Sunday, May 6, 2012

Shanghai: Part I.

Foggy recollection fades with merciless speed, so eke this out we shall before another dose of mnemonic drift. It was a radiant, mid-Saturday afternoon in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong – the colony’s maddest corner – and the streets were slowly reacquainting themselves with Apollo’s gaze (as were we I suppose). It was a curious state to be in: at this point in the week I’m usually feigning to explain the benefits of the first five-year-plan to my Cantonese students. Not so today. It’s Buddha’s babymamma’s birthday – or some other politicorrestival we kongians are wont to observe – and an extended weekend is upon us.  So out we were ‘til the wee hours of the morn, gallivanting with a regal Rhodesian and his dashing Madonna, none other than the city’s premier meteorologist (say, it’s a small town).

For once, however, we’ve decided to jettison the chichi teahouse and expat beaches that dot the southern stretches of the bizarrely serendipitous island we inhabit and head for stranger climes. When the Middle Kingdom beckons, a sage once said, you ride that dodie-train all the way to Chattanooga. So stumble to the airport we did – Coetzee, coffee and calamitous-state-of-mind-in-hand – whilst relishing another weekend of illumination.

The flight was suitably strange – as most chemically altered air-sailing is wont to be – but descend upon Shanghlandia we finally did. Not, it will be said, without more turbulence than a Menshevik in Minsk (circa 1919). For starters, the city lights spread beneath you for the entire span of Tristan und Isolde: a mass of electricity – not to mention humanity – entirely incomprehensible to the virgin soul who’s yet to traverse San Paulo on foot (if you must know, I haven’t). But wobble we did with an Armenian vengeance as we lowered our tepid wings and made for the tarmac. Below, the proletarian edifice flickered with light and menace from every angle, tempting our bird into its concrete and rubber entrails. For once I reconsidered my eerie Fight Club fascination with downwardly mobile planes: so this is what it feels like? I suppose I would have liked my final supper (or at least cigarette).

Land we do, as we must, and into the kingdom I prod. My lovely host, Ambra, lives on the same metro line as the old provincial airport – merely 30 odd stops away. The airport is barren but clean, customs merely for show (leading one to believe they’re less concerned with what gets in than what gets out; not unlike Tel Aviv, I suppose). Bag in hand, I levitate from the plane to the sidewalk in less than three minutes. Once outside, taint a cab in site, though the Metro’s meant to be around the corner. Men in short-sleeved shirts and ties smoke bogies atop bicycles outside the immaculate McDonalds to the right of Arrivals. A wayward sign for the Metro beckons around the corner, luring you into a poorly lit, cordoned-off passageway, somewhat deeper into the airy Shanghai night than you’re prepared to go. Loop after loop, the walk is endless – a series of tapered arteries leading one further down a disinfected vault of industrial indolence. Manicured shrubs on one side, parking lots replete with unmarked sedans on the other; the endless open-air tunnel continues without a soul in sight.  

In all, the maze to the Metro must be 500 meters. Once outside, a couple in matching pink polos lingers at each side of the entrance – a man to the left, his sweetheart to the right. I pause to let him finish his instagram, but he urges me to proceed – grinning as though to say, “Fret not – we’ll be at this a while.”  A lone bicyclist peddles by - otherwise not a person to be seen in this metropolis of 23 million. It was a strange, if fleeting, predicament. I take the spotless escalator deep into the trenches of the Shanghanese earth, pass my manbag through the mandatory x-ray, set off the alarm without being patted down, and proceed. I am running 45m late, so I ask the young man next to me if I can borrow his phone to alert my awaiting host. He consents. Upon finishing my brief but buoyant conversation with my host I haven’t seen since Paris, he turns to me and smiles. “You name is Evan?” “Why yes,” I reply, somewhat taken aback. “I am also Evan,” he confesses. We exchange a heartfelt (visual) embrace and return to our respective book and smartphone. I pretend to read whilst he pretends to text. The train arrives; we board at separate doors.

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