If you have never traveled long-term before, it is hard to appreciate just how exhausting an endeavor it can be. Ironic though it may seem, sometimes as a traveler the greatest luxury you can indulge in is a respite from the road and a break from traveling.
Sometimes you don’t even know that this is precisely what you need, or maybe it’s an understanding you develop with experience. With just a few weeks of our new lifestyle under our belts, the prospect of spending an entire week cooling our heels in Shanghai didn’t exactly appeal, but we had little choice and decided to make the best of a bad situation.
Landing in Shanghai two days prior to Golden Week’s official start, we are greeted with an airport that more closely resembles a ghost town than anywhere else we have encountered since arriving in China; it seems that the augurs pronouncing Shanghai as the place to escape this ill-timed holiday are correct. For once we face no slavering crowds as we wait for our bags or when making our way to the MagLev train. There are more economical options for reaching the city, but with only three of this kind of high-speed train existing in the world, we decide to allow ourselves the geeky indulgence of arriving in style. Reaching a maximum speed of 431 km/h, it takes us under 10 minutes to do exactly that!
Our apartment for the week is nestled amongst the coiling streets that comprise the city’s famous French Concession area, a popular haven for world-weary expats. We have seen a lot during our time in China, but this is the first place we can confidently describe as “quaint”: the boulevards have room to breathe (and so do we!), many of them lined with trees that provide a welcome dash of green (so rarely seen in Chinese cities) and even more welcome shade, trendy boutiques to tempt even the spendthrifts among us, and many cozy restaurants. Best of all, though, are the sidewalks with ample room to stroll and traffic laws that are actually being obeyed!
It is amazing how you can step into a place you’ve never been and immediately feel like you are coming home. This is exactly how it feels when we unlock the door to our apartment for the week and venture inside. It is a ground-floor apartment consisting of an open-concept living room/kitchen area, a bedroom, and a separate bathroom, complete with an actual clawfoot bathtub. Late afternoon light streams in through the windows that look out onto the shared courtyard and suddenly we become conscious of the strain we have been under for the past few weeks. This place is our oasis for the next 7 days, and it is only now that we realize how desperately we are in need of a drink.
For this week, we give ourselves a reprieve from traveling, and allow ourselves to nest; for this week we are not traveling, we are simply living. We luxuriate in having room to stretch out and temporarily take root. All of our clothes come out of our bags and find new homes; we giggle when we discover some of the bizarre places they end up, like a pair of undies flung on a lampshade. We’re just so giddy to even HAVE a lampshade! It’s a bit surprising how hard it was for us to acclimate to a nomadic way of being, and yet we slide right back into domestic life like slipping into a second skin, this time with a newfound appreciation for the little things that were previously such hassles. We revel in the ability to wash all of our clothing—every day if we want!—and are astounded by the pleasure we get from being able to cook our own breakfast—whatever we want! Cereal, rye toast, basted eggs… these things have never tasted so good. We let ourselves get lazy, sleeping late after having stayed up half the night catching up on our favorite television shows. Sometimes we don’t even leave our apartment for entire days, unconcerned with the world and grateful for the break from China. We play make-believe and pretend we are back where we started, with a place that is our own private refuge. How quickly into his new life we lust after the things we tired of and scorned in our former life.
Eventually my conscience gets the better of me and we muster up the energy and enthusiasm to see something more of this city than the gentrified, European-approved quarters.
This is a mistake.
We head to the Bund to take in Shanghai’s iconic skyline, making our way through the hoards of Chinese tourists like soldiers wading through muddy trenches. If this is the kind of traffic generated in a city unpopular for local tourism, I shudder to think of what somewhere like Pingyao or Beijing must look right about now. As we gaze across the river at the buildings that form the jewels in Shanghai’s urban crown, I am struck by how they look very futuristic and slightly alien, each one slightly too large to seem real. It is an interesting juxtaposition when one considers the staid, traditional European architecture that makes up the buildings on the side of the river on which we stand. Yet despite knowing that the city has made an effort to impress, I find I am not; my mind’s eye conjures up Hong Kong to me, and the memory of it still outshines the reality of what I am now seeing. After seeing Hong Kong, Shanghai just cannot compete. As I glance peer down into the depths of the murky river before me, I think it looks like nothing so much as filthy milk tea, but with bloated dead fish bobbing in exchange for tapioca pearls.
The Bund is a bust so we decide to stroll over to Shanghai’s historic district in the hopes of checking out some older architecture and perhaps escape the frothing crowds in YuYuan gardens. Instead, we find ourselves lodged only deeper in the belly of the beast, faced with Pingyao part deux: more people than you can shake a stick at (though we are sorely tempted to try!) and plenty of shops with ornate facades, but filled with useless garbage we find it hard to believe anyone is buying. If you ever wonder who is buying the world’s supply of noisemakers and rubber chickens, look no further. The crowds are unbelievable, like something one would hope to encounter in the pages of Chaucer or Dante but not in our enlightened times… I can barely catch my breath before being jostled like a pinball, only to find it stolen from me, over and over again.
Fearing we might be swept away on this sea of humanity, we beat a hasty retreat to the nearest metro station, a place where, as we dash toward our train, we catch sight of a father holding his son aloft over a trash can so that he can defecate in it.
Some people might scoff that the French Concession is overly sanitized and not the “real” Shanghai, but quite frankly, we have seen more than enough of Shanghai unvarnished and it is terrifying. We are all too happy to dart back into our calm and quiet hideaway. As the door shuts behind us, we heave a huge sigh of relief; order is restored once more, along with a solid barricade between us and China. Home sweet home, indeed!