World Traveller September 2019



Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing

like a welcome banner. As I move on, the

drips stain the pavement behind me.

My friend April has chosen our

restaurant, Old Jesse — it’s a tranquil

tonic following my days spent immersed

in the thick of ‘new’ Shanghai. The

two of us meet on an otherwise vacant

tree-lined street, but our table in the

1930s terraced house isn’t ready, so we

wander aimlessly up the road and into

a residential lane, where we’re met with

more drizzle as a woman pours a bucket

of water over her head to wash her hair.

When our table becomes free, April and

I squeeze around a small square of wood

in the house’s former living room. Platter

after platter of meat is coming out of the

kitchen to every mismatched table, and

patrons are chomping the chunks, fat

and all, at an alarming rate. Ours comes

supple, as if it’s been cooked for a day,

and perfectly crisped on the fatty side so

that the two parts ooze together in a salty

swirl. Wilted pea shoots doused in garlic

sauce mitigate this heart attack on a

plate. Only the ‘drunken chicken’ — slices

of breast steeped in rice wine and served

cold as per tradition — fails to charm me.

Back on Wulumuqi Road, en route to

my hotel, the traffic is still buzzing but

the streets are quietening. The noodle

shops are closing up, with just the last

few patrons finishing their meals over

calming games of smartphone mahjong.

Four pensioners in white singlets play

cards around a plastic garden table.

Students headed for the clubs buy

skewers of meat from a small mobile

barbecue, the smoke billowing around

their pastel-dyed coifs. And among it all,

a young man has rolled out a woven mat

on the pavement and fallen fast asleep,

presumably to sneak in some zzzs before

his morning shift. I admire his zen.

At 9am the next morning, I’ve

installed myself on the Bund, the

riverfront boulevard strung with palatial

European landmarks, like diamonds in a

flamboyant headdress. I know it well, at

least by night, when it glimmers from










lights arranged strategically around the

spires, columns and domes. Earlier this

week I joined the frenzied passeggiata

along the promenade, facing the new

city of super-tall towers flashing and

pinging with adverts across the river.

Ducking all the selfie sticks criss

crossing the path, I felt like a bride

passing under an arch of sabres.

That was then. Now, on my last day in

town, I’m still not as decompressed as

I want to be. April has recommended

coming back to the Bund: ‘It’s a

different place in the mornings,’

she says. In place of the hordes, six

pensioners dressed head to toe in black

move with exaggerated slowness in a

t’ai chi dance to a tinny soundtrack of

pan flutes. I try to find patterns in their

gently waving arms and gradual lunges,

to align my breathing with the gentle

pad of Adidas on pavement. And slowly,

surely, with the sun’s glare almost

obscuring the hyperbolic skyline to

the east, I feel myself slipping towards

another world.

I’ve still got some sightseeing to do,

but rather than navigate through the

thick of downtown, I’ve mapped out

a route along the Suzhou River, a curly

wisp of water snaking along the north

side of the city. A landscaped path

clings to it, passing century-old

textile warehouses and factories

converted into lofts, shrubbery

peeking out from rooftop gardens.

The infamous smog diffuses the sun

into a downy duvet of light.

I wander under rows of oak and

chestnut, no cars or bikes playing the

usual game of Intersection Chicken, and

end up beside the yellow-ochre walls

of the 19th-century Jade Temple, five

minutes’ stroll from the river. Last time

I was here, the crowds were four deep

around the ceremonial urns, and the

threat of third-degree burns from their

smouldering joss sticks was anything

but Zen, so I brace myself as I enter. But

inside, I find couples wandering hand

in hand, shaded by swooping eaves,

exploring lacquered red halls in peace

and reverential quiet. Monks in sighing

saffron robes slip by in silence so pure I

can hear the slap of their sandals.

Why so calm? Last year, I overhear a

guide murmuring, the entire temple was

hoisted up on rollers and shifted 30m

backwards. In the void, a vast courtyard

emerged in which to breathe, reflect, and

freely swing a joss stick.

For a while I sit on the temple steps,

breathing in incense and feeling my

slouch sink into a slump that almost

matches the Buddha’s. I glide to the

Metro. Shanghai’s mass-transit system

is the longest in the world — and,

thanks to its 430kph airport train, the

most breakneck-fast too. But by early

evening the crowds have dispersed from

the immense ticket hall, parting the

way to an English-language kiosk. How

easy it is to drop in my handful of coins

for a ticket, how clear the signs to the

platform, how quickly my train arrives,

how strangely... relaxing it all is.

The train speeds away, causing light

projections on the tunnel walls to move

like a zoetrope. I lean against a pole and

watch meditatively as the air chimes

with gadgetry lullabies. This is the last

place I would have looked for serenity,

but Shanghai surprises even — especially

— when it’s not trying. And I think I’ve

finally found peace.

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