Most of my experience traveling has been domestic, and I wanted to use China as a tool to expand my perspective. I also wanted to use this blog as a medium to bring the sights and sounds of my experience to my friends back in the U.S. I chose to write about my day at “Old Shanghai,” which I thought to be a good representation of many Chinese cultural contributions.
The group exited the bus onto a crowded avenue filled with hundreds of street-level merchants. Each shop peddled its own unique items or themes including a wide range of quality. A typical storefront hosted a variety of trinkets or souvenirs, with an aggressive salesperson standing out front gesturing wildly to attract any attention or eye contact from potential customers. Certain locals perused the streets attempting to sell imposter watches, handbags, wallets, and the like. They held catalogues and invited any and everyone to an escorted tour of their inventory –typically located down a back alley or up a dimly lit staircase or elevator. An interesting point with these characters is they each know how to say hello or some introductory phrase in multiple languages. Echoes of “Nee how,” “Oh-lah,” and “Bon Jure” sound across the square-shaped open-air market. The dynamic hawkers yelled and pointed, giving off certain strength and energy that absorbed into the crowd. The atmosphere was busy and exciting. The crowd moved in slow mobs from store to store, talking loudly and bumping into traffic from all directions. Looking down on the courtyard from above, I was reminded of a Koi fishpond at feeding time, as people step over and around one another to get to their destination. Smells changed by the step depending on the wind’s direction and the nearby bends. Seasoned meat could be seen hanging in windows and entryways of butcher stands. Incense burned from certain points along the walk, and a bakery added a hint of sweetness to the air’s complex aroma. Colloquial, foreign, and familiar accents were heard at high volumes and cadence. The ancient storyteller’s stand sounded loudly with gongs, flutes, and laughter as the old man told a tale, and paying customers looked through ornate viewers at the shadow puppet show.
I followed a labyrinth of stands to the center of the market and “Old Shanghai” was revealed. The layout of the area was set as a square. Multiple buildings were arranged so that a courtyard was formed and staircases and elevators were positioned in each corner. I climbed a very old set of hidden stone stairs, and the busy noise slowly faded behind me. At the top of the staircase, a tea hostess wearing a bright red and gold dress invited me to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The overlook outside the teahouse included a small garden and a water feature. Atop the roof of each three-story building, angles of the traditional curved stone and wood were visible in ornate fashion. The feng-shui atmosphere changed to a swelling calmness. I thought of the sights, sounds, and secrets these roofs may have seen over there centuries of watching the market below. I lifted my gaze to the sky and noticed the modern skyscrapers looming over us in the background. The monsoon season air was hazy, and the gray blanket cast shadows and screened the towers, creating a separate oasis or bubble just for Old Shanghai.
Each day we walked the streets of these huge and amazing cities with literally millions of people, and yet tucked away in sporadic spaces were these examples of pure antiquity. This has truly been an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone.
Today is day nine on our China adventure. It was a very special day because we were able to visit two cities: Nanjing and Shanghai. So far, I could not tell the cities apart from the other two cities we have already seen. I saw skyscrapers everywhere with similar design and height. There wasn’t one single-family home in sight. I still haven’t seen a large or commercial livestock farm yet. With this population, I assumed I would see one in a grand scale, especially with so much time traveling on the bus. I have lost count of the number of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) restaurants that I have seen. I have to tell the tour guide’s joke for Kentucky Fried Chicken. “KFC means Kitchen for China.”
The driving is very crazy and scary. Patience is not a trait of most of the drivers here. I am shocked that we haven’t been in an accident or witnessed one. The bus drivers definitely have remarkable driving abilities. The small areas they enter are unbelievable. We were able to view Nanjing and Shanghai’s history, hobbies, entertainment, and modern transportation, all in one day.
The first thing this morning, we saw families enjoying themselves on a Saturday morning in the park. Many were playing with a Chinese yo-yo. The Chinese yo-yo consists of two bamboo sticks connected with a string. In the middle of the string were two equally sized disks connected on top of each other with an approximate six-inch tube in between them. The game was very entertaining to watch. The yo-yo could be used with a partner or used to juggle with. The speed of the disks varied with the different tricks that were performed. It appeared to require great hand and eye coordination. The Chinese yo-yos were even used again later on in the evening at the acrobat show, which was very entertaining. It was a change because China proved that a show could be entertaining with the women well dressed. All of the acrobats wore beautiful costumes that were not revealing.
The highlight of the day was being able to ride China’s high-speed train. After riding the train, I must admit that China has pioneered something great. The interior cabin was very comfortable. I had plenty of legroom—considerably more than on a bus or airplane. Although, they did put us in first class, so maybe the other cabins might not have been as roomy. The ride was very comfortable and quiet, and I think it is time for the United States to start using them.
Of course, with all the positive things I mentioned, I have to list the bad. I still crave a bottle of cold water or soda. China serves their bottled water or soda at room temperature. In order to get a cold drink in a restaurant, you must order beer. I have drunk more beer here than I have in 37 years. I still hate beer, but it’s a cold drink. Tomorrow is packed with a full tour of Shanghai, the most populated city in China. I can’t wait to see what draws so many people to this town.
Today we went to the World Financial Center in Shanghai, China, which just so happens to be the world’s tallest building! We arrived at the building and instantly started taking pictures from the street level, but we couldn’t see the top of the building due to the surrounding clouds in the sky. As soon as we entered the building, it seemed like we were at an amusement park with an inside roller coaster leading us down dimly lit, chic hallways and employees directing us around every corner. As soon as we got on the elevator, the lights dimmed and everything went black for a little bit. The ceiling then lit up, making us think we were traveling to the future. During the ride to the 100th floor by the elevator and escalators, our ears popped many times. We were 474 meters above the ground—the highest place a human being can be on earth while walking on a glass floor. Honestly, being so high off the ground and looking downward at the tall skyscrapers made my stomach uneasy. While walking around the 100th floor, I avoided stepping on the certain tiles that were made of glass because I was afraid they would break while other people were jumping up and down living on the edge.
The view from the 100th floor was extraordinary, but there was a lot of smog due to the excess amount of pollution. The pollution in China has really made an impact on me because I can visually see the impact of harmful chemicals being put into our environment. I learned in my geology class that the smog you can see here in China is what’s keeping the heat in our atmosphere and making it so hot. One problem in China is that the gross domestic product (GDP) is growing at a rate of 10 percent per year. The end result of this is mass production, which leaves them with little time and resources to use for the reducing pollution. I personally think that it is crazy how advanced the city of Shanghai is with all of the skyscrapers with huge million and billion dollar companies inside them versus the rural areas where their citizens are living in poverty. According to Hyphen, our very informative tour guide here in China, the average person living here in Shanghai makes $3,800 U.S. dollars a year. That makes a huge gap between the rich and the poor. From my point of view, as a tourist here in China, the tours take us to high-end retail stores thinking we can afford them and influencing us to think how nice Shanghai is. At first, I thought they were just building these tall structures to show off their power. I now realize that they are actually just barely holding on. With millions of people coming to Shanghai and other cities looking for jobs, the city has to grow to keep everyone employed. If they didn’t, they would have millions of unemployed people who would rise up against the system. Although it might look like are not helping their people who have to live and deal with these issues every day, they may not have a choice. Time will tell.