In the Land of the Bamboo Curtain

China shocks and awes by an enthralling display of prosperity and technology

Samita BhatiaSamita Bhatia

The bullet train zipped past prosperous-looking fields, wind turbines, endless rows of greenhouse plantations, olive groves (Olives? In China? Yes, those too), vast clusters of high-rises with match-box apartments… A quick glance at the overhead monitor revealed that the speedometer was at a breathless, yet easy, 310 kmph clip to China’s oldest city, Xi’an from glittering, New York-esque Shanghai.

We were on a leisure trip in China, our itinerary heaving with things to do in its showcase city, Shanghai, oldest city, Xi’an, and capital, Beijing. In that order.

Shanghai is the perfect gateway to the country. Its instant energy is infectious and can easily make any other global city pale in comparison and look like a hick town. Quaint wooden pagoda roofs harking to an old Shanghai are more often than not silhouetted against futuristic, glassy-blue skyscraper backdrops.

This city stands out as a beacon in communist China. A first look and one would assume that it’s one of the richest cities of the free world — right up there with New York, London or Paris, maybe even more prosperous.

Giving it further bragging rights is the Maglev — a train with no wheels and tops speeds touching 431 kmph — that connects the city to the airport. Magnetic levitation is the name of the game and China has this technology before many others.

The cops are few here but cameras are aplenty — and omnipresent. The mammoth surveillance network that captures every face — in the streetside to inside office buildings and even malls — can identify practically anyone. So Big Brother is always watching you, and don’t you forget that.

Inside Forbidden City, Beijing

But that apart, the possibilities for a tourist are mind-boggling. The shops are thriving, thank you and high-end malls with their Pradas, Guccis and Louis Vuittons repetitively dot the cityscape. The restaurants are super-busy and it’s advisable to get there early or with a reservation.

While four days can never be enough to explore Shanghai, we tried. But a forewarning before your visit: There are almost no signages in English. And practically no one understands or speaks the language here. So, it’s best to be accompanied by a guide. Or a translation app. Ah, but wait…

Data connectivity with the rest of the world is not really an issue. But just remember, you can’t access Google and its clutch of associated apps and services like Gmail, Translate, YouTube, Maps, Docs etc. Likewise, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are also out of bounds. Workaround: You need to bring your devices into the country preloaded with a VPN service like ExpressVPN.

Officially, this is not permitted but hey everyone does it. Or you can use the legally permitted Chinese alternatives like WeChat (for WhatsApp) and Weibo (instead of Twitter). In place of Google Search and Yahoo, you’ll need to sniff around for things using Baidu or Microsoft Bing.

Perambulating China’s vibrant, globally acclaimed commercial hub on Day One, we gawked at Shanghai’s arresting signature skyline. The Central Pudong New Area is the city’s world famous skyrise district. Trophy turrets stand tall and among this sea of soaring buildings are The Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower and the stunning 101-storey, 492 m high Shanghai World Financial Centre (SFWC). We aimed for the SWFC Observatory for spectacular bird’s eye views of city. The elevator ride 435m up was fast, ear-popping.

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