Shanghai: Hijacked by culture

Complete set of Shanghai photos

We left you in the last post as we headed back to Beijing from Chengdu.  You can read all about our adventures in Beijing in one convenient blog post. We left Beijing via high-speed rail and sped out of there at 310km/h. This rail link is quite a piece of work, though not without its costs in terms of destroying neighbourhoods and the huge amount of concrete and steel used in its construction. The track has used twice as much concrete as the three gorges dam project and 120 times the amount of steel used for the Beijing Olympic Stadium. These sorts of numbers make Australian mining magnates rub their hands in glee but the train has not been a total success.

Although in theory it can roll along at 380km/h, with top speeds in testing of 487km/h, the service reduced its top speeds after a horrific accident where two high-speed trains collided, although ironically they were doing under 100km/h at the time. 40 people were killed but the Chinese government did one of their special cover-ups. This time there was an outcry from the media and on Chinese social media which led to the top speed of all high speed trains being reduced and a slowing down of the construction of more tracks.

We had an smooth and uneventful journey, although it wasn’t the fastest we travelled by rail. In Shanghai they have a train called the maglev which we caught to the airport on our way out of China.  It has a top operational speed of 431km/h. Maglev stands for magnetic levitation of course, but I’ll leave you to investigate the science of this on your own time.  Suffice it to say that we cornered at 250km/h and didn’t go flying off the tracks.

We were spat out into the Shanghai metro system, the longest in the world, at Friday night peak hour in by some measures the most populous city in the world. Imagine every metro system you’ve ever been in and double the number of people in it and you have some idea of the crowds. It got particularly interesting when two streams of people intersected like two atoms falling through each other.

Shanghai is a very different city to Beijing. Where Beijing has centuries of history as the capital of China, Shanghai grew more slowly but steadily and gained in importance as a port city over time. It is now the biggest city in China and has the busiest port in the world, taking over this mantle from Singapore and Hong Kong. It felt like a very different place to us culturally as well with the Shanghainese being much more boisterous and the air even thicker with rain and humidity than Beijing.

Walking down towards the Bund one night after a lovely Taiwanese dinner we went past the ballroom dancers doing their thing on the pedestrian avenue before emerging into the full glory of the view of Pudong at night.

There was no shortage of people there to enjoy the view with us. In fact getting to the edge of the barricade near the river was like being at a gig and elbowing your way through the mosh pit. Luckily I stood a good foot taller than most of the people there so could take in the lights from a respectable distance, including the Oriental Pearl Tower an odd looking building during the day which really comes into its own at night when it cascades with lights.

The best attraction in Shanghai is not the excellent bars and restaurants or the bright lights built by Shanghai’s financial clout, but the deceptively simple building that houses the Shanghai Museum, a truly remarkable collection of objects showcasing the wealth of a nation that led the world for most of civilised history. My favourite room was filled with jade which has been mined and polished in China since 5000BC. Jade is a hard material and difficult to work with so the designs being produced through China’s long history are even more stunning.

The pottery rooms were surprisingly varied, showcasing the quite plain colours up until the famous Ming pottery blues which then heralded the arrival of superb glossy red vases. After that things got really crazy beautiful as the artists seemed to get free rein to do whatever they liked with the techniques that had been developed over the centuries.

The other famous strand of Chinese art, other than the amazing calligraphy and painting which we had our fill of in Beijing, is the bronze work which, while functional, became incredibly intricate as Chinese metal workers mastered the techniques. Dragons are the most popular motif by far and they adorn bells, urns and weapons.

A different, smaller but very cool, museum was filled with Chinese communist propaganda art. When I say museum it was actually a well-lit basement room in a nondescript apartment building. The security guard at the gates, obviously used to bewildered looking tourists, handed us a business-sized card with a little map for guiding us to the correct building. Inside there were gaily colourful posters depicting muscled Chinese workers beating wizened and pathetic looking capitalists. The museum also featured posters of the original Shanghai girl, some of which are quite racy. Ironically for a museum about communism they had a shop selling a huge variety of products styled with these images. We picked up a couple of unusual posters which you might see in our bathroom if we ever have a house of our own.

Walking back from the museum Sarah snapped a photo of a cricket cage. The Chinese people have a long history collecting and breeding insects, which turned profitable when their expert cultivation of the silk worm cornered the world market. Crickets were kept for their song initially but people soon used them for fighting which they bet on. This was banned under the Communists, those killjoys, but has made a comeback.

Complete set of Shanghai photos

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