Shanghai: Coming Alive

by Tara Russell, Apr 20, 2003 | Destinations: China / Shanghai

Daybreak. A ballet. No word better describes the movement and activity beginning to stir on and around the streets of Shanghai. Swift movement, strength, and diversity consume the streets creating what seems an orchestrated performance, day in and day out. Rush hour. It begins as soon as the daylight starts to illuminate the streets, and technically, it doesn't end until the sun goes down. However, rush hour in China is somewhat different than we're used to, it consists not of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but primarily bicycle tire to bicycle tire traffic in combination with buses and taxis scattered throughout the mass of two-wheelers. The streets murmur with the hum of the daily passengers bustling to and fro. Whistles blow, horns honk, and the screeching of bus and taxi tires fills the silent gaps. Everything in Shanghai appears to be moving. Energy fills the air as those who aren't in transit to work line the streets and practice tai chi, stretch, or ballroom dance. My eyes are constantly stimulated by the overwhelming amount of activity, so much so that I find it difficult to focus in on any one particular action for fear of missing something else. I walk briskly down the uneven pavement, dodging the approaching bicyclers, people waiting at the bus stop, and those unexpected obstacles along the sidewalk. Bicycles and buses are the most commonly used methods of transportation in the city. The amount of people using bicycles is so massive that rather than designating an HOV lane during working hours, one lane is reserved specifically for bicycle traffic. From 7 o'clock in the morning to 5 o'clock in the evening, any vehicles other than bicycles that use this lane will be fined. And though we are accustomed to seeing anywhere from two to four lanes of traffic headed in each direction on big city major roads, the major streets of Shanghai typically contain merely two lanes of traffic headed in each direction. During "rush hour," only one lane then remains for the taxis, buses, and personal vehicles. Vehicles and bicycles control the streets, men and women begin to set up shop along the sides of the road, and people linger in clumps on nearly every spot of concrete left vacant. Some men crouch on the ground, scattering wheels, chains, and other spare bicycle parts creating the neighborhood bicycle repair shop. Women knead dough, roll dumplings, and stir the oil pooled in the bottom of the giant frying pans lining the roads. The smells pierce my nostrils, varying greatly as I continue along the road. Some attract me, leading me closer to their food stands or carts. I see and smell eggs, various steamed buns, and several fried dough concoctions being cooked before my eyes. Other smells repeal me, quickening my every step along the road. The sewer is often not visible, but the potency of the smell frequently reminds me that it cannot be too far away. I now reach the corner, ready to cross the street. The sea of bicycles appears endless as I stand on the corner attempting to cross the immense barrier. Though hundreds of bicycles stand before me, they seem to move in unison as one being. The light changes to red, and they screech to a halt what are just inches before the vehicles and bicycles zooming perpendicular to the stopped bikes. Men and women both, layered in pant and skirt suits, long coats, and various winter accessories, pedal furiously carrying purses, other satchels, and often food of some sort. The attentiveness required to watch, let alone ride, is immeasurable. Though I witness numerous near misses in mere instances, I am amazed that I'm yet to observe a massive collision. Finally, I safely reach the other side. The sounds are enchanting. They range from the beautiful singing of birds to the deafening blares of car horns. I hear slow, soothing music echoing from an tape recorder as I walk past a group of 10 to 20 men and women ballroom dancing in a small clearing adjacent to the road. Laughter and commotion linger ahead as I spot a small group of men seated snugly around a small box playing cards. On the opposite side of the road, I hear new music, faster and livelier than the first. Twenty to thirty women, dressed in similar jogging suits, perform aerobics in unison behind the designated leader. All of this activity interspersed by the intermittent honking and the distinct bird voices. The city awakes. People head to offices, children go to school, and others remain along the roads with jobs to do, food to sell, and money to be made. Each day brings new life and excitement to the streets of Shanghai.