Shanghai, no surprise

I don't recall having left anything behind in Shanghai five months ago, but the Delta's introductory fare for its non-stop service from Atlanta is to good to pass up. Another plus is that it is on one of their new 777s, everyone's favorite aircraft ? with power ports and individual video on demand, it is noticeably less uncomfortable than that flying barn, the 747.

Non-stop means that instead of arriving late at night we land in early afternoon. I take the bus to the train station. There are about a zillion ticket windows, but only one designated "English Service." It is also marked "Smiling Service." The line is twice as long, even though I am the only foreigner; I guess the locals prefer it to the usual Snarling Service. A soft-seat (first class) ticket to Suzhou sets me back $3.

Even though the ride is less than an hour, it is dark by the time I get to the Plaza Hotel , which boasts four (undeserved) stars. I turn on the TV and switch to the English language news channel (a/k/a The Happy News). After reporting that the worst fog in months has brought zero visibility, they get to Topic A: the Olympics. Protests in London are marring the torch relay. Through man-on-the-street interviews we are informed that Europeans are outraged at this insult to Chinese dignity and international sporting harmony. Blame is laid on "secessionists" instigated by "the Dalai Clique," the same culprits behind the recent Tibetan riots. Then comes the economic report: officials are coping with the problems of a growing trade surplus, high savings rate, and a strong currency.

Suzhou is firmly fixed on the tourist route. It is famous for its gardens, some of which are five or six hundred years old and bear quaint names like "The Humble Administrator's Garden" and "The Garden of the Master of the Nets." On my first full day I take in two, and two more the following morning -- nice enough, but not so impressive considering how long they've had to get things right. A clear, sunny day would have enhanced my visit, but this is ultra-polluted China; they couldn't even come up with a blue sky for the postcard photographs. (What, no Photoshop?)

In the afternoon I move on to Nanjing (formerly spelled Nanking), another first for me. The trip is only ninety minutes on the recently-introduced high-speed train. Always an important city, Nanking was the capital of the Chinese Republic. The modern train station lies just outside the still-standing Ming city walls.


The first place I visit is the old Presidential Palace complex. It's on the site of the old Ming and Qing dynasties governor's palace complex, which then served as the capital of the short-lived Taipeng Heavenly Kingdom in the 19th century. Buildings of various eras are crowded together with 20th century brick offices in the center. The large ornamental iron gates date from 2003, replacing the ones melted down in 1958 during the Great Leap Forward.
It's a museum now, presented with surprising even-handedness. The English captions refer to the Nationalists and the Communists without employing adjectives, and there is even a photograph of Chiang Kai-shek smiling! (The Chinese caption probably says he is smiling because he has just eaten babies for breakfast.) In the main conference room is an extremely rare (on the mainland) Nationalist flag; everyone (i.e., Chinese tourists) poses in front of it despite the prominent "no taking pictures" sign (the only such sign around). The offices are furnished with period straight-backed chairs and clunky phones. I slip past the barriers for a photo behind Chiang's desk.



Sun Yat-sen also worked here while head of the provisional government. They LOVE Sun ? unlike Mao, the founder of the the Chinese republic is an unblemished revolutionary hero. There are special exhibitions and a large assortment of Sun souvenirs. I buy a plate with his photo.

Outside the city a mountaintop has been turned into Sun's mausoleum. If the weather were better or the air clearer, but would make the trip. However, due to global warming it's freezing, and the visibility is the usual dismal level for eastern China.

During the republic under Chiang, captured spies were brought to the capital for trial. Executions took place at a hit just outside the southern gate, which is now a Party shrine. At the entrance are giant statues of the condemned in chains. (Why are they scowling? Shouldn't they be joyous about giving their lives to the revolution?) Grand walkways lead to a museum to the dead commies. In marked contrast to the presidential palace museum, this one is filled with turgid agitprop. Commie spies were patriots who served as daggers in the heart of the enemy; nationalist spies were traitors to the people and snakes in the grass. A warped view of history is also served: Sun created the republic with the help of the communist party, while Chiang collaborated with "imperialists" and "the big bougeousie." Obviously untainted by foreign influence or education, the stories of the martyrs to the revolution are told in the finest Chinglish. Like true sociopaths, the commies are exquisitely sensitive to their own suffering but indifferent to that of others: not a word is given to the estimated 50-70 million who died as a result of the revolution.


Beneath a hilltop obelisk is a museum of Mao memorabilia, containing an unparalled collection of buttons, vases, statuettes and tchotches. I avail myself of the opportunity to be photographed with The Great Helmsman.

Another visitor attraction is the monument to the Rape of Nanking and museum, inconveniently located at the site of a mass grave on the outskirts of the city. The monument is modern and all angles with hideous deformed figures and, improbably, a giant cross. At the entrance, a guard asks my nationality and adds to a running tally.

In 1937 the Japanese took Shanghai (with only 200,00 men) and marched towards the capital. They demanded surrender or else. The nationalist government refused (and evacuated to Chunking), and the Rape of Nanking was the "or else." The city quickly fell and, in the following six weeks, an estimated 300,000 residents were killed.


The museum exhibits are captioned in Chinese, English, and Japanese. (I don't see any Japanese visitors, nor are any shown on the tally sheet. In addition to telling the story, the museum displays stuff that I have never seen anywhere else: Jap triumphalist souvenirs, medals, cigarette cases, commemorative ware, photo albums, and propaganda for domestic consumption. Another unusual item: banners of the World Red Swastika Society, a totally benign Buddhist version of the Red Cross.
The Jap surrender in Nanking took place some three weeks after the ceremony in Tokyo Bay. The commander was hanged as a war criminal, and a bunch more officers were tried and shot by the Chinese. The events of 1937 were pretty much unknown in the west until a few years ago, and a movie on it has recently been released.

The Great Bridge over the Yangtse was built at Nanjing in the early 1960's. Completing it on their own without after Soviet enginners were withdrawn was a source of great national pride. Heroic statuary groups hail the passing traffic. In these jaded times, the visitors center doesn't get much business.


Nanjing proves so unexpectedly interesting that I scrub my planned return visit to Hangzhou. Instead, I return to Shanghai by bullet train, not as nice or as fast as the Japanese ones, but one-tenth the price.

I don't do anything particularly interesting in Shanghai, just sort of wander around and load up on cheap (you may say pirate, but I prefer to think of them as copyright-challenged) videos. By the number of times I am accosted, I figure I must be projecting a "I'm dying to buy a fake Rolex" aura.

My return flight is in the afternoon, so I decide to try out the 260 mph mag-lev train to the airport. The trip only takes 8 minutes (vs. 1+ hrs by bus) and is way cool. There is no rail ? the train hovers over a flat track by magnetic repulsion. It is silent and without vibration except at the halfway point where there is a pneumatic bump when we pass the train heading in the opposite direction. It's a total boondoggle, but an impressive one.
Courtesy of the International Date Line, I arrive in Jacksonville that same afternoon.

Trip date: April 2008