The air is alive with the sound of Asian flutes and strings, a peaceful cacophony of intermingling boom-boxes strewn about Lu Xun Park in northern Shanghai. This is where the Taiwanese congregate each morning to practice the art of Thai Chi on mass. It is a spectacle to behold and one well worth getting up at 6am for. Every space is taken up by some movement, from large groups to single denizens swaying slowly amongst the bamboo groves.
The precision and fluidity with which they execute their movements is breath-taking: such a peaceful and inspiring existence. Most of the practitioners are old, but look in the prime of health, I a young man, sitting here yawning and sweating at the same time just watching them. It’s incredibly hot and humid and I can’t even fathom doing exercise right now.
There are a number of people practising with swords as well, one handed slender blades, straight and double edged, with small winged cross guards. The weapon is an embodiment of its use, light and flowing, balanced and decorative, a true extension of its user.
Lu Xun Park is a memorial for the political novelist of the same name, who promoted Mao’s movement. In honour of him, Mao built this park and monument, burying him here even against the artists own wish, which was to be buried in a small family grave in his home province. It seems his fame owned him even after his death.
Besides its political irony, the park is beautiful, with small tea houses harbouring local card players, a tranquil lake with in impressive stone bridge, and lily ponds to boot. The only downside is that by 8am the park is overrun with dance classes, choking every possible space and converting the peaceful atmosphere into an insufferable rabble. I feel for the birds in their cages hung from the trees. Apparently it’s tradition. Chinese don’t seem so good with pets thus far.
Pudong & Xintandi
Pudong is the neck breaking skyscraper capitol of China. Being a restoration project in the 1950’s, Pudong used to be a slum, but now is the financial capital of mainland China. There are skyscrapers of every description here, from the art-deco Mao tower, to the phallic 60’s space station of the Pearl TV tower.
There is a series of elevated modern walkways suspended above lush parks that wind through the glass jungle. The most impressive buildings are undoubtedly the Mao, International Finance Centre, and Shanghai tower, which are a perfect example of architectural evolution. They form a triangle from Art deco Mao, to post-modern straight line Financial centre, and then mind-bogglingly curvatious Shanghai tower, the second tallest and most beanstalk like building in the world.
I sample all three interiors, but there’s not much to be seen without paying up to Y200 for the observation decks. After sunset amongst the shimmering trees I headed to the cool artsy district of Xintiandi , a restored Shikumen complex just west of the old city. It was almost like a posh restored dock, with lively cafes and restaurants set amongst a rather fake looking pastiche of an old-school Chinese housing estate.
Beautiful though it was with its dimly lit wood and stonework, narrow alleyways and modern statues, I suddenly realised what it is. This is a place where rich Chinese people go to eat expensive Western food. Nearly every building was an Italian, French, or American restaurant, with Starbucks to boot. It’s also surrounded by a series of shopping malls, sporting boutique, upmarket fashion stores. After absorbing the cool ambience I ate my cheap ramen noodles and went home.
The Jade Buddha Fiasco
In an extremely poorly lit room, a fair distance away, there sits an exquisite Jade Buddha behind two oil burning candles, which, if you buy a bottle of oil from the guard, she will pour into the vat amongst all the other un-burnt oils.
“No photography!” she yells, as I sneak a quick pic while she’s busy pouring tourists money into the pot.
Yufo temple in North Western Shanghai was built to house two Jade Buddha statues, the largest of which I am looking at. It is situated in an out of the way residential area, amongst soaring communist housing estates with peculiar architecture. I mean, who creates a natural rock effect on one part of a thousand strong occupancy estate, leaving the other 90% plain concrete? It is one of these highly overrated places that has no real significance unless you’re Chinese, something I would later discover is a bit of a thing in China.
The Great Treasure hall is far more impressive, with giant statues of past and future golden Buddha’s everywhere. This is the kind of thing you get really excited about the first time and then realise that every temple in China is exactly the same. The temple itself looks like it was built yesterday, as all the ramparts are shiny and plastic looking. Surprisingly, even though it’s a weekend, it’s not rammed, being primarily a functional temple.
I am a little late for the morning service, but I catch the end of a prayer session, which is quite charming. Locals and pilgrims don their robes and sing along to chants as the Buddhist monk leads them along with his microphone.
People everywhere are praying, burning incense (which you have to buy in the shop) and throwing money into little pots in front of statues. I hear monks make a killing selling blessings here as well. No wonder all the statues are adorned with gold. The place is tiny and there’s not much to see other than what I already mentioned, apart from a couple of giant lumps of green glass for sale outside the gift shop.
One thing that does catch my eye however, is a just larger than life-sized shiny wooden statue of Zhang Fei, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms legendary “Warrior of the magnificent beard” hidden away in a shady corner. He holds his beard to one side as if presenting it to be inspected. It is magnificent, as is his expression, both fearsome and with a slight airy humour about it, as if with one laugh he could cut you down.
Zhang Fei was the giant warrior who was renowned as much for his beard as much as for his chivalry: the ancient equivalent of a modern David Beckham. When I heard about it, I bought the book to read whilst travelling, but I didn’t realised that part one is 1000 pages long, so I had to leave it at home.
On my way in to grab my camera and head back out to The Bund (I accidentally deleted all my photos from the last 2 days, no biggie) I bump into my new roommates (Had to change hostels as part of the Jade Buddha Fiasco), who turn out to be completely un-interesting. They all want to go out for dinner and then drinks at a place they admitted was lame yesterday just so they can get drunk. I hate backpackers like these.
Back at the Bund, night has fallen and the light show is out in all its glory. It’s actually spectacular. Purples and blues and whites blend into the foggy sheen of the Fouzhou Creek, the top of the Shanghai tower still shrouded in cloud. I take a series of long exposures in order to filter out the crowds of spectators in the way.
The city comes alive at night. It’s even busier than it is during the day and there is a choke of Chinese tourists heading up East Nanjing Road. I get offers of prostitution twice. Strangely one block south and there’s almost no-one. Tourist traps always amuse me. I must be less than 50m from the choke, the view is identical, and there is almost 90% less people. Noobs, everywhere!
When I look back at all my adventures in China, somehow Shanghai feels very disconnected. It was my first experience of China, and yet my memories of everywhere else are fonder. I think for me, I just hate big cities. I grew up in London and I’ve seen tourist traps all over the world, and although they all have their own uniqueness, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I far prefer the countryside and the natural beauty of a place, not human-kind’s blight upon it.
If you enjoy my ramblings don’t forget to like and subscribe below. In the next episode I’ll be leaving the big city and sampling my first course of the Chinese railway, my home for the next four months. First stop: Huang Shan (Yellow Mountains).