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Cultural Experience

My last visit to the PRC was a trip to Beijing 1978. We flew on PIA from London to Karachi, were stuck there for two days due to mechanical problems, and then on to Beijing. We stayed at the Xinjiao and due to the lack of tourist infrastructure had to rent a taxi for a day to take us to the Great Wall and the Ming tombs. The main traffic in the streets of Beijing at that time was bicycles.

Fast forward to Shanghai in 2004. What a difference: Traffic jams to rival Bangkok, and the newly built-up Pudong side of the river looked like a kind of Über-Tokyo. We were guests of the East China Normal University and stayed on their campus. The university buildings and the surrounding areas were oddly reminiscent of my early Japanese experiences in Saitama, north of Toyko, in the early 70s.

Everybody had told us to go the “The Bund” (外灘), so Saturday night after our arrival we took a taxi (taxis are one of the great bargains in Shanghai) to the only landmark there we had heard of, the Peace Hotel (和平飯店). The Peace Hotel had a distinct soviet feeling about it. It reminded me of so many places I had encountered in Eastern Europe in the past. It fit well into the line up of illuminated facades on the west of the river, contrasted by the modern buildings on the east side.


Looks like Venice

The university had organized a “cultural experience” for us for Sunday, a bus trip to an “old village.” As in Japan, anything remotely of public interest is to be avoided on Sundays and holidays because literally millions of people go and visit. It turned out that the “old village” was Zhouzhuang (周庄), “the no. 1 watertown of China.” A Chinese cross between Venice and Bruges (come to think of it, isn’t Bruges called “the Venice of the North”?), it gives tourists the opportunity to rent a boat for a ride on the canals, to eat and drink, and to buy all sorts of arts and crafts and more or less useless knickknacks. It is also a good place to practice moving in a crowd. Zhouzhuang has U.N. World Heritage status. With years and years of Japanese crowd conditioning under our belt, M. and I did not have much problem with the large number of people all over the place. Many in our group, however, were less tolerant of having their personal space invaded en masse. So it was indeed the “cultural experience” they were promised.

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