Nothing beats the first ride into a new country. There is a true magic in watching another place unfurl before you.
From the airport, the bus passes through Pudong, a sprawling sister city for Shanghai. But even though it is new, it has been worn in. It doesn’t look like anywhere I’ve ever been before. Shanghai itself is a like a cleaner Chennai. But Chinese.
I say cleaner but all I mean is that the streets are better kept. From a distance, it is hard even to make Shanghai out in the smog, although, in fairness, the weather is foggy, so it is not all pollution.
Even the hustlers cannot spoil strolling on the Bund. This is the epitome of the mystic East for me, although of course it is famous for being the centre of Western interests in China. For me, it is the waterfront playground of Fu Manchu and other thugs, doing their dirty deeds in the shadows of the edifices of Western power.
On the Bund, I am picked up by Chong, who says he wants to practise his English. This is more or less feasible and I never have learned how to shrug off a persistent local. How rarely they turn out to be genuine though. I don’t think I should be surprised. Why would anyone be all that interested in befriending a tourist? If they are curious, they have TV.
Chong thinks it is a good idea to go to the Old Town. I was going anyway so I don’t mind so much that he tags along. He suggests taking tea in a teahouse he knows. I’m not keen but I can’t think of a kind way to say no. I like to stroll around, to take in place and people. I don’t need or want a guide. That spoils it for me. The Old Town is extremely commercialised and packed with mostly Chinese tourists. I don’t know how much of it is really old and how much is renovated or simply imagined (more than a little is my guess) but it is impressive and different. The buildings, all flare and frills, are like nothing I’ve seen before.
Chong’s “teahouse” seems to be an international pearl exhibition centre. I simply say that it doesn’t look like the kind of place I’d enjoy. He is more upset than you’d expect from someone whose suggestion of a place to stop for a cup of tea has been knocked back. Soon after, he says he must be getting home for lunch. He says something about how very expensive the taxi will be now he has walked all this way with me. Bye, I say.
Two of my dormmates are at home in the hostel. One, an Englishman called Dave, has been in China for five months teaching English. I don’t think he has left the building except to buy beer all day. Maybe not all week. He seems utterly defeated by life. He makes desultory conversation but he’s overshadowed by Mark, a young Swiss lad. Who is barking. He cannot keep a single sentence on a straight track, telling endless stories, which veer from drinking with friends to his need to take a shower with a woman — any woman. I begin to understand why Dave is drinking so much.