Monday, July 31, 2006

After Shanghai

Shanghai was, in the end, only Shanghai. Big buildings, neon lights and Western multi-nationals on every corner. A composite of every other big Asian city I've ever visited. A characterless Tokyo with a motorway of a river. In the evening we sat in bars full of Westerners, then passed round cans of Japanese lager on the promenade across from the Bund. Homeless people were curled up in the doorways, dark shapes under brightly-lit buildings, the unseen poverty beneath the conspicuous wealth. In the big cities China is no longer even nominally communist: the system merely remains as a means of control. I ended up drinking too much on an empty stomach and spewing mushroom slices up on the hostel floor. The next day I crawled baked and dehydrated around the Bund and Pudong taking photos and feeling nothing.

The most interesting part of the trip was the train ride home: an airport-like station with five floors and a huge glass roof; the peasant-faced man next to me who gnawed chicken legs in between loud mobile phone conversations, and the child's musical candle across the aisle that played a tinny version of Happy Birthday on an uninterrupted loop for an hour and a half. The uniformed staff swept cigarette ends off the floor with brushes made of twigs and gave loud sales pitches from the middle of the carriage for cheap bracelets and children's toys. I spent most of the time staring out of the window trying, and failing, to shut out the senseless commotion.

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