A Tale of Two Cities – Shanghai: Day 9

Waking up bright and early, the group made its way to the Xi’an rail station. The six-hour train ride was generally uneventful. I bought a waffle with blueberries and cheese at Caffe Bene in the station, as well as what Sophie is calling “grass milk.” We thought the grass milk was the drinkable yogurt that I have become so lovingly addicted to (the Foreigner’s Guide to China from the speaker at CUFE recommended drinking yogurt especially if you’re ill), but it supposedly tastes like matcha-flavored milk. Anyways, I slept for much of the ride and had to be woken up by Jake, who was woken up by Kevin K, so that I could show my ticket and passport. Throughout the ride, Dr. Li called each four-person group to the back of the car to discuss the business start-up proposal abstracts that we submitted last night. The abstracts served as the initial phase to show Dr. Li the direction in which we wanted to take our final projects – a business plan for a new China-based company, including market and company analyses.

The Shanghai train station incited nervousness and anxiety in me; the station was crowded, with turns and waves of humanity that could easily separate a group like ours. Fortunately enough, no one got lost or splintered off from the group as we followed Julie, our guide for today. We boarded a new beloved bus that shuttled us from the train station to the hotel. Shanghai has two major airports, one for domestic flights right next to the rail station and an international airport – Pudong. The roads curved and wove through over and underpasses, which reminded me of the notorious “organization” that is the metropolitan Pittsburgh road system.

Shanghai covers a smaller area than Beijing, but it has even more people than China’s capital city. To control traffic, Beijing restricts the days on which license plates with certain characters can drive, while Shanghai offers city license plates at the steep price of $15,000. Moreover, anyone interested in a plate is entered into a lottery so that only about four people every month are granted a license plate, at which time they have to pay the dues. However, the license plate comes without cost if the aspiring Shanghai driver cruises around in an eco-friendly, hybrid car. As a parallel expense, the cost per square meter of property is exorbitantly expensive, costing thousands of dollars for one square meter.

We turned off of the road into a rectangular governor’s drive that stretched to host the fronts of two banks and our hotel. Walking into the hotel, we met a tall ceiling sheltering a bright, open lobby with marble-looking floors and accents. In front of us, down a few steps, lounged the hotel restaurant and the bar area. To the right farther down the atrium boasted a small patisserie and a couple of shops. To the left, couches and armchairs sat around pretty rugs across from the reception and concierge. Lauren’s and my room was much bigger than I expected. The two of us were apparently staying in a corner room, so when entering from the door, we had windows in the wall across from us and windows in the wall towards the back left of the room, both with a nice view of trees and the cityscape.

The hotel is located in the French concession, an area of space in the city once occupied by the French. Characteristically, it has narrower, tree-lined streets with buildings styled in French architecture.

After collecting and storing our passports, which William and Orange, our new Shanghai program coordinator, needed to check us in at the hotel, we hopped on the bus to venture towards the city center. At the base of the Oriental Pearl, which Sophie and I initially called the Onion Tower, our group scoped its way through the shopping center to find the Shanghai Museum, whose front hid a deceivingly large museum dedicated to the evolution of the city of Shanghai. Julie had explained on the bus that Shanghai was born as a small fishing village near the mouth of the Huangpu River, a branch of the Yangtze River, which is one of the major rivers in China. This city is one of China’s comparatively younger cities, around 300 years old. She continued that as the city grew, the ground raised a problem as a foundation – it was concerningly soft, but engineering managed to work around that.

I loved the museum, although the figures in the exhibits were unsettlingly lifelike. The museum was set up as if you were walking through the town itself; the floors were like cobbled roads, and you might pass through hallways with wooden-looking walls with big gates and windows. The route through the exhibits opened on Shanghai’s early days as a fishing village, progressed through the stage of European presence, and illuminated the Shanghai of the 1800s and 1900s. I found it fascinating to look into and walk through the scenes and storefronts whose position gave a more first-person perspective. The little holograms here and there in the museum captivated the small group of us that was meandering together.

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A Figure in the Museum

Once the entire group had finished their tour of the museum, we made our way to a pedestrian overpass that led into a shopping mall. The overpass wasn’t so much of a bridge over the road as a pedestrian roundabout that branched off towards different buildings. The restaurant in the mall where we ate dinner overlooked part of the city, which descended into the darkness of night as the sparkling lights began to glitter. What I thought were tomato hats worn by the waiters turned out to be pepper hats, which was certainly appropriate for describing the food given my fiery mouth and burning ears.

Directly following dinner, the bus drove us towards the docks where our river cruise boat awaited us. As we have noticed throughout the trip, the concept of a line doesn’t seem to exist. At train stations and tourist sites, people have no qualms about cutting the line in front of you to put bags on a security belt or jumping in front of you or walking around you to enter a site. We encountered a bit of an issue tonight while waiting inside the building to go down to the docks – as we stood, a cluster of people was trying to push through us to go in front, as students in my group fortified to keep them back. It appears that that cluster had become separated from their own group and so needed to weave through ours to rejoin, but the incident struck a discord with several people in my group.

Boarding the boat, I and many others immediately headed for the top deck so that we could soak in the sights in the open night air. The boat glided through the Huangpu River, past official-looking buildings bathed in golden light, past landmark skyscrapers like the variably colored Oriental Pearl, the soaring Shanghai Tower, and the skyscraper that resembled a bottle opener and had blue accent lights. Some towers exuberantly displayed images and messages; one building had images of what I believe were whales, while one tower flipped through colors and “I <3 Shanghai”s. One of these messages read “I <3 SH,” which are my initials, so I jokingly thought of that as Shanghai’s gift to me. Nearing the dock, waiting to disembark, I hung out next to the beautifully ugly fish in the aquarium on the second to lowest deck, scavenging for the last sights I could take in before getting off of the boat.

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So far, Shanghai reminds me of Pittsburgh or New York City, and someone in my Plus3 group mentioned Las Vegas. The city is massively tall, bright, and alive, feasting on the harmonious integration of Western and Eastern influences. Shanghai surprisingly strikes me as a more Western city in appearance and dynamic. Despite visiting a country halfway across the world, I almost feel at home.

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