VIDEO: Whenever I visit a new city, I like to turn on the radio to get some local flavor. As we ride our taxi in from the airport, Shanghai's airwaves taste like Chinese barbecue: exotic, but familiar!
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"Ni hao!" (hello), I said to my cab driver.
As the tourist web sites had told me, Shanghai's taxi companies each had their own color for vehicles and the two most preferable were Da Zhong (turquoise) and Qiangsheng (yellow). I had walked out of the American Airlines terminal at Pudong International Airport (PVG) and was quickly guided to the spot where debarking passengers were queuing up for cabs. When it was my turn, I was pointed to a yellow Volkswagen Santana, a version of the Passat sold in Asia. ¡Oye como va! We wrestled my big suitcase into the trunk. With four days of interviews and social events ahead of me, I came loaded down with more wardrobe changes than Madonna.
"Jin Mao," I told the driver.
The Mandarin words mean "golden luxury", but in Shanghai it is also a destination, the 88-story Jin Mao building, one of the tallest buildings in the world. "Pudong?" asked the driver, referring to the district. "Yes," I said. I had photos of the building on my iPhone and I figured if the words "Jin Mao" weren't good enough, a photo would get the point across. It was also a good screening device. If the driver didn't recognize the second tallest building in town, he wouldn't be driving me anywhere.
Off we went down the Yingbin Expressway. Hey... I was on the road in China! I wanted to see the traffic, the neighborhoods and the people and just like Chicago, I would be watching for Shanghai's supertall buildings on the horizon on the way in.
The trip from the airport to Pudong took about 45 minutes, going from a new looking, four-lane elevated expressway onto older ground-level expressways and then urban arterials. There was some major construction along the route including the beginnings of another raised expressway. About 10 miles from downtown, I got my first look at the Shanghai World Financial Center through a heavy haze. Just like back home, it wasn't always possible to see the buildings downtown from a distance when the air was stagnant. The "bottle opener" outline of SWFC was barely visible, but there it was! The scale was familiar. We were at about the same distance as my old west suburban Chicago neighborhood is to the Sears (Willis) Tower.
For 3 o'clock on a Monday afternoon, the pace here felt considerably less hectic than what I would have expected in a big city at this time of day, but then again most people rely on the Shanghai Metro, a very good and continually growing system of trains, subways and buses. I saw kids walking home from school and people riding bicycles and scooters to the right of traffic. We passed through city park land and by Yuanshen Stadium, which seats about 20,000.
We turned onto Lujiazui Ring Road, which parallels the Huangpu River. We were a mile from Shanghai's big three skyscrapers and I was finally getting some good views. Shanghai World Financial Center is 1614 feet (492m) tall, some 160 feet taller than the Sears/Willis Tower. I noted with satisfaction the Shanghai Tower, which will eventually reach 2073 feet (632m) was at better than half height. My destination, the Jin Mao Building, is the shortest of the trio at 1380 feet (421m), taller than the Empire State Building.
These three buildings stand literally across the street from each other, but I was equally interested in them as civic icons, how they looked against the backdrop of different neighborhoods, how people who live in Shanghai experience them every day -- from a distance and from different parts of the city. Imagine an impressionist painting of a Paris street scene with the Eiffel Tower on the horizon. Unfortunately, I didn't have time during my trip to ride around and look for the views that would frame these buildings in the character of the city. I'd have to settle for photos and video from the cab window as we approached.
Suddenly, just like that, I was at the feet of the three giants as my cab emerged from a tunnel under Century Avenue. The buildings together at this short distance were massive and spectacular, another kind of "great wall" that is also unique in the world. Here was my first big look at a scene with which I would be transfixed for my entire visit.
After so many years, my tall building dreams had deposited me here, more than 7000 miles from home -- in a place that had been nothing but farm fields two decades ago, on a spot I had read about, seen in pictures and imagined for more than 15 years. More than a few city planners, architects and engineers had been busy dreaming too, and now this was one of the centers of the skyscraper universe.
It would also be my home for the next four days.