Trying to throw your arms around the World

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Flag of China  , Shanghai,
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Having learnt a thing or two about train travel over the last couple of months, we arrived at the Beijing South train station in good time. Beijing South is a brand new train station and I have to say is mightily impressive, looking and feeling more like a new airport than a train station. Our timing was perfect and we had just made it through security when they opened boarding for our train. Our final train in China was the best one yet; one of the new high speed trains and the cabin itself was clean, new looking and the flat screen TVs actually worked! An even bigger bonus – the train ran perfectly to schedule at both ends and we arrived in Shanghai shortly before 8am.

Avoiding rush hour in the metro, there was time for a quick breakfast at McDonalds. We've been pretty good at avoiding the golden arches and other westernized foods on this trip, trying to eat local where possible and have consequently sampled lots of tasty and unusual things. However there are times when you just want to know exactly what it is you’re eating without having to think too hard about it…..maybe McDonalds doesn’t quite fit the bill of knowing exactly what you’re eating, but it is at least familiar and probably means you won’t end up eating brains or chicken feet (we hope!).

Not sure if we’ve mentioned it yet, but the Chinese are well known for their delightful habit of hawking up and spitting out great volumes of phlegm. Apparently they are aware that this is not a global habit and the government went to great lengths to educate people and try to stop it prior to the Olympic games. Apparently they either have short memories or the campaign didn’t work. Anyway, after our McBreakfast we made our way down toward the metro and as we approached the steps, Derek stowed the pulling handle of his pack and went to grab the carrying handle only to discover too late that somebody had hawked right on the handle…. such accuracy was no accident!

We finally made it back to Koala International Youth Hostel (where we had stayed two weeks previous) and were pleased to be given the same room – lots of space and all the facilities that we needed. We spent our time settling in before heading across town to find the foreign languages bookstore. The store was easy to find and had what we’d been hunting for – East Africa LP and the 6th Harry Potter, though we decided against the LP India as the books were very expensive and most of our arrangements for India are taken care of. I only hope that decision doesn’t come back to haunt us later. We also managed to find a new journal for Alex as the journal that he had been writing in for the past three months got lost in Beijing.

After a good night’s sleep we were up and out early to make our way to the far side of the city for the Expo (a.k.a. World Fair). Expo is a collection of international pavilions, generally funded by each country highlighting the relationships that nation has with the host nation….an opportunity for visitors to travel around the world in a single day! It was a relief to discover that there were no lines either to buy tickets or to actually get in, and shortly after arriving at the site we were inside and wondering which way to turn? We had chatted with some other travelers in Beijing who had been to Expo and only visited six pavilions due to the lines. Should we visit countries we’re not visiting on this trip, or maybe countries we are planning to visit but haven’t been to yet, or did we just want to go to our favourite countries? The gate that we had entered was in Asia, so we set off and after viewing many from the outside we joined the short line for Morocco (yes, I know this isn’t in Asia, but it was there for the Expo?). Beautiful from the outside, a little less exciting on the inside, but hopefully we’ll enjoy the country itself more than the pavilion! Out of curiosity we paid a visit to the North Korean pavilion and, not surprisingly, it was not manned by any Koreans, and seemed to portray some sort of false Utopia. Not sure what they thought they were trying to achieve – surely not even the Chinese believe in their mission?

We soon discovered that the best strategy (for us) was to only visit pavilions with short lines or fast moving lines; while this ruled out some of the "best" pavilions (e.g. Japan, UK, Saudi Arabia) it also avoided lining up for an hour or more for some of those pavilions. The only long line we actually joined was for India, our next real destination and we thought we might pick up some tips. India was one of the better pavilions we visited and included two shows; one high tech hologram type show and a traditional Indian dance show. The real bonus though was that we left it feeling re-energised and excited about visiting India having had serious doubts about our decision to go at this time of year.

By 8pm we had visited more than twenty pavilions and were ready to call it a day. Highlights were probably India, Thailand and New Zealand. Biggest disappointments were France and South Africa. A common curiosity was how few of the pavilions were actually manned by nationals of the particular country, just Chinese who had read the memos on their designated location – maybe there were visa issues for getting people in? Vietnam was a great pavilion but at all reflective of the country we visited a month or so ago! Canada was quite well done, and had a great ambience, however had the highest food price we saw in all of Expo was for poutine there!

Tired, we returned to the hostel and having discovered the delights of the street food outside the hostel the previous evening we returned for more noodles, cooked as you watch on the hottest gas ring you’ve ever seen! Our last two dinners have cost us less than four dollars per meal and it’s been some of the better food we’ve had in China!

The plans for our last full day in China had us catching an early train out into the countryside for a day trip, but having exhausted ourselves at Expo the day before we decided to have a quiet day making the most of a half-decent internet connection to make some more arrangements for India.

Every time the bags get packed for a flight they seem to have shrunk a little and we end up trudging to the post office to off load a few more souvenirs and this time was no different. We took the scenic route and walked the famous Bund on our way to the post office. The Bund is the original port area of Shanghai developed by the Europeans when Shanghai was turned into a major shipping port. Not surprisingly, the Bund has a very European feel to it and on a sunny day would be a beautiful stroll with the old buildings on one side of the river and the sparkling new high tech skyscrapers on the opposite bank. Unfortunately this was not a nice sunny day; it was a bleak and dreary wet day with clouds socked in so low that you could only see the bases of the buildings across the river. However, the rain may have been a blessing as it meant there were fewer tourists around which meant fewer photo stops. We did get stopped at one point and between the kids and Sarah over twenty poses were struck with people actually forming a line at one point to have their pictures taken with them (Derek had temporarily disappeared and this seemed an opportune moment for them to pounce). The post office was eventually discovered and we packaged up our Expo souvenirs along with a few other odds and ends and cross our fingers hoping that they’ll make it back, although the mail person did seem a little too interested in the presentation pack of Expo playing cards!

Trudging through the rain we returned to the hostel and collected the bags before heading off to the airport via the famous mag-lev train, a mere eight minutes away from downtown when travelling at a top speed of 301km/h! It’s time to bid farewell to China and look forward to India….how will the world’s two largest populations and 21st Century superpowers compare?

And so what parting words about China? Well it’s clear that this country is now capitalist at heart, and every Chinese person seems to believe that they are due a bigger piece of the pie than everyone else, which seems to get exhibited in a lack of respect shown for others. The contradiction is that they are also still fearful of authority if not of each other, probably due to the recency of the transformation. The break-neck speed of development here is scary for us in the West, and there’s a niggling suspicion that it may all implode at some point… China is taking the shortest route from A to B, never mind the consequences or casualties along the way. And it’s idea of “B” may not be the same as ours, they will simply define a different standard in the new World, and it may not be to our refined(?) moral liking. At Expo, China has presented a sterile unrepresentative view of itself, which you’d expect. But this event is also exposing to large numbers of nationals some unrepresentative and idyllic views of other countries and cultures. The more the new China absorbs the best traits from previous cultures and civilizations who went before (like the Romans with the Greeks) the more palatable it will be for the rest of us … but don’t hold your breath & get ready for the ride.
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