We got off the train and hopped onto the metro with ease. They have a smart card system similar to home but a single journey costs 3Y instead of nearly 3 pounds. Unless it’s gone up again? We worked our way through the crowds and the oppressive heat to our proposed beds, the Captain Hostel. We found the place from our LP guidebooks and liked the sound of nautical themed dormitories.
We checked in to a seven bed room on the fourth floor and took stock of the place. Bunks at jaunty angles with portholes and only 5 smoke/gas masks in the emergency box on the wall. If there was a fire there would be one hell of a fight in here before we got out. The large window overlooked the towers of the east bank of the river via a building site cocooned in bamboo scaffolding (Mum – tell Alex they rarely use metal poles here, just huge bamboo ones lashed together with rope) and a family home which we could peer into and watch them playing Mahjong or eating dinner. We could hear the distant call of the fog horns but little to no traffic from the cars racing up the Bund.
First impressions of Shanghai were that it is an extremely modern city with a European or American feel to it because of its narrow streets and looming, glistening towers. It was very smoggy though. We could easily see this by glancing up at the Oriental Pearl tower, nevermind the immense Jin Mao tower – the tallest building in China unless its neighbour ever gets completed. There is a huge difference between architectural styles in a very small area too and from some vantage points you can really see the difference as ordinary folk pedal along the low-rise colonial style streets whilst a few hundred feet behind rise incredible glass and steel towers in a myriad of styles. The Bund is very nice but nothing special at all. I’d rather walk the South Bank at home any day.
This style of city feels so unlike the China we’ve seen so far and because of the narrow streets packed with bicycles, buses, motorbikes and cars, all ignoring traffic laws it was sometimes difficult to walk around. The washing lines and air conditioning units splattered all over the outsides of the buildings drip constantly onto the people walking on the pavements below and everywhere you look there are beggars trying to cadge anything they can from a rich city and its rich visitors. Shanghai began to feel like all the worst things a city can strive to be. Crowded, polluted, expensive, ignorant of its poor or disabled and generally rude as well. Similar to London but at least there’s usually room to walk. The staff of the Captain Hostel treated us like scum from basic non-personal dealings like the 20Y per hour internet (!) to the surly accusations that I was handing over a fake 1Y coin (is there even such a thing? I doubt it) for my baggage storage on the final day. The initially humourous bunks became a bug-bear with me whacking my head on the oddly aligned overhangs many times. The rooftop bar offered great views but was over priced. One of the worst things for me was when, after the coin incident, we rode the 9 metre per second lift up the Jin Mao tower to the 88th observation floor for 70Y. Though the views were impressive it just disgusted me. The true gravity of the pollution problem was more apparent from up there than anywhere so far. It made me so sad. The Chinese have a massive problem with climate change and drought reducing even more of the country to useless dust and I do wonder whether the right people even care. I’ve got no reason to make a decision either way but there was a British Council building in the city espousing fighting climate change so somebody high up must be allowing it. They have one hell of a task though.
Ah but I’m waffling, despite my general discontent with the place there were a few worthwhile things to do. Not many but the highlights were the Shanghai Art Museum, the strange ex-pat nightlife and the Shanghai Museum. The latter had a nice collection of bronze wares and at present there is an exhibition of American art from the Revolution to the present which is worth a look. The Shanghai Museum of Art was certainly worth the 5Y it cost with us trawling the collection for a good few hours. The ground floor was mainly the work of two Chinese artists partly devoted to propaganda style paintings and partly to personal works of art. This wasn’t at all bad but the gem was a contemporary art exhibition which dredged all the most interesting, disturbing and entertaining things from Chinese modern artists’ minds. That alone made it worth a visit but our experiences of the nightlife were also pretty damn strange.
One night we abused the top floor bar’s happy hour to get a few BOGOF cocktails and then caught the metro into the French Concession, west of the centre. We had pinpointed a few likely sounding targets for a nice night out using the listing guide we found in our dorm and now set about finding them. The first was ‘Flashback’, a bar playing 70s rock and ‘a good place to get deliriously drunk’. Well, I have a feeling the guide may have been a little out of date. We walked up a street full of small bars, women lounging on motorbikes in front of every one, and walked into Flashback. Within a second we were surrounded by smiling, make-up plastered faces all saying ‘Hello, sit down!’. Obediently we did so and one of the Cheshire Cat grinning faces handed me a menu. They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared and we picked a couple of draught CSBs (Carlsberg we think). One of the girls came up and asked if we wanted ‘a girl to talk to?’, knowing what this probably meant we said no thanks and turned to drinking our beers. Now, though there were pictures of Hendrix, The Ramones, and stylised Marijuana leaves on the walls it seems there is no rock played there. Instead we had a barman strolling back and forth along the empty bar singing along to the most painful and tuneless Eurotrance Chinese pop ever. Disappointed we drank up and headed to another of the listing guide’s suggestions. This turned out to be non-existent so we returned to a bar we’d just passed. Chicago looked like a dive from the outside, a Coors Light sign beckoning hordes of Texans inside and a woman gyrating on a coffin-shaped podium in a silvery dress. It wasn’t in the listings but was just crap enough for us to take a look. There we rested for a couple of hours listening to the hits of Las Ketchup, ABBA, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Gipsy Kings, and even a re-mix of Song 2 by Blur. That re-mix was the single highlight of our crusade to find good music that night. Several drinks later I turned to my left and found Martyn had gone. Then, no, he was on the stage dancing with a lanky Chinese guy and a really fat white man. Apparently the lanky guy had pulled him onto the stage. After getting a nice video of the proceedings I decided I was too tired and a bit drunk so I left Martyn to it and grabbed a cab home. The following evening we gave the listings one last chance to redeem themselves and went to Jenny’s Blue Bar. When we entered it was pretty much empty. Indeed for about an hour the patrons were outnumbered by the staff. We supped on Duvel beers and chatted to the friendly barmaids. Then we were challenged to a game of Foosball on the free table that had been eyeing us up. ‘Sky’ the tiny barmaid was clearly very very well practised and perhaps she let me win the first game as I’m not particularly great at it. Still, for the rest of the evening we played and drank Guinness. Expensively. We talked to a few of the many ex-pats in the bar, all with Chinese girlfriends, wives or concubines on their arms. It was a very interesting night and both of us left wondering what their real stories were. Fleeing from justice, posted out there far away from home by a large corporation, or just failures in the UK? Jenny’s Blue Bar is worth a visit, when you go there, imagine you’re going to a really interesting zoo. Where the zoo keepers are very friendly and like their animals drunk.
The main thing was that we got some good tunes with The Doors and Bob Dylan played in the evening. Mission accomplished perhaps.
We left Shanghai tired and fed up with the place. It was worth going there to know never to go back I suppose. Whether that’s a good enough reason to have visited in the first place I don’t know.
Next stop was Hangzhou. Hopefully with some nice scenery and a less hectically oppressive atmosphere.