Whore of the Orient

Chapter 2: Shanghai

So, back to the train station and onto the hard-sleeper night train to Shanghai. It pulled in at 2.50am and I eagerly boarded it. Found my bunk with difficulty: ‘Who’s been sleeping in my bed, Daddy Bear?’ Would have been nice to have clean sheets but I was too tired to care too much and curled up for a nice long kip on the way to Shanghai. By 1pm the next day, my friendly carriage mates had begun the mandatory Chinese lesson and were worriedly pressing fruit into my hand, seeing as I hadn’t eaten since being on board. Pah! 11 hours is nothing. Fasting is a cinch. And fairly tactical when using public transport and its attendant toilets for any amount of time. You would honestly rather have a grumbling stomach and parched mouth than use some of these monsters. I bitched that Iran didn’t supply toilet paper, but at least it had the decency to supply soap. China doesn’t. Filthy pigdogs.

Got to Shanghai and went directly to reunite with my lovely hosts, Rachel and Mariano. That’s right – them from Seoul. It’s nice but a bit curious when you get to the point where you can meet your pals anywhere in the world and not bat an eyelid. “Alright?” <chin incline; grin> “Good journey?”

Settled in to their guest suite, showered the 2-days of grime away (there is no feeling more heavenly than a hot shower and teeth clean when you’re proper dirty) and nipped out to the Tianzifang district to meet the city. Beautiful little ramshackle lanes that, in a super-gentrified manner, evoke how the old Chinese would have lived. If your imagination can turn boutique shops into laundries and ickle bar-restaurants into ramshackle, people-packed dwellings.

Spent a lovely few days, ably-guided by the knowledgeable and cheery Rach, taking in the Shanghai Museum (ever so good, even if the Brits have, as usual, nicked a lot of the good stuff already – Ming furniture is better than Qing), fake market, bountiful cake shops, the Bund, and Propaganda Museum (great to see Marx looking like Moses depicted alongside the Maoster), amongst other things and lots of big long walks. I learnt along the way where the divisions lay when the French, British and Yanks divided the Shanghai spoils amongst themselves: stylistically quite obvious – French is the most elegant, British is pompous and grand, Yanks dull and boring.

Chairman Mao and Moses

The best bit about being able to slot into someone else’s hard-earned life is that they can lead you directly to the nocturnal highlights. Ed – there is a *pirate* bar. Oh yes! One night, Rachel and I got frocked up (thanks only to a permitted wardrobe raid) and headed to the sumptuous Bar at 87 in the Park Hyatt Shanghai  for Great Gatsby-inspired cocktails and gins overlooking the lights of the Bund. Another night we caught up with Mariano and his colleagues for light refreshment and drinking dice games before continuing on to a swanky bar in the French Concession to meet more expats.

They used to call Shanghai the Whore of the Orient, but some little Chinese bloke in the Apartment thought they meant me and started motioning ‘how much?’. Sniggered and quoted a round million quid, in part to ascertain how serious he was and cos, well, a million quid is a million quid. No deal. Trundled onwards to one of Shanger’s best gay clubs. I was chatting to Samuel at the bar when we turned around to see that Rachel had made a Colombian, heroin-addicted rentboy cry. It happens. Was the humble recipient of a very warm welcome from the wider Shanghai crowd, which gives me a fuzzy glow. Very hard to wrench myself away. :)

Nightlife aside, Rach and I also left Mariano to bring home the bacon while we tried out the new bullet train (pre-crash) on a day excursion to Suzhou (z = j. Don’t ask. They Chinese even have a formal way of writing phonetically in the Roman alphabet – called pinyin – so don’t ask me who came up with these spellings.).

Train delight

The area around Shanghai is famous for its watertowns, so called because they exist on a network of canals and rivers that once kept industry alive. They make for a peaceful places to visit, especially if you get off the main tourist drags and wander through the eddying lanes. Bet you didn’t know that Suzhou is actually a hub of cheap antiques. Went into one shop and the only English word the dude appeared to know was ‘antique’, which he said every time we picked anything up. I have a new black mark against my name for starting to ask him, ‘is this antique?’

A load of old Maos

Perusing other items on display, I picked up some eggs. Weird. What’s special about old eggs? Turning them over I found the Chinese version of the kama sutra etched into them and recalled to mind a passage in the novel ‘Empress Orchid’ where Orchid, in her bid to become concubine of choice and therefore all-powerful, seeks advice from a local madame. She instructs her to use an egg to refined her, um, technique. I seriously hope these were not used likewise and, if so, that they boiled ’em clean afterwards.

The city is not all waterways. Elsewhere you also find a section of glittering high-rises (all Chinese cities look the same in the centre) and a charmingly leafy street of boutiques and cafes. Idled a few hours away in the Bookworm, a cute treasure-trove of a lounge stuffed with books and reading literature serving the country’s worst jacket potatoes. I know, I know – serves me right for ordering a jacket potato.

I’ve found myself playing a lot of solitaire to pass time, which as Rachel rightly pointed out is very 90s. Oh for a Gameboy and Tetris. Who needs Angry Birds? Not me, though I will take an iPhone if anyone’s offering.

It was here too that I launched the Russian visa investigations. More on this later, but suffice to say that I couldn’t get a visa back in the UK cos I left too long ago (most visas are valid 90 days from date of issue); you can only get a tourist visa from Shanghai if you are an official resident or have a 90-day visa (mine is only the standard-issue 30 days). You can get a 10-day transit visa if you arrive on the train and have proof of all your tickets. This was the only option but required some organising  so I eagerly set about booking up tickets across the Trans-Mongolian train. Exciting!

Chapter 3: Nanjing

Living in the Silvestri’s spare room was all too comfortable and it was with difficulty that I dragged myself away to head out West in the triangular tour that I had sketched for myself. First up to Nanjing, mostly to see the memorial to the famous massacre  that occurred here, inflicted by the Japanese in 1937-8. The Japanese apparently captured the city and set about looting, raping and razing it, killing some 300,000 people. The Japanese still deny that any atrocities happened on such a scale, so it is still a bit of a sore point. As I’ve said before, nothing says ‘Sunday outing’ like a genocide museum.

Nanjing Memorial Hall. Fittingly, in the rain.

So I jumped a train here, enduring my first slanging match with a pissed Chinese man at the ticket counter first (stand in line, you grubby swine) and then blindly wandering through the streets in search of one of the three hostel addresses I’d scribbled down. The train station opens beautifully onto the lake front at Nanjing, but you needn’t walk all the way around it to get to the cheap digs on the other side. The city has a very efficient Metro system that costs 20p a ride. The only drawback for foreigners is that, while the signage when you get inside is bilingual, the signage in the ticket hall isn’t. And for some reason they haven’t told the staff where the main tourist haunts are. For all the strides forward China made in the tourism domain during the Expo (which they got huge kicks off, for some reason) and the Olympics – visas are hugely simplified and easy, information is readily available online in English, metro systems are easy to navigate etc. – they haven’t gone in for the whole tourist office concept that many countries around the world favour. Feck knows why. It’s relatively easy to post an English-speaking person at each major transport hub in a city and arm them with maps. But no. Adds to the fun, I suppose.

This important sign, however, does have an English translation.

That in the background? The train station. Nice entry point to the city, no?

Eventually found a bed for the night and set out for an explore of the beautiful lake and park and, naturally, the Memorial Hall. Very moving stuff and popular with the Chinese. I always like to see place like this well attended, not for dark and gloomy morbidity but because it’s important that we don’t shy away from showing the kids what horrors went before in the hope that they don’t follow suit. I mean, we nearly always do anyway, but the ‘Lest we forget’ principle has long resonated with me. Poppy day almost – almost – makes me cry.

On the way home I stopped in for some ‘famous’ (never heard of it) Nanjing soup near the Metro. ‘No meat, please; just vegetables.’ ‘No problem’, came the grin. The spicy soup was served with boiled liver and chicken intestines. He was sort of right; it’s not strictly meat.

Whistlestop tour of Nanjing complete and there being bugger all trains left to get a bed on, I submitted to a night bus to Xi’an. Bizarrely, this journey was all about 3s. Took the number 33 bus to stop number 3 to catch the 3.33pm bus. I’m taking it to be an unlucky sign, since I got drenched in a torrential downpour on the way too.

A kindly young pharmacology student tipped me off at the right stop and asked why I was taking the bus: ‘no one takes the bus in China.’ You and me do, kid. People of the world: if you are travelling in China in the summer, for gawd’s sake book all your trains up a minimum of 4 days in advance. Not to make light of a tragedy, but back in Haiti post-quake, toothpaste was one of the first things to be comprehensively looted as people were using it to smear in and under their noses to stave off the smell of rotting bodies. I nearly took a leaf out of their book on this bus. Fetid tin on wheels. Still, you do sort of get a bed, even if they had used all the luggage room for some extra, mysterious cargo and insisted on bags and extra people being packed in around you. Plugged into the iPod and wished for it to be over.

At some stage in the evening the old crone in charge of operations (driver+first mate were busy chain smoking up front) had a massive screaming match for about 40 minutes, involving some pointing in my direction. Naturally I ignored them and played dumb tourist for as long as I could, but it transpired that the gentleman in question wanted one of the two mattresses on my bunklet (I did have two) in order to settle himself into a spot in the aisle. After a dinner stop she won out over my quizzical ‘que’ expressions and I handed her the extra sponge layer which the poor fellow bedded down on. Meanwhile she settled herself back into her own bunk, nestled amid a full pile of mattresses, duvets, cushions and fleeces and gazed absently out of the window, munching steadily on sunflower seeds.

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