I had noticed the City Sightseeing tourist bus passing me several times in the last few days but resisted its lure as I had already been on their Bath Tour and Stuttgart Tour. They really are the McDonalds of the tourist bus world running their operation in some 35 countries worldwide. I looked more closely at their display, however, and realised that this Shanghai outfit are not connected to them at all, they are owned by a Chinese budget airline who have lifted the name and branding. They are the fake City Sightseeing. I needed no further convincing and, with my wife, bought two 24-hour tickets.
The upper deck was jammed full so we went downstairs, plugged in the headphones and listened to the commentary. It was anodyne stuff delivered in a smooth, slow voice by an American woman: the sound of corporate America fine-tuned for an international crowd. What piqued my interest was the Kenny G soundtrack. While his music is more likely to raise sarcastic comments in the UK, they have a thing for him in China. His music has, since the 90s become the byword for Western sophistication. Until recently, his smooth saxophone was the default soundtrack for cafes trying to appear upmarket, it might still be in less developed areas, I have been into outdoor parks that pump Kenny G and his song Going Home has become the unofficial 'time to go home' music that establishments play at the end of the day.
City Sightseeing offers five lines that cross the city and it is excellent value for money with a 24-hour hop-on hop-off ticket costing just 30 RMB ($5). The service is mostly popular with domestic tourists but there was a smattering of foreigners too.
After a little while, the bus pulled up where the red and green routes converge and over ambled a man selling drinks in an innovative way. He lifted his bamboo rod up high and from the top of it passengers could grasp a bottle of water and leave the money for it. Simple but effective. We pulled away and a young boy in front of us immediately started wriggling uncomfortably. His mother unceremoniously lifted him up, tried unsuccessfully to get the driver to stop the bus, then took him to the door in the centre of the bus where he started peeing. All this to Kenny G. We went upstairs at the first opportunity.
The consoles were in multiple languages but, interestingly, the information was not identical. In the Chinese commentary, but not the English one, the guide told passengers not to toss rubbish over the side of the bus from the top deck.
The soundtrack was activated by GPS: as the bus travelled forward it triggered a new track that referred to a building by the side of the route up ahead. The snag was, sometimes the bus travelled quickly and we skipped onto the next track without ever finishing the previous one. This is an endemic problem which buses that use recordings, rather than live guides, inevitably face.
One thing this tour did do was introduce me to many new bustling, unfamiliar sites in the city centre. Every two minutes the bus would round a new corner where there was again a similar mass of bodies. I should be used to it by now since I live in China, but the sheer numbers remain dizzying. Shanghai has an official population of 24 million and unofficial estimate of 30 million. While I had absolutely no desire to step out and be absorbed into these crowds, it felt good to observe it in order to get a sense of scale.
The bus sometimes got stuck in unglamorous spots such as beside this toilet and refuse site. I'm not sure, but there might also be some recycling going on in this place; there certainly was a lot of it on the audio recording. I remember hearing the same story about how the city got its name and its symbol at least three times. It seemed that whenever they didn't have anything very interesting to say they'd just stick this story back in there one more time. Well, either that or the Kenny G song Jasmine Flower.
The bus seemed to move forwards through the Shanghai traffic in fits and starts and filled up and emptied with little obvious rhyme or reason. The driver occasionally shouted instructions into the microphone, a frustrated Chinese Dalek, but the tourists ignored him content in a world of their own. When you add to this a jumping and repeating soundtrack of corporate america reading communist history, washed down with sugar-coated easy listening while a kid is peeing and tourists scrambling for seats, you start to get the City Sightseeing experience. In a sense this tour is not so much about Shanghai, it is about Chinese mass tourism, but it unfolds on the streets of the city and it required a city like Shanghai for it to happen this way. Discontinuity and plain incongruity are its specialism and, I have to say, compared to their Western namesakes, Shanghai City Sightseeing is much livelier, not to say better value too. Given a choice, I'd pick this copy over the original.