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Visiting Shanghai.

IN the aftermath of number six typhoon we reached Shanghai airport. Our guides were nowhere to be seen. The national guide is there to greet you as you enter China. He accompanies you throughout your stay. The local guide meets you when you arrive in his area and is in charge during your visit there. He stays in his home whereas the national guide is accommodated in the tourist hotel. Both had gone to change into dry clothes. Fortunately they arrived before hysteria developed.

Almost the first words of our local guide were that we would have a meal nearby, before going on to our hotel. All protests that we had just had our evening meal on the plane, had in fact over-eaten at midday in Hong Kong, after three previous meals on the plane, were ignored. The meal had been booked and we were to make at least a token show of eating it. So it was feeling like over-stuffed geese that we reached the Jin Sha Hotel at long last.

It was the second night there that one drawback of our very new hotel became evident. In the early hours I heard a suspicious gnawing sound and switched on the bedside light. Scampering noises. Then silence. The next morning I was told two of our group had so alarmed a rat that for half an hour it had taken refuge under a bed; it had then shimmied up the wardrobe and vanished into the air conditioning system. Fortunately if you kept the wardrobe doors shut the rats could not get into the room and restricted themselves to jangling the clothes hangers.

Rats apart, the hotel was all it should be. It was far more luxurious than we had expected. The twin bedded rooms all boasted bathroom and T.V. set, as well as air-conditioning. The laundry service was very good. It was in fact the rat gnawing at the cellophane enclosing my laundered clothing that had woken me.

We could easily replenish our drinking water at the staff desk at the end of the corridor. There was a gaily decorated thermos for hot water. Cold was kept in a glass carafe. The hotel also provided lidded teacups and a supply of green tea. The lid on the teacups was less to keep the tea warm than to prevent, by some mystery of science, the tea-leaves creating a moustache when one finally drank the tea. Green tea is drunk without milk or sugar. Neither teapot nor tea-strainer are provided.

The hotel restaurant provided a good introduction to |western breakfasts'. |Western breakfasts' did not consist of the eclairs and Swiss rolls I remembered from an earlier visit to China, but of toast, cake and coffee. Service was slow but quicker than in the past.

We enjoyed free time to walk around the streets and shops. We gawped at haircutting in the streets, at families and friends sitting out of doors to talk, play cards, read. We stared at the bamboo poles, adorned with washing, jutting from every house and flat. We peered at the bamboo scaffolding on building sites. We admired the little boys' split trousers, such a good idea! We responded to the young children's cries of |Hello' and |Good-bye'. We window-gazed in shops now named in Roman lettering as well as Chinese. Above all we noted the cycles, and were wary of traffic, nervous when crossing roads. We walked round the newish apartment blocks near the hotel, staring at mattress making in their alleys, admiring the flowerbeds, noting the absence of litter, and of dogs and their trade-marks.

We were taken to a |Children's Palace'. This is a selective youth-club-cum-tuition centre for the arts and sciences. In its theatre we watched songs and dances. Some of us joined in the dancing before going to look at classes in music, eastern and western style; science and art. The building was not palatial, but serviceable and full of activity. Many tourist groups visit there. The children were absorbed in their activities, but those detailed to escort us did so very charmingly.

One afternoon saw us at the Temple of the Jade Buddha, where, staring at vast statues of Buddha and his guardians, goggling at the crowds, and being goggled at by them, we learned a little about Buddhism and Buddhist temples. Most temples in Shanghai were Buddhist, though there were a few Taoist ones. Another afternoon we went to the Roman Catholic cathedral; this red brick edifice seemed a typical Gothic Revival building, inside only spitoons at the feet of columns reminded us which country we were in. A British architect had built it at the beginning of this century.

We visited the Yu Yuan Garden, which, busy as it was, we were loath to leave. The black dragon carved atop one of its walls and the meandering paths created a feeling of expanse in a small enclosed space, adorned with decorative bridges, with elegant use made of water and archways.

Mid-lake pavilion, which some had admired on T.V. at the time of the Queen's visit, was another attraction. This handsome tea-house was in the midst of a lake. The bridges to it were crowded, but none the less teahouse and garden were areas of contrast with the bustling industrial city and port that is modem Shanghai.

We had an evening meal at the Park Hotel; this solid building dates from colonial days. From the lavatories there were superb views over the city, over the nearby parks, across the massive buildings from the time of French and British domination, and towards the dirty river on which its prosperity was then based. Then it was off to see the Shanghai acrobats. These perform in a vast purpose-built circular edifice. It was full. As we waited a band played, the noisiest I have ever heard. Yet I kept on falling asleep. I made myself jolt awake again and again. The fact that this was a great effort despite the cacophany shows how tired I was. Although the acrobats were of breath-taking quality, the show was not an unqualified success. The reason lay in the animal acts. We saw on stage poodles, chimpanzees, a panda and two tigers. One of the tigers seemed extremely sullen, refusing to take part in the proceedings. Some of our group were unhappy about these animal turns, and the applause in general was less for these performances than might have been expected.

Another day we visited the museum. To please those who wanted time at the Friendship Store, we had only an hour there. As well as the exhibits, the views from the upper galleries were fascinating. From the top floor you could gaze at the nearby flats, older and more elegant than those near our hotel, but still blossoming with washing and burgeoning with life. The three floors of exhibitions needed far more time than we had allocated. I certainly wanted more time admiring the paintings. And the bronzes, particularly the animal masks, small faces hardly rising from the metal work, were rivetting. The museum shop too proved a draw.

The Friendship Store, where you need tourist currency to shop, and which is therefore patronised almost entirely by foreigners, is one of the biggest in China. Books, carpets, jewellery, clothes, kites, a wide variety of luxury and semi-luxury goods are available here.

One trip we all enjoyed was along the Huang pu River. The journey towards the Yangtse included the chance to relish the scenery. The river was filthy, or, more politely, yellow from the sand which gives it its name. It is far busier than the Thames or Tyne. Coal barges, pleasure steamers, ocean going vessels, all came into view. The Yangtze eventually loomed ahead, an even dirtier colour, but seeming at first as vast as the sea. No wonder Mao's swimming it in his old age made such an impression.

Our last morning took us to the Zun Yi neighbourhood. This is an administrative unit, running its own affairs under an elected committee. It caters for 44,000 people, 11,000 families. Some of the committee members welcomed us with tea and an introductory talk. This set the scene before we visited their Old People's Home, sheltered workshop, and some individual flats.

The old people's home accommodated eight in two bedrooms. It was primarily for those without families, but if there were rooms available children could pay for their parents to stay there. Those bedrooms were very small, the beds filled them; but there was a sitting room and we were assured the elderly were taken to the park and the local cinema.

Nearby were the individual homes we were able to visit. We appreciated the kindness of those who were prepared to welcome us into their flats and answer our sometimes rather personal questions. Again it was clear that space was at a premium; by our standards there was overcrowding and a lack of privacy. The rooms tended to be dominated by T.V. and thermos, with a multitude of photographs. Any family willing to receive inquisitive tourists, and whose home is judged sufficiently clean, is liable to have visitors trooping in, but we felt we were in a part of Shanghai not on the usual tourist track.

Our local guide was very enthusiastic. He had provided us with general information about the city of twelve million people and two million bicycles. And, after that drenching arrival, we had been lucky in the weather. We were fortunate in being able to see so much. It may have given us mental indigestion at the time; it also gave fourteen British tourists some very happy memories, some tremendous photographic opportunities, and an excellent introduction to the People's Republic of China.
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Author:Newman, Sarah
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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