Shanghai by the Bund: An Indian tale

I had not traveled to China till recently. Last visit was some 18 years back, and the world has changed since then. I traveled to Shanghai for the first time last month and stayed in one of the luxury hotels at the Wai-Tan or the Bund by the Huangpu river. So my impressions presented here could be biased. However, I did put empathic lenses and hit the tiny streets on feet to get as close to reality as I can.
First impression of the city infrastructure gives you a sense of a developed nation. Nothing is missing. In one hour drive from airport till my hotel, I encountered just two signals and hardly any traffic. Roads are being sprinkled with water and swanky police bikes doing their work. I imagined darker skies and heavier air (as we all have heard of the pollution in Shanghai). But probably my Indian nostrils failed to register any significant change. When there is talk of turning Mumbai into Shanghai, now I understand what it means. India probably is around 10–15 years behind China in handling large citites. I am not sure, how the ‘attitude & infrastructure’ towards dirt and squalor would change in that scale. There are dustbins on the road and directions for toilet in public places (at least in this part of the city where I am in). Even if this is the best part of the Shanghai and things are extra bit prepped up, it serves as a model for the rest of the country.
An evening view from a vantage point of the river and the walkway, gives a feeling of the necklace road of Mumbai sea side. People from all across the China throng on the beautiful walk way around the river. Close to 80 heritage buildings (built by the French, British and the Russians) now house hotels, government offices and offices overlooking the river. On the opposite side of the river, which used to be dockyard some years back now stands a line-up of tall characteristic buildings of Shanghai including the bulbous TV tower that features in every Shanghai tourist photo. Airport to this hotel drive took around an hour and I probably face just 2 signals in total, thanks to elaborate maze of flyovers and under-passes. Road side were sparkling clean and I saw the water-sprinklers in action to keep the road moist so that there is no dust thrown up.
I was invited by a friend to a casual gathering of expatriate women’s association members. A Chinese woman, who is being supported by this association for higher education spoke about her experiences. She said how like an average Chinese person, she also came from a rural family and was very shy. People in rural China don’t even speak Mandarin properly, let alone speaking English. To be able to learn and work in Shanghai is a dream for all (as in India’s Delhi/Mumbai/Bengaluru). This association was helping local people to gain confidence and even apply to USA universities for higher studies and which was commendable. This showed up the underbelly of China that Shanghai is probably a city curated like a jewel and the interiors are probably as rustic as anywhere one can expect in the developing world.
Shanghai is filled with foreigners. In fact, one of the tourist spots Xin Tien Di, appears like upmarket restaurant area (like Chanakyapuri area of New Delhi or Pali hill of Mumbai) and one can see more westerners than Chinese. Streets of these areas and Nanjing road (pedestrian street) can be quite a watch for fashion-savvy Chinese young people. I was told that Shanghai people are like Mumbaites — high on fashion and locally it is called Hi-Phi fashion (much like the phrase used in India ‘hi-fi’ to address the nuvoeue-riche style of fashion) I could get around the main streets with English. Signage were in both the languages. Once I got lost and happened to ask the passers by. First three could not understand anything I spoke in English or the sign-language (also). But in the fourth attempt, a teenager helped me using his Google map (I didn’t have the data services on my mobile). Incidentally, even if you have a Google Maps on your phone active, it may not be of much help as most of the nomenclature on the maps, appears in local language. Google, incidentally is partly banned in China. I can’t access YouTube or Only can be accessed. Twitter and Facebook accounts, at least I could not access (internet is filled with restrictions Chinese government imposes on public expressions).
Some basics for Indian travelers: Indian debit cards don’t work in the local ATMs so I had to rely on credit card (which worked) and the cash currency (hotel counter exchanged for me. Thankfully, exchange counters even accept Rupees).I did manage the vegetarian food. At least within the hotel, there were three restaurants. In the main restaurant, the vegetarian menu was limited to a pizza, pasta and a salad so I changed the place to the Chinese restaurant. There I could ask for vegetarian fried rice with stir-fried veggies. And I can tell you it tasted great. Normally, Chinese vegetables can provide a healthy meal to vegetarians along with rice, in any restaurant, provided someone speaks English there.
I did go to the bylanes to figure out a gift for my son and try my communication efficacy. As you leave the main road and go to the bylanes, the real feel of being in China becomes apparent. No English signage on street or on the shops, mushy smell of sea-food emanating from the shops, slower pace of life- all conjure up an image of a place that it originally has been. I did manage to speak to the music shop owner and purchase a few things in perfect English. Wow!
On the way back to India, at the Cathay Pacific counter, the ticketing agent asked me, “Sir, a question- why don’t you travel by Air India? Is it not good?”. And I was dumbfounded. My patriotism was being questioned directly, in a way. But that rationale prevailed and I said, “My experience had not been that good with Air India, but that was past, I hear that it is changing…so let’s see”. He was not giving in. Next question came in fast. “So how has been your experience with Cathay Pacific?”. “So far so good”. I smiled and replied. But the question surely put up a quick summary of India-China constant comparisons regarding the pace of development, that one hears in this part of the world.
But the story is not over yet. I landed in Mumbai late in the night and expected the usual melee one has gone through passing the immigration and customs desk. And lo behold! No more forms to be filled if you are an Indian citizen and ‘nothing to declare’. No more looking for the customs-counter-slip to show to the sentry at the gate, which invariably used to get lost. I was out of the airport in less than 20min, including the baggage retrieval. Not to miss the point regarding swanky new terminal of Mumbai, with a distinct imprint of India that has already been written about in many places. The elevated freeway that takes you out from the international terminal makes you forget the fact that you are on top of one of the most densely populated areas of Mumbai. I felt a lot better, after the tough question-answer session at the Shanghai airport.

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