Sunday, 28 November 2010

Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou

Shanghai is China’s largest city and is without a doubt the most modern – as well as the highest – city either of us has ever seen, with skyscrapers stretching out in all directions from the city centre.

We stayed in the city’s busy commercial district, near the fabulous Bund, a stretch of raised embankment along the Huangpu River lined with grand late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings, including old consulates, the original Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) headquarters and art deco hotels. Lifted above the roads and the traffic, the Bund was also the first place in China we’ve been able to go running, so on several mornings we joined the expat joggers and elderly Chinese taiji groups also exercising there, returning in the evening to stroll and admire the city lights.

In contrast to the low level neo-classical and art deco buildings of the Bund, Pudong – on the other side of the river and until recently a stretch of unoccupied marshland – appears through the permanent haze like a futuristic land with glistening sky-scrapers up to 88 floors high, suspended pedestrian walkways and a dazzling neon nocturnal skyline. Yet though undeniably dramatic it was hard to warm to Pudong, which with its high commercial buildings and wide streets but few pedestrians, restaurants, cafes or shops at ground level was hard to engage with.

The old French Concession area provided a quieter, leafier haven offering some respite from the noise and modernity of the rest of the city, and we spent several lovely hours exploring the area, drinking tea in a posh tea shop and enjoying our first non-Chinese meal in over 3 weeks at Pizza Express!

Visiting the People’s Park en route to the fascinating Shanghai History Museum we were struck by the curious sight of fence after fence covered in small pieces of paper clearly offering descriptions of people with height, age and salary all listed. These, we discovered, were signs posted by elderly parents seeking spouses for their children – apparently concerned by the rising marriage age and the skewed demographics where young men massively outnumber young women as a result of the one child policy.

We were also struck in Shanghai, as elsewhere in China, by how many people exercise here, particularly in the morning. It’s common in parks or on wide pavements to see large groups practicing taiji or dancing, or to see people out fast walking, using the public open air gym equipment, or doing more bizarre exercises like walking backwards, clapping their hands, slapping themselves on the legs, arms and chest, making animal noises, or rubbing their backs up against a wall. It’s noticeable though that most of the people exercising are elderly and we wonder whether this has always been the case or whether the practice will die out with the current generation. Interestingly, despite the popularity of doing exercises, our desire to walk and cycle to places as a form of exercise and source of pleasure is met with constant surprise here, walking or cycling seem a last resort and we’re constantly being told that a 15 minute walk is too far and we should take a bus or taxi.

Amazingly, Shanghai, like all of China’s cities, is still growing fast, with the sound and sight of building work constant. This mass of construction is responding to (and perhaps also helping to drive?) the largest mass migration of people in the history of the world, with 300 million people expected to move from rural to urban areas within next 25 years. Unsurprising then that half the concrete used globally last year poured into Chinese cities.

Yet while many of the skyscrapers are undoubtedly impressive, and the high speed trains (which travel up to 350 kilometres per hour) are amazing, much of the construction seems unplanned, chaotic and poor quality. Everywhere we’ve been are half finished buildings, the detritus of abandoned building materials, and a sea of cables and electricity lines, while without green belts or planning controls, expanding and poorly built city suburbs sprawl out for mile after mile in an almost endless urban swathe across much of eastern China. Recent incidents like the collapse of a new Shanghai tower block a few months ago, or last week’s fire in a Shanghai tower which killed 53 and was started by welders and couldn’t be contained by fire-trucks unable to tackle the blaze several stories up highlight the problems of unregulated construction. And sadly – to our eyes at least – the remnants of the old cities are being bulldozed to create room for these new buildings.

The experience of our first few weeks in China has been overwhelmingly urban which though fascinating has also been exhausting, and so in an attempt to see a quieter side of China we headed to Suzhou and Hangzhou. We clearly hadn’t done enough research though as the two “small” towns we picked both turned out to have populations of over 6 million! Yet despite their size, both cities proved enjoyable and relaxing places to spend a few days.

Suzhou is famous primarily for its canals and ornamental gardens and we spent several enjoyable hours wandering the cobbled canal-side lanes in the old town, and those in Tongli, another (smaller) nearby canal town. The ‘classical’ canal-side scenery is also clearly popular with bridal couples, hundreds of whom were having their photographs taken (often standing right next to another couple) by the canals. Interestingly, the photos didn’t seem to ever include the rest of the wedding party – explained by a couple we met in Shanghai who’d just had their wedding photos taken in Suzhou one month before their actual wedding. Also in Tongli we visited the fascinating, if slightly bizarre, sex culture history museum which houses a collection of erotic art and toys dating back to the 15th century: definitely one of the more unusual museums we've been to!

In Hangzhou, we stayed on the edge of the West Lake, which with its old pagodas, willow lined banks and nearby mist shrouded mountains seemed to epitomise the idealised Chinese landscape. Despite the smog that hung over the lake and hills when we were there it was still a beautiful and peaceful setting and we spent as much time as we could on the shores of the lake, and exploring the surrounding tree-covered hills, avoiding the traffic clogged busy roads of the new town.

The hills around Hangzhou are famous in China as a tea growing region, and we spent a very enjoyable day cycling through tea plantations and visiting the National Tea Museum, where we learned a little about tea cultivation – which has been going on in China for over 4000 years – and the role tea’s played in Chinese cultural life. Indeed, tea was once a central topic of classical poetry, literature and song, and one particular poem we enjoyed, written by Lu Tong, dates back to circa 800AD.

Seven bowls of Tea
One bowl of tea soothes the burning throat
Two dispel loneliness and worries
Three spark inspiration and smooth writing
Four cause slight sweating, calming the agitated mind
Five refresh me
Six make me immortal
Seven are more than enough

Trying and enjoying just a handful of the many varieties of green, red, yellow, black and oolong teas grown here has been one of the highlights of our time here in China.

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