August 15, 2008

Shanghai - a traveler’s experience - some insights (Part2)

I wondered what is that makes this city so vibrant. The population of the inner city is massive > 1 crore - yet there is some orderliness that is visible. The traffic density is high, lane cutting, honking, overtaking but still driving in lanes. The infrastructure is massive - these people have a vision. I think they are planning for the next 2 decades at least. They have set up a Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) train from the city to the airport that takes 7 minutes to cover 30 kms - reaching a peak speed of 431 kmph! And this is termed as a demo project. This is likely to be rolled out to other cities soon.

While Beijing is done with the Olympics 2008 preparations, Shanghai is busy with the Expo 2010 preparations - amazing! This place is a real example of what a good government can do. In Beijing, to combat air pollution for the Olympics, the odd-even rule for traffic has been enforced - implying depending on your number plate, you can drive your car only on alternate days. This was experimented a few months back so that they know what it takes to implement it. The new airport terminal built there is bigger than any entire airport in Asia - even bigger the entire London Heathrow airport. The new terminal at Shanghai airport is also huge. That is the amazing part - to be able to visualize the next 2 decades, plan and execute to it. At the same time, they have also figured out aesthetic, yet cheaper, options for their infrastructure.

The trust in the system is high - it was evident when I witnessed one road accident at 7 am involving a taxi and bicycle. A small crowd gathered, but there was no shouting or fighting. The cyclist remained sitting on the road till the police and ambulance arrived. The taxi driver accompanied the cyclist to the hospital and came back after some time to pick up his taxi.

Such a system can also result in some interesting mandates - the government has mandated the stock market fund managers not to give any bearish outlook till Olympics are over, people have been asked to improve driving habits to create a good impression, citizens have been instructed not to ask foreign visitors about their age, wage and sex life and religious/ political beliefs. There are posters/ signboards also put up with these instructions. Anyone present during the rehearsal of the Olympics opening ceremony and found leaking out the secret on the details will be jailed for 7 years! Believe me; the authorities are capable of finding it out and implementing it.

Known for its communist policies and one-party rule, the system has produced quite some results. As an example, certain CPG industries that have high profit margins (like chips, soft drinks) need to have around 50% government holding. This would ensure that these profits go to the government and are more evenly distributed in terms of the infrastructure and other facilities. For this to work, however, you need good faith in the system and its delivery capabilities.

Not to say that there are no problems beneath this good looking layer, but the way things work - is something worth a look. Other economies also work in their own way - we can surely borrow some good learning from each other... Hopefully, we (as individuals, society, and administration) can learn from other parts of the world and also share some of our learning with others!

August 03, 2008

Shanghai - a traveler's experience - (Part1)

In the last decade of my travel, China was one country that did not figure on my passport pages. So, when it was certain that I have to travel to China, it sure came along with some anxious moments. In the basic list of 'Roti, Kapada aur Makaan' - food would be the primary concern for any traveler with strict vegetarian preferences. Anyways, I started my journey with the confidence that if the divine has approved the travel, it will ensure that it will be a great experience :-))

Shanghai - the word evokes a mixed response before you reach there. You wonder what the city would be like - one hears so many things about China and the restrictions, yet you also know that Shanghai is a place that has opened up its gates to the rest of the world with ease. The first ride in the city from the Airport to the hotel was a real long one - reminded me of Devanhalli Airport to JP Nagar (Bangalore). You are taken by surprise at the kind of infrastructure that exists - the roads, flyovers, metro rail and the magnificent skyline.

The real adventure starts after this - when you see Chinese characters all over the place with bits of English words sprinkled like seasoning. I wondered what it would be like in smaller towns/ cities outside Shanghai. You do have a couple of international TV channels along with one local English channel (surprise) to keep your connection with rest of the world alive. Getting your way around is like playing dumb-charades or pictionary. We landed up in a local shop to buy some basic groceries - only to realize that the shop owner did not understand what 'sugar' is! After attempting some sign languages, an idea struck me. There were some items that had the ingredients written both in Chinese and English and also had sugar in there - so after matching the sequence, I showed the owner one Chinese word from the ingredients list - and that did the trick and we got what we wanted :-) I ended up using this many times - I guess you need to be innovative not only at work but even in a shop!

You have many options for getting around in Shanghai - if you can continue to be innovative. To save our energy for work, we limited ourselves to the taxis. An interesting concept used is the id number for each taxi driver. This is a six-digit number implying that lower the number, more experienced that driver is - so, if you the number starts with 0 or 00, you can be sure that you will reach your destination is the least time and fare. Although we had over hotel/ office address written on a card, we had lot of variations in the route, time and fare. What we figured out was that either we have the map of the address or the nearby intersections clearly mentioned - having just the street address is not enough. After we did this - everyday - it was exactly the same route.

The high rise buildings dotting the skyline are amazing - each with its own style and size. Anything less than 15-20 floors is not even a visible part of the skyline. I will post some of the pictures. In the meantime, Google devta can help you. Check this list - the tallest so far - Shanghai World Financial Center has 101 stories and is has a long story behind the design. There seems to be some common pyramid like top in most of these structures. You wonder how did they ever build such things in these crowded business districts...

Just when you started noticing the development all around and mistook it for an European or American city - you realize that the people are very different - closer to home :-) Getting a taxi on the road is a small adventure - you have to walk on the road and jump into an empty taxi. Do not worry about what others will think - while in Rome, be like Romans! One evening around 8 pm, it rained heavily - and it is the same with taxi drivers in Shanghai or auto drivers back home. We had taxis refusing to go and some asking for 5 times the normal fare. Finally after 30-40 minutes of futility, we got one guy to agree at double the normal fare.

They say - to get a real local experience, go shopping. You will meet a wide cross section and get to know the pulse of the city. The local markets are famous for the 'fake branded stuff' - so I went out to enhance my wardrobe with some hi profile brands. Bargaining is the law of the land. Do not be afraid to bargain - quote your price, you may just get it! The golden rules that I followed
Think of how much you would have paid in an Indian local market for slightly good quality stuff - convert into local currency and quote slightly lower.
Do not be overwhelmed by the first price that gets quoted - that may be 2-20 times higher than the actual.
Even if asked, do not make the first move.
Know the rule - "An Indian cannot stay without asking for a bargain, and a Chinese cannot stay without giving one"!

Coming to food - there are approx 20 Chinese Veg restaurants in Shanghai itself - apart from the occasional dishes that you can get at other places (Italian, Indian, Thai, etc...). If you are wondering about the Chinese Veg restaurants, these serve 'fake meat' (with a tofu and related products base) - these are sure to be veg (even the oil that is used). There was one chain that even offered food without onion/ garlic if you want. These are more expensive than a normal local restaurant - however, still cheaper than any of the international cuisine (including Indian). Since, some of this veg stuff can tend to have strong meat/ seafood taste - you may not like all the preparations. There was one innovative idea that we encountered - that of a 3PL in food-delivery. There is an agency named 'Sherpa' that has tie ups with a large number of restaurants. You can call them up (talk in English) and order food from any restaurant listed in their directory. The charges for delivery are reasonable and is dependent of the distance between the restaurant and your location.

Continued... (in Part2 - some insights)