Monday, March 4, 2013

Shanghai

Last visited: June 2004

Wonderful Shanghai

If asked whether I would recommend visiting Beijing or Shanghai, I would instantly say Shanghai. Whereas Beijing has undergone massive transformation into a new, modern metropolis, Shanghai still has an undercurrent of older charms that have not yet been bulldozed. If you only want to climb the Great Wall of China and see the Forbidden City, then by all means go to Beijing and tick those boxes. But if you want to visit a living, breathing Chinese city with some sense of heritage, go to Shanghai.

When you fly in, you'll arrive at Shanghai Pudong airport, which is new and modern, built in 1999. The interior is spacious and airy, and security and customs officers are friendly. Its located about 30km from the city centre, on the newly developed Pudong peninsula across the Huangpo River from the city of Shanghai.

In 2004, the world's first commercial high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) train began operating from the airport to Shanghai. As you leave the airport baggage area, you will be hounded by taxi drivers who want to take you to the city at a premium price, and they will tell you "No trains, all finished" or "Maglev is not operating today". Don't believe them. Follow the signs and take the escalator to the maglev train for the ride of your life - travelling 430 kilometers per hour (270 mph)! across the countryside. Unfortunately the trip is too short - its only 8 minutes to Longyang Road Metro Station, where you can transfer to an underground train on Metro Line 7 to the Shanghai city centre.

Alternatively, you can take the Shanghai Metro Line 2 from Pudong airport to Longyang Road Metro Station, then transfer to Metro Line 7 to the city centre. Its cheap - about 3 RMB - but not as exciting and it takes an hour to get there.

Peace Hotel Shanghai - photo © Michael Bouy
The Peace Hotel - photo © Michael Bouy
We stayed at the Shanghai Peace Hotel, said to be one of the most famous hotels in the world. It overlooks the Bund, or promenade, along the massive Huangpo River, looking toward the new city of Pudong on the other side. The Peace Hotel was built in 1926 by Victor Sassoon (grandfather of Vidal Sassoon) and has hosted numerous heads of state, including Bill Clinton. It is the location where Stephen Spielberg filmed portions of "Empire of the Sun" and Eugene O'Niell finished one of his plays. It is home to a famous jazz band, who Clinton joined with his saxophone, although we found the musicians were all very old men who had seen better days. When we were there in 2004 it was very affordable, but still luxurious, with original teak wood panelling throughout the rooms, but has since been redeveloped and is now the upper-class Fairmont Peace Hotel and has lost some of the old-world charm.

From the rooftop terrace of the Peace Hotel, you can look across The Bund and the Huangpo River to the new suburb of Pudong, built within the last 15 years on what was formerly farmland. The most striking building is the Pearl of the Orient TV tower with two huge orbs on a skewer, and below it is the Shanghai Exhibition Centre with two orbs of the earth on either side.

The Huanpo River is very wide (about 750 meters / yards) and big transport ships and long lines of barges traverse up and down the river to the interior of China. 

To travel from the Peace Hotel to Pudong and the Exhibition Centre, take the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel under the river. It has tiny carriages that will hold about 10 people standing, and has different flashing lights as you travel under the river. Its only a 2 minute walk from hotel to the tunnel, then 2 minutes from the tunnel to the Conference Centre, and cost about $6 each way. There is also an underground metro train that would only cost 50 cents, but its a 20 minute walk each direction, and a taxi will take about 45 minutes and cost the same.

I explored Pudong, and found my way to the remains of a farming village which was being demolished to be paved over with skyscrapers and huge roads. Given a choice, it is definitely better to stay on the Shanghai side of the river where there are still plenty of old charms. The air pollution is quite bad, and combined with heat of 33C (90F) and humidity of about 70%, you are sweating and feeling dirty all day, so make sure you carry a water bottle when you go exploring. Fortunately there is a huge shopping mall in Pudong where you can cool down and have a bite to eat before continuing your explorations.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai
Nanjing Road
The Peace Hotel is at the river end of Nanjing Road, the focal point of Shanghai. It is now a pedestrian mall which runs for 2 km (1.5 miles) and is lit up at night like Las Vegas. After sunset, it seems that all the Chinese people in China emerge and parade up and down The Bund or Nanjing Road and ride brightly lit sightseeing boats up and down the river.

Our first day out exploring the city of Shanghai, we started off with breakfast at a small restaurant that served only Japanese food, though we didn't realise it until we sat down and communicated our order by pointing at pictures. Nothing like eel and rice for breakfast.

The streets of Shanghai are lined with many buildings which were built during the colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as the British clock tower on the edge of the Shanghai city gardens, juxtaposed with new skyscrapers towering behind it.

One day I shopped at an alleyway market off Nanjing Road for gifts to take home, where I haggled mercilously with the traders for silk scarves, robes and other assorted items. The locals don't normally speak English, so when you are interested in an item, they type the price on a calculator and show it to you. Then you shake your head and offer 25% of their price by typing it on the calculator. Then they make another offer, and you negotiate. Usually you arrive at about 50% of their original asking price. NEVER agree to the first price offered!

Food and drink in Shanghai

Sure, you'll find western food outlets like Taco Bell and Starbucks, but why would you go there when the best authentic Chinese food is available!

Our first night in Shanghai, we ate dinner at the Peace Hotel restaurant with a window view overlooking The Bund and the Huangpo River. Dinner was absolutely perfect with delicious local Chinese cuisine (what else would you expect?). 

Another night we went down a side street off the Nanjing Road to find a restaurant outside the tourist traps. There we chose a bustling little restaurant with boxes of fresh fish on ice sitting outside. The place was packed with locals, and we were given a small table in the hallway next to the slop bucket. Hmmm. Okay, it was the only table available, so it must be good. They managed to find us an English language menu, and we ordered some of the most superb food ever.

Another day, after shopping ourselves silly, we set out to find a restaurant that was described in a guidebook. The restaurant is a converted Russian Orthodox church, and so we set out on foot to find it. According to the maps, it wasn't very far. So we walked ... and walked ... and walked ... we found it about 1 1/2 hours later. No sooner did we sit down inside the restaurant than it began raining cats and dogs. Thank heavens we found it!

According to the guidebook, there was a banner of Chairman Mao hanging inside the cupola of the church, next to icons and stained glass windows. I went upstairs to see it, but the banner wasn't there. We spoke to the restaurant owner - he had removed the Mao banner only 2 weeks earlier. The owner was Portuguese, so the food was very European and delicious. We were the only ones there and waited a couple of hours for the rain to stop and the workers from the local embassies to come in.

Transportation in Shanghai

The Shanghai metro, with both underground and overground rail, is one of the most extensive in the world and will get you nearly anywhere. It is very popular and busy, and can sometimes be overwhelming with crowds. Whenever we wanted to get somewhere, we went to the local metro station ticket office, pointed to the location on the map, and invariably the fare was only 3 RMB (50 cents) although it can be more if you are going a long distance. We then pointed to the platforms and asked which one, and the ticket operator would point out which platform to go to.

Taxis were also reasonably priced, but again we had to show them on a map where we wanted to go as they do not speak English. Make sure you have a map with both English and Mandarin.

Language in Shanghai

While the official language nationwide is Mandarin, the local native language is Shanghainese, a dialect of Wu Chinese, which is unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. Most locals know both languages.

For local people who received a secondary education before 1949 or after 1990, there is a high prevalence of English fluency. Everywhere we went in Shanghai, the signs were posted both in Chinese and English, so it was rather easy to get around. A couple of times we were stopped by girls in school uniforms who bowed and said, "Welcome to Shanghai!"

Currency in China

The currency in China is called Yuan Renminbi (RMB). At the time of writing, US$1 was equal to about 6 RMB.

What to see in Shanghai

The Shanghai Museum of art and history has one of the best collections of Chinese historical artifacts in the world. It is jaw-dropping to see jade art that is 20,000 years old.

I went in search of the Old City - an area of about 3 acres that contains almost the last of the buildings that were constructed before the 1900s. It is now a tourist district filled with shops and restaurants. As I explored the Old City, I was befriended by a thin man with glasses, slightly crossed eyes and greying hair who spoke almost perfect English, Mr Lee.

At first I thought he was going to go through the whole spiel of trying to sell me a watch, a pen, a wallet, some postcards ... but no, he just wanted to practice his English. So I asked him to take a photo of me, and then enquired where was a good place to eat lunch.

Mr Lee took me to a restaurant with no English menus. He read the items out to me, and I selected what I wanted, and invited him to join me. We started with salt pork soup (good for the heat), then had Sechuan beef and rice, with green tea. Delicious!

As we ate lunch, I learned that Mr Lee was manager of a pearl store. Hmmm ... maybe he did want to sell me something! He invited me to his store in the old city to see him open oysters and remove the pearls, which I did. 

They were very large, flat, freshwater oysters, about the size of a dessert plate. He asked me to guess how many pearls would be inside the oyster - from 10 to 50 pearls. I guessed 15. The oyster contained 20 pearls, some perfect in shape, some very oblong and rough, all of different colors. He gave me some of the rough pearls from my oyster as a souvenir. I then asked to look at different pearl necklaces, and as his prices were very reasonable (better than those on Nanjing Road) , I selected a couple of necklaces as gifts to take home.

That night, we went back to the Old City. The buildings were silhouetted with lights and it was quite beautiful. A young girl persuaded us to go see some paintings done by her school, and we followed her upstairs into one of the buildings where we found hundreds of watercolors for sale, made by her fellow students and teachers. The girl looked about 12 years old, but said she was 16. She was very clever and persuasive, but we managed to avoid buying anything.

Zig Zag Bridge, Shanghai Old City - photo © Michael Bouy
Zig Zag Bridge, Shanghai Old City - photo © Michael Bouy
Also at the Old City is the YuYuan Garden, which was built during the reign of Ming Emporer Jiajing in 1559 as a private garden by an administrator of Sichuan Province. The entrance to YuYuan Garden is on the left side of a zig-zag bridge in the Old City. It is filled with many pagodas, ponds, walls and walkways.

Another day we took a train, then a taxi, to visit the Buddhist Temple of Longhua, which was built in 200 AD. Our method of communicating where we wanted to go was to show the train ticket agent, or the taxi driver, our map and point to the location. They would scratch their head and pronounce the name in Chinese and we would point to the map again and try to pronounce the name, then they would get us where we wanted to go.

There is a huge wooden pagoda tower in front of Longhua Temple that was built nearly 1900 years ago. Just outside the gates of Longhua Temple is a statue of 100 golden Buddhas. Two magnificent gate lions stand in front of Longhua Temple. They were carved more than 2000 years ago and are said to be of a design that is rare. 

Longhua Temple has several large, ornate pagodas, each housing giant golden statues of various gods. When you buy your ticket to enter the grounds of Longhua Temple, they also give you a huge bundle of incense to offer to the gods as you pray to the statues. The correct way to do it is to stand in the middle of the square, hold the bundle of incense in both hands, and bow as you turn to each of the gods in each of the pagodas. After praying, put the incense in the giant metal urn standing in the centre of the square.

At the far end of Longhua Temple grounds there is a fantastic restaurant with wonderful cuisine (Chinese food, of course) and air conditioning, which was perfect on a hot, humid day. We ordered a couple of vegetarian dishes which melted in our mouths. 

After leaving Longhua Temple, we took an escalator up to a modern pagoda-style pedestrian walkway which crosses over the busy road to a small shopping centre.

We then hailed a taxi and had him drive us to the area which was in colonial times known as the French Concession where we found a couple of narrow streets lined with dozens of stalls selling antiques and mementos of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. This is the best place to do souvenir shopping. There were copies of Mao's little red book of quotations, Mao badges, Mao statues ... and lots of old teapots and bowls and everything you can imagine. Again, the sellers will type the price on the calculator. DO NOT accept the first price. Offer them 25% and haggle until you get the price to about 50% of what they originally asked.