Planes, trains and automobiles. I hate to sound like a transport geek but you can’t go to China and not be impressed by its obsession with travel as the dragon economy rushes to embrace its superpower role. From the bullet train that whisks you the 665 miles from Shanghai to Beijing in four hours to the super-efficient underground, there’s a serious commitment to getting everyone moving.
This isn’t all good, however, and the traffic jams in Beijing make tram-jammed Edinburgh in rush hour look like a rainy day in Plockton. It seems the city’s 20 million population have swapped their bicycles for cars.
We kicked off with a BA flight where we were upgraded to first class. What do you get for your £5,700 ticket? Well, free pyjamas, a separate menu served whenever you want (though they ran out of posh pasta – imagine), a seat that transforms into a bed with mattress, constant teas, coffees, drinks and snacks, and that pathetic sense of privilege bestowed by the knowledge that you’re getting something the rest of the passengers back in steerage aren’t. Oh, and an Anya Hindmarch washbag stuffed with Elemis goodies.
All of this was fabulous, but the return journey in business class provided an equally good sleep, despite the annoyance of having a fellow passenger on the other side of a partition. That’s the trouble with privilege. We despise it for others, but when we taste it ourselves, we can get to quite like it.
Nowhere is this more true than in China, where capitalism is all systems go and the Maoist doctrines of the past reduced to retro T-shirt and biscuit status as we dipped into shops on a break from our motorcycle ride around Shanghai. This is a brilliant idea from Shanghai Sideways that saw us zipping past the traffic to explore the beautiful, tree-lined French Quarter, then the British and US areas and the fascinating China Town where immigrant workers from the provinces live and work.
Denied a pass to move to the city, they come anyway for the higher wages and sleep in shifts in tiny ramshackle houses, earning enough to go home and start a business. In the spotless alleyways chickens’ necks are slit, reconditioned white goods line up for sale and prized single children walk like little emperors to school accompanied by at least four doting adults. Not for much longer perhaps, as the real estate moguls eye what is prime turf right in the shadow of the Bund.
Based in the Kerry Hotel in Pudong, a huge property where the endless attractions include its own brewery, cheese room (a departure in China where our local cheese waitress admitted, “We don’t like rotten milk here, but I do now”), the biggest gym in China and The Cook restaurant, where the choice of local and international food was mind-boggling.
Located on what ten years ago were rice fields to the west of the city centre, we would have had stupendous views across its architects-on-mescaline skyline if it hadn’t been for the freezing fog that clung with a grip as tight as a starving giant panda clutching a stick of bamboo. No matter, we could see enough of the outline of the crazy high-rises of Shanghai’s famous Bund waterfront with their baubles and orbs to get the gist. Up in the air might be where all the deals are made to fuel China’s economic boom, but down on street level we were in among the thronging masses.
We visited the historic wooden Huxingting tea house, on its own mini lake in Yuyuan Road, a must with Chinese and foreign tourists alike. Here the brew comes with buried eggs and the tinkling and plonky-plonk of dulcimers and glockenspiels of the ‘house band’.
Then it was on to explore Shanghai’s many markets hawking designer copies, silk and tea. We did the behind-the-sliding wall-to-see-the-really-good-stuff experience and walked off with Mulberry and Prada bags that wouldn’t fool a fashionista, but at a distance look the business.
Later, taking the bullet train through the hinterland from Shanghai and seeing the towns where most of the things we buy are manufactured – little more than factories and cement block accommodation – you can’t help but conclude that the lives of the workers there are grim. China’s economic miracle wouldn’t be possible were it not for the labour of millions of workers who clearly don’t enjoy the liberty of those shopping to excess in Shanghai’s Louis Vuitton or Stella McCartney stores, and for whom the branding, especially if it’s western, is everything.
Shanghai might be the happening, trendy hotspot where the hotels are hipper than Beyonce getting a wiggle on to catch a departing bus, but Beijing prides itself on being the repository of China’s cultural treasures. And rightly so. We visited a Tiananmen Square (“Oh no, there are no demonstrations here. Look at the rest of the world ... they cause so much trouble,” said our guide) so vast and cold I envied Mao waxed up and snug in his tomb.
Next door the Forbidden City’s multiple inner palaces went on longer than The Last Emperor, which was filmed here, and the chill was so deep it made my mouth taste of pennies. However, its grandeur is awesome – if only they’d fill the hundreds of vast copper urns dotted around with fire like they used to.
Then it was on to the Great Wall at Matianyu, in the heart of the beautiful fruit-growing region. Unlike many tourist must-sees, this really is a must-see. Impressive in both scale and execution, you want to keep on walking up its dragon spine, turret to turret, until you realise you have to walk all the way back. Never mind, there’s a toboggan ride down on a twisting aluminium chute that will have you smiling like the Dalai Lama by the time you reach the end.
Back in Beijing, the Kerry Hotel shocked us with its happening Centro bar, one of the city’s go-to nightspots, by virtue of the fact you’re allowed to light up. Strange how you miss trekking outside to strike up conversations with fellow addicts, and that inflicting smoke on non-smokers around you spoils the enjoyment. It did, however, make for a hazy atmosphere that was perfect for its bluesy house band and the stylish collision of east meets west as the band broke into Whitney Houston summed up modern China.