I find it pretty strange when I tell someone that I've been to China and they ask “oh – where, Beijing and Shanghai?”. I really struggle to see why you would bother going to China and yet choose to spend your time there in Shanghai, sometimes described as the Paris of the east but perhaps better described as like all the shopping-mall-infested rich-people's cities in the west. Sure, the girls loved going shopping for clothes there, but I couldn't help feeling that you can do that in any big city and in comparison to the unique things we saw in the rest of China – we'd just come from Huangshan and Hongcun – Shanghai just seemed, well, boring.
Don't get me wrong, the city is not without its charms. It's only because the rest of China is so different to home that it seems samey and uninteresting.
But as a city in its own right, it's fine. The magnificent buildings on the Bund glow under lights at night. The Pudong skyline with famous Oriental Pearl Tower gleams brightly.
So that's a good 10 minutes of standing around looking like all the other tourists.
Then what? You can while away a good hour and a half waiting for a taxi in the enormous queue under the train station, but we'd already done that on arrival. You can drive around in the taxi going to the wrong hotel, which happened to us despite using the English taxi helper translation service you can call – the phone number is shown in each taxi and it's a brilliant idea, though unfortunately the person we talked to sent our driver to the wrong branch of the right hotel chain, so it's not foolproof. But we did that on arrival too.
So the womenfolk went clothes shopping and Tim and I went up the Oriental Pearl Tower for some views. Bit of a queue but not too bad. Views are good, albeit of a pretty standard-looking city from above.
The pollution haze was much better than Xi'an and Beijing, but still limited visibility a bit. The tower is quite near the water in Pudong so you have a good view of the river traffic, and across the water to Google's headquarters – their name is spelled out on the roofs, one letter per building.
It's next to one of the top retail spots in the city, the IFC Mall, and next to that was a little amphitheatre-shaped mall with what must be a very expensively leased Apple store in the centre – of the current design where you walk into a glass cylinder at ground level and descend into the store down spiral stairs.
We did like heading out onto the air deck – a (caged) outside balcony with glass floors so you can look straight down, and out without a window in the way.
We succumbed to the calling of the mall, which mollified me with one of those choux pastries with custard injected into the middle. I have consistently voiced my support for choux pastry with custard in the middle.
Although there is certainly ‘normal’ Chinese food if you seek it out, the prevalence of malls and commercial districts meant food in Shanghai was vastly more westernized than the rest of China, with a lot of chain restaurants (which are not entirely like the same chains back home – there Pizza Hut is slightly renamed Pizza and More, which is true – they serve everything from wine, escargot, and octopus teriyaki to stuffed-crust pizza).
With western affectations so strong as topiary displays in the middle of roundabouts built for the Expo, it felt like the whole city was there to ease us back towards the western life back home, and after an intense month of what I can't help thinking of as ‘real China’, I can't really begrudge that.
We took the maglev out to the airport, which rushed along smoothly at a peak of 431 km/h, and flew on to Hong Kong to finish the trip.