Not really Shanghai’d

I was hoping to use the verb “shanghai” in this post, because I got stuck on a plane and wound up in one of those crazy travel situations.

Unfortunately, I looked up the word first. Research has the sad characteristic of poking holes in what we wish we could say:

To shanghai:

1. To kidnap (a man or seaman) for enforced service at sea, esp on a merchant ship

2. To force or trick (someone) into doing something, going somewhere, etc.

3. (Austral), (NZ) to shoot with a catapult


I wasn’t tricked into going anywhere, nor was I pressed into naval service. I didn’t fire projectiles at anyone (a sad day, indeed). Nope, I just fell victim to politics.

My first flight from Chengdu to Shanghai almost didn’t happen because they lost my ticket – the first leg of my trip was “cancelled.” I said no, it wasn’t. The woman clicked a few more times – it looked like I cancelled that ticket. I said no, I didn’t. Then they told me to call Delta to fix it. I stood there, ticket confirmation and passport in hand, dumbfounded. Call Delta and fix it?!  My flight left in less than an hour! I couldn’t get snippy, but I refused to leave the second counter to which I had been sent. Eventually they gave me a ticket – Delta had put on a hyphen, and China Eastern doesn’t use hyphens. Or some such nonsense.

So, I get on my bumpy flight. So far two out of my three flights between Chengdu and Shanghai have been very bumpy. I attribute this to two things: 1. The shift in the seasons, and 2. The fact that I’ve been put in the tail of the aircraft twice.  Over the past two years, I’ve become a nervous flyer. It’s the worst – I don’t know why this happened, nor how, and now I have to deal with these stupid panic attacks whenever the plane bounces about. On that first bumpy flight, sitting in the back, I meditatively counted to 1,272. I counted in batches of six! But that’s another topic.

I had a four hour layover in Shanghai’s Pudong airport. Bought a couple of overpriced foodstuffs and a trinket or two. Wandered through the ritzy joke of duty free goods. I say it’s a joke because if you’re spending $500 on a bottle of scotch, saving tax just seems like a funny discount to me. Eventually, I boarded the plane. We all pile in, and there aren’t that many of us. I notice quite a few empty seats. There’s an air of anticipation and patience – we all want to go, and we all know it’s going to be a thirteen-plus hour flight.  The pilot announces the door is shut. The safety video starts to play, seat belts are snapped.

And we wait.

And then we wait a little more.

The pilot comes on and says we’re all set to go, but that the air traffic controllers haven’t given us permission to go yet. We’re encouraged to be patient.

So we wait a little more.

Somewhere around the forty-five minute mark, people are moving about the cabin.

At an hour and a half, they turn on the entertainment system for us. We can use our phones again. Flight attendants offer drinks to those who are missing connection flights. The first officer comes on an encourages us to let those sitting in the middle section move around, as the entertainment system isn’t working on those middle seats. “Thirteen hours is a long time to go without something to watch,” he says, voice full of sympathy. The plane dutifully rearranges.

After two hours, we learn about TSA limits for how long you can stay on a parked plane.

The most interesting part is the speculation. From the get go, the air tower hasn’t said a word. I can hear the frustration building in the first officer’s voice when he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are still waiting to hear from the air control tower. We’ve asked what the situation is, and so far they are not telling us anything. As soon as we know what’s going on, we’ll let you know.” It has to be rough being jerked around like that. Gossip spreads throughout the cabin – it’s the government retaliating for some slight. Perhaps the Dali Lama said something and the Western world applauded.  The most popular theory is that it’s because of the big summit in Shanghai.

So we sit, for a few hours, until at last the pilot comes on and announces we’ve been clearance to leave. Muffled applause filter through the now rearranged and far more laid-back passengers. I say “laid-back” because no one bothers to repack or dress up or go back to their original seats. We’ve turned into a dorm – shoes off, stuff wherever. Because a thirteen hour flight has become a sixteen hour endeavor. I have to give the Delta team credit here. They did a fantastic job of keeping people calm and relaxed – real pros.

The reason was the Summit – all the world leaders leaving were given precedent over us.  I think that is ridiculous. Don’t world leaders get their own private planes? Their own separate runways? Shanghai shut down all airspace so they can…what, taxi in front of us? Get to feel special? Being elected/appointed leader of an entire country not making you feel special enough? You have to use approved electronic devices before the rest of us too?

I am giving the Shanghai summit on “Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia” an arbitrary F, by the way.  You failed that one, world leaders. Interaction means telling people what’s going on, not playing dumb. And no one is going to have confidence in a system which springs surprise changes without announcement or explanation.


The thirteen hour some odd minute flight passes fine. My seat was broken so I didn’t really sleep, but I catch up on a lot of movies I’ve been meaning to see.  That’s a good thing about the current state of most trans-Pacific flights – they’ve upped the quality of their entertainment. Now there’s a whole library of movies, old and new.

I am one of the few remaining tense passengers when we land. I had designed a three-hour layover in Detroit to make sure my bags followed me. Unlike those poor souls with thirty minute layovers (the state of our flight system today is ridiculous on how tight they make the turn around times) who have already lost their connection, I have just enough time theoretically. And I push it and make it, landing in Indianapolis at night, fresh after the thunderstorms which would have stopped me.


I will write about my return – but breathing the clean, after-a-storm air? Miraculous.



What the Buddha Sees: Day trip to Leshan

Before I go home for a week’s vacation, my boss offered to drop me off for a day trip to see the Leshan Buddha. This particular Buddha is the world’s largest (carved of stone), a great carving straight into the side of a mountain. He sits at over 200 feet tall.

Note: I find the modifiers on Buddha statues a little ridiculous. When I was in Hong Kong I saw the Big Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery, touted as the largest bronze sitting Buddha. I checked the Wikipedia page, and now it’s the “largest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2000.” That many modifiers really kills the power of the title, don’t you think? I mean, where’s the largest indoor bronze seated Buddha, or the largest after 2000? Or the largest outdoor bronze frisbee-playing Buddha? I bet Buddha would have loved Frisbee.

We left early. I had a rather rough digestive night (I blame it on the ice in my milk tea), so I was sipping hot tea and nibbling crackers most of the morning. I was not in a mood to climb, and yet that is exactly what the day called for. I fortified myself mentally during the two hour drive. I was also not prepared for the steep cost of the tickets – it was 170rmb to see the Buddha and the “Scenic Area” attached. I didn’t have that sort of cash, and had my student guide ask for the nearest ATM.

TRAVELER’S NOTICE: There are no ATMs at Leshan, and that includes the shopping street across from the site. The nearest ATM is at the tourist village, two bus stops north of the site.

Though I started in a sour mood, the scenic area was well worth the admission. Not historically accurate, The Oriental Buddha Park is a collection of Buddhas from all over China, most carved into the mountain. It’s a history and an art lesson all at once. I was enchanted – it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Not that I haven’t done it before, but you have to work at it. And I love stonework. I love how time affects stonework, and the effort that must go into creating carvings in a mountain. I love the grace from hardness.

Leshan 2Leshan 5Leshan 1  Leshan 3



The humidity was rising as we reached the flat top of the area, walking in and out of caves filled with a variety of Buddhas, some carved into the walls, others separate statues. I couldn’t figure out the signs to see the Leshan Giant Buddha, and my “guide” was less than helpful. Another student from Chengdu, this one had never been to Leshan, and didn’t know enough English to answer most my questions with anything other than “I don’t know.” This student also had a supposed medical condition where he needed frequent snacks, but then he did not bring any and did not want to eat anything but hot dogs (there were none to be found). When he finally demurred that he was “maybe a little dizzy” I forced him to buy some mini cakes. He was mildly put out.

After some more walking and looking at confusing signs for a little bit, we started down this very steep set of switchback stairs. I noticed that we were the only ones going down – everyone else was climbing up.

“Are we going the right way?” I asked at the halfway point, after I thought some of the stares directed at me were more hostile than normal.
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“Would you please ask someone?”
“Uh…ok.” There was a conversation with a climber. “He says we are maybe going the wrong way.”
“Ugh. Fine, let’s go back up.” We start climbing again, my mood slipping back to sour. But at least we caught it early. My guide has another conversation with the same man as we go, stopping. I pause.
“He says we can maybe go down this way.”
“Yeah, maybe…we can go down this way.”
“Well, can we or can’t we?” Uh oh, I’m using unnecessary enunciated English.
“Yeah, I don’t know…maybe.”
“Jesus!” I hiss and start back down, not caring if the student follows. It’s hard enough not knowing for myself where to go, but when my “guide” can’t tell up from down it’s more than infuriating. He was wrong anyway – we were going the wrong way. I realized it when we emerged at the foot of the Leshan Buddha and I saw that there was a huge, controlled line descending on the other side of the cliff face. That’s where we needed to go.

Like I said, it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful space. I should put an addendum on that: it’s easy to fall back into a bad mood at a beautiful space. I had arrived surly, and worked out of it. All it took was the umpteenth utterance of “I don’t know…maybe” to get me right back into surly, accompanied by my stomach saying it was all better and why hadn’t I fed it breakfast?

Leshan 6

So I stood there, at the foot of the world’s largest stone Buddha, and furiously tried to not be in a bad mood. I wanted to be happy, but I was not. It was awful. When would I ever get back to this site? When would I ever be able to look out over the rivers at the foot of this ancient monument and reflect? Then I got sad that I was angry – a wonderful combination.

“Do you want me to take your picture?” I ask the student, more out of obligation than desire to be nice (if I’m being honest).
“Yes. Of course, sure!” He says. I do so – the Buddha is so big that to fit it all in you have to cut out most of the human subject’s body, but that’s fine. It’s a cool photo.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” The student asks, probably with the same amount of duty. I haven’t been a peach this trip either I know.
“Thanks,” I say, trying to mend the fence I kicked. I stand close to the foot of the Buddha, plastering a smile on my face. The student nervously laughs, moving between a stand and a squat.
“Maybe I can’t get all of you in the photo. You’re… so short and it’s too big, maybe.” He shrugs, with a second nervous laugh. I have clearly frightened him with my earlier snap. I take my camera back with a testy “That’s fine. I’ll just take one of myself.” I remind myself to breathe.

I look at the Buddha some more. There are plastic bottles of oil at his giant feet. I stare up at his serene expression, eyes half closed. He was built to calm the waters of the river. He was built because a monk thought that putting a Buddha by a river with a strong, dangerous current would fix the river. And according to some versions of the story, he was right. All the discarded rock which got thrown in the water altered the river’s flow. Buddha works in mysterious ways.

And then I could not keep my anger up. It’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. You can do it, but it takes work. It’s easy to fall back into a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Then you have to make a choice as to whether to work out of it or not. I decide that being angry won’t solve anything. I’m not in a good mood all of a sudden, but I’m reconciling.

At the top of the switchback stairs (which I climbed in the correct direction), we walk past the top of Buddha’s head. I look out across the river. The large city has exploded there – I can see several dirty white high rises just off the banks of the far shore. Construction cranes are visible. A slightly brownish haze hangs in the air over the city. What this Buddha has seen, I thought, looking at the modern world before him. When he was built there was nothing but villages and trees and the river. The items are sort of the same, but there are fewer trees, and the city is massive and the sky is hazy. How much those relaxed eyes must have seen. Much more than I could ever hope to see.  I can see some of the clever irrigation, which has prevented the Buddha from eroding over the centuries.

Leshan 4 Leshan 7


I stop to drink some water. A family smiles at me, a little girl with big eyes among them. They start talking to her, giving her slight shoves. I hear them whispering, and one of the words is “hello.” I smile at the little girl.

“Hello.” I say. The family beams, the little girl looks so very shy. “Hello,” I smile.
“Hello.” She says, finally. The father claps his hands and says something else. “My…name…is…Jenny.” She mumbles her name.
“Your name is Jenny?”
“Hello, Jenny. My name is Jean.” She doesn’t look at me as her mother and father start peppering her with more things to say. I feel bad for her a little, but she dutifully speaks again.
“What are you do in China?” She take her time, each word broken by a rather long pause. I rest my head on my walking stick so that I’m eye level with her. I pretend that I don’t see the Mom circling with the camera.
“Wŏ shì lăoshī – I am a teacher.”
“Oh,” Jenny says, looking at me like I would look at a living dinosaur.
“Nĭ shì xuésheng ma – Are you a student?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“You speak English very nicely.” I say. Jenny blushes. Feeling the pressure of being seen too much, I conclude with “I am going to go walking now. I am happy to have met you, Jenny. Goodbye!”
“Goodbye!” calls the whole family as I leave.


It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.


The Third Aside: Civilization (A Free Write)

While writing my piece on Hangzhou, there was a third aside I deleted. The piece was growing very long, and I already ramble. I decided to put that rambling here – give it space to breathe and be a larger reflection.

It has to do with the grandiose idea of civilization.

In one of my earlier pieces on Dujiangyan, I pointed out that the dirty city brushed right up to the protected mountain, that there was this clear break between what was old and protected and what was new and expanding. In Shanghai, all the parks are hemmed in by city. In Hangzhou (and I’ll note it again when I write about Leshan), off the coast of West Lake I could see the skyline, again pushing right up against the protected line.

It got me to thinking about the spread of people, and the growth of our cities. It’s vital that we protect history for future generations, so that they might reflect on old techniques and beliefs, and see what progress (or regress) we have made throughout the years. At the same time, we must grow and move forward, and the technologies of the future will need breathing space of their own. Ultimately, we have to walk this line of preservation and evolution.

We are not kind to history, or at least we were not kind. The Turks used the Parthenon as a munitions depot (which is how part of it got destroyed), the French chiseled graffiti into the ancient Egyptian ruins (If I remember correctly, I translated one piece as “Jean-Pierre was here. It’s too hot.”) The Pyramids were stripped of the outer stone to use for other buildings (that’s why the one Great Pyramid has only the smooth top). Mao ordered the destruction of temples when China renounced religion. Old buildings get torn down and used to build new buildings, old temples get buried, tombs disappear. We can’t keep track of all that we have built, destroyed, and rebuilt. I don’t suggest that we try.

Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to suggest countries don’t develop at the cost of losing their history. When China built the Three Gorges Dam, they did so through the forced relocation of millions of people, the destruction on whole cities, and the drowning of swaths of countryside. They needed power, and they wanted a port deep inland. So at what point to we tip the scale in favor of development over preservation? The Keystone oil pipeline in the States is another example – we don’t want to destroy a pristine environment, but we also need oil. Which is more important?

I’m still working on my theory, but I feel like we need to practice what I am going to call “responsible destruction.” If we try to save everything, we will never build anything new. If we only preserve our history, we will never develop a future. However, we cannot build a future at the cost of history. For me, this debate turns to a storm of contentious questions. Who gets to decide what is worth preserving? What happens when we ignore future implications for immediate gain? How much is enough? How much is too much?

And what about my feelings, when I look at beautiful mountains hemmed in by smog-choked high rises? When I reflect on what the Leshan Buddha sees, I realize his horizon has only grown more clouded as the city across the river grows and the factories churn out more bad air. I feel the need for civilization to press onwards and upwards, and I lament that we’re destroying beautiful things as we go. We preserve but a sliver of what was, and I don’t know if that’s enough.

We keep growing in size.

I remember my childhood in Indiana. I remember when the man who owned the woods where I ran my dogs sold the land to a developer, who in turn developed the land. The trees came down, and a subdivision went up. The homes put up fences and banned trespassing, and so I could only walk my dog on a leash on the road. I drove by them in later years, those houses. I was still angry. I felt like a part of my life had been destroyed. But then again, where are new families supposed to go? And what do you do with land that you don’t use?

This is not an easy thought process. I felt a certain revulsion seeing the cramped city held at bay from a single green space. It’s the same revulsion I feel for Reagan, who said “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” What a horrible notion. I know that if they weren’t protected, the beautiful places of the world would be full of houses and stores and more of the same things we have in our everyday lives.


Ok, it took free writing all that to get to this point: The reason we preserve, and need to preserve both natural and historical sites is to break us out of our everyday lives. We walk Civil War battlefields out of respect for the dead, and to remind us that we are not a country free from strife. We save what mountains we can so we may climb them and look over the world and be taller than our houses and skyscrapers and feel our individual smallness, our collective greatness. And we save our history, even if it’s just in pieces, so that we can feel the difference in time.

Those who have no history cannot lift their heads above the needs of the moment. History is what allows us to look to the future!

Unfortunately, my marvelous revelation doesn’t solve the city encroaching on historical sites/ national parks conundrum. I’ll walk around in that circle later.

Excuse me, but noodles are calling.


Perhaps I was born in the wrong time and as the wrong gender. Not to be an apologist, but if I wanted to be one the great explorers back in the day I don’t think I could have done so as a woman. That is part of the reason why, when anyone asks me if I could go back in time, I really have to think about my answer. To go back in time is to strip away my freedom of movement, to say the least. There are places in the world I still cannot go without feeling heavy judgment.

But I will digress further if I don’t stop now. One of my favorite old adventurers is Marco Polo. He might have been in it for the money, but he left a legacy of actually going places and telling people about what he saw. I love that, and I romanticize what it must have been like to cross Asia by land. It was probably slow, and very dangerous, but what an adventure! It’s Marco Polo who deserves credit for my wanting to visit Hangzhou. My guidebook says when he saw Hangzhou, Marco Polo thought it the most beautiful city in the entire world, and quoted as much to the man taking dictation (Polo was in prison in Italy when he dictated much of his travelogue).

Well, Hangzhou was/is number 1 on my Chinese bucket list. I’m following Marco Polo. The photos of West Lake make it look really relaxing, and in any other context the names for places would be a hokey stereotype of Eastern nomenclature. Here are some of the names listed on my map:

  • Orioles Singing in the Willows
  • Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
  • The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat
  • The Peak that Flew from Afar
  • Dreaming of the Tiger Spring
  • Autumn Moon over a Calm Lake
  • Lotus in the Breeze

I like orioles. I like willows. I am ambivalent about peaks, but I like things that are afar! So off I go to Hangzhou, via Shanghai’s bullet train.

Alright, a second digression (there might be three): I don’t understand American reluctance to build up our rail system. For twenty bucks I got a first class seat on a train going somewhere around 200km/hour. I made it from Shanghai to Hangzhou in an hour! It was fast, efficient, quiet and comfortable. Even the “second class” tickets looked like seats on the South Shore rail in Illinois/Indiana. We need to stop dragging our heels and get this accomplished. The train sat hundreds and left every hour. I saw it in Europe, and I’m seeing it here – tell all your friends, neighbors, and local politicians that we need more passenger trains and high speed rail!
Thus ends second digression.

It was cloudy when I got to the Hangzhou South train station. And it was dirty – the train station and the immediate area was crawling with beggars and indifferent taxis. Just off the plaza where I emerged, confused from the tunnels below, a woman was wailing for money next to a man with a thin blanket over his whole body as though he were a corpse. I couldn’t think of a more dismal welcome, an icier bucket of realism. I finally found a taxi to drive me. There was congestion, and cars just started driving on the sidewalks. The buildings were grimy and crowded together. The sky was gray. I was convinced that the guide books had lied, that Marco Polo had seen an oasis, now long covered by concrete and cruel indifference.


My hotel was in the new commercial district of Hangzhou. It had planned parks and futuristic architecture. I felt only mildly better, as I don’t have a lot of interest in banking centers. Still, everything was clean and too rich for my shopping habits, so at least I was on familiar ground. Then I met Greg (name changed) the concierge, who proved to be an amazing asset. Greg informed me that I took bus 96, which stopped just outside, and rode it to the end I would be at West Lake, the famous tourist attraction. Furthermore, if I switched to the K7 and rode that to the end, I’d be at the Peak that Flew from Afar, which I really wanted to see.

Greg also explained about the public bikes. Like Copenhagen, Hangzhou has a fleet of bicycles for local use, with parking spots all over the city. After explaining how to get a permit to use the bikes (which involved going to the ominous Community Center mentioned in my last post, putting down a 200rmb deposit and providing my passport), Greg excused himself and returned with a plastic card from one the receptionists. “Just one day, so it’s no problem,” he said, saving me at least an hour of bureaucracy.

As though Fate was displeased by my sudden turn in mood, she brought rain in the morning. Lots of steady, cool rain. She was courteous enough to also provide a tour bus which took every last umbrella from the concierge. I saw them all on the bus, each holding an orange Marriott umbrella, some looking at me with an innocent “Oh, where’s yours?” I was just about to hunker down and push out when Greg appeared again, holding several shrink-wrapped umbrellas. I thanked him – he was truly earning his gold keys! He was also correct on every front. The 96 did stop just at West Lake, the K7 did go straight to the Peak and the surrounding temples.

Marco Polo thought Hangzhou was the most beautiful place in the world. I had to use my imagination:


I know that there is a bank on the other side of that lake, a couple of pagodas. I bet it’s really beautiful.


West Lake had all the promise of a lovely spot. Green trees arched gracefully over the roads and water. Flowers bloomed in beds of contrasting colors (The gardener in me wanted a little more cohesion), and boats rocked gently on the choppy waters of the lake. If it was any sort of bonus, the rain kept the crowds down. I took the K7 bus through lush forest, richer in color from the rain, to Lingyin Temple and the Peak the Flew from Afar. The Peak has roughly 300 Buddha’s and icons carved into the caves and face of the small stone face. It was slippery, but beautiful. It was at atmospheric place, more so in the lush foliage.


Hangzhou2 Hanzhou20


I paid extra to visit Lingyin Temple, and admired the giant millipedes brought out in the wet weather. I lit some incense for my family, and threw a coin into the giant cauldron at the peak. As I reached the small summit, the sun made a heroic effort and sort of emerged. It was still cloudy, but the rain stopped. I was able to use my new card to get a bike from the electronic locking post, and rode it to the Chinese Tea Museum. The heavy, thankfully cool air was pungent with tea leaves and the smell of wet ground. The museum was interesting, and I learned some facts about tea, but what I remember now is the smell of the place. It was a soft, sweet smell, underlined by that musky smell of earth. I loved it, especially in the attempted efforts of the sun. It created a fragrant mist which filled the air.


IMG_0671 Hangzhou4


In the photo on the right, you can see one of several red bicycles I rented. There’s an additional fee after one hour, so I hopped from bike to bike as needed, since Greg didn’t know how to explain the payment process.

And then I rode back to West Lake, now crowding with people. The clouds returned, and turned everything into muted shades of gray and green. I walked over causeways and small jutting bits of land replete with snack stalls and toy shops. It was lovely, I knew that – it was just a lot of work to see it. By the evening, when I took a boat to see the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, I was tired. I felt myself trudging – never a good sign.

But there was one more place to go – Orioles singing in the Willows. It was not a short walk from where the boat let out, and I had to push myself. I had been going since breakfast, and apart from a couple of fried crabs on a stick I had not eaten. This is my stubbornness – I should have stopped, but I would not. And when I finally collapsed on a park bench, listening to a silver oriole singing in the long, graceful willow branches I was almost too done to appreciate it. To be clear: I was drinking water, and I did eat some snacks. I simply hadn’t stopped moving for roughly eight hours, when I should have. When I’m by myself, I don’t think about time to rest. There’s so much to see, and I don’t have weeks to explore.

Still, I sat in the willow area above, contemplating the day.  Then I headed back to my hotel. The next day it rained even harder, and I admitted to myself I had no desire to go outside. Instead I spent the day in the executive lounge (thanks, Dad!) writing my stories and drinking excellent tea.

I took a train back to Shanghai – The Hongqiao Train Station is connected to the Hongqiao Airport, so if you’re planning to travel keep that in mind as it’s wonderfully convenient and saves on Taxi fare. I left from the North Hangzhou train station. I didn’t know that Hongzhou had two train stations – this second one was like landing on Mars. It was massive, white, and gleaming. There were topiaries – topiaries! – outside welcoming me to the city! It was streamlined inside, and full of people. If this had been my introduction to Hangzhou, my first impressions would have been far more flattering.


And this was not even a holiday weekend – this just a normal Sunday afternoon.
A high speed train trip to the Hongqiao, a walk to the terminal, and I’m on a bumpy flight back to Chengdu.
I have a third digression, but I’m going to save it for my next post, since this one is longer than I anticipated.


IMG_0668 IMG_0455

Architectural Achievements

I am normally impressed more by nature – with what the world comes by naturally. Urban settings don’t capture my attention as easily. Shanghai and Hangzhou might be the exceptions.

Shanghai did not truly begin its modern expansion until the 1990s, so there was a lot of space available. Pudong, where the now famous financial skyline sits, was originally just a swampy residential area. Now, everywhere I look there are towering structures, but they have an artistry in them. A curve of a wall, a cutout in the middle, spheres and arcs. With the advent of our modern construction techniques, and the lack of previous buildings, this modernization of China is a playground for the architects. And where there is not artistry, there is volume. High rise upon high rise stretch on and on:

On and on

This is the view from my hotel room – an unending vista of tall buildings.

It comes at a cost, though. You don’t hear much about it from the Chinese, and I have enough sense not to ask them, but this doesn’t come without costs. In Chengdu, when they built the new highway system, they simply demolished whatever needed to go. No debate. Sure, people were upset, but the government structure does not have to listen. Three Gorges Dam ousted millions of people from their homes, but that did not stop the Dam from being built. I get the same idea here – as Shanghai rockets upward, and Hangzhou alongside it, I have to wonder about the people who lived in the original buildings, and the farm land which is now under tons of beautifully twisted metal and glass.

I wonder if this is an example of reach exceeding grasp. I don’t know if the system can maintain what is happening here. And I worry if this is like watching a firework explode – it’s bright and beautiful and then it’s gone.  There is worry that Shanghai is sinking under its own weight. I believe I first read about it in Fareed Zakaria’s book “A Post-American World” (excellent read, by the way).  I did some quick internet research, and found this article from Time Magazine which says that geological problems are affecting all parts of China as it grows willy-nilly out and up. It focuses specifically on Shanghai for part of the article, and I can see why.

Still, there are absolutely gorgeous forms here, on a scale and ratio the likes of which I have not seen in the States. The heights, the shapes, the almost whimsical touches in the skyscrapers. It’s impressive.
And so many of these buildings have a futuristic, fantasy vibe to them. Take this building – a “community center” in Hangzhou:

This is so clearly an evil headquarters. I don't know who anyone thinks they are fooling

I mean, does this not scream EVIL HEADQUARTERS? I think it does – It’s all big and dark and round. I walked by it at night, and there was a solitary light on  in one of the office windows. It looked very suspenseful.

Or this one, which looks like a giant, golden Epcot Center / EDI :

Epcot? Or a giant tribute to the Mass Effect AI?

A loving tribute to Orlando or the Mass Effect AI? You decide!

And then there are the shapes of the now famous Shanghai skyline:

Heights Shapes

The building featured on the photo to the right is going to be over 600 meters tall. And next to it is the “Bottle Opener” so named because they couldn’t figure out how to put a circle up that high safely, and had to settle for the rectangle.


That must be a debatable benefit of living in a state which does not really have to worry about political consequences via an electorate. You want a new skyline? You can tear down everything and build it up again! Everyone else can just get out of the way! Time will tell if the race to condense and climb will reap benefits or face the consequences.