In Shanghai, with some spare time at last, and the hotel has a very sophisticated online service so at last I can do another blog. Staying at a very posh hotel – Le Royal Meridien – overlooking the centre of Shanghai and the Bund from the 43rd floor. At the moment can see all the neon lights of Nanjing Road including an electrified flashing seven story high Coca Cola bottle – this is modern China. When I came here in the mid-90s the top shop was Number 1 Department Store and they had just opened the first fast food outlet – KFC. Now you walk outside of the hotel and there are people sitting on the street outside Costa Coffee, and Nanjing Road – the main shopping street – is partly pedestrianised with every Western shop you could think of. The millions of bikes and very few cars have been replaced by millions of cars and very few bikes. Old Shanghai is still around but everywhere there are huge new buildings going up of every shape and size. Even the less modern cities such as Tianjin – where I’ve just come from – are seeing developments you would never have imagined ten years ago – for example new waterfront apartment blocks being sold as ‘New York’ and ‘Down Town’ apartments. Communism and capitalism seem to be mixing very well.
Shanghai is the fourth city in seven days. The first was Yantai, one of China’s small cities (1million, as compared with Shanghai’s 20+m). Much cleaner, surrounded by sea and mountains, less busy and quite pleasant. The city is in Shandong Province which is very prosperous and is China’s only internationally recognised wine growing district. When we had lunch (think 25 different dishes) at our partner institution we were given a large amount of their best red cabernet sauvignon and it was excellent. Shandong is far enough North for drinking to be a compulsory part of business development, so lots of food and drink and toasts to the Partnership, The Future, The President, the Pro Vice Chancellor, China, New Zealand etc etc. After lunch they decided to take us to the wine museum where we had a wine tasting with Riesling, Charonnay, another Cabernet and brandy. And then in the evening another banquet! Further toasts and speeches but I made a major error. When the President raised his glass and said ‘Bottoms Up’ I responded ‘Bottoms Up’ forgetting that this means I am supposed to enter a drinking competition and need to empty my glass (and the 15 after it) in one go. I didn’t. A major no-no. I was deemed important enough to be forgiven but lost about 10 points in manliness and status. However, while I’m bad at drinking (by Chinese standards) I’m good at making very long and flowery speeches praising China, the President, the Future etc etc so gradually I redeemed myself. The food is truly fantastic, beautifully cooked and artistically presented: Pumpkins sculpted like dragons; ice fish covered in all sorts of sea food, pigeon with the head artfully sitting on the side of the plate looking at me. All the heads (fish mainly) have to be directed towards me as the guest of honour. I pointed out that I lived in a vegetarian household (at least for the humans) and they gave me looks of sympathetic pity, but nearly half the dishes were actually very tasty vegetable dishes. Most of the last six days have included at least one such banquet (except at the New Zealand Embassy) but as we moved away from Yantai, the drinking calmed down, so obesity and not alcoholism is the issue. We were just two days in Yantai and it gave us a different, less crowded and noisy view of China. Next stop was Beijing, but that’s for the next blog