China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Archeologists claim that caves near present day Beijing contain fossils of early humanoids which have been dated at between 300,000 and 780,000 BC. The written history of China dates back to Shang Dynasty (c. 1700–1046 BC).
China is very old and large. There’s a lot to see and experiences there. No wonder tourism has been increasing steadily for the last fifteen years, making it one of the hottest tourist destinations. Today it’s the third most visited country in the world.
But beware! When I traveled to China, a little more than ten years ago, I experienced severe “cultural shock,” but not in the way you might expect.
To set the stage, let’s talk about China. For most Americans, the 2008 Olympics in China opened a new window of awareness. All of us knew a little about China―it has always fascinated Westerners because of the great differences in cultures. We’d heard in the news about lead-based paint and humanitarian issues, but I don’t believe most of us realized the sheer magnitude of change that’s occurred in China over the past thirty years.
I don’t want to bore you with a history lesson, but here are four interesting facts about The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is still a communist government.
First, the written history of China goes back at least to 2,100 B.C. and some contend even further. The Chinese were civilized long before most other parts of the world. The culture is very old.
Second, China is the fourth largest country in the world in area (3.705 million square miles as compared to the 3.794 million square miles in the United States). Size-wise, there’s not that much difference. But it’s big.
Third, China has the largest population of any country in the world with an estimated 1.3 billion in July of 2009 (as compared to 307 million in the United States). If you were to spread the populations of China and of the U.S. evenly across the land area (which is so-oo not the case), China would have 361 persons per square mile while the U.S. would have 0.97 (about one) person per square mile. It’s densely populated.
Fourth, the PRC recognizes fifty-six distinct ethnic groups. Close to 92% are Han Chinese (descendents of the Chinese Dynasties from the Beijing area), and the other 8% are in one of the other fifty-five ethnic minorities, including Mongols, Tibetans, and Koreans.
So this is Shanghai
When I arrived at Pudong International airport after a fifteen-hour, non-stop flight from San Francisco, I was aware that China has a huge population. I knew Shanghai was the largest city and the premier port on China’s Pacific coast. I’d done my homework, and I knew quite a bit about its history and historical places.
I’m not sure what I expected to find there, but the reality blew off my socks.
Instead, Shanghai looked like this.
The city was far more modern than I anticipated, with a plethora of high-rise glass and steel buildings. And such a variety of architecture, much of it very futuristic. The Chinese are incredible engineers.
The super highways and freeways employed the latest technology. The surface streets were wide, and there were lots of cars―mostly Japanese makes, although there were many American, European and Chinese cars as well. And the driving was crazy there.
Rude and everyone for themselves.
Shanghai’s public transportation system is extensive and uses an access card for buses, subways, trams, etc. which is scanned with radio frequencies so the card doesn’t have to touch the scanner. However, plenty of the residents rode bicycles and still do. When I was there, every morning I saw large numbers of people, both men and women, riding their bicycles to work (many dressed in business suits), and the main streets had exclusive bicycle lanes that were wider than automobile lanes. The bottom photo is Beijing at rush hour, but I didn't see anything like that in Shanghai (which doesn't mean it doesn't happen -- I just didn't see it).
The bicyclists lined up at stop signals, ten or fifteen abreast, waiting for the lights to change. And, of course, if you want to be old fashioned you can always get around by rickshaw, subway, or car. The car below is the 2012 Chinese BYD.
In 2001, the city a population of about 12 million plus in the metropolitan area. Now the population is close to estimated at 20 million for the same area (13.8 million people reside in the core districts and inner suburbs).
Housing in Shanghai
If there are any single family homes, or even low-rise condos in Shanghai, I didn’t see any. There must be some, but they would be mansions reserved for the very rich. Everyone else lives in high-rise apartments.
Driving on the superhighway into the City from the airport, I noticed miles and miles of modern high-rise apartment buildings under construction. I learned later that a large percentage of the people being relocated because of the construction of Three Gorges Dam were being moved to southwestern China. I assume, although I’m not sure, that many of these new housing units were intended for those displaced people choosing to relocate into Shanghai.
In the building that were occupied, and others close to finished, each unit had a window air conditioner. No central air in China. Many had glassed-in balconies, and we could see laundry hanging inside most of them.
And speaking of high-rise apartments, I didn’t see a single fat person in China. In addition to their penchant for tai-chi and exercise, elevators are not required below the tenth floor of an apartment building (and most apartment buildings were well over ten floors). If you live on floors two through ten, you take the stairs. Apartments on lower floors are reserved for seniors and handicapped.
Most of the streets are tree-lined with very wide sidewalks for large numbers of people. Often we’d see exercise equipment permanently installed in the wide sidewalks to provide places for the public to exercise.
Also, we saw the entire staff of a McDonald's exercising as a group in the plaza during a mandatory exercise break. Here is a photo of the first McDonald’s in Shanghai, the one I saw, but without the staff exercising, and more recent one that looks more “traditional” but still has the golden arches. In spite of that, it's a whole different experience.
Don’t pass up a chance to go to China. It will be the trip of a lifetime.