Shanghai, 2011

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Shanghai: China’s Hyperkinetic Mega City


Before the banking crisis of 2008 a quarter of all the construction cranes in the world were in use in Shanghai. The rapidity of growth in Shanghai has been breath-taking. The Shanghai guidebook I used as a reference to the city was 3 years old in 2011, the year I visited. Near the back of that book was a map of the Shanghai subway system showing 6 different subway lines. By the time I arrived there were 13 subway lines!

With a population of over 20 million, Shanghai is a megalopolis. It’s galloping growth has been largely fueled by the throngs of country dwellers pouring in to flee the poverty of the countryside.

If you arrive in Shanghai via Pudong International Airport you have the option of journeying to the center of the city by taking the Maglev train in. This should not be missed.

The Maglev is the fastest train in the world. It can top out at 430 km/hour (270 miles/hour). Each car has a digital speedometer displayed overhead that allows passengers to know the speed the train is going. The ride is quite smooth and reasonably quiet until another train going the opposite direction passes by. Oncoming trains announce themselves with a loud bang as air is rapidly compressed between the sides of the passing trains. This lasts only a fraction of a second because of the incredible speed the trains are moving past each other. It’s quite a jolt when it happens to you the first time.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation”. The smoothness of the ride is due to the fact that the train travels along a guideway that uses magnetic forces that provide lift as well as propulsion. Friction is greatly reduced this way.

The Maglev travels 30.5 km from the airport to the outskirts of central Pudong in only 8 minutes. It’s like an allegory for the breakneck pace of development in Shanghai in recent decades.

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Beijing, 2009

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Beijing: Very Modern and Very Ancient All at Once

Beijing is a huge city with nearly 12 million inhabitants. However because of it’s extensive and modern subway system it’s easy, and affordable, to get to most places of interest easily and quickly. It’s also helpful that all the street and traffic signs are in English as well as Chinese.

I made a stop over here on the way to, and coming back from, Thailand. I had never been to Beijing before but having been in a number of cities in the developing world I arrived here with certain expectations about what I would encounter. I had assumed that the city would be dirty. Carefree littering is a hallmark of life in the third world. But Beijing was not dirty at all. Well, the air was definitely not clean. I also thought that street-food carts would be virtually everywhere. There are almost none in Beijing. The only ones I saw were at the Donghuamen Yeshi Night Market near Wangfujing Road, the place to go for high end boutiques and designer labels (not my thing at all, I went for the food). I was also surprised by how much green space there is in the city. Behai Lake and Houhai Lake for example are surrounded by expansive, leafy grounds that provide a soothing escape from the scramble of the metropolis. The grounds of these parks are very well maintained and orderly, and no, there’s no litter in sight.

I was very impressed by some of the modern architecture there. Some of it is really stunning. The CCTV building is very eye catching since it looks like it shouldn’t be able to avoid toppling over. The train station in Terminal 3 of the Capital City airport is one of the most appealing modern constructions I’ve ever seen. It has a massive vaulted ceiling that’s mostly clear glass. The floor of the station is polished stone so it reflects the light coming through the ceiling.

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