Shanghai has been one of the destinations I’ve been most looking forward to on our Asia itinerary. It’s supposed to be the more modern and progressive of the Chinese mega cities, and I was eager to get a glimpse of the country which, according to many, owns the next century. Couple this with the fact that almost everyone we’ve met has told us we HAVE to go to Shanghai, including the manager of our hostel in Kuala Lumpur who said “what are you still doing in this shit hole if you could be in Shanghai!?!” (those weren’t his words obviously, but I’m an excellent reader of subtext), and we boarded the train in Hong Kong giddy with excitement.
The train ride itself was far more enjoyable than usual, with the cabins being embarrassingly nicer than some of the hotels we’ve stayed in. The landscape can be a little depressing, but having made the drive through the anti-abortion sign minefield that is the road between Brisbane and Toowoomba, I was disinclined to start judging.
Things got a little hairy when we arrived. Firstly, they didn’t open the train doors for about half an hour after we pulled in, and the mother and son team who shared the cabin next to us began screaming at each other so loud I thought we’d see a rare case of full grown filicide. Then came the walk to the customs desk, where we first became aware of the Chinese habit of creating bottle necks in public transport hubs. What seems to have been a one off was the fact that all the lights were out so the walk was made with a horrible sort of Flight from Terror vibe.
After passing through the first of what would be a million security points throughout Shanghai we were approached by a uniformed young man with a video camera who asked us a curious question: “Are you here for the Formula One?” Now I’ve been mistakenly accused of being some truly horrible things since I’ve been overseas. A habitual drug user. The whitest terrorist since Richard Reid. German. None of these however, prepared me for the heartbreaking shame of someone thinking I was a motor sports enthusiast.
Recovering my last shred of dignity, we made our way out into the sunshine. Here is where I feel our path takes a Sliding Doors-esque turn. My contention is that when arriving in a new city having no familiarity with the public transport system, and two massive bags, your best to take a cab to your destination. My partner feels otherwise. So, being a modern enlightened couple, we do it her way. I can still see the outline of the other me in my mind, bypassing the MRT station on his way to enjoying a hassle free cab ride to our hotel, spared from what was about to ensue.
So it breaks down like this. We have to change stations midway through our journey to get to the line our hotel is on. My partner’s card gets stuck so I have to go off and buy two new tickets for the next leg, and meet her back inside. But I have my backpack with me. And a date with a particularly attentive x-ray machine operator.
They pull me off to the side of the busiest checkpoint in the busiest station in the busiest city in China. I believe the young security man is asking if I have a bottle in my bag, but seeing as he speaks no English (fair enough, this is China after all), and my Mandarin extends no further than hello and thank you, which seem even more useless than normal in this circumstance, we’re struggling. Finally I realise he must be talking about the toiletry bag that I carry in my backpack.
A quick word on this toiletry bag. Now my typical toiletry bag for travel resembles a pencil case, containing some deoderant, my toothbrushing materials, and maybe a small shampoo and bodywash. Our shared toiletry bag resembles a large briefcase. Actually, seeing as how it folds out twice, it more resembles three large briefcases stuck together. And it’s pinkish red. With flowers on it. And this burly security guard is asking me to get it out. At the busiest checkpoint, in the busiest station, in the busiest city in China.
What follows next is as comical as it is humiliating. Everything spills out of my tightly packed bag. The alarm clock that it only now dawns on me looks incredibly phallic. The copy of Eat, Pray, Love (a remnant from the Passive Aggressive Book Club) that I toy with trying to persuade him isn’t mine. And the enormous toiletry bag.
But now we have a bigger problem. Wider than the language gulf between us is the gulf between two men and even an idiot’s explanation of what any of the hundreds of fucking bottles in this bag do. We look at each other, look at the bag, then back it each other. We both shrug. After what seems like hours to both of us, the hundreds of curious glares from people becoming more and more humiliating, a female guard comes over, grabs a bottle out and says “this is banned”. My partner, who has come to watch from behind the barrier has a quick chat with said guard and it’s agreed to toss the bottle. I swear they’re laughing at us as well.
So I pack my bag in shame and attempt to scan my two tickets and enter the station again. Unfortunately, my plan for how to do this differs from my partners and I somehow find myself still stuck on the outside, having scanned both tickets. I later suggest this situation could be a metaphorical representation of our whole relationship. She assures me it’s merely a literal representation of my incompetence.
I won’t bore you with the details of my miraculous escape, but I did eventually get on the train, and we did eventually make it to our hotel and up to our room. Not before being accosted by a German backpacker who tried to persuade us to attend a burlesque (strip) club with him that evening.
To make sure this story has a happy ending I must finish on my first proper experience of Shanghai. We went out that night to look around Pudong, the area we were staying. It’s the financial centre of Shanghai and as such, has some enormous buildings and a GDP of like a gazillion dollars. That night we found a park in the centre of all these buildings, rearing up like giants around it. Some were so tall their tops were obscured by clouds, making it seem as if they were reaching towards the heavens in order to, in the words of Homer Simpson, “Punch the face of God”. The parks trees were decorated with little lights, and the tops lit up green. It was completely empty and the most genuinely magical experience I’ve had since McKew took Bennelong.
I guess it’s important to remember that the benefits of travel, as always, well outweigh the hassles. But if you catch a train into Shanghai, hail a cab at the station. Trust me.