Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Shanghai and Shenzhen

Sorry, this is a big one.

Considering how unexpectedly wonderful the flight with Spring Airlines had been, in retrospect I should not be surprised that the universe would try to balance itself out, by giving me the single worst flight of my life up to this point.

We flew from Shanghai to Shenzhen with China Eastern Airlines. Given that it’s the second biggest airline in China (when measured by number of passengers), I figured we’d have a bit of a better flight than what we got. While J and I had legroom, it’s because we got seated at the emergency exit seat, and had to deal with a somewhat churlish flight attendant sitting facing us. The flight was delayed a half-hour in boarding, and then another 45 minutes on the runway, and then AGAIN for a half hour on the runway once we landed. The air-conditioning wasn’t turned on very strong as we waited, and so by the time we were in the air and it started blasting, I was covered in a fine layer of sweat, and got very cold very fast. Finally, the meal that was offered could only be described as “ěxīn” or “hěn nánchī” (“disgusting/nauseating”, or “very difficult to eat”): a smooshed bun, slathered with mayonnaise with a couple meager slices of mystery meat; even an omnivore would have been turned off by the meal, and indeed, I saw more than a few uneaten sandwiches when I got up to use the restroom. Our surly flight attendant seemed a bit put out when J and I passed on our in-flight meal. Finally, at the end of the flight when we were on the runway, as soon as the “fasten seatbelt” light turned off, a number of passengers all throughout the plane grabbed their bags and sprinted to the front exit (only to have to wait as we were stuck on the runway).

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I hope those people had a better time than us

Granted, plenty of those issues are outside the control of the airline. We were probably stuck on the runway so long because of Shanghai Pudong Airport’s notoriously bad air traffic control. And the passengers trying to stampede off the plane at the end were only doing so because they’d been cooped up for so much longer than expected. Really, the only things that fall under China Eastern’s control are the gross food (did I mention it was gross? Because it was gross), and the one ornery flight attendant (the other flight attendant I interacted with seemed fine), who may have just been having a rough day. Really, it was just a whole rich tapestry that was woven together to give us such a shitty airborne transition between Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Last Day in Shanghai

Originally, we’d planned on going to the Bund the evening we returned from Hangzhou. For a few hours early each night, the decorative lights all along the Bund and the Pudong side turn on, and you get to stare in awe at Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl Tower sparkling in the inky sky as they reach up toward the heavens.

Instead, we got back to our hostel and crashed. Hard.

Well, I mean, I did at least.

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We saw it the next day instead, but it was decidedly less sparkly and magical in the daylight

On the plus side, I got a decent night’s sleep, and woke up feeling much better than I had in recent days. That morning, we packed our bags, checked out of the hostel, left our luggage at the front desk, and headed out to see what we’d missed the previous night.

We hopped on the metro and headed first for Yuyuan Market and its neighbour, Yu Garden. The Garden was built in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty, and as with so many historical buildings in China, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. The Market is decidedly newer, but designed to integrate well with the architecture of the Garden.

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Neat architecture, ridiculously few shoppers.

The first thing J and I noticed when we got out near Yuyuan Market and the Garden was how obscenely hot it was. The mercury had ratcheted up pretty drastically during our long metro ride. Even before noon, the temperature was already hovering around 35ºC (around 95ºF), with humidity that made it feel more like 44ºC (~111ºF). As it would turn out, this would be the hottest day we’d experience during our trip, with the temperature topping out at 39ºC with a humidex of 49ºC (102ºF and 120ºF, respectively). Brutal.

The upshot was that all the decidedly touristy places we went that day were remarkably empty. We marvelled at how few tourists there were at the tourist market, how few people there were lined up to get into Yu Garden, and later at the utter lack of people out on the Bund.

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J, posing in the one place that actually had a crowd (and it was a tiny crowd)

After a short time perusing the touristy little vendor stalls, J and I quickly left the market, looking for some refuge from the heat. We punctuated our walk down to the Bund with short stops in convenience stores, to luxuriate in the air-conditioning; a 7-11 here, a Circle-K there. When we reached the Bund, we found it even more thoroughly deserted than Yuyuan market; during the half-hour or so we spent out there, we saw maybe three dozen people. Again, it just turns out that the locals were smart enough not to venture out into what felt like an oven.

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Yours truly, alone on the Bund, disgustingly covered in sweat.

In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to fight through the tiredness the previous night. While the Bund and its architecture were still very impressive (for instance, on the right side of the photo above, you can see the second-tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower), I’ve seen enough photos of Shanghai’s skyline at night to know that we missed out on something special. Oh well… live and learn.

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Oh yeah! There’s also a version of Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull on the Bund. Tourists like to rub its testicles for luck. China’s weird.

The last order of business for the day turned out to be the hardest. We’d managed to accumulate a fair amount of stuff — between the shopping we’d done, and Yini’s lovely gifts in Hangzhou — that we didn’t have enough room in our bags to pack everything. Originally, I’d planned on bringing an MEC duffle bag that folds into a tiny ball when not in use, just to fill with gifts and cheap clothes, but at the last minute decided against it. I figured I’d be able to pick one up for cheap somewhere in China. Wrong-o!

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I guess we’re in the shopping district?

J and I wandered up and down the shopping district on Nanjing Road, searching in vain for an extra bag to carry all our extra stuff. No luck in Uniqlo, or H&M, or Adidas, or Forever 21, or Nike, or Puma… even stores dedicated to fitness didn’t carry what often gets referred to here as a gym bag. It was only after we gave up, defeated, that we wandered into a Miniso (a Chinese chain that passes itself off as being a Japanese variety store) and found a couple of ridiculously oversized purses that would suit our needs.

And so, after we picked up our stashed gear at the hostel, packed our newly purchased bags, and spent the hour-and-a-half getting back out to the airport, I checked one of my backpacks and boarded a plane bound for Shenzhen, with my new black satin purse firmly in hand.

If I’m going to carry a purse, I’m just going to own it, damnit!

First Night in Shenzhen

We arrived in Shenzhen ridiculously late thanks to all the delays. Luckily, our friend Chloe would be meeting us at the airport, and we’d be staying at her place. Or so we thought. Instead, generous soul that she is, she decided that J and I could use some place a little fancier to spend the night, having mostly spent our time in China staying in hostels.

And that’s how we wound up at the Avant-Garde Hotel. Inexpensive by Western Standards, but we wound up in a room that would have easily cost twice as much back home, with a bathroom (that had an actual bath!) bigger than our previous room in Shanghai.

The place clearly catered to business types; the layout and amenities of the hotel were a dead giveaway, but even more of a giveaway was the “pro” escorting a business-bro back to his room (presumably). Whatever. All that mattered to J and I was that the water pressure in the shower was excellent, the tub was clean, and the bed was comfortable. We’d need a good night’s rest to venture out into Shenzhen the next day.

Stray Thoughts:

  • On the very outskirts of Shanghai’s Yuyuan tourist trap Market, the carefully curated “traditional” architecture inside the main market (which it turns out is actually run by a massive shopping conglomerate) gave way to what I’d become accustomed to when thinking of Chinese markets: storefronts with rolling doors crammed side-by-side, their wares spilling into the streets along with rogue blasts of overpowered air conditioning. I found it weirdly comforting.

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    That’s more like it!
  • Seriously, if you’re going to China, and you’re planning on buying more stuff than you can fit in the bags you have, bring a duffel bag or something, crammed in the bottom of your main pack. They are seriously impossible to find in China. Maybe they don’t believe in duffel bags?
  • While Shenzhen is literally built on (mostly) international trade, Shanghai is definitely China’s capitalist mecca… just a proliferation of Lambos and Bugattis, Rolex stores and Apple stores.

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    I mean, they even have Warren Buffett’s face on Coke cans!
  • Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the hotel! After the heat of the day and the garbage flight, my brain was totally fried. By way of an apology for missing out on something so crucial to this post, here’s that photo of the puppy in Shenyang’s night market again.

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    Apology puppy!
  • Thanks again to Chloe (I’ll probably thank her again every time I see her) for putting us up at the Avant-Garde!

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