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China: Highlights of Shanghai

Janie & Geoff

Shanghai is chaotic, overcrowded, overbuilt, clogged with traffic, exuberant and totally unapologetic. Some years ago, the government figured out that funding Shenzhen and other economic development areas didn't make as much sense as allowing a place like Shanghai to find its own way in the world. So they stopped taking revenues out of the city, and let the city plan and spend on its own future.

Now Shanghai revels in prosperity and confidently assumes its place as the commercial centre of China, not to mention its food and fashion capital. The new architecture is stunning, and that word can be taken to mean anything at both ends of the taste spectrum. It is as though any design will do so long as it gets your attention. You have to be a city person to enjoy Shanghai. It's not the oldest city in China, having been a fishing village 700 years ago, and only becoming a city around 200 years ago, so ancient sites are not the main thing here. But it's a great place to wander and browse, shop, to see old and new, and to be pleasantly surprised.

Yu Yuan gardens

Yu Yuan gardens

New Shanghai

Getting in to the City

Pudong International Airport, to the east and across the Huangpoo River from Shanghai, is an eye-opener that gives a sense of how much Shanghai has changed since my 1986 visit. The airport is new (1998), huge and sparkling clean, with polished granite floors and attendants in smart red coveralls and caps who politely pull out (free) luggage trolleys for you, or act as porters if you ask. Although still dressed in military uniforms, the customs officers act like they have been trained by the department of tourism, and not the armed forces.

We were met by my uncles and aunts, and took the #3 Bus that traveled along an 8-lane expressway west towards Shanghai, through the area known as Pudong. Here we could see a interesting mixture of old and new farmhouses. The old homes were one or two-levels high, whitewashed with dark grey tiled roofs and joined by courtyards. The new ones were multi-storied versions, but with wilder colors of tile and the occasional Palladian columns added to the front for a truly eye-popping effect. At the Huangpu River, the highway joined the Nanpu Bridge, a huge suspension bridge. The bridge has to handle so much volume and integrate into an already overbuilt area, that instead of using the 4-leaf clover structure, the designers instead achieved a smaller footprint by using a huge triple spiral with entrance and exit ramps at each level.

NOTE: The buses still run from the airport to the city, but foreigners may want to skip the scenic route and take the brand new MagLev (Magnetic levitation) train, traveling at 400 kph, that gets you to the city in 7 minutes instead of an hour - street traffic is bad in Shanghai.

The Bund

Despite initial misgivings, this turned out to be a great evening stroll. The Bund is the promenade along the western bank of the Huangpu River that features European-style buildings from before WW II. These still exist, and some are again banks (Bund means banks), some are government buildings and embassies. The old Cathay Hotel, built by the Sassoon family, has been renovated and is now the Peace Hotel, facing the river. There are two dozen or more of these marvelous old buildings that line the Bund, all lit up at night. But what makes the stroll truly the archetypical Shanghai experience is that the Bund is across the river from the commercial centre of Pudong, home of the Oriental Pearl Tower, the conference centre where APEC took place, and dozens of brand new high rise office towers, all in neon and spotlights, looking more futuristic than any other city I've ever seen. Old and new Shanghai face each other, which makes the Bund as much of a new Shanghai sight as an old one.

The Oriental Pearl Tower is the highest in Asia and third highest in the world. It is decorated by three spheres, each smaller than the other. Think of a spear pointing up with 3 balls stuck on it. The bottom sphere contains a conference room, and there is always a line up of (Chinese) tourists waiting to ride the elevator to the top for the view. On the night that we were strolling the Bund looking across the river, the full moon was shining beside the tower, echoing the shape of the spheres, and I almost forgave the architect. All the same, I declined my uncle's offer to take me for a tour of Pudong and the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The Bund promenade is newly built, before this the shores were just old docks and ships. The wharves have been relocated, and Shanghai is now the busiest port in China, with one-third of all freight passing through its wharves. The promenade was also easily one of the busiest tourist spots in town, and is patrolled by municipal police who make sure that tourists don't get fleeced and the locals don't spit (the one place in China where spitting gets you fined).

The Shanghai Museum

Located at the southern end of Renmin (People's) Square, a large green space in the centre of Shanghai, the Shanghai Museum opened in 1996 and is world-class with four floors containing antiquities that the Met would kill for. I know this because I was behind a tour group from the Met led by some envious curators who left drool marks beside the 1800 BC bronzes. The bronzes are truly stunning, and this collection is considered to be the finest in the world. The other galleries feature sculpture, calligraphy, painting, jades, pottery and ceramics, coins, and furniture. The ancient pottery urns (from 2500 BC) and proto-celadon pieces in the ceramics gallery are wonderful.

The sculpture gallery is a bit heavy on Buddhist art, but I suppose that would be like complaining that there's too much Catholic art in Italy. The sculpture gallery was worth the price of admission, just to see the two Tang musicians, one playing a lute and the other a flute, both with such wonderful expressions, as though they had just heard a hilarious joke, that you can't help but laugh along with them. You don't often get that much expression in Chinese art.

The museum is totally bilingual, with audio tours in several languages, a restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gift shops, escalators, facilities for the handicapped, and modern washrooms on every floor (don't take this for granted in China - more later).

The museum is shaped like an ancient incense urn and when it went up, people noticed that it was directly across the street from the Shanghai Municipal People's Government Building; so the local joke is that the government put it there so that the museum could worship the government building.

People's Square

On weekends, the square is full of kite-flyers young and old, and kite vendors too. There are only so many places in Shanghai where flyers don't have to battle against kite-eating electric and telephone lines, and this is the main one. The Shanghai Museum is right beside the fountain at People's Square and it's worth hanging around for twenty minutes of people-watching: the children, their parents, hawkers, young lovers, a few lunatics and beggars. There is nothing remotely Communist in the ambiance; it's a pleasant space.

You get the feeling that Shanghai is consciously creating green spaces - new streets and overpasses always seem to be planted with greenery, and if there is room for a median strip, there is room for shrubbery.

Shopping

Shanghai is the shopping capital of China. Styles of clothing and footwear that were in magazines I was reading on the airplane were already in stores. The quality of local garments has really improved, not coincidentally because many designers and garment companies have moved their manufacturing to Shanghai, and the locals are not slow to pick up on what's important. I am a North American size 8. Unfortunately in China I am an XXL, so that really curbed my shopping mood. The three main areas are: Nanjing Road East, Huaihai Road, and Xujiahui.

Nanjing Road has always been called Nanjing Road, and in pre-WWII China it was the center of shopping, nightlife and all kinds of decadence. Now a long stretch of the road has been dedicated to pedestrian traffic and is paved in polished granite. It is serviced by a miniature-train-like shuttle that takes you from one end of the mall to the other if you don't want to walk, past department stores, food stores, restaurants, hotels. If you can't bother bargaining, this is the place to shop. All prices are as posted because they say that Nanjing Road goods are what they are supposed to be (as in, pure wool really is pure wool). If you walk from the Shanghai Museum to Nanjing Road, you'll pass by Mu En Tang, the largest Protestant church in Shanghai, and used in the Spielberg movie "Empire of the Sun".

Huaihai Road, the former Avenue Joffre in the French Concession, is where the well-heeled locals prefer to shop and all the major designers are here. There were some Scandinavian ones that I've never seen before and the sidewalks were jammed. There are lots of cafes and bakeries where you can rest and thank the French for leaving behind a legacy of really good pastry.

Xujiahui is the newest and brashest shopping area, not as expensive as Huaihai or Nanjing Road, but not for the faint of heart or those who fear to jaywalk. The name means Xu Family Village and used to be a rural area. The famous St. Ignatius Catholic Church, locally known as Xujiahui Cathedral or Siccawei by the Jesuits, is near the shopping drag.

Old Shanghai

There are still many, many areas of old buildings, both Chinese and European style. There are glimpses of alleys leading into little compounds surrounded by homes, sometimes even with a gatehouse arching over an entrance. If you can look past the neon signs and air conditioning units that hang like limpet mines on every building, there is a lot of art deco in Shanghai.

I've been told that Shanghai is now being more careful about which buildings they are tearing down, because the rush of excitement over having the latest and newest has given way to an appreciation of the value of Old Shanghai as a way to establish the city's unique identity.

Huxingting Pavillion in Yu Yuan gardens

Huxingting Pavillion in Yu Yuan gardens

Yu Yuan Garden

This is an entire tourist complex that is mind-boggling. The Yu Yuan is a Suzhou-style garden built 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, and it's now one of the must-sees of old Shanghai. To get there is an experience in itself because the streets bordering Yu Yuan have been built up with shopping arcades full of tourist knick knacks. However, it must be said that they follow the traditional Chinese style and are very well-done, with plain white walls, curved grey tile roofs and mahogany brown woodwork, instead of the gaudier red and gold that you would find in Beijing. Thus you get to experience entire blocks of storefront that mimic an earlier time. Better still, the Nanxiang Steamed Bread Store, which sells the best dumplings in Shanghai is still at the same location after 200 years. That is to say, after the arcades were built, the Nanxiang moved right back in to its spot beside the Huxingting Pavillion. It's easy to spot the Nanxiang, just line up behind the longest queue.

You may want to take a peek in the Chenhuang Miao (Temple) that is part of the complex. The temple is dedicated to Shanghai's city god. This is a heavily restored temple, but with original bits dating back to the 1700's. Before finding the entrance gate to the Yu Yuan gardens, you also pass by the Huxingting Pavillion, a really over-the-top and delightful structure.

Built in 1784, it is two levels high and five-sided, topped with an extravagantly curved roof. It once sat in the middle of a small (man-made) lake, hence the name "Heart of the Lake". Now it's in a much smaller body of water, a big fountain really, and there is a bridge leading to the pavilion with nine zigzags in it, to keep away evil spirits (who can only travel in a straight line). The original bridge is long gone, and the new one is sturdier but unfortunately made of pink concrete. The Huxingting is said to be the model for the pavilion in the Blue Willow pattern. It was built to as a trading house for tea merchants, and is now a restaurant and teahouse.

Starbucks

Starbucks has thoughtfully set up shop across from the pavilion. Get through the gauntlet of tourist stores and make for the other side of the pavilion, and you will notice that Shanghai vendors don't miss a trick. The stalls that sell camera film and postcards also carry video camera accessories, flash memory and memory sticks for digital cameras.

The Yu Yuan is truly beautiful, despite the constant flow of tourists. Once privately owned, it is the quintessential classic Chinese garden: an integration of buildings, water, plants, bridges, and rocks.

It's a stylized version of nature, meant to symbolize rather than imitate the real thing, enhanced by man's intervention. Every entrance frames a view, and you couldn't imagine what it took to design such a garden.

Having said that, if you are going to see the gardens of Suzhou, you may want to just buy some postcards rather than wait around for the perfect, tourist-free shot inside the garden. It won't happen. Or you may want to buy the book, which weighs a ton but has lovely photos.

Former Residence of Mme Soong Ching Ling

Married to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, and the most ethical of the famous Soong sisters, Soong Ching Ling is still revered and her home on Huaihai Road is worth the visit, if only to walk through an area of Shanghai that still has a quiet and colonial air and to see the inside of a Shanghai villa. There is a small museum inside the walls displaying gifts given to her by heads of state (boring) and photos and personal letters to/from her sisters (much more interesting, they were Wesleyan College graduates and corresponded in English). You have to slip on hospital shoe covers in the front hall before going in. The house itself has much of the original furniture and artwork, but the upstairs is no longer open to tourists - apparently the floors are sagging from too much traffic.

Former French Concession

The neighborhood around the Soong Ching Ling House has wonderful quiet residential streets full of a mixture of European and old-style Chinese houses and low-rise apartments. I even passed by an apartment entrance with "Cite de Bourgogne 1930" carved on it. This is where you can find the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the Shanghai Institute of Arts and Crafts, and several foreign embassies, all housed in grand old mansions. Even just walking down a street, you will be rewarded with glimpses of villas behind wrought iron gates, or a courtyard garden. This is definitely a place for wandering and daydreaming about old Shanghai. Yet no more than a block away is the ultra-trendy and noisy Huaihai Road shopping centre. I think that wandering the residential streets of this area is a wonderful Slow Travel experience.

Don't take it for granted that the exterior of apartments represent the state of their interiors. Since the government forced citizens to buy their (previously assigned to them) homes and private ownership has created a real estate market, Chinese have been renovating like crazy. There was no incentive to look after property previously, and buildings were badly maintained. Buildings are still badly maintained, but not as badly as before - owners chip in for annual upkeep. And individual apartments in a building can be on opposite ends of the spectrum depending on the wealth and taste of the owner. I've been inside apartments that were in terrible shape, with painted concrete walls, and others that would have done me quite well, with restored art deco details and top of the line Italian kitchens.

Walls in Yu Yuan gardens

Walls in Yu Yuan gardens

Practicalities

Getting around

Get a tourist map (free at most hotels) and take the subway. In fact, find a hotel close to a subway stop. When I was there, there were two lines, and one of my uncles bemoaned the fact that the construction in his area for another line made his commute worse than ever. Now there are four lines. The #1 line cleverly manages to hit all the major shopping and sight-seeing areas, with stops right below Xujiahui, Huaihai Rd, Renmin Square. The #2 line runs more to the residential areas of Shanghai, but does go south close to Longhua Pagoda (another must-see that I didn't get to). Subway signs and announcements are in Chinese and English, and tickets are 2 or 3 RMB per trip (less than 50 cents US).

Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Shanghai, and the drivers are pretty honest because it's very competitive. Just carry a map and pretend to read it, and that reduces your chances of being driven around in circles. If you like your adrenalin in erratic shots, this is the way to go. You never know if your taxi is about to hit someone or if some other vehicle is about to hit you. The cars pass very, very close to buses, cyclists, pedestrians. You should ride in a taxi a few times just to read some of the rules and regulations posted behind the driver's seat. My favorite is "Drunkards and psychos must be accompanied by a guardian". But the traffic is so horrendous (especially driving past Xujiahui) that if you can go anywhere via subway and foot, do it. Otherwise, you'll only manage to get to one destination in Shanghai each day before the sun goes down.

And don't even try to take the bus. Shanghai is in a state of constant redevelopment, and bus routes change every week with little notice or alternatives. That plus the traffic makes buses a no-win for newbies.

Walking is fine, until you have to cross the road. I can't decide which is more terrifying, a Shanghai taxi ride or jaywalking with my 80-yr old aunt. We crossed 8 lanes of traffic by taking it one lane at a time. Obviously the white and yellow lane markers are really meant to be very narrow traffic islands for pedestrians to stand on. Many of the busy intersections have overpasses. Use them. Or follow the locals, there is always a crowd waiting to cross, and they ALL jaywalk. There are crossing guards with whistles during rush hour, and no one pays any attention, so just make sure there are enough people between you and oncoming traffic so that you're not the first one to be hit. A final note: just as you think you've made it across, keep looking to your right. There is usually a bike lane by the curb, and you could have a collision with a bicycle after successfully dodging cars. And the bike lane is also used by motorcyclists and tricycle trucks (small flatbeds pulled by a bicycle) so getting hit is no joke.

As for bicycles, only Shanghai residents are allowed to ride. There is no such thing as bike rentals for tourists. They probably lost a few tourists before making up that law. You do not want to be riding a bicycle in Shanghai anyway, I compare those cyclists to WWI pilots - the only reason they're alive is because they survived long enough to gain enough experience to keep on living.

Note: They drive on the "American" side of the road in China (on the right).

Health and Cleanliness

Do not drink the tap water, ever. Shanghai tap water comes out of the Huangpu River, which is a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. In the old days, people who could not afford to bury their dead would send coffins drifting down the river, but at least that doesn't happen anymore. The water is processed but not well enough. Do not drink boiled tap water if you can help it. All the locals get bottled water delivered. When you want to eat an apple: wash in tap water, rinse in bottled water, peel the apple. Brush your teeth with bottled water. Do not accept ice cubes in your drink without asking where the water came from (MacDonald's is OK). Unless you are in a top quality restaurant, forego the salad and eat your greens cooked. Shanghai residents are metered for that water and pay for both incoming and outgoing, which boggles my Canadian sensibilities.

NOTE: This next section is not for those who have avoided China due to rumors about the toilet facilities. Most rumors are true and get truer as you get further from the cities. If you are one of those hardy types and prepared to go where the locals go, read on.

No matter how tall or modern the building, no matter how beautifully dressed the hostess at the entrance, the restrooms will be worse than post-Roman occupation London if you are in a department store or restaurant primarily meant for locals. If you encounter a row of toilets that seem to be all squats, keep looking down the row of stalls. Sometimes there are a couple of sit down stalls near the end of the row. Bring along as many of those Kleenex travel packs as you can stuff in your purse, you will be glad of it. The Pudong Airport and Shanghai Museum are stocked by Kimberly Clark, but everywhere else either you bring your own or you get the local product, which resembles grey crepe paper. You may also want to bring a pack of disinfectant wipes or soap leaves, because a lot of washrooms don't supply soap either. They do, however, burn incense to keep the smell down.

Do not use public washrooms off the street, as in by the people for the people. You won't survive the experience. Decent restaurants, hotels and heavily commercial tourist attractions will have OK facilities. Ladies, it's a good idea to bring purses that you can hang around your neck since many cubicles lack purse hooks and the floors are not clean. (A friend who just came back from Shanghai says that she never had any problems with purse hooks but then, she is American and was being escorted everywhere by a guide assigned to her by her husband's Chinese subsidiary).

Note from Pauline: I was told by a friend who visited China in the 1970s that the toilets had no stalls, but Janie assures me this has changed. The toilets have stalls.

Now the strange thing is that although the Chinese are very casual about toilet facilities, there is one amenity that seems to be a God-given right, and there would be rioting if it was not supplied. Wherever you go, on a train, airplane, long bus ride, in a hotel of any number of stars - there is hot boiling water! The attendants on trains spend all their time walking the cars with a huge kettle of hot water, filling mugs for free. Passengers bring their own mugs and tea leaves, or buy a plastic cup with tea leaves from the attendant or just drink hot water. The compartments all have a toilet at one end of the car of dubious cleanliness and a boiler room for hot water at the other end, which is of surpassing efficiency. Our hotel in my parent's little home town had a shower that flooded the bathroom floor, but the hot water dispenser was perfect.

I think the issue here is that you experience disconnect. Shanghai is very deceptive. You see modern buildings, expensive designer stores, gleaming banks, and you expect the same of the facilities. But if you keep in mind that this is still a developing nation and set expectations for certain amenities to the level of say, northern Thailand or India, and prepare accordingly, you'll be fine. Best restrooms in the city: Shanghai Museum.

Shopping and Bargaining

Attitudes are much changed from the 1980's when a job was assigned to every person for life, regardless of merit or performance. In those days, I couldn't get clerks to help me but now they range from aggressive to incredibly discreetly helpful ("Madam, XXL is our largest size"). In fact, everyone in the hospitality industry is well-trained, patient and pleasant, from cab drivers to waiters to shop girls. It's a highly competitive job environment, replacements are cheap.

If you are a Ladies size 6, you are a size L. If you are an 8 or 10, you are an XL or XXL. Clothes don't come any larger over there. By the time a sweater is long enough to cover your wrists, it will be twice as wide as you are. Chinese women are petite, petite, petite. Until dairy products become common in the Chinese diet and women develop larger bones and bosoms as we have in North America, I'll probably have to stick to shoes and purses, which is no hardship since there are lots of classy styles at good prices.

The solution to XXL and avoiding being completely demoralized is to hit the dressmakers. My sister-in-law is a pro when it comes to shopping and just came back from Shanghai with the scoop. She says to head for the Dong Jia Du district. She could not give me the actual address of the shop she went to, but assures me that "any taxi driver will know what you're talking about". As you go through the little entrance of Dong Jia Du, you'll see over 100 little shops and each one will tailor make any clothing you like. She had a full length cashmere coat made, with silk lining and fur collar, she selected all the materials, and picked it up three days later. $US 120. (OK and she is Chinese as well so, bring moral and language support with you if you're a foreigner)

If you are hopelessly non-Asian-looking, take prices down to 1/2 of what's on the price tag and start bargaining. If the price is spoken, take it down to 1/3. If you look Chinese and speak Chinese, but are obviously from overseas (XXL) knock down the price by half and start negotiating. Don't pay more than 75% of the asking price. But unless you speak the Shanghai dialect, the shopkeepers will guess that you are from overseas and say things like "but it's only $20 US, what is that to you?" And to some extent, they are right. Prices are so good already and the quality of local manufacture is so good, that you really can't lose. If the all-wool sweater for $12 is not really wool, and you don't care, so be it.

If you don't want to bargain, shop Nanjing Road or one of the foreign department stores. If you do want to bargain, one trick that works is to carry a limited amount of money in a change purse and show it to the clerk after some negotiation, saying "but this is all I have on me". Another ploy is to say "I've only started looking, there are other stores I want to see" because the last thing they want is to let some other store get your sale.

I did not check out imported designer goods, but have been told that they go for about the same price in Shanghai as elsewhere. There may be knock-offs being sold somewhere in the city, but I didn't have time to find out. In any case, the Shanghai styles are fun to look at, and there are some truly beautiful sweaters and silks - why buy Western designers?

Security

I felt perfectly safe in Shanghai; it is no different than any large city and better than most. Foreign tourists have very few problems if they behave respectfully. The police don't put up with any nonsense, and if you are harassed or mugged and can get to a phone, dial 110 (the police emergency number), an officer will show up within five minutes. Or so I'm told.

Just use your common sense. Don't go places after hours alone if you're a woman, and try not to take taxis after 11pm, not because they will do anything bad but because after 11pm, the cabs charge twice the daytime rates. Take a map and get your bearings before going anywhere; Shanghai is a pretty easy city to learn.

Pickpockets are notoriously competent in China. I carried only as much money as I thought I'd spend, and kept a smaller amount in a pocket to pull out for fares, incidental purchases, etc. Just don't flash money around. These are all precautions you'd take in any large city.


On a final note to other Slow Travelers, I did keep a travel journal of this trip, but a lot of it had to do with visiting relatives and my parent's home town outside Shanghai. I'm not sure how to edit that so it would be of interest to other Slow Travelers, but in the meantime, hope you find these Travel Notes useful.

Resources

www.chinanow.com: The Bund

Read our Shanghai Neighborhood Guide for more information.

Get more information from the Wikitravel Shanghai Travel Guide.


See Janie & Geoff's Slow Travel Member page.

© Janie & Geoff, 2005

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