Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nine Hours in Shanghai

Recently, I came across some interesting information, announcing that China had decided to allow international travels up to 72 hours within Shanghai and/or Beijing absolutely cost and Visa-free.  Thrilled at the prospect of saving $200 on the Visa, I jumped on the bandwagon, booking myself, as I so often do, a long layover in Shanghai.  My anticipation of my time behind the Silk Curtain alternated between excitement and trepidation, as all I had in my head was this very Americanized idea of iron-fisted communism, very wealthy upper classes, very poor lower classes, and a superiority complex.  Despite my efforts to have no opinions on things I've never actually experienced, China and all the stories I've heard about it has grown some ideas for me.  I knew this was just a stereotype, so I tried to put it aside, and succeeded to for the most part.  However, a few things still managed to surprise me.  My friend warned me that Shanghai is rather Westernized, so I'm a bit reluctant to form any opinions (or even completely toss out my stereotypes) about China, but this is what I saw.

The Big Three of the Far East are conveniently now
stamped on adjoining pages in my passport.
Getting through customs was surprisingly easy.  I expected people to know less English than they did and to know less about the 72-hour Visa than they did.  There was a moment when I was pulled off to the side and I worried that I was going to be detailed for questioning of some sort, but it didn't happen.  They just apparently needed a little more time for processing, since the 72-hour Visa isn't approved in advance or anything.  I was incredibly impressed that they had no problem with inspecting my itinerary off of my iPhone (Somehow, my printouts had gotten lost).  Everyone who worked at the airport, from the desk attendants to the security guards were incredibly helpful.  Way to win, Shanghai.

I was amused, I may note that the first thing I saw in China (not counting the airport, of course) was a McDonald's.  My word, they're everywhere.  I technically wasn't even off airport property, yet.  In fact, I was following a very "Secret Garden"-esque path to find the subway (note the green arrows on the road directing me to the line I needed).  I didn't stop because, anymore, even the thought of McDonald's turns my stomach (though I do partake in it occasionally if the right friend asks me to go).  I did notice that their menu seemed incredibly different from the rest of the McDonald'ses that I've seen in other places in the world, but I expected that after doing a case study on the franchise for international marketing.  (Just a tidbit worth noting if you actually do like McDonald's: Every region in the world has a unique McDonald's menu, catering to the specific preferences of the people there.)

I opted to take the subway (line 2) through Shanghai, as both airports are on it, and I needed to make an airport change.  I had read that you could pay a shuttle to take you across in about an hour, but I found the subway first, it was cheaper, and I figured I'd get a feel for the culture better on the subway than in a van.  So I put my Shanghai Subway Map app to work.  Not that I really needed it... like I said, both stops were on the same line.  In fact, everything I wanted to do was on that line.  But it was comforting to have nonetheless.
Things worth knowing if you ever decide to do this on your own: You cannot change from the 10 line to the 2 line at Hongqiao Airport T2 without paying again.  You must go one stop past T2 to do this.  Somewhere in the middle of the Line 2 (I don't remember exactly which stop), I had to change trains.  It wasn't hard at all.  I just got out and hopped on the next one going the same direction.  Everyone has to do it at that point, so just go with the flow.

While I was spending time on the subway (maybe about an hour and a half, give or take 15 minutes), I was surprised to run into a goodly number of German people.  Well... I guess that's relative.  I think I saw maybe 5 non-Asian people the whole day.  I struck up a conversation with one man that was pretty interesting.  He gave me some good tips on what to see.  I kept wanting to use my Korean to talk to people, though I knew it would do me no good, and I only know two words in Mandarin, though I doubt my tonality is correct.  Nevertheless, I used my two words.  For everything else, I smiled and bowed a lot.  This, however, seemed to go over well, and an older couple on the subway adopted me, praising my ability to get a seat in spite of being foreign and lugging some pretty serious luggage with me.  When we switched trains, they took up extra space on the bench to save me a seat.  It blew my mind that they would do that for me.  In my experience, that kind of kindness to a stranger is nearly unheard of in the East.  Let me emphasize nearly unheard of.  It's not that people are being mean or anything... it's just a cultural thing.  The two were so sweet.  We spent a lot of time smiling at each other, and the grandmother (I want to call her 아줌마, or 할머니, though neither of those are really appropriate as, once again, she was not Korean) made sure I saw that there were white people on the TV at one point (They were German, but it's the thought that counts).  Seriously, they just melted my heart and made my day.

Skipping forward, as this is already getting long, and I haven't even begun to talk about my sightseeing yet, I decided to go ahead and check in for my flight as soon as I got to the other airport.  It seemed like the easiest way to ditch most of my luggage, and, since the line was gigantic, I figured it was better to be safe than sorry.
Asia never leaves you room to doubt where you are.  My word, there are PEOPLE in Asia. 
It actually moved faster than I feared it would, so I was able to grab a locker for my carry-on stuff and hit the Mag Lev train within an hour of my arrival.  In case you don't know what the Mag Lev train is, it does this:
Me, super excited about how fast we were traveling.

As a result, I was able to chop about half an hour from my travel time.  Maybe more.  I didn't pay enough attention on the way in.

I had thought about going to see the infamous Bund at E. Nanjing Road, but I wasn't really feeling it by the time Lujiazui Street came up, so I hopped off on a whim and figured I'd look around.  It turned out to be a good choice, because the Oriental Pearl Tower was right outside the exit.  It is my opinion that the Pearl is on of the coolest looking pieces of architecture out there, and it's certainly one of the most distinctive buildings in Shanghai, so I was thrilled with my choice.  I was so thrilled, in fact, that I dropped most of my spending money on a ticket to the very top of the thing.  That turned out to be okay, though, because it was incredibly time-consuming.  I didn't have a chance to go anywhere else, and I somewhat wish I'd had more time to spend within the Pearl.  Nevertheless, I'm very glad that was where I chose to spend my time in Shanghai, mostly because it felt like I could see the whole city from the top, but also because of all the cool things that I kept finding on each level.  I do wish I had realized they were there so I could have paced myself better.  I ended up getting so frustrated as I was having to bypass things on the way out to make it back to the airport on time to catch my flight.  I did make time for a quick peek at the various observation decks, though.  Each one had a different view worth seeing.

I still got to see The Bund... just from a different angle than people had suggested.

The downward-facing observation deck was somewhat panic-inducing, to the point that I saw several people flat out lay down on the glass once they looked down, but I am proud to announce that I stayed upright (though I did walk incredibly slowly and lightly to get my way back to opaque ground).  I'm not sure why people don't really think about how high up they are until you put glass under them, but that seems to be the norm.  I suppose that's why we're always advised to "don't look down"... not that that ever stops anyone, but it at least makes a little more sense now.

I had thought ahead enough to make sure I grabbed a dumpling (For those who know what it is, this was definitely a 왕만두 and not anything remotely resembling what I imagined a Chinese dumpling to be.) and my customary new country Coke (another company that changes its recipe from region to region) to eat as I waited to get into the Pearl.  This turned out to be excellent planning, as I ended up needed to be one of those obnoxious people who asked if they could cut in front of everyone to make it back to the airport.  There was definitely some self-loathing that happened then, but I sucked it up and did what I had to.

Outside the Pearl, there were taxis waiting, just as I'd read there would be.  Even though I was positive (and I'm still pretty sure I was right) that the subway would be faster, my anxiety about the potential to miss my flight had me jump into the nearest mode of transportation I could find.  I was proud of myself for the ease with which I haggled with the driver over the price.  I didn't even stop to think about it.  It's not like I haggle all that much in Korea, but I guess living there has just made me more confident with the idea of doing it.  Once in the cab, I managed to convince myself to relax, and the driver and I had a nice chat about how awesome he thinks President Obama and Americans in general are.  I smiled and thanked him, then spent the next few minutes trying to figure out what America could have possibly done for China to make this man think our country is all that cool, but gave up on it when I realized that I could be taking advantage of the fact that I was now above ground for a part of the city that I'd only seen below ground and film my cab ride.  One incredibly close call between my hand and the front end of a bus later, we got this:

Welcome to China friends.

Getting back on the Mag Lev was amazingly easy, especially since my driver literally pulled up to the station stairs for me, proclaiming his love for Americans the whole time.  Getting through security at the airport was only marginally more difficult.  My customs security man was very chatty and curious about what I was doing in Korea and Thailand, but I just kept on smiling and answering.  I didn't even check my watch once (which, after estimating the time wrong in London and missing out on the London Eye during my first ever long layover, I had set for China time before I ever left Seoul).  Be proud of me.  I ended up having enough time to shop for a couple little people who are in my life before feeling the need to go wait by my gate.  Sadly, you have to have access to texting in China to get the airports free WiFi, but I can survive unplugged (usually), so it wasn't that bad of a wait.

Incidentally, I noticed  a family with what looked like twin young girls on the Mag Lev the second time.  I actually noticed several families throughout the day that were clearly Chinese and clearly had multiple children.  I had been under the impression that Chinese families were only allowed one child, but now I'm starting to wonder if that also was a misconception.

I will say, however, my experience with my airline, China Eastern, was not one that I ever intend on repeating.  A weight debacle that ended up costing me $200 and a lovely reinterpretation of the definition of "special vegetarian meal that you ordered" (confiscation of the main meat dish without replacing it with anything else) was enough to make me add them to my airline blacklist.  (Also on that list are Delta and Virgin, in case you were wondering.  Airports that made the list are Bangor, ME; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Jakarta, Indonesia... not that you can completely vow off an airport, but I'd like to avoid them as much as possible.  Incidentally, Turkish Air and American Airlines have made what I'd call a graylist for various reasons... Just proceed in booking with them with caution.)

All in all, for the traveler with the short attention span like me, I think this 72-hour Visa is definitely worth while.  I fully intend on taking advantage of it to see Beijing when I get the chance, especially now that I know how to anticipate things (though, let me tell you, it may take the full 72-hours just to navigate the Beijing airport, from what I hear...) and feel more confident that I'm not going to get arrested for simply thinking Western thoughts in China.  Hopefully this new Visa policy is going to be around for a good while, because I'm really liking it. 

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