I’ll spare youse all the travelogue-type entries that we have all come to know and love, except to say that after about a week in Beijing, being here in Shanghai is a disorienting experience – going from “ancient” China to “modern” China in the space of thirteen hours does involve a bit of a head-trip, and I have to admit I now long for the monumental boulevardes, grey and dusty hutongs and persistent “art” students of the capital. I’ll also miss the sheer scale of the place – and despite the incredible amount of construction going on there, and the hideous effect the approaching Olympic juggernaut is having on the city’s character, I personally hope and believe that it would take something far more drastic to obliterate the real Beijing.
I mean, I’ve seen some temples and palaces in my time, the nearest comparisons being the vast complexes dotted around Seoul or Kyoto but seriously – after visiting the very-forbidding-indeed Forbidden City and the collossal lake-bound Summer Palace and the rounded platforms and blue tiles of the Temple of Heaven, I came away feeling (apologies to Korean or Japanese readers) that the former are to the latter what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings – that is, nice story, kind of cute but somewhat lacking in grandeur, style and scale. Not to mention elves in lead-character roles. In fact I’d say the growing glut of huge building projects in Beijing, if anything, adds to this feeling. That being said of course, I’m finding it hard to fit the number of KFC joints springing up into my perhaps convenient “not all development is bad for everyone all of the time” theory. There is, however, a Chinese Colonel, a picture of whom I will upload here when I get home.
The guidebooks do spend some time bemoaning the removal of the hutongs (traditional alleyways and lanes) from the city grid but I was lucky enough to be staying in a part of town (near Jishuitan subway station, along Xinjiekou Dajie) where the hutong culture is alive and well, complete with total gridlock at intersections where wheelchairs, bicycles, carts, motorcycles with sidecars, cars, small lorries and – oh, of course – people stare each other down, daring everyone else to get out of the way. Steamed buns, suspect meat-handling techniques, millions of hairdressers, Muslim restaurants, tragic nightclubs (“Beijing: are you ready?”), miniature phone-call booths, street vendors, craggy beggars – they’re all still here, and all still stunned to see a Westerner walking down the lane, when the main street with its fashion shops, KFC, gigantic malls and upside-down Nike logo chain-stores should be calling me and generally keeping me out of the way. It’s a shame more travellers don’t turn left once they leave the hostel.
So yeah, I liked Beijing a lot. Shanghai is perhaps a bit more like Sydney – I know that sounds a bit insulting but when you think about it they’re roughly the same age, okay not the same size but both filled with huge skyscrapers, traffic gridlock and a kind of monied arrogance that’s taken a bit of getting used to. It’s still China but it does feel like a kind of foreign-created fiction. Which doesn’t really bode well for my trip to Hong Kong but I’ve realised since getting here that maybe I am more a temple/culture guy than a “wow, look, another big building” kind of guy. I’m hoping to get to Hangzhou (paradise on Earth, apparently) before visiting my friend Ali in Wuhan early next week, so maybe I’ll be able to fulfil my temple dreams once more before facing the insane nano-city of the future with its glittering steel towers and sardine-like people. It just amazes me that this whole place still functions. Well, that’s all for now. Let’s see if this virtual-postign technique actually works. Love youse all.