escaped.
Gluttons for punishment, we spent another day out in the searing heat. It is really quite uncomfortable, very much like the Kimberley in the wet season, with temperatures in the high 30s and thunderstorms never far away. This time, we stayed on the Pudong side of the river and roamed around the new area, characterised by more amazing high rise buildings. Our Hop On Hop Off bus lived up to expectations and proved useless once again because the one we hopped on was just a shuttle from the central shopping area to the ferry wharf. The driver said he would sit at the ferry wharf for about 20 minutes (in sweltering heat) so we decided to jump on the ferry and take a ride across and back for the hell of it, especially as it was included in the bus ticket. After 15 minutes waiting in a long line with no sign of any ferry moving anywhere, we left and returned to the bus, catching it just in time to be shuttled back to the shopping precinct. We were quite over the red bus thing.
The heat drove us off to a huge shopping mall and the shelter of the air conditioning. Being a Saturday, the crowds were up and everything was crowded. Just as as we were about to enter, we got a phone call from the concierge at the hotel to say that a package had arrived for us from Yi Chang. Hooray! Our lost wallet full of foreign currency! However, the courier was waiting to be paid and he wanted us to return immediately. Eventually, Christine managed to convince the concierge to pay and we would reimburse him. We tipped him well when we got back to the hotel and to our delight, all the currency was in the wallet.
Shanghai is a city worth visiting, at another time of year. It is easy to explore on foot or by subway but with the heat that we experienced it is not a lot of fun. With a bit of looking around, some cheap and very good eats can be found and the city itself probably rivals Singapore for visual spectacles. The English problem is not quite as big as in some other cities and we even saw the occasional westerner on the streets.
From here we hit the trains again to Nanning, deep in the south of China and not far off the border with Vietnam. It will be an 11 hour trip on a fast bullet train, a long haul and a good test of just how comfortable the Chinese trains are.