My last day in China, the guide who came to take me to the airport was not the same person who had seen me off to Mongolia 10 days before. Mr. Wong was again my driver, a friendly non-English speaker who had the smug air of a Chinese gangster one might see in a movie and who gave other drivers hell in Beijing traffic.
This Chinese woman, who mysteriously called herself Cathy, asked if she might sit in back of the van with me instead of up front with Mr. Wong. She talked more intimately about her life than any person I had met in China. She had been a guide for 20 years. She was not married and didn’t particularly want to be. She got to travel within China a lot. She hoped to travel outside China as well. And, she came from a “small village” in the Western part of China near the Russian border.
This last piece of information arose after I told her I live in a small town in California. I asked how many people were in her village and she said, “Only two million.” We laughed when I told her Isleton only claims 847 people. “You mean 847,000,” she asked? No, subtract those zeros. She was shocked.
But her disclosure pretty much sums up my new understanding of China. There are people wherever you travel there. I marveled at how well they seemed to be putting up with one another, although there is plenty of honking in traffic.
When I had arrived in Shanghai two weeks before, I was dumbfounded by the extremely gray trip from the airport to our hotel. (I was with a friend for almost all the trip.) Miles and miles and kilometers of gray and brown high-rise apartment buildings going up—or finished and vacant—“for all the people who are moving to the cities,” our guide explained. People buy their apartments, like condos, but unlike in the U.S., the units are just empty shells. It is up to the new owner of each space to put in the toilet and other bathroom fixtures, cabinetry, etc. All expensive propositions.
The construction had a sameness to it and it reminded me of the grim tenement buildings I had seen in Chicago as a child, although these were not run down. Perhaps because they were so new, there was a lack of landscaping. No green of nature alleviated the neutral tone. The whole look was exacerbated by the visible air, a slightly lighter gray draped among the construction zone buildings like shrouds.
Once in Shanghai, the Huangpu River and the view of the downtown from the Bund revived my spirits. I think I am a victim of having read too many novels dwelling on the romantic vision of the French, English and American Concessions in bygone days. The Concessions are shrinking into token areas for visitors as building after building meets the wrecking ball.
But, let’s face it: Why would Chinese communists want to celebrate the days of foreign occupation and memorialize that time with preservation? For the descendants of former occupiers to come and relive what China wants to forget?
No, I understand why these once grand sections of the city are going away. It leaves Shanghai in somewhat of an identity crisis, however. Even the good-spin guide admitted that the food of Shanghai lacks definition. It has not decided what its specialty food is “yet,” he said.
The most enjoyable day in Shanghai, for my companion and me was when we visited the Shanghai Museum where the ancient definitely is treasured. Amazing displays from China’s long history —many civilizations and dynasties—include more than 120,00 pieces of ceramics, bronze, calligraphy, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and sculpture.
Thank you China for preserving these beauties of your past.
Next: Favorite places in China: Guilin and Yangshuo.
And: strange foods sampled and not sampled in China and Mongolia.