Shanghai - 上海

by - February 20, 2014

Luijazui Skyline
As the economic capital of a rising China, Shanghai was in many ways a natural place to start my mainland adventures.  Connected to Hong Kong by regular two-hour long flights and with the procurement of Chinese visas being a lot easier than I had imagined, the four day Shanghai trip took place right at the start of the Spring semester

Day One: The Bund, People’s Park and Luijazui

The Bund
We landed in Shanghai late on Friday evening and did little more than find the hostel (Blue Mountain Bund - well recommended), drink some beer and go to bed.  The next morning we got up as early as we could manage and headed east to the ‘Bund’, the traditional centre of Shanghai.  First, a (very brief) history.  The history of Shanghai has always been intrinsically linked with the west.  After the isolationist China was forcibly opened by the European powers during the Opium Wars, a series of 'treaty ports’ were imposed on China.  These ports were to be opened to western trade and became important international trade hubs, with European merchants taking over swathes of the cities as their own.  The Bund, a road beside the Haungpu River, was the centre of Shanghai’s trade and over time was adorned with grand headquarters of the western companies that settled there - as well as a range of hotels and other entertainment buildings.  Some of the big names that can be found on the Bund include HSBC bank (the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation for anybody who had never heard what it stands for) and Jardines (the opium house that later went 'legit’ and is now one of the largest companies in Hong Kong) as well as a range of luxury hotels.

Nanjing Road
While the city was very busy, the provision for pedestrians was good enough for us to feel we could get around on foot.  Having experienced relatively late growth, Shanghai is based around a grid of roads running north-south and east-west which is good for navigation.  Heading west from the Bund and the river we walked down Nanjing Road, the main shopping street in the city, with a range of European, American and Asian brands.  We didn’t linger too long here however as at the western end of the Nanjing Road was our second sight of the day, People’s Square.  Surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, this square is a bit of a green haven, containing a range of important museums as well as restaurants, cafes and pleasant areas for afternoon strolls.  It was here that we were introduced to a taste of Chinese romance at the (horrifically named) “Shanghai Marriage Market”.  Here, parents of local singles try to find their sons and daughters suitable partners by reading through thousands of 'advertisements’ that are posted throughout the park stating information ranging from height and age to job status, income and education.  Even Chinese zodiac sign is deemed important - I read that it has been called “a cross between and a farmers’ market”.  Romance, it would appear, is well and truly dead in Shanghai.  We grabbed a coffee at a Costa shop and headed south towards the “French Concession” district of the city.
People’s Park
Mahjong Players in the French Concession
The “French Concession” is a name that doesn’t actually appear on Chinese maps of Shanghai, but is the colloquial term for a group of districts that were once administered by the French while the western powers were carving up the treaty ports.  The area is now full of low-rise shops, cafes and parks and is one of the more popular districts for expats and businessmen to hang around in.  Unfortunately, it was slightly confusing as to where the district began so we only passed through briefly to grab some food at a very local looking noodle restaurant where the menu was entirely in Chinese - leading us to (rather successfully as it turned out) point and hope.  From here we decided to sample the underground network for the first time, travelling very easily back towards the Bund and then on to Luijazui - the new financial centre.
Sunset over Luijazui
Our original plan had been to climb to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower - the slightly strange looking observation tower shown to the right of the photo.  Upon arrival however we found that there was a two hour long queue, which seemed like a crazy amount of time to wait to climb one tower, considering the shear volume of other tall buildings nearby.  Sure enough, after grabbing a drink at a slightly bizarre tea shop at the very foot of the Pearl Tower, we found that there was almost no queue at the Shanghai World Finance Centre, currently the tallest building in the city (though soon to be replaced by the Shanghai Tower) and also home to the highest observation deck in the world.  The structure, while almost certainly designed to fit in with the Chinese principles of Feng Shui, unfortunately looks just like a giant bottle opener - check out the picture at the top of the blog to spot it for yourself.  The views from the top were, however, unbeatable and we thought they were probably even better than from the Oriental Pearl.  After getting back down to ground level again we grabbed some food from a Chinese restaurant in a mall near our hostel and then made our way back to the French Concession to watch England play Ireland in the Six Nations (as our group was split between between English, Irish and Americans, it seemed a perfect way to spend the evening).  We had planned to get the MTR, but (crazily considering it is one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world) it turned out the last train was before 11am.  We then tried to power walk over but this proved to be too much effort and we ended up grabbing one of the numerous (and cheap) taxis - arriving at a pub just in time for kick off.

View from the World Financial Centre - The Bund is on the opposite side of the river.

Day Two: The Old Town, French Concession and Huangpu River Cruise

Shanghai Old Town
Rising reasonably early considering our late night watching rugby, we grabbed breakfast in the hostel and got the underground to the old town of Shanghai.  I was slightly sceptical when we arrived in the old town as it all appeared a bit too pristine - beautiful Chinese architecture that was so well maintained that it looked like it had only just been built.  I guess it isn’t really a bad thing if the authorities keep the place looking smart though.  The pedestrianised shopping districts were very much geared to the visiting tourists with cafes (including Starbucks) vying with souvenir shops and dumpling restaurants.  In amongst this were some picturesque temples and gardens, the highlight of which was the Yu Yuan Garden, a sprawl of pagodas, bridges, rivers and rockeries that made a nice break from the heaving crowds outside its walls.  You are never too far from seeing the modern Shanghai however and even several miles from the skyscraper district it is possible to see the new Shanghai Tower looming in the distance.

Yu Yuan Gardens
View from the river cruise
After spending the majority of the morning in the old town and grabbing some food and souvenirs we made a brief visit back to the French Concession to spend a little bit more time wandering around its warren of streets and cafes.  We had now got a pretty good idea of our bearings and had purchased a travelcard for unlimited use of the underground for the day (for £1.80) and were quite happy to flit around from one part of the city to another with no particular logical plan.  Our next stop was back on the other side of the river, at one of the city’s many big markets where it is possible to get cheap knockoffs of anything from bags to watches to sunglasses.  The market also contained lots of locals making souvenirs, the most interesting of whom was a man who was painting the inside of bottles using a paint brush with a right angled tip.  Having never seen anything quite like this it seemed like a suitable momento.  By now it was starting to get dark so we made our way back to the Bund where we were planning to go on a river cruise which had been well recommended to us.  It was reasonably cheap and a great way to see the skyline - especially as we had apparently been very lucky with how clear and pollution-free the sky was for our visit.  For the third time in two days we then made our way back to the French Concession to the Tianzifang district where we had some dinner at a Japanese restaurant and stopped by a shisha bar.

Tianzifang, French Concession

Day Three: Urban Planning Museum and Shanghai Museum

The model of the city
Having spent two days exploring the main sights in the city and getting out to Suzhou for a further day, we felt that we had done a pretty good job of seeing the best the area had to offer.  We woke on our final morning to find that it was pouring with rain and therefore headed for two of the museums in People’s Square.  The first of these, the Urban Planning Museum, is a great example of China’s new confidence - it is dedicated to the future vision of Shanghai, centered around a giant model of what the city will look like.  It was very well laid out and included exhibits on everything from the city’s history to how the new airport and dock expansions are intended to look.  Across the road from here was Shanghai Museum, a more traditional museum dedicated to Chinese history.  It is said that China lost a lot of its major artefacts to Taiwan at the end of the civil war and the museums of the mainland are therefore not as good as a country with a history as rich as China’s should be.  It is also said however that of all of the mainland museums, Shanghai’s is the best and it was a good place to spend a few rainy hours.  With that, our time in the city was complete and we made our way back to the airport.  This involved one last show of Chinese prowess, as the airport express is the only operational 'Maglev’ train in the world at the moment.  Short for “Magnetic Levitation” train, the train works by using super-strong magnets to prevent the train actually touching the tracks (and therefore preventing any friction).  The journey to the airport takes less than 10 minutes and reaches a phenomenal speed of nearly 270mph - making the trundling Heathrow Express pale in comparison.  The train demonstrated quite clearly just how profound China’s development has been and how it is such a fascinating place to visit, both now and in the future.  I have a twin entry visa, so I will be back.

You May Also Like