I’m not one to believe too much in fate or psychic ability but something spooky happened on our penultimate day in Shanghai.
I woke up and picked up the guide book to search for information about the Pearl Tower. As an afterthought I switched on the TV. I don’t know why; I usually prefer to read in silence and given that Chinese television contained no English programmes, no English news and, in fact, no English whatsoever, it was a strange thing to do under the circumstances.
I pressed a random button on the remote control and there staring back at me from the television was the Pearl Tower. I was stunned.
I couldn’t understand a word that was being said but the camera shots of the edifice filled me with a mixture of wonder and fear; wonder because of the sheer size of the building and fear because of the sheer size of the building. I sensed that my “inverse vertigo” would take hold as I neared the building and stared up at it.
My curiosity was strong enough to subdue any fears and Lisa was keen to see it. So basically I had no choice. I would face my fear.
The guide book wasn’t very complementary about the Pearl Tower, dedicating a mere two sentences to it and describing it as “a uniquely uninspiring piece of architecture” yet that didn’t change our minds.
Time was moving on and we had slept in late due to fatigue finally catching up with us. As boring as it sounds we opted for brunch at a well known American pizza restaurant chain.
After a delicious and filling pizza, we strolled down to the river front where we got our first glimpse of the Pearl Tower in all its glory across the Huangpu river. It was huge even from this distance and dwarfed everything on this side.
We were running short of cash and needed a bank. The only one we could find was closed. Nevertheless outside, plugged into the wall was an ATM, the first we had seen in China. I rejoiced and, although a little concerned, I fed my card into the machine and managed to extract some cash.
The area we were walking along is known as the Bund and is resplendent with classical European style buildings, like the impressive Bank of China. The term “Bund” is an Anglo-Indian word describing the embankment of a muddy waterfront, which presumably the area was before the buildings along the river front were constructed. In fact, apparently it was so muddy here that before they could build that concrete rafts had to be used as a foundation for the structures that we now saw.
The Bund was the Chinese equivalent of Wall Street, where Europeans traded goods. One of the largest was Jardin Matheson and Company that dealt with opium and tea. The company grew and grew and today is huge in Hong Kong.
We strolled along the river front and the view across the river was superb. As we saw yesterday, Shanghai seemed to be being rebuilt with workers digging up the road just about everywhere. Nevertheless, nowhere was this more evident than here on the river front. Across the river, next to the gigantic Pearl Tower, the Chinese were constructing huge skyscrapers in what looked like an attempt to emulate the magnificence of the Hong Kong skyline. The Pearl Tower apart, the whole vista looked like an immature version of Hong Kong island. Hong Kong certainly didn’t have anything that stood out as much as the Pearl Tower, that’s for sure.
The tower was built in 1995 and at 468 metres high is the highest television tower in Asia and the third highest in the world behind the CN tower in Toronto at 553 metres and the Ostankino Tower in Moscow at 537 metres.
It is called the Pearl Tower because the architects wanted to give the impression that the edifice consists of eleven variably sized pearls in with two giant spheres acting as rubies. In fact it consists of three huge columns, the “space module”, an upper sphere, a lower sphere and five smaller spheres.
Our means of getting across the river to the Pearl Tower was a ferry. We queued up at the ticket office with hundreds of other people and bought a ticket. At the time we were unsure whether it was a one way or a return ticket; we simply bought the same as everybody else.
The ferry was surprisingly big yet manoeuvred very well for a vessel its size. I didn’t think that we would manage to board it such were the queues of people yet we somehow managed to squeeze on. Unsurprisingly there was standing room only and we had to share that room with lots of bikes as a large percentage of the passengers were cyclists.
On the other side we took the short walk to the ticket office for the Pearl Tower, which, typical of China, was a fair distance away from the attraction we were paying to see. It was unclear where we had to go once we had acquired our tickets and, in true Tonto style, we managed to find ourselves at the wrong entrance. The lack of other tourists should have been an indication that we were in the wrong place but the Tonto effect seemed to blind us to that obvious fact.
My fear of tall buildings began to torment me as we approached the edifice and, despite vowing not to look up at the leviathan, I found my eyes drawn upwards. The Pearl Tower stood on its own, majestically surveying the area and seemingly taunting insignificant me as I approached. The clouds moving above the tower gave me the impression that it was swaying. I know its irrational and logically the building would never move in the way the clouds made it appear but my senses were convinced otherwise and I clung onto Lisa’s shoulder trying to stay calm in the face of imagined adversity. I drew my eyes to the ground in front and had a respite from the fear. Lisa, fearless and enthusiastic, kept saying how wonderful the tower was, her speech peppered with exclamations and requests for me to look up at it.
I was relieved when we reached the true entrance and breathed deeply as we showed our tickets.
Inside we caught a double-decker lift to the first of the spheres (or pearls) and wandered around, mainly enjoying the views of Shanghai. New buildings were being constructed in the area surrounding the tower and it was clear that this whole area would become a massive business district in years to come.
From this vantage point I could see the future of Shanghai and perhaps China. On our trip so far we had seen traditional China and the closed almost insular nature of the place that had only opened its doors to tourists and the rest of the world in recent years relatively speaking. The cities like Beijing and Guangzhou had shown signs of what was to come but it was far less obvious in those places. Here is Shanghai, the rate of change and modernization was plain for all to see; from the ATMs, something we would never see in a place like Fengdu, to this ultra modern communication tower and the skyscrapers showed that China meant business, if you’ll pardon the pun, and that there was a real challenge here for the Chinese to compete with the rest of the world. To me that was a good thing and the sooner that happened the better.
Of course, tourists were being exploited here in the tower, with hundreds of tacky souvenirs for sale; I wouldn’t have expected anything less from anywhere else in the world.
The area in between the two largest spheres was occupied by a hotel called the Space Hotel, offering incredible views of the huge city. I imagine that the price of a room would be expensive even by our standards, but the view from there would go some way to easing the pain of handing over vast wads of cash.
Having exhausted everything at the lower of the two large spheres, we caught a lift up, past the Space Hotel to the highest of the spheres and the furthest we could go. The higher sphere was smaller than the lower on and you were able to actually look down the tower from this lofty position as well as being in awe at the incredible view of the city.
My initial inverse vertigo transposed completely into normal vertigo. I felt my legs buckle slightly as I foolishly peeked downwards to the lower sphere. I had to step back for fear of falling over as my balance began to disappear. My imagination stepped up a gear as I imagined myself plummeting from this great height.
After a couple of deep breaths I was fine again and able to look out at the enormous city of Shanghai spreading outwards before me. From this vantage point the sheer size of the city became apparent. I almost felt humble in its presence.
“Look at this,” screamed Lisa suddenly. I turned to see what she was yelling at and then realised to my extreme horror that she was staring down towards the lower sphere and ground so many feet below and pointing avidly with a look of surprise on her face. Not wanting to appear terrified I reluctantly peered into the abyss and, although terrified, was stunned by what I saw. A group of men were hanging from the top of the lower sphere using ropes and gradually working their way down, cleaning it as the descended. These men actually looked as if they were abseiling down the sphere.
I’ve often asked myself what I would do for a million pounds. Having seen these incredibly brave (or incredibly stupid) men doing arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, I decided that I would never do something like that even for a huge sum of money, even just once.
I stepped away from the abyss and walked around the upper sphere trying to calm my nerves as Lisa followed in my wake marvelling at the courage of those foolish men.
We descended again and Lisa erupted once more in glee.
“Look at this,” she cried again. She had spotted scale models of various towers around the world and amongst them, pretty near to the bottom of the scale I have to say, was Blackpool Tower. “How fabulous,” she said proudly. I nodded with a grin on my face remarking that compared to the monstrous edifice we were currently in, Blackpool Tower was but an ant compared to a giant. I continued to take the piss out of one of the landmarks of her birthplace and eventually went just that step too far and received another thump (I was now losing count).
We descended once more to the bottom level and saw an area containing huge blown up photographs of world landmarks, such as the Manhatten Skyline, Tower Bridge, the Taj Mahal, Mount Fuji and many more. It was possible to be photographed and then have your digital image superimposed on one of these pictures in a heroic pose, to try to hoodwink your friends that you really were hang gliding over Niagara Falls.
We left the Pearl Tower, Lisa continually looking back and up at it and me steadfastly staring right in front of me until I was sure that we’d reached the limits of its influence.
We crossed the river and returned to the hotel where we relaxed with a game of cards and a couple of cold beers.
We were leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow, our home away from home, and chose to eat out in style in a world famous restaurant. Yes, we decided to go to the hard Rock café for our last fling in China. Very Chinese that, don’t you think?
Surprisingly the Hard Rock Café was absolutely packed and the vast majority of the clientele were Americans and Europeans. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought we were in America itself.
Before eating we purchased a set of shot glasses and a T-shirt.
The food was typical hard Rock Café fare, huge and extremely bad for your health. We started by sharing a plate of nachos, supposed to be for one person. I would have loved to have seen the giant who could have eaten it by himself. I saw another guy on his own a few table away who clearly thought that the Hard Rock portions were small. His eyes almost popped out when he saw the size of his starter and for a second I actually think he panicked.
The meal actually made me feel rather guilty. The sheer volume of food would have fed a small poor Chinese family out in the countryside and here they were serving oversized portions to single tourists. Our meal was too big and both of use left a fairly large portion of our main meal. We could have shared it in retrospect.
We washed the food down with several beers and enjoyed the company of a live American band who treated us to classical American bluesy rock. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I think Lisa would have preferred to spend her last night in a night club dancing to awful music.
We left the Hard Rock Café and caught a taxi to the small bar we had visited yesterday for a final beer before retiring for our last night.
In the morning we packed our rucksacks and said goodbye to Shanghai and China. Our final meal was a Chinese lunch in a small restaurant which had no English menus and waitresses that didn’t speak English. It all seemed rather fitting really as we pointed to the items in the Chinese phrasebook for the very last time. Again the staff were terrified of asking us what we wanted and even as they delivered the food they were very wary in case they had got the wrong order. We smiled and ate with gusto, chatting about our adventure and reminiscing about the good, the bad and the ugly things we had encountered before we caught our last mad cab to the airport for our flight back to Hong Kong.
The high points for me were the Great Wall, The Forbidden City and the terracotta army at Xi’an. The low point was of course the cruise from hell.
When I first thought about coming to China I had been scared beyond belief and even as I was boarding the train in Hong Kong I wondered what the hell I was doing, fearing the unknown. A small part of me had been tempted to flee and spend two very expensive weeks in Hong Kong instead.
But in the end I loved it. I am so glad that I came on what, for me, was the biggest adventure I had ever been on. I was very proud of the fact that I had immersed myself in this country with a fantastic history and heritage, with wonderful people and bizarre customs. The history of the place goes way beyond anything I have ever seen before and arguably will ever see again. The monuments are on such a grand scale and that I can even now scarcely believe that I saw them. Of course the country has its problems but from what little I saw, it is evolving and will continue to evolve. I just pray that the rest of the world evolves with it. With any lock, China will open its doors to everyone so that as many people as possible can come to see the wonders of this truly unique, diverse and fantastic country, where the people are amazing.
Will I come again? You bet I will. Of course next time I will be better prepared and will make sure that I am more careful. I will never go on a Chinese cruise again and I will use steps to avoid touts. But I will be back if I it is at all possible.