On our last day in Shanghai, we ventured away from the chaos of bustling city life, into a section of the city that was not yet in the throes of development. As we began our journey, we stopped for a red light at a six lane intersection. A few moments before we had arrived at the light, a motorized bicycle hauling recycled styrofoam through the intersection unknowingly dropped some of its cargo. The driver continued on, leaving a large flat piece of formerly white styrofoam in the road. As the lights changed, cars, bikes and people trampled over the discarded styrofoam, and the foam began to break apart. We waited, and watched, and after just a few minutes, the styrofoam had disintegrated into an artificial snow, covering the intersection in a haze of once-white debris. On an island in the middle of the street, children ran through the snowy haze as they waited for the light to change. And then it did. And the change was instantaneous.
One moment, we were navigating our way across a six lane mess of traffic and discarded styrofoam, and the next, we were away from everything; the traffic, the people, the noise, the smell. This was a pocket of Shanghai which had managed to escape absolutely everything about the traditional Chinese city. Trees grew along the well groomed road, maintained by a road service that rode three-wheeled motorized bikes and worked their way around bamboo brooms. Birds sang from the trees and dotted the grasslands. Fish grew in the polluted creeks along the well groomed road, and old men on mopeds squatted and smoked as they fished for dinner on the side of a quiet road of a modernized Chinese city.
A mile or so down the road, amid the silence of the road out of Shanghai, we arrived at an empty stop light, and noticed a crowd of onlookers beyond the light. In the center of the crowd was a car smashed against a tree in the middle of the road. No one was speaking, and no one seemed emotional about the wreck. They simply stared, arms folded, heads down, baffled by the strength of the tree against a demolished car. We continued on.
About 200-feet from the road, every mile or so, a new development was under construction on both sides of the road. Soon, the road would be covered with everything we had left behind in Shanghai, but for now, it was a respite from the city. Signs along the road dotted the entrance ways to the high rise construction sites, with names like “Gold Cloud Apartments” and “Apartments By The Sea,” which sat in front of an artificial lake along the road. Outside, the bus stops sat empty.
Our destination was a skatepark at the end of the road. Guarded by government workers, virtually free to enter and basically empty, the SMP Skatepark wasn’t what I was expecting when we arrived. The park was vast, expertly built and occupied by scattered groups of English, Australian and American families. No Chinese people were present at the park except for the two guards at the entrance; they also sold beer and pizza out of their outhouse-sized guard house.
Two hours later, after a skatepark session in the sun, we were ready to depart. The skatepark was limitless, and fun, and vastly overstated, just like the rest of Shanghai’s modernized construction projects. We departed. On the ride back into the center of the city, we encountered much of the same occurrences as the ride to the skatepark. Although now, we were in a different mode; a sort of “It’s so peaceful out here, let’s not forget it” air ran through us as we pedaled back down the same road. The car smashed against the tree remained, as did the government landscapers on three-wheeled bikes. I think we were the same too; the air just smelled a tiny bit better on the outskirts of the city and that did more than we probably realized. In a matter of minutes, that had changed, and we were back in the boisterous area of downtown Shanghai, surrounded by masses of buses, bikes, dogs wearing shoes and more styrofoam snow.
The next day, we began our journey home. Passing Longdong Road on the way to Pudong Airport, drinking cheap beers after making it through airport security, wondering what was next. I’ve only spent a total of ten days in China, but I’d like to go back and trace the line that leads from major city to tributary extension and back, just like we did on our last day this past June.