The trip to Shanghai was a godsend and so unexpected that I must say "Thanks" to the person who signed off the trip for me. The reason why I landed up in Shanghai, one Saturday lunchtime in early January 2007, was because the business development manager of the company I was a contractor for kindly convinced the operations manager of the team I was going to visit of the necessity of my trip.
It wasn't a visit I was going to pass up, especially as it was only for a week. I still was getting over a traditional Christmas bout of flu but I was determined to make the most of the trip and to be honest, I think both the business manager and the Shanghai operations manager understood that the trip was more of a gift holiday disguised as a diplomatic mission than an outright professional necessity.
After flying out from Geneva, via a lengthy 5-hour stopover at Amsterdam, there I was at Shanghai airport and for the seasoned traveller in me, my immediate dilemma was to find out how to get from the airport to the hotel : Bus? Maglev? Taxi? the choices were there for taking.
Unfortunately, the tired traveller that I was I made the wrong one and chose a black taxi, or rather they chose me and rapidly found myself escorted out of the airport terminal, away from the taxi rank and down into an underground parking to an unmarked car.
So what now? Play the alarmed tourist with possibly negative consequences for me or play things down and go along with it. I decided to go along with it and try to get to the hotel in one piece with all my baggage and, without going on a tour around Shanghai . As it turned out the guys in the black taxi were OK (yes there 2 of them: the driver and the poacher/beater), especially when I said I had just flown in from France because no sooner than I'd said I came from France (I didn't say I was French... so I wasn't lying I was just answering a direct question.) they starting talking, in pigeon English, about how they liked French football and the universal Zinedine Zidane.
Once out of the taxi I thought about what they would have said if I said I arrived from London or New York - thank you Zizou, you probably saved me from a bad experience
And there I was some 30 minutes later safe and sound - with all my baggage - in front of my hotel a much more seasoned traveler for the experience, an experience I was able to avoid replicating some 3 months later during Kyrgyzstan page for more details).
When I looked up at the hotel I thought it big and exposed, the temptation of assimilating its form with anything salacious was successfully brushed aside. The feeling of exposure was reinforced once up in my 19th-floor hotel room, comprised on 2 sides of the floor to ceiling windows that rattled with the slightest wind but apart from that it was worth noting that the room was a very comfortable 30m2 and made up the (smaller) part of a suite. Maybe one day I persuade my client to let me have the 60m2 part of the suite :). In fact, it's a standing joke for me that I must go back for several reasons. 1) I need to replace the portable PC bag I bought in one of Shanghai's notorious Fake markets. 2) I want to go back there flying with Singapore Airlines and 3) Take the MagLev train from the airport into the city centre.
But duty called me back to reality as I remembered that I had to call the Shanghai operations manager and announce my arrival. As it transpired I called her just a little bit too late to be able to take part in the Saturday excursion she had arranged for the colleague from our Munich office. They were to go shopping in some old Shanghai market or something so the manager announced I could take the rest of the day off to relax and unwind but that I was to present myself at the hotel reception the next morning (Sunday) for the Sunday excursion to the Tong li water village, some 2 hours out of Shanghai.
The Sunday excursion to Tong-li was instructive if long, cold and windy. An immersion into a real and authentic Chinese water village with a trip to the local temple housing, very pragmatically, altars to Buddha, Confucius and Tao followed by nice typically Chinese lunch, surrounded by Chinese and not a European in sight apart from at our table.
All in all, it was a much-appreciated excursion and an original way to spend a Sunday that would have otherwise been spent in bed or lounging around the hotel lobby preparing for the Monday and my visit to the Shanghai office.
Monday and after a lovely breakfast buffet I set off to work... like the majority of the 20 other million people living in Shanghai. Believe me, when you see the state of the buses, jammed pack crammed full, or the intersections where the cars, lorries, buses and other less easily identified modes of road transport all try to get through at the same...
(At this point, I need to explain that although inner city roads are quite well kept the roads on the outside are potholed and worst still the Chinese drivers there have no notion of lanes, inside middle or outside lanes have no priority as they would do in Europe. Another particularity about the Chinese drivers is that they don't hoot as a French driver does for a nothing or get overheated as a German would do if he got cut up, they just go stubbornly on at the same speed and in the same manner until they get to where they want to go or are stopped by some obstacle they can't go round.)
Arriving finally at the company's outer office, in Shanghai's free trade zone, I settled down to work realizing that I was, in fact, eight hours in front of my team's working hours in Europe, and as such was able to get through a lot more administrative work than I would have done in France.
NB. At the time the company also had an office in the Bund centre, a vast office hotel/office complex right in the city centre. An amazing site for an amazing structure that is lit up at night with the rooftop illuminations to show up in varying colours the form of the Lotus shaped roof for viewers looking down from the nearby Jin Mao tower across the river.
And so the week went on and the operations manager from the company branch office played a perfect host ensuring that I was accompanied at all sorties, if not by her and her husband then by someone from her team. I later learnt that in some of the places we went, notably the Fake market*, my hosts were subjected to derogatory remarks from the locals that ranged from slightly unpleasant to downright insulting that sometimes made them wince or shrink back as if someone had shown them the back of their hand as if to hit them.
It was only later that I learnt and understood that not everyone in China, not even in such a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, likes the Caijin and that it is often the Chinese hosts who bear the brunt of this dislike and disdain, the Gaijin being esteemed unable of understanding such sentiments, something I'd felt in Japan as well.
* The Fake market or markets (there are several in Shanghai) are legendary. For whatever the reason these markets exist and flourish. Worse still they are legendary. Every tourist with an ounce of adventure in him or her must go to the market to buy their Fake Gucci or Rolex at a price defying all competition. Conspiracy theorists maintain that these markets are encouraged by the local powers as it undermines western economies, by the sheer mass of counterfeit products sold to unwary or uncaring foreign tourists who, for certain, promptly have their counterfeit merchandise
The week passed so quickly and it was with mixed emotions the week drew to a close but before it did a trip up the Jin Mao tower was a must. I had seen photos of the inside of the tower and wanted absolutely to go up and take what are now the default photos to take there: One from the 87th floor bar (Cloud 9, the world's highest bar) looking our across to the Pearl TV tower and further to the Bund Center and one of the inside of the tower looking down some 31 floors to the 56th floor bar. Before taking the photo I was advised to take everything out of all pockets above the waist as anything that fell hit the floor beneath with lethal force.
The trip to the Jin Mao was an experience. It's enormous, 88 floors, with a hotel (The Hyatt) going from the 54th to the 85th floor and a real labyrinth, to go from the ground to the 87th floor you need to take at least 3 lifts. There are piano bars and restaurants all over the place and I have to admit that after a while of going around in circles I started getting claustrophobic and was happy to be either up or down but not stuck in the middle.
On reaching the exit I think everyone in the small group with me breathed in as deeply as possible and it was then that I had a 01st hand experience of what Chinese can be when they get angry.
We had joined the end of one of the 2 queues of people waiting for a taxis, one for the hotel clients and one for the visitors. The queue for the hotel emptied quickly and a man came, looked at the queue for the visitors and promptly positioned himself in the now empty hotel queue. The hotel doorman saw the man hailed a cab and asked the man his room number.The man said he was a visitor and the doorman told him to get in the visitors' queue. What followed was an animation, a tirade that lasted a good 10 minutes in which it got very heated, the taxi that wanted the client, any client was immobilized and sent off to wait in a corner or risk never taking another client from the hotel ever again and the recalcitrant client was accompanied off the hotel grounds by not 1 but 2 doormen, both 6 foot tall with a demeanour that ouzed military training...that's right, I confirm not all Chinese are 5 foot something tall, affable Sammo Hung look-alikes.
The week was over and like I said it was with mixed emotions but generally speaking I came away from Shanghai with a head full of thoughts and souvenirs but most importantly full of 01st hand opinions of what life in Shanghai, if not China, is like for the Chinese colleagues I work with as well as for millions of other people who live and work in Shanghai. The people I meet who I work with were kind and available and willing to oblige. I can't think of that many people in our office who would or who you could ask for volunteers to accompany visitors on the Saturday or Sunday, be subjected to the insults of the others because they are with the European* and then have to spend hours trying to get back home by bus, metro or on foot at some late hour of the evening...to be honest, I think they did appreciate
* I later learnt that some of the Chinese girls who accompanied us were called lackeys of the western dogs (that was as best a translation as I could get from my Chinese colleagues) to their faces and I felt bad about that. Not only did they give up their time, both work and home, to accompany me but they got insulted into the bargain. I don't know as many cultures as I should but it seems that, compared with some, the Chinese culture is still getting to grips with Globalization, mass tourism as well as the cultures and traditions of the countries they visit, as often seen when a certain new type, but not all, of Chinese tourist traveling abroad.
And there I was, winging my way back from China chasing the sunset for almost 6 hours, an uncanny experience. I arrived back in Amsterdam in the middle of a storm and was back at Geneva by midnight with a ± 2-hour drive back to Grenoble before I could fall into my bed. I've promised myself that next time I go to Shanghai I'll do it another way and with my wife.