Tuesday, April 6, 2010

China Diary Part II – Olympic Beijing and Futuristic Shanghai

[For new readers I would like to point out that this is the sequel to my earlier blog entry under the title China Diary Part I – The Great Wall & the Forbidden City – posted on 8 March 2010]

An Olympic Experience

After having seen the two great sights of medieval China on the first two days of my stay in Beijing (see my previous blog post dated 8 March 2010), it was time for me to sample the most visible accomplishments of a modern China on the last day.  As everyone knows, China stunned the world in 2008 by showcasing the most astonishing and the best ever games in the history of the Olympic movement, with the motto “One World One Dream”.  The spectacular opening and closing ceremonies, watched on TV by billions, caught the imagination of the world, as did the games themselves in between.  They were staged in over a dozen newly built facilities, dominated by the famous Olympic Stadium, popularly called the Bird’s Nest, and the Water Cube Aquatics Centre which are among the most impressive architectural and technological wonders of the modern era.  Fittingly, they provided the centre stage for two of the greatest sporting achievements in history – Jamaican Usain Bolt’s superhuman performance on the tracks and American Michael Phelps’ matching performance in the pool.

The Bird’s Nest

After my third straight sumptuous breakfast in three days in the hotel, I set out for the Olympic Games facilites in the northern part of the city.  I say ‘sumptuous’ because when I eat such a breakfast I don’t need to eat anything at all at lunch time, especially if it is a continetal type consisting of an unlimited mix of toasted bread slices, butter, corn flakes with hot milk, a variety of fruits and fruit juices and coffee.  I picked up this habit when I lived in Northern Ireland for about 10 weeks in 1985.   I took a metro train very close to the hotel and got down at a place not as close to the games venues as I had been led to believe.  I waited for a bus, and it was quite a wait, during which I met a lady who spoke fluent English and struck up a conversation with her.  I didn’t notice the passage of time.  Luckily she was also headed in my direction; we boarded the same bus and also got down together within walking distance of the Bird’s Nest.  She pointed it out to me, said goodbye and parted company there and went her own way.  Later I realised she had got down short of her own destination just to show me the way to mine.  It was the third time in three days I had run into some one very helpful, kind and naturally friendly. 
As I walked towards it the stadium came to fuller view and its distinct architecture started unfolding.  I could see a large crowd around it and a very long queue as well to buy tickets to enter in.  For a moment I thought it was for a pre-scheduled event in the stadium, something I had not planned on.  Before finding out what was up I had an obliging visitor snap a photo of mine against the backdrop of the Bird’s Nest.  Here it is, one of the most treasured pictures of my China trip.

When I went closer to the stadium, I realized that the whole crowd was trying to get into the stadium just to see the innards of it, not any event inside!  When my turn came at the counter after a long wait in a sperpentine queue, I asked for a ticket for the entire Olympic facilites, but the lady at the counter showed me a printed placard in English which said that the ticket on offer was only for the Bird’s Nest and a single ticket was not available for all the facilities!  I bought my ticket, joined a smaller queque at the entry gate and was soon inside the vast arena.  I turned all around for a panoramic view that included everthing I had seen on TV, including a gigantic TV screen replaying, as it happened just at that moment, Usain Bolt’s historic 100 m dash that had appeared to strike a lightning bolt in the stadium a little less than a year earlier.  I do hope Indian viewers will have an opportunity to see Bolt run in the commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year.  I sat down to cool my heels, recalled all that I could remember about the events that had taken place there during the Olympic fortnight, in particular the opening and closing ceremonies that had enthralled the world.  The opening ceremony qualifies perhaps as the greatest show ever on Earth.  After resting for half an hour I came out of the front side of the stadium, the one that faces the Water Cube and other major facilities.  It was a spectacular sight all around, the weather was bright and sunny, the sky was blue, the familiar Beijing smog was nowhere to be seen and my camera was on over drive.  How much I wish the previous two days were half as good! Here is one of my favourite pictures of the day:

The Water Cube

The Water Cube, nickname for the National Acquatics Centre, is not actually a cube but a huge box whose outer layers are made of irregular polygon shaped cushions made of a special material called ETFE (Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene), a heat resistant plastic, and is the largest structure of its kind in the world.  I will spare the reader any technical details of this unique engineering and architectural marvel here.  A great deal about the water cube is documented in an excellent National Geographic video programme called “Beijing Water Cube” under the series titled “Megastructures”.   I saw this video programme after I had seen the real thing and it was a memorable exercise comparing the two.  There are three large swimming pools inside, the largest of them being the competition pool which Michael Phelps made his very own by capturing an incredible eight gold medals, each of them with a world record.  That is of course an enduring piece of history now.  Here is another memorable picture of the day, showing the water cube before I had joined the queue.

When I was looking to get inside the water cube there was a much longer queque there than at the Bird’s Nest.  There was also extremely tight security.  This time I was convinced it was for a special event inside.  I had to sweat my way in the queque under a hot Sun for almost an hour. When I bought the ticket at last, cleared the security cordon and went inside, my first act was to sit down, rest for a while and look around to absorb the extraordinary atmosphere.  Then I made a beeline for the competition pool and found it almost half full but there was no special event to see.  I had again been mistaken!  Several thousand people had gathered inside just to see the interior of the water cube.  Perhaps not surprising since it was a Saturday (18 July 09). The water cube had been maintained exactly in the same condition as at the time of the games.  I was not surprised to see another gigantic TV screen showing the exploits of Phelps and some gold medal winning Chinese divers for the gathering to relive.  
I spent a much longer time inside the cube than at the Nest, came out and spent almost an hour looking at the other games facilites, including the indoor games hall.  It was then time to bid goodbye in real life to the places I had seen every day for a fortnight a year before, but only vicariously.  I found that a metro station was quite closeby and regretted not having known about it in the morning.  My next destination was another great landmark of modern Beijing.

The Egg

The National Centre for the Performing Arts, popularly called the Egg, is a huge ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake.  Designed by a French architect, it was built at an enormous cost and presents a stunning appearance.  It is located a short distance west of the Tiananmen Square and I had missed it on the first day.  I made up for the lapse by going there after my earlier visit to the Olympic Games facilities. The three halls inside the dome can seat about 5500 people.  From one side it looks like an egg floating on water.  Here is a picture of it I took from the front end:

I spent sometime both inside and outside the dome but had no plans to see any of the performances in the threatres.  On my way out I came across a vendor selling icecold bottles of water straight out of a cold storage box.  I bought two of them and emptied both down my throat in no time; such was my thirst.  On my way back I revisited the Tiananmen Square and considered my next option.  One of the major attractions on my original list was the Temple of Heaven surrounded by a large park, another famous monument dating back to medeival China.  However, It was getting late in the evening, the place was some distance away, I was tired after my exertions on an oppressively hot and humid day and I had a night’s journey to Shanghai ahead of me.  I had all the right excuses, so I decided to give it a miss, something I rather regret now. I should have pushed myself to the limit as I did on the Great Wall the previous day.

Train to Shanghai

I had decided to travel to Shanghai by an overnight train just for the experience of it.   As narrated in my last blog, Prof Zhang Tiedao had obtained a reservation for me by the fastest and best train between Beijing and Shanghai.  The Beijing Central railway station was just opposite my hotel, and I went inside well in advance of the train departure.  On my way in I had to dodge quite a few hawkers trying to sell all kinds of things.  Once inside the sprawling old railway station, I got lost somewhat and it was with some difficulty I found where to go.  There were no clearcut directions in English and all announcements were in Chinese only.  Apparently there was a dedicated waiting lounge for passengers of special trains and I was at last ushered in there.  It was a large hall with a lot of people waiting to board their trains.  I found the need for some help and soon enough found a young man with an older companion who could speak decent English.  He was all too glad to help me into a vacant chair, sat opposite me and we began a long conversation.   He was due to board the same train as mine for Shanghai.  When our turn came to board the train he  accompanied me all the way to my carriage in the train, showed me in and then went back to board his.  That was not the last of my encounters with friendly people in Beijing to which I was poised to bid goodbye. 
The train was fully air conditioned, all compartments were identical and of the highest class in every sense of the word.  As in Indian First Class A/C Rajdhani express train compartments, there were four berths and I had been booked in a lower berth.  Later I learnt that the lower berth costs slightly more than the upper berth.  The train ticket itself was very expensive and I could have bought an air ticket between the two cities for much less.  As I entered my compartment I was greeted with the friendliest of smiles by a very pretty young lady who had taken the other lower berth.  Unfortunately she couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t strike up any conversation with her.  Soon three young men came in and two of them occupied the upper berths while the third one was looking around.  He said something to the young lady, who obligingly moved out, apparently in exchange for his berth in the neighbouring compartment.  I wondered why he didn’t suggest that to me.  I suppose it is the traditional respect given to elders which is as much a part of Chinese culture as we often experience in India.  Before moving out, the young lady said something to me which required no translation at all and gave another disarmingly charming smile to all of us.  I had noticed such behaviour only in some vintage Hollywood movies.  How refreshing to find it in real life too! 
But for its size, the compartment resembled any top class five star hotel anywhere.  Everything in the carriage was so spotlessly clean I thought I needed a large magnifying lens to discover even a small speck of dust; but then I had to know where to look for it!
One of the three young men introduced himself and his friends to me in very good English and said they were students studying in the university in Guoangzhou city which was the only other stop for the train, at daybreak.  He had a Christian first name and happened to be an advanced level Physics student too and so we had something in common to talk about.  We had a long and lively conversation, mostly about collegiate education in China.  He was flattered to hear from me that some of the greatest Mathematicians and Physicists were not only of Chinese origin, but also belonged to modern China.   He was also pleased to know that I had done my doctoral work in Physics in the famous institution founded by Nobel Laureate C V Raman in Bangalore.  We also spoke about India’s dominance over China in the IT service sector and the reverse domination of China in the IT hardware sector.  He was rather baffled to hear my opinion  that the former was very much due to a language barrier which could all change in the next decade given the growing interest in China to learn English and the diminishing interest for the same in India.  This was news to him.  The other two students were keen listeners all the time and one of them interrupted us with an occasional question or remark in broken English. We talked well into the night and went to bed long after the train had left Beijing.   It was one of the cosiest nights of sleep I had experienced.


When I woke up the next morning the train had reached Guongzhou and the students were trying to leave without waking me up.  I saw them on the platform and waved them goodbye.  Therefater, it was about 90 minutes journey to Shanghai.  The distance between Beijing and Shanghai was about the same distance as between Delhi and Mumbai, but the journey time was much shorter and a great deal smoother. When the train reached Shanghai, precisely on time, I had little difficulty transferring to a local metro train, change to another line to reach Caoyang station, walk about half a kilometre to reach the City Central International Hostel where I had made a two-day reservation.  The directions had been given so precisely in my confirmation message from the Hostel that, on reaching there I complimented the desk official on their foresight and efficiency, which was deserved in every other way as well.  He felt flattered and gave me a room as good and comfortable as the one in Beijing.  However, I was too late for their complimentary breakfast.  For the first time I had to do without my usual sumptuous breakfast. 
Shanghai is listed as the sixth largest city in the world in terms of population (Mumbai being third) and is the largest in China, being also the most cosmopolitan.  It is also one of the most futuristic cities in the world, with a skyline on one side of the Huangpu River rivalling any in the world.  The river divides the city in much the same way that river Seine divides Paris and river Thames divides London.  That is where I was headed after an early lunch and precise directions from a very helpful official of the hostel. 

The Bund

The bund is an area running along the western bank of the Huangpu River, facing Pudong with its famous skyline on the other side.  Consisting of a large number of historical buildings, most of them dating back to the colonial era, it is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the city.  From anywhere on the bund one can see the Shanghai skyline in which three skyscrapers catch ones immediate attention.  These are the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with a unique appearence, the 88 storey Jin Mao Tower representing traditional Chinese architecture and the ultramodern 101 storey Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC).  When I got out of the Lujiazui metro stantion I could immediatly see all three of them within easy walking distance of each other.  At such close range these were really stunning sights.  The Oriental Pearl TV Tower was right opposite the station and I crossed the road to join a huge Sunday crowd all waiting to get in.  The weather was murky and dense clouds were playing hide and seek.

Oriental Pearl Tower

The tower features 11 spheres, big and small. The two biggest spheres, along the height of the tower, have diameters of 50 m and 45 m respectively. They are linked by three long columns, each 9 m in diameter. The uppermost sphere is 14 m in diameter. The entire building is supported by three enormous columns starting deep underground.  The tower has a number of observation levels; the highest called the Space Module is at 350 m.  The TV antenna extends another 118 m above it.  Here is a picture of the lower part of the tower.

The Sunday crowd to get inside the tower was so large I had to stand in a queue for half an hour to buy a ticket and wait inside for well over an hour before being able to go up one of several lifts to an intermediate observation level.  The security was oppressive and the ticket holders were being allowed in small groups at a time with a long wait between one group and the next.  After about another hour I was able to make it to the Space Module.  The view from there was breathtaking despite the hazy and cloudy weather.   This observation deck had a glass floor so that one could see straight down as well as take photographs.  Most prominently visible were the SWFC and the Jin Mao Tower which I had no time left to visit that day.  After I came down and left the tower I went to the Bund and walked along a long stretch of it housing all those great colonial heritage buildings.  I have seen similar buildings, though fewer in number, in both Mumbai and Chennai. 
It was late in the evening and the weather was not getting any better.  I still waited until it was dark and the skyline across the bund would light up.  A large part of the bund was under construction work and it was not a very pleasent wait.  In between I had to dodge a few hawkers trying to sell all kinds of things, particularly ‘Rolex’ watches at ridiculously low prices.  I was not tempted to buy any but I did buy a powerful green laser pointer fitted with a ‘star’ projector as an attachment. I paid only about a fifth of its current price in the Indian market.  I wish I had bought half a dozen to be given away to friends and relatives.  As night fell I started taking pictures of a few of the illuminated heritage buildings along the bund.  Around 8 PM the skyline illumination began and despite the very dull and cloudy sky it was a spectacular show.  Particularly impressive was the Oriental Pearl Tower where I had spent most of the afternoon earlier that day.  I then took a Metro train from a nearby station and went back to the hostel.
The next morning I did get my usual sumptuous complimentry breakfast at the hostel.  Before going out on my sightseeing visits of the day I had to empty the pictures in my camera for which I needed a card reader.  Luckily I found a small electronics shop open nearby.  When I indicated to the old lady inside in sign language what I needed, she understood immediately, produced a card reader, took the memory card out of my camera, connected it to the reader and displayed the pictures on a monitor to assure me with a beaming face that it was fine.  I was delighted to buy it with an equally beaming demeanour and thanked her profusely.  Not a word had been understood between us and indeed no words were needed.  

The Giant Bottle Opener

The 101 storey 492 m tall Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) is the third tallest building in the world and very unlike any of its category.  Its most distinctive feature is a trapezoidal aperture at the peak to reduce stress due to strong winds.  From a distance it presents the appearance of a giant bottle opener (see picture below taken from the Oriental Pearl Tower on a very murky afternoon the previous day; the shorter Jin Mao Tower is to the right) and is often described as such. 

The SWFC has three observation decks, on the 94th, 97th and 100th floors respectively.  After paying a hefty entrance fee and standing in another long queue I was able to view the surroundings from all three levels.  Visitors are taken to the top levels by super fast lifts with spectacular flashing lights inside that give the feeling of being transported in a futuristic spacecraft.  Everything about the building is futuristic and symbolic of a resurgent modern China.  The weather was vastly better than the previous day and I could get a spectacular view all around, including the 88 storey Jin Mao Tower nearby and the Oriental Pearl Tower slightly farther away.  The topmost observation deck is located at a height of 474 m and continues to be the tallest observation deck in the world, surpassing even Burj Khalifa of Dubai, which of course happens to be the tallest building in the world.  Here is a picture of me on this deck as also a view from the top.  It is lined with see-through glass floor on all sides and looking straight down through it is quite an eerie experience.

Shanghai is all set to enhance its futurisitic credentials by staging the World Expo 2010 from 1 May to 31 October this year, the theme of the exposition being “Better City - Better Life”.  It is expected to draw about 70 million visitors, the largest for any event in history, and even outdo the immensely successful Beijing Olympics of 2008.  India will be a major participant.  I had glimpses of massive construction work at several places in the city in preparation for the exposition, especially in the Bund region.

Yuyuan Garden

Futuristic Shanghai holds several great relics of the past, among them the Yuyuan Garden located in the heart of the old city.  It is considered to be one of the finest and most lavish of Chinese gardens in the country and dates back to the mid sixteenth century.  I had some difficulty locating it for it was in a densely populated and not so clean part of Shanghai that was reminiscent of the China depicted in some old western movies.  But the garden itself was like an oasis in a desert, a wonderful representation of all that was great in ancient Chinese art, architecture and culture.  From inside the garden I could see a reminder of modern China with most of the skyscrapers across the Bund visible at a distance.  I spent a good bit of time seing the dense but spacious garden occupying about five acres of space, sitting and relaxing frequntly and soaking in the alluring atmosphere.  Here is a representative picture:

I spent the rest of the day exploring a number of interesting places in the heart of the city, had another view of the illuminated Shanghai night skyline and returned to the hostel.  Before reaching the hostel I noticed something that strongly reminded me of Delhi and other big cities in India.  A long stretch of the pedestrian walkway on the busy Wuning road close to the hostel was completely occupied by hawkers and vendors selling every conceivable type of goods on the pavement.  There was absolutely no space to walk except on the main road braving the busy traffic.  I wondered how anybody could get into any of the big shops lining the walkway and how the shop owners tolerated the situation; these shops were all open any way.

On to Hangzhou

The next morning I woke up late but not so late as to miss a good breakfast.  I checked the weather prospects in and around Hangzhou for the following day, the day of the great total solar eclipse, found it very depressing and thought of possible alternative locations.  Just then I got an email message from Prof Jagdev Singh of IIAP at Anji which sounded encouraging and decided to stick to my original plans.  After visiting some nearby places in the morning I took a taxi to the South Shangahi railway station in the afternoon.  As it approached the destination I saw what looked like a huge futuristic hemispherical building which actually turned out to be the railway station.  I got in, bought a ticket for Hangzhou by a fast non stop train, explored the huge railway station and got into my train when it was announced.  If I had been in an airport I could have mistaken the railway carriage for a small modern aircraft, so elegant did it look.  The 190 km journey took just two hours.  After getting out at the Hangzhou railway station, I could just walk up to the European Style Hotel where I had made a booking.  Later that evening I explored the neighbourhood, had something for dinner and went back to the hotel in anxious anticipation of the next day that had been the real reason for my being in China.  My experiences of that momentous day have already been posted in an earlier blog dated 23 February 2010.
My next blog will complete this three part China travelogue, featuring my experiences mainly in Hong Kong.

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