I’ve only been in Shanghai for a bit and have just about got over jet lag. I ended up doing an all-nighter last night, taking some night shots of the cityscape from my (highly elevated) bedroom window and watching the smoggy sunrise in awe, just to get my sleep-cycle right and ended up snoring through a Chinese music concert in the evening – oops… So, first impressions.
Immediately after touchdown, the first thing to greet my sleep-deprived eyes was a colourful and gleeful rendering of the cheerful glory of an olympic host, painted onto the side of a member of the China Airlines fleet. Up till now, that remains the only apparent relic I’ve seen of last Summer’s excitement.
As I expected, apart from the airport which was magnificent and unbelievably (to a Londoner) efficient (somewhat different from dear old Heathrow), there are aspects of this place which are somewhat … different. The most striking part is probably the population density. Officially Shanghai has a population of about 20 million, although I suspect that figure is a gross underestimate owing to the number of homeless and unregistered civilians living in this district. With such a population squashed into only 6500 square Km, the city has over 3000 people per square kilometre. Not bad one might think, but the crowds are multitudinous and dense. It is a result of this crowd culture that Chinese people get their (deserved) loud reputation. Even in the most serene places, people will communicate at top volume, choosing to shout rather than to talk normally so as to be heard. Walking around just about anywhere constitutes shoving your way through a throng of people – which itself wouldn’t be so bad if they were normal people. The sad fact is that every person here, without exception, appears to be dying of some disease or other and every line of sight seems to end in someone spluttering, coughing and/or blowing his nose into the air. Hygiene awareness when coughing and sneezing (often while cooking) is approximately zero – bodily fluids/gases exit bodily orifices liberally into the open air without thought or care for anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby. Combined with such a high person to square kilometre ratio and you end up with a fantastic disease spread rate. The smoking situation is also quite chronic. The taxi from the airport reeked blatantly of cigarette smoke. Crowds emit smoke puffs as you push your way through and buildings stink of nicotine. Oh, did I mention the pollution? Don’t get me started on the smog.
Meanwhile, the traffic is absolutely manic. Shanghai is very much a biking city (electric scooters and bicycles are much cheaper than cars), and such vehicles, when combined with a cavalier disregard for pedestrians, traffic lights and other road users, make for quite deadly weapons. Crossing the road is like waging a war. Seas of pedestrians from both sides of the road meet in the middle in a cacophony of shouting, bustling, coughing and spitting while being constantly punched through by honking road bikes and the occasional impatient taxi. Sometimes there’s a policeman in the middle of it all pretending to direct traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular). There are effectively no real rules for the road. Cars cut lanes and cross junctions at full speed without warning or looking around, and diesel motorbikes frequently mount pavements, pushing aside pedestrians. My dad while he was here personally bore witness to an accident in which an infelicitous pedestrian was hit by a car whose driver just drove off, without care for whatever mess he had left behind. You’d think people would at least take out some sort of physical insurance against such a dangerous road situation, but it seems that taxis deliberately disable seatbelts (the ones I’ve been in have had them ripped out and covered over with cloth).
When most people think of the police, the first two words that jump to mind tend to be ‘law’ and ‘bastards’, often in reverse order. In China, things are very different. During my very first trip to the market I saw a policeman grab an item from a shop and stroll away calmly with the ill-fated shopkeeper running after him, tugging his arm. They are far from law, but they sure are bastards. There are no rules, no morals, and few properly enforced civil rights laws (thoughtcrime law on the other hand…) – the police are just bullies with sticks and uniforms (and guns).
As far as first impressions go, the internet actually isn’t bad. I’m using the [still censored] connection in my dad’s apartment (he works in Shanghai) and the upload speed is faster than what Virgin Media give me back home in good old London. The download speed, about 1Mbps, is still one tenth what I get in London, which is still perfectly ample for surfing. Remote desktop on the other hand is torturous. I’m still worried about thoughtcrime and censorship, and since my blog is on the blocklist (well, all wordpress blogs are, I think) I’m typing this up on Notepad and subsequently posting it through remote desktop.
There are though good things about Shanghai. I’m overdramatising the bads a bit as, well, that’s what I do as a cynic. But the prices are undeniably good and conversion is convenient (10Y = £1 almost exactly). Stuffed bao (sort of buns) go for 10p in the supermarket, and clothes prices beat Primark hands down. The underground actually works (unlike London), and there are some great photos to be taken, particularly night shots while I’m recovering from my jet lag.
So, that’s what I think of Shanghai after about 3 days. Brilliant place, though a little crazy. If you want me to test some websites to see if they’re blocked, do comment / contact!