January 2, 2011

Shanghai's Seven Levels

The human content of our tightly packed elevator spilled out on what we thought was the ground floor of Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.  Instead we were met with bright flashing lights, large plastic cartoon characters and the aural delight that only a busy arcade can bring. We glanced out a window and realized we were still high above the ground.

Thinking back, the arcade was like a sick horror show and all I remember is a loud, colorful blur and the frantic search for the green “exit” sign.

Alex and I decided to spend the first day of 2011 in one of the world’s greatest cities. We took the brand new bullet train, enjoying a smooth, clean and spacious one-hour ride into Shanghai. The train’s top speed was 350 km/hour (217 mph) and aside from my ears popping, it was a great ride.

Shanghai’s train station was gleaming and gargantuan and we found the subway station easily to go meet our friend. Once we were en route, we were reflecting back on our first trip to Shanghai (World Expo) and how much we’ve learned since. We were excited to fearlessly navigate a city twice the size of New York. Little did we know our second trip to Shanghai would prove to be as weird as our first.

We met up with Jenn and her family and went to the Oriental Pearl Tower. We decided to go to the top and afterwards we were going to check out a nearby market.

It was 4:20 p.m. when we purchased our tickets for the top. Our train returning to Hangzhou was set to leave at 8:20 p.m.

There was no line for the tickets and there were very few people climbing the steps to the tower’s entrance. However, China stayed true to its love for hiding anything that might appear unpleasant and we quickly found ourselves in a labyrinth of a line.

The line involved two sets of elevators, one long, skinny hallway and plenty of curves around the cylindrical elevators.

We finally got to the top at 6:30.

The view was incredible… or it could have been if we would have had better attitudes. At that point we were just happy to be able to move at our own free will. The train was also in the back of our minds; Lord knows if it was that hard to get to the top, it was bound to be awful getting back down again.

Shanghai’s iconic skyline was laid out before us in a neon and incandescent glow. We saw the World Financial Center, one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Jin Mao tower, The Bund, and many of Shanghai’s 1,000 other skyscrapers. (I’m not exaggerating, there really are 1,000…).

After a quick lap around the top, we decided we better leave. The curved flight of stairs to the level below was the first of too many levels of a dizzying inferno. We literally had to walk in circles at each new level to get to the exit to take us down a few floors at a time.

We hit the arcade at the halfway point of our descent. The only exit sign we could see on the floor led us to staff-only elevators. We asked a concession worker how to get down, she led us back to the creepy industrial elevators. Not surprisingly, they didn’t work.

We went to another staffer who recognized the panic in our eyes, and he showed us a staircase that would take us to the elevator to the ground floor.

A roller coaster greeted us at the bottom of the flight of stairs. A damn roller coaster. I mean, really… why wouldn’t a skyscraper have a roller coaster in it?

We found the little green exit sign and quickly walked down one more flight of stairs and finally saw an elevator with a sign that said “elevator to take you to bottom floor.” Thank God.

Of course we were packed tighter than a can of tuna and Alex and I were wedged up against the back wall. We emerged and thought we had survived all seven layers of hell. Oh no, there was more.

We were led through an mélange of souvenir shops where one could buy anything from jade to creepy dolls to giant Hello Kitty stuffed animals. At last we made it outside and went straight to the subway to get back to the train station.

Thirty minutes later we were noshing on Subway sandwiches in the station and shortly thereafter we were blazing back to Hangzhou at more than 200 mph.

Having been to Shanghai twice now, I feel like I still have seen nothing. The city might sparkle, but it has it out to deceive Alex and I to no end.

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