Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 2: Shanghai

In the run up to the launch of Operation Storm City in America, I thought I’d post up extracts from my diary written during my research trip to Asia. I travelled across China by train from Shanghai to the Sinkiang (Xinjiang) province, where I visited remote abandoned cities on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. After that I visited Chengdu, Hong Kong, and finally India. It took 5 weeks in total, and provided much important material for Operation Storm City.


Day 2

My room at the Peace Hotel is huge – I have two bathroom sinks, and a shower the size of a car wash. I also have a view of the River Huangpu and the Bund (the river front), so I feel I’m definitely following in the footsteps of my characters Becca and Doug, who set off on their adventures from just about exactly this location in Book 1, Operation Red Jericho.

I set out for a stroll along the Bund. The colours are muted almost to monotone by the smog hanging in the air. Sampans have gone out of fashion, but the variety of river craft is remarkable: everything from huge, dirty-great modern freighters to decrepit barges, so low in the water that they look like they’ll sink if hit by even the most moderate of waves. The regular blasts of ships’ horns lends the prospect a most workmanlike feel. This city is a working port, as ever it was.

The Bund has been pedestrianised; Where once gangplanks allowed the loading and unloading of cargo from ships, now a smart, tourist-friendly paved walkway fringes the river. Only ferries, police launches and tourist boats tie up to the quay these days it seems. This popular spot – popular with the locals I hasten to add, not especially the foreigners – has a broad view across the river to the dazzlingly new Pudong quarter, where the new crop of skyscrapers from China’s boom economy grow. The Chinese seemed to care not a jot for the old European buildings of Shanghai’s past; They gaze out in awe at the neon-fronted high rises of the future, all stark cold glass and steel. It’s hard to believe the Pudong development is only 15 years ago. 

Jet-lagged, I retired to my room for a kip. Later in the evening, and back now on the Bund, the night sky is a deep, dark, velvety blue – a combination of neon and pollution I suspect, but strangely beautiful. Dozens of hawkers and postcard salesmen approach each tourist they see. There are so many of them, in fact, that progress becomes difficult and tiresome, and I reluctantly switch back to the Londoner’s blank stare to avoid them. 12 years of training pays dividends. I am left alone.

I returned to the hotel restaurant – not adventurous when all Shanghai beckons, but exhaustion and the thought of the difficult journey ahead play a large part here. The guide books suggests a pizza! In China! I have a local dish instead – a stunning beef and pepper creation with Canton rice. It is absolutely delicious.

I visit the hotel’s Jazz bar afterwards – an renowned institution, not only in the Peace Hotel, but in all Shanghai. The band’s average age is 75+ and they’ve been playing here since, well who knows when? They’ve packed the place out, and I’m excited to discover you can ‘order’ music from a sort of hymn sheet on each table. “Order one piece 30” it suggests, 30 Chinese Yuan being the price of a single tune. There are some songs listed I feel I know, but not quite: ‘Denny Boy’ (sic), and ‘My Heart Left San Francisco’ …without the owner, I wonder? 

In honour of staying in hotels in faraway lands, I order a Suntory whiskey, and raise a toast to Bill Murray and his marvellous film ‘Lost in Translation’, and set about choosing a song.


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