China doesn’t look like I imagined it.
It’s weird to say, and I don’t really know what I expected, but Beijing being such a big concrete jungle, almost indistinguishable from any other big city I’ve visited was a surprise.
Tsinghua University is situated near the fourth ring of Beijing. The city itself sort of forms around Tiananmen Square, and the ring roads encircling the city. As you get closer to Tiananmen Square, there are more things to do and more Chinese monuments/staples/whathaveyous but out here it just looks like any old big city.
We went to Shanghai recently, though, and it was a needed change of scenery.
Instead of just a bunch of high rises and office buildings with Chinese characters emblazoned on the tops, there were hints of traditional architecture and smaller clusters of alleys and shops that made Shanghai feel a little more coherent and special.
This trip was the second time I’ve ever been on a guided tour of a place. I don’t particularly like that style of seeing a city because I feel like we hit the easy tourist spots, but for this tour, I was thankful because I saw everything without worrying about maneuvering the city on my own.
We took a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, which cut traveling time from 20 or so hours to 5, and hopped right on a tour bus to see the art district.
Art in itself is sort of a dissent from society, regardless of culture or location. In Shanghai, and also the art I’ve seen in Beijing, the art felt a little sharper, a little different from what I’m used to in the states. There were multiple collections satirizing the government, and some pieces prodding at collectivist thought. Even within the art district, Shanghai was a mix of old tradition and new Western-inspired art, perfectly represented by the antique store next to a mixed-media gallery.
We spent only a little time there because we had a dinner reservation to eat at the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is a place I literally only thought I’d see in movies and my dreams. When we drove into Shanghai I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, and when we walked toward the three tallest buildings in China and I saw it in the background, I was more than a little awestruck.
We got to go around the Pearl Tower and walk on the glass floor, which is another thing I never thought I’d get the chance to do in my lifetime. We had dinner in the rotating buffet overlooking the twinkling lights of the city reflected in the water on Bund and went home.
I really don’t like guided tours because I feel like I’m missing out on the real meat of the city. Luckily the group in Beijing this summer is just as adventurous as I am, and a few of us went out in Shanghai and walked around looking for things to do. Shanghai has it’s own dialect that’s a unique blend of French and Mandarin, so when we spoke Chinese asking for directions, we sounded even more like we all had marbles in our mouths.
On the second day in Shanghai we went to a water town outside of the city called Wuzhen (烏鎮). It’s a little south of the Yangtze River and, like most of China, was not at all what I expected.
I think the disconnect in my expectation and reality is I am constantly forgetting that China has 1.3 billion people and with that many people comes crowds and necessary modernity. You can’t have every single building with a multi-tiered, tiled roof, and almost nowhere in the city will resemble mist-shrouded mountains and thin bamboo forests that I, for some reason, picture in my head.
So long story short, Wuzhen was super crowded. I like going to tourist areas where there are a lot of Chinese nationals because it’s a very different interaction, but at the same time we had so many unsolicited pictures taken of us because at most points, we were the only non-Chinese people there. It’s a novel experience because you always hear stories of those photos happening, but after days and days of people sneaking photos while pretending to text, anyone’s patience is bound to run out.
The village itself was interesting, because it was a look into China’s past and I’ve been craving that after living in Beijing where everything is so modern. We saw an exhibit of traditional beds from throughout the years, and one thing that’s startled me everywhere we go is people’s willingness to touch artifacts. These beds were supposedly authentic and not reproductions, yet people were touching them and tapping on them like they were regular beds.
After Wuzhen, we went back to Shanghai to see another relic of the past, the Yu Garden ( 豫園). The garden was originally created in the Ming Dynasty by a son for his family. It’s about 5 acres of traditional buildings and gardens nestled into Shanghai, surrounded by a tourist shopping area called the Bazaar. The garden was beautiful and peaceful, and you could see skyscrapers peeking over the walls in the background, which seems to be the theme of my trip to China so far: the traditional shrouded by the new.
That night, we went back to the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront, to see the city at night from the water. I hate boats and I am terrified of deep water, but the lights were, yet again, mesmerizing to the point where I didn’t notice the boat too much. As with any tourist activity, some people in our group starred in several Chinese nationals’ vacation photos, this time most notably our professor who is American but fluent in Chinese. At this point, big groups of people were asking to take photos with us, but also talking with us in Chinese. I actually loved that. When people ask for a photo, the dynamic is less creepy and more a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm to see a foreigner. It’s almost a childlike happiness that is contagious.
That was our last night in Shanghai, and even though it was a long day, some of us headed out again after the Bund to a warehouse for a show. We got to see local bands play while drinking local beer surrounded by a surprising amount of foreigners like ourselves.
Every once in a while, I catch myself thinking, “I couldn’t have imagined doing anything like this.” Drinking local beer in that warehouse with Shanghai bands is one of those moments. I got goose bumps from feeling like I’m really taking this experience to the fullest, and that’s a night I will remember for the rest of my life.
We ended Shanghai with a literal bang: the last morning we were in the city we went to the museum and then had some free time to go around so while a few of us headed out to different parts of the city, we got in a car accident.
It was just a fender-bender, rear end accident, but we were in a taxi on the highway in the middle of the city and had no idea what to do. The taxi driver got out of the car and started yelling at the other driver while we cycled through attempting to get out of the taxi while on the highway to get another one, calling someone to come get us or waiting the situation out. We didn’t even have time to decide because the taxi driver yelled something equivalent to “F— your mother,” hopped back in the cab and drove us to our destination with no other remark about the accident.
We left on the high-speed train again, traveling through the smoggy countryside to comparatively sleepy Beijing and settled back into our routine.
Hopefully the next time I post, I’ll be blogging from an air-conditioned dorm. Regardless, I’d rather be sweating in Beijing than anywhere else in the world right now.