The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Living the expat dream in Shanghai

Getting a call from an old mate Shawry saying he was working in Shanghai for 6 months couldn't have been better timed. We were in the thick of the no-heating Nepali winter with filthy clothes, chilblains and were low on money. Our visit to see Chris for a week became a beacon of warmth and hospitality between a frozen Tibet and an even more frozen Russia.

After spending 50 hours with our noses pressed into the ceiling of a train from Lhasa, we were always going to be a little spun out on arrival. However, we were still totally unprepared for what awaited us. We jumped in a taxi as it took us toward Chris' flat. Our instructions were to 'Just ignore the useless security guard on the gate' and then 'walk past reception like you own the place'. Usually this would be relatively easy, but arriving in an immaculate tower block with a suited concierge sat behind a sparkling marble edifice Hol and I would have stuck out less if we were naked. However, smiling optimistically we made it past and let ourselves into a beautiful flat. Hot shower, temperature control, a giant TV. A different world.

The tone was set for our time here by Shawry's welcome note on the floor. There were maps with places to eat on, spare clothes, spare phone, washing machine instructions, guide books, some local booze, some pocket money, food in the fridge and more. Within half an hour the washing machine was dealing with 12 weeks of ingrained filth, we were clean and fresh and ready for food. Stepping out into the city blew us away. Towering glass skyscrapers, Rolex, Gucci, Burberry shops, glistening malls with spotless restaurants. A sparkling Ferrari burbled past worth the annual income of 1,200 Nepalis! We had boarded the train in Lhasa with people literally crawling in the dirt in the hope of some salvation and release from the bleak lives they have been cursed with, and here people are being encouraged by chiseled Western models on every billboard to spend £5,000 on watches. All the memories of our last 5 months clashed in total culture shock confusion with where we were now. We huffed and puffed at the cost of a salad in a cafe frequented by trendy businessman, but then ate it and were waxing lyrical about the taste, the freshness and colour of our first salad in months. The people around us wolfed down their regular snack lunch without thinking and looked askance at us wondering where the hell we had surfaced from. However, I still maintain that I can't remember enjoying a salad more than the Wagas roasted vegetable creation that day. I hope never to become blasé about work lunches again.

The week was spent in a blur. Shawry would head off to work and Hol and I would rise off the sofa to explore the city. First priority was finding a running machine which we finally managed to avoid paying £60 for and shook out 2 weeks of sitting on trains and minibuses. Very necessary, even if it did involve dealing with enthusiastic gym managers selling memberships. Alex shook my hand 15 times and repeatedly said 'You craaaaziest man ever come to my gym. Nobody do two hour on running machine. Nobody. You crazy, craaazeee man. Ha ha. 6 month membership you and lady...' From here we explored the narrow streets of the French concession, the cloud topped towers of Pudong and a raft of local backstreet canteens. Our life was split between cheap wanderings in the day and luxury at night when Shawry returned from work.

One of the fascinating things about the time in Shanghai was learning about the ex-pat life. We went out a couple of times with friends who were working for various multi-nationals based there. There was one night in particular where we got the feel of what it was like. A Paulaner German themed bar in a smart district of the city was churning out pints for £7.50 to a crowd of mostly white men and a sprinkling of wealthy Asians while a Filipino 3 piece band belted out heavily accented Tina Turner hits. Chatting to the guys, there were common themes of finding the working culture very difficult at times, but the money and the lifestyle being good. They don't miss home, to the extent that they challenged us repeatedly about why we want to go back, and they spend a lot of time and money living it up in the ex-pat bubble. The appeal is clear in the beautiful restaurants and high pay, but the division between 'us and them' would be hard to deal with full time.
One guy there in his 30s had his newly married Chinese wife with him, but we didn't realise as she was sat on a different table with a few of her Chinese friends and didn't mix. Also, in the office most white people will be earning around 10 times as much as the local Chinese they manage. Add to this the culture of saving face, and the message that comes back repeatedly is that working life is lacking dynamism and the ability to get anything done as employees are terrified of doing anything wrong and so do nothing. In the bar there were middle aged men leering over young Chinese women who smile politely and go along with it. Shanghai has a historical reputation for it's loose morals and the foreign influence. It seems that under the tailored suits this still lives on in a newer form...

With the true Shanghai experience in mind, Shawry one night suggested we go to a massage parlour. Having heard about the GPs (Gentleman's Paradise) my heart lurched a bit. It was a three way invitation with Hol as well, but I had to check. Shawry reassured me that this would be far from anything seedy though. Having never had a massage other from butch rowing physios, the chance for a foot massage was welcome. When we arrived in the smartly lit spa we were shown into a room with three huge armchairs, a flat screen TV on the wall and cups of chrysanthemum tea. We whipped into pyjama bottoms, threw on a DVD of Sherlock Holmes from the pirate movie emporium next door and sat back. For the next 90 minutes we had necks, backs, legs and feet pummeled, rubbed, picked, oiled and finally cupped as the masseurs softly chatted and we watched the film. For less than the price of the cinema tickets that were our original plan, it was a phenomenal experience, if a little alarmingly luxurious. What happens in the G.P.s I am glad to say still remains a mystery.

One of the promises of our time in Shanghai was a night on the town. We hadn't been out properly since July in Colorado and Hol and I were both nervous and excited. We started the evening with some G&Ts before borrowing a whole set of Shawry's clothes and moving over the road to an 'eat and drink as much as you like' Teppanyaki restaurant. For £20 we had round after round of delicious sushi, fresh grilled king prawns, dumplings, lamb chops, noodles, fresh roasted fish, not to mention a round or ten of sakes and beers. It was interesting to note that all the clientèle were white, despite it seeming like a local place. Old habits... From here Shawry whipped out a stack of post it notes which was our itinerary for the evening. Next stop was a place called 'New Heights' which overlooks the financial district of Pudong and we sat sipping drinks the best table in the house, then it was onto another of Shanghai's trendiest bars called Glamour. At this stage the sakes seemed to be kicking in as we were asked if we would like to be moved to another table away from the free cupcakes. Then finally it was on to a club where we happily fell into old ways of drunken revelry, dubious gyrations and silliness.

Having spent the night being taken round and royally treated by Shawry we began to be even more confused by Shanghai. The city is home to wonderful tree lined neighbourhoods with beautiful old buildings, phenomenal bars and restaurants and things are done with a style that is totally alien to the rest of China. The old impact of trading concessions with European nations a hundred years ago had their effect, but the recent developments seem to have escaped the full force of Chinese urban planning. It doesn't seem to make sense. Are the bars run by Europeans who explain that saving 20% on décor by having faux wood plastic seats will make everything look shit and nobody will come? Does Shanghai have some aura that stops Beijing from interfering with it? On returning to the capital and it's 12 lane central streets, crap buildings and historical reconstructions that look like a discount Disney land, your heart sinks. How can one place get it so right, and one so wrong. Maybe it is just a matter of time before Shangahi succumbs. Expo 2010 is just round the corner and the old promenade along the Bund is being torn up. What will replace it i can only guess at. I fear fake concrete Chinese style bridges, toy trains, semi broken lamps. I have to admit that I struggle to stomach China in many ways. The argument that they have lifted thousands of people out of poverty is undeniable, but I have never seen a country so devoid of grace, beauty and sensitivity. The flashes of ancient brilliance are buried by the new government. It was summed up on our final night in Beijing when we were in a bustling nice restaurant having some Peking Duck. Around us people were ordering as much as they could and leaving half of it. The man on the table next to us turned in his seat and hocked up a huge chunk of phlegm and just spat it on the restaurant floor at our feet. The surge to show new wealth and development comes at the cost of simple grace.

Our time in Shanghai was spectacular. Shawry raised the bar when it comes to hospitality and leaving to get back on the road was as hard as ever. We can only hope we can one day return the favour when he arrives in a smelly unemployed mess in London sometime. Next stop Mongolia and Russia...

Since our blog was blocked in China we have posted this from Russia. 50 hours of chilly Gobi, icy Mongolia and bitter Siberian forest brought us to the destination for the big ice marathon on Lake Baikal. The date for the ice marathon has passed, but you will have to wait for Hol and I to have a moment to type up our impressions so far of Russia and give you the run down...

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