Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Shanghai arrives beneath my 747 after a relatively uneventful yet long 13 1/2 hr flight nonstop from San Francisco. This city looks absolutely nothing like what I experienced back in 2000 when I flew through- ironically enroute to Nepal on that trip also.

Back then, I never left the airport but that was still enough for me to have some unforgettable memories to starkly contrast todays Shanghai. When we arrived on a direct from Kansai International Airport in Osaka, our flight landed on a rickety and potholed landing strip, rolled to a stop, and immediately pulled a 180 on the runway thanks to a lack of taxiways. We then rolled back down the runway to an antiquated terminal that looked like it had been constructed back in Mao's day (it probably had). Exiting the aircraft while serviced and refueled, we were exposed to a mass of uniformed and unsmiling Chinese military who sternly shuffled us into a holding area that had no TVs, yellowed walls and one chintzy convenience store that sold a wide variety of freeze dried fish products and $1 trinkets, but not much beyond that.

Once we loaded back onto the plane, we repeated this curious and somewhat amusing process of taxiing back down the runway and swinging a 180 before bumping and bouncing in a haphazard takeoff down the exact same piece of tarmac. But before that happens and at the very end of the runway as we turned, I was peering out the window when I noticed a red umbrella parked in the grass about 50 feet off the edge of the wing. Engines screaming, I had no idea how this umbrella hadn't blown over already. Unexpectedly, a little Chinese man pops out of the underside. As I watched, he waved at the cockpit and then jumped back under his umbrella. Apparently, this was a special umbrella that protects it's occupant from jetwash and ridiculous decibels emitted from engines just a few feet from his uncovered ears. Seconds later, we bounced down the runway and were airborne and miles away. But my thoughts of this confusing spectacle and what exactly had occurred with his hand wave stayed back on that patch of airport tarmac. What was that wave all about? Didn't the pilots have comms with the control tower for clearance, not this little guy who must be more deaf than the most active of Artillery Marines?

A few weeks later, we flew back through Shanghai and I'm not kidding you, that whole process unfolded again and to this day I have no idea what that was all about. Today, the airport is enormous, complete with a gleaming new terminal not due to open for another few months but largely complete. The terminal is filled to the gills with shops- all clean and modern. Highways are jam packed with cars and the restaurants/stores all loaded with goods looks like any other city. It's amazing from first glance.

So here I am, on the afternoon of the 17th going to grab some quick food and then sleep. I think the Rock Stars that I drank last night to pull one last all-nighter before heading out wore off somewhere around 2 minutes after parking in my seat from Seattle. After fighting through Shanghai rush hour traffic close to what you might expect in DC, I went out for a quick bite at a local Chinese restaurant.. (convenient, given that I'm in China) and found a local area that looks very, very much like River Walk in San Antonio- loaded with bunches of extremely cool, well-decorated and chic restaurants/ stores.

The next morning, I woke to rain- more like Seattle rain than anything- misty, grey. Low-hanging clouds shrouding the top floors of Shanghai skyscrapers. Walking the streets, I'm immersed in a wave of old vs new world markets. Literally blocks of what was Shanghai old-guard apartments are in disarray & many abandoned as they are torn down to give birth to new gleaming skyscrapers loaded with architectural wonder. Taxis and busses zoom down the street among BMW 5-series as they dodge an equal number of people riding 30 year old bicycles. It's definitely interesting here..

Getting internet connectivity is always a challenge, and Shanghai isn't unique in that light in some respects. I have immediate and regular access in the Four Seasons where a nice and relaxing pasttime is to sit on a couch listening to "Smoke gets in your eyes" being played on a Grand Piano in their 3 story high lounge. My ruggedized stylus laptop spread out draws a large array of curious attention as I plink away on the expedition keyboard. Comical. However, immediately one will notice a conspicuous block of certain websites.
Travelling around the city's neighborhoods it's nice to notice so much renovation and renewal. Coffee shops, curio stores and modern malls are springing up everywhere. Shanghai is quite western in it's mentality- much more westernized than Beijing and English is spoken widely. It's truly an interesting and dynamic town. One of my good friends Lisa who works at The Four Seasons picked up two ceramic Mao statues for me, and believe it or not she actually found them in a murky fish tank. Here's a picture of where they were anxously waiting for someone to rescue them from a watery goldfish fate:

I spent the rest of the day walking around, hitting the hotel gym and then getting an awesome teppenyaki meal at a teppenyaki restaurant, conveniently enough. This wasn't your standard Japanese teppanyaki restaurant with standard beef, shrimp & chicken fare (although they did have that). This place had the kitchen sink approach to cooking stuff on a searing hot flat iron table. Want mussels? No problem. Cod? Have that too, conveniently enough. I can't tell you how many times I have sat down at a teppanyaki table and said to myself "gosh, this is all great but I can't tell you how much I'm missing a piece of cod". Foie Gras in tofu & roe, served in an egg cup cooked entirely in front of you? As luck would have it, that's on the teppanyaki menu also! Seriously, it was really good and as normal you can eat to your hearts content and it's not that expensive. I think I had beef, bean sprouts, some sushi, cabbage, rice and the foie gras egg thingie. It was good, too!

The weather remains fairly Seattle-y in Shahghai (misty, rainy, cool) for the entire time I was there, and I learn that it is standard weather for early spring/late winter. The next day I'm heading to Beijing though, which is dramtically different from Shanghai despite being only 1 1/2 hrs by plane away. There was a BBC article on about how Beijing air quality had dropped to its worst levels in years. The TV clip had all of these people running around with dust masks on in brown colored air. Apparently some dust storm kicked up due north of the city and blew all that crap in. There were quotes about the air smelling "of dirt", and tons of flights into/ out of Beijing were canceled. I can't wait to see HOW this place is going to be ready for the Olympics.

Here are some pics of that cool part of town I was telling you, known as Xin Tian Di. It's so artfully lit up at night and the restored brick buildings are thoroughly charming. I swear I didn't just use the word charming.

Flight to Beijing is at noon so have to boogie..

1 comment:

Caché said...

Glad you're safely in Shanghai. Hope you get to climb the mountain and shit on the Chinese government.

While you're in Shanghai, make sure you get some soup dumplings at Ding Tai Fung in Xintiandi.

Also, if you go to Xintiandi, go to CJW and ask for the owner, Michael King. tell him you're a friend of mine. He'll treat you well.