Monday, 25 May 2015 Filed in: Shanghai | Snugglepunk | Little A | Mr Oh
My soul is a cultural wasteland. I don't read books that were written more than five years ago. I hate the theatre (one-man plays, in particular, make me want to claw at my brain). I don't see the point in concerts - if I want to listen to Chopin, I'll do it from my kitchen while drinking wine and eating leftover Shepherd's Pie. To Mr Oh's dismay, I don't even like gigs, unless there are seats, and wine. I'm not fond of museums or galleries (no seats, no wine). I quite like old churches (seats and sometimes wine), but that's about the limit of things I'll traipse out to look at. My cultural aversion is such that I may be the only person to visit Beijing and not bother going to the Great Wall. We did go to Tiananmen Square - big square, not much to see. And we stood outside the Forbidden Palace (I took a wild guess that seats and wine were not among the forbidden enjoyments inside).
In Shanghai, there isn't much to see by way of culture anyway. The city itself is the attraction - the people, the alleyways, the buildings, the street food, the smells...ok, maybe not the smells...but the rest of it is pretty great. Mr Oh is a bit more into seeing 'stuff' than I am and a few weeks ago, in a rare show of spousal compliance, I agreed to accompany him to the Shanghai Museum to look at stuff. There were a lot of vases. And people looking at vases. It did not change my opinion on museums, or vases.
But, there is one museum that I have been waiting a long time to visit - the newly opened Shanghai Natural History Museum. If there is one thing that will make me leave the house with two children before 8am on a weekday, it's a building full of dinosaur bones and stuffed monkeys. There aren't many things happening in Shanghai that appeal to an almost 3-year-old boy - so tales of long queues and massive crowds be damned - we were going to the Natural History Museum whether it was any good or not.
In my experience of Chinese museums, the verdict tends to fall more heavily on the 'not' side of things. China has a particular skill when it comes to tourism fail. I once visited a limestone cave somewhere in Jiangsu Province to find that it was covered in pink neon strip lighting. Places of interest are rammed with gabbling tour groups, the members of which are so busy documenting their experience that they forgot to have the experience in the first place. If you don't have a video of it, it didn't happen. Chinese tourists also seem to be of the view that if there aren't another 15,000 people doing the same thing as you, at the same time, it's probably not worth doing, or videoing.
We tend to avoid anything touristy in China - partly because it's always aiming for, but never quite being, any good. And partly because Little A and Snugglepunk usually become the attraction, and without swift intervention, get swallowed by a sea of people, documenting them, touching their heads and trying to pose for photos with them. Only yesterday, a woman in a park got quite angry with me because I refused to let her hold Snugglepunk, as if he were some kind of communal baby I was failing to share with her. And the day previously, as Mr Oh and Little A were crossing the road, a man crossing in the opposite direction reached down and touched Little A's face as he walked past, like rubbing a good luck charm. He's lucky Little A didn't bite him. He's lucky I didn't bite him. He's particularly lucky that Mr Oh didn't notice it happening. I'm going to have to consider hanging a sign around their necks...No Touching or Feeding The Foreign Babies.
Anyway, we were willing to brave the early morning start, the unwanted attention, the queues, the crowds, the public toilets, the likelihood that it would be terrible - all in the name of culture, stuffed monkeys and Little A's love of dinosaurs.
We got there half an hour after it opened. The queue was long, snaking back and forth in front of the building (which was pretty swish and fancy). Now if there's one thing the Chinese do not like doing, it is forming an orderly queue. Everyone's a queue hopper and we had only been in the queue for a few seconds before people started pushing past us towards the front. I stuck out my elbows and gave one pushy granny a good dig in the ribs. Undeterred, she plowed on past me and I was, at that moment, unwilling to take her down with a full force body slam. She was probably 90 so I would have had an unfair advantage. But the next guy wasn't getting away so easily. I put my arm out as he tried to sidle past me and in my best angry Chinese said 'Nuh-uh Mister, get to the back of the queue'. He was apologetic (I hate it when they do that, it ruins my flow) and was like 'I'm terribly sorry but I have to get there" pointing to some people ahead of me. I was still a bit suspicious and questioned him 'You got some pengyous in the queue ahead'. He nodded furiously "Yes, my wife and son". Wife and son were waving at me at this stage. Darn - I thought - as I waved him past - I'm too soft for this. Just as I was pumping myself up with an internal pep talk on the importance on being firm with the queue dodgers, a fight broke out behind me. One old lady was pushing another one into the railings and kicking her feet as she tried to sneak down the line. I was quite relieved. I'm not cut out for assaulting the elderly.
The queue moved surprisingly fast and we were through the front doors in no time. There was a totally ineffectual and token security check as is customary wherever groups of people gather in China. There's a lot of waving around of metal detectors and patting down of bags without any real purpose. It's always unclear to me what they are looking for...semi-automatic machine guns perhaps. You'd probably root those out in a bag pat.
The new Natural History Museum is a pretty impressive building. It's all glass and shiny and no one is spitting on the floor. There's English everywhere and big sign saying "Extrance" (seriously, you spend millions on a state of the art fully bilingual museum, with totally perfect English at all the exhibits, and a big Extrance sign over the door....sigh).
After that though, it was actually very good. I mean, it was totally mobbed naturally but it was really impressive. There were realistic life size dinosaur models that moved and roared so Little A spent much of the visit screaming and wailing 'I wanna go home' and 'Don't let the dinosaur eat me!'. There was one random floor where a sad little canteen sold illuminous mystery meat on a stick and viscous liquids of indeterminate composition which reminded me that I was still in China, but other than that, it was a top class international offering. So often when reading reviews of hotels or attractions on TripAdvisor, you see phrases like 'It was pretty good, by Chinese standards' or 'The zoo wasn't totally depressing...there was a nice bench and one of the penguins seemed relatively healthy'. So, it's nice to see somewhere that really is good. Not just China good - but actually good. Yeah there were still masses of people walking around with their smartphones stuck in front of their faces videoing the whole thing and there was one particularly boring exhibit on the native wildlife of the Shanghai area (presumably before the only wildlife were rats and over-dressed poodles) which had the familiar dated and slightly faded feel of other Chinese museums (it was strangely comforting)...but there were all kinds of animals and dinosaurs and loads of bones and enough stuffed monkeys to make a taxidermist cry.
I was exhausted. Mr Oh was delighted. Little A was traumatised. Snugglepunk was fairly unfazed. We would totally go again. Early.