The Shanghai Collective: Excursion

Ever since I knew that I’d be coming to Shanghai, traveling on China’s high-speed rail lines – China Rail High-speed, or CRH, became one of the top things in my to-do-in-Shanghai list. I think it’s noble for any country to pursue investments in things like education and infrastructure, and China is doing that at a very quick pace. Sure, there are bumps, kinks and accidents that occur along the way but it’s a valuable learning experience – in my opinion, it keeps the brilliant minds at Beijing grounded. From Shanghai, I realized there were quite a few cities within my budget including Kunshan, Suzhou, Nanjing and Hangzhou. However, I set myself a time limit: it had to be a day trip, i.e. I travel in the morning and return by nightfall. On the hostel staff’s kind suggestion, I took their advice to visit Hangzhou – train services are frequent so if I miss my scheduled train, I can take the next one if there is a vacancy. Secondly, Hangzhou is more compact – unlike other cities, the high-speed services actually use the traditional “central” station instead of greenfield ones built far, far outside the city.

Now, there are currently 3 railway stations in Shanghai: Shanghai, Shanghai-South and Shanghai-Hongqiao. The latter is now the city’s primary hub for high-speed rail services, there are high-speed services to the other two stations but they don’t get quite as frequent. Shanghai-Hongqiao is probably the world’s first large-scale integrated transport hub. Built beside the domestic airport’s newly constructed mega-terminal, Terminal 2, the hub complex includes Asia’s largest railway station with 30 platforms, two Shanghai Metro lines – Line 2 and Line 10, a long distance bus terminal, and is served by numerous local bus services and taxis.

Despite its huge size, Hongqiao hub is surprisingly easy to navigate thanks to functional signs in both Mandarin and English. If you’re traveling by high-speed rail in China, do note that foreigners cannot buy tickets from the self-ticketing kiosks despite the machine’s mostly English instructions. Some form of identification is necessary, and for foreigners, preferably your passport. The ticketing staff were pretty courteous although I’m quite sure that’s because I spoke Mandarin because they didn’t exactly treat the Italian couple standing in front of me who were trying to converse with their measly command of English and while all hell didn’t break loose, let’s just say it wasn’t a friendly nor unfriendly exchange. After I got my one-way ticket of 82 Yuan to Hangzhou, it was time for me to “slowly” make my way to the waiting area for boarding to be called. However, as I found out, I nearly overestimated my timing when I realized that the escalators going up to the waiting area for boarding were a good 150 metres away! Fuck smoking break, and after a few pictures of the Hongqiao hub, boarding was called.

Even though there are “First Class” and “Economy Class” seats,  a general boarding is called with no priority allotted to the higher-paying passengers. I can only imagine that with boarding called just 15 minutes before departure and an on-time departure time, priority boarding is a little bit difficult. Having said that, I had enough time to notice that the only ones which priority is adhered to are the Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail services.

I quickly found my assigned seat.

Personally (although it may be due to the journey time), I feel that my 45-minute high-speed rail journey to/from Hangzhou was considerably more memorable than my 8-minute maglev to Pudong Airport. I was pleasantly surprised that a few loud-talking Chinese toned down to a blur during the entire journey, which made the journey all the more pleasant. The ride was smooth; I apologize for comparing it to plane rides but that’s the closest comparison – it’s like a plane at cruising altitude. It’s largely smooth but you’re aware that you ain’t still all the time. Curiously, the train stewardesses would start mopping the centre aisle once at high-speed. The speedometer on either ends of each car made the journey ever more special…

Hangzhou. Hangzhou feels more like the China that I know from the media. It’s crowded, the skies are dull, grim and grey, nobody respects queueing over here except when forced, people shout loudly into each other… it’s China. The contrast between Shanghai and Hangzhou was glaring and obvious. While it was evidently more chaotic, I found Hangzhou more real. Even then, the crude impressions that the city gave was quickly unveiled when I found myself completely stumped and unsure of directions to the West Lake, with people all too willing and generous to provide directions after I bought my return ticket to Shanghai. Enroute to West Lake, this very boyish cute but very tanned Korean backpacker and I tried conversing with each other on the bus, (I guess) mutually secretly hoping that we’d have company visiting the massive tourist attraction but it didn’t quite work – he didn’t speak English or Mandarin except the simplest of words while I didn’t speak any word of Korean. We left it at that, smiled as we parted ways.

To be honest, my whole intention was to try the CRH380A train. Anything else was just extra. Before I starting exploring West Lake, I grabbed a little lunch at a Chinese fast-food restaurant. Maybe it makes sense, since for China’s populations, even meal times are logistical challenges but I noticed that there were a lot more fast-food restaurants, be it Western or Chinese than regular restaurants. The latter only seems to be visible in the most luxurious of malls – I don’t know, I’m not sure. It’s just an observation. Anyway, the fast-food restaurant had many appetizing choices and it was hard to make a decision. Ultimately, I went for the set meal that had goose in it.

It’s good! Surprisingly. The steamed egg is quite frankly the best steamed egg/chawanmushi I have EVER eaten while the vegetables are perfect – adequately cooked and well seasoned without overpowering the flavor of the vegetables. The goose and beancurd was doused in this chili oil sauce but it was never too oily nor too spicy. I think the free wheat tea helped neutralize the spices because throughout the entire day at West Lake, I NEVER considered visiting the toilet for no. 2.

After the hours and hours and hours of walking the circumference of the lake… (actually, I, like so many others, gave up at the one-third mark and just paid the 45 Yuan ferry ride to see the “Three Ponds Mirroring Moon” island before calling it a day), I returned to Hu Bin (loosely translated as lake promenade), the commercial centre for West Lake which is decked up with malls complete with duplex of luxurious wear such as Ermenegildo Zegna and Hermes, to rest my aching feet. My choice of R&R – Honeymoon Dessert because there were lesser people. I haven’t actually tried Honeymoon Dessert in Singapore so I went EVEN THOUGH the desserts here in China cost a third more than in Singapore!

By the time I returned to Hangzhou station, my feet were aching, I was cold and wet (from the cold heavy drizzle) and just overall, feeling very tired. All I wanted to do was just to return to the hostel and sleep… I got some shut-eye in the train but the intensifying weather as we approached Shanghai-Hongqiao station only served to distract me from slumber land. It was raining heavily in Shanghai – I didn’t really realize how heavy it was until I reached Shanghai-Hongqiao, transferred to the Metro and got off at the station closest to the hostel almost 30 kilometres away!

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