The first time I visit Shanghai the Maglev train from Pudong airport whipped me into the city at a top speed of 434 kilometres an hour. I knew this because the speedometer above my head told me so and because the country outside the window was a blur as if Vaseline has been smeared across the glass.
it's was a
fitting way to get to Shanghai, a city that is changing so fast its residents must feel as if they're permanently riding the supercharged track.
The old lady with the creased walnut face clutching a string bag in the seat opposite me looked suitably shell-shocked. As well she might. When she was young the sci-fi financial district the train is shooting through would have been rice paddies.
Shanghai was a city in overdrive, cranes hovered on the horizon like giant insects
and the rat-a-tat of power drills was a constant background noise.
The city is still racing towards the future. At the end of last month (June 2011) another high speed train, the new Beijing-Shanghai express was unveiled with its fully reclining airline-style business class seats and a top speed of 350 km per hour. And skyscrapers still reach for the light in the urban jungle of Pudong
but Shanghai 2011 has a less frenetic feel.
This is a city with confidence and style.
At Flair bar at the top of the Ritz Carlton Pudong , the highest open-air bar in the city (you need to take two high speed lifts to get there) I look down at all the other rooftop bars; little pools of coloured light flickering like iPad screens on the tops of every available building. Not since the heady 1930s when Shanghai was party central for the Jazz generation has the city been as fashionable. Only this time the locals also get to enjoy it.
One sure fire sign that this is so is the flowering of so many new luxury hotels
. And the fact that the prestigious International Luxury Travel Mart Asia , run each May,
has made Shanghai its spiritual home - the movers and shakers of the luxury travel word won't travel just anywhere (ILTM Europe is in Cannes).
You can feel the energy of the city: it crackles like electricity. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Shanghai. As I dash along Nanging road in the rain an old lady in alarmingly pink slippers leaps out of an alleyway proffering an umbrella ,"10 yuan" she cries, waving it like a fencing sword. I try to negotiate. As I'm dripping wet and 10 yuan is only about a dollar, both of us know I'm not serious. She grins and says: "You kidding me?"
One wonky umbrella later I'm free to stroll in the rain shower. It is well worth slowing down because this is the historic Bund district where residents still perform Tai Chi by the river in the early mornings and the buildings have survived since those decadent days when Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East.
Not since the heady 1930s when Shanghai was party central for the Jazz generation has the city been as fashionable. Only this time the locals also get to enjoy it.
Lining the water are old mansions and colonnaded bank buildings I pass the newly refurbished
Fairmont Peace Hotel with its beautifully renovated Art Deco suites and a constant flow of adoring tourists immortalising its facelift on their iPhones.
The rest of the Bund has a new lease of life too.
The opulent Peninsula Shanghai has been built at its head, the Swatch Peace Hotel recently opened in what was once the old Palace Hotel and the very new Waldorf Astoria now graces the old Shanghai Club building . Where there isn't a new hotel there is a new bar or restaurant. I revisit the restaurant that started it all; M on the Bund, with windows that look out over the misty river, run by an Australian Michelle Garnaut - still good despite increased competition.
Shanghai glitterati are social butterflies flitting for the bars on the Bund to the trendy restaurants in the old mansions of the French Concession to the newest funky laneway developments as the mood takes them.
I take a taxi out to the ever growing Pudong district to the new Kerry Hotel Pudong, a modern hotel with a thriving and bar and restaurant scene right in its own lobby. the microbrewery is fast picking up countless awards.
All this relentless activity is tiring. So it is a relief to reach the serenity of Yu Yuan gardens even if to get there I have to run the gauntlet of fast-food restaurants and souvenir shops all mocked up to look like ancient buildings. Who knew they had hamburgers in the Ming Dynasty?
I manage to find a decent dumpling shop however and then wander the gardens. Paths meander past pagodas and temples and ponds full of golden carp. A slight wind rustles the trees but apart from that all is calm. You can almost see the old Chinese nobles strolling the grounds. Maybe the soul of China hasn't changed so much after all, I think, as I sit and look at the fish making ripples on the pond.
Then I remember I was nearly mown down by eight lanes of traffic trying to cross the road to get to the futuristic Orient Pearl TV Tower, which looks like a space-age needle piercing a metal onion, and I realise Shanghai never stops for long.