A diamond with a flaw is worth more than a pebble without imperfections. — Chinese proverb
Despite the guidebooks’ warnings, the stars were aligned for me to venture to Shanghai in late August. Thanks to 95 degree heat and 100% humidity, I can assure you that “Summer in Shanghai” will never get the same play as “Springtime in Paris.” Nevertheless, what the city lacked in climactic comforts, it more than made up for in endless fascination.
Back several days now, I’m still trying to process the dizzying array of experiences I had. Frankly, I had been feeling the need to shake things up a bit, and I was counting on an Asian excursion to draw me out of my comfort zone and fire my senses. On this score, the trip certainly delivered, but it’s only now, with some distance and reflection, that I’m able to appreciate the finer meaning behind the initial sensory overload.
Shanghai is a city of 18 million people, and they all seem to be going wherever you’re going. Vast, teeming, and aburst with non-stop activity, its energy feels as if it could power the world. Just thinking about the infrastructure required to support this place is mind-boggling, yet the rapid pace of development shows no signs of stopping. From the “starchitect”-designed skyscrapers of Pudong to the awesomely ambitious World Expo, the city is making a statement that is big and brassy, and they want you to see it.
Fueling all of this abundance are probably some of the hardest working people on the planet. From the streets to the shops to the factories to the board rooms, the Shanghainese demonstrate an amazing focus on betterment through commerce. Ironically, the Communist party’s sanctioning of economic reforms and new development has unleashed some of the most capitalistic behavior in the world. Flush with new wealth, the Chinese have become ardent consumers, with real estate and all of its trappings at the forefront of the buying frenzy. A relentless focus on “high end” and “custom” is driving huge gains in the home furnishings market, but it will still take some time before the quality and style of products approach Western standards.
As for food, Shanghai offers a never-ending feast of some of the best cuisine I’ve ever tasted. Fortunate to be the guest of locals, I was led to restaurants that the average tourist would never find, each of which served up a banquet of delights. The freshness of ingredients, the marriage of flavors, and the subtlety of spices left me craving more. Although I wasn’t always open to experimentation – I took a pass on stinky tofu and chicken feet – there was no shortage of delicacies to keep my palate entertained.
For a break from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, my hosts surprised me with a couple of excursions to other locales within driving distance of the city. First up was Hangzhou, an ancient city dubbed “the most beautiful in all of China” by none other than Marco Polo himself. Although a major metropolis, its heart – both geographically and spiritually – is a large, gorgeously landscaped body of water, known as West Lake, which is a phenomenally peaceful refuge from the city’s din. Casually strolling past watery fields of lotus flowers, outdoor ballroom dancers, kite flyers, and paddle boaters proved to be the perfect yin to the city’s yang.
From Hangzhou, we headed for the true countryside to an island called Putuoshan, a Buddhist sanctuary approximately 5 hours from Shanghai. With a population of about 10,000 people, 5,000 of whom are Buddhist monks, the island literally radiates good karma. Its marigold colored temples, ever-present whiffs of burning incense, verdant hillsides and sandy beaches contribute to a zen-like environment that is truly otherworldly.
Magical as many aspects of my trip were, Shanghai also sports a gritty underside that can pose challenges and frustrations. Communication difficulties, infringements on personal space, and the apparent view of driving as a bloodsport can all contribute to an assault on the senses. Without such drawbacks, however, the victories wouldn’t be as sweet. Much like the introductory proverb, China can rest assured in its status as a slightly flawed diamond, certain to bedazzle the world for centuries to come.