And so it was to Shanghai last Thursday for the Easter weekend.
I am not sure when it was ever the sensible option to plan a stag weekend in Nha Trang back-to-back with a football tournament in Shanghai, allowing me just four days in between of relative calm?
Perhaps it’s best sometimes not to over think these things and, instead, just embrace them.
Am typing this in bed on Sunday, back in Vietnam (although in Hanoi, in fact, with work for the next three days) after being upgraded earlier this afternoon at Shanghai airport by Vietnam Airlines, who I would typically focus my frustrations on due to their often sub-optimal service but today, however, I was close to falling in love with them as they expertly whisked me back in business class, me having successfully competed (unscathed) in this year’s Vikings Cup football tournament, with my local team, Saigon Raiders FC.
Not that it is an epic flight between Shanghai and Hanoi, but being given seat 1A at the last minute as we boarded (and as I was contemplating three hours of yet more air travel after three nights of yet more drinking) was a majorly sweet end to a fantastic first time experience in one of China’s most infamous international cities. Vietnam Airlines’ coffee (as with all air carriers) remains terrible, but the taste is so much less terrible when you are being pampered like a movie star – my “no alcohol on Easter Sunday” pledge was flawed before we’d even taxied out to the runway.
The 2014 Vikings Cup itself, I’ll brush over. Whilst our team managed not to come last (we were 9th, which was last but one) on the pitch, off it, it feels like we’re bringing home some kind of spirited silverware for our collective efforts in soaking up the atmosphere, as well as the free flow Carlsberg. In fact, in the beer downing competition late last night in front of a ballroom full of Vikings, the Raiders held our own, dressed as we all were in Vietnamese security guard costumes, and coming third with some commendable gulping and some not too shameful spilling.
I’m not, however, convinced at the ripe old age of 38 years and 51 weeks, that I know whether or not to applaud myself for being voted the fastest drinker on the team – another topic not to over think maybe?
Tournament commitments aside, I did have a great morning earlier exploring parts of the city, commencing with some nourishing local breakfast, before popping into a church that my parents also visited on Easter Sunday four years ago, and sampling some of the coffee from their hotel next door.
Downtown in the city is like any main European experience – pedestrianized streets, local food vendors, department stores, international fast food chains, and large bill-boarded neon branding for the world’s most recognised companies, who seem to increasingly dominate the high streets of Asian cities.
China is somewhere I know very little about, save from a few trips in the past to Beijing and the Great Wall.
When I was living in the UK, like many people, I knew that many of the answers to those big questions the world was asking itself, lay in China. Economic, social, political, environmental – name your topic of choice, and the chances are that Chinese influence on each was/is having a huge impact.
Living as I do now as a neighbour to China, I am no wiser nor any closer to understanding the implications of what the world’s next superpower is thinking.
It intrigues me to imagine how Florence and Martha, when older, will view a country whose landmass (9.7 million square kms) is too vast to comprehend and whose population (1.3 billion) is of much the same unfathomable proportion. 100 million Chinese live on less than $1 a day, 35 million still live in caves, and it is said that over half the population drink contaminated water.
The pollution in China is also controversial and undeniably one of the most infamous of the country’s bruising statistics (a third of San Francisco’s pollution is said to come from China). In Shanghai you quickly acclimatise to the sounds of fireworks during the day – used, it transpired after my curiosity got the better of me, to puncture the heavily toxic clouds and stimulate rain.
I am well aware that much has been achieved in China to address social issues. It is largely because of the scale of potential in this vast place that “globally” the positive statistics on education and healthcare have moved consistently in the right direction over the past decade. But, as with each time I travel around India, the impression you can often be left with is not how far society has advanced in each of these titanic sized countries, but how much is still in need of advancement, and how many people seem to get left behind along the way.
As I hopped onto the Maglev (bullet train) back to the airport today (notching up the standard 301 kms per hour and taking exactly the nine minutes I was promised it would take) Shanghai’s colossal size, with its famous skyline and razzmatazz nightlife, came into full view.
At times during the nine minutes you feel like you are flying over a wasteland, as you speed past these outer city rim areas before landing at the immaculately organised and pristine sloping terminal of Pudong International airport. In the suburbs of the south east, locals live in squalid conditions, in tumbledown houses, with bricks splintered across their patches of garden and shared space, as if they have undergone some kind of explosion.
This is not an unfamiliar picture to paint. I see it in Bangkok on the sky train from the airport and it is here also in Vietnam in abundance, in both Hanoi and in Saigon. By its shear proportions and demographics, Asia as a region of course houses an enormous amount of the world’s inequalities (as I have often blogged about on http://www.definitelymaybe.me) but let us all hope that over time, somehow, this will not always be the status quo.
It struck me as I savoured the reclining luxury of flying in business class that if I’d kept my eyes closed on the Maglev, then my ignorance of China and the blatant disparities which exist there for all the world to see, would have been shut out and remained unquestioned.
In place of which I may have imagined a healthier scene to have unfolded underneath the concrete pillars and track, that now provide a 21st century canopy to thousands of local people living in 19th century conditions. In some ways that would have been preferable – to have closed off the senses to a reality or pretended not to have seen something.
But then isn’t that in itself the root of the problem?