Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 3: Shanghai

Day 3

Walking towards the old Chinese city in the foggy early morning, I have to dodge an aggressive shoe shine bloke who squirts, from quite some distance, polish from a tube at my boots. His accuracy is unerring. I am forced to dance away with nifty footwork; His face turns from a picture of eagerness to one of bewilderment and terrible hurt.I wouldn’t mind, but my Timberlands are made of a curious oiled leather, and my fear is that his product may very well be incompatible. I’ve made it my strict policy to avoid this crossroads from now on. My dancing isn’t good enough.

I stroll down the famous Nanjing road, changed beyond recognition from the postcards I have from the 1920s; It is now a huge pedestrianised shopping street with music blaring out to entice shoppers in. You could be almost anywhere in the western world. I march on, intent on locating the low mound of the original city wall which had once circled old Shanghai. You have to look hard for this. It is more easily seen on a map, indelibly marked in the layout of the roads which curve around it. This phase of Shanghai’s history is not celebrated in quite the way it would be in England, say, where you’d be charged heavily for the privilege of going anywhere near it.

OI reach the Central Fangbang Road. This is a tourist trap, and I seem to be the only tourist there. Hawkers and trinket salesmen shout at me, and it becomes tough going very quickly. There are some fantastic shops selling wonderful antiques, precious stones, silks, bicycles, furniture, lanterns, watches, shoes… everything a tourist could want. But when you’re the only likely customer, you have to be quick to avoid the mantra offers of ‘Marlboro? Rolex?’

Back at the hotel, I’m happy to see my train ticket has arrived. It will take me all the way from Shanghai in the east, to Urumqi in the far, far west. A two day journey across the heart of China. The train leaves tomorrow at 20.38, so I have another full day in Shanghai.

After a lunch of beer and dumplings, I set off for the old French Concession district of the city. The arrival of the train tickets makes me think I should buy supplies for the journey. I find a supermarket and see this as an excellent opportunity to buy a selection of useful and sustaining items… and some less sustaining ones like crisps and biscuits. Laden down with these goodies rather hampers my plans for the rest of the afternoon, but top tip – walking about with three shopping bags makes you look like a local. I don’t get heckled once!

The city, hotel and even the water has a wonderful Chinese pungency as I stroll. The streets are particular for their complex aromas – tobacco, the porcine wafts of cooking food, the river…

The Peace Hotel continues to fascinate. I discover the stairs, and this opens up a whole hidden world so far bypassed by the use of the elevators. An odd tableau on the 4th floor: I find a full-sized grand piano on a small, neglected landing. When was it ever played? When was it last played, and to whom? How did it get there? The answers remain elusive.

I find another set of stairs leading down to a defunct lobby with revolving doors. These doors are locked shut with padlock and chain, but the decoration is original even down to the light fittings, and the marble decoration quite fabulous. This place was built to impress a generation long dead and buried. A man outside (who looks a little like an Asian Charles Bronson) taps on the glass and mouths the words ‘Marlboro? Rolex?’

Later, in the restaurant, the menu offers such delights as: sautéed river eel, steamed turtle, braised crocodile paw (or tail), braised fish lip with three treasures (what treasures are these, I wonder? Perhaps items foraged off a sunken pirate ship? Pieces of eight, maybe? Spanish doubloons?), and any number of shark dishes.

My wanderings around the hotel lead me to the roof. There is a bar up here, but the difficulties of navigation has foxed most of the potential customers. A tiny speaker plays bland international hotel piano music, while underfoot there there is false green grass matting for reasons hard to fathom. It is undeniably atmospheric up here (despite the music), with a view of the river even better than that seen from the restaurant.

Barges move slowly downstream, their ghostly shapes picked out by their navigation lights.Although the Bund and the Pudong district on the opposite bank are over-lit with neon, downstream it is dark. Maybe I’m still thinking about crocodile paws, but the overloaded boats do look like crocs’ heads as they prowl along. The river is somber, ominous even, and somehow very dangerous. The boats slip away into the gloom seemingly without a sound in the noisy city.

Back in the Jazz bar (see retro-blog 2) I wonder why, if the band have been playing since Jazz began, do they still need the music? Especially the drummer?

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