Chinese New Year
Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
12Trip End Ongoing
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NOTE: This entry contains some video. To view, just click the cunningly entitled "video" links sprinkled through the text. Be warned, the content may be so boring as to be unsuitable for just about anyone, and my camerawork might require viewing on an empty stomach. It is in Windows Media format and should be quite rapid with broadband, but good luck if you are on a dial-up connection...
New Year is the most important holiday season in Japan, with the country getting all festive and familial. Whereas just one week before, Christmas was, for some, largely an exercise in really screwing up an English teacher's day (my school was open for business as usual), New Year witnessed virtual shutdown and a rare chance to kick back. So, keen to develop my understanding of my hosts' culture, and in recognition of this most special time of year for the Japanese, I spent the New Year break in, er... China.
China, which doesn't operate on the Gregorian calendar, and has no reason to celebrate its renewal. China, a civilisation so humblingly ancient as to mock the passing of mere years. China, surely one of the few remaining places one might satirically compare one's crap beard to those of Marx and Engels, and, praise be, still expect at least a few minutes of "reeducation"?
Well, not quite. My terribly mature, one-man rebellion in Fuxing Park went entirely unnoticed in a city of relentless speed and rampant capitalism. Indeed, the only remarkable thing about four British blokes in Shanghai was that two of them were Stockport County fans, probably marking our largest gathering ever outside, er, Stockport.
I'm not sure what I expected of Shanghai before I went, but if I had hoped to delve deep into thousands of years of culture, I would have been very disappointed. Shanghai is massive, vibrantly modern and extremely vertical. Lovers of modern skyscraper architecture would have an orgasm; lovers of urban planning would have a heart attack. Counting myself a fraction closer to the former than the latter, however, I found the contrasts striking (video), while the view from our hostel bar's balcony never failed to impress:
I really was struck by how different China was to Japan. Maybe I have been here too long now to really appreciate how unique many aspects of Japanese life are, but I just couldn't shake off the habits the previous ten months had hammered into me. In consequence, slight bemusement met my bowed head whenever anyone gave me something. Unbridled disdain met my innocent requests as my passport/change/food came flying back at me from the hands of every receptionist/cashier/waiter we encountered (service culture not being an aspect of capitalism that Shanghaiese appear to have fully embraced). And taxi bumpers nearly met my every attempt to cross the road when the walk sign was on. Yet for all my feeling like the proverbial fish out of water, China was immensely interesting, and its people friendly and open.
So, what did we actually do for the six days? Well, we went high up the Oriental Pearl Tower (see space-age structure in picture above and video) and deep below the river in "The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel", surely the most stupendously pointless tourist attraction in the entire world (video). We saw ancient sculpture in the Shanghai Museum, and possibly more ancient toilets just about everywhere else. An oasis in the modern, there was also just a little bit of old (video) Us two County lads even managed a trip to Hangzhou, a city just over 100 miles to the southwest of Shanghai, and home of the largest Buddhist temple in China. And it certainly was big and deeply impressive. And it also rather restricted photography, so no images here I'm afraid. And, naturally, we drank a fair bit of very (very) cheap Tsingtao Beer. Of course, only Danny insisted on making an idiot of himself with it...
Which leads me, finally, to the food. As a teacher, I have come to appreciate that English is a pretty damned descriptive language, but I am not sure it is capable of explaining how good the cuisine in Shanghai was. Nor, for that matter, is mathematics capable of expressing how fat I would become if I lived there on a Japanese salary. Even really nice restaurants were staggeringly cheap and had the significant advantage of actually leaving the head on poultry. So it was that on New Year's Day, with little sense coming from his ever-so-slightly hungover comrades, Danny began chatting with the cranium of a plucked pigeon that he placed on his shoulder. He christened it 'Monty' (video - be warned - this really does contain a pigeon head). As the picture below, taken the previous night, probably demonstrates, this might have been the most satisfying and intelligent conversation the poor lad had enjoyed for quite some time...
In the end, New Year in Shanghai was a lot of fun, and scratching the surface of China was a fascinating experience. I definitely want to go back, hopefully several times, especially before Olympic development turns the more ancient Beijing into a more northerly Shanghai. And with the crap beard dutifully shaved off to appease my employers for another year, I'm not sure how many more chances at "reeducation" I will get.
Finally, random tai chi in Hangzhou, and a great many pictures from Shanghai can be found here.