A flying visit to Shanghai, literally

It is time once again to bring this blog back to life. We have travelled a lot in recent times, but not the sort of places that make for entertaining blog posts.

China is not a place I have ever longed to visit. It certainly has plenty to offer but for many reasons it had remained towards the bottom of my bucket list. But, as is often the case, I found myself heading to a new place due to circumstance.

I had some Virgin airmiles to use up before they expired, and Virgin happened to fly vaguely in the direction I wanted to travel. When cobbling together my flight itinerary I found myself with an unavoidable 10 hour connection in Shanghai. It seemed like a good opportunity to tick China off my list.

I seem to be traveling alone these days quite often. Being on the move without Claire always seems very strange. She dragged me into the world of travel, she makes sure things run smoothly and she proof reads this blog to make sure I don’t offend anybody. But more than that she is my perfect travel partner.

Shanghai is a long flight from London. Fortunately I flew Business Class. This is a first for this blog and it feels like a betrayal of my roots, but it was fun. How I would have loved the flat bed on some of our previous long fights. I also balanced out this obscene luxury with a hostel and plenty of public transport during this trip. I’m still a backpacker really.

Shanghai is immense, as most Chinese cities are. The scale of it becomes apparent when coming in to land. The airport is a fair way from the city centre but fortunately most of the journey can be made using the incredible magnetic levitation (MagLev) train. This train has one redeeming feature. It travels at 450kmh. It was both amazing and frightening, but if you ever find yourself in Shanghai don’t miss this this.

As I only had about 4 hours I decided to explore The Bund. This is the historical riverfront area of the city. It was once an International Zone, run in part by the British following some war that we were no doubt meddling in. As a result of this period many companies and hotels constructed huge buildings in the Western style. These buildings line the river to this day and are an impressive backdrop.

Across the road is the river and for the entire length of The Bund is a lovely Riverside walkway along the embankment. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos. I saw at least 20 couples being photographed against the iconic modern backdrop across the river.

That’s the dull stuff covered, so now onto the more entertaining experiences.

The MagLev doesn’t run all the way to The Bund so I had to change onto the metro line. The ticket machines have English instructions so buying the ticket was easy. But then crazy officiousness begins, in a way which reminded me of Vietnam. After buying my ticket I then had to show my ticket to a person sitting next to the machine. Then, 10 metres later I had to show my ticket to a person standing in front of the ticket barriers. Only then could I insert my ticket, which didn’t work. At this point the ticket checker showed no interest in helping me and instead pointed to the error message on the barrier. It said “Go to BOS”.

The other ticket checker was more helpful. Probably because I just kept repeating “Go to BOS” over and over. She pointed me towards a kiosk with a huge queue. After a couple of minutes in the queue I realised that the job of this kiosk was to replace cards that did not work. Based on the size of the queue I would think most cards do not work. Once that was done I went back through the whole ticket checking process and was soon on the train.

I know that many countries do not have the same approach to certain etiquettes. Queuing for example. In this case I was quickly reminded that the Chinese do not value personal space. Fortunately at 6ft 3in I could look out across a sea of heads whilst holding on to my valuables tightly.

I like to think I’m pretty good at finding free WiFi. I failed miserably in Shanghai though. I wanted to find out which terminal I was flying out of later in the day. I gave up in the end. It seems to be impossible to get online in Shanghai without a Chinese cell phone number. Not even in the usually reliable McDonald’s.

After a pleasant walk along The Bund, and a really strong coffee (jet lag and exploring are not great friends) I walked up Nanking Road in search of lunch.

A large part of Nanking Road is pedestrianised. Motorised trains, pulled by cars made to look like trains, constantly ride up and down. There are lots of them and not many people seemed to use them. Most were empty. In effect all they really did was make the pedestrianised area not at all safe.

I wasn’t feeling great at this point due to the jet lag, so rather than brave local cuisine I opted for something homely and familiar. Pizza Hut. I now know that Pizza in China does not have any tomato topping of any sort. So my basic pizza was just a very thin layer of melted cheese on a pizza base. But it did the job of filling me up.

By this point I was in need of a sleep so I made the return journey back to the airport. Disappointingly the MagLev only ran at a very pedestrian 300kmh on the way back. But on the plus side I was very fortunate to get a ticket that actually worked for the metro.

Before the flight I went in search of food at the airport. Again I wanted something easy going. I ordered chicken breast and rice. The chicken came with the rib cage attached and what looked a lot like some internal organs.

I managed to grab a little sleep before checking in for my next flight. This was another first for me. A Chinese airline, and China Eastern to be exact. I had heard many stories about Chinese mainland airlines and I was actually looking forward to the experience. Overall it was not too bad, though really weird compared to every single flight I have ever taken.

We took off on time and then almost immediately the crew hauled 3 food and drink trollies into the aisle. The seat belt lights remained on. I really needed a pee though. So I asked permission. This prompted a heated discussion amongst the crew. I seemed to be the only person on the flight who had a need to get out of my seat.

Once the discussion amongst the crew ended they just continued serving food and plonked a meal down on my tray table. It’s not easy to get out of an economy seat when you have food in front of you. So I handed the food back and again asked if I could go to the toilet.

After another 5 minutes of animated discussion I was invited to stand up. Not that I could go anywhere as two trollies blocked the aisle. So I stood and waited. Then one of the crew started shouting at me in Chinese. I shrugged. Then she demonstrated how to climb past a trolley by standing on occupied seats. So I did just that, being careful not to hurt anybody or bash my head on the plane ceiling.

I didn’t fancy climbing over people to get back to my seat so when I was finished in the toilet I sat in a vacant seat to wait. The crew shouted at me some more but I pretended not to hear. An Australian woman sat across from me smiled. “Great fun isn’t it” she said. Clearly a seasoned traveller on flights like this.

The food was actually okay. Beef noodle, which was in fact a rather bland but very edible bolognese. Incredibly this was the culinary highlight of my visit to Shanghai.

The rest of the flight was pretty unremarkable aside from the fact that the seat belt signs were never switched off on what was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever taken. Nobody stood up aside from me as far as I noticed. It was a 4 hour flight.

When we arrived I bumped into the Australian woman in the security line. She explained that they don’t turn off the seat belt lights to keep the people under control. I have no idea if that is true but it seems plausible.

But the flight was over and I was now back in my favourite country. One of the places we based our world trip around. Cambodia, and I had some temples to explore.

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