Saturday, June 30

Living the high life in Shanghai

Back in 2007 Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman took the “bucket list” concept mainstream in a movie of the same name. The Bucket List followed a road trip made by two terminally ill men determined to fulfill a wish list of activities before they finally "kicked the bucket”.   These days everyone's talking about their bucket list.  My father is no exception.  Several years ago, in the midst of his initial cancer treatment, he spoke of his desire to visit China, Canada and New York.  I promised to take him to these destinations once he was strong enough to travel.

Fast forward three years we're now focused on completing Dad’s Bucket List.   As a result, I took my parents to China in May. In September we will take on Canada and New York.  More items were ticked off the list when, unexpectedly, my brother in Austria announced that he and the family will migrate to New Zealand in December.  This means that for the first time in two decades our immediate family will all live in the southern hemisphere again.  My father’s bucket list is nearing completion.

This post is first of a series that capture our time in China.  Over the course of ten days we toured the city of Shanghai, the ancient capital of Xian and Beijing’s many cultural icons.  As a regular visitor to China I arranged our entire itinerary, acting as tour guide in Shanghai, and managing private guides I hired elsewhere.  We were on the go every day from dawn to dusk, seeing everything we’d hoped to experience and more.

We kicked off our first two days in China by basing ourselves in the Shanghai Grand Hyatt.  I wanted to give my parents a real taste of the wealthy, modern economy that’s rapidly rising across the nation.  The Grand Hyatt was Shanghai’s most luxurious hotel when it opened in 1999.  The five-star, 555-room hotel occupies 34 floors of the Jin Mao Tower in the new business district of Pudong.  The building was China’s tallest when it opened, but has long since been surpassed by several others.  Similarly, the hotel’s opulence has since been surpassed by others, resulting in far more affordable room rates.  However, the hotel remains a stunning location, with all the appropriate trimmings and impeccable service you’d expect.

Our rooms were located on the 64th floor.  The hotel itself continues up the building to a cocktail bar on the 87th floor.  The rooms surround a barrel-vaulted atrium that starts on the 56th floor and rises up through the core of the building to skylight above the 87th floor.  The interior spans 27 metres in diameter and extends 115 metres overhead.  Our rooms looked over the east bank of the Huangpu River and out across Shanghai’s high-rise clutter stretching on to the horizon.

We kicked off our ”modern China” experience by taking a maglev train from the airport to the outskirts of Pudong.  This train glides along a broad concrete rail propelled by magnetic levitation.  It has no wheels yet reaches a top speed of 430km/h.  Unfortunately, our train was speed limited to a mere 300km/h during the journey into town.  From here we caught a taxi to our hotel, experiencing a taste of the traffic snarls that blight every major city in China.

My parents commented on the tall building and dirty air.  I took great delight in explaining that these weren’t particularly tall building and the air quality was actually better than normal.  As we approached our hotel and its soaring neighbours my parents’ jaws dropped.  Now they understood what a tall building looks like.  The Jin Mao tower rises 420 metres.

However, it’s dwarfed by the Shanghai World Financial Centre next door.  This more recent building rises an astonishing 490 metres, and is currently the fifth tallest building in the world.  Incredibly, an even taller tower is now being built beside it.  When completed, the Shanghai Tower will top out at 623 metres.   From my hotel room I was able to watch construction workers toiling away 250 metres above the ground.  It was hard to grasp the fact that they’d completed barely a third of the building’s ultimate height.

After coffee on the 54th floor we made our way into People’s Square, the heart of the Shanghai’s commercial district.  The square itself is a popular park filled with mature trees and a series of ponds.  This enormous green expanse was once the city’s racecourse.  However, the victorious communist party thought the entire affair far too bourgeoisie.  It banned gambling and coverted the course into the current park in 1949.  We briefly wandered through its midst enroute to the Shanghai Museum.

The Museum is famous for its exhibits of ancient Chinese crafts including some of the country’s most revered cultural artifacts.  We toured only its most popular galleries that feature stunning bronze and ceramic pieces.  Highlights included ceramic works that trace China’s invention of porcelain and large bronze cooking pots more than three thousand years old.  These pots, known as dings, are so synonymous with China that the museum external facade was even designed to replicate their distinctive shape.

Across the road, lies the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.  I had to show this attraction to my parents.  In my experience nothing says more about the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for China than its main exhibit.  Inside visitors are presented with a scale 3-D model of Shanghai’s central districts.   The model carefully reproduces very building, both existing and approved for construction, across the entire city. It fills a room larger than a basketball court.  Only in China would a local government display its ambitions with such an elaborate labour-intensive show piece.

Dinner that evening was held in the Club Jin Mao, a Chinese restaurant serving Shanghai style cuisine on the hotel’s 87th floor.  Here we dined on steamed dumplings, pork ribs and other delicious delicacies while a trio of immaculately attired waiters fussed over us.

On our second day in Shanghai we wandered across the street to the World Financial Centre.  I wanted to show my parents the view from its observation deck located 474 metres (1,555 ft) above us.  The deck it so high it actually looks down on our 420 metre high hotel.  The view is literally out of this world. 

Modern China stretches out in every direction; the dramatic white arch of the Lupu Bridge, the gaudy pink bubbles of the Oriental Pearl television tower and the distinctive remains of the 2010 World Expo site. Once we had our bearing we returned to the ground floor, travelling in one of its 91 elevators at more than 36km/h.

We walked down to the river bank and caught a ferry to the Bund. The Bund’s distinctive art deco and neo-colonial buildings were once the heart of China’s business community.  For many years after the communist revolution these magnificent buildings were left to decay.  However, a recent gentrification program has restored them to their former glory making for a striking street front stretching for several city blocks. 

We walked along its newly refurbished river promenade as far the Bund Tourist Sightseeing Tunnel, stopping briefly to photograph a large statue of Chairman Mao.  Surprisingly, this is one of very few such statues of Mao.  Unlike his Russian counterparts, or the current North Korean despot, Mao was never keen on his likeness being cast in bronze.

The Tourist tunnel can only described as kitsch. Imagine if you will, a series of small, automated rail cabins taking passengers under the river to Pudong; nothing odd about that.  However,  along the way, you’re subjected to a sound and light show as random and senseless as the flashing lights and lasers lining the tunnel’s 900 metre length. 

Once rested, we ventured out via the local subway to wander the shaded streets of the French Concession. This was one of three foreign enclaves that once dominated Shanghai. During the 1920s, the French Concession was Shanghai’s premier residential district. Its colonial past can be clearly seen in the aging, grand mansions that still line its streets.

The concession was established on 6 April 1849 when the Governor of Shanghai conceded the area to France’s recently arrived Consul.The French were following in the footsteps of the British and American who’d established themselves in Shanghai, one of the treaty ports created by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.The treaty ended the first Opium War which effectively opened China to international trade following centuries of self-imposed isolation.

We stopped for a late lunch in a shaded courtyard of a popular expat café called Abbey Road, before returning to our hotel via the Jing’an Temple.
Despite wandering past the temple's gates several times I’ve never ventured inside.  Therefore, it was a delight to wander around its many grand buildings, watching its monks symbolically offer the day's prayers up to the heavens by burning them in a brief, spectacular bonfire.

The temple is built around a large central courtyard in classic Chinese fashion, with a main hall sitting in the middle.  Inside the hall can be found a 6.2 metre high Buddha carved from camphor wood.  Another hall houses a 3.8 jade Buddha, the largest jade idol in China.   The current buildings are a recent construction, however the temple's history stretches back to 247 AD.  The surrounding city of Shanghai wasn't officially founded for another thousand years, in 1292.

Our final morning in Shanghai was spent enjoying a leisurely hotel buffet breakfast by the window, before a leather-clad town car whisked us effortlessly off to the airport for our next Chinese adventure.

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