A Slow boat to Shanghai

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
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Trip End Jun 04, 2006


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Sunday, April 16, 2006

OK, it's not quite a slow boat to China, but when they'd asked me in the ticket office whether I wanted to take the fast boat or the slow overnight one to Shanghai, there wasn't much choice. The boat resembled a cross-Channel ferry, but rather than being fitted out with bars, shops, fast food dining and fruit machines, it was full of cabins and the restaurant was preparing fresh food. The boat pulled away from the quay and then steamed in a big circle as if to show off PutuoShan for one last time. Standing in a cool breeze on the rear deck, the views of the setting sun were spectacular, although I wish I'd learn to stop trying to photograph them because it's a nigh impossible task.

On returning to my 4-bunk cabin I found I'd been joined by a devout Buddhist girl and her brother. I didn't quite know where to look or what to do as she sat cross-legged on her bunk providing a background soundtrack of murmuring chants whilst her brother slept. I opted for a cold beer on deck and watching the coast drift by, although the wisdom of this was somewhat thrown into question when I caught sight of myself in a wall mirror and saw that the sun and wind of the day had turned my face an unflattering shade of pink. By now my cabin mates where up and chatting and my Chinese was put to the test again. Unfortunately, I would struggle to find the language to learn much about the lives of religious practitioners if I was talking in English, so in Chinese I was scuppered. Even though I was having the conversation with these kind and friendly people, the where do you come from, what do you do, do you like China, where have you been in China, do you like Chinese food, etc... topics of discussion are starting to wear thin on me. I need to expand my repertoire of questions and anecdotes to escape from this hinterland of communication where my simple Chinese is good enough to have a basic conversation, but conversely is beyond the level of, I don't speak your language so lets communicate by gestures, pointing and being silly communication which is actually rather fun.

Arriving in Shanghai was a disappointment. Not from the perspective of being bad, but simply because it could have been so much better. I'd been hoping that the boat would dock in the heart of the city and that we'd cruise into the city as the sun came up with the Pudong skyline on one side and the stylishly designed Bund on the other. I don't know exactly where we docked, but it was further upstream, and the buses heading into town were absolutely jammed, which is problematic when you're carrying a 60 litre backpack.

In the end I opted for a taxi, and as we carved through the freeway traffic with my driver making space for himself by driving in 2 lanes, I could see that much of Shanghai beneath the underpasses was already well and truly awake and open for business at 6am. The increasing volumes of traffic as we headed into town confirmed this. I also learned just how big an impact Shanghai firing up has. When I'd stepped off the boat, I'd been surprised to find that the air felt fresh and the sky overhead was clear. As I travelled downtown, I could see the sky changing colour by the minute as it was engulfed by the haze produced by the waking city. Seeing the change made a far greater impression than just observing the resulting smog as I had done when I was here before. But then, change in all its faces is what Shanghai is about, and for that reason alone I'm glad to be back, just to check the city over again.
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