Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shining Shanghai

Shanghai! Instantly brings to mind a thrilling, fast-paced, mysterious siren of a city! Countless novels have painted a picture of Shanghai in the 1920s - the streets bustling with foreigners, a rousing night-life, the infamous opium dens, the slightly seedy edge to the glamorous, fashionable settlement - alluring and forbidding at the same time!

Historically, Shanghai has always been an important economic center - it is one of the most important sea ports of the Yangtze delta region. The Opium wars and the Treaty of Nanjing forced the Chinese to open up Shanghai to the world. Shanghai became the first firmly embedded footprint of the West in China. The British, Americans, French and Russians all carved up Shanghai in to their own 'Settlements' - and though nominally under Chinese jurisdiction, Shanghai for all practical purposes became a free port. It was a haven for adventurers and mercenaries alike, and Westerners flocked to Shanghai to experience the exotic Oriental! Shanghai quickly became the most important financial center in the Far East, gaining a reputation as 'The Paris of the East'!

World War II, invasion by the Japanese and the subsequent victory of Mao's People's Liberation Army all brought a halt to Shanghai's rollicking lifestyle. A lot of foreign investment moved from the now-communist Shanghai to the still-British Hongkong. Crippled by taxes, deprived of its indolent luxury, Shanghai languished under the communist regime until the late 1980s. Quickly making up for lost time, Shanghai has been the fastest developing city in the world since then! Growing at 'China speed', Shanghai today is a shining example of how much the Chinese have achieved, and how far they are determined to go.

IFC Mall traffic circle

It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes to get from Suzhou to Shanghai by car. We started early, determined to get the most out of our day in Shanghai! Driving into Shanghai is indeed a revelation. The expressway flyovers and bridges thread through the massive city like so many spiderwebs! Two, three, four...at one point, we counted 7 traffic bridges soaring one above the other!!! And the skyscrapers - there literally is a forest of these gigantic buildings - stretching away as far as the eye can see!! And we're not even in the City Centre yet!!! Jostling with each other for attention - each one unique, each one daringly high! After 40 minutes, we were all beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic!

Oriental Pearl TV tower
Coming out of the Yan'an Tunnel, we were finally in Pudong - the brand new face of a brand new Shanghai!! Our first stop - the Oriental Pearl TV tower on Century Avenue - built in 1994, now the symbol of new Shanghai!! It is an impressive structure, and holds its own amongst all the gleaming Pudong buildings! We got there early, so not too many crowds or lines! Entrance fee of 180RMB per person duly paid, we started at our tour! At the bottom of the tower, right before we got in, is an interesting montage of photos. From 1994 to 2010, it shows the Oriental Pearl and its surroundings captured from the same vantage point, year after year! Starting from 1994, showing only the Oriental Pearl and one other building to the 2010 picture showing the crowded Pudong skyline, it is a quick look at Shanghai's astonishing growth!! Inside the tower, we took the elevator to the first viewing platform at 290m - amazing views of Pudong and the Huangpu River! It is incredibly hard to believe that this was all mostly farmland a mere 25 years ago!

View of Pudong from the Oriental Pearl

I have been up on countless towers and structures, most recent being the Canton Tower - and I must confess, this is definitely not something that I enjoy very much. I have more than a slight fear of heights - acrophobia, I believe, is the technical term - and I'm always shaking at the knees at all these observation platforms. The Oriental Pearl goes one step further - the outdoor viewing platform at 259m has a transparent glass floor, giving you the impression of walking on air, high above this beautiful city! Like many other tourists, my Dad actually lay down on this platform - I got a splendid photo, but that was all! I couldn't even put a toe on this platform! I'm getting butterflies in my stomach, just thinking about it right now!

Glass viewing platform at 259m

The highest point was the Space Module at 350m. To truly appreciate Shanghai's span, you do need to be this high up! The city seems to be almost endless! One thing I really liked here - they have put up plaques with autographs from visiting dignitaries! It's fun to go celebrity hunting - notable were Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ex PM of India and Al Gore, ex VP of USA! I did start to feel a little dizzy here, though! Also, surprisingly, the toilets were not as clean as I have come to expect here! The odor was especially noticeable in the close confines of the Space Module!

At the bottom of the tower, is located the Shanghai museum. Our ticket was all-inclusive, so we decided to have a quick look. An interesting museum - mainly composed of wax figures in various scenes depicting Shanghai over the years. Very artistic recreation of the eras gone by! Of course, it is all mostly gloss - highlighting only the very best - concentrating on the 20s and 30s, when Shanghai was truly the Pearl of the Orient! Still worth a look, though - especially to see the development of the Bund.

View of the Bund

The Bund is about a 20 minute walk from the Oriental Pearl. We skipped the Bund Sightseeing tour, and instead had a picnic lunch on the steps overlooking the Bund. With the Oriental Pearl in the background, and a magnificent front-seat view to the historic colonial Bund, it was idyllic! Seen in the picture are the old British Customs house, and the clock tower - known as Big Ching, in reference of course to Big Ben! 2 banks of the river, 2 different eras represented - what a lovely contrast! The stately, genteel Bund - reminiscent of the past, and brash, aggressive Pudong - very much in the present and future! On the flip side - the Bund is also a reminder of the humbling of China by Western forces, whereas Pudong is China's triumphant return as a giant on the global stage!

Nanjing Street

We still had time to squeeze in a quick shopping trip to Nanjing Street. This, too, is a very historical place - has always been a major commercial street. It is now pedestrian only, and casual tourists as well as serious shoppers throng the street! There are a couple of upscale hotels - Sofitel and Hilton - and some 'brand' malls, everything from Louis Vitton and Gucci to Nike! The main attraction for tourists, of course, is the fake brands available. For a fraction of the original price, I bought 3 designer handbags - really good quality leather and workmanship. I don't really care about the brand, but then again, at that price, why not?! The bargaining can get a little tedious - but to get a really good deal, bargain hard is exactly what is to be done! And that needs a lot of time! Nanjing Street demands a day all by itself - hopefully, we'll manage to squeeze in one more trip before my parents head back! For now, it is time to head back to the relative peace and quiet of Suzhou!

Shining Shanghai - still mysterious, still alluring - ever enchanting!

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