Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shanghai: Day Five

Today, we took the subway across the Huangpu River to Pudong, the steel and glass, sky-scraping business center that gives Shanghai its famous skyline. That skyline includes the world’s tallest building (though two taller buildings are currently under construction in Dubai): the Shanghai World Financial Center.

At an ear-popping 492 meters (for comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324 meters tall, and the Empire State Building 381 meters), the observatory at the top, whose elevator ride costs 150 RMB (over $20), is also the highest observatory in the world. But first, we had to eat lunch.

The day had started with writing and an orange as usual, and we’d made a quick stop at the post office to mail my postcards. This took us in a different direction, so we crossed a bridge over the creek near Lynn’s apartment; the city is trying to rehabilitate the area (Lynn and Josh predict that within two years it will be wall-to-wall luxury condos) so the streets are filled with rubble. Surprisingly enough, the subway stop in Pudong took us into more rubble—the Shanghai landscape, with its soaring skyscrapers in the distance, its concrete tower-block housing in the mid-ground, and its filthy hovels, clanging with metal pots and old men slurping noodles, which we approached through an almost war-torn field of broken concrete and garbage, can only be described as surreal.

When we arrived at the SWFC and took the escalator down into the basement-level food court, with it’s brown leather couches, dark wood tables, uniformed hostesses, and flattering warm light, piped in with soft euro lounge music, I saw the Shanghai I had originally expected: a Chinese version of New York, at its most posh. Circling the restaurant choices (four kinds of Japanese, one Chinese, one wood-fired pizza, one Western rotisserie, and a coffee bar) twice, we settled on udon. To buy food, we first had to buy and fill swipe cards at a central station, which we would later return for our 5 RMB refund. The presentation was gorgeous, but the food was average. I topped mine off with a cappuccino (best so far in China) and some pastries (three for 12 RMB, just under two dollars), which were quite tasty—doughnut dough, but a bit lighter thanks to the delicate, twisted shape.

Before going up to the observatory, we stopped at the bathroom. Bathrooms seem to be a big deal in Shanghai, and this was the finest thus far (probably the finest I’ve ever experienced). First, the toilet seats were heated. Then, along the console (what toilet seat has a console?!) was the kind of offering one might expect from a Sharper Image massage chair, complete with diagrammatic icons: rear cleansing, soft rear cleansing, and front cleansing, with a +/- menu for pressure. Of course, I had to try it. Let’s just say that it was a bit weird. And maybe just a tad too intense. The sinks, though, were the ultimate disclosure that no expense had been spared: they offered hot water, which no sink in Shanghai, not even in Lynn’s kitchen, has done yet.

So then up up up we went, in an elevator crammed with tourists that offers a mod light and sound experience designed by a Japanese artist in order to distract people from the long, uncomfortable climb. The LCD screen ticks off not the floors, but the number of meters ascended. We were let out on the 97th floor, whose skywalk observatory is 439 meters high. This was heady and strange, but nothing compared to the 100th floor skywalk, which we accessed by escalator. The building is shaped not unlike a bottle opener or a well-designed wine bag, with a kind of handle at the top. The 100th floor is the bottom of the handle, and the floors are glass, so that you can see the city winking beneath your feet. The closer I moved to the edge (lined with steel handrails, probably for this reason), the more intense was my vertigo. I’m not afraid of heights, but the view definitely made me tipsy. Although the city was enshrouded in fog (as it’s been my whole visit), we were able to see the near distance—the tiny roofs of those tower block houses, which now looked as inconsequential as the roofs of the hovels from the top of the Slaughterhouse. We stayed a long while.

Back down on the ground, we walked out to the river promenade, sighting the Peace Hotel from the opposite shore, and looking up at the SWFC’s handle, trying to comprehend that we had been up there, almost touching the clouds. We stopped for a beer at a very touristy (and very empty) restaurant, and took the Pudong Tourist Tunnel back across the river, a 1980s-style, wannabe Disney experience, in which you sit in a bubble-like tram that glides through a tunnel filled with flashing lights and blow-up dolls who pop out at you, while a low-voiced narrator makes strange announcements about the surroundings (“Nascent Magma!”. . . “Hell and Paradise!”). This spit us out into an arcade, where Josh played a few rounds of free throw basketball, while a small knot of Chinese teenagers stood and stared at him as he speedily sunk basket after basket, to the point where he had to take off his sweatshirt.

Back at the Bund, I quickly bought some cheap gifts and we stopped at a mall, considering going to a movie (either English with Chinese subtitles—Transporter 3!—or Chinese with no subtitles—an Andy Lau romantic comedy that looked like it had such a stock plot one wouldn’t require knowledge of the language). Nothing looked terribly compelling, so we went back home to rest before dinner, which was Nepalese food—very tasty (and the non-Chinese wait staff spoke the best English yet). As usual, I ate too much, and went to sleep clutching my belly.

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