6 o’clock at the Bund

The lights came on all along the Bund at precisely 6 in the evening. The western bank of the Huangpu turned into a bright gold colour which suits all the banks which look out on the river. The Family gasped, and I think a ripple ran through the crowd as everyone turned from looking across the river towards Pudong to behind them. The Family loves this area; ever since I’d proposed a trip to China, she had her heart set on an evening strolling along the Bund.

It’s worthwhile coming by early. We’d crossed Zhongshan East Road just before the sun set and seen the high walls of the bund covered in a vertical garden. The Bund is a flood control wall (as the Hindi word indicates) built in the 19th century at the time that Mumbai’s merchants, Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, and others, settled north of the Chinese town and poured money into developing this new city. This is a history that is slowly fading from the memories of both sides of the Himalayas, but deserves to be remembered.

The green coloured pyramidal roof that you see in the featured photo belongs to the Peace Hotel, formerly Victor Sassoon’s flagship Cathay Hotel. The domed building in that photo (at the extreme left) is the Bank of Taiwan. This stands on Jiujiang Road. Across the road (The nearest building in the photo above) is the Forex trading center, and then the large frontage of the Bank of Shanghai. A few more banks down there is an area full of nice bars with good views.

Across the river lights had slowly come on in the modern high-rises of Pudong. Unlike the Bund, these lights are not coordinated. This is a delightful sight, which The Family and I enjoy every time we see it. The 470 meter high bulb-on-a-stick of the Pearl Tower, the dark bulk of Shanghai Tower (at 632 meters, China’s tallest, and the second highest building in the world), and the bottle-opener shape of the 492 meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the view. We didn’t want to cross over to that side today. After chatting with groups of Indian tourists who needed someone to take their photos against this iconic background, we climbed down from the Bund.

We walked west along Fuzhou Road for a couple of blocks. This is an interesting part of Shanghai. Most of the buildings date from the late 19th century until the Japanese invasion. It is an urban historian’s delight, with beautiful buildings and interesting histories. Unfortunately, Shanghai’s Museum of Urban Planning does not say much about this area. I would love to walk around this part of the city with a detailed guidebook of a kind that does not yet exist. It would certainly be as interesting as walking around Manhattan south of the 59th street. At the crossing of Jiangxi middle road and Fuzhou Road we came to this interesting set of buildings openings into a circle. We took a few photos and walked north.

Two blocks northwards is East Nanjing Road, the spectacular pedestrian shopping street which is usually so crowded; the lack of crowds indicated peak dinner time. We walked away from the Bund towards the warren of streets with interesting restaurants closer to Renmin Park. Ahead of us, the double spires of Shinmao International Plaza rose almost a hundred meters from the roof of the building to touch the 333 meter mark. This would be tall anywhere else, but in Shanghai it is an also-ran.

Spring cleaning

Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.

The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.

It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.

Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.

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.

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.

ndl

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.