Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Pearl of the Orient - Shanghai

To airport, I wake the night porter for the umpteenth time of my stay, say goodbye then walk along the dark hutong streets to the main road to pick up a taxi. I ask to go to Xidan, which he understands when I explain roughly where it is. I want to catch the first airport bus at 5:30am from there, the place where I first arrived in Beijing. When we arrive, the bus is almost full and about to leave, so I grab a ticket from the booth, leave my bag under the bus and climb on board. I manage a two-seater to myself near the bag, worth having so I can sleep.

Next thing I know, the driver wakes me up at airport by yelling something like Get Off! at me, the bus is empty apart from me! Inside it’s really busy despite only being 6:15 or so. There’s a special check-in area for the Shanghai shuttle flights, and after I also find separate security queues. Trains to Shanghai currently take 10 hours (they’ve just approved a new high-speed link that will half this), so presumably there’s lots of business traffic on the route.

For some reason, my foot is really hurting again, that damn blister from Nepal. On close examination later, there seems to be a crack in my skin right at the joint with the toe! Ouch, what do I do about this?! Anyway, I have plenty of time, so choose the main restaurant to get some food. It’s easy, as you take a tray and pick up whatever you want – no difficult questions asked! I have some nice meat buns, scrambled eggs, some pickled vegetables and a soup of some kind.

Our gate is moved to another, disturbing my snooze, but soon I’m on the plane. I have an aisle seat, but the woman who is supposed to sit next to me turns up and indicates by an almost-dismissive wave that I should move up into the middle seat! I don’t think so! She glares at me for the rest of the trip, which I spend sleeping for the most part. On the screens they show a documentary about the extensive training float drivers get for the national day parade, then some Tibetan propaganda about how Tibetans wanted China to invite (cough, “liberate”) their country!

At Shanghai, it’s quite warm – 26C. It looks like the Metro still has not been extended out here, so bus to the People’s Place it is. I have a seat, yay! The bus is quite easy, with a big display telling one in English occasionally what the next stop is. At the People’s Square, I can’t find the Metro, and walk through underground shopping centre but still no sign of it. Worryingly the people I ask don’t understand “Metro” and I can’t find the Chinese characters in LP. Bugger! Here comes sign language for an underground train, whoosh!

So taxi it is, but it’s not far away. As soon as I’m comfortably seated I see the Metro. Oh well, my foot is hurting anyway.

As we drive through downtown, I gaze up at the tall buildings everywhere, tempered by old colonial architecture sitting at their feet. At the Ming Town Hiker Youth Hostel (for that is really its name), I check in to a lovely room, one of their three Luxury Rooms. They’re expensive by YH standards, at 300y per night, but 10x cheaper than the Hyatt ad for a bigger room which is almost as nice. And the hostel is in a great location, with almost everything being walking distance from here. Finally I have the chance to wash lots, as I’m feeling very grubby. And… sleep!

In the evening I wander out, first to the Suzhou River. This is the setting for one of my favourite films, which takes its name from the river (it’s marked as a creek in LP). The main river in Shanghai is the Huangpo, this is a tributary. The film, which I thoroughly recommend, is a tragic love story set around the river, a world away from the glitzy skyscrapers that adorn the Bund, Shanghai’s seafront, which is where I head next, following the Suzhou round until I hit the classic waterside Shanghai shot, with the TV tower dominating.

Shanghai, like Hong Kong, was one of the ports forcibly opened up by the British (and French) to trade with China. Shanghai literally means “By the Sea”, and it was a small fishing village when the British built the first building in 1842, the old consulate, which is still there today (though now has a Chinese flag flying of course). The Shanghai of old had a reputation as being a very seedy place (The Whore of the Orient), full of gambling joints, opium dens etc. The Chinese cleaned it up in the early 90s, leading to the development of today. The other theory is that the Chinese Government would love Shanghai to overtake Hong Kong – a home-grown success story rather that one brought about by the British (though I’d argue that Shanghai is also a British success story, but then, I would!).

Incidentally, Shanghai is the home of the “No Chinese or Dogs” myth – there were never signs saying this. Chinese were banned from some parks, as were dogs, but this was all detailed in a host of regulations that one had to obey to enter the parks in the international settlements. Perhaps it suits some people to misrepresent history, though I can’t imagine the Chinese authorities ever doing that!

The Bund (Waitan in Chinese), the waterside road, dates from colonial times and so is lined with grand stone buildings. The other side of the water is Pudong, the business and skyscraper district, hence the good views. Bund is an Anglo-Indian term meaning the embankment of a muddy waterfront. To Europeans, it was Shanghai’s Wall Street, a place of trade, of fortunes made and lost.

I turn down Nanjing East Street, the main shopping thoroughfare – I’m hungry but there doesn’t seem to be much on offer. China, like perhaps Italy and France, is one of those countries where you’ll potentially have your best food experiences for pennies in a grimy small diner in a side street rather than places that look grand and charge accordingly. Though I’m sure the food in the Hyatt or Meridien is not bad!

Far down, still nothing. There have been some ramen joints, but I’m not in the mood for noodles. I want.. spicy Sichuan food! I’m addicted!! I give up and pop into BreadTalk, a Singaporean “Japanese-style” bakery chain that seems to be cropping up all over Asia – they had them in Thailand and Hong Kong too. And then.. Starbucks, for more blog before I go to Pudong Airport to meet Yi Jun, who’s come over from Chengdu to meet up!

The way to Pudong airport is one takes a metro to Longyang Station,

where one takes the world-famous Maglev (i.e. Magnetic Levitation, look ma no wheels) Train straight to the airport. Except the train only runs in business hours! This is somewhat disappointing for a 24hr international airport. Never mind, there are airport shuttle buses too. Oh, except they finish at about 10pm. And the taxi vultures at Longyang Station know it. I tried in desperation to find a bus, and was getting hassled so much by the taxis that I hopped on the first bus going along the road. Didn’t have a number, just a load of Chinese. It drove off in the right direction. Good.

I have fairly good navigation instincts, so started to feel suspicious as we veered away from the direction I felt was right. Twenty minutes later my suspicions were confirmed as we arrived back at Longyang, and in fact drove past it and onwards! Off at the next stop, I pondered my next move, almost resigned to a taxi. Then I noticed a slightly battered minibus on a corner with several passengers waiting in it. Ah ha, an unofficial airport shuttle perhaps. With a bit of sign language, it was agreed, and the price was a suspiciously-low 6 yuan. I assumed everyone else was going to the airport too, but it turned out he was just operating a sort of group taxi, so one by one the other passengers alighted until it was just me and the driver. He whizzed off down the motorway to the airport. It’s quite far, and I decided 6 must either be a mistake, perhaps he meant 60, or if not, I’ll give him 50 or so anyway – it must be 35km to the terminals.

When we arrived, pen and paper confirmed that it was 60Y, and he’d do the return trip right into town for another 140. Still cheaper than cabs so I agreed. Yi Jun’s flight was a bit late but the guy seemed happy to wait. Anyway, if you’re coming to China and plan to take any early or late flights, which they frequently are, you’ll face this problem. Lord knows why they think a bus and train service that only covers two-thirds of the flight schedule day is sufficient for what are otherwise very well-organised airports. Perhaps the taxi driver unions are paying off the right Party Leader.

Heading back into town I wanted to point out the skyline of Shanghai, but it had disappeared – the impressive lit Pudong had been switched off, seemingly all the office lights too. Spooky!

Next day, in a way that was starting to become a habit with me, we had a day to do Shanghai. Think “One Day in London” and you’ll get a picture of how infeasible this is. Anyway, we rose at a respectable hour and headed out of Mingtown. Just across the road was a local eatery, where we tried the famous Shanghai buns, along with some wet dumplings and Shanghai noodles.


More being made

All tasty, but benefitting from my Korean chilli paste that of course I was careful to ensure the staff didn’t catch me using!

Following the same route as last night, we looped round along Suzhou River, passing the Waibadu (Garden) bridge where one can see old Communist graffiti from Cultural Revolution times.

The Garden Bridge


Old British consulate

The Bund was busy, and made more entertaining by Yi Jun reading out all the Chinese signs to me, regardless of relevance. Ah, the Nanjing Agricultural Workers Bank, yes I’d always wondered where that was.

The Bund is lined by banks all using the old colonial buildings.

At the bottom, we turned inland and walked down to Yu Yuan Gardens, getting told off by a stroppy traffic warden woman along the way for crossing when we weren’t supposed to. Yi Jun got a “You’re Chinese, you should know better”. Pick a fight with someone your own size, fatty!

Yu Yuan Gardens

The area around Yu Yuen is a big touristy shopping area in neo-classical Chinese style, that includes not one, but two Starbucks!

Dragons guard an entrance

Golden carvings


The bazaar

At the edge of the garden, over water

The gardens themselves seems small initially but are quite extensive, as you keep ducking through walkways and following little bridges over the waterways.

Good advice


The gardens were founded by the Pan family, rich Ming dynasty officials in the 16th century. They took 18 years to build the gardens, before they were trashed by the French in reprisal for attacks on their French concession.

Nowhere to go

Excuse me!

There are rockeries everywhere, and beautiful buildings.

Places of study

Busy taking photos

Always sleepy

Ornate corners

It’s a shame it’s so busy – this would be such a beautiful peaceful place if only there were less people here, in particular the tour groups who are clearly in such a hurry.

Big smiles

Lanterns and roofs

Patterned shadows

Water runs through the complex

Unfortunately they must also be the most popular tourist attraction in Shanghai, and we had to compete with dozens of large tour groups marching through which somewhat spoils the otherwise tranquil surroundings.


Perhaps shaped to get large vases through?

Graffiti of the garden name

The bird is real!

Next to the waterfront, and we hop on a ferry across to Pudong.

The busy Huangpu River, ferries jumping in the gaps between commercial traffic

This is away from the tourists now, and I find myself the only foreigner on the boat, which is carrying hundreds of bikes and motorbikes as well as those on foot.

Bikes whizz off

At Pudong we walk over to the Jin Mao tower, which is Shanghai’s tallest (until the Financial tower across the street is finished) with 88 floors.

Jin Mao on the left

Towers between trees

There’s an observation deck on the 88th floor, but we want to go to the Cloud 9 bar on 87th for a drink and to avoid the expensive tourist price for the top.

Mei is staying in the Hyatt, but she’s over at the Shanghai Museum now, so we head up.

View from the 54th floor

We take the lift to 54th floor for the Hyatt reception, another lift to 85th floor, then another to the 87th. Except Cloud 9 is closed, doesn’t open till 5pm. So back down, out,

Line ‘em up

The iconic Oriental Pearl TV tower

and to the Super Brand shopping mall looking for Suzhou River DVD, still can’t find it, then the Aquarium.

Entry fee is 120Y for one, or 280Y for an annual pass! Seems slightly skewed against tourists! Anyway, we pay and go in.

Look, dinner!

In their stomachs!

Fighting fish kept apart


Sea horses

Seen plenty of these boys diving


Initially I was a bit disappointed, but it gets better, and finishes with the world’s longest underwater tunnel, where a moving walkways conveys you slowly along 115m of arched glass with fish, sharks, turtles and rays swimming overhead and around you.

Part of the long underwater tunnel

Big turtles

Bigger teeth

One of the wonders of a tank like this is that everything doesn’t eat each other. One would assume that you’d put them all in there together, and if you left them over the weekend by Monday there would just be one big lone shark, looking very full and happy, perhaps belching guiltily.

We try to take a boat next, but they seem to stop running between 4 and 7pm. So back to the Jin Mao, and up to Cloud 9. It’s expensive, but really quite reasonable for a Hyatt bar with a view like this as the sun goes down.

Sun dimming over Shanghai’s Old Town

The sunset is a bit lame though, more of a gentle fade-out. Mei joins us shortly afterwards. It’s always very strange meeting friends from back home in far-flung places. Like seeing Zac in Chengdu too.

Lights below on the Pudong side of the Huangpu

We munch through some fries, a bargain at 45Y! I swap my t-shirt for a shirt I bought in the mall, as I’m not sure my dirty t-shirt is appropriate for the restaurant we have booked for dinner. It’s time, so we say our good-byes to Mei, and we head out to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, Mei’s recommendation.

I thought this was a pedestrian tunnel like Greenwich. Oh no, it’s much more than that!

You head down a brightly lit tunnel, where your, err, capsule? is waiting for you.

You get on, and as another one comes in and spins round, you set off.

It’s best described as a fairground ghost ride crossed with London’s DLR crossed with an acidic trip techno club night! The tunnel is divided into sections, each with crazy lighting themes and music, sometimes divided by curtains with stuff projected on to them. Ooh and I almost didn’t mention the strange inflatable figures between the two sets of tracks.

At the other end, we climb out and let our eyes adjust!

The Bund at night

On to the Bund, a short walk down to Number 3 leads us to our restaurant, Jean Gorges, supposedly the best in town according to LP. Up the lift, we come out into very dark restaurant. A girl takes us to our table, past the gleaming kitchens. We’re sitting in a small alcove with a great view over the river and Pudong.

It’s a smart, Michelin quality place. I order some water and an Argentinean wine from Mendoza. We’re given a palette cleanser which is not appreciated by Yi Jun, a good portion of it ending up over the nibbles we’ve been given, hehe! Tasty bread comes too, but I’m trying not to eat too much given I’ve already had the fries in the Hyatt.

For dinner, we order starters of pickled crab, which comes with crackers, lobster chilli oil, mustard and fruit, and tuna sashimi with avocado. Yi Jun’s never tried sashimi before, doesn’t like the concept but enjoys the reality!

Main course is black cod for Yi Jun and beef sirloin for me, all my choices, I figured that way I don’t mind if she doesn’t like something, I’ll eat either. As it happens all of the food is wonderful. When it’s time for desert, we go for the chocolate taster pudding to share. Four different chocolate dishes, all of which are delicious, but of particular interest is the chocolate caramel layered square with Sichuan peppers doing the tingly thing in our mouths!

The bill is quite reasonable for what we’ve had. We walk back to our hostel, and have a couple of beers before bed.

In the morning it’s time to go to the airport. We check out, walk to the metro station in East Nanjing Road, tube to Longyang station where we walk up into the Maglev station.

The tickets are 40Y each because we have air tickets for today. We just make the next train, dump bags, find seats and wait. I’m expecting it to start hovering then whizz off, but it’s not quite like that.


The train starts, but disappointingly it’s a bit bumpy, and the speed reaches 300km/hr then doesn’t go any higher. I thought it went 400+? Apparently not today. Japanese Shinkansen and our Eurostar trains go this speed on rails. At least we’re going a hell of a lot faster than the cabs – as LP says, it looks like they’re going backwards. We arrive into the terminal and check-in, then say our goodbyes.

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