Saturday, 27 September 2014

Shanghai Express - Part 1

April 26, 2014

The shipboard news sheet proclaimed Shanghai to be the largest city not only in China, but in the world. A week later I would hear the official Chinese Government Guide exhort, more than once, that Chongqing was #1 by a whopping 5 million people. It all depends on what municipal boundaries are being used and who is doing the counting! Let's just agree that Shanghai is one absolutely gargantuan city with a population on a scale this Canadian can't possibly get her head around. It's roughly equivalent to the population of Mexico City PLUS New York City PLUS Los Angeles PLUS Toronto; 23,710,000 people packed in at a density of 3,700 per square kilometer (9700 per square mile). Utterly mind boggling! This is not the Shanghai of my imagination.

In my mind's eye this city so very far from home is a place where one skates on the thin ice between exhilaration and catastrophe, where espionage and Mahjong coexist, moves calculated on rickety tables in dark backstreets; gambits executed in the sterile boardrooms of gleaming skyscrapers; an aromatic mixture of the seedy and sumptuous -- smoking fat bubbling in woks mixing with Hugo Boss fragrance, green tea and martinis shaken not stirred, chopsticks and switchblades, gunpowder and sichuan pepper,  -- all swirling in a sea of mystery and tobacco smoke.

Sad to say the reality was much less evocative. We lumbered our way into Baoshan, the Celebrity Millennium plodding her way through a pea souper of a fog. Occasionally the cloud lifted enough for me to see that we were part of a what looked like an armada of ships, mostly cargo, all seeping into the harbour. Closer to shore the fog was less dense, wharf and building outlines emerged. By 10:30am, some 90 minutes late, we stepped from the gangway into the misty damp morning and an hour later were in a taxi heading for the Portman-Ritz-Carlton. There wasn't much to see along the way - portlands are rarely exciting places anywhere in the world and as we approached the city, fog devoured iconic skyscrapers before they got very far off the ground. Little did I know that there was more hidden in that fog than just glass and steel.

There was plenty to see just outside the hotel, but none of it particularly Chinese. The hotel is part of the Shanghai Center, an impressive complex of apartments, high end offices and department stores, a supermarket, theatre, trade exhibition center and restaurants all catering to the expat market. Here one can feast on Australian beef, sushi, pizza and of course Starbucks, or slip into the supermarket to pick up some butter from Denmark (Lurpak), France (President) or Australia (Westgold). And if margarine is more your style well then there's Flora from the United Kingdom. There are fresh breads and pastries, fruit and butcher counter with fish, chicken, and a small selection beef and deli meats. All very western. All very expensive. Perhaps some beer would help? How about a bottle of Moosehead all the way from Canada?

We opted for a late lunch early supper and not feeling particularly adventurous opted to hang out in the Shanghai Center. Besides we were still trying to digest the instructions from our Viking River Cruises guide:
don't drink the water,ever;
don't eat street food;
don't go outside the complex after dark;
restaurants inside the complex are safe, ones outside are not, except the one he rattled off directions to, but honestly I lost him after the third turn.  
I have to say that I enjoyed one of the best thin crust pizza's I've ever had anywhere in the world at the Pizza Express. Who'd have thought that?

By nightfall my throat had tightened up a bit and I was feeling sluggish. I took some decongestants and went to bed early. It was not a great sleep - coughing spasms erupted occasionally. Groggy but feeling better simply by being vertical, I launched into a day of touring. I've never been diagnosed with asthma and only once had to use a puffer after a nasty bout of bronchitis, but by evening I was stricken with an eye-watering, choking cough that erupted with almost every breath. 2am found me on the floor in the bathroom struggling for air and crying. I was sure the trip was over for me. I knew I could not go on like this. I remember praying, "Please dear God I want to go home. I want to go home. Please, I want to go home." I managed to calm the panic, ease the fear and comfort the grief, allowing my air passages to relax just enough for some less burdened breathing to return. I crawled back into bed where even sitting straight up sleep managed to find me. A scant 3 hours sleep was enough to ease a bit more of my anxiety but I was still plagued intermittently by choked off breathing accompanied by a profound sluggishness of body and soul; every movement was an effort. Underneath it all was a deep fear that come night, the wheezing and choking would begin again.

My love searched the internet for possible causes, keying in my symptoms and scanning the results. He also checked flights for home, but didn't tell me until days later. By breakfast we had the answers, or the most likely culprit and the solution: "Fine Particulate Matter," something air quality experts call pm2.5. It's a bad thing for lungs in general with even just  short term exposure. The air quality index (pm2.5) in Shanghai had been 215 in the night and was now sitting at 180. We had no idea that air pollution was a problem other than in Beijing. Now we knew better.
My lungs were not up to the challenge, but there were places to go and things to see and we'd come so far... so with the aid of some anti-asthmatic meds purchased at the western-ish pharmacy in the Shanghai Center (accomplished with much hand waving and other gestures) and the N95 masks we'd brought for Beijing, I pushed myself out the door.

I AM smiling!

(stay tuned for Shanghai Express Part 2 - way less words, way more pictures!)

©2014 April Hoeller

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