Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Eating from the platter that is Shanghai

If we travel to places just for the sake of them being new to us then we’ve missed the point of it all. Miriam Beard could not have put it better when she said “travel is more than seeing of sights; it is a change that goes in deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” That’s what I thought when I sat down to reflect on my trips to Shanghai. I’d like to think that this thought was evoked the moment I stepped into that city. There was an ambience that I instantaneously picked. This strong sensory reaction grew more profound as I began to really appreciate the city. And it wasn’t because this was an unfamiliar place, which would make such a reaction normal. I found Shanghai to be a place that stirs the soul.

The city is known to provide an international and multi-cultural atmosphere, a DNA that differentiates it from other parts of China. I had waited with bated breathe to soak in the ‘New York City’ of China, a loosely borrowed description. I of course would rather not expound the strands of similarity because I’ve never been to the actual NYC. I’ve been to Shanghai twice and each of the visits revealed the city in different shades.

It wasn’t until I visited the Tian Zi Fang Park that I understood why Shanghai is called the international metropolis of China. This vast complex, set on a former French concession, released through its archaic infrastructure the fragrance of history. The refurbished old factory buildings and residences depicted remnants of the classical European landscape. My first time there on the first Shanghai visit was in the morning at around 11.30 and I became immediately drawn to its liveliness, not just in the buzz created by people who thronged the place, but by the burst of color and creative arrangement of wares that were sold.

The Tian Zi Fang Park winds itself up into aisles along which sits galleries, art studios, eateries, bars, shops, and teahouses. The outlets vary in sizes and designs.

As much as I would have loved to walk every inch of the maze of alleys it would take more time to cover the 70, 000 square meters. I sauntered the narrow paths, following one after the other arbitrarily. I was most fascinated by those that were tucked into walls, almost hidden, with fascinating discoveries.

My second Shanghai visit was in the night.

While the structures look alluring during the day, they are even more so at night. The combination of dimmed lights and the aisles makes for a truly romantic atmosphere. Had me wishing I could walk hand in hand with my better half. When the shops closed and the eateries and bars took over the scene, a new energy filled the air. A different crowd emerged, combining into almost musical sounds of overlapping voices, laughter and clicks of glasses.

Shanghai is also a city that recharges dead cells. Some of its corners provide some form of exhilaration, the kind that makes you want to take life head on. I vividly remember that at 340.6 meters high, on the 88th floor, I stood facing down to the ground with my body tilted forward and my feet clamped to the edge of the Jin Mao tower. The 420.5 meters high tower is one of the city’s landmarks. Perched on the edge, I took in Shanghai’s unique landscape from above. The tight harness I was attached to was the only thing standing between me and death, as one might choose to see it. In a brief moment of sanity I too thought I was crazy doing this extreme challenge.

The experience, the highest outdoor skywalk of a tall building in the world, turned out to be the highlight of my first visit to Shanghai. On my second visit, my insanity level dropped to 267 meters but this time involved a taste rush to my palate. I sat and had dinner inside a rotating restaurant, the highest one of its kind in Asia. The city’s landscape weaved itself into a marvel at from above. The restaurant revolves from inside the 468 meter-tall Oriental Pearl TV tower, the highest in Asia and third highest in the world.

The busy Shanghai also has its calmer and slower days. This time around it was a hot and humid afternoon on which an enchanting sky appeared. I had never seen a bluer sky in China. While blue skies are generally taken for granted, in other parts of the world such as China they are a rarity. During days of high industrialization blue skies gradually disappeared but the country’s recent shift to a green economy seems to be redeeming them. This sunny day along the Huangpu river was the reason I was grateful to have gone back to Shanghai the second time.        

Why do I travel? I travel because of the instinctive and powerful awakening within that causes me to seek places where I’m most likely to fill up the holes scattered inside my soul. I journey to places that can make me feel alive, and Shanghai gave me that.

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The Telegraph November 25

Digital edition of The Telegraph, November 25, 2020.