Shanghai

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
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11
Trip End Jun 24, 2007


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Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Saturday morning, Carolyn, Ben and I  leave Suzhou for Shanghai. We contract with a private driver and it is worth every penny because we are picked up at our hotel door and taken to the door of the Le Meriden, a French hotel in Shanghai. The other option would have involved taking a taxi to a bus station or train station and then in Shanghai another taxi to the hotel. With all of our luggage the latter option would have been lengthy and troublesome. When you stay in a western-style hotel with bellhops, cable TV, etc., you feel like you have partially left China. I feel many foreign businessmen who travel to Shanghai or Beijing and stay in a hotel like this, do not see the real China.
 
Shanghai is looking more and more like New York or perhaps Tokyo with its large neon signs. Having been here for three days 10 years ago, I saw a lot of construction.  Like Suzhou there are many more cars, but there seems to be a higher percentage of bicycles than Suzhou. Most likely it is easier to weave in and out of the crowded streets by bike. Bicycles (and I think motor scooters) are not permitted on the highways that encircle Shanghai and connect China's largest city to smaller cities like Suzhou and Hangzhou.
 
But for some reason Shanghai seems smaller than it did 10 years ago. I guess I expect to see more skyscrapers. The outer edge of the city is certainly more populated with more factories. Every piece of land is used. It is not unusual even in the Shanghai area to see a small patch of farmland next to factories.
 
One noticeable change is with Nanjing Lu, the "Broadway" of Shanghai. A long stretch of this street  has been created as pedestrian only. (Similar to the street in Suzhou.) Along this walkway are shops, many geared toward tourists. It ranges from very expensive stores to guys selling fake Rolexes.
 
Much of Nanjing Lu still uses electric street cars, which are basically buses with wires attached at the top. I do not know if they produce less pollution, but Shanghai's skies are extremely smoggy. While in Shanghai, I hear a BBC report that China has just surpassed the U.S. for tops in CO2 emissions. This is nothing to brag about and I can attest to the fact that China's air is extremely polluted in both Shanghai and Suzhou and has gotten much worse in the last 10 years. The nine days I was in China I barely saw the sun. It was cloudy and hazy most of the time. It was the beginning of the rainy season, but it barely rained. Although I did not have trouble breathing, the air is thick (the old cliché you can cut it with a knife applies). And it is extremely humid. I usually start sweating within two minutes of being outside. When the sun does come out a few brief times, the humidity dissipates as the sunlight burns off the haze.
 
We take Nanjing Lu to the Bund, which sits on the Hangpu River. The Bund is a series of more than 50 buildings built by colonialists (French, German and English) in the nineteenth century. There is a variety of architectural styles - Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque. Most of the buildings are at least four stories high. The European powers used this area of Shanghai for their trade offices, banks and consulates. If you focus only on these buildings, you feel as if you are in an old section of a western European city or perhaps Chicago. These buildings represent a troubling period in Chinese history. During the last 50 years of the Qing Dynasty, China was bullied by European powers and the U.S. Now, the Bund is filled with high end stores (Venetian glass shops and watch stores with four and five figure price tags proliferate). These stores are either Chinese creations or are western business being allowed to set up shop (at a high price) by the Chinese government. Ben said the stores were geared to the wealthy Chinese because many of the items could be found cheaper in the U.S. or Europe.
 
If you do a 180 from the Bund and look across the Hangpu, you will see much bigger structures built in the last 15 years. The southern section (the Pudong area) was just starting to be built 10 years ago. Now I saw more than a dozen skyscrapers that are completed.
 
Another item that is expensive in China, especially Shanghai, is books. Chinese books published in China would not seem too expensive to an American, but they are for most Chinese. English books published in China are even more expensive. The most expensive books (fiction or non-fiction) published in the UK or US. These books many times are several dollars higher than the U.S. price stamped on the back of the book. You will even find in the English section of stores, books that are critical of the Chinese government. But such books are way out of the price range for more than 95 percent of the Chinese population to purchase.
 
While in the Shanghai bookstore, I talk to a Chinese high school student who is browsing through the Harry Potter section. She tells me she has read the first six in Chinese, but is now ready to read one in English. Her English is very good, and I suggest Peter Pan in addition to the Potter book because both stories deal with fantasy, figuring she would enjoy the J.M. Barrie classic, too. I enjoy talking to her and her mother even takes our picture. She ends up purchasing both books so I hope she likes Peter Pan. I told the girl and her friend that some of these books would be considered very expensive in the U.S. The friend commented that she knows a place that sells similar books in English for a fraction of the cost. I imagine it is a back alley or stand that sells pirated books. I don't condone such activity, but I certainly understand why it flourishes. By the way, the last Potter book becomes available in China on July 25, four days after it is released in the U.S. I leave the store wondering if the pirated Potter book will be available sooner on the streets.
 
After enjoying a magnificent lightning storm that night from the 29th floor of my room, we catch a late dinner at Ruzzi's, a pizza place. The food is actually pretty good and they have free wireless Internet, too. It was an enjoyable and relaxing last night in China.
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