When I woke up for “real” yesterday morning, I woke up feeling completely unprepared to take on Shanghai.
As much as I like to think of myself as an intrepid traveler (I’m really not) and as much as I was looking forward to seeing the city (I really was), it was all just too much for me at first. The heat, the jet lag, the disorienting dreams. The noise, the traffic, the merciless high-rises stretching into a hazy distance. The “hazy” part of that distance; even in Bangkok, the air wasn’t this brown. And the language barrier, the incomprehensibility of every blessed thing around me.
I hate to admit this, because I do love to travel. I take great pleasure in exploring new terrain, grappling with foreign tongues and eating mysterious foods from dodgy carts on the street. When I’m at home, I yearn to be away, I dream of Patagonia, Russia, Hong Kong. And the very name Shanghai conjures up images of everything I want out of a city: glitz and grit, street dumplings and sky-high cocktail bars, the past and the future piled on top of each other in one messy, exciting jumble of the present.
But as I stood at the hotel room window yesterday morning and stared out at the vast alien landscape that was the actual Shanghai, I honestly just wanted to be back home. I guess it happens to the best of us.
That feeling persisted throughout the morning and reached a peak when we went in search of food on a nearby street lined with tiny shops, where local people were filling bags with fresh vegetables and streaming into small, mysterious eateries for lunch. The menus were resolutely Chinese, and the system for acquiring food was initially impenetrable. And just when I thought that there was no way we could break into the oblivious flow of everyday life around us and simply find something to eat, please, we were gently beckoned into a nook of a noodle shop by a young guy who, through pointing, nodding and thumbs-up signs alone, managed to instruct us in the ways of putting together a bowl of soup:
Take a little basket, fill it with as many ingredients as you want from the refrigerated cabinet (vegetables both familiar and strange, meats both identifiable and not), choose your noodles, hand it all over to the cook, take a seat, and then wait for a steaming bowl of noodle soupy goodness to be delivered to you—all for a grand total of less than £1 a bowl. Spice it up, slurp it down, and feel your sense of discomfort drain away. You’re just another hungry customer. You’re now part of the flow of everyday life. You’re finally really in Shanghai.