The three wonders of Shanghai

Traditionally the wonders of the world have been amazing engineering feats. In the same spirit, let me list three engineering marvels of Shanghai.

Partway up the Shanghai World Financial Center
Partway up the Shanghai World Financial Center

Pudong is definitely the first of the wonders of Shanghai. This new business district was created east of the river Huang Pu in the 1990s. Today it has two of the world’s 10 highest skyscrapers: the 632 meters high Shanghai Tower (second only to Burj Khalifa) and the Shanghai World Financial Center, which is 492 meters tal, and the 4th highest in the world). It has four buildings over 400 meters tall: the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Jin Mao Tower, in addition to these two. It also has a staggering 15 buildings which are 250 meters or more in height.

The plush interior of the maglev
The plush interior of the maglev

The maglev train is the second wonder of Shanghai. It runs between Pudong international airport and the Longyang road station. The distance of about 30 kilometers is covered in about 7 minutes, and the peak speed is 431 km/second (a slower version has a peak speed of 301 km/s). This is the only commercial train of its kind in the world.

A pacing ad in the Shanghai subway
A pacing ad in the Shanghai subway

The third wonder of Shanghai are pacing ads next to the metro trains. As a train speeds between stations, there are video ads which pace alongside. This amazing synchronization needs screens covering large areas of tunnels, and software to keep the image synchronized with the windows of passing trains. This amazing invention has hardly received any notice in the media.

There is a fourth wonder, which is not really an engineering marvel. It is a management solution to garbage disposal. Shanghai is a city of 23 million people, and its roads are cleaner by far than the roads of Paris or Mumbai. This is surely a wonder.

Lilong: street life


One day in Shanghai we took the Metro to Xintiandi, walked a little way along Madang Road, and then ducked into one of the gated Shikumen-style complexes. We walked through and into lovely roads full of life. This was one of the lilongs which we wanted to see. The area is bustling with life. We arrived a little before lunch time and found many restaurants open for business, vegetable vendors, hair dressers, people playing chinese chess, smokers lounging, a quartet of beer drinkers, housewives chatting, … The photo above is a little slice of this life.

Eventually when we decided to have lunch it was smack in the middle of lunch time for the office goers who had trickled in from the businesses and malls on the main streets. With our complete lack of Chinese, it was difficult to figure out what to do. We went into one of the eateries, and one man told us to choose our food. When we did, he asked us to pay! We protested, saying we hadn’t even sat down, but he was insistent. As a queue grew behind us, and communications were not established, we left.

A little way down the road, was another establishment. There someone explained to us that you stand in the queue and order and pay for your food, then look for a table to get empty. After you sit down, the waiter will get you your food. This place had people who were very helpful and some of them spoke a little English. We made our choices by pointing at others’ plates. The owner helped us to sit down. The neighbours helped us with catching the waiter. Everyone in the lane seemed to be eating some kind of a noodle soup. We grew to like this: you can get it with all kinds of meats, or even just mushrooms. One of the girls at our table was eating a dark egg: apparently a boiled egg soaked in tea and soya: a tea egg. I tried one, liked it and had it as a snack several times later.

One question was voiced by The Family. In India a place like this would be quite dirty. How do they keep it clean in China? No answers, yet.

The most unexpected fun thing in Shanghai


The most unexpected and fun thing about Shanghai was definitely the dancing on the streets. All our reading about China never told us this. We stepped out for a coffee late on our first night there and found six women our age with a portable music system dancing away in a little corner next to the hotel. They were having fun, and motioned to The Family to join in. Further down the road we found other groups. Some were complete amateurs, and had more left feet than me, others were good (like the couple in the photo above). None of them mind passers by joining in. The Family practiced a couple of steps!

Why are they doing it? A large number look like they grew up in the years of the Cultural Revolution, and this may just be their final act of forgetting. But The Family points out that this may not be correct: there are a few youngsters in there as well. Maybe it is just what you do when your children do not need looking after any more. May be it is something that you did not do when you were young and want to do now that pressures are off.

It does not matter really, as long as you are having fun, and open enough to invite foreigners to join in. And they enjoy themselves so much that it brings a smile to the face of a bystander.

The first afternoon in Shanghai

By the time we ventured out of our hotel in Shanghai it was almost 5 in the afternoon. We were tired from the lack of sleep. I could feel a migraine about to come on. Tourism would have to be light and we would need to retire early. From our hotel off East Nanjing Road it was about a kilometer to the Bund. We could do that.

East Nanjing road is fun in a very commercial kind of way. There are big stores lining the street, and a large number of well-dressed young people hanging around, especially around the apple store. In search of something local, we wandered into a bustling food shop. It was full of food we didn’t quite recognize. The Family picked up a packet of a local sweet. As we were paying for it we noticed that next to the cashier there was a container of hot water with skewers of boiled meat. Now that was local! There was also a counter of local ice creams doing brisk business.

We continued to the Bund. This was really full of life: local and tourists. The sun was going down behind us, so the skyscrapers of Pudong (East of Pu) were in bright sunlight. The golden hour had brought out an incredible number of photographers, so the edge of the Bund was crowded with tripods. Behind that phalanx other people walked, played or sat. I watched a couple of children playing as their grandmother looked on happily (photo on top). We walked on to see the everyday life of a Chinese city unfolding before us: so very much like ordinary life in India. We watched Pudong come alight as the sun set behind us. When the sky had turned a deep blue and Pudong was bright with lights we came down from the Bund.

David Sassoon’s is a famous name in Mumbai. This 19th century trader has left his mark on the urban geography of Mumbai. At the junction of the East Nanjing Road and the Bund is the house he built for himself. This grand structure is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. As we wandered past we saw this brace of photographers intent on capturing a piece of this history. They’d brought along a ladder: equipment that no photographer should be without. They saw me taking their photo, and had a laugh: a good way to connect with photographers with whom you do not share a language.


Dinner? The Family was wary. So we went into a mall which had two restaurants per floor for 6 floors. Two floors up we saw a restaurant called something like the Local Taste of Shanghai. Curious, we walked in. It was full of local couples. Very reassuring, we thought. We got the English menu, and decided to start with a beer and three things which looked innocuous: an abalone pancake, steamed dumplings, and a pumpkin pie. The pancake was like an Indian stuffed puri, the sesame covered pumpkin pies had a bean-paste filling, and the dumplings were like the Chinese dumplings we were used to. The Family decided that China was good. We were still hungry, so we ordered a plate of mushrooms, a plate of fried green beans and a bowl of rice (mifan). Our waitress helped by making a face when we ordered things that she thought wouldn’t go well with the rice. This was nice dinner to start our trip with, and it cost us only around INR 500 per head, with beer. It’ll be fun if we continue to eat like this.

After dinner we strolled down the road, people-watching again. This part of the town is full of lovely 19th and early 20th-century architecture covered with the glitter of the newly commercial 21st-century China. The combination can be somewhat startling (as in the photo above), but lively, and much fun. My migraine had receded after dinner, but both of were drooping. We returned to our hotel and turned in early. We had complicated plans for the next day.

Arriving in Shanghai

We left Mumbai precisely at 1:30 in the morning, local time. I fell asleep immediately and woke up groggy in 6 hours, just before our plane landed in Chengdu. The ticket gave us a single flight number, but China Airlines made us go through immigration and made us wait a couple of hours till we got on to a domestic flight to Shanghai. Strangely, in Pudong airport we were herded together into the international terminal again, where we collected our bags and went through customs. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, local time.

Shanghai Pudong airport is a busy international airport with a maze of corridors. As soon as we got out of the customs, we started looking for an ATM. There was a bunch of four right outside the exit. One of them was occupied by a young harassed-looking tourist whose card had been eaten up by the machine. We tried the next machine, and it would only allow transfer of funds to another card. The same thing happened with another machine in the row. The Family went to look for information on other ATMs while I stood there with the luggage cart. As I watched, another Indian went to the fourth machine, the one which we had not tried yet, and extracted cash from it! The Family was back looking dejected by now, but she perked up at this sight. We finally got our cash, and were set to venture into town.

The maglev has a rather plush interior
The maglev has a rather plush interior

How? A bus to the hotel was quickly ruled out. We could take the metro all the way from the airport to the hotel, but that could take almost two hours. So we decided to take the maglev (cost 50 RMB) and then switch to the metro. For only 5 RMB more, you can add on a ticket which gives you a 24 hour pass on the metro. This is a good deal, because it takes 3 RMB for a single journey on the metro. We rushed on to the train. The maglev accelerated smoothly to its top speed of 300 kms/hour, and in 7 minutes took us to the other end of its journey. We took an escalator down to the metro station.

In the Shanghai metro you have to put your bags through a scanner when you enter. We’d just done that, when a very helpful local told me in English, ” If your bags are heavy, come with me. There’s an elevator to the platform”. How nice and helpful! We walked across the station to the elevator, where he murmured a complaint about bad design. He was going the same way, so he helped us on and told us to listen for the announcements, which come in both Chinese and English.

All through our stay in Shanghai we kept meeting people who would realize that we needed help, and come forward to help us without being asked. Not too many people spoke English, but those who did (and many who didn’t) were very helpful. What a delightfully friendly city we had discovered!

Planning food on the plane to China

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We’ve nearly finished packing before tonight’s flight to Shanghai. All I have to do is to find place for these little eats in our carry on. One cannot imagine leaving home without three packets of khakhras, two of bhakris and a box of sonpapri. Can one?

Those terrible people at the security made me leave behind my thermos full of chhaas on my last trip.

E-sharp shakes me up

There are just a couple of days to go before we jump head-first into China, and I discover a new twist. The last time I was in 中国 (Zhōngguó, the middle kingdom) about the only part of my normal web-world that I could access was gmail. So, having finished most of my planning, I decided to check out what I am likely to be able to be able to access on-line this time.

It turns out that google is banned in China. This was news which I had seen but not registered, and it brings my travel plans crashing. Gmail is one of my main communication channels to the world. I was planning to use google translate and google maps to get around. The first reaction is OMG. The second, "What about VPN?" Of course, I’m not the first one to think of this. There is an ongoing battle to control VPN traffic, and it seems that this is not likely to work either. As I try to salvage my life in the next few weeks, I realize that the problem is of my creation: I let my life be taken over by a single corporation.

The first time I encountered the E-sharp note, I had the same sense of confusion: do I really know a keyboard at all? And slowly: do I really know music? Now I have a similar feeling. Of course, the immediate problem is caused by the government of China trying to shut out alternative viewpoints. But at the same time, I need to look outside the comfortable corner of the web I had allowed myself to be locked into. This is good. The problem is time.

China does not censor the whole web. I think I should be able to post to this blog, and do some of my reading on wordpress. As far as I can check, I should be able to get to most yahoo services. I could shop on Amazon if I wanted to. Whatsapp should work, I think. I can switch to Bing search, though I’ve never tried it before. A few days ago I tried out my chinese language skills by watching TV serials on youku, which is a working alternative to youtube inside China. If only I can figure out mapping and translation sites which work inside China before I leave, I can get part of my travel plans back up again.

China is huge (as I discover again)

Like many Indians, I’m used to spending a day travelling from one city to another: either stuck in traffic getting to the airport and then circling the destination airport because of air traffic, or stuck in an uncomfortable train as it chugs along slowly changing landscapes. As a result, when I visit another country I tend to think of it as relatively small. In Switzerland, you may not want to doze off in a train unless you want to wake up in another country. Japan and Korea are definitely small. Even France and Germany seem small because the trains are fast.

It is when you get to China that the vastness of a foreign country strikes you. Of course you know that China is thrice as large as India. But then (unless you are going to western China) you may look at the map and think that this is not such a long way from Beijing. You will be mistaken.

The Family and I thought we would take a weekend during our time in Beijing to see Xi’an. Our constraints are that we have to be in Beijing for work till late afternoon on Friday and from the morning on Monday. So our first thought was that we could fly. The price structure for flights in China is quite different from that in India. India is a buyer’s market: a two hour’s flight will not cost you much more that INR 6000 or so, often cheaper. In China it will not cost you less than that. It is clearly a seller’s market, with the price going up thrice or more in peak hours! Friday evening out from Beijing and Sunday evening back is clearly the Everest of peak hours.

So we started looking at trains. Beijing to Xi’an by a normal train takes around 12 hours. That is about the distance between Mumbai and Nagpur, which could cost you about INR 1000 or less, in India. In China it costs around thrice as much! And, needless to say, we may not be able to spend 12 hours each way just travelling, unless we do it overnight. Then we would have to take a sleeper, either the "hard sleeper", which is like the Indian III AC (see the picture on the left), or the "soft sleeper", which is similar to one of the European Wagonlit coaches (see the picture on the right). Of course, the prices for these can begin to touch the level of the cheaper flight tickets.

This is China, so there is yet another option, which is to take a high speed G class train. These travel at 300 Km an hour. This would cut the Beijing-Xi’an travel time down to 5 hours. Of course it costs as much as a cheap flight.

Between the prices and the distances, travelling in China is not so easy. Perhaps the average middle class Chinese earns significantly more than a middle class Indian. Or maybe they travel less frequently. I guess I will begin to find out more by this time next week.

Normandie en Mumbai


If the Alliance Francaise chooses to advertise itself in Mumbai by setting up a kiosk where you can get yourself photographed against a picture of Mont St Michel, then this must be the most easily recognized sight in France. Goodbye Eiffel.


My trip to Kumaon ended a little painfully. I slid down a slope and twisted my ankle. It was annoying, I was really enjoying myself and I didn’t want this problem. I sat in the temple at the bottom of the slope and pretended that there was no problem. I forced The Lotus, The Family and Sundar Singh to go on with what they were doing and leave me alone. I couldn’t move, so I used this enforced stillness to photograph butterflies. I also managed to get a photo of this nice hairy flower.


I hadn’t thought of disabilities and accessibility seriously before this. Now I started noticing it. General conclusions: hotels have varying accessibility, airports are very good, doctors have extreme accessibility issues.

It seemed like a long way back to the car, even with The Lotus helping. Modern car seats are well-designed. I had no difficulty getting in or out. The problems started at the hotel in Binsar. There was absolutely no wheelchair access. I had to climb about sixty stairs to get to my room; it was possible with a stick, but tiring. It was impossible for a person with only one good leg to use the bathroom without help: every bit of plumbing was leaky and the whole floor would get wet after a shower. This hotel was designed badly for disabled access, but the staff was super helpful.

We had three nights left before we returned, and once I realized that the injury was a sprain and not a fracture, I decided to treat the remainder of the holiday as a restful vacation where I would just eat, read, sleep, and keep my leg elevated. The next morning we were supposed to move to a hotel near Pangot. Soon after the accident I called the owner-manager, who assured me that the hotel was accessible and there would be people to help me. We reached to find a 110 meter climb on a slippery rubble slope. On top of the slope the staff had placed a plastic chair where I could sit after the climb! The hotel was not designed for disabled access, and the owner was the opposite of helpful. He refused to give us even a fractional refund saying that we should have cancelled our reservation the previous day when we called.

It was the diwali weekend, and we had to look for another hotel in a hurry. We called the B&B in Naukuchiatal. They were full, but recommended a hotel nearby where we could get two rooms. This had only three stairs to climb. The bathroom was fine even for a one-legged person. It had a great verandah with a view of the lake, just a lovely place for a relaxed two days. I spent the days in a planter’s long-arm while The Family did a little more birding. She and The Lotus scoured the markets of Nainital and got me one of the wonderful carved wooden walking sticks which is a Kumaoni specialty. This hotel was almost fully accessible, and the staff was wonderful.

The next stop was Delhi airport. I’d asked for a wheelchair, and it was ready when we reached. Disabled access in the airport was very good. The airport security was very considerate, and I had not problems getting to my seat. An arthritic lady who was also wheelchair-bound had a problem in the craft. Unlike me, she did not have a front-row seat, and the aisle was too narrow for the wheelchair. Accessibility of the airport was great, but of the craft was very poor.

Getting off the craft in Mumbai airport was a problem. The descent was not a ramp but stairs. I could hobble down, but the old lady had a really bad time. It is time all airlines change to boarding ramps. The rest of the airport had good accessibility. Mumbai airport has toilets with wheelchair access.

I had to travel for work quite frequently in the succeeding weeks, and I found airports to be well-designed. The check-in process and security were always considerate. Wheel-chair availability varied from one airport to another, and boarding or de-boarding were wildly different between airlines. I was really happy that my workplace had reasonably good accessibility. Unfortunately my flat has poor accessibility. Hotels in cities were reasonable with accessibility: usually ramps were available instead of stairs. I had to see doctors and physios for some time, and not a single one of them sat in an accessible location (the newer hospitals are accessible). Movie halls and restaurants seemed to have better access than doctors!

Mumbai is structurally disabled-unfriendly. I once spent over 30 minutes trying to flag down a taxi. Each taxi would go ahead before stopping, and then someone else would hop in while I hobbled towards it! During this half hour I kept wondering why there is no taxi-rank in Mumbai. Even buses do not stop at bus stops but a few meters away.

We are very far from discussing universal design. It is badly needed, but maybe in India we could start with a few simple changes which would make life easier for the wheelchair bound:

  • add ramps and lifts where there are stairs; where possible, remove stairs,
  • make sure that doors can be opened from a wheelchair
  • separate wet and dry areas in bathrooms,
  • make sure that bathrooms fixtures do not leak.