After a very long journey, we finally heard the pilot announce that we were approaching our destination. Peering out of the window, all I could see was polluted, murky water, dotted with ships like iron filings sprinkled on the surface. Black oil streams trailed after the ships, cutting dark lines in the opaque brown water.
The plane circled the city, showing row after row of similar looking, multi-storey buildings, swelling in height and size the closer they were to an impressive centre point and culminating with the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which protruded almost half a kilometre from the ground, towering above many of its neighbouring buildings.
The Shanghai Pudong International Airport was enormous, and we impatiently had to wait for our plane to taxi us to the drop off point for what felt like an hour. Inside was easy to negotiate, and very calm and quiet. Video screens in the airport teach you the most important Chinese word that you will need on your trip – ni hao, meaning hello.
What we couldn’t understand is why the queue for the bus into Shanghai was so quiet. Where were all the people getting off the hundreds of planes landing each hour? Had we taken a wrong turn or missed something? We considered jumping in one of the taxis available as their rather pushy drivers shouted prices at us, but their trustworthiness was called into question by the suspicious lack of people getting in them. Our bus arrived and as it set off, we passed the high speed railway line and realised where all the people had got to. The Shanghai Maglev takes just 7 minutes and 20 seconds to reach a central underground station compared with our hour long bus ride.
The bus appeared to be attempting to keep up with the train though, and narrowly avoided crashing on several occasions as it swerved between lanes. As we approached, we were struck by the number of power lines – hundreds of thick, black cables were everywhere you looked. Of course, when you consider the electricity needed to power this city, it is little wonder there are so many. The skyline was also peppered with cranes and scaffolding, as if the city is in a permanent state of construction, which indeed it is. It has grown very quickly to be the international centre it is today, and is by all accounts, still growing.
The issue we had with the bus is that we had no idea where any of the stops were. We got to a point that we figured seemed fairly central and the bus driver barked some place name at us that meant nothing, but we alighted all the same. It turned out we were miles away from our hotel and would have really struggled if it wasn’t for Google maps. We still struggled even with Google maps!
We somehow managed to drag our heavy cases across the city to the edge of the old town, where stood Fraser Residence – the 24th floor of which would be our home for the next 10 days. This would do very nicely. Our apartment was modern, clean and spacious enough, equipped with a little kitchenette and washer dryer – all of which would come in handy during the course of the week and the latter of which would destroy my favourite jumper towards the end of the holiday. The best feature was the balcony looking out over Shanghai old town and into the distance where there were so many buildings crammed into the space that you couldn’t quite believe your eyes and felt the need to blink constantly to check it was real. In the mist, the buildings looked two dimensional, adding to the impression of the scene just being a painted backdrop.
Exhausted, we flopped onto our enormous bed and managed to doze for a couple of hours before venturing out into the dark.
I was excited about seeing the famous skyline from the Bund, so we headed in that direction, weaving our way through the streets. The walk took about 20 minutes, and as the illuminations from the other side of the river began to peek through gaps between buildings, we could see this was going to be well worth it.
Hoards of people had the same idea as us, and the riverside walkway was packed with people either posing for or taking photographs of the impressive skyline. The wind was cold though, and in our exhausted states, we were not equipped to deal with gawping at the lights for too long, and had to find somewhere warm for food.
We stumbled upon a little restaurant and club, called the House of Blues and Jazz, which we thought was worth a try – although not very Chinese! The food was tasty though. The decor was stylish, with shiny printed wall paper that brought back childhood memories, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was very laid back, cosy and welcoming. Although the musicians in the main room were not amazing, they were good and entertaining, engaging the crowd and getting them up to dance and sing along with their more well-known songs.
We walked back to the hotel, fuzzy headed from super strength Shanghai Slings combined with the jet lag. On the way, we came across an old woman with a very young, cute Chinese child who attached herself to us, clinging on to our arms. We were very unsure what to do, but just politely smiled and laughed and tried to ignore the woman’s pleas for money. It was gut wrenching to not give them anything, but encouraging this sort of begging is ill advised as it makes it become an industry, with children being exploited. We didn’t see much more of this for the rest of the trip though, thankfully.
My last thought as I drifted off to sleep was that the whole place had smelt of noodles.
Day 2 – Beer and Blisters
In order to shake off the jet lag, we thought we would try out the hotel pool. It took us half an hour to find it as we circled the floor our hotel guide had stated it was on, baffled by its absence. It turned out we would have to cross an outdoor roof terrace to get to our destination, and we wouldn’t have any idea what we were doing when we got there either. We somehow managed to communicate that we wanted to use the pool, but it was freezing, deserted and covered in dust. Nevertheless, we forced ourselves to shiver our way through a few lengths before getting out and handing our used wet towels to an immaculate and appalled Chinese receptionist. We didn’t return.
Before heading out for the day, we thought we would sample the delights of the hotel cafe – Element Fresh. The food was indeed fresh and healthy, with a good variety of western style and Chinese food for meat eaters as well as vegetarians, and super smoothies that we would become addicted to over the course of the week.
Ready for the day ahead, we set out on a guidebook recommended walk that took us down the antiques market (a long street lined with tiny stalls that sold everything you could imagine and many things you couldn’t), through the French concession and Fuxing Park, to the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum. Every aspect of the museum was beautiful – the French Renaissance mansion it was housed in, the grounds and even the banisters and light fittings. The exhibits consisted of tapestries, carvings and embroidery, with artists at work in each room producing artifacts. On the bottom floor you could buy the work of local artists. The paper cuttings were stunning and we bought them all, nearly.
Laden with goods, we headed home, stopping off en route to try the beer from the Shanghai Brewery. We couldn’t complain and promised ourselves we would return before the end of the trip – we never did.
We had walked a fair distance by this point, and the rest of the walk home was more of a hobble, trying to avoid rubbing the sores on our feet. We stopped at the international supermarket at Xintiandi to buy noodles and water, and then rested for the remainder of the evening in the apartment, looking out at the twinkling buildings and listening to the persistent beeping of car horns in the traffic below.
Day 3 – Neon Cake, Neon Lights and Roasted Pigeon Heads
The Shanghai museum revealed delicately and elaborately decorated ceramics, furniture, bronze, costumes and paintings. The highly decorative peony designs were common on many of the artifacts, and were amongst my favourite – along with the black and white ancient Chinese landscape paintings. We were also both particularly fascinated by the red seal stamps that have accompanied writings and paintings throughout a number of dynasties. The stamps identified the author or painter and often provided other details, such as their location. Many of them were worn as pendants with intricately carved sculptures on top, and the sizes and designs of the stamps varied widely.
The museum is relatively small, but there are eleven fascinating galleries, so it’s easy to while away the hours. Thankfully, refreshments were available in the cafe, and the coffee was served in stunning willow pattern crockery that I would have happily slipped in my bag and taken home with me if I was less of an honest person. Delicious neon green cakes are available for those in need of a sugar fix.
As you leave the Shanghai museum, you enter People’s Square – a central point in Shanghai. The park feels strange, with the juxtaposition of the high rise buildings alongside blossoming spring time buds, towering green trees and grassy verges. This natural part of Shanghai almost feels unnatural and out of place.
It took us some time to find the modern art museum, which was tucked away behind some trees. As usual, the items within were comical, partially ridiculous, and intriguing. The pièce de résistance consisted of futuristic, halved neon heads on traditional ceramic bodies, accompanied by rows of individual glass bongs, with ultraviolet lights and psychedelic videos alongside some pretty good pixelated portraits! I also was also drawn to a book with the middle cut out, a fan heater inserted in the gap, blowing a thin transparent plastic umbrella that was attached to the book with strings, with a map of the world also attached, like it was about to go on a ballooning adventure. I maybe missed the deep and hidden meaning, but I still quite liked it.
As soon as we decided to spend the rest of the day on the main Shanghai shopping street outside, it rained. Although annoying, the water reflected the neon lights, doubling their impact. Besides, the enormous shopping malls provided a safe haven from the rain, with one of the most memorable being the Shanghai First Food Mall, where you can find everything from cutely wrapped rice biscuits to roasted pigeon heads. The tea and wine counters were deserted, whereas we discovered large crowds around the cream cakes that evening.
Entertainment on this main shopping street included a soulful saxophonist that played from the elevated position of a first floor window, sporting a shiny sky blue blazer. There were also plenty of offers for great quality, top designer brand bags from a succession of men trying to direct you into back alleys.
After what felt like a stupidly long time on one street, we ended up back on the Bund, and the illuminations still looked impressive in the mist and rain. As we were now starving, our priorities turned to finding M on the Bund, an appraised restaurant that both guide books and apps recommended. There was the added advantage that we thought a literary festival was going on there, although it turned out we were a week too late, but we didn’t mind as long as they weren’t too snobbish about our disheveled, spent-too-long-sight-seeing-in-the-rain look.
We got away with it and I went on to have one of my top five meals of all time. I’ve had the combination before in Piccolinos and thought that was good, but this was something else. The meal was pumpkin tortellini with a burnt butter sauce and pine nuts, and was so sweet it was like having a mouthful of a tantalising desert. My Turkish coffee with home-made Turkish delight also made me want to move to Shanghai (although perhaps I should try Turkey), and the fairly amazing views, even from the back room, topped off the experience nicely.
The lychee martinis at the Glamour Bar a floor below fueled some interesting discussions, although we were denied a seat with a view due to the Saturday rush. I did appreciate the fact that both M on the Bund and Glamour Bar observed the global initiative, Earth Hour, by turning out their main lights, and noted that most of the buildings you could see were still in full, fluorescent display.
We concluded our day with a nightcap at the cosy hotel restaurant bar and a quick peek at the view from our balcony, before flopping, exhausted, into the enormous bed.
Day 4 – A Taste of Celebrity and Revolving Door Mishaps
The underground turned out to be quite easy to negotiate once we had figured out how to get our ticket. It is worth equipping yourself with coins though as many of the machines didn’t take notes. We decided to travel from our nearest stop, Dashijie, via People’s Square to East Nanjing, the closest stop to the Bund.
On the short walk from the underground station to the Bund, we passed the stunning Art Deco Peace Hotel and a lovely shop within selling Chinese and Art Deco treasures. I fell in love with a floor lamp for 8600 RMB and tried to think of ways I could transport the large, fragile item home.
To get across the Huangpu River, we opted for the Bund sight-seeing tunnel, which was hilariously tacky, but also really quite bizarre. We didn’t quite know what to make of it. You get on a small, tube style carriage or pod, and for the next 15 minutes are transported past a sequence of flashing lights and some inflated waving dolls, accompanied by floating music and a soothing voice that says things like, “water… air…”. Then before you know it, you are at the end and you exit to tacky gift shops. We laughed our heads off.
Over on the other side, in Pudong, we were immediately struck by the huge skyscrapers, everywhere we looked, shrouded in mist. They were not the only things on a grand scale. Even the roundabout was enormous and was encircled by a huge raised public walk way. Our plan was to mount the Oriental Pearl, but we checked out the surrounding museums first.
At the aquarium, after spending ten minutes going backwards and forwards between two signs that pointed at each other, both saying ‘entrance’, we were completely bemused. We must have looked like a set of fools as a lady called from behind to direct us to a rather obvious looking entrance.
The marine life within were weird and wonderful, in particular the enormous Japanese spider crabs and the great big tanks of graceful neon jellyfish. The underwater tunnels were amazing and the travellator was a good idea to keep us all moving, otherwise we would probably blocked the tunnel gawping at the sharks, enormous turtles and exotic fish.
We headed to Insect World next. We had fifteen minutes to run round the place before it shut, but it turned out to be more than enough. It was grubby and cages were cramped. There were rabbits and goats that didn’t seem to have enough room, but the small monkeys, turtles and stick insects were amongst the highlights.
Finally, we turned our attention to the infamous communications tower, the Oriental Pearl.
The very top observation deck gave us a 360 degrees view of Shanghai, and we spent hours simply going round and round. The views changed continuously as day turned to night and the buildings all around began to illuminate, one by one. Tiny neon ships circled the river below and the glittery displays of light stretched as far as the eye could see. Many of the high rise buildings that looked huge from the ground were dwarfed from the top observation deck.
Whilst studying the top floor gift shop goods, I became aware of a Chinese family looking in my direction. I moved away to study the view and became suddenly aware of them again at my side. The next thing I knew, I was blinded by a camera flash and noticed the family had snuggled up next to me for a photo. Not content with just snapping my profile, they tapped me on my shoulder and beckoned me to get in the picture. I obliged, bewildered by the request. I considered that this was perhaps the first time the family had seen a real life westerner. Being fairly tall and with a large nose and hooded eyelids, I perhaps didn’t blend in quite as well as I might have hoped.
Shortly after, we moved down to the middle observation deck which was outdoors. Illuminations from the surrounding buildings were clearer from this deck and you really felt like you were in amongst them. You could hear the traffic buzzing below, but an icy cold wind prevented us from spending too long enjoying this perspective.
The lower deck simply consisted of a tacky amusements arcade. It would have gone down a treat in Blackpool, but here it was deserted. We did have the opportunity to go outside again for a brief last look at the views from this level, and on the way back in, we were required to pass through a revolving door. The concept seemed to be unfamiliar to some of the tourists, and we laughed as an entire family tried their hardest to all squeeze into the same compartment. When it was my turn, I tried hard to push the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I looked to my companion, and noted her expression of amused horror. It transpired that I hadn’t noticed a Chinese couple jump in the same compartment as me, and the small man was trapped between the door and the frame. Each time I nudged it, he was being crushed. We somehow managed to get all three of us through in one go and the man thankfully seemed to accept my apologies and take the whole thing in good humour.
We got the underground back to People’s Square and walked to Vegetarian Lifestyle for our first Chinese restaurant experience of the trip.
There was a ridiculous choice of dishes available, and we could easily have eaten everything on the menu, as we were starving by this point. We narrowed down our choices and attempted to place our order by simply pointing to the pictures on the menu. The waitress seemed to understand, but when it came to the rice dish, she repeated what sounded like “mayo” to us. Confused, and under pressure to respond, I simply said, “no thanks”, as if she had asked whether we would like mayonnaise with our Chinese meals. She returned the look of confusion, shrugged and walked off. After studying my guide book, we discovered that what she was actually trying to say to us was “mei you” – or “don’t have” in Mandarin Chinese. Unwilling to repeat a confused exchange, ,we decided to settle for mains without rice. Luckily it wasn’t a problem as the meals were huge and filling. We shared a pot of green tea and I had a mushroom fried dish which was delicious, so we vowed to return before the end of the trip. Of course, we didn’t.
Day 5 – Insects, Teapots and Cocktails on Cloud 9
Hoards of people were squashed into the insect and bird market, in the same way that the birds, insects and small furry animals were crammed into tiny cages within. Thankfully, we had the option of leaving the uncomfortable space, whereas the poor creatures had no choice but to endure their appalling conditions. I wanted to set them free and take them all home with me, including the insects, but I know this wouldn’t have solved much so we just left quite swiftly.
The Confucius Temple was in contrast very peaceful, and beautiful with its ornate temples and gardens. It seemed very strange that there were so few people there, just a few French students and several members of staff. After studying teapots for a rather long time, we were given a demonstration of the traditional tea ceremony. We sampled a jasmine, liquorice and a lychee tea, all of which were delicious, and were educated about the benefits of different tea types.
Jasmine is good for the skin, it turns out, and all the celebs in China drink it to keep their skin looking healthy. We both bought some.
We then made our way through the old town, with a variety of pants on display on washing poles along the entire route. The houses were small, dark and dusty in the old town, with thick black power lines attached to their shack like structures. Groups of people sat outside, with a variety of carvings and bric-a-brac items laid out on cloths in from of them, presumably for sale – although they didn’t try to catch our attention as we walked by. Stopping at a little shop to buy water on the way, I had no idea how much to pay, and handed a 50 note over. As I turned to exit, the assistant called me back and would not let me leave without my change. We noticed this elsewhere too; in Vegetarian Lifestyle they did the same and the shop over the road from the hotel corrected us when we tried to pay too much. It struck us as a very honest culture where money was concerned, in contrast with places in Italy and Spain where I have been repeatedly ripped off.
Yuyuan Bazaar was packed with people and stuff. Loud chatter and smells from various food establishments filled the air. We stopped to eat at the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai and were immediately completely confused about what on earth we were supposed to do. We wondered round the restaurant like mad people until eventually a Chinese couple entered and we just followed their lead, pointed at a plate of noodles and hoped for the best. Not bad for 12 RMB, roughly £1.20!
We headed back to the Bund, this time experiencing its full glory on a clear sunny day. We stopped for the obligatory coffee and cake at an old weather and communications building, producing arty photos that looked like they could have been painted by Lowry.
The Bund museum was small, but gave a fascinating history of Shanghai and the Bund. I was intrigued by the comment that Mao Zedong had reclaimed Shanghai in 1949, like catching a mouse in a China shop. He apparently ordered men to capture it with art rather than force. The museum described the influence on the city of styles from different settlements – the British, the French and Americans, and how the Chinese were banned from the parks. A sign in the park stated, “no dogs and no Chinese, except for slaves”. Whether this was true or not is apparently a matter of debate, but even if a myth, the legend must have started somewhere and is a shocking part of the history of Shanghai. However, there is no question that the combination of all these influences has made the city the exceptional place it is today and it makes you wonder what it would have been like without these foreign settlements.
Heads full of thoughts, we caught the subway to Pudong. The riverside walk was incredible at sunset, with the skyline silhouetted against the sun, and the glass buildings of Pudong glowing in the orange light.
When it was almost dusk, we headed up via a series of lifts to the 87th floor of the Jinmao tower, currently the second tallest tower in Shanghai. The cocktails in Cloud 9 were not amazing, but the views more than made up for it. Although for the price of our two drinks, we could have had 20 meals in the vegetarian restaurant in the Old Town! The contrast between these western influence bars with a view and standard Shanghai bars and restaurants was significant.
We returned on the underground to People’s Square and up West Nanjing to find the second most recommended Veggie restaurant, Gongdelin, or Godly as it now seemed to be called. The restaurant is famed for its fake meat dishes and I enjoyed a fake beef casserole with a massive fresh salad and a refreshing Tsingtao beer.