Sunday, December 04, 2005

China, part one...



Saturday, November 25/Sunday, November 26.
China. Most populous country in the world, dominant global economy of the future it may supposedly be. But ahead of my first visit - my first time travelling in Asia, indeed - I really didn’t know quite what to expect. Shimmering, illuminated skyscrapers sucking up every square inch of land and sky for the eye to see? Or mottled old shanty towns and terracotta teahouses, dotted randomly amid miles and miles of rice paddy fields? Well, either way, I knew something about Chinese food and was looking forward to that at least.
The first real sight I remember taking in, though, as our minibus took us from Pudong airport to the Broadway Mansions Hotel in riverside central Shanghai, were the convoys of what looked like motorised rickshaws chugging away along the crammed city streets. After being slightly starved and disappointed by the arid, concrete-highway-dominated sights as we first emerged away from the airport’s surrounding roads, I did, I admit, hope to seize on these as a handy image of this China’s amalgam of old and new - looking forward to the side-by-side blend of ancient structures (both architectural and cultural) and sleek, modern, techno-brightness, but I was probably to be mildly let down in this regard. Not by the reality of the place, which did indeed veer between down-at-heel antiquity, and upwardly-mobile 21st century intensity, but by the subsequent shortage of these somewhat bulky little mopeds-cum-mobile-homes.
Not that there weren’t many, many - and again, many - more conventional cycles, convoy-ing their way through the city, an immensely eye-catching sight anyway, but even more surprising considering the sheer frenetic fury of drivers on Shanghai’s roads. With traffic lights having such an arbitrary and mostly-meaningless influence on Chinese manic motorists, the last thing I would want to do is take my life in my hands and handlebars by straddling up a mere vulnerable bicycle, let alone without a crash helmet - as so many seemed to be happily doing. Then again, every pedestrian seemed to saunter into the road without even bothering to glance up at the traffic hurtling towards them - living in a city of such haphazard road manners, and somehow surviving until this present point, must breed a super-insouciance. Though, having read a Max Hastings double-page spread in the Mail on the flight over, I was able to regale our group with the statistic that China suffered 100,000 road deaths last year, probably the highest in the world. Not that this revelation went down well with our already-nervous travellers, but still… I would have been denying my inner-trivia-monster by keeping this one schtum.
So, our group, who were they…? Well, setting off into tightly-packed (mostly by luggage) taxis from Hendon Lane to Heathrow, were myself, two younger brothers Noel and Christy - obviously, other bro Lyndon was already out there, fretting over last-minute wedding plans for himself and his soon-to-be-bride Jessie. Supplemented by Noel’s girlfriend Vicky, my parents Lynn and Keir, my Uncle Dave and cousin Daniel who arrived from the West Midlands on Saturday morning just in time for a pre-journey brunch, and Tagbo, one of three friends of Lyndon committing the time and considerable expense to being there in China for the first leg of the wedding (the return fixture, back here in Blighty, is scheduled for May 1 next year.)
So, after a 10-and-a-half-hour flight (spent half-watching movies - the so-so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the excellent Crash - and half-spreading out across a four-seat row in a happily-under-capacity Virgin Atlantic flight albeit failing to get more than about 45 minutes’ worth of sleep), we arrived in Shanghai to be greeted by both my dad’s cousin Ros and my great-aunti Win (travelling with us at the grand old age of 93 - and a half, as she is keen to emphasise), who had both been on the same flight albeit higher up the plane, both physically and class-ily, and two of Jessie’s bridesmaids, Lily and Jean, who quickly adopted the temporarily-wheelchair-riding Win and escorted us - slightly circuitously - towards the minibus taking us to our hotel.
If the early passages of the journey were a little nondescript, it was fascinating to finally penetrate the city centre, take in the eccentric towers - especially the double-bulbous TV towers and the People’s Daily offices - as we edged our way through busy little neighbourhoods of furniture depots, pencil-thin takeaways and your more expansive, garishly-decorated restaurants (or “Restruant� as one pidginly-signposted establishment heralded itself).
About an hour after boarding, we were there, cruising across a bridge over the River Bund and sliding in front of the Broadway Mansions Hotel, built in 1935 and gilt from each upholstered crevice to the braid of the doormen’s pin-sharp collars, it quickly appeared. Checking in at reception brought about my first introduction to the hardly-convenient calculations to be made, converting Chinese Yuan - or RMB - into sterling. The deposit for checking in was 1,000 RMB - divide it by 14, I was told, to get your English pound version, about 70 quid. This, perhaps unconsciously, became my default way of calculating prices - thinking of 1,000 as 70, 100 as seven, 10 and 70p.
Christy and I were sharing a room, 608, while Noel and Vicky were elsewhere on the sixth floor and Mum and Dad - after a brief false start and a complaint, confusingly begun as Dad returned to reception while I was still checking in, with a ninth-floor upgrade suite, eventually with the river view they had requested. I was overlooking the other side of the hotel, merely down onto concrete streets albeit with a few hefty old towers to inspect, but it seemed clean and spacious enough, so I had few complaints. Especially after hurling my head onto the pillow and grabbing a few hours’ sleep while others rushed out into the flea markets to start stocking up on counterfeit DVDs, of which the streets and street-dealers of Shanghai had many millions. I could wait. They would come.
The evening meal was where we would really start to get going. Mum and Dad had taken the decision, along with Lyndon and Jessie (only fair, I suppose, they were somewhat involved in this week’s events), for the entire group to enjoy a slap-up dinner at a place called the Shangri-La - even swankier, it seems, than the Broadway Mansions and also guaranteeing the Kings’ song Shangri-La to stay implanted around my head for most of the following week. (That, and Draft Dodger Rag by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, mainly due to the fact I was reading Jung Chang’s hefty biography of Mao Tse-Tung, and every frequent mention of his prime minister Chou En-Lai would irresistibly remind me of the lyric, “I hate Chou En-Lai and I hope he dies, but I think you’ve gotta see, that someone’s gotta go over there, and that someone isn’t me…� Etc etc…)
On arrival, we settled down - myself on a table with Noel, Vicky, Christy, Uncle Dave and Dan - to be greeted by the manager rattling off an only-occasionally intelligible spiel about the ten serving areas the restaurant offered, starting off - strangely - with the dessert and ‘candy’ stalls, taking in tossed salads, fish platters, Indian takeaways, fresh noodles of variable sizes and shapes, vegetables, more vegetables, soups, slabs of beef, pork, pretty much most of your common-or-garden farmyard animals, and much, much more. All delivered in such a friendly, eager-to-please way - as replicated by every servery-staffer, each of whom quickly greeted us with exuberant ‘hellos’ even as we first stepped in - that we quickly realised we could not go wrong, nor at all hungry, while hunkered down here for the evening. Add in a couple of ‘Great Wall of China� red wines, then later, some penny-chew-packed boxes and sticks of candy floss, and it all made for a truly cosmopolitan but also fun and filling adventure. Uncle Dave did make an interesting remark about how truly Chinese it did, or didn’t, really feel - but then, they were plenty of made-from-scratch-while-you-waited noodles to be enjoyed, or local sauces to be spattered, so there was Chinese there if you wanted it.
Jessie’s parents came along too, and although they spoke very little - and us, the impressively-multilingual Lyndon apart, even less Chinese - they seemed very happily and jovial and approving of their daughter’s match, and posed for pictures as we handed Lyndon a photo album mostly Mum, but on printing and cutting-out duties Dad and myself too, had put together. He seemed moved by the gesture and gift, but steadfastly refused to really open it and explore until the following day. Wedding day. Ah yes.
For this convivial little outing was just the hors d’ouevre. We went to bed, tired but fired-up, anxious about all going to plan, but mostly excited for what the next day would bring. The first full day in China. The first of the four Radnedge boys to get married. The first new Mrs Radnedge in almost 30 years.
I don’t know about Lyndon, but I could feel my own nerves gently jangling already. His must outdoing even Roger McGuinn’s haywire Rickenbacker 12-string arpeggio-outs on Eight Miles High.
Stranger than known, indeed…

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