Friday, October 7, 2011

Urban Wandering

If you want to see a picture of the 21st century, stand along the Shanghai Bund and stare across the Huangpu River. A brash panorama of jaunting skyscrapers that somehow resemble children’s toys, Shanghai’s Pudong district is a remarkable vision of things to come. I’d come here before, back in 2010, to attend the Shanghai World’s Fair. Back then, I was traveling with my wife, enjoying the pleasures of spontaneous decisions to ramble and explore wherever our instincts led. The 2011 GTI study tour was much more complex, but no less fulfilling.

The ostensive purpose of my visit this year was to gather footage for a documentary about the Global Technology Initiative. Yet I also served as co-leader, along with Richard Chung, helping ensure that 23 undergraduate students could get to know China personally, safely, and meaningfully. I may have thought I’d be focusing solely on a video project, but there was no way I would focus on my camera viewfinder alone. There was just too much to see and do in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Taipei, and other destinations on our itinerary. Averaging about four hours of sleep a night, I sometimes felt like I would age a year from this trip, but I look back on GTI 2011 as well worth the sweat, hassle, and occasional unexpected adventure.

Traveling with so many people, I felt a special understanding for Beijing traffic. I remember vividly the dense and complex roads of China’s capital city. But it’s one thing to read about the effects of automobiles on a strained grid where bicycles once held sway. It’s something else entirely to join the crowd. I can think of few other venues to encounter contemporary China's post-Revolutionary "Get moving – but not too fast" spirit than a Beijing traffic jam.

I also remember walking the streets of Shanghai with GTI students, experiencing anew the bumpy realities of a nation where so many people are charting new courses without maps. One night we were heading for the subway, passing through some of Nanjing Road's funkier side streets. It seemed that we were constantly split across three intersections. Eventually we agreed on a "sticky rice" strategy to stay together. We wanted to catch that last train.

We rushed to beat the closing door and, before long, were exiting somewhere near our hotel. Problem was, the building’s marquee was lost among the clouds. A guy on a motorcycle pointed at a narrow alley nearby offered his advice, and we plunged into a neon-lit corridor of mahjong games, hair salons, and all-night veggie shops, producing our own jagged map of awkward turns and confident strides. Once we arrived at our hotel, I remember the smiles of students who loved our adventure of urban wandering. “Let’s do that again!”

That’s my vision of China too. The nation’s urban planners are building stunning vistas and awesome panoramas. Our students saw some of the blueprints and chatted with those visionary engineers of the 21st century. GTI participants grew from the visit, and so did I. Yet my favorite moments were closer to the ground, grinding through Beijing traffic and wandering Shanghai’s crowded streets at night. Sometimes we got lost, and sometimes we were unsure. But we were always ready for the surprises awaiting us. I can’t wait to go back.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

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