The cabin lights switched on and the captain announced that we have begun our descent to Shanghai. As I looked out of the tiny airplane window into the night, what met my eyes stunned me. The underlying city of Shanghai was shimming and glittering like an open treasure chest. The runway of the Pudong International Airport is precariously close to the Huang Pu River and as the aircraft took a slanting turn on top of the river to face the runway, I twitched in my seat, afraid that the captain might have misjudged the distance and we are going to land in the water after all. Just as my heart was starting to race, seeing the water closing in uncomfortably, we hit solid ground. I had arrived, in Shanghai – the financial capital of The Republic of China and my first tryst with international travel.
26 years old, I was excited like a little girl. With butterflies in my stomach I approached the travel desk with a Chinese printout of my hotel address. A girl in stilettoes and an impeccable black skirt suit escorted me to the cab outside the terminal. The cabbie and I did not even exchange a look. We didn’t speak any common language. The lady blurted out something in Chinese and we were on our way. Those were not the days of GPS or smartphones, yet. We still were not equipped with information on our finger tips. It was 10:30 PM in the night and I was alone in the back seat of an ultra-comfortable chauffer driven SUV drifting through an unknown metropolis. How can the adrenaline not get to you! 🙂
It happened to be the day of Diwali and Shanghai seemed to be more lit up than any of the cities in India! An hour of drive later, just when I had begun to suspect that the cabbie had turned rogue and was taking me for a ride, he pulled into the portico of Hyatt. I couldn’t thank him more. At last I was at a place where folks spoke broken English. Having found no words to convey ‘Thank You’ in Chinese, I bowed multiple times saying “Thank You Sir” hoping that the gratitude will be conveyed.
I was replacing a colleague from the India office in Shanghai. Next day morning, he asked me if I cared to join him in exploring the city before he flew back to India a day later. Of course, I was in!
Shanghai is extensively connected by a sophisticated metro network. Equipped with metro train maps, we set out. The train landed us in Lujiazui. The place resembled a Lego city, with towers and buildings stretching infinitely into the sky. Incredible how little men create such towering marvels!
Having crossed the circular walkway bridge, we headed towards the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower.
At 468 meters, it is one of the tallest towers in the world. It resembles a ladder with two mega spheres at its either ends mounted on a massive tripod. We zipped up the lift to the first observatory deck called the Sight-Seeing floor. From the height of 263 meters, I was dumbstruck with the sight of the neighboring towers spread across the length and breadth of the visible city, with the Huang Pu River twisting through the concrete jungle. The Jin Mao Tower, The Bank of China Tower, The Bank of Shanghai HQ – edifices, each more innovative and stunningly engineered than the rest.
The upper observation deck has a glass bottomed sky walk. While your mind tells you that there is a floor, though it is made up of see through glass, you muscles refuse to obey and the net result is that although you want to, it takes for a massive effort to lift one’s feet and step on to the glass. 350 meters down, the roads and the cars look like a massive play unit of hot wheels.
Exploring the streets of Shanghai, we came across a Chinese wedding where the bride in a beautiful white flowing gown stepped out of the church with her newly wedded partner in a pitch black suit. As they stepped into the parked limo, we walked away to grab a meal. Eating in China can be taxing for an Indian. Although I am a non-vegetarian, I discovered that I was as much a non-veg eater as was a tiger a domesticated animal. With my limitations of chicken and non-smelling preferably sweet water fish, I was no different than my companion who was a hard core vegetarian. Having gorged on the complimentary heavy breakfast at the hotel, we found peace in the husks of roasted corn at a street side stall.
As the sun started to set on the November evening and the misty foggy twilight took over, we made our way to The Bund which is a broad walkway by the Huang Pu River interjected with promenades. The skyline of Shanghai across the river makes for a breathtaking sight. As the lights flicker on, the ambiance of the place engulfs you! Extremely touristy, the place is bustling with hawkers and families and children. The chaos of the place seem to trail away as one approaches the railings that look down upon the river. With a soft Chinese tune playing at the background from the speakers by the sidewalk, the light breeze of the river fluttering your hair and the chills of the evening giving you goose pimples, you cannot escape the mysticism of the place!
We crossed the river and proceeded to the happening Nanjing Road, the famous shopping district. Lined with shops and eateries on both sides of the 3.4 mile long street, the area is a melting pot of the up-scale and the middle class Shanghai. Trendy malls, latest brands, bright advertising boards, blinding neon lights, shoppers hurrying along, tourists trying hard to get the perfect photographs without been interrupted by the continuous stream of the passers-by – the place is a happy mess! We ventured through smelly supermarkets and elegant jewellery stores as my colleague shopped for his family and his young toddler. I picked up a few curios myself of which my favourite ones are a couple of broaches.
One of the supermarkets I ventured into sold scorpions and ants and all kinds of insects as food items. I had a hard time holding my breath and burst out of the place wanting desperately to breathe an odour free air! From next time, I was careful about the shops I walked into. Silk, embroidery, jade, wool – you name it, the place had it all!
Standing on the pavement, I realized that all these years of learning the international language English or the Indian National language Hindi or my mother tongue Bengali or the local language Gujarati of the place where I grew up have been reduced to zero on the streets of Shanghai. Here the signboards, the numbers displayed on the buses, the restaurant menu, the names of the roads, in fact every other text was in Chinese. I was as illiterate here as some poor boy in the slums of Mumbai. What I was armed with was only education (no longer literacy) and of course human experience!
The next one month in this fascinating city was going to grow me up in a way I hadn’t in the last 26 years. Shanghai turned me from a young wide-eyed girl to a confident lady. Although I couldn’t read or speak the language, I felt free. Initially cautious to even take the 15-minute walk from the hotel to the office, by the time I left the city 28 days later, I had explored quite a bit, on foot, in metro trains, in cabs.
A few days into my stay, to my disgust, the private locker in my hotel room locked itself with my passport and money inside. The digital locker wouldn’t budge how much ever I tried to open it with the four digit unique code. I picked up the intercom to convey my predicament to the front desk but well this was China and even folks at the five star hotel didn’t understand the supposedly simple English statement “The locker is the room is locked and isn’t opening”. So I went down to the reception and tried to explain the situation initially in words and then in gestures. But comprehension still alluded the guy. Finally he thought of a brilliant plan of seeking a pen and paper and asked me to write down my trouble in words. I wrote “Locker locked. Please open”. He disappeared inside with the sheet of paper and returned a few moments later with his colleague having been successful in deciphering the meaning. He communicated in so many ways that there is absolutely no problem. I may go up to my room and in time, a team arrived armed with tools to open my locker. Phew!
To make life a little more interesting, my mobile phone stopped working a few days after landing in the new city. The search for a new phone took me to the electronic market malls at the happening Xujiahui neighbourhood. I had never seen so many electronic goods being sold at one place ever in my life – consumer electronics, mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers, cameras, accessories, assembly products, mother boards, circuit boards, transistors – it was an Electronic Engineer’s dream shopping destination. Having bargained with my restricted Chinese vocabulary of ‘Nihao’ (Greeting), ’Shey-shey’ (Thank you) and ‘Quay’ (Expensive), I was successful in purchasing a cheap Nokia handset.
But alas! On returning to the hotel, I discovered that the ringer of the phone was disfunctional. The next day I again landed up in Xujiahui. But this time I did not limit myself just to the electronic market. This time, I looked around, crossed the foot bridge and headed to the fashion malls. Shopping does give women a high and it was no different for me that day. Chinese women are extremely fashion conscious and I felt a serious need to up my fashion quotient in the midst of the crowd that wore Prada and flaunted Gucci. 🙂
Just when I was getting along with the ways of the metropolis, it was time for me to leave. My Italian manager and his Finish lead offered to take me out on a send-off lunch and we along with our Chinese colleagues went to an Indian restaurant in my honour. With Tawa Roti and Chicken Vindaloo on their plates, most of them had absolutely no idea how to go about eating them. Although embarrassed, I felt overwhelmed that these folks were willing to go out of their comfort zone to make me feel at home. 🙂
At the end of a month, I was sad to leave Shanghai yet happy to arrive in Delhi. On the otherwise uneventful flight, the passengers were woken up from slumber in the middle of the journey by the captain while flying over the chocolate brown Himalayan range topped with snow as he drew our attention to the sight of the magnificent and colossal Mount Everest in the distance!
Shanghai showed me that the world is a small place and that in the end all human beings speak the same language – the words might be different but the essence isn’t. Gratitude, kindness, goodness and cooperation are always reciprocated. Most of the people are good. They want to be good and want to help. Shanghai also dared me to dream of exploring more places. I was like that hungry tiger who had tasted blood. I wanted to see more, to explore more, to feel more, to feel new.