Landing in Salt Lake City after a long flight from Shanghai is always breathtaking. The valley is wide open, and the white salt flats make a striking contrast to the lake, with its hues of brown, blue, green, and red. The mountain ranges lining the valley are snow covered more often than not. Driving away from the terminal, every single time, I’m pleased to see the familiar sign announcing Utah’s slogan: Life Elevated.
Flying in the opposite direction is a different experience. During a daytime approach to Shanghai, a stark line, like a crease, is visible in the ocean, a sudden rift from deep blue to cow-hide brown. You could almost pretend it’s the hem of an unseen giant’s shirt meeting the elephantine top of his blue jeans. From Seattle, flights arrive in the dim evenings, and the city lights are mere smudges against the muddy outlines of the buildings. If the air quality is really bad, not much is visible until the plane is nearly on the ground, and even as close as that, the lights pulse through a carpet of smog. Looking out from the windows of the plane is like staring through greasy, smeared glass.
The elevation of Salt Lake’s East Bench is just over 5,000 feet, while Shanghai, which literally means upon-the-sea, is a coastal metropolis built on an alluvial plain. Shanghai’s highest point, a mere 300 feet, isn’t even part of the mainland. Dajinshan peak, at just over 100 meters, makes up most of a small offshore island.
The mental adjustment, more than the physical one, from sea level to altitude always leaves me feeling off-kilter. Despite the fact that the two cities share serious problems with air quality, the character of each couldn’t be more different. It’s easier to forgive Utah for its pollution sins when you can escape to the mountains to rise above bad air. Utahns offset their anxiety over inversions by reminding themselves of the state’s other aesthetic qualities, something that happens less often in Shanghai.
Yet, there’s a funny thing about Utah and Shanghai. Each time I drive past the airport sign, I think how neatly both cities can be summed up with the same motto, something they share along with bad air. Life Elevated. It could be a sister slogan, reminiscent of sister cities and not as illegal as sister wives.
In terms of elevation, Utah is only the third-highest state in the nation, lagging a bit behind Colorado and Wyoming. Shanghai’s skyscrapers place it at number five for tallest cities in the world (the number of buildings over 150 meters), although two of the world’s eleven tallest buildings are here. But Shanghai has a lot of generally tall buildings — 1,400 of them are over 100 meters, second only to Hong Kong’s 2,700.
It’s freakishly easy not to notice the height of buildings in Shanghai, especially with so many tree-lined streets. Not long ago, a friend and I walked into a brand new gym at street level when the trees were still green with leaves. As we left the check-in desk, expecting to go to the back of the room to find our yoga class, the manager told us, “It’s on the fourteenth floor.” We looked at one another in surprise. “I didn’t know this building was that tall,” I laughed. Sure enough, there was a fourteenth floor. And a twenty-third floor.
Pearl Tower notwithstanding, the nineteenth-century moniker, Pearl of the Orient, feels sleepy and out of date for Shanghai, not fit for a modern city of skyscrapers and illuminated freeways. Life Elevated seems like a better fit. Perhaps China will hear about Utah’s state slogan and steal it? That would give it something else in common with Utah, which had to fight for its original state slogan, The Greatest Snow on Earth, after the Ringling Bros. sued the state for trademark infringement.
It’s not just Shanghai’s buildings that make me think Life Elevated is a great slogan for the glittering city. One of the main east-west dividing highways in Shanghai is the aptly named Yan’an Elevated. China built the elevated Yan’an directly above Yan’an road, so it’s a very precise name. It’s one of many elevated expressways that wrap around and over one another in a colossal game of concrete Twister.
Other sections of freeway sit stacked like pancakes, one on top of another – freeways above freeways – double, triple, and quadruple-decker roads that have produced famous photos and memorable images from above.
At night, Shanghai’s elevated roads are lined with blue lights that are illuminated for two or three cringe-worthy, coal-burning hours, making an evening drive feel like a trip to a 1970s discotheque.
Even with new population restrictions in place, the elevated freeways are being extended into Shanghai’s suburbs with staggering speed. Minhang looks nothing like it did a year ago with its new elevated highway that drops cars into town. None of it is a shock if you know this mind-blowing fact: China used more cement between 2010 and 2013 than the U.S. used in the entire twentieth century. Wrap your mind around that. Concrete roads go up seemingly overnight. The whole city now requires elevated driving in addition to elevated living – there are no NIMBY protests to stop it.
An earthquake scenario in this context, with cars and drivers sitting stories high, in endless traffic jams, is the only daily thought that terrifies me almost as much as a high rise apartment fire. I try not to think about earthquakes when I’m in the car, just like I try not to think about fires when our neighbor’s cigarette smoke is wafting into our apartment from the hall.
In Pudong, with its newer, wider, sprawling mass of ground level and elevated highways, additional elevation is also reserved for pedestrians. The enormous, circular Lujiazui pedestrian bridge is reminiscent of something from The Jetsons, as it winds between shopping malls, restaurants, tourist attractions, and skyscrapers.
And lest I forget, Shanghai is also a city of tall bridges. I recently crossed the very new and phenomenally impressive Yangtze River Bridge connecting Pudong to Chongming Island, a long and remarkable feat of engineering. Shanghai sits at the intersection of the Huangpu and Yangtze rivers, which empty into the East China Sea along China’s coast. With the Huangpu River dividing the city into its Puxi and Pudong halves, nearly everyone crosses a bridge at some point during the day. Colette makes a long daily trip to school over the Nanpu Bridge, sister to Shanghai’s Yangpu Bridge, one of the world’s longest cable bridges.
So yes, entering Shanghai from the air can be discouraging compared to Salt Lake, with its stunning geography. But walking under, over and around the city’s bridges, pedestrian crossings, and elevated freeways can be awe-inspiring too. It’s not as awe-inspiring as Zion or Arches. It can’t even hold a candle to a day hike in Mill Creek Canyon, but Life Elevated in Shanghai will have to suffice for now.
How the Construction of Elevated Highways Came to an End (in the U.S.)