After two years locked away from the rest of the world, China has just reopened its doors, and I am one of the lucky ones who has gotten to go back to this wonderful city so soon. To say that I feel privileged is an understatement.
My first time here was over twenty years ago. Back then the buildings were low and basic, the main transport was bicycles and taxis, and you’d spend your evenings drinking cheap beers in dingy bars with dart boards and, if you were lucky, a shared toilet rather than a hole in the ground! Over the years I watched it grow, from the ground up. The tenements disappeared and the apartment buildings and skyscrapers replaced them, it seemed, overnight. We marvelled at how the Chinese could construct huge overpasses in the space of a few months, and gradually almost all trace of the old city was gone. It was sad, but that is life, it has to keep moving forward. In China it just does it faster than most places.
Fast forward to 2019, my last visit here, and Shanghai layovers had evolved to include hours and hours of shopping and beauty treatments at the markets and the occasional trip down to the Bund. In the evenings we would have meals out at restaurants like 1221 that catered almost exclusively for us western crew. They knew what we liked, would have the large round table ready for us, and load up the Lazy Susan with beers and mouth-watering dishes without us even having to use our tired, post-flight minds! It became very much a trip of routine, the reserve mostly of senior crew who bid for it, and knew exactly what they would be doing there before the plane even took off!
And then we had the pandemic.
It all happened so quickly, didn’t it? One minute we are thinking that it will be like SARS or Bird Flu, pumped up by the media but over soon enough, and the next we are locked in our houses living in what seemed like a parallel universe!
If you follow my posts, you will know that I was made redundant at this time. I recall thinking one day that I had taken for granted my visits to places like China. I thought that, unless I was to get my job back, I would probably never go there again, it was unlikely to tie in with a holiday I would ever take. I remember that thought making me feel sad. So the fact that I have been back is why I feel so lucky; not everyone will get the chance and I miss my old shopping colleagues, the ones that you would always see on them.
Anyway, I’ll start at the beginning. The flight out. It was almost full, much to my surprise. I guess there is a lot of pent-up demand, and most of my customers were Chinese, a lot of students, and all very happy to be going home for a visit. Amongst them I met some European workers who told me of the lengthy quarantines that they’d had to endure while they continued to fly back and forth for their business, using one of the few airlines that continued to fly there. There was definitely a buzz in the cabin, and the excitement of myself and my colleagues certainly added to it!
After almost twelve hours, the flights are longer now due to restrictions over Russia, we touched down. Here we were, back in the place we remembered so well, but so unsure of what we would find, our trip and shopping unplanned like they would have been before. The crew who had flown cargo here during Covid told stories of people in Hazmat suits and being sprayed with disinfectant as they got off. They were locked in hotel rooms with food delivered to their doors and not trusted with a key in case they should try to sneak out. I am happy to say that there was no sign of any such things! Quite the opposite, indeed we opened the door to smiling, albeit masked, ground staff, and walked the same way through the airport as we always had done without being sprayed with anything! The bus was waiting for us in the same place as it always had, and we set off into town without a hitch.
I may be wrong, my memory can let me down sometimes, but I am pretty sure that while we were away the government has been giving the place a facelift. There seemed to be more bridges and overpasses, my colleagues agreed. The roads were quieter, and the cars on them were mostly electric. The city still had its perpetual haze, but the air was definitely cleaner, of that I am sure. Reaching Nanjing Road the main street hadn’t changed from what I could tell. As darkness fell that night there were definitely more lights though, more fancy shops. It was busy too, being the weekend the families were out in force, happy kids everywhere and a toy train carrying them up and down the main precinct.
In the past I might have had a nap after that long night flight. But not this time, would you?! My friend and I were showered, changed and out in fifteen minutes. We got garden cushion covers made at the fabric market and then headed down to the market at the Science and Technology museum metro station. It was here that we saw the first marked change. Half of the stalls were empty.
Before, you would be called into every stall you passed, be spoiled for choice on what to buy. Now one side was almost entirely shut down, while the other had vacant pitches between filled ones. There was the odd smile of recognition from those that remembered us, and those that just knew that we were crew. We were their friends, their loyal customers! Shirley was still there offering her manicures and pedicures, and Peter greeted us with open arms when we went to him for new eye glasses! They assured us the others were nearly all coming back, that they just had loose ends to tie up and that in just a few more weeks it would be back to how it was. At the speed they do things out there I have no doubt that they will be.
The day ran into evening and the seven pm lobby meet up. We were informed by the concierge that all of our favourite restaurants had closed, even 1221. It’s sad but they were probably too reliant on visitors like us, didn’t cater so much for the locals, and that had been all that they were left with… when they weren’t locked down that is! So, we set off to explore the restaurants nearby, but trying to find something to suit twelve jetlagged crew was impossible. We settled on a restaurant with pictures of food on its walls and took turns to point out our choices. Unfortunately the descriptions were in Chinese and the server’s English was limited, so there was definitely a lot of guess work involved, and some disappointment when it arrived. But hey, we got a table with a lazy susan, so I was happy! As for the food, it was ok, not quite as western as we like, and a few did sly off to McDonalds afterwards! I have faith that over the next few weeks my colleagues will sniff out somewhere that understands our needs, at least I hope that they do!
From dinner we walked down to The Bund. The picture below is from the roof terrace of Captain’s Bar. It was magical, and another place where there seemed to be more lights than before. Maybe it was just my memory playing tricks again, maybe not. It was busy, there were cocktails involved, and maybe a night club… it was fun that is for sure! After a day when we had felt like the only westerners in a sea of people, we were surrounded by people who looked like us, and partied like us too. I met some lovely Brit teachers who had stayed the whole time, they were so happy to see us coming back 😊
The next day was a late start, with more shopping, more wandering around, and maybe another Tsingtao or two! I have nothing more to add other than the small inconvenience of most places no longer taking our bank cards. They certainly had before, but it seems in our absence they have moved over to other forms of payment, such as WeChat Pay, something that I don’t think we can get, and the terms and conditions on the App store are enough to put you off even trying! Social media is still banned, and VPNs are still a thing… nothing has changed there, but it was kind of nice to have a bit of a detox from my phone.
Checking out with an overstuffed case, ready for our epic fourteen-hour flight home, I still held that feeling of being so lucky to have come here. I had been careful not to expect too much on my return when I had seen it on my roster, although I had dared to hope. I wasn’t disappointed. Shanghai is brighter and more vibrant than ever before. Things feel ‘normal’, is that even a thing?!
I’ve requested another one for July!
Thanks for reading, check out my Insta @kayliekaywrites for more photos xxx