The Long Delay to Shanghai

After three busy days of meetings in Hong Kong, I made the over-optimistic travel plan to catch a 7:15 pm flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai in order to deliver a training at 9:00 am the following day. Given the air traffic congestion in China, especially into Shanghai, that proved a painful mistake.


My flight was scheduled on Dragonair, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific that operates more of the local and regional flights, especially to China. When I checked in at the airport about 90 minutes before departure, the agent said the flight was showing on time, even though all other flights to Shanghai were showing massive delays.

Sure enough, about five minutes before boarding time, the departure was rolled back two hours. Apologies were made and vouchers worth about US$10 were offered. (In fact, the agent told me I could just show my boarding pass at any restaurant in the airport to receive the discount; that turned out to not be the case.)


At the revised departure time of about 9:30 pm, the delay was suddenly extended another two hours to 11:30 pm. While I understand that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about when the departure times will be (the captain later explained we initially had been given a 3:30 am departure slot) it seems clear that they knew the 9:30 pm departure was not realistic and it should have been revised earlier.


Finally, we started boarding about 11:00 pm and pushed back not too much after 11:30. We were in the air quickly and on our way for the two-hour flight. When I checked in online, I was able to get a bulkhead row, albeit a middle seat, so enjoyed at least a bit of extra leg room. The flight was full.


Dinner was served – they actually even handed out a simple menu. The started was a shrimp and angel-hair pasta salad. The main courses were steamed sole with bean curd and black bean sauce over rice, or a pork with apple cider stew and fusilli pasta, which I chose. The pork was okay for airplane food, nothing special. Dessert was Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which is always nice.


When we landed in Shanghai, the only gates still available were the remote stands in the cargo area, which is quite on the opposite side of the airport from our normal terminal. While I didn’t complain too much – at least I was able to exit via stairs and get a nice picture of a UPS 747 freighter – the bus ride took more than 15 minutes, literally around the perimeter of the airport.


The upside was that the immigration queue was short as we had arrived so late. It did take another ten minutes for our luggage to arrive and the taxi queue also took about fifteen minutes as there are few cars that late. I finally arrived at my hotel room at 3:30 am and was downstairs in the meeting room at 8:00 am.

It was a long day, but not too bad. I had a good group of students, staff level learning the basics of presentation skills. They all pushed themselves outside their comfort zone, delivering in English even though for many of them, it is a struggle. One girl was petrified and after her three-minute introduction presentation, was nearly in tears. Everyone gave her a lot of positive feedback about being brave enough to face her fears. Was very moving.


Shanghai – Past Meets Future and Future is Largely Winning

Shanghai, with more than 23 million inhabitants, is the largest city in China and the largest city proper (within a single legal or political boundary) in the world. Historically China’s most international city, Shanghai’s growth has exploded in the last fifteen years and it is now more globally connected than ever. It is broadly considered to be the face of China’s future.


Having long wanted to visit, we accepted an offer from Tawn’s cousin and his wife to stay with them at their apartment in Jiang’an, a district in the heart of the city. 

Our five-day trip was a busy one, full of food and activities, leaving our heads spinning a bit and leaving me uncertain of how to write about the experience. Chronological order seemed unsatisfactory so I decided to group my entries thematically. This first entry: Past Meets Future. 


We arrived at 7:00 after a grueling four-hour overnight flight from Bangkok. The first thing to shape my impression of Shanghai was the Pudong district to the east of the city. The rapidly-developing district is home to the largest free-trade zone in China, large industrial areas, and high-tech parks that would look at home in Silicon Valley. Viewed through the hazy air, you can see how much of this area is only recently developed and how much more is being prepared for development.


Pudong is also home to Shanghai’s 13-year old second international airport. It is a large, modern structure that allows for efficient processing of more than 40 million passengers a year through two grand but somewhat utilitarian terminals. 


While driving into the city, and throughout the visit, I was struck by how much construction is underway. The crane must be the city’s official bird, because there are so many of them standing on the skyline. Everywhere you turn, old neighborhoods are being torn down to make way for modern developments and very little appears to be much more than twenty years old.


That’s not to say that everything in Shanghai is modern. We strolled through a weekend market that takes place near Tawn’s cousins’ apartment. The market is aimed at locals – we were the only foreigners – and they sell a variety of things geared towards hobbies such as religious items and paraphernalia used for pet birds – feed, cages, trays of worms, and the birds themselves.


There seems to be a large segment of the population who live more hard-scrabble lives, and in some neighborhoods it is clear that many people have migrated to the city from the countryside and look a bit out of place compared to the very modern surroundings and their sophisticated, chic Shanghainese counterparts.


One aspect of the city’s heritage that is rapidly disappearing is the shikumen, the traditional Shanghainese style townhouses that are set back along narrow alleys that connect to the main street through a gateway.


At first almost invisible to visitors, you catch glimpses of these neighborhoods as you walk along the street, the lives of the residents briefly appearing in your peripheral vision in a gateway that opens between storefronts. Two steps later and their world disappears again as you move on.


The shikumen and similar styles of neighborhood make for an interesting stroll because they let you glimpse everyday life for the large number of Shanghai residents who do not inhabit the highrises that dot the skyline.


Laundry dries on poles, bicycles are locked to walls, and residents share a common space that creates time for conversations and a sense of community. I imagine that people living in these neighborhoods see them as a retreat from the hectic world outside the gateway, one that is every bit as busy as in New York, London, Tokyo, or Mexico City.


These traditional neighborhoods are rapidly being cleared out by construction, with residents reimbursed (often at a princely sum) for their valuable land. In the place of these shikumen, high rise complex are built, often a combination of commercial, residential, and retail space. While there seems to be an effort made to preserve at least some parts of Shanghai’s architectural and cultural heritage, much of it still goes the way of the bulldozer and earthmover.


Despite this rapid development, some neighborhoods are still full of local shops, mom-and-pop types of operations where a simple meal is prepared, hardware is sold, or the ubiquitous battery-powered motorbikes are repaired.


Other parts of the city, though, are full of modern shopping malls and promenades with name brands and luxury outlets: Apple, Prada, and Louis Vuitton each have a trio of stores and there are at least a dozen Cartier boutiques. Even without the western brand names, modern shopping centers and department stores proliferate. Nanjing Road East, pictured above, is a pedestrian mall featuring Chinese department stores filled with domestic tourists. 

Above, a pan past the flashy Hong Kong Plaza mall on Huaihai Road with one of the three Apple stores and loads of cool LED lights.

The large story in Shanghai is one about the future. While there is heritage being lost, it seems that most people are looking towards the future and appreciate the tremendous economic opportunities that have come with progress. Maybe that is a naive outsider’s view, but it is the impression I’m left with.


The advances in infrastructure are amazing. The world’s longest metro system features 11 lines and 278 stations covering 434 kilometers (270 miles) with additional lines being built. There is also the only commercial mag-lev
(magnetic levitation) train in service
, bringing you between the airport and the eastern side of the city in about eight minutes at a speed of up to 430 kilometers per hour. We rode it to the airport and I’ll share some pictures and videos later.


An extensive network of roads, expressways, and bridges have been built and despite being such a large city, traffic seems significantly less congested than in many other large Asian cities. If Shanghai is anything, it is easy to get around.


While in Shanghai, we had a lot of different experiences and spent a lot of time walking around and seeing at least some parts of the city. Reflecting on the trip, it is easy to see Shanghai as a city in which past and future are crushed against each other and, without a doubt, the future is wining.