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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Recommended personal protection during the SARS epidemic in China.

CHINA - Shanghai (Wk1. of 5 weeks)
Week 1 of World Tour

1. The SARS Farce

I've been in Shanghai for 6 days now (arrived 4.20pm Saturday, May 31) and I've hardly seen anyone wearing masks in the streets. The most common sight of masked people are the employees. Maybe they're told they have to wear them or maybe it's because they're in contact with so many people that they're just being cautious. All I've got to say is that no-one is taking it too seriously in Shanghai. With only about 10 deaths attributed to SARS amongst a population of 16 million people, it's understandably downplayed.

I thought I'd be going to a country so paranoid about getting SARS that everyone would jump with fear at the slightest cough by a stranger (or friend). But it's just the opposite. When someone coughs everyone just smiles and says "SARS!" with a sarcastic grin on their faces.

But I must admit the government is taking it very seriously. And so they should. It's devastating the economy by deterring maybe 70% of their regular tourists from visiting due to the hype built up by the media worldwide.

And this is what I've noticed � Basically, Shanghai is spotless!

- As soon as you get off the plane, you're met by large signs at the airport informing you that the airport has been disinfected.
- As you board the trains, light rail and buses, you notice the floors have been sprayed with disinfectant.
- The stores are spotless, and the staff are forever cleaning their areas.
- And the fines for spitting have been raised from 50 RMB to 200 RMB (AU$40) � about 10% of an average weekly wage.

Of course everyone owns a face-mask. Several, in fact. And there was no way I was going to be in China without trying one on. So on my first day out, I wore a mask for as long as I could (about 30 minutes). Don't laugh, but it's summer here and it gets very hot and stuffy under that mask. At the Bangkok airport, an Indian guy in a dark blue turban had one on for only about 15 minutes, and when he took it off you could see the sweat pouring off his beard.

Bangkok was an interesting experience. First of all, it's the quietest I've ever seen it, with not many people to be seen in the normally packed passageway through the terminal. Again the signs emphasized the cleanliness precautions the airlines had taken to prevent the spread of SARS.

I had arrived from Melbourne about 4 hours before my connecting flight to Shanghai, so I was one of the first to enter the waiting lounge (when it finally opened its doors for the passengers). And then it was like I was entering a SARS epidemic area.

Before they asked to see my passport and boarding pass, I had to fill out a SARS declaration form about the state of my health. Then once I lodged that with the airport ground staff, one of 2 nurses asked me to take a seat and placed a heat-sensitive tape across my forehead. The temperature was written down on my SARS form (along with the time it was taken) and only then was I allowed to proceed into the normal waiting area.

And it didn't end there. Forty minutes before landing at Shanghai, we were again asked to fill in THE SAME FORM! And our temperatures were taken again by on-board nurses. My temperature was fine both times, but a couple of passengers had temperatures of 38 degrees (the warning limit), and so we were all asked to stay on board for another 10 minutes before they got the all clear from the medical staff. It was obviously very embarrassing to the young ladies involved, because everyone was looking at them suspiciously.

My temperature? Well, it was 36.5 at Bangkok, but rose to 37.5 on the plane, so I wasn't much off being a target as well.

But I'm always looking for the positive in all this. And here's the biggest positive I noticed �

The flight from Melbourne to Bangkok was fully booked, and I was unfortunate enough to get stuck in the center seat of a 5-seat row. This meant that 2 people had to get up whenever I wanted to get up. Needless to say, I kept my movements to a minimum and only got up twice on my 9 hour flight. After all, I had to watch out for a fear more daunting than SARS � DTS, or Deep Thrombosis Syndrome. So exercising my legs was critical.

But on my flight from Bangkok to Shanghai, and into a SARS infected country, the plane was only about 25% filled, so I had the luxury of having 4 seats to myself. And many passengers took the same advantage to catch a few hours sleep as they slept across all 4 seats.

So my final analysis is that SARS is a grossly over-rated threat, though I agree with the precautions taken by the government because they have obviously curbed the increase of SARS throughout the world. And the side benefit of seeing China sparkling (not usually the norm) is a wonderful bonus.

But having said all of that, I'm glad I'm not going to Hong Kong or Beijing.

Flying kites at Century Park, one of Shanghai's largest parks.

2. Childrens Day

In Australia we only celebrate Mothers Day and Fathers Day. But in China, on the first day of June, they celebrate Childrens Day as well. And families go out in the parks in droves.

Century Park would have to be the nicest park I've been to in China. And I can honestly say it's on a par with the best parks in Australia, even giving the Melbourne Botanic Gardens a run for their money. But one thing Century Park has which the Botanic Gardens will never have, is wall to wall people � and atmosphere!

Century Park is so big that there's a light-rail (Metro) station at either end of it. The cleanliness is something which is unprecedented (probably due to the SARS precautions) and the architecture and landscaping tastefully designed. There's nothing tacky about this park!

But I did observe that almost every large tree was a recent plantation. Beijing is hosting the Olympic Games in 2008 and Shanghai is hosting the 2010 World Expo, so I guess they've got these trees planted early so they'll be well established by the time the hordes of tourists arrive for these international events. But this is something which China is brilliant at. Overnight transformations. Where else in the world do you here of parks created in a matter of a few days, or hospitals built in just over a week. But when you've got 1.3 billion people in the country, there's never a lack of manpower available.

After paying the 10 RMB (AU$2) to enter the park, I was immediately impressed by the kites in the air. Dozens of adults (and the occasional child) were merrily battling to keep their kites from becoming entangled with the other kites flying only metres away. Nothing boring about these kites. Some were traditional diamond shaped, others had tails and then others were shaped like butterflies, yet they were all brilliantly coloured in bold yellows, reds and blues.

It was around noon, and as I walked up a paved pathway disecting the park in two, I passed by many Chinese sellers. Most of them were selling kites, but there were a few unusual people too. One of them was busking, in the sense that he was playing what appeared to be a hand-made instrument, something like a violin which he played vertically on his lap. But the one which impressed me most was the guy who'd sat down with some reed leaves and began making little origami creatures out of the thin strips he tore off the leaves.

When I got there he was displaying a large (10 cm) grasshopper, which looked so real you half expected it to hop away. And as I stood in awe of his skills, he quickly completed a (40cm) coiled cobra. And rather than continuing to make the same creatures (maybe it was his ego), this man began to skillfully make a butterfly with a 15 cm wingspan. These creations sold as quickly as he could make them, and no wonder. At 2 RMB each (AU$0.44 cents), they were too good to refuse. On my return about an hour later, I noticed that he'd gone. A small amount of reed leave remnants marked the spot. But with this sort of occupation, these sellers can't risk staying there too long. Earning a living off the streets is illegal in China, and the Chinese have adopted a hit and run policy when it comes to trying to earn a little extra money to live on.

But I did have a little fun. In the middle of Century Park there's a small lake (20 minutes to walk around it). As I was walking around its perimeter, I saw a young boy (maybe 5 years old) with a camera, trying to photograph his parents. But every time he pointed it at them, they ran for cover. So in a friendly manner, I sat down on a rock near his parents and gestured him to take my photo. After a moments hesitation, and I guess a word of reassurance from his parents, he raised the camera to his eye and took my photo. Just like a young pro.

I'm sure that in years to come they'll look at that photo and remember the crazy Aussie guy who couldn't resist being photographed.

On Shanghai's famous Bund with some old colonial buildings in the background.

3. Shanghai Summer Nights

On my first night out, I walked to the local shopping center, a mere 6 minutes away. The road to the shopping center is along a black, smelly river, but it doesn't seem to bother the frogs which can be heard croaking in their hundreds.

And the first thing I noticed were the kites flying in the black sky. Most of the 20 or so kites in the sky, had small flashing lights which made it easy for them to be located hundreds of metres away. Yet others couldn't be seen at all. But I knew they were up there because I could see the guys holding the spools, and the lines definitely rose at a 45 degree angle with an unmistakably taught tension. But the location of the kite could only be left to my imagination.

One lady jumped excitedly and clapped her hands with glee as her husband released more line for his kite. And her husband remained cool as a cucumber, even though it was obviously a feat which deserved such enthusiastic acknowledgement. Others ran along the newly made road in an effort to launch their kites which had recently been grounded. But I couldn't help but smile at the number of people flying kites in their pyjamas!

Men, women and children in pyjamas could be seen everywhere! It was almost like they were making a fashion statement. They were walking in the streets, they were flying their kites, they were shopping in the supermarket, and they were also at the local dance!

Well, I'd better clarify that a little. In the car park outside the shopping center, there's a nightly ballroom dance from 7.30-9.30pm, next to the chinaware market. It's free, and the locals just come and dance to the music which comes from a CD player, or tape deck, with loud speakers. It's all very orderly, and the majority of the dancers are middle aged or older (as you may have guessed). It's very well attended with about 30 couples on the dance floor at any one time, while a greater number of people watch them from the wings.

And the pace never seems to wane. The shopping center closes at 10pm, yet even though the dancers have long since departed, you can still see hundreds of people in the streets.

Yes, even the ones flying their kites.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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