May 25, 2015 – May 28, 2015
After our full month of relaxing in one spot in Thailand, we packed again and were off to our next country, China! We started our Chinese travels in the modern mega city of Shanghai. Shanghai is well known for its importance in Chinese history and its modern beautiful skyline along the water. China would become our 25th country visited on this trip, as well as the last. Other than a long layover in Korea on the way home, China will be our last chance to actually explore a country, and get to know its people and culture.
We took a red eye flight from Chiang Mai to Shanghai, landing around 3 am. Since the metro doesn’t open until 6am we just waited around in the terminal until it opened, something we have done a few times before. You could take an expensive taxi, or shuttle ride from the airport into the city, but Shanghai has an excellent metro which will take you anywhere in the city you want to go much cheaper. You can pay by the trip or better yet just get a 24 hour unlimited card for 18 Yuan (around US$3.00)
On our first day we caught a few hours of much needed sleep after an early check in, and headed out to explore. We started heading roughly towards the waterfront, for the famous view of the financial district. Downtown Shanghai straddles either side of the Huangpu River, with the vast majority on the west bank, the smaller portion on the east bank just happens to be the far more photogenic financial district. So when you see a picture of Shanghai, such as the one below, most of the city and ‘downtown’ is actually behind the photographer.
Across from the photogenic skyline is a long walkway along the waterfront called the Bund. It stretches for about a kilometer along the river offering a great place to walk and admire the uninterrupted skyline across the water.
Our first impressions of the city were that it was extremely clean and orderly. There were wide clean sidewalks, lots of well manicured parks lined with cute cafes, shops and restaurants. Everywhere fashionable Chinese are hurrying about their busy day or going for a casual stroll through the park. The city instantly gives you a sense that it is a modern, safe, friendly city with a lot going for it. Not knowing what to expect from Shanghai before we arrived, we were both very pleasantly surprised.
Yuyuan Garden – Shanghai
There are tons of tourist hotspots in and around Shanghai, and almost all of them are easily reachable via the well laid out and super clean metro system. One of our first stops was the Yuyuan Garden, just south of the Bund, near the waterfront. Yuyuan Garden is a traditional Chinese Garden which has been well maintained, and probably significantly restored, in downtown Shanghai. Inside the walled garden you will find traditional buildings, rock and plant landscaping and koi ponds. Outside the garden there are more traditional buildings, all loaded with extremely touristy shops and there’s even a Starbucks. The whole place is crowded and feels a bit like a tourist trap but if you have time its worth visiting to see the traditional buildings, especially if you are only visiting Shanghai, it might be your only chance to see them.
The Shanghai Museum was actually within walking distance of our hostel, in the People’s Square. It offers four floors of extensive and impressive collections from different regions of China. Starting with ancient pottery and bronze artifacts and relics, coins and currency, porcelain – including a priceless collection of Ming and Qing vases, as well as furniture, art and clothes. If you have a few hours and any interest in history it is well worth checking out. It is also free to visit, and the People’s Square outside is a large park which offers great uninterrupted views of the surrounding skyscrapers.
Food in Shanghai
Like most cities in Asia, Shanghai has an enormous amount of restaurants and street food vendors, everywhere you look and turn you will find more options to sate your appetite.
Nanjing Road – A Pedestrian Shopping Street
Nanjing Road just off People’s Square is a long pedestrian only street lined with malls, restaurants and shops. It runs from People’s Square most of the way to the Bund waterfront. If you are looking for a day of shopping with an expensive coffee in hand, this is the place to be.
Shanghai from above
To get a truly lofty view of the city, we visited the Shanghai World Financial Center, which at one time had the world’s highest observation deck (2008-2011). That’s the building shaped like a giant bottle opener in preparation for the worlds largest bottle. With the Canton Tower, also in China, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Shanghai World Financial Center observation deck has now fallen to a dismal third. But it is still enormously high and offers great views from the 94th, 97th and 100th floors. If you look at the building it has a giant, roughly square, hole near the top, the bottom and top of which are observation decks. The 100th floor has a glass floor so you can see straight down.
With its abundant parks, pedestrian streets, malls, shops, restaurants and tourist destinations, its easy to just wander around and bump into interest sights around every corner. The city is also very clean, friendly and walkable. And if you should ever get tired, there is always a metro stop nearby to take you anywhere you might like to go.
One of our biggest surprises walking around Shanghai was the number of foreign cars, and indeed foreign brands of all kinds. We expected to see roads filled with unidentifiable Chinese cars, but we found quite the opposite, Chinese models were actually few and far between. The wealthy Chinese in Shanghai have a great appetite for foreign brands and cars. Most of the vehicles on the roads are European, Japanese and even American, Chevy and Ford, models. We were reminded of a conversation we had with some Chinese tourists we met in Nepal, who told us that the Chinese are becoming increasing concerned with quality, they are aware of the perceived and often true stereotype of shabby Chinese quality products. As the Chinese middle class grows they are becoming increasingly picky with where they spend their money and low quality cheap Chinese cars are becoming unpopular. A good time to buy auto stocks? We spotted approximately 70% foreign cars on the roads in Shanghai. A number which only dropped to about 60% as we have traveled since to various other cities and villages. A man in Laos told us, Chinese motorcycles break down after six months, where a Japanese motorcycle can last six years or probably much longer, so it is worth spending more to get quality. With the rise of the importance of quality, it seems cheap low quality Chinese vehicles are not going to take the world by storm as many people thought they would.
Day Trip to Tongli, China
For a day trip we took a bullet train to the nearby traditional city of Tongli, in neighboring Jiangsu province, which is built along a series of canals. Called the Venice of China, it offers dozens of blocks of tree lined shops and cafes built along a maze of canals. We took a bullet train from Shanghai 40 minutes to the city of Suzhou, then hopped on a bus for another 40 minute ride to Tongli. The city itself has an entrance fee of 88 yuan to visit, but there is a lot to see. There are several well preserved traditional residences to see which have beautiful gardens and ponds.
The whole city has a very ‘touristy’ feel and while we had originally planned on leaving Shanghai and staying in Tongli for two nights before moving on we changed it to a day trip instead. Tongli is nice to see but a single day trip is more than enough as the city feels like a tourist trap and begins to feel much less genuine after several hours, and the chance to spend two extra nights in Shanghai instead could not be missed. One of our main reasons for choosing to visit Tongli over other nearby water towns was that it offered a Chinese Sex Culture Museum. Unfortunately it turned out this museum was closed, so on the way back to Shanghai from Tongli, we skipped the bus/bullet train combo, and made the last direct bus, which was actually faster.
Shanghai at Night
Skipping a stay in Tongli and adding two extra nights in Shanghai meant we would have two more chances to see Shanghai at night. The city is well known for being lit up at night, as nearly every building has some unique light display. A stroll along the waterfront at night to see the skyline lit up is a must.
Getting around the Language Barrier
Neither of us was really sure what to expect of Shanghai, or China. We had both heard all sorts of different stories about traveling in the country. We had both heard that communication in China can be difficult as English is not widely spoken. In Shanghai, we did find that the language barrier was significant but there was usually someone around who spoke at least a little English, and menus were often in English, so it was not too difficult to get around. It also helped to get the front desk person at our hotel to right down a few phrases in Chinese, such as “How Much?” It also helped to get a phrase book with pictures, and English and importantly Chinese characters. We found that trying to pronounce the Chinese words, even if the phrase book had them spelled out phonetically was quite hopeless. No one ever understood anything we tried to read to them in Chinese, it turned out to be much easier to just show them the book and point to the appropriate Chinese characters. While we could have gotten by in Shanghai with out a phrase book, our future travels to smaller cities, towns and even villages would have been hopeless as we encountered almost no English speakers.
Shanghai turned out to be one of our favorite city destinations in Asia. While we had more language difficulties here than anywhere else in the world (it seems more English is spoken in remote African villages than in China), it was still a great city and the people are very friendly, patient and happy to try to figure out what you are asking for. Next we left the big city of Shanghai to explore a bit of rural China.