Hello from Shanghai,
Since that last postcard from Yinchuan, Philips death has weighed heavily on my mind. Time and again something exotic and extraordinary will present itself and I'll forget for a moment I can no longer engage tiny Philips help to remember it. Loosing that little companion has changed my perception of reality! You wouldn't think a camera could have such a powerful impact on a traveler's sense of connectedness.
Slowly slipping into a funk I gave up on Yinchuan and caught a flight down to Shanghai. As China's principle shopping destination I had every reason to hope someone would be selling the Philips KEY007 Wearable Digital Camera. In your dreams... Computer City is a six story shopping complex devoted exclusively to computers, cameras, cell phones and other electronics products. Prices are high by American standards and exorbitant compared to Thailand. For two days I searched every camera store and electronics shopping mall in the city without success, finally giving up.
Hotels in the center of the city are very expensive. Passing up several in the $150 to $200 range I felt lucky to find the mediocre Ting An Hotel near the Bund for $61 per night. With hotel rates such a bargain everywhere else in central and western China, getting used to rates more like those in the States is going to take some time. Also, after spending so much time in the western part of China where people are more relaxed, the hustle bustle of Shanghai is unnerving. Unfortunately, many of the young professional people have adopted the worst of western attitudes and mannerisms: "Time is money and not a moment to waste!" People "dressed to kill" rush down the sidewalks not bothering to weave in and out of the crush of other pedestrians, bumping into one another as if this is the accepted way to get from point "A" to point "B." At bus stops it is everyone for himself. The young and able males wade into the clutch pushing and shoving the instant the bus door opens. One kid dove between me and a young lady with such vigor I lost my balance as he rudely clawed his way into the bus oblivious of the havoc he had just caused.
The famous Bund along the Yangtze River is overrun by western tourists and their uninvited entourage of hovering touts. Refreshment stands line the river promenade selling bottled water at four times normal store prices. This is a cosmopolitan city and there is very little staring at foreigners on the street. When it does happen, it is always by someone who has clearly spent most of his life harvesting rice in the fields of rural China. Peasants are easily recognizable by their last century garb. Mao Jackets are a dead give away that a family has just gotten off the bus from some part of the country where wagons are still powered by donkeys.
Throughout Shanghai bus routes have been designed to insure only people who have previously ridden the route will know where to catch them and where they will go. It makes me wonder what locals do for that first ride. During my explorations of strange places anywhere, I frequently jump on a city bus that stops near my hotel and ride the complete route in both directions. It is cheap, safe, comfortable and always gives me a quick survey of my surroundings. In hot China most buses are air conditioned as well. I pay little attention to where a specific bus goes as they always go where local people want to go! The logic is that sooner or later they will return to the vicinity of my hotel. Forget that strategy in Shanghai. Every route has small variations which make it impossible to know precisely where you are or where you will be going! A Bus #1 might be the "a" route or the "b" route or on a erratic route concocted for some special event that day. Naturally, little window placards describe the variations... in Chinese. So, local folks manage to learn the vagaries of their public transport system, I presume.
Now on the east coast of the country, there were several interesting places to explore around Shanghai. The Grand Canal starts just south of Shanghai and heads north. With waning enthusiasm I caught a train to Hangzhou to think things out. Hangzhou is the Santa Barbara of China. Everything is designed around the tourist hoards who flock to placid WestLake and the beautiful surrounding gardens. However, feeling homesick and discouraged by my failure to find a new camera, even this idyllic environ could not manage to hold my attention long enough to truly enjoy what all the noisy Chinese tourists find so wonderful. Wandering around in the oppressive heat in a daze I brainstormed options. After two nights I realized I needed to be in a major transportation hub for whatever future course of action I might take.
So, another two hour train ride got me back over to Shanghai. This time I knew where to go for comfortable accommodations at a reasonable rate. The Longman Hotel next to the Main Train Station offers modern rooms at $38. Breakfast is about as bad as the Chinese can make them. In the hotels it is always weeds, rice and noodles. True, the Chinese chefs manage to alter the flavor and texture in so many ways it is easy to forget what few choices we are offered. But, I exaggerate. Actually, some of the fried rice paste and imaginative noodle concoctions are not bad. The mince meat filled soft buns are pretty good, too. Salty rice soup for breakfast I can do without, along with the orange Kool Aid and instant coffee. No doubt in response to my somber breakfast demeanor, charming young servers have been bringing me special plates of lightly toasted bread, butter and jam plus a knife and fork. None of the Chinese guests have gotten such special treatment. Using chop sticks is now second nature with me, so fumbling with food cannot be the reason for such exceptional treatment... must be my good looks...
In the ultra-modern Central Plaza building background music featured a lovely vocal arrangement of Silent Night, Holy Night. Of course, to most Chinese the English lyrics might just as well have been in Greek. It made me stop and think about the truly joyful sounds which have been created for our celebration of Christmas; even the atheist Chinese who don't know a crucifix from a mosque love the music.
During my explorations of the city I've witnessed four noisy physical altercations. Each attracted a crowd of curious spectators, but only once did a cop show up. He stood off to the side with the other onlookers watching the argument and made no attempt to stop the escalating pushing and shoving.
One morning at breakfast another American who had been traveling in the rural areas of north-western China described his encounter with the medical Establishment outside major cities. The hospital was completely up to date; equipment modern and new. The doctors spoke little English, but managed with a translator. His chest pain prompted the staff to order x-rays and then a CAT scan. Antibiotics prescribed by the doctors for his lung infection were infused into a saline drip. A separate room in the hospital full of smoking patients served as the drip administration facility. "It is the only way antibiotics are administered" he quotes his doctor. No quick shot in the arm and "call me in the morning" here.
The central plaza in every city I've visited throughout China has had a giant outdoor flat panel display with booming sound. People sit around in the evenings watching television programs. With the daytime temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, people creep out of their daytime air conditioned hiding places into the cooling evening to socialize. The big TV entertains kids and their parents alike.
The stifling heat has made exploring the city a punishing challenge. Mostly it has been taking quick peeks of the street activities while dashing between A/C buses and A/C shopping centers. My A/C hotel room is always a convenient refuge from the pervasive furnace heat. Several friends have reported California weather conditions not much different than here. So, ending my little Asian sojourn early to escape the heat doesn't seem to be a rational choice. Harbin in the far northeast of China looks like a more promising possibility. The high latitudes mean cooler temperatures during the hot Summer months are bound to prevail, much as they would in Washington and Oregon on the other side of the Pacific.
Watch for my next postcard from somewhere cool...