Shanghai noon

As I write this, I have just returned from a whirlwind tour of the world expo here in Shanghai china. its nearly past midnight and I have stood in hour long lines just to get inside four pavilions at the expo center. More on that later though as I shall start from the beginning of my journey in this land which is both exotic and serene in some parts and bustling like mad with activity in others, this is China.

This is my third visit to China, and each time I come here I cannot help but wonder how much more can one country achieve or gain in terms of economic strength, work ethic as well as the ability to just absorb and deal with things at a scale which only this place can manage. Everything about this country is massive, and you start realizing this when you land at pudong airport in Shanghai one of the largest cities in China and certainly one of the busiest. It used to be a land tough to do business in for foreigners like us because of language barriers and the inability of many locals to deal with the depth which international trading takes in its capacity and scope but that was 10 years ago. Now the airport stretches out for kilometer upon kilometer 40 in its totality making it one of the largest In the world. Imagine about 50 immigration counters with literally foot upon foot of neatly taped pathways leading up to them and you can fathom the amount of volume this place witnesses in passengers.

Yet the new china is everywhere as soon as you make your way to an official, the smile is there plus even a touchscreen console asking how their service is with each passenger. You hand over your passport and the screen says the official is working on it, time of check through 40 seconds and it counts down to the exact moment and goes green as your passport is handed back to you duly stamped.

Outside the city is like a gargantuan vision of the future, the skyline easily outdoing that of new york with row upon row of gleaming superstructures standing with their crowns going past even the clouds. I have come to take part in the Shanghai Textile fair or ITMA as it is most commonly known to international businessmen and it starts the day after I arrive. I check into my hotel and go outside to have dinner, in the past this in itself was a massive ask as the only food available would be Chinese and that takes a palate of considerable fortitude to digest. You see Chinese food available in Pakistan and other places is honed to the local taste, authentic Chinese food is well, something one has to get used to. I have had the misfortune of ordering chicken drumsticks which came with claws attached just to give you an example of exotic going bizarre.

Now however it is a simple matter of getting a taxi and telling the driver that I require Indu (indian/Pak) or Alladin (arabic) or Yankee(American) food and the car zooms you off to the required destination, you just have to get used to their particular slang for different types of food. I prefer Arabic food for its taste and non drowsiness and thus that is what I had, at a restaurant called 1001 nights which served a delicious mix of all sorts of Lebanese and Turkish as well as Irani kebabs and other dishes. It takes roughly 80 rmb to have a meal In a decent restaurant like this in China. USD 100 fetches about 680 rmbs.

Speaking of currency the Chinese rmb is gaining in strength every single day against the us dollar and why would it not, their exports to the U.S and the rest of the western world are staggering. In fact the export of the city of shanghai is more than the total export of our country. Thus the Yankees are forever screaming and coaxing the Chinese to revalue their currency and the Chinese smile and nod as they always do whenever they want to delay a decision and keep matters pending. Suffice to say dealing with them is a game of careful patience and prodding, prod too much and they can get offended, not push at all and you might end up buying something for double the price of what it is supposed to be,  all with a smile and a nod and a polite sheshe (thank you).It is cultural chess at its best and it takes some getting used to, there are not many straight answers but still everything gets done at the end of the day because no matter what the Chinese will never willingly let a customer walk away.

This goes on for the entirety of any business discussion you have and the Shanghai textile fair is the prime place to be if you are in the market for any sort of textile machinery or accessories. The fair grounds were divided into 5 east halls and 5 west ones, each hall as big as the expo center in Karachi and filled to the brim with visitors and exhibition booths with various companies from all over the world plying their wares, looking for customers and local representation in all different nations. In 2004 this fair had a total volume of 108204 visitors from over 42 countries, since then the size and the attendance has increased by roughly about 4 times.

This fair went on for 4 days from the 22nd to the 26th of June after which I had a day to go check out the much touted and hyped world expo also taking place in shanghai. Not that if it was in any other city in china it would be a problem to visit,  as the entire country can be crisscrossed by bullet trains which are both reasonable in price and quite comfortable. The Chinese government has earned trillions not just from export of their goods but from charging heavy infrastructure taxes  from its local population which at official count stood at 1,324,655,000 a year ago. A small example would be the toll way tax that every car has to pay if going from Beijing to Shanghai which amounts to around usd 70. However the government after earning so much is constantly investing billions into the infrastructure with the result that you can take day trips to any of the cities by train and be back at your hotel easily at night, totally safe secure and seamless.

The ticket to the expo was 90 rmb at night and 160 in the day time. Not that bad for an exhibition on the different cultures of so many countries, each one of whom have their own pavilion at the expo site. Nothing however in my recent travels had prepared me for what I witnessed there. For starters the size of the expo was so big, that one has to take a ferry to go from one side of the fair to the next. Each pavilion has aforementioned lines of people sometimes for two blocks to get in at around 930pm at night, in the daytime I heard they were about double the size. However the long walks, the buses between pavilions and the long lines to get in are all worth what you will witness. For instance the china pavilion which you can see in the picture in its glorious red color, was 10 stories high and totally solar powered. That means its roof was all solar panels and it stored electricity via the sun all day to  help function its cooling and atmospheric systems. Inside you would find wall to wall LCD’s in fact there were no walls all you see are giant LCD’s and they were so seamless integrated that one could’nt even see the edges, thus all around you is  a 3d environment with displays of life and culture of the particular country as well as its famous products et all. The Spanish pavilion was a haunting cave like structure with scenes from the run of the bulls flashing all around me, while a salsa dancer tapped her way into the crowds heart. The French pavilion had wine and cheese and so on. Pakistan had its pavilion too and it was quite grand to see. In fact it felt really good to see the number of foreigners queued up to immerse in our local culture on the outside of this magnificent structure, not very high tech but still a commendable job, specially heart warming to see at night. It took me a total of 4 hours to see 4 pavilions here before I called it a night. Those being saudi arabia, Spain, France and Pakistan.

The expo is going to go on for six months, and I would sincerely advice anyone to go see it, whether you like gadgets or culture or you want to immerse yourself into the oriental mystery that china still possesses it is a fine place for a family vacation or a business trip as well. Plus it is one of the few places left in this world where we as a people are made quite welcome as the Chinese love us as a culture and a country and they have amply displayed this throughout our history with them having always stood by our side no matter what. Even though the prices of hotels will stay jacked up because of the expo and the volumes of people its attracting, this is still a reasonable destination equal In comparison to say Malaysia or Singapore. All you need is a will to go explore something different and you will never ever regret it.


As published in “The Friday times” on 30/7/2010


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