I stumbled upon the neighborhood where I had stayed during my previous visit to Shanghai one afternoon, quite by accident, as I was looking for a museum. Six years had gone by, and my old hotel was being gutted and remodeled into a better, fancier one, or perhaps something entirely different. The neighborhood no longer had sidewalks full of gauzy neon signs beckoning wayward males to enjoy a refreshing “massage.” Those garishly-lit parlors with large windows, pink carpet and red couches had magically disappeared. The sleazy, low-flying banners were no longer hanging over the streets, and all evidence of the world’s oldest profession had been replaced by 20 story office buildings and single-story coffee shops. The museum I was searching for was found literally across the corner from my old haunts, and I don’t know what was more confusing: Seeing my old neighborhood undergo such drastic changes, or failing to notice the museum 15 feet across the street 6 years ago.
I suppose that pace of change—for benefit or detriment, depending on your point of view—is the signature reason why Asia is so endlessly fascinating. This region of the world, and China in particular, can trace its history back 5,000 years, but they are in such a hurry to catch up with the rest of the younger, more exhausted West. So even as I travel to China to see the ancient, imposing past, the ever-changing present is unavoidable, confounding and undeniably magical. The change in China can be seen in the increasing absence of their rusty bicycles as the dominant form of transportation, replaced by silent electric mopeds and status symbol Buicks. But don’t worry, the tricycle cart is still the preferred method of transferring boxes and fruit and milk jugs tied up in a jenga-like ball, all three at the same time in some cases.
The country’s emerging middle-class is the size of the entire population of the United States and their purchasing power (as well as power of consumption) is one of those paradigm shifts the world will take decades to understand. Their love of Buicks, gadgets, watches, suits, jewelry, vacations and prestige mirrors China’s ambitious race with the West to enjoy all the trappings of a better life, to catch up, to make up for lost time. You don’t see many babies in China, something I didn’t notice until later in my trip, and I’m not sure if the infamous “one child” policy is still in effect, but it seems the young people here are too busy with their smart phones to start families.
Dams, Railroads, Airports--Oh, My!
The country has embarked on an unprecedented building spree, constructing massive dams, high-speed rail networks, international airports and record-breaking skyscrapers to facilitate their shifting economy, transitioning from rural and agrarian to one servicing the world’s hunger for goods and services. And this rapid change is fascinating because this is not the China from our history books, nor the China imagined from decades of western propaganda. In China, I was able to visit a 650 year-old section of the Great Wall of China, but only after arriving with the help of a futuristic, ambitious, and dazzling high-speed bullet train. That is a change that certainly works to my benefit, and in turn, those dizzying skyscrapers were the reason for my visit in the first place, so the Chinese infrastructure of the present offered me the opportunity to enjoy the Chinese infrastructure of the past, and I love when the world works that way.
And as usual when I am on vacation in a very foreign land, the dumb luck serendipity that seems to help me along once again found me thanking a pair of helpful Chinese girls who used their fancy phones to locate my hotel in the Shanghai darkness, walking with me through the wet streets until, oooh, there it is. Traveling becomes a lot less intimidating when the locals are so generous, and in a land of 1.3 billion people, chances are good you’ll stumble upon someone who is willing to assist when you find yourself in a fix. With so many people to watch, China is prime people-watching territory. I saw things that are unforgettable and that I wish I could forget. Is there a pill for that?
Yes, the Chinese are notorious for their spitting. The fact that the women are nearly as bad as the men is something I wish I could forget. The older the woman, the more accomplished the spitter. Yes, in addition to the spitting, the unrepentant, unfiltered, unashamed hocking up of phlegm before the spitting is equally disquieting. Many a morning the sounds echoing off the marble floors and walls of the hotel hallway woke me up in the most unpleasant way. That I would like to forget. Ohh, and the remarkable notion that spitting indoors on the floor is somehow optional. Somehow. Optional.
Chinese men who have buddha-inspired bellies often walk around with their shirts pulled up over their bare bellies, you know, casual, like rolling up your sleeves on a hot day. I’m glad this odd practice is cultural, because even though China doesn’t have a generous population of men with generous bellies, those who do are clearly proud of their basketball-shaped girth. If American men ever adopt this fashion statement, the results will be disastrous and unforgettable.
Talk, Talk, Talk
But I do find it funny listening to Chinese men talking on their phones on the slick bullet trains; they clearly think shouting at the top of their voice is the only way they can be heard. And when there is a group of 6 or 8 Chinese people together, let’s say an older group of men and women, the manner with which they interact with each other is unlike anything I have ever seen. They all talk at the same time, all talking over each other, all using absolutely no voice modulation, each speaking with their volume set on 11, while shoving food into their mouths with chopsticks. To watch a group of older Chinese eat at a restaurant is to listen to the impenetrable din of an ever-increasing cacophony of sound. But then you realize to them THAT is proper dining etiquette. It kind of grows on you, and is pleasantly unforgettable. My ears are still ringing.
Speaking of the unforgettable juxtaposition of cultural etiquette, I would include a story about the traditional Asian “squatter” toilets on the futuristic bullet train, but I will merely say China is really sticking with that most un-western device, sort of like how they’ve pushed all their chips to the center of the table with the chopstick. Hey, if it ain’t broke...
While walking through the sun-splashed streets of Beijing one day, I realized how lucky I was. Not only had the weather cooperated by turning the normally dour Beijing into a sunny version of South Beach, but overcast skies a day earlier had turned my Great Wall adventure into something appropriately otherworldly. I love skyscrapers but I also love discovering the old, ancient history that has survived into modern times, those exotic icons that tell multiple stories by their mere existence, by simply being. The Pyramids. The Acropolis. The Great Wall.
Yes, the Great Wall
I rode for two hours before my first glimpse of the Great Wall at Jinshanling came into view, miles away and very high in the mountains we had entered. And I suppose I was shocked by the location of the structure, because of the remote wildness of the the area and how impossibly, ridiculously HIGH on the mountain ridge the Great Wall sat. Nearly 700 years ago, the Chinese looked up at the same 3,000 foot tall mountain ridge and said, “let’s build up there.” And they did, and that wall is still here, snaking like a marble and granite serpent atop the jagged and undulating mountain tops, disappearing into the cloudy skies in two different directions. It goes on forever this way and goes on forever that way.
The connection with the ancient past was tangible and palpable when I was walking through the watch towers, peering over the horse barrier walls and climbing up the steep, crumbling stairs, becoming with each step a part of the legend that is the Great Wall, and you know how legends get passed down from generation to generation. With stories. And by visiting the ever-modern, ever-changing, ever-evolving China, I can share one certainty with you: The Great Wall of China will still be telling stories long after the skyscrapers are gone and the bullet trains have disappeared into oblivion. It was cool and breezy up there, and in my mind, mystical and ethereal, as I gazed off into infinity while standing on those ancient roadways in the sky. Some things never change. Simply unforgettable.
I had already eaten my soup and chicken and was enjoying some fish when these three locals joined me for dinner and shared their four-course fruit, veggie, weird squash/gourd/thing and squid on a stick meal while teaching me some Chinese phrases, giggling, of course, about my pronunciation. Dinner outside in Shanghai at 11 p.m.. That is gold.