My destination in mainland China was Shanghai plus two day trips to other cities (Hangzhou and Zhouzhuang). The progress of Shanghai in the last 25 years is astonishing. Check out the following then and now pictures. It's amazing! It is a modern city with first-class infrastructure; the airport, streets, public transportation, buildings etc. are brand-new and state-of-the-art. Europeans and Americans could get envious when comparing this with the deteriorating infrastructure back home. It is part of the basic contract between government and people: rising living standards in exchange for the acceptance of the Communist Party's monopoly of power.
Furthermore, the new wealth of Chinese consumers can be seen everywhere. For instance, they love German luxury cars. It is unbelievable how many Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Porsche are on Shanghai's streets. Other luxury items from brands such as Prada or Louis Vuitton are also doing very well. And it seems that modesty or understatement is not very popular in China. If you have money, you show it. It's not like in San Francisco where billionaires don't mind to take public transportation (Jack Dorsey) or wear hoodies (Mark Zuckerberg).
However, one shouldn't be dazzled by Shanghai's glitz. The city only shows the surface of a huge country with an increasing wealth gap. For every millionaire in China, there are thousands of people who still live in poverty without proper social security. This income inequality can become a big problem (not only in China, the same is true for the US and Europe). In addition, the issue of the government's suppression of human rights such as freedom of speech is not really felt by a foreigner on vacation (except the limited internet access), but it exists and shouldn't be forgotten.
America's political and economical power in the world is in distress particularly if compared with China. However, being in China clearly showed me another aspect of American power, which is the cultural influence. It is amazing to see how Chinese people adapt to the lifestyle defined by American companies: drinking coffee at Starbucks, eating McDonald's burgers, using mobile devices from Apple, or watching Hollywood movies. I believe that even with increasing Chinese power, the "American way of life" will keep shaping the lifestyle of people worldwide.
Two things that drove me nuts in China. First, car and scooter drivers constantly honk. Although there is a perfectly working signal system, people always use the horn to gain attention. Annoying. But I guess this becomes even worse in South-East Asia. Second, the concept of a waiting line is not well understood. There were always people who went in front of me while I was waiting in line without showing any sense of guilt. Just following the rules don't always work in China, you need to be more assertive.
Pudong is a new district in Shanghai and basically its financial and commercial hub. It is located along the east side of the Huangpu River across from the historic city center. This area used to be little developed agricultural land but has grown rapidly since the 1990s. All of Shanghai's supertall skyscrapers are in Pudong including the Shanghai World Financial Center (492 m/1,614 ft), Oriental Pearl Tower (468 m / 1,535 ft), Jin Mao Tower (421 m / 1,380 ft) and the currently under construction Shanghai Tower (632 m / 2,073 ft).
Shanghai is with approximately 23 million people one of the largest cities in the world. It is funny that when I was younger I thought Frankfurt is a big city. In China everything is on a different scale as compared with Germany. Very fascinating. And all those people have to live somewhere. The obvious solution is to build many residential towers. This solves the problem, but unfortunately makes the city not very pretty in my opinion.
I had a really fun night with a guy from Japan. We met at a Japanese restaurant (of course) and drank a lot of sake and beer. After getting in a good mood, we moved to a hotel bar and switched from beer/sake to cocktails. We got definitely drunk that night. I also hit the stage with the goal to support the singer of the evening. Didn't really work out though. :) Jeez, I had a bad headache the next day. Worth it though.
The day trips to Hangzhou and Zhouzhuang were a welcome change to busy Shanghai and provided also a different perspective of the country. As soon as you leave the city center, the differences between modern and traditional China become obvious. The countryside offers more natural beauty, but is clearly behind the economic powerhouse Shanghai in terms of development and infrastructure.
I thought that it was hot in Japan but China completely blew my mind. The country experiences one of the hottest summers in decades with temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) plus high humidity. Crazy. I actually can handle heat pretty well, but have to admit that this pushed me to my limits. Also, in Asia people not only use umbrellas when it is raining, but also when the sun is shining.