Shanghai was the very first place in China that I visited. I took the train from Hong Kong, a 19 hour journey in Hard Sleeper class. I was the only obvious foreigner in my carriage, which provided some entertainment for some children in the next compartment who came to check me out a few times. I had a nice chat with the other people in my compartment, showing each other photos. I told one lady that her son was handsome; she pointed at a picture of my then-boyfriend and asked if he was my dad.
Before bed I read a book about magic and death, with a heroine that my friend had told me reminded him of me. I slept well, chugging through the Chinese countryside and passing through endless faceless towns, curled up in a ball as my suitcase took up quite a bit of my bunk.
I arrived in Shanghai and looked for an ATM. I had tried to get some Chinese currency before leaving Hong Kong but the ATM I’d been told dispensed RMB didn’t have any. All I had were a few coins. I scoured Shanghai station for an ATM, but there wasn’t one, or not one I could see. I decided to take the metro to my hostel, and bought a ticket for 3 RMB.
The metro deposited me in the heart of Shanghai, and I walked to the Bund. This is probably the most famous place in Shanghai, with historic imperialist buildings along the waterfront looking out across the river to the shiny new world of Pudong. There were a lot of people walking around – more than I’d expected. At first I thought I might have underestimated how busy a country with 1.3 billion people can be, but I later found out that it was a public holiday. I did not feel particularly appreciative of the history, or fond of the crowds, as I still couldn’t see an ATM and it had dawned on me that I’d come to China with the equivalent of 80p.
I came to a large intersection and, despite thinking of myself as a fairly savvy city-dweller, felt completely overwhelmed. There was so much traffic and so few discernible rules. I felt like one of the characters from Five Children And It – like I’d made a wish and it had come true and now I was ruing the day I’d thought of such a ridiculous idea.Thankfully I spotted an old lady with a look of determination in her eyes. Despite being a foot shorter than me, I used her as a human shield and stuck as closely as I could to her, all the way to the other side of the road.
My nautical themed hostel was just here, and I went in, feeling tired and thirsty and poor. The chap at the check in desk was as thin as a bean and told me there was an ATM just on the other side of the intersection, on the Bund. I asked if I could leave my suitcase with him while I went to it and for a second, I thought he would say no, and I thought of my very limited options if that was the case – mutter under my breath and then ditch my suitcase in the river seemed the best choice. But he relented and I was able to go to the ATM (sure enough, there was one right there) without my stupid heavy suitcase.
Cash finally in hand, I paid for my hostel, checked in and went off to explore. I wandered up to Nanjing Road, a major shopping street, and went into the First Food Hall but there was too much choice and too many things that I almost certainly wouldn’t eat, and I realised I wasn’t really hungry anyway.
I spent several hours just wandering: going to parks and getting terrorised by children on rollerskates; being asked my endless people whether I’d be visiting the Expo (I’d never even heard of the Expo, turns out it’s like the 1851 Great Exhibition, but not in the Victorian era and not in a giant glass palace in Hyde Park); visiting a wet market; losing my heart to a series of tiny kittens at a pet market. Blue skies, warm leisurely day – the whole afternoon was a salve to my soul.
That evening I went to a Japanese restaurant, where I ordered a beer and the only vegetarian option on the menu. The waitress came over to tell me that there was no meat in what I’d ordered. That’s great, I told her. She wasn’t convinced. Was I sure I didn’t want meat? No meat at all?! I assured her that it was fine and she told the chef and they both laughed at me a little.