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During a recent trip to Shanghai, I met with one of our trusted translators into Chinese, Liu Zhihua 刘志华. He’s a great guy who I know from way back – at least way back when he started translating for us in 2014. Seems longer than that, because he already completed an amazing 4,500 jobs for us. That’s more than four a day, counting 365 days a year. Not bad.

Originally, I mentioned casually to him that I’d be visiting Shanghai, and he was quick to offer to meet for a meal. “Great,” I said, “so would Sunday work for you?”. He quickly shot back: “Sure, see you then”. It was only later that I found out that he lives a whopping 800+ km away in Jinan in Northeast China. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “it takes no more than 3.5 / 4.5 hours to get down to Shanghai.” So much for distances in China! Of course, it helps that, by nature, Zhihua is an outstandingly friendly guy.

So, he came a-knocking at my hotel that Sunday morning and, after exchanging a few gifts as custom has it, we headed off into the teeming cauldron that is Shanghai. A quick morning bite of jumbo wonton dumplings at a local restaurant prepped us for the day ahead.

While navigating the electric scooters criss-crossing our path and politely declining offers from eager merchants en route, we made a peaceful stop at Yuyuan, a temple complex in the old part of town. Turns out it was peaceful only because we arrived early: after a zen-like spell in the temple grounds, the environs were swelling with a multitude of revellers, tourists and Chinese alike.

An ice tea and a feisty double espresso later (Starbucks pays homage at Yuyuan too) to steel us for the hot road ahead (30˚ C), we found ourselves craning our necks to take in China’s tallest in the form of Shanghai Tower, the beating heart of commercial Shanghai across the river in Pudong (meaning “East of the River Pu”). It’s a sight to behold.

Though I’ve completed many a pilgrimage to tall buildings, including glitzy spots in Asia, I apparently never tire of gazing at the cityscape from unreal heights. At 561.25 m, the viewing platform is definitely tall enough for me and, I think, for most other trippers who zoomed all the way up there in about 50 secs to blast their sense of real. Fastest elevators? World's highest observation deck? The world's third-tallest structure? Yes, yes and yes. At least until the next tallest-fastest-greatest manifests itself.

But China’s not just erecting taller-than-thou buildings, they also boast some of the biggest internet brands out there. Safely back on the ground, Zhihua continued his initiation into things Chinese for me: you don’t have Youku (an online video platform), IQiyi (another online video platform), QQ (instant messaging) and WeChat (instant messaging / Facebook /payment all rolled up into one)? Better get those down on your phone fast. It was one of those half-dizzying moments when I suddenly felt way behind – how could I not have these apps installed already? After getting with the programme, I’m one with the crowd. And the crowd is ever hungry, also for bodily sustenance.

Shanghai is dumpling ground par excellence, being home to the famed xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings: take a bite off the top layer of dough and slurp the scalding soup through the resulting opening, trying not to spray your shirt in the process. It’s a right furnace and you will burn your mouth. Douse the fire with a quick splash of tea (or some furious fanning), and repeat. No wonder the Chinese always think of their next meal even as they’re finishing one. Chinese cuisine, in its many forms, is tasty, ubiquitous and affordable. It all rhymes with lots of eating out, so that’s what the Chinese do. And when in China…

After maxing out myself on things Chinese, it was time to return to the motherland. What better way to say adieu than aboard the fabled maglev, a whirlwind of a train going all the way up to 430 km/h during the 8-minute trip to the airport. I know, another fastest. Though impressive, you kind of stop noticing the impressive facts after a while – there are just so many and they’re all around you, all the time. I guess that’s China for you. In the midst of the storm, there’s a calmness which translates into, “yeah, I know”. The visitor-turned-savvy, don’t you just hate those folks? But venture outside, and you can’t help being swept away for one mighty ride. And, really, the only question that remains is this: where to next?

By the way, Zhihua and I shot a short interview, so check it out below. We threw in a bit of Chinese for good measure (subtitled), but most of it is in English.

By Philip Philipsen