We walk to the subway to take the Airport Express train, and encounter the barrage of smells that seem to blanket this city
. Our hotel lobby has its own designer smell which is comforting in the manner of a dryer sheet. The streets are a mix of western and eastern flavors: fried chicken from Popeye’s, a heavy oily smell from numerous Chinese restaurants, and a faint mechanical smell in the subway. Overall, we’ve enjoyed our time in this city, which has been a welcome soft landing into Asia.
Shanghai, on the other hand, has quite frankly kicked our ass. It’s hard to say if 3 weeks journeying through non-New York America combined with the ease of Hong Kong has made us soft, or if the pace of our journey has made us tired and dim-witted, or if there is some other explanation, but during our first hours in the city we left all of our travel expertise behind.
Let me take a step back. Our arrival to our hotel was fine. Shanghai’s skyline is impressive, with a wide array of buildings of all shapes reaching up to the sky. It’s also a city under construction, as it will play host to the 2010 World Expo in a mere 276 days. Highways are being constructed, bridges and tunnels built, and a huge section of the city—5 square miles--has been razed and is being rebuilt to house the expo. Our hotel, the Westin, is beautiful. In the remaining hours of the day, we thought we’d ease into the city with a short walk over to, and then along, the Bund, a pedestrian walkway along the river lined (on our side) with beautiful European buildings in the process of being restored to high-end shopping, and (across the river) the ultramodern skyline of the financial capital of China.
Such was the plan.
Here’s what happened: Our sidewalk leading to the Bund simply disappeared in a sea of bamboo scaffolding (the buildings are being restored.) Forced to the streets, we discovered that traffic lights are more of a suggestion than in America. We also discover that Maribeth’s breasts are quite an attraction and most men (and some women) have no qualms about staring. We arrive at the Bund to discover that the entire pedestrian section is (of course) being restored. Then it starts to rain. We are tired, wet, and a bit disillusioned, and stick out like a sore thumb. That’s when "Tom" and “Andy,” two friendly “art students” strike up a conversation. Deep inside, my inner New Yorker said “scam.” The rest of my brain, though, said “let’s follow these guys, like a doofus, as they lead us to their “art school,” show us “their art,” and—surprise—ask us to buy.” Which, we did. $60 went to support their “scholarship fund,” in exchange for 2 paintings and 2 customized calligraphy notes (which probably say “these suckers are idiots.”) Back on the street, as if coming out of a trance, we realize that we fell for the first scam mentioned in our tourist guide.
Hot, dejected, and feeling both foolish and conspicuous, we retreat. Fully. Back to the hotel. No local cuisine. No exploration of nightlife. Not tonight. This evening was western food delivered to the room, and HBO on the television…but not before vowing that tomorrow, we’ll tap our inner New Yorkers and take this city on!
This morning, we bid adieu to Hong Kong and begin our journey to Shanghai. As we take the elevator down to check out, we see evidence of Hong Kong's fixation with hygene: all of the buttons on the elevator pad are covered with a disposable film, and underneath is a note—This elevator is disinfected hourly. We’ve seen these displays all over: In the museum on the touch screen exhibits, in the subway on the vending machines, even on the tram where each cab is completely wiped down after each trip. Free dispensers of hand sanitizer are everywhere, and message boards exhort people to cover their mouths and wear masks. We’ve been told that this is an (over)reaction to the swine flu threat prompted by Hong Kong’s under-preparedness for SARS, and we can’t decide whether this is a prudent response or a recipe for breeding a super-resistant disaster bug.