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Full Circle

Day 58: Tai an to Shanghai

Michael Palin - Full CircleWake up to first glimpse of the River Yangtze. The Chang Jiang, as the Chinese call it. Third longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon, although there's only a couple of hundred miles between the three of them. It is suitably immense here and the bridge we are rumbling across, just north of Nanjing, is one of the great engineering feats of communist China. The rail span is over four miles long. Before it was opened in 1968, there was no direct rail link between Beijing and Shanghai, the two most important cities of China.

There has been a waterway system connecting them since the thirteenth century when the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty finally connected up a system of smaller canals and rivers dating back to the fifth century bc. It's known as the Emperor (or Grand) Canal and, if I lift the net curtain, I can see it, briefly, from my seat in the dining car before it merges into the green, vaporous wetland of the Yangtze Delta. This occasionally beautiful, limpid landscape, with elegant pagodas and flotillas of white ducks on flooded fields, is soon submerged by progress. Powerlines, factories, apartment blocks and assembly plants suck us into Shanghai.

I was last here seven years ago in the steps of Phileas Fogg. Then it was a city of awesome scale, bursting at the seams. Since then old seams have burst and new ones are already under threat. The pace of construction is relentless. Once the foundations of a tower block are laid, a new floor can be added every three days. But the difference I notice is not so much that there's more of it, but what there's more of. On streets which saw the violent birth of Chinese communism you can now buy a suit at Harvey Nichols, a coat at Ralph Lauren, a shirt at Gieves and Hawkes and a pair of shoes at Charles Jourdan. The streets on which Mao's plans for a Cultural Revolution were first made public are now as mercilessly franchised as any American shopping mall. Haagen-Daz ice-cream and Kentucky Fried Chicken fight over property with Mickey Mouse corner shops and Hollywood Wonder arcades. Girls here are no longer shy of fashion. They cycle by in black mini-skirts and Italian designer sweaters with an air of self-confident, almost Parisian hauteur.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 58
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Shanghai
  • Book page no: 85

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