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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Losing myself in Shanghai

Liu Ping is a student staying in the same university hotel as I am. Until recently our conversations were a polite 'Nihao' as we passed each other in the hall. We got chatting the other evening after she broke the ice by speaking to me in English. She mentioned she was going to Shanghai the next day for an interview. This was just the opportunity I had been hoping for as with my limited Chinese language, the thought of buying a ticket and getting around Shanghai was daunting. It really is a big city. The population of Shanghai is over 20 million. Compare that to the whole of Australia at a little over 21 million.

It was a wet day. We left our hotel at 6.45 am. Schools have gone back now and the bus we took to the station was crowded with school children. I was the last one on at our stop (because I don't push my way to the front of the queue like the Chinese do) and the driver had several attempts to close the door before I got all my bits and pieces inside. The kids all got off at the next stop and it became more civilized.

Once at the station we had almost an hour to wait before the next train. It was 8.55 by time we were on our way. We sat in a waiting room first and were allowed onto the platform a little before the train arrived. The entrance points for each carriage were marked on the platform and people were actually queuing. I was impressed. When the train arrived the doors did not align with the queues. There was a rush for the doors and the neat queues were lost. I'm not sure what the rush was for as all seats were allocated and no one was left standing. The trip was comfortable. Liu Ping told me that this was what was known as 'hard seat'. I had thought that meant boards but in fact it was a comfortable padded seat.

When we arrived at Shanghai both Liu Ping and I needed to catch a train on the underground to reach our respective destinations. I had chosen from my Lonely Planet guidebook to head for Henan Zhonglu station on the underground. We both started on the same train but I needed to get off and change before she was getting off. She had never been to Shanghai before either but at least she spoke the language. On the platform and on the train she asked several people for guidance about where I wanted to go. She got three different answers.

Liu Ping told me which station to get off and which line number I needed to switch to. When I got to the platform I realized I had to figure which direction I was going. Trains from either side of the platform go in opposite directions. On one side I could see nothing like 'Henan Zhonglu'. Bear in mind that I did not have the guide book out and was relying on the pronunciation in my head. Pinyin (romanized spelling of Chinese words) does not always provide a reliable pronunciation guide for English speakers. 'Henan Zhonglu' perhaps sounds more like 'Hernun Janglu' (but don't quote me on this). On one platform I could not see anything that appeared to fit. BTW, the station names are, thankfully, shown in both Pinyin and Chinese characters. On the other platform I saw one called 'Jiangsu Road'. 'Perhaps I've got my pronunciation mixed up,' I thought. This looks more promising than anything else. 'Ching wen,' I said to a couple on the platform. 'Excuse me' is one of the few bits of Chinese I am able to remember and it does get attention, after that my conversation is limited. Having got their attention, I then added, 'Hernan Janglu.'

'May I help you?' the guy asked in perfect English.

This gave me confidence. I told him I was trying to reach Henan Zhonglu. He confirmed that Jiangsu Road was correct and that it was seven stations. I explained to him where I was heading and what I was doing but in retrospect I doubt that he understood me. His English was certainly better than my Chinese but perhaps to some extent he was bluffing.

I counted the stations and got off the train. By now it was lunchtime. Out in the street I tried one restaurant. The menu was in Chinese and no one spoke English. I'd been told when I got to Shanghai many people could speak English. Yeah? That's what they said before I reached Hangzhou. The language was no better in the next restaurant but at least the staff was more helpful so I got a bowl of noodles there. It probably had a few ingredients that I'd rather not eat but I was too hungry to be fussy.

I headed back down the main road in the direction I was sure would take me to the Bund. After a few blocks there was a major intersection with, thankfully, a four-way pedestrian overpass.

On one of the pillars of this overpass there was a map of the area and on inspecting it I could see that I was nowhere near the Bund. Rather than waste more time trying to find my way I decided to make the most of where I was.

I spent a few hours wandering the streets. There was a lot of high rise but there was also the odd pleasant tree-lined street and interesting laneway with old houses.

I passed a few 'barber' shops with pretty girls wearing lots of makeup inside. I found one small art gallery and then returned to Jiangsu Road station. Perhaps it wasn't as exciting as Shanghai is supposed to be, then again, perhaps I was seeing the real Shanghai.

I had a new challenge now because we had bought tickets to return to Hangzhou from Shanghai South station. It was on a different line again. I spent several minutes studying the route map above the ticket counter but was still confused. 'Shanghai Nan' I said to the ticket seller.

'Where do you want to go?' he said in perfect English.

'Shanghai South' I replied and asked him at which station I changed trains. He really did seem to be able to communicate in English and gave me the appropriate advice. Fortunately there was no one else queuing a that time. Before I was quite finished a guy barged up, shoved his face in front of mine at the ticket window and started speaking loudly to the ticket seller. I resisted the urge to hit him.

Got to Shanghai South with no trouble. It is a very modern station. Quite impressive. I had plenty of time before the train left so I got out the Lonely Planet and figured where I'd gone wrong. Liu Ping was on the train when I boarded. She said she'd been worried about whether I'd find my way there.

The return train was quite impressive too. It travelled at up to 170 kph but it felt like 60. We had comfortable seats and were back in Hangzhou in about an hour.

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A Malaysian Chinese friend who visited Shanghai sent this comment to me by email (and she speaks Mandarin):

more complains.... i really don't like the way shanghainese (or maybe all ppl in china) behaves.
they're quite impolite, they never queue up, they push you around and they can't live without sound polution.
oh dear me. but there were rare occassions where i met some really helpful ppl. =)
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