Thor's China Diary

Shanghai Arrival

Does the sky colour us? The Shanghai skyline is an unremitting dull silver glare.

I  spent five days  trudging the mean streets, trying to get some orientation. Maybe Chinese made riding boots are not designed for walking in. Anyway, the punishment was a sprained something or other around my right archilles tendon which made walking an agony, but was fine as soon as I took my boots off. Perhaps those blue-rinse ladies and waddling gents who get shovelled in and out of tour coaches are not so dumb after all...

Immigration was a brief affair of computer entry, and customs checks non-existent. Through the barrier, the Arrivals concourse was a narrow strip with information booths and currency exchange booths empty -- they weren't starting work until 9am, no matter that three jumbo jets had just arrived. Even the phones seemed to be missing.

As usual, a taxi driver came to the rescue, at a Y70 price which seemed outrageous, but turned out later to be the standard fare. The driver's idea of a "cheap hotel" was Y400 a day. I swallowed hard and agreed for one day. We raced down a toll way to the concrete heart of the city in no time, and breasted up to a soul-less multi-storey edifice. A disinterested clerk eventually put down his newspaper, and plonked a form onto the counter, indicating Y550 a day. It was time to take a stand. Smiling hugely, I said "no no no!", and the taxi driver, slightly deflated, said "OK, we go Y400". He had missed his first bonus commission.

While his brother drove, my new mentor got into the back to be sociable. We shook hands, I gave him my card, and with fractional English he indicated that taxis were not a big money business. I said that my Y2500 a month wasn't so hot either. Having proved to be mutually human, this slightly fleshy young man did his best to show goodwill. He stood by patiently while I went through the traumatic discovery at the Dadushi Fundian that not only was the room rate Y400, but that they wanted 10% bed tax and a Y200 deposit, as well as the room charge in advance, cash. I didn't offer to tip the bell-boys.

The universal something-star hotel room was certainly a nice retreat, a haven in hostile territory. The complementary tooth brush and the thick towels did seem welcoming (although unlike the Japanese, they don't offer you a freshly pressed yakuta..) The air conditioner filtered out the hot, dusty weariness of the city, and piped music abolished the traffic noise. I can see how how businessmen, journalists and politicians on tidy expense accounts can hop around the human rubbish heaps and and ant hills of the world, secure in the illusion that this planet is a sort of giant theme park. But my ticket to heaven was only good for a day.

Next morning I dug out the Lonely Planet Guide and went hunting for the kind of skunge-hole that caters to low life like me. Over a short bridge at the western end of Waitan (The Bund), I found a rambling heap of architecture with dorm beds for Y40. That sounded more like a liveable tariff. The dormitory, one for "foreigners, male", was on the fourth floor, a major hiking expedition down long corridors of squeaky floorboards and countless heavy, red-brown wooden doors. No bell-boys here, but the inevitable xiaojie watched casually from cubby holes on strategic corners. The floor was accessed from a 1930s-style lift, hand driven to keep some more bodies alive in the iron rice bowl. It is quite a few years since I stayed in a dormitory. In the large, airy room,  ten or so hard-padded beds, each with a thin quilt and clean white sheets, butted out from all four walls, separated by small cupboards that doubled as bed-side tables. Living with ten other characters could be a trial, but the young guys of twenty-something, "travellers" as opposed to corpulent package-tourists, clearly had their own well-developed etiquette of the road, and the social contact itself was welcome.

I tried hard to love Shanghai. Maybe because I went looking for a "Paris of the East" with a westerner's eyes, it let me down. A little inner voice was saying this was unfair to Shanghai. Here I was, barely acquainted with any Chinese cities, already being negative. And my Shanghai was just that small part of a huge city, stretching from The Bund, up Nanjing Lu, back a few streets on either side... Yet the place had a weary, workaday air about it. It was, for me, a city of faces without names, voices without meaning, pavements without charm. The shop fronts seemed dingy and suburban, the sales displays mostly like a childhood recollection of a less interesting urban past we had left behind years ago in Australia. If I were a package-tourist on my one week "been to China" visit, this place wouldn't be worth coming back to next year. But I wasn't a package-tourist. I was here to begin understanding a country, and perhaps this was a part of what China was about.

"Shanghai Arrival" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 22 August 1998