Sydney Paulden reports on 10 days in ShanghaiAfter decades of travelling to about 100 countries, I have just made my first visit to China. It was an experience I would not have missed for all the tea . . My wife, Sharon, and I spent ten days in the Shanghai area. First impressions are worth recording, I believe, because they instantly contrast with whatever preconceptions you have had. They are a turning point in your attitude to a country and a nation.
We all are well aware that China is the world’s most heavily populated country and I am now aware that, statistically, Shanghai has the world’s biggest city population. It is growing so fast that figures are out of date before they are published, but it is confidently believed there are at least 27m inhabitants.
However, our visit showed us that China is coping with the huge numbers in a remarkably effective way. For example, from Shanghai to the city of Suzhou, a tourist attraction about 50 miles out of town, we took the bullet train. Bearing in mind that we had no knowledge of the Chinese language or its script, we eventually found the ticket office that was located several hundred yards from the main station entrance. I am sure this location is not by chance. It is a very good means of avoiding too many people milling around doing different things in one place. If you are buying a ticket, is the thinking, then don’t get in the way of people who are ready to board the trains.
Our tickets, costing as little as £6 (US$9) each, clearly stated not only a coach and seat number, but also the number of the train and the number of a waiting room. We walked to the station entance where we couldn’t help but see the huge electronic information displays, measuring at least 10 metres high and wide. The number of our train was clearly visible and the time it was to depart.
We easily followed electronic signs to Waiting Room Number 4, where we joined several hundred other passengers who were waiting for the same train.
It is easy to imagine that in other countries if so many people were on a platform awaiting a train, there would be the constant danger of being pushed onto the track. However, at Shanghai Central Station all the passengers were seated in a vast waiting room until it was indicated that the train was ready for boarding. We all were able to make our way to the train with the knowledge that a seat was booked for us. There was no scramble, no shoving and pushing and jockeying for position. The train was boarded rapidly and without fuss. China not only has the world’s largest population of over 1bn people, it is the world’s fourth largest by area. It is a massive help, therefore, that it has invested so heavily in high speed travel. Our coach on the train had electronic displays of the speed at which we were zooming through the countryside and, although it was a comparatively short distance, we reached over 240km per hour. We are talking 150mph! Don’t imagine that if you take the train across China you can get a view of the country. The landscape flies past the window too quickly for that. To us China was just a blur.
At dinner one evening we got talking to some visitors from the UK who had come from Beijing by train in under 5 hours. It is a distance of over 800 miles. Edinburgh to London is 330 miles and also requires a train journey of about 5 hours. So China has made its distances manageable through technology that brings speed and low costs.
The road system fits in with this approach. The multi-level, multi motorway intersections we saw make Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham look like child’s play.
It is obvious that a lot of thought and huge investment have gone into combating the country’s single biggest problem – its population. The traffic light systems are the most advanced we have ever seen. Large electronic displays in red and green show the countdown in seconds to the lights changing. Not a split second is wasted, because drivers know exactly when to be ready to go or to stop – and when 7,500 extra vehicles are being added to a single city’s streets every month, time is of the essence.
There were traffic jams, but nothing on the scale we had expected.
A lot of the world’s attention has been focussed, of course, on China’s efforts to halt the growth of its population. There is a complex system of calculating how many children a married couple are permitted. In the towns couples are allowed only one child. If twins are expected, then two is OK. China’s countryside is losing population too rapidly, whilst the cities are becoming too seriously congested, so this restriction on child numbers is not applied to rural families.
Overall, to our eyes in a 10-day visit the people were very free and easy, well-dressed and extremely welcoming to foreign visitors. Over the weekends during our excursions to tourist attractions, where it was extremely rare to see a non-Chinese face, the Chinese families were really excited to see us and frequently asked if they could be photographed with us. The biggest problem we had to tackle, travelling around on our own, was the language.
Visiting another hotel or getting back to our own was a constant challenge and twice our drivers simply admitted defeat, throwing up their hands and shaking their heads to mime that they didn’t have a clue how to find our hotel – and we are talking in terms of the city’s biggest 5-star properties. In one case we were aiming for the Fairmont Peace Hotel, which has been the doyen of all the hotels in Shanghai since it was opened in 1929. How we wished that there was an equivalent in Shanghai to The Knowledge that makes London cabbies such a treasure.
ITCM was a participant in TTG Asia’s 3-day IT&CM China Exhibition in April and took the opportunity to learn more about Shanghai as a MICE Destination. This is the first of a series of articles. Watch out for them each day