BEGREEN - It had been four years since I was last in China; right after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Back then, in July and August, it was hazy, hot, and humid. Now, while the temperature was considerably cooler, the poor air quality seemed to be about the same.
Between 2008 and this trip, I had started biking again and being back on the saddle had become something of an obsession. Maybe it was the perpetual gridlock on LA's streets, the full-blown reality of climate change, or the expanding spare tire I'd grown since turning middle-aged. Whatever the reason, being a biker, the loss of that quotidian pleasure was something I was going to miss while away.
But then it dawned on me; maybe not everyone in China had ditched their bike for a
Mercedes. Maybe I wouldn't have to give up my time on two wheels while away. A call to Paul, my friend and host in Shanghai, confirmed he even had a bike that his assistant at the Chinese joint venture he works for had secured for him. True, the tires were flat but that could be remedied.
Arriving at Shanghai Pudong International Airport I met up with Paul and we made our way to the Shanghai Maglev for the short 430 kilometer an hour trip to Pudong, the newer part of the city. Why public infrastructure like this isn't possible in the 'World's greatest democracy' is a mystery to me but neither candidate seemed to feel the need to address the country's decades old neglect of transit during the recent election.
Paul had moved to a new place since my last trip. This one is in a large apartment complex a bit further out in Pudong, across the street from the E Mart mall on Jingiao Road. The gated, landscaped community looks pretty upscale and the parking lots are full of late-model cars I can't afford or don't desire. 'To get rich is glorious' seems to be the leading quotation from Mao's updated Little Red Book.
With Paul's Sunday mornings reserved for writing at a café with good wireless in the mall across from his apartment, I decided to take a bike ride in smog-choked Shanghai. But first we needed to fix, or at least blow up, the bike's tires. Thankfully, Shanghai is littered with enterprising bike and scooter repairmen who set up shop on the sidewalk. For the equivalent of 50 cents for 20 minutes work, the repairman confirmed the tires were not flat, refilled them with air, raised the seat, and gave the Shanghai special, a blue Quiski, a clean bill of health. Pleased with the 'repairs' and a price that even put Bikerowave, my West LA bike repair coop to shame, now it was time to head off toward the Huangpu River, the filthy Yangtze River tributary that separates older Shanghai from Pudong.
China is an environmental contradiction. While the air and water quality tend toward atrocious, on both this and my prior trip I was bowled over by the extent of the tree planting the country has done in the cities as well as the countryside. If only Los Angeles with its failed Million Trees Initiative had planted a fraction of the trees planted in Shanghai, we'd have a much greener city.
Additionally, for all its cars and traffic, some parts of Shanghai are blessed with wide protected bike, and scooter, lanes on the bigger streets. The one I took toward the river felt safe and smooth and within a few minutes I was feeling the endorphins I get from riding. Stopping regularly to peel off into an interesting looking side street I liked the added feel that I was a 'local' out on his own Chinese bike, though no one would ever mistake me for one.
Like the studio lots in LA with their sets hiding the magic behind them, in Pudong, the modern apartments that front the main streets, do very much the same, caching the life and color and enchanting cacophony of China. Sometimes, a block in or less from a modern street, I would find myself in a maze of gray, decrepit alleys teeming with street life, food, bikes, and honking gas and electric scooters.
The broad street I took from the Jangiao Road mall took me down a gentle hill right into a small ferry terminal. Shanghai, as best as I can tell, is flat as a scallion pancake, perfect for single gear bikes and, someday, fixies. I paid my 1.30 Yuan fare (about 20 cents) for a plastic token and rode my bike through one of the dozen turnstiles wide enough to accommodate the countless scooters and bikes that make the trek daily. Within ten minutes I was on a small ferry heading across the gray river to Shanghai proper.
A typically smoggy day, the river was busy with barges of all sizes and states of sea worthiness. In no time we landed far away from the well-known colonial-era Bund and old Shanghai with its "Concessions" to the French and English. This area of the city is residential and industrial, producing a fraction of the astronomical tonnage of freight that flows through the Shanghai port.
When the ferry docked, I joined the throng of aggressive riders jockeying to get off the boat and back on land. When I made it off I turned left following a pack of noisy gas, and silent electric, scooters up and over a small bridge that linked the mainland with the ferry area. As I passed over the bridge I looked down to see a small, ancient looking barge that might have been out of the 19th Century.
Before long, I was on a small street watching a knot of men arrange a long string of packages of firecrackers into the shape of a heart on the sidewalk. The spotless black Chrysler festooned with flowers gave away that it was a wedding celebration. I watched for a while and once the men were done arranging the munitions, along with the others on the street, I endured the roar of the explosions until I couldn't any longer and rode off to see more of Shanghai. Straight ahead there seemed to be a street market and that meant breakfast so off I went.
Even for someone who has been in countless markets around the world, the variety of stuff for sale in the Shanghai markets is startling. This one was no exception and I was soon bug-eyed, scanning the spices, nuts, oranges, pomegranates, pumpkins, half dozen varieties of eggs including blue ones, butcher stalls selling meat identifiable by their limbs and heads, live chickens, ducks, and pigeons, countless green and root vegetables, stalls selling dumplings, and soup, noodles, and sweets, and ten kinds of tofu. There were shoe repairmen and tailors, jewelers, and merchants selling hardware, shoes, and clothes. Breakfast was dumplings, nuts, and oranges and cost me about $2.
After I'd seen the market and annoyed a number of people with my camera, it was time to head back to the Pudong mall. Returning to the new city was like stepping forward a century or two. Since Paul wasn't quite done working, I went off to the E Mart, a spotless, modern supermarket that rivals any in the world. The contrast with the street market was stark as Shanghainese who can afford to be, are utterly food safety obsessed. While not as interesting as the street market with its packaging-free food and colorful characters by US standards it was still dizzying it its variety.
The next morning, I took my "usual" route to the ferry to the Shanghai side of the river. With the weather pretty clear it wasn't hard to navigate to my first destination, Shanghai's famous colonial era Bund. On a clear day the promenade along the river offers the greatest view of Pudong's financial district, one of the world's most impressive modern skylines.
The last time I was here the weather was terrible so I couldn't appreciate the glass and steel. This time it was different and I took in the skyline with hundreds of other tourists from around the world. With ten or more new skyscrapers to NY's one, the Freedom Tower, if you want a sign of why the world is looking east, look no further than across the Huangpu River from the Bund.
Shanghai doesn't disappoint. And it looks even better from the seat of a bicycle.
(Joel Epstein is Chief Talent Officer at bliss lawyers and a Los Angeles based strategic communications consultant focused on transportation and other critical urban issues … and an occasional contributor to CityWatch. For more about Joel visit: blisslawyers.com or JoelEpstein.com.)