Shanghai is like Tokyo on speed; whilst Tokyo is very polite China tours and ordered, Shanghai is raw and very full on. The driving, especially cabs drivers, are nerve-racking and very funny - you haven't seen so much horn abuse anywhere; everyone seems to have a hair trigger behind the wheel.
When building projects grew scarce in the United States a few years ago, the California architect Robert Steinberg opened an office in Shanghai. He says he didn’t understand the city until the night he dined with some prospective clients. “I was Yangtze River cruises trying to make polite conversation and started discussing some political controversy that seemed important at the time,” he recalls. “One of the businessmen leaned over and said, ‘We’re from Shanghai. We care only about money. You want to talk politics, go to Beijing.’ ”
This great cosmopolitan metropolis has a colourful colonial background which had the edge rubbed off of it during half a century of Communist rule. It was the first Chinese coastal port to be opened to Western trade in 1843, resulting in an influx of British, French and American diplomats and business interests, each of which established their own independent enclaves. In the Shanghai tours 1920s and 30s Shanghai was regarded as a glamorous, decadent and fashionable place to visit. It all ended with World War II and the coming to power of the Communist party, but since the early 1990s a dramatic re-building programme has been underway which is aimed at putting Shanghai back on the map as a major international finance and trade centre. The World Financial Centre, completed in 2008, is one of the tallest buildings of them all and the world's tallest hotel.
Old China hands will tell you that getting a feel for one of the world's most ancient Shanghai tours civilisations and fastest-growing modern economies takes a lifetime – if it can be done at all. But what if, like me, you only have a long weekend as part of a longer tour – so that's four millennia of civilisation in as many days...
The Forbidden City and the Great Wall will keep, they're not going anywhere. Unlike Shanghai, one of the world's fastest-changing cities – my plan is to fast forward into the future there, then slam on the brakes in Hangzhou. As Kyoto is to Tokyo, Hangzhou is to Shanghai, its temples and forests where many Chinese think the ancient soul of the country lives on.