At an altitude of 37103ft, ground speed of 993km/h and flying over Mongolia, I was awakened by a kiss—and a whisper from my beautiful wife, saying; “You know I love you so much. You make dreams and what is largely considered impossible by many people become a reality and possible.”
This isn’t a fiction: we were truly that high in the clouds and at the stated location, on our way to the beautiful city of Shanghai, China as part of our “Travel and See Adventure” in honor of a promise I made to my wife that I would take her around the world, build rich indispensable memories together and challenge our ideas as we experience new people and cultures.
Of course, such trips with the most wonderful person of your life do not come cheap and therefore it remains only a distant dream for a lot of people. But the experience is priceless, which Mark Twain luminously captured as;
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I’ve always invested heavily in knowledge and price it as the most valuable asset of mankind’s existence, and I admire first-hand experiences, best acquired through travelling and engaging new ideas.
Before boarding our afternoon flight from Terminal 5, British Airway’s flagship terminal at one of the the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow, my wife asked that we have our departure brunch at one of Gordon Ramsey’s posh restaurant located inside the terminal. I’ve seen her watch several TV programmes of Ramsey. Hence it was an opportunity for her to taste what her favorite British chef’s restaurant has to offer.
It was a small delicious English breakfast, albeit expensive. I wouldn’t ever want to dine there again, despite the great taste.
After a wonderful experience in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine about a month ago, here was my wife and I excitedly clutching our boarding pass on our way to China, the most populated country in the world.
I am a huge fan of the Chinese; more recently in relation to their culture, technological brilliance, and the important influence they wield globally but I’ve always loved their movies. At my primary school days in Ghana, I even had a Chinese pen friend called Linda Chan. I later learnt that this name could have possibly been her “adopted” English name—she was probably called ‘Wu Chen Lee’.
My wife loves Kungfu movies and the Chinese culture too, especially the food. With our minds set to explore everything indigenously Chinese, we spoke about how many frogs, pig brains, and scorpions we will eat when we land in China.
At about 9:30 Am, we touched that at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport—after a long flight of chit-chat, two bottles of wine going down, reading Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’, and watching ‘Ghost in the Shell.’
The huge airport was quieter than expected and without any hustle, the Immigration Officer stamped our passports and let us through. Amongst the many poster notices at the airport was one which said the ubiquitous mouth masks the Chinese wear, even in London, was prohibited. Yet, I saw an Inspection Officer wearing the mask and seated near the notice. Perhaps, I didn’t read the notice well.
As most travellers do, we bought a local sim card with 10GB data for 300 Yuan, covering the whole of China and my passport was required for the purchased. In fact, I was made to hold the passport and the sim card while a photo was taken of me, the mugshot style. I guess it is part of the sim card registration—something Ghana is failing to do properly to combat misuse.
The usual airport taxi guys were around and we settled with one who was extensively persistent. He quoted 700 Yuan to get us to our destination, a five-star hotel called Sky Fortune Boutique Hotel. With a little foreknowledge from a friend-Fiifi Bright who stayed in China for about a decade that I should try and bargain when any price is quoted in China, I was able to beat it down to 400 Yuan. Even that, we later realized on our way back to the airport that it cost just 180 Yuan on a metered taxi.
It was a smooth ride with a driver who spoke no word of English. We didn’t even need a conversation—as we were busily admiring the beauty of the city. The incredibly tall buildings and the cluster of planned apartments define the architecture of a part of the city, as ultra-modern.
I say part because, despite Shanghai’s collection of skyscrapers, the city has not totally been robbed of its indigenous famous Chinese architecture—that features proudly too, in their full magnificence.
The Skyscrapers, including Shanghai’s tallest building, the Shanghai Tower are scenic but my interest was in the ancient Chinese buildings, which I have for many years seen various Kungfu Masters including Yu Shu Lien and Master Li Mu Bai jump from one to another in the 2000 hit movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was delightful to stand next to one, with all the Chinese writings I couldn’t read boldly staring at me.
Shanghai has a lot of both human and car traffic but that’s expected in a country with such a huge population. However, it compensates this with mountains of amazing buildings, museums, and chains of Chinese restaurants, serving delicious authentic Chinese and Mongolia dishes.
I’ve visited over twenty countries but none seems to be energetic, youthful and colorful like China. The city of Shanghai is superbly lively with a young fashionable and tech savoir-faire population.
It never sleeps: when we decided to eat at around 3am during our first night, the various restaurants near our hotel were fully functional. And they were packed with mostly young couples—who shared a common trait; smoking.
People smoke all around the world, in Ukraine, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, UK, France, Sweden and the others but I’ve never seen it as endemic as I saw in Shanghai, China. Almost everyone smoked.
When I asked Tong, a Chinese fella who became our tour guide after we bumped into him at Nanjing Road Pedestrian Walkway, he couldn’t explain the pervasive culture of smoking in China but he agreed that China has an active smoking population. He used to smoke too.
How Tong, an English speaking Chinese seller became our guide and friend is interesting. While strolling through Nanjing Road Pedestrian Walkway, we were approached by several Chinese folks who brought out from their pockets printed leaflets, a small sort of catalogue of fake designer bags, watches and electronics they were selling in their shops to lure us into following them to check their nearby shops.
Tong was one of these people. When he realized we were not in China to import fake stuffs but were non-buying tourists, he told us in a fairly good English molded by his Chinese accent that since he speaks English and Chinese, he could become our tour guide.
He asked for our “tourist list” and said he would charge us 400 Yuan to take us to all the places. Once again, I managed to beat him down to 200 Yuan but it turned out we needed him more to save cost on taxis by using the public transport. So we continued to employ his service for 100 Yuan each day, for our entire one week stay in Shanghai.
China has its own version of Uber, called Didi. It works just as Uber, perhaps even more quicker and safer than Uber. But because of the huge traffic, metered taxi rides do not come cheap. We usually paid about 60 Yuan for single journeys. When we realized these same journeys cost each of us 3 or 4 Yuan if we used the subway, we turned to public transport.
After we met Tong, we only used taxis when it was necessary; such as when it was raining and we couldn’t be bothered to walk to the nearest subway station. The huge train stations packed with people at rush hours with Security bag scanners at all entry points themselves can count as tourist sites in Shanghai.
But we were not in Shanghai to see China’s modern train stations; we managed to visit from our list the wonderful Ocean Aquarium, the Shanghai Museum, Longhua Temple, Nanjing Road Pedestrian Walkway, Shanghai Tower, Huangpu River Cruise and many other interesting places.
Most of the tourist sites, as expected charged for entry. But we were shocked to learn that the Shanghai Museum, in the interest of furthering education was free for all to visit. We spent over an hour there, navigating through Chinese civilization collectables.
My wife is a foodie, perhaps I am too. She just loves good foods, so she claims. And Shanghai has a lot to offer when it comes to good Chinese foods. Our entire stay and exploration of the Chinese Culture were glamourized by trips to fine Chinese restaurants. We ordered from menus we mostly couldn’t read—aided by photos of the dishes.
We ate for the first time Bull Frog and Pig Brains and they were super delicious. My wife was not up for eating Scorpions and Snakes so I didn’t push for that and I didn’t even see any on any of the menus of the restaurants we visited.
At one restaurant, fishes were kept in aquariums and eaters would point to a live fish which would be removed fresh from the water and prepared to order. I found that interesting though the restaurant smelled a bit “fishy”.
The Chinese have something in common with Ghanaians when it comes to how they do business. It’s ironic that a Communist State, heavily regulated on many levels seems to practice what can best be described as the “most extreme form of laissez-faire”. When a Chinese quotes the price of anything, your best deal is to cut the price down by 90 percent, Fiifi Bright told me before we landed in China.
And it came handy. My wife tried to buy a pair of boots at Xiangyang market on our way to the Shanghai Science and Tech Museum and the seller quoted 2100 Yuan for the boots. She said she would pay 200 Yuan and straight up, the seller accepted it.
How the price of anything can move from 2100 to 200 within a second is shocking—but that’s China, many of the “fake goods” markets operate this way. People spend several minutes, bargaining with the Chinese who use calculators to punch their changing prices.
It’s lovely in China and everything seems to run normal. But you wouldn’t forget the fact that you are in a heavily controlled country, governed by the Communist Party of China anytime you try to visit many of the websites and applications you may be used to, which are blocked by the Great Chinese firewall.
Google including Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a host of platforms deem as expansively liberal and lacking proper control or censorship by the Chinese government is BANNED. You cannot access these websites or web applications without an expensive, yet slow VPN.
Beyond this, language was a big problem for us, even in Shanghai which is considered tourist friendly. With Google banned, we couldn’t rely on Google Translator as we did in Ukraine and at a point, we got desperate at a restaurant because we couldn’t order WATER. I had to call my Ghanaian Chinese speaking friend, Fiifi, to speak to the waitress in Chinese regarding the fact that we wanted water. Even that, we ended up getting cups of warm water as that restaurant did not sell chilled water—the Chinese largely drink warm water.
We met not more than 5 black people in Shanghai during our entire stay. We had a few people staring at us at People’s Square and an old Chinese woman politely asked to take photos with us. When we agreed, you could feel her joy.
The beauty and uniqueness of Shanghai is not just embedded in its spectacular ancient and modern buildings, but also the obvious daily struggles and activities of the common people—especially, the sellers who flood many of its streets with “original fakes, quality fakes and low or affordable fakes.” Their resilience to sell, even when crippled by their inability to speak good English, is commendable.
China is one of the remaining 5 Communist States in the world—interestingly, the second biggest world economy which has rapidly “lifted almost half of its 1.3 billion population out of poverty.”