Another overnight train – this time to Shanghai, China’s second largest city (35 million) – this is the farthest north I travel in China – the rest of my trip is in southeast China. This overnight train is different – each of the cars has 3 bunk bed levels and there are 2 sets of bunk beds in each compartment; all the compartments adjoin the narrow aisle along the side of the car with about 3’ between beds – no separate rooms. We leave at 7 pm and get to Shanghai at 3 the following afternoon. It is often quite noisy with almost everyone talking or watching something on their phone; however, when the lights are dimmed at 10, it is mostly quiet.
In the morning light, I notice that a lot of this area is relatively flat: fields are bigger and are planted to crops and/or trees – reforesting. Often there are veggies/greens growing between the rows of young trees. We also pass a lot of greenhouses and hoop houses: kilometers & kilometers of them w/ small access roads between them – kinda like this sleeper car with bunk beds and narrow aisles. Grocery stores and markets are full of a lot of domestic produce and fruit. Like before, I bring my dried soup and have it for breakfast.
We pass many towns and cities. Older buildings are often 3 stories whereas new structures are usually at least 30 stories high. Space is at a premium, so they are building up. Then we are back in the mountains – seems like the mountains and train tunnels are never far away.
At Shanghai I take a taxi to a hostel where Maarten reserved a room for me. I show the cab driver the address (Chinese characters), he does not recognize it, but an attendant comes over; they have an animated conversation and away we go. The cabbie stops in the entrance to an alley – no car traffic in there; he indicates this is it. I’m not so sure – so I hold off paying him until I trot down the alley and sure enough, after about 100 yards, I find the hostel. Folks working here speak fluent English and tell me that most people in this area do – but that is NOT my experience. I have a private room and the best shower since my arrival in China. The hostel is hippy-esq with folks from all over the world writing their names on a wall and various new age sayings, brightly colored steps, walls, etc.
There are walking tours advertised on line that I’m interested in but it’s hard for me to figger out where they are or how to get there: the Metro and city maps are all in Chinese. I explore on my own and find local parks, pedestrian streets, metro stations, eating places (everywhere!), etc. I find seniors elegantly dancing in a park to music, others are doing Tai Chi, and there is a busker duo: guitar, singing, and drumming. An older man has set up a card table and is making small models of bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, etc. I buy one and amazingly, it makes it home intact in my backpack. All the streets I walk on are bordered by Sycamore trees – makes me feel at home.
There is a massage place down the alley from my hostel. They advertise “blind massage”. I check it out and select an hour long Chinese massage. The beginning is awkward: the manager (owner?) leads me into a room and gestures to a massage table, and then she leaves. OK, so now what? I am used to taking off my clothes and then covered by a sheet for a massage. Am I supposed to take off my clothes? I don’t and in a few minutes a blind woman walks in, stops, and calls to the manager, who comes in and indicates that I am supposed to lay down on the massage table and NOT take off my clothes. The massage is with my clothes on. The masseuse is good, finds my sore spots and works them hard.
Maarten, the owner of the bnb chain I have been stayin in and his wife live in Shanghai. I have an evening date w/ Maarten; we’ve never met but had a skype date while we were planning this trip. He and his wife, Elsa (they got married a month or 2 ago) live in what is called the French quarter. He meets me at the hostel and talks me walking through the neighborhood. He shows me the local Buddhist temple and then we go to a Japanese restaurant. He calls Elsa, originally from Taiwan and now 6 months pregnant. She will join us for dinner; in the meantime, Maarten and I have a beer. We have lots to talk about: Laojia bnbs, China, our lives, etc. I like Elsa too and we have a delightful dinner together.
The next day I have a wonderful walking tour w/ Peter Copeland, a Danish national, who has lived in Shanghai for 20 years and gives many tours; he works for an agency that gives tours to Danish high school and college students, and industry groups, looking to do business in China. Peter: “I love the Chinese people, the culture, and delight in explaining it to foreigners.” He is very good at it. What I get from Peter:
Shanghai has always been the wealthiest city in China – a center of commerce and culture.
We walk through the old parts of Shanghai that are now scheduled to be torn down and “developed.” China has an ambitious program to end poverty.
Peter: “in the last 10 years, China has lifted more people out of poverty than the entire population of the US.” Tradeoffs: many of the residents in these areas are elderly, have lived here most of their lives and don’t want to leave although they can move to high rise apartment buildings in the suburbs w/ all the modern conveniences. Here they are living in “poverty”: toilets, washing and cooking facilities are in an outside common area surrounded by their apartments. The tradeoff: move to a modern apartment but lose your community and familiar surroundings; in the end, they don’t have a choice. The ones that are still here are delaying the process – kind of like squatters.
The buildings we walk thru will be demolished in a few years: he gives me the history of various ones – this one was owned by a wealthy businessman for his three concubines. During the cultural revolution, the cadres decided that the concubines should be liberated from the clutches of the evil macho capitalist so that they could work in the factories – like the rest of the Chinese people. Who knows how the women liked the transition?
Spirituality/religion: Taoism is still the bedrock of Chinese spirituality. It’s in the genes, the air, and part of growing up Chinese – similar to growing up w/ xian holidays in the US, eg, xmas, easter, etc. The Tao is 5000 years old!
Confucius (500 BC). Confucianism is more a code of good behavior and encouraging people to study hard to get government jobs and rise to positions of power and prestige. Peter takes me to a confucian temple, where families bring their children (especially boys) and take photos of them in front of the temple to bring them good luck in their studies.
Buddhism: there are temples throughout the country. Folks go there to light candles and incense – to cover all bases of spirituality and the after life.
Ancestors: Peter calls it ancestor worship – reminds me of my experience in Nigeria in 1966, where the ancestors were remembered and honored daily. According to Peter, here the ancestors are entities floating up there somewhere (eg, Confucius is still there). When people die, they need to be nurtured and taken care of; eg, when they are cremated, their loved ones burn paper money to support the ancestors in the afterlife so that they will bless you and your kin in this life. (At a local store, I buy billions of Yuan for US $3.50 – the reasoning is that all paper money is symbolic – it’s what you believe it is worth). They have an annual ancestor celebration when folks burn money, models of mansions, etc. to maintain good relations w/ ancestors. Is this similar to us putting and planting flowers on the graves of our loved ones?
I watch TV in the evenings: Shanghai has two English language TV stations. What strikes me:
The folks on TV speak excellent English – like native speakers.
Daily news stations: they have an hour of Africa First – news from all over Africa. I have never seen TV news focusing on Africa; indicates to me that China is investing much more into Africa than western countries.
Asian news: again, we have hardly any asian news.
China news – lately, our china news is often about the trade war. I learn a lot about Chinese history and geography on tv.
Sports news from around the world focuses on soccer and basketball.
My visit to Shanghai is about to end. I notice that I have a slight crush on the young woman at the desk at the hostel and that she is not discouraging my attention – wahoo! There’s a harmless distraction.