The future smells of pork noodles.

Five hours in the world’s largest city. Twenty-four million inhabitants, three times and change the size of Luxembourg, and all I’ve got is five hours to dip my toe in this behemoth of a pool. I walk out of Pudong Terminal 2’s arrivals, rolling superlatives on the tip of my tongue like the whisky I savoured before landing, the rock n’ roll breakfast. Eleven thousand buildings higher than thirty storeys. The second-tallest skyscraper in the world. Fourteen lines of metro, three hundred and sixty four stations, five hundred kilometres of tracks. The largest port in the world for container traffic. And I’ve got five hours – hang on, it’s taken a little while at passport control. I’ve now got four hours forty in Shanghai. It’s such a preposterous commitment that I cannot avoid feeling excited about it. It’s when you’re bound to fail that you can truly have fun.
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It’s odd to be gliding into town at the speed of four hundred and thirty kilometres per hour, suspended over the delicate interlocking of opposing magnetic fields alimented by strong electric current. Maglev, the technology of future, is already here in Shanghai, and it feels as if it’s been here a while. So long, in fact, that it’s had the time to grow a bit shabby. The concrete pillars on which we rumble are weather-worn. The white panels on the train have turned yellowish under the beating of the sun. The seat covers, so delightfully démodé in their fake-silk appearance, are creased and mangy. The cushions are sagging. Still, it’s clocking 430 km/h, the display shows, whilst the Piccadilly Line can’t manage a week without shivering, curling up into a tiny ball and dying for the day.
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Exit six of Longyang metro station catapults me back a picture-perfect view of the world in future sense. This is the opening of Blade Runner with an optimist as director: cool breeze, blue sky in which puffy white clouds cruise and a parade of the most outlandish buildings ever designed not for use as background in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. I leave the last whiffs of sweet & sour pork in the bowels of the metro station, and climb upstairs.
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An elevated platform runs between the palisade of highrises, darting in and out of a shopping centre that smells of delicate eau de toilette, crammed with boutiques peddling Vertu phones and other brands that I don’t recognise but that, inevitably, exude prestige, finesse and price tags that I couldn’t afford getting near to, not even when declined in Yuans. I walk on, mouth gaping wide in awe, but luckily I’m not the only one. Chinese visitors – city burghers from the suburbs, tourists from inland, coarse hands and wind-swept faces – amble about and behave pretty much in the same way, save for shooting selfies in full-automatic bursts. Stacked against a backdrop of skyscrapers, pensioners toss away the umpteenth cigarette butt before giving their personal interpretation of Zoolander’s Blue steel another workout.
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The centrepiece of this whole zone is a triumvirate of giants. Jin Mao Tower is the tiniest of the lot, yet at three hundred and eighty meters and change it’s taller than anything in the whole of Western Europe; if it was a man, London’s Shard would barely scratch his armpits. Shanghai World Financial Centre is the largest bottle opener, a whole half a klick of glass and steel. Finally, the newly finished Shanghai Tower, a whole hundred meters taller than its neighbour. Fifteen years ago, not a single one of them existed. Fact is, fifteen years ago pretty much nothing of what is around me today existed. When you live in such a quickly accelerating city it’s easy to amble on Memory Lane, I reason, wondering whether the old man who’s puffing fags on my right is reminiscing about the old times when everyone just had a bicycle and a Mao-style pyjama. Or perhaps he’s just thinking about his doctor’s appointment.
Three queues – four, I beg your pardon – deliver me to the 118th floor of Shanghai Tower, following a ride on, as the bored-out-of-his-mind operator said, “the world’s fastest lift”. It’s good to know that, somewhere, there’s somebody measuring this sort of things. Sleek dark polished deck, floor-to-ceiling windows offer what real estate view would undoubtedly call ‘unparalleled views’ above the city larger than Luxembourg three times and change. Twenty-four million people huff and puff, wheel and deal, below us, together with the world’s largest container port. From up here the magnificent palisade of Pudong appears a collection of Lego.
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Up above, around me, are dozens of other men and women. I hear Spanish being talked, together with Hebrew, German and English, but first and foremost it’s Chinese. Teenagers update their Instagram statuses, or whichever micro-blogging platform is in use over here, families put together a group photo, yoga clubs practice a choreography in front a photographer hired for the occasion. I, however, am drawn towards a group of four elderlies, three men and a lady, with their portable stools and walking sticks. They are perched against the glass in a direction facing away from the rest of the skyscrapers, away from the city centre, towards a rather nondescript slice of urban sprawl. I move on, liking to think they’re up here trying to locate the whereabouts of the old shikumen where they grew up.
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Another ride on the world’s fastest elevator, a quick dip in the metro and on the Maglev and I’m back to Pudong. Sitting on a metal chair I watch a family unfolding a studiously packed lunch, iPhone and other modern paraphernalia momentarily forgotten. As the smell of food floats through the terminal – inevitably, it’s again sweet & sour pork – I can’t help but reflecting that this family is as good a personification of Shanghai as it gets. Modern, bursting at the seams with cutting-edge technology but inhabited nonetheless by people, people with portable cookers where soy sauce and other ingredients slowly cook meat and noodles, people who still squat underneath the tall skyscrapers to pick up herbs, grown in studiously landscaped gardens, to be used in their grandparents’ recipes.
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21 Responses to The future smells of pork noodles.

  1. richandalice says:

    Really interesting description, especially of the various transportation modes. And the Blade Runner keyword is spot on…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. J.D. Riso says:

    Interesting about the shabby transport. Futuristic grunge comes to mind. I didn’t know that Shanghai is the world’s biggest city now. I still thought it was Mexico City. And I didn’t know it has the world’s second highest building. The obsession with building the tallest building is kind of tiresome now. Who has the biggest…uh. Who cares. I’ve been in the Sears Tower in Chicago, but passed on going up the Burj khalifa in Dubai. Sorry if I sound like a party pooper. Your account of your whirlwind visit is, as ever, very entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie, no worries! It’s the first city proper (i.e. within city limits) by population, and the observation deck on Shanghai Tower’s taller than Burj Khalifa’s… Argh, I did it again! 😀

      Like

  3. Hey Loons says:

    what a ride. This post made me fell like I was there. “whilst the Piccadilly Line can’t manage a week without shivering, curling up into a tiny ball and dying for the day.” 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. James says:

    Hi there – a friend of mine recommended your blog and I can see why! I love your storytelling, the details that tease all the senses, and the palpable sense of excitement that runs through it all. Also that you made the journey to Shanghai Tower and back in under five hours; with a layover like that I’d have been tempted to just stay at the airport and wait it out. Pudong is impressive, sure, but the real heart and soul of Shanghai is across the river in Puxi. That “other” Shanghai is older, much more humanly scaled, and far more interesting. It even has one of the greatest collections of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world, with some sporting an East-meets-West aesthetic with Chinese motifs and tiled roofs. My own paternal grandparents grew up in 1930s Shanghai and so I heard stories about how modern it was even then – the department stores had escalators, they’d catch the latest Hollywood movies at the Cathay Cinema (which still stands), and it was a very cosmopolitan place with a significant European population (the French, Americans, and British had their own large central enclaves, and my grandmother remembers seeing a lot of Russians who fled the revolution).

    I also want to correct a small mix-up in the story. Hutong refers to the traditional alleyways lined by low-slung houses found in northern Chinese cities, especially Beijing, whereas the architectural style native to Shanghai is known as shikumen (though many of the shikumen houses have been bulldozed and replaced by high-rise apartments). In China there’s something of a split between north and south (as in Italy) and a Beijing-Shanghai rivalry (like Madrid v. Barcelona)! I find it intriguing that you thought the airport and metro smelled of sweet and sour pork – the kind found in England is a variant of a Cantonese dish brought by way of Hong Kong. Shanghainese cuisine tastes and smells slightly different, though it’s likely that what you sniffed was run-of-the-mill Chinese fast food.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi James, thanks for reading! Glad you found Are We There Yet, and thanks for your friend’s recommendation. Apologies for the hutong remark, I’ve now corrected it with “shikumen”, which in facts sounds better… And thanks for the insight in the Beijing-Shanghai rivalry, it does indeed sound like Milan-Rome 🙂

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  5. Travel, young man, for me as well. I like to follow your gaze. I highly doubt I’d ever experience something like this. Just the think about Luxembourg. You keep mentioning it as if it’s something large… I can’t imagine something 3 and change times as big holding 24 million people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lexklein says:

    Loved every minute of the 4:40 of description, but what really brought me back to Shanghai were your comments about the juxtaposition of the sleek and new with the still old-fashioned. Even the city split of Puxi-Pudong speaks volumes about this contrast; I was lucky enough to have more time on both sides of the river, but you captured the feeling so well even on just the one side. Have you been to Seoul? It had a similar future/past vibe to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi, thanks for reading! I’ve never been to Seoul, in facts it was a draw between that and Shanghai as a stopover, and Shanghai won. But the little I’ve seen from friends and loved one seems to confirm what you say. I’ll do check it out, one day or another.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Ply says:

    Thanks for the breakneck trip through Shanghai, and I don’t mean the one you get from looking up, and up, and up…

    Liked by 1 person

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