On the train to Shanghai i sat next to a guy from Chengdu who couldn't speak any English but wanted to chat anyway. He was very patient and tried to teach me words by pointing at Chinese characters around the train and sounding them out. This was a common theme in mainland China - generally people went out of their way to teach me the language, and did it in a way that was actually helpful. It was also great how often pinyin was printed next to hanzi, not just on street signs but also storefronts, keyboards and touchscreens. Very different to Hong Kong and Taiwan. But i'm jumping ahead of myself.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from Shanghai. All i really knew about the place was that it was a big city with tons of expats. They all seem to blog vapid trash like "the 10 best undiscovered restaurants in Pudong", which made me semi-hate it before i even got there. The main sightseeing i wanted to do was visit Hengsha Island, which is a major location in one of my favorite computer games - Deus Ex: Human Revolution. In the game, it is a new area that has been built up so heavily that there are several levels of overlapping streets - a super-dense vertical development that evokes Kowloon Walled City. I knew in real life it was still fairly rural, but i had no idea just how much.
First, i went to the beach. After being inland for so long, i wanted to see the sea. I took a long subway ride and even longer bus ride out to a remote suburb where apparently there was a beach. The bus was interesting, because it took me through areas of suburban Shanghai that featured several developments of single-family detached houses - something i had not seen anywhere in China outside of the very remote mountain areas. It also passed plenty of factories, notable for having oversize versions of the item they manufactured out the front (for instance, a giant vanity table). After an hour or so i arrived in a shabby little holiday town/burb, full of dollar stores selling floating water toys and flip-flops and swimming trunks. Being China, there were also streetside vendors along the way, just sitting randomly on blankets out front of the factories and warehouses. They were selling water bottles and parasols and banana boats too.
I almost instantly regretted paying cover charge for the beach. After going through the turnstile and walking past 500m of changing rooms, i popped out onto a stretch of golden sand covered in sunbathers. The water was full of kids splashing about. More lifeguards than an episode of Baywatch. But there was no horizon. The water was blue, but there was no surf. Out in the distance, a sea wall. One that was closed to pedestrian access, incidentally. (I asked.) Turns out the sand is shipped in from Hainan, and the seawater is piped in from Hangzhou Bay after filtration. Half the coast is reserved for swimming, and the other half is reserved for speedboat rides. Along the boating half there are barriers and razor wire on the shore to prevent people from getting into the water. I realized then that the whole lagoon was just a massive saltwater pool. It is one of the most bizarre things i have ever seen, but it seemed immensely popular with the locals.
I left the beach still having not seen the actual sea. I decided to walk along a roadside seawall until i found a place where i could paddle in real seawater. A few kilometers further along there was a break in the seawall where people could walk out on the mud flats and breakwaters. I wandered past the scuttling crabs and other weird creepy crawlies, looked out at the yellow/brown silty expanse and watched a few feeble waves slop against the concrete rubble. A bit further down, the less well-to-do families had clambered over all the trash and bugs and broken glass to paddle in the oozing tidal muck. I did too, and it was grand. Real sea beats fake sea any day. Off in the distance - aside from a natural gas factory and associated docks - three little islands that apparently make up the highest points in Shanghai. On the shore i wandered through a hardscrabble fishing village trying to build up a tourism industry. It was Tuesday evening. No one was around.
The next day i resolved to get to Hengsha Island, which is not located in the East China Sea, but in the Yangtze delta. Looking at the map i didn't really grasp the scale. I jumped on a subway and then a bus to Changxing Island, where i planned to transfer to another bus and car ferry to Hengsha. I was quite surprised when the bus entered a tunnel on the mainland and didn't emerge for about 10 minutes. We were dropped off at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere where i (and everyone else getting off the bus) was accosted by throngs of non-professional drivers trying to earn a few kuai. I waved them all off, having naive faith in the suburban public transport system. After wandering round in circles for a bit i found the bus station, where i discovered i had arrived in a public transport gap. There are only a handful of buses to Hengsha each day, and they align with commuter schedules. On my map i saw a dotted line at the bottom of Changxing - a ferry line back to the mainland - so i gave up on Hengsha and decided to walk to the ferry terminal instead.
That's when i really realized how very fucking big the Yangtze river delta is. Changxing is one of three major islands in the delta, but it is dwarfed by Chongming. It appears to be mostly an industrial port, with some farmland and distant residential suburbs of Shanghai. Or, at least, the tiny corner of it that i saw was, because i wandered for an hour along ramrod-straight dual carriageways with only the occasional electric scooter for company before i got to the river front. And what a river! Brown, choppy water with barely a hint of flow, bulk carriers and container ships disappearing off into the haze - i couldn't see the other side. I guess i had been fairly ignorant, i just knew the Yangtze was a river in China most famous for being dammed. I didn't realize it was a major shipping route like the Pearl River Delta.
So, yeah, more to Shanghai than just annoying laowei. After gawping and taking a few photos, i ran for a passenger ferry i saw departing back to the mainland. The cop rushed me back to get a ticket and waved me through "security" so i could get on in the nick of time. The trip back took a bit over half an hour, weaving through countless anchored vessels before docking at the mouth of the Huangpu river. A few kilometers from the port was a large park, where i continued wandering till the evening. The park had fully revitalized what i presume is the native Yangtze delta flora and fauna - mangroves and reeds and mud flats with crabs and birds everywhere. The kids tried to catch the crabs inside seashells on a string and the adults tried to catch birds in their ridiculously long zoom lenses. In the river? Sampans, barges, tugs, a cruise ship, a container ship, the works. It was a great day, aside from my failed mission of reaching Hengsha.
The next day i skipped the bus and quick-marched back to the port. Where i missed the fucking ferry again. So i spent 2 hours wandering around a "new economic area" from 20-30 years ago that was very grim and run-down. I wonder if the current new areas are going to look like that in 20 years when the next generation of nouveau riche decide somewhere else is hipper? Anyway, i nibbled some 烧饼 (shāo bǐng) - a flaky pastry from the silk road regions - and tried to find a public toilet that wasn't just a long trough stretching under each cubicle. This part of town was too poor to qualify for an upgrade to individual flush models, i guess. The guy at the ticket counter thought i was a hilarious novelty because i was at least a foot taller than him. No English, of course. He - much like the guy on the train - explained Chinese people like to talk, and tried to teach me more words. The ferry trip took over an hour, past motionless cranes and looming hulks.
I hired a bike as soon as i arrived on Hengsha, realizing if it was anything like Changxing i wasn't going to have enough time to explore the island before the last ferry without one. That was a grand idea, because it turned out that the real-life Hengsha is about as far from the cyberpunk metropolis of Deus Ex as you could possibly get. Much of the island is reclaimed land - miles and miles of polders complete with dykes and canals and sluices everywhere, just like in Holland. They even have a Dutch windmill. You can ride off the main road and onto the mini dykes that separate the fields - rice paddies, aquaculture ponds, citrus groves... and you can ride up on the bigger dykes that enclose the polders. I cycled along the main dyke past a wilderness area where it appears they have reintroduced water buffalo. There were insects and birds and no fucking people anywhere. It's the first time in China i experienced a real sense of solitude. Obviously everything was man-made, but there just wasn't much reason for anyone to visit. Later i found out that the main tourist drawcard of the island is bird-watching, so even the tourists it does attract are the quiet ones. The locals are farmers and fishermen. I rode for several hours around the island and enjoyed the peace and quiet and wide open spaces.
Getting back to the city was a bit of a mission in itself. I missed the last pedestrian ferry back to the mainland, so took a car ferry to Changxing, where i expected to be able to get a bus. But there was no bus. A sleazy guy kept trying to offer a lift while we were crossing the channel, but i didn't trust him. After hearing me say no for the 10th time he tried to sneak a selfie with me in the background. First and only sleaze-bag i met in China. Instead i approached a fellow pedestrian passenger and asked how he was planning to get back. He told me to follow him, and - together with two kids who were also on foot - we jumped into one of those ad-hoc taxis. I guess that's the standard way to get around on the islands. We got dropped at the bus station, where we took the bus back through the tunnel to the mainland. The guy helping me was a retired seaman - he did the route from Shanghai to Hong Kong and Singapore. A trait it seems i share with seamen - but not many Chinese - is a desire to get out on my own sometimes.
I didn't see much of Shanghai proper. Each day i spent 4-6 hours on public transport headed out to the outer suburbs. I did wander around a little, and what i saw was much like the commercial center in all the major cities i visited - lots of shopping malls, lots of chain stores, lots of people in suits and ties looking hot and busy. Different to the rest of China, there are a lot more Starbucks and other western chains. The older architecture, with its row houses and canals and grand colonial pomp, is a bit different to the rest of China too. It's a pleasant enough place to walk around in, although much harder to find cheap local eats than anywhere else i visited. I gravitated toward the hole in the wall joints seemingly run by Sichuan and Shaanxi migrants who didn't feel the need to get all elaborate and/or meat-based with their nosh.
In the end, what i will remember of Shanghai is blue collar grit, new areas gone old, mangroves, mud flats and a very fucking big river. The rest seems nice enough too - excellent subway system, lots of bilingual signs, all the mod cons... I can totally understand why expats flock there.
I didn't really want to leave, because leaving would mean the end of my Chinese journey, but the flight was already booked and that was that. On the 14th i got on a plane back to Hong Kong, where i planned to layover the weekend then continue to Taiwan to consider my next steps.
I will reflect more on mainland China, my thoughts on the place and contrasting its culture and vibe with both Hong Kong and Taiwan a bit later. For now i wanted to leave my Shanghai experience in a post by itself. Also, my train is about to arrive in Hualien and i have a half hour walk ahead of me to get to my hotel, so let's sign off.