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Shanghai: First impressions

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By Greg Woods

We arrived in Shanghai Thursday night at 9 (9 a.m. Henry Co. time). The airport was not very crowded and we were able to get through customs fairly quickly. Finding my sister, Verna, was not hard. With her blonde hair and 5’10” frame she towered over most of the people waiting to greet arrivers.

Riding back to Verna’s apartment, I did not have the feeling of someone traveling in a completely alien land. The freeway seemed like any freeway in any American city. Then I began to notice that all the billboards had Chinese characters on them which brought me back to reality. The area that we were driving through reminded me of the suburbs of Louisville with new residential buildings and new businesses. We passed a Chevrolet dealership and a Toyota dealership and several Western style restaurants. Our driver told me in his broken English that all this newly developed land had fairly recently been rice fields.

Upon arriving at Verna’s apartment, we began to settle in and catch up with what was going on. We found out that Tom, my brother-in-law, was in the hospital with some sort of intestinal illness. Verna had been trying to make arrangements for us while dealing with a very sick husband (he’s okay now). She was doing her best not to be frazzled, but she was obviously riding a rollercoaster of emotions between the excitement of seeing us and concern for Tom’s health. We decided that our first trip into Shanghai would be to visit Tom in the hospital.

The next day we rode into town with Verna and Tom’s driver, Jack. Many Chinese take Western names if they work closely with Westerners. In the daylight, with a little more sleep, I began to realize just how immense Shanghai really is. It is almost mind boggling. I have been to many major cities: New York, London, Paris, Chicago, San Franciscoeethey are like quaint little towns compared to Shanghai. I later looked up the numbers on Shanghai. The city is 2,473 square miles and contains a population of 16.7 million people although I have heard estimates that it is closer to 20 million which I believe are probably more accurate. As we drove farther into the city, I was struck by how many high rises there were. We passed mile after mile of skyscrapers, many of which appeared to be apartment buildings. Believe it or not there are several cities of this size in China.

Another thing that has made an impression on me about this city is how Westernized it is. There are many different kinds of restaurants to choose from in Shanghai. So far we have eaten at an Indian restaurant, a Spanish restaurant and an “authentic” Chinese restaurant, all of which served excellent food.

Today (Sunday) we visited a Buddhist temple in the center of the city. The temple was built in the traditional Chinese style but was surrounded on all sides by modern high rises. I thought it was an excellent example of how the “old” China and “new” China are trying to coexist. It was also interesting that this active Buddhist temple doubled as a tourist attraction. There were people inside, like us, who were gawking at the beauty of the architecture and taking pictures, while others were inside praying and worshipping.

Our next adventure takes us to Beijing to see the capital. We are going to visit the Forbidden City and tour the Great Wall. Then we will head to Xi’an, the ancient capital of many of China’s greatest dynasties. We can’t wait!

It is now Monday morning, 3:51 a.m., China time (3:51 p.m. Sunday Henry Co. time) as I write this. I just woke up from five solid hours of sleep and am happy to have had that much sleep. Ever since we arrived, I have not been able to sleep more than five hours at a time. I wrote the first part of this article at 9:30 last night just before falling into a deep sleep. I guess jet lag affects people in different ways. Oh well, I guess I can worry about proper sleep habits when we return home. I just hope the weird sleep patterns don’t affect my perceptions of China!

Another first impression of China involves traffic and driving. The Chinese officials prefer that Westerners do not drive while visiting their country. All Westerners living and working in Shanghai have a personal driver or take taxis. This seems to be an extravagant luxury at first glance but in reality is a necessary safety precaution. You see the first rule of driving in Shanghai is: there are no rules! Oh they have street signs, traffic lights and lines painted on the road, but I have come to the conclusion that those things are for decoration only. Drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter riders all seem to be trying to get from point A to point B in the quickest possible manner regardless of what anyone else on the streets are doing. Every trip on the roads of Shanghai is an adventure. The essential parts of every vehicle seem to be the gas pedal and the horn. The brakes and turn signals are an afterthought! It will be interesting to see if traffic is as crazy in Beijing and Xi’an.