My solo vacation in China began on the last Friday before May Day. May Day in China is one of the three times in the year the Chinese do the equivalent of ‘visiting their native place’, or heading to Kashmir. Or to Beijing. With every train ticket to the capital already snapped up, I was confined to Shanghai.
I could live with that. I checked into a budget hotel on Zhoujiazui Road, permeated by a sense of disrespectability. The limits of the concierge’s English skills extended to calling me at night and offering the services of ladies of questionable hygiene (Ni hao! You want massage?). Most of the clients seemed to be teenagers who had checked in for an afternoon of leisurely sex. But the hotel did have three advantages: It was cheap, had free Internet access in the lobby, and—this is really important—the TV had Chinese Star Movies with English subtitles.
Not only did I get to watch Karate Girls, the heart-warming story of four girls who enter an ‘idolism contest’ and are trained to become pop stars who can sing, dance and perform martial arts, but I also saw the Hong Kong remake (or rip-off) of City of Angels. Defying Hollywood gender stereotypes, it made the guy the mortal and the girl the angel (called Angela, obviously). Angela and her boyfriend spent an afternoon shopping and playing with paper helicopters. Then she saved his apartment building from demolition.
Addictive as Chinese movies with bad subtitles are, I managed to go out and explore the city. The main tourist attraction in Shanghai is a promenade called the Bund, alongside the Pu River, which is lined with British and American heritage buildings from the 1920s. The Pu’s other bank has buildings from the other end of the century: skyscrapers housing Citibank and like businesses, and the gorgeous Pearl TV tower. Slightly off the Bund is Nanjing Road, the main shopping centre where tourists usually end up. Nanjing Road is, therefore, where you’ll find touts going, “Hello! Rolex Omega Mont Blanc shoes bag! Bar! Lady bar! Sex bar!”
But the Bund isn’t all tourist traps and souvenir shops. I had strange and more personal encounters as well. Before leaving for China, the online travel guide had solemnly warned of university students who befriend and then drag tourists to galleries, where they’re forced to buy high-priced, poor-quality art.
So, when someone at the Bund called out, “Indian?”, and introduced herself as a university student from Beijing, my first reaction was panic. However, two days of communicating only by pointing at things, slowly copying out Mandarin characters and punching numbers in calculators had taken its toll, and the temptation to have a real conversation in English was overwhelming. So, we started talking.
She asked if I was a student; I said I wasn’t. She was surprised, saying I looked younger than I was. “Which languages are spoken in India?” she asked. By the time I had said Hindi and Marathi, she looked bemused, and when I reached Bengali, her eyes glazed over. I ended abruptly with “and four languages in the South”.
“You look a little Chinese,” she then said.
“I look Chinese?” I asked, knowing she had just identified me as Indian earlier. “Yes,” she replied. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, matter-of-factly. I was beginning to warm to her, and think she wasn’t going to pull out four burly accomplices and demand all my money, when she invited me to visit—yes, an art museum. My guard went up again. But I accompanied her anyway.
The ‘museum’ was just two minutes away and turned out to be a single, unattended room. She opened the door herself, showed me the Four Seasons scrolls, and a scroll with a red and black fish. She explained that the words for ‘fish’ and ‘more’ are the same in Chinese, so a painting of a fish is a visual pun symbolizing prosperity. All the while, I continued to worry about burly accomplices.
After talking a while about how an Indian professor at Beijing University spoke terrible English and how to say ‘Thank You’ in an Indian language, she abruptly bid me goodbye. Before I could stop worrying about burly accomplices and ask her to accompany me around Shanghai, she vanished.
She never tried to sell me anything, nobody dragged me into an alley, or stole my passport, and I was still conscious. But the chance to have a pretty girl help me discover Shanghai was irretrievably lost.
I missed that opportunity, but other explorations in Shanghai were happier. My modus operandi of seeing the city was to get out of the hotel every day, pick a direction, and start walking until I found something interesting.
The day I walked away from the Bund, I found something very interesting. From the street, it looked like a small florist. Walking in, I realized it was a home decoration market spread over half an acre. It wasn’t restricted to curtains and carpets. What it had were aquariums, potted plants, bonsai, art pieces and pets. The potted plants were glorious: purple blooms, extravagant creepers and all sorts of cacti. As for bonsai, there were not only miniature trees, but also miniature mountain ranges carved from rock, decorated with tiny model pagodas and boatmen. The art pieces included the Four Seasons and red fish/black fish scrolls, and dried-out gourds with lucky characters painted on. My personal favourite was a wooden bust, which rotated to show either a frowning Buddha, a smiling Buddha or an elated one. Tragically, it was too large for my suitcase.
The most enchanting aspect of the market were the aquarium and pet shops. Of the five exotic fish shops, one was dedicated only to fish food. Pet shops had puppies and kittens on offer, and at least three had a variety of turtles. One shop sold iguanas, mynahs, songbirds, hamsters, squirrels and frogs. Another sold only crickets. Yes, the insects, which the Chinese have been breeding since the seventh century to make their gardens sound more authentically natural. It was wonderful. It was unexpected. It was refreshing.
The moral for me: The most interesting experiences don’t come from guided tours or guidebooks, but from walking around with eyes and mind open. Be aware of the risks, but go ahead and take them anyway.
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