Thames Town: China's obsession with fake cites
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
To set the scene once again for the blog I had spent 20 hours traveling via car, 2 flights through Turkey, taken Shanghai’s floating train and walked without a map to find my hostel. From here I met Max my closest Chinese friend and we sent out for an evening in the city. We headed out for hot pot at a local spot, one that all the young Chinese spend their time.
As I’ve mentioned in my blog on eating in China, most socialising is done through food. If any of my blogs convince you to sell your house, pack your bags and head to China via mountain goat then when you first arrive there you will want to make some friends with the locals. Chinese people tend to be friendly, even in the busy city where business men fight for attention. If you go out with the intention of being open and chatty (smiling helps too) you will soon land yourself some new friends in this beautiful country and as with all travel it is greatly enriched by a locals knowledge. This way you can almost guarantee a more authentic experience, although what your host has in store for you may end up being a little exotic…
So you have your first Chinese friend, what’s next? Well one of the main differences I found in my trips to China although I can’t speak for the whole 1.3 billion people is that food tends to be the first offer when you meet someone. The idea of someone in London meeting me for the first time and then asking me out to dinner would horrify me, I would be convinced they were either trying to seduce me, steal my possessions or take me down a dark alley to murder me. As a general rule in England most people wouldn’t head out to grab some food unless in a group, in a date or after knowing someone for a while. It tends to be far more common to meet for a drink first and I feel that our pub/bar culture is a lot more engrained within us prompting many meet ups via a couple of beers. Not that I drink beer, I was convinced the taste would grow on me as I aged but no I still hate the stuff.
In China it’s reversed, often I would find myself only going for drinks with a group of locals after knowing them for some time. It also seemed to have a different level of significance here. So food first and drink later, that’s exactly what we had planned!
Hot pot is common all over Asia and it’s delicious. The first time I had hot pot was in this very restaurant last time I had visited Shanghai back in April 2018. Max and I were joined by a Chinese girl that lived nearby. We all sat down around a table with 2 sunken trays within the heart of the wood. It reminded of our ancestors gathering around a hearth or the simple joy we get being around a campfire. All attention was gathered around one focal point, no one had their phones out or had reason to be distracted so conversation flowed even in my pigeon Chinese and with Max’s constant attempts to ask me just to speak English.
Within these two sunken trays in poured liquid which is then heated from underneath. One tray consists of a mild, creamier liquid bubbling away with subtle spices and the other is the spicy one. Now remember this is China people, this is the spicy that will make your tongue start burning and often in China this is the desired effect with some spices designed to numb your tongue and lips so you can eat as much chilli as you want.
Rice wine is poured into small shot glasses for each of us and as the night goes on they are topped up many times. After a short while a cart comes alongside the table with the night’s offerings. This is where you hope your Chinese hosts are enjoying your company or you better start speaking some mandarin pretty quick if you want to avoid foods you will regret eating. Well that is, if you ever find out what it was that you were eating… Lots of plates of food are grabbed off the trolley and laid on the table. From here you just pick something you like, grab it with your delicate chop sticks and throw it in either the mild or spicy liquid where it will cook. It made me feel like a witch looking over her cauldron as I waited for my food to cook. My belly rumbled and I began to tuck in without asking what I was eating. I have found that after being to China a few times I just eat what everyone else eats and find out afterwards.
It turns out I had been eating rabbit, beef tongue, ducks blood and a variety of different mushrooms that looked like they came from a magic garden.
After a rather enjoyable meal we headed out for some city nightlife into some late night markets. I was led down some scary back alleyways and side streets weaving our way ever further into old shanghai. We came to a small wooden door at a dead end and in we went to a dimly lit bar. As I entered the smoke poured out from the room filling my nostrils. My eyes had to adjust as the only light offered here was lanterns and candles. We headed up some creaky wooden stairs as people chatted all around in this undiscernible dialect and took seats in a big room of card tables. Here we were joined by a few others and began to drink. I had rum of course and together we talked of our countries, we learned more about our cultures and the vast differences that separate us. But best of all we realised our similarities and the conversation turned to this as the night progressed well into 3am the next day.
*Beep Beep* My alarm went off. I had forgot to turn off my alarm off before I went to sleep so I woke up feeling dehydrated and more zombie than human. It was around 7am on the weekend and as I stirred to go to the bathroom I heard groans from the other people in my hostel room as I tried not to wake them up.
I crept out in my underwear and headed down the hall to empty my bladder. Here I stood for a long time not really knowing how I was going to survive as I looked out the window. I was in a new country again and the city was starting to wake up. It was coming alive and I was going to spend the whole day in bed? Definitely not, I sparked into action and decided I would make the most of my day after all. I quickly showered, packed my pack using my phone’s torch in an attempt to not disturb the others from the hangover crew and out I headed. I intended to go to the first place I had on my list while visiting here, Shanghai’s Thames Town.
China works hard to limit information from what it deems to be unreliable or biased sources. Therefore google is out along with any western social media. Without google maps I relied on an Asian equivalent. I had learnt how to use it last time I visited the city and by copying a translation of ‘thames town’ in mandarin into the app it gave me directions and a rough time. Everything was in mandarin however so I was making many presumptions and relied of luck that the maps new of the place I was speaking of. It looked to be in the right area so I decided to give it a shot. At least if I ended up going to the wrong place I would have an interesting story to tell. Does the end destination really matter anyway?
I took some subways out from the heart of the city which was the easy part as all the signs were in multiple languages. I took about 3 trains before arriving at my final destination (I say about because my memory fails me as ever, did you know that a memory is said to change by 50% after a year of an event, so in fact without knowing it most of what people saying is made up!.) I have photos and my nervously self-filmed vlog entries to help me write these blogs so hopefully that helps. I came down the escalator, had my bag scanned for dangerous goods which happens at every train station and with my Shanghai travel pass in hand I quickly slipped through the turnstiles and out onto the local road.
Find out what happens next in part 2 which will be released tomorrow! Don't forget to sign up for an account for regular updates and so you can comment on my blog post :)