I went to see the orchestra, which was a very cultured and civilized thing to do. Spinks’ sister Genna was playing double bass in the band (not sure if I can legitimately call an orchestra a band without sounding offensive) so she got me free tickets. I’d come straight from work so stood out a little amongst all the tuxedos and frocks, in my very smart get-up of jeans and a novelty Steve McQueen T-shirt. Genna got me great seats though, and I got to nonchalantly shuffle past all the suited ex-pats right to the front of the hall, a couple of cans of chinese beer clinking together in my man-bag. (Yes, I now have a man-bag. Jack Bauer has one though, so it’s OK). The concert was a John Lennon tribute and I loved it. Seeing a huge band like that perform A Day in the Life gave me a horrible case of the goosebumps and of course, Imagine was a knock-out. The less said about the woman singing Come Together though, the better. It’s a blokes song!
However, the most remarkable thing about the whole concert was the venue. It wasn’t particularly grand by European standards I guess, but definitely quite opulent for China. The remarkable thing was that a few years ago the government had decided they needed to relocate the concert hall due to road expansion – by 66 metres. At great expense, they took the whole place down brick by brick and re-built it 66 metres to the left. It proved far more costly than demolishing the place and building a new one from scratch. Only in China would a conscious decision like this be made. However, crazy schemes similar to this, if only for their craziness, are evident all over Shanghai.
Yesterday, to the south of the city, I visited Thames Town, an intended satellite settlement for the rich elite of Shanghai that never took off. What now exists is a deserted ghost town built very specifically to mimic an old english village. The streets are called Soho and Coventry, red phone boxes stand on every corner and even the security guards are dressed in twee red outfits. But who are they guarding? Mock tudor mansions stand on mock cobbled lanes, while in the middle stands an exact replica of a church somewhere in south England. Walking up to it I tapped the walls to find they were hollow, just as the Harry Potter statue was on the ‘Old Quay.’ The whole place must of literally cost billions to make, but it was all hollow, like a cross between The Truman Show and 28 Days Later. When it got dark I started to get seriously freaked out, especially after passing ye olde Irish pubs that were still open for non-existent business, the owners standing blankly behind their bars like mannequins. Waiting for no-one but the government agent to come and do the decent thing and shut them down. It was 6pm but I felt like I was Will Smith in a crap remake of I Am Legend. There seemed to be a lot of cats about. After much running I hailed a taxi and got the hell out of there. Again, only in China would a whole community be made (especially a ‘Disney does England’ community) without checking first to see if anyone would actually be interested in living in it. Scarily though, only in China would they have enough money to do this kind of stuff and not suffer for it financially. It was a great experience though – they should do tours there on Hallowe’en.
If you want to get anything done in Shanghai you have to do it twice. At least. I went for my second chinese hair cut the other day and the guy who stepped up to the hair-strewn mantle was definitely not a certified barber. I doubt anyone would let him cut the grass. He snipped somewhat randomly at my general head area before stooping in front of me with the clippers so I couldn’t see the mirror. I always hate this bit, all you can see is stacks of your own hair piling on to your lap and there’s no inkling of what they’re doing to your head until they step to the side for the big reveal. This big reveal was quite a shock as I suddenly seemed to be facing a blonde Adolf Hitler. The ‘barber’ grinned at me via the mirror, as if he was saying “Ta da!” I told him via wild hand gestures that he needed to fix my head. Twenty minutes later I walked out of there and straight to work, whereupon everyone laughed at me and started calling me “Box-head.” Immediately after work two of my teaching assistants escorted me back to the scene of the crime and demanded in their own unique Shanghai style (screaming, pointing, mocking, swearing) that they sort my barnet out. The poor barber then had the unenviable task of cleaning up his own mess while two seething women breathed down his neck, giving him detailed instructions of where to snip and what to clip. Thirty minutes later I had an acceptable, and much shorter, hair cut.
I then went to buy glasses. I’d lost my treasured NHS ones in Hong Kong due to a hole in my pocket, so I trooped along to Glasses City next to Shanghai Railway Station. Glasses City is a four floor behemoth of a warehouse, filled with tiny stalls that only sell, you’ve guessed it, glasses. Nobody in China seems to have made it to that class in business school where they teach the importance of a unique selling point. If there is a niche in the market here, they cram the niche with so many identical shops that no-one makes a decent profit. Especially with glasses it seems, as I got new frames, an eye test and new lenses for £35. My chinese friend told me I was ripped off by about half though, so my bargain now became a fleecing. (Insert joke about being robbed blind). The fleecing became a pillaging however, when I started cruising round Shangers in my new specs. I began to feel whoozy, like I was on a ship in a storm. After a couple of hours I took the glasses off and found that I could hardly see. The city had become a blur and I was swaying from one lamp post to the next, clutching my eyes like a Chilean miner in the sunshine. I woke up today and my right eye felt like someone had rubbed gravel in it. So, tomorrow I’ll be trooping back to Glasses City with my two teaching assistants, ready for the same performance but this time in an opticians, which should be a great laugh.
I rose early on my last day in Chengdu to go to the huge Giant Panda Reserve just north of the city. You have to go early to see them eating apparently, because for the rest of the day they just sleep. Watching them munch on bamboo like obese, hung-over students (like Crap Dave with fur) I couldn’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. This was the most active these creatures got. They were so lazy the bamboo had to be stacked next to them with extra bundles provided if their supply got low. I watched one panda trying to climb a tree. It was absolutely useless. Swaying around, unsteady on it’s feet, if there was a flood coming or, god forbid an actual predator, the fat bastard would have been wiped out before it got above the roots. We then watched an informational movie which described how most species have a survival cycle of five million years. Miraculously, pandas have been around for eight (million). The narrator then queried why pandas have recently changed from being ferocious meat-eating carnivores to docile bamboo-munching vegans who don’t even have the energy to mate. To me, it was pretty obvious. Evolution’s full-time hooter is sounding. It’s time for pandas to exit to gene pool. Sad but true, because they are extremely cute, but any species that can only breed by having the male knocked out, wanked off by a scientist and then having his panda jizz shoved up a lady panda’s muff, is not meant for this world.
As I walked round the reserve it just became weirder. The place was like Jurassic Park mixed with a retirement home. Useless waddling creatures being force-fed protein biscuits as their natural diet doesn’t provide enough nutrition. Workers in blue overalls and masks sweeping up after the lazy buggers so they don’t squat in their own mess. There was even a glassed-off room where a number of motionless baby pandas lay (genuinely like John Hammond’s laboratory) awaiting to be fed milk by their surrogate human mothers. I felt like Jeff Goldblum. “Nature finds a way,” he says at one point in the movie, referring to the dinosaurs’ ability to breed despite it all. This was the other way around. Nature’s had it with the pandas but the Chinese are making a mint off them. In the reserve you could pay 1000 RMB (£100) to stroke a baby panda and get photographed with it. The queue was 70-strong when I saw it.
Incidentally, my flat-mate went to a market in Shanghai the other day and saw four tiger claws up for sale. They’re just not cute and cuddly enough though are they? The panda is now China’s symbol and the Chinese will do anything to keep the critters going, which is admirable in some respects, but when you consider their disregard for other, arguably more functioning and definitely just as endangered, species it’s difficult not to be cynical about the whole thing.
The pandas were very cute though. I got some lovely photos.
Or Langzhong. Or London. It didn’t really matter how I pronounced it, upon arrival no-one could either confirm or deny that the bus I had taken had dropped me in the right place. In the Lonely Planet I’d glimpsed at, the town was described as a ‘step into the old China, with steeped tiled roofs and shops illuminated by swinging lanterns’ or something equally as quaint and homely. I was faced with a concrete box of a bus station, miles of tiled industrial outlets and a blanket of rain. My phone had just died as well and I rather conveniently hadn’t packed the charger. Step 1: Locate a shop that will sell a charger. Step 2: Charge phone. Step 3: Use phone to call hostel and give phone to cab driver so they can get directions. Jason Bourne himself would be proud of such ingenuity and all went swimmingly until I got to the hostel located in the admittedly quaint and homely old town to find room-rates had increased six-fold for the national holiday. Dejected I heaved my bags around the ancient streets looking for a map when an umbrella carrying teen approached me with the following: “Do you need help? I speak many English.” “Er, yes I do.” I replied, “I’m looking for a cheap place to sleep.” He nodded sagely. “I know just the place. You can call me Angel.”
Angel proceeded to get me a room for 60 RMB (£6), then paid for my meal in a restaurant before announcing that he was off to go skating. Agreeing to let me join him, we traipsed through the rain sodden streets towards the river that rounded the whole town and then into what can only be described as a time-capsule on wheels. It turns out we weren’t just skating, we were off to the roller-disco circa 1967. Inside, dozens of teens were zooming around the disco floor on leather-bound skates, cigarettes in one hand and their partners in the other. And all of them were very, very good. It turns out this was literally the only activity available to the youth of the town (a bit like the recce club at Mackie Academy in 1999) so young guys were moonwalking backwards at about 30 mph, while their rivals pirouetted gracefully all to the banging drums of the latest chinese disco choons. Meanwhile I staggered about like Bambi on ice. It was a miracle no-one was seriously injured. It seems the chinese skate at roller-discos just like they drive. There was no right of way, let alone a right way to go, no right way to even face as you went and at the sides there were jumps. I watched as locals veered wildly to avoid hitting the foreigner and slamming into 5 people trains of backward-skating adolescents. I heard screams and the faint tearing of teenage tendons. Angel informed me that kids were carted off to the local hospital with broken bones about once a week. It was a You’ve Been Framed gold-mine.
Later on I was invited into a 20-strong holiday meal/piss-up with some locals. I ended up singing Titanic with a woman that looked like a guard for Jabba the Hutt’s temple. Afterwards I got a foot massage while the masseuse’s kids brought through their English homework and made me help them finish it. Lazy sods, they’ll never improve with that attitude.