It's pretty clich¨¦d to say that Beijing is the cultural and political capital of China and Shanghai is more western, more stylish and wealthier. Unfortunately clich¨¦s, like urban myths, rumors and US Presidential elections, have some truth to them. Sure, sure, Beijing has the big ticket items: the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven; but once you've battled through crowds of people to wander through Beijing's once impressive monuments, there's little else to do but go home.
My definition of an interesting city is one that inspires me to walk; a place where the getting from place to place is as enjoyable as the place itself. I don't want to be too down on Beijing but I am yet to pause at the taxi door and say: "No thanks, I think I'll walk".
I have to confess that after nine months coughing and spluttering through the Beijing pollution, of being squashed into the Beijing subway and variously shivering and sweating through the extremes of its weather, as my skin got drier and drier, I was ready for my first trip to Shanghai.
At first glance Shanghai isn't appreciably different to Beijing. It has all the usual Chinese tourist attractions: thick pollution, dozens of high-rise buildings, constant construction, chaotic traffic and crowds of people. It has some significant and immediately obvious downsides too: expensive beer, bars ¨C at least the ones we found ¨C that I didn't like as much as the ones in Beijing, narrower streets and a street layout that's at times so confusing, it's tough for the new arrival to know which point of the compass they're facing.
There are three things, though, that Shanghai has that make it a more appealing city than Beijing.
The first, an abundance of parks and trees, Beijing can and will do something about; particularly with the Olympics looming in 2008. There is nothing so calming as a splash of green amidst the urban greyness. Shanghai has older, more established trees, which I can't blame Beijing for, it's only several thousand years old of course, and Shanghai appears to have more parks that, strangely enough, actually have people in them.
The other two things Beijing can do nothing about: nothing that is except feel envious and threaten to cut off funding to Shanghai. Beijing does, after all, control the purse strings.
The two are the river and the architecture.
The river is obvious; water relaxes a city and its inhabitants, gives a city a focus; connects it to other places, physically and in the imagination. Rivers are places to walk by, to look at, to sit by; rivers attract crowds, bring people together and allow you a perspective on a city. Proximity to water - Shanghai is near the sea as well - means a cool evening breeze, the smell of salt on the air and the lure of a world beyond the waves.
The Yangtze River, in Shanghai, is also one of the world most famous waterways and the greatest showcase for the third thing Shanghai has that Beijing lacks: the architectural magnificence of the Bund.
Whereas Beijing seems to be concerned with preserving it's ancient past and creating a dynamic future by pouring as much concrete as it can into the smallest possible area and demolishing anything in the way; you get a sense of history through Shanghai's architecture. Wandering down the ancient lanes of the Chinese sector, admiring the art deco treasures of the French Concession, or wondering how the magnificent buildings of the Bund survived the Communist, then Cultural Revolutions, you can see before you, in brick and stone and mortar, a living map of the development of the city. Sure there have been old buildings destroyed, sure there are tons of new high-rise apartments and funky modernist office blocks, but you can still see what was built at different times in Shanghai's history.
This simple fact turns Shanghai into a wonderful place to wander around and for me, puts it ahead of Beijing as a city.
When I arrived back in Beijing and flipped on the TV I came across a documentary on the old Beijing gates, which have long since been knocked down. Through the magic of CAD technology the gates and the city's walls were recreated in full color but I couldn't help thinking that in Shanghai; they were putting the technology to better use.
By Staff Writer Tim Stoney