Postcard from the Edge of a Wall

So with the current financial crisis cost-cutting, it was with great reluctance that I phoned the travel agency to downgrade my luxury, high tech, hugely spacious business-class seat to the wooden bench that forms Lufthansa economy-class. Regardless of the 10 hours of discomfort, this wasn’t a trip I was going to miss as it was my first to China.

Arriving in surprisingly good shape at the futuristic Shanghai Pudong airport, I took the sleek maglev (the only commercial one in existence) the 30km to the city center – reaching 430 km/hour on the 12 minute, surprisingly wobbly, journey. From there, I encountered the main issue for any westerner in China, the gargantuan language barrier. I had printed out a map and what I assumed was my hotel’s address, but despite this and a very adroit pointy finger, it was really difficult to get anyone to understand where I wanted to go. We got there, eventually.

After a quick shower and snooze, it was off to the first attraction the Oriental Pearl Tower, the 3rd tallest tower in the world and probably the silliest. Although it was literally a stone’s throw from my hotel, tracking it down wasn’t easy due to the thick fog / smog that hung over the city – and remained for the 4 days I was there. Consequently, the views from the tower were not exactly spectacular. I could vaguely make out some other skyscrapers and the renowned west bank of the Huangpu River, known as the Bund. This was my next port of call, so I returned to ground level and took the ludicrously Disneyfied “tourist tunnel” under the river.

At this point you start to appreciate the architectural charm of Shanghai. Its roots are shrouded in Europeans trying to make a fast buck whilst smoking opium, so the mix of European, Chinese and whacked-out-on-opium building styles makes any stroll a really remarkable experience. I wasn’t exactly looking for any pirated goods on my saunter, but I seemed to be a pirate / beggar magnet. Walking anywhere, innocuous looking people would sidled up and recited an incredible list of what was unofficially on offer – CDs, DVDs, handbags, watches, fragrance, jewelry, belts, massages and “pretty woman.”

After language, food was my next frustration. Either you could see wonderful food but had no idea how to order it, or you ordered something and got something different and vile in return, so the first night I gave up after being offered what look like a plate of dog vomit, and went to McDonalds in frustration. The next night, I changed my plan waited conspicuously for a beggar, like a spider for a fly. It was only a matter of seconds until a young-woman approached me, telling me how hungry she was. “Good”, I said, “so am I”, and dragged her away to the food area – I don’t think she was actually staving, but I got her to order what I (and she) wanted – it was still cheap at the price.

From Shanghai (there was some work there too somewhere), it was off to Beijing, where I feared an even smoggier environment, but the air was crystal clear and my taxi driver found the hotel with only minimal language issues. I checked in, and with a flourish Siegfried and Roy would have been proud of, hoodwinked the inexperienced receptionist to accept my seriously expired Marriott Gold card and upgrade my room. As a result, I got a huge, gorgeously appointed room on the “executive” floor, which smelt pleasantly of new carpet and fresh linens. Perhaps my only qualm would be that one of the petals on the rose in the bathroom was wilting a bit on one corner, but I consoled myself with a stroll in to the lounge and availed myself generously of the free food and drink.

With limited time in Beijing, I had hired a guide and driver to take me to the main sites. The first port of call was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, with its 9999.5 rooms and spectacular gardens. I think however much time you spend there, it would be too short – it was fascinating. For example, each night, the emperor selected one of his 72 wives, from numbered stones on a silver platter. The lucky wife was then carried to him, naked, by eunuchs. Interestingly, they had to be carried as their bound feet prohibited walking and they had to be naked so they could not conceal assassination weapons – the eunuch bit speaks for itself. My guide revealed many such tales.

Then it was off to the Temple of Heaven, considered the pinnacle of Ming design. It was built in 1420 as a meeting point of earth and heaven and to help ensure good harvests. The main circular, wooden temple (32 meters in diameter) was strewn with colorful mosaics, but had to be rebuilt after it was struck by lightning in 1889. The lightning strike was apparently caused by sacrilegious caterpillar climbing on the golden ball that crowns the building. The emperor had 32 dignitaries executed for allowing this to happen – and the building now has a lightening conductor.

Visits to other sites such as the Birds Nest ensued, but the final stop was the simply magnificent Great Wall. I was expecting a gentle stroll, but section I visited literally went through the mountains and is really steep. I started climbing with the crowds, but they started to thin out after the second watch-tower or about 400 steps. The climb and descent were really treacherous as all steps were uniformly different sizes. But I made it to the top of the hill, 7 watch-towers and about 2,000 steps. The views were amazing.

I had to drag myself away from Beijing (and more to the point, my hotel room) to do some work in stinky Bangalore. The flight there was via Hong Kong, but an 8 hour stopover allowed me to enjoy a hike on sunny Lamma Island, a lovely meal and a trip round Hong Kong harbor with some delightful friends I had not seen in far too long a time. Less said about electricity strapped India the better, as I showered and shaved in the dark, but my happy thoughts of China kept me going though the days there and gave me sweet dreams on the Lufthansa log-bench all the way home.


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