Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shanghai: Day 6

UPEC Shanghai overview
Today started with a visit to the Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a must-see site that features an 800 square meter, 1:200 scale model of Shanghai as planners envision the city in 2020. There are other remarkable exhibits too: a 360-degree film that flies the audience through an animated version of the city, detailed models of new urbanist housing schemes, kid-friendly urban design games, even a temporary exhibit of John Portman scale models. But I was there to see that huge "tiny town." And it was just a few blocks away! Of course, I was glad that I'd printed off a picture of the UPEC before departing; it proved mighty hard amid the expanse of People's Square. Sure, you could spot it easily enough on a map. But outside, in the heat and size of the city, where signage frequently lacks English translation, I recognized the virtue of bringing a photo.

The UPEC's miniature version of Shanghai is, as you'd guess, amazing, large enough to accommodate both a ground-level and mezzanine gallery. Jenny and I stared across a machine grid of highways and skyscrapers and apartments, a green and gray megalopolis that radiates off both shores of the Huangpu River. We hunted for landmarks, finding our comparatively tiny hotel near the Square, and we snapped photos when tiny LED lights set the buildings aglow under the cover of artificial night. I was especially drawn to the model's world's fair expo site, smiling giddily at those gaudy colors that evoked our first night in Shanghai. Cutting straight lines through a God's eye view of national and corporate hubris, the miniature expo seemed perfect. One could hardly imagine crowds or smog or noise. Miniaturized, the plastic expo is a pure vision of rational design, a new Age of Confidence that eschews even a hint of nostalgia.

Miniaturizing the Shanghai Expo at UPEC
One strange moment: While I was setting up my shots, dealing with the predictable frustrations of photographing weirdly lit objects that shimmered in and out of narrow and deep focus, a guy leaned over my shoulder and asked, "Why are you taking pictures of particular buildings?" The question creeped me out, mainly because I'd grown up presuming the presence of secret police anywhere I might travel in a communist country. Forgetting initially that China's communism is no more viable than America's "free market," I couldn't help but flash back to my recent conversation with that economics professor in Hangzhou, remembering the detail and precision of his questions. These meetings are certainly innocuous I reminded myself; there's no point in getting paranoid. Still, it was fun to wonder whether I was starring in a spy movie plotted by unseen planners.

Shanghai green zone in the not too distant future
Wrapping up our visit at the UPEC (where I bought a t-shirt showing a Mao-era worker reminding us to plant the "red seed") we grabbed lunch at a nearby mall, joining the crowds at a Carl's Junior before tucking into some ice cream. Then, to my frustration, I managed to drip my dessert onto my shorts. Great. Now I'd have to wander Shanghai looking like I had some sort of bowel explosion. Jenny recommended that we return to the hotel where I could wash up. I added the apparently clever idea that we could wash all our clothes in the sink and leave them out to dry, thereby saving on cleaning costs. Again, it seemed like a good idea, until we noticed later that our dimly lit room whose windows open to a dreary atrium received no ventilation. I didn't feel so smart right then.

Shanghai street life
After a brief nap we headed back outside in search of what we began to call Funkytown. I was hunting for snippets of "Old Shanghai": land of narrow alleys, hanging laundry, and street venders. Actually our destination was a train that crossed the river. That's where we had tickets to climb the Oriental Pearl Tower later in the evening.

Andy near the Pudong
On the way, however, we would bypass the glitz of Nanjing Road. We'd see real Shanghai. The side streets did not disappoint. As shadows drifted down over the ragged buildings we ambled by cluttered stores where many of Shanghai's locals eke out a living hawking whatever they can sell. Auto parts, fish pieces, knock-off shoes, "leather" belts, pirated DVDs... I reveled in the randomness of it all. Jenny and I agreed that we'd spend much more time tomorrow engaged in this kind of urban exploration.

More Shanghai street life
The "Bund Sightseeing Tunnel," our ride across the Huangpu, was, if possible, even tackier than the tourist guidebooks had warned. It's a train that transports visitors under the river through a creepy light show about hell. No really, that's the plot: a train ride through hell (and paradise too, they explain). We bought our ticket, we rode the train, and we exited near the Oriental Pearl. And that was that. There's no need for alcohol to lubricate this trip, incidentally; five minutes in the Bund Tunnel will set anyone reeling.

Shanghai World Financial Centre
and Jin Mao building
Finally we were on the Pudong side of the river, walking under those bold towers. We made our way to the Pearl and showed our tickets to get in. There were crowds of people joining various lines and, near the entrance, a village of spectators watched a hip hop concert. The guy on stage, an American clad in a Celtics jersey, made a passable attempt at laying down some old school beats, and Jenny and I grooved along for a while. Yet we wanted to see the view from atop that tower. So we started looking for the line that went with our ticket. When we got confused, a cop pointed at the largest cluster of folks and offered a most Chinese form of advice: "Follow the people."

"Follow the People"
We circled the outside at a half-hour crawl. And then, passing security, we joined another line to circle the inside of the tower. The wait stretched well past an hour - maybe two. We lost track of time, but didn't stress excessively about the grind. Adults pointed and chortled at my "red seed" t-shirt while kids greeted us with their best English "hellos," laughing at our attempts to teach them a few American catchphrases. Before long we had a crowd of tweens shouting "awesome!" and giving a Fonzie-style thumbs-up. Then it was time to enter the silver elevator, to get a glimpse of Shanghai's magnificent skyline from above. Aloft, Jenny and I spent roughly an hour circling the vista, taking pictures of the golden buildings of the Bund and those fantasy structures of metal ambition that rise above the new city.

View from the Oriental Pearl
Departing the Oriental Pearl (in a queue that was amazingly even more soul-crushing than the line to get in) we were cheered by a faint cool breeze and by animated lights that transformed trees alongside the road into dripping, glowing pieces of art. We took the metro back across the river and returned to the Bund. Then, there it was, that skyline I'd longed to see, lit and sparkling. I took my pictures, stared awhile, and felt ready to call it a night.

Night in the Pudong
Walking down Nanjing Road we passed guys who pitched glowing toys into the air, grabbing our attention while the trinkets drifted to the ground. We also spotted touts who'd shine laser lights onto the street in another effort to seize our eyes (and our wallets). More animated signs were blinking this time, but fewer than I would have expected. Maybe we'll have better luck tomorrow.

Pudong viewed from across the Huangpu

Day 5 | Day 7

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