Saturday, 11 June 2016

Shanghai: The Ancient, the Old and the Ultra-Modern

China, though historically rich, might conjure up an impression of a diluted history. Much of its historical sites have been restored (sometimes perhaps unsympathetically), and commercially plundered - and some even lost forever. What does its most modern city, Shanghai, speak of the China of yesterday, and the China of today?

"Don't compare this with Japan", I remind myself after arrival at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Signs of an architectural haste, and a cultural contrast with nearby Japan are almost immediately apparent. 

Posters for the soon to open Shanghai Disneyland line the arrivals corridor, a sign of Western absorption and rapid development, and taxi touts aggressively stalk me as I step out of the air conditioned Maglev train (one of the fastest trains in the world) at Longyang road. The journey only takes 7 minutes - a modern technological marvel. In contrast with this, the unpleasant smell of a makeshift rubbish dump adjacent to the taxi rank, in a seemingly unfinished building speaks further of this architectural haste. 

I do my best to communicate to the taxi driver in Mandarin, but resort to the tried and tested tourist method of a printed Google map, and an English raised voice. I am staying at the Renaissance Yu Garden, in the older Yuyuan area. 

It's actually a short walk from the hotel to the Yu Garden itself. I am by no means knowledgeable on Chinese history, but the gardens were first created in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty. As with many Chinese historical sites, most of the original structures were completely destroyed, particularly though the Taiping Rebellion. Most of the site therefore consists of recreations built in the 50s and 60s. 

The knowledge of the recreated buildings, coupled with the overwhelming commercial presence I am met with only detracts slightly, and a sense of cultural immersion remains. Navigating through the heart of the complex is a job given the small streets, peppered with arm grabbing street sellers and large crowds. 

The City God Temple is the first paid admission area (10 Yuan if I recall). Pleasant incense smells waft throughout a large courtyard, each side of which conceals worshipped figures, representing the overseeing Gods of Shanghai - three of them in fact. 

The second paid admission area is the garden itself. I walk in totally the wrong direction and end up at the garden exit - the garden can only be accessed one way. I cross a zig-zig bridge which presents stunning views of the traditional architecture around me. After finding my way in to the garden, I begin to commend this place as a genuine oasis from the crowds outside. 

It's surprisingly easy to get lost inside. For those seeking to gratify their inner 'travel brochure' impressions of ancient China, inside a modern metropolis, Yu Garden achieves this. The Pavilion of Listening to Billows beckons with it's wonky bridge walkway, and goldfish filled pond. 

The rockeries, and in particular the jade stone, are reminiscent of another planet, with their strange hole-punctured appearance.

The experience of Yuyuan is a gratifying, packaged, stamped and approved one. With the exception of Yu Garden, every square inch as been monopolised by mostly irrelevant shops, but it represents and satisfies what one would expect.

Another essential part of ancient Chinese life was the waterways,and the nearest place to Shanghai exemplifying this is Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town. About an hour away from the centre of Shanghai, the affordability of taxis here means this is the best way to access the town. The metro lines don't stretch this far, and the buses can be a difficult to depend on. 

The taxi drops off in a nearby car park, and I have two hours to explore.Again the proliferation of tourist commercialisation is apparent, but the first impressions are quite charming. 

A series of ancient stone bridges link the narrow paved streets, with lantern adorned gondolas slowly taking tourists up and down the rivers. Some might say that this is the Venice of China. Perhaps in terms of tourist numbers, they have a point.

Luckily this early in the morning, the streets aren't too busy, and I make my way to the largest and probably most famous of the bridges, Fangsheng Bridge, built in 1571. I'm offered live fish in a bag as I lean in for a photo. Crossing the bridge, I notice the lion figures along the sides, and the very shallow steps, perhaps designed for carts to traverse. 

I stumble upon the Great Qing Post Office as I leave, apparently the only historical post office in east China, built in 1903. Outside a very old post box looks genuine and proud, hopefully immune to the threats of impending commercialisation. 

The 1900s seems to be the best, most preserved and authentically standing historical period in Shanghai. I catch the super efficient metro to Nanjing Road East station, and make my way along the road towards the historical side of Bund. 

The Peace Hotel, now a Fairmont hotel, got its name in 1956, but the building itself was built in 1929. It boasts a stunning art deco interior, with fabulous lighting and decor in the lobby, elaborate 3D murals and an exquisite floral display in the centre. 

This architecture ensues along the front of the Bund, with buildings like the HSBC Bank, Customs House and the Bank of China all dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s. They are stunning and unquestionably authentic.

An evening boat cruise on the Huangpu river is the perfect visual transition between old Shanghai and the ultra modern - with the classic art deco buildings on one side, and the aggressively competing skyscrapers of the financial district on the other.

Another hot but clearer day presents an opportunity to get into the beating heart of modern Shanghai, and get to the top of the World Financial Centre, for some vertigo inducing views.

The Sightseeing Tunnel, is perhaps the most bizarre way of getting there. Essentially a ride underneath the river, a symphony of lights, strange sounds and dazzling patterns cocoons the travel pod as it slowly makes its way through.

Emerging by the base of the Oriental Pearl tower, elevated pedestrian walkways encircle well maintained highways below, with glimpses of skyscrapers as far back as can be seen. 

Giant video screens sell the latest Western, as well as Eastern products, and a glass domed chic looking Apple store is nestled below. This is truly the modern Shanghai that the rest of China hastily aspires to be.

Navigating a series of escalators and walkways, passing luxury shops, I enter the futuristic lobby of the World Financial Centre. My ticket will take me to the very top of the 'bottle opener', so named because of its tool-like shape.

Firstly a high speed elevator dramatically ascends to the 97th floor. This is the bottom of the 'hollow' area at the top of the building, and one can look up at the underneath of the upper part - a surreal experience. 

Here an escalator takes me up to the 100th floor - the 'Sky Walk' - which scarily has glass floors through the middle and sides. Being at the top of the hollow area, I look down to see the 97th floor I was just on, and distant streets below.

To the sides, spectacular views are afforded of the bund, and neighbouring skyscrapers.I can't help but feel a little nauseous as my mind jumps to impossible scenarios of falling from such a great height. This isn't made easier by the sight of window cleaners, casually hoisted up, 100 floors in the sky in a glorified bucket, smiling and without a care in the world...

Ultimately the ultra-modern area of Shanghai, despite perhaps being disconnected in some ways, feels more authentic than the recreated ancient China I have seen. It's not trying to be something it's not, just representing the forefront of development, business and venture. Not preserving, but reaching. Rapidly developing at such a pace, it has me wondering if the explosion of growth is sustainable. 

On the other side of the river, the classic architecture of the Bund also demonstrates a genuine integrity and authenticity. Although there are remnants and echoes of a time long passed, this is the real Shanghai. With preservation often comes the unfortunate side-effect of extreme commercialisation, repeated again and again throughout the world. For a taster though, I'm willing to put up with it for a snippet of a history, which otherwise would be be forgotten to the glorious hyper-speed aspirations of modern Chinese culture.