At last my travels have started. And what an amazing beginning it has been. But due to poor access to Internet in China and a very busy time in Asia, I have been unable to blog about my experiences. So here is a short recap of my time in Shanghai.
My home for the first week was a ground floor studio in a cute little lane house, nestled away down an alleyway in Jingan. A slice of genuine Shanghai, a place where I perceived folks were going about their daily lives pretty much the same way as they have done for decades.
Hanging their washing in the lanes, drying their chillies outside their kitchen doors.
I didn’t see many other westerners around there. My little lane house was inherited to my landlady Annie, who was very sweet and immensely helpful, from her parents. She has redecorated it into a really comfy and snug little place. I loved staying here. It consists of only one room, that used to be two smaller rooms, a shower room and toilet and at the back a kitchen shared with the neighbours. This is a common Chinese custom apparently. Her studio flat has one half of the kitchen and the people living above has the other half.
It also has a small private, open air courtyard. This is evidently unusual, because these areas are usually covered with a roof. In the old times this is where they used to have a privy in a corner. But Annie loves her outside space that she calls her secret garden, where she has pots of plants, a table and a couple of chairs.
The first few days I spent learning to navigate around the city, and getting used to having millions and millions of people around me. Millions and millions of people who don’t speak a word of English. It was slightly overwhelming at first. And getting used to the humidity, being a two-showers-a-day kind of place. And the honking driving style. I had forgotten about this phenomenon. The honking was sometimes a grateful diverter as it took ones attention away from witnessing some really scary driving habits. One huge discovery, and one that I hadn’t really been aware of was the Internet – or the lack of it, being as I was now behind the Great Firewall of China. That and also the fact that nobody around me really spoke any English took some getting used to. And learn how to navigate around.
For the first issue I luckily had a good friend in place. He has been working here for a while, and for his kind help and assist I’m eternally grateful. I got, thanks to him, small windows out into the worldwide web. To Instagram and Facebook and other, in China, inaccessible sites. So thanks Richard for that and for everything else! As easing my way into my travels by being my knight in shining armour. Gallantly coming to my hood on my first night when I freaked out on dark alleyways, rude taxi drivers and no wi-fi. And the general feeling of alienation. It ended up being a wonderful evening having a very rustic street bbq, with skewers of unknown ingredients, sitting on the pavement on simple plastic stools in the drizzling rain. Classic!
The second issue I solved by talking the universal body language that included a lot of hand waving and pointing and that usually worked. I’m not afraid to ask people and did that all the time. Sometimes the asking resulted in sharing a long train ride chatting amicably to a stranger and thus making the trip much shorter and nicer too. Other times total incomprehension followed, like when ordering food. That could be quite interesting. Or when taxi rides were involved, due to the fact that Chinese taxi drivers don’t speak a word of English and are a law unto themselves. No more said on that. But I also had some awesome apps which I wouldn’t have managed without.
One of them was an app of the Metro system. Which is colossal to say the least. I found out that one still had to use a lot of legwork when taking the subway anywhere, as the stations in themselves where huge and changing lines could involve walking for miles in seemingly endless passageways. One station, Peoples Square I believe, had at least twenty exits, so that can maybe give you a picture of the size of the place. Still the subway system is well organised and very efficient. Though it baffled me that it closed well before midnight. I mean really! In an enormous city like this?! I couldn’t recognise my bustling and lively hood when I arrived back, by taxi, at around 1.30 one Saturday night. Not that very late I would have thought for a world metropolis, but everything, absolutely everything was closed and everyone seemed to be tucked into bed and sleeping.
No wonder as I discovered the next morning when they all woke up as customary at 6 o’clock, stomping above my head, all business as usual. Yes apparently Saturdays and Sundays are not holy and people can work pretty much every day of the week. Even office workers. The overall impression I got was that life can be pretty hectic here. Lots of people, at least some of those that I came in contact with, seamed to be jetting of at all times to work in other countries. Those who didn’t spend their daily commuting glued to their cell phones.
Another great app was Citymaps2Go, an offline map that tracked where I was and allowed me to pin all the places I wanted to save. Map reading is interesting. One thing I discovered was for example that even though a distance on the map looked quite reasonable to walk, in reality it was always far longer. Shanghai is a huge city. It’s the largest Chinese city by population and the largest city proper by population in the world. It’s population is officially about 25 million, but it is estimated that it could be as much as 35 or even 40 million unofficially. Not only very much a high-rise city but also spread out in a vast area. So I had to come to grips with the fact that this map was on a scale that I haven’t experienced before.
My absolute favourite area is the former French Concession with it’s quiet, leafy streets and fantastic art deco and colonial buildings. It’s popular but expensive to live here. A place where quite a lot of expatriates live and it’s full of trendy shops and cool restaurants, bars and cafes.
Ferguson Lane was one place I really liked, as the whole area around Wukang Road, Hunan Road, Wuyuan Road and Anfu Road.
These beautiful streets lend themselves very well to photo shoots and one can often see one or another being performed around here. One thing you can do here is to eat and drink extremely well. The Lost Heaven is a very good restaurant with a menu based on dishes from Yunnan and Burma (thanks Queenie for an excellent dinner), El Cocktail and the Apartment are other great places (thanks Richard, it was epic!).
Copyright and photo: Anita Martinez Beijer