Crowded, Cosmopolitan, Charming.
Shanghai is one city that I feel almost needs no introduction. It is constantly in the news for reasons good and bad, its also one that amazes me because it is a country so full of extremes. For one, most travellers i’ve met either love or hate the city. It is difficult to find someone indifferent to the place. The juxtaposition of tall gleeming skyscrapers amidst old dirty slum like buildings or street side vendors peddling their chow just outside the doors of fancy expensive restaurants together with the ebb and flow of this city intrigues me so much because of how it has through the years somehow managed to find this balance of east meets west. While it opens up to the rest of the world and is has become one of the world’s superpowers, it has somehow managed to retain its culture, some of its charm and certainly loads of its values.
There are no UNESCO sites in this city, no real natural scenery, no particularly famous attractions, only smog. Practically everything is built up and if the second hand smoke from the city does not kill you, either the smog or the ridiculously crazy drivers there surely will. Still, I found myself there one weekend with zero expectations whatsoever (also zero plans!) and found myself becoming very fond of this place!
I spent my first evening exploring East Nanjing Road and the Bund and my second day out of the main city to this ancient water town called Qi Bao together with Xin Tian Di back in central Shanghai. Finally on the last day, not only did I manage a food trail around this city I managed to shop a little at Qipu Wholesale Shopping Centre and also somehow managed to sightsee along with squeezing in a manicure and a massage right before I was set to leave for the airport for my night flight! It never ceases to amaze me how I arrived without a plan, sat desperately before my laptop attempting to Google (and failing to do so, Google is blocked!) / Baidu (google equivalent. beware! much of it is in Chinese) and having to figure out the Chinese site with my half ars ability to read some Chinese just to come up with a tightly packed itinerary. Without further ado, here are my lists and tips for tackling Shanghai in a short span of time (China is huge! loads of other places to explore!).
1. The Bund
Waterfront in Central Shanghai with the Huangpu River running through. I would suggest heading here in the evening for a nice stroll and for the beautiful and ever so colourful lights dotting the landscape of the Financial District on the other side. This really reminds me of the view of Central Business District Skyline in Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands and the Skyline of Hong Kong from Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. In comparison, the Bund is not only bigger, the skyline larger and more colourful, it was also way more impressive compared to the other two. Going to the Bund, not only will you be able to enjoy the skyline of the Financial District on one side, on the other, there are the old colonial-esque architecture which I found to be just as grand and impressive.
Tip: avoid the crowds who tend to flock to the area closer to Nanjing East Road and the Peace Hotel. Head further down the Bund away from the sight of the Pearl Tower for just an amazing a view but without all the bobbing heads in your picture. If you have some extra cash and would like a nice drink with a view of the Shanghai Skyline, head to VUE bar at Hyatt Hotel else, hanging along the bund with your water bottles is pretty nice too.
2. East Nanjing Road
Main shopping belt in Shanghai where not only will you find the big brands and departmental stores, there are also international brands such as Zara and H&M together with local stores and street stalls selling souvenirs too. East Nanjing Road is wide, it is huge and there was so much to take in. In spite of the crowds, I thoroughly enjoyed walking down this stretch and absorbing the smell and smog of capitalism at its finest here. There were some old colonial buildings that looked so grand and beautiful. I loved how the planners of the city lighted them up juxtaposing them with the other normal buildings and street stalls.
Tip: Take the metro to East Nanjing Station and walk along this road taking in the sights at night before ending at the Bund. Note – if you do this, be prepared to walk a fair bit. Unless you are well skilled in the art of hailing a taxi, avoid trying to hail one along the Bund, the crowd and the skillfulness of the locals make it quite impossible to get one.
3. Qibao Ancient Town
If you would like to escape the madness in central Shanghai and to explore a different side to the crowded, cityscape you are now familiar with, I recommend going to Qibao Ancient Town located in the outskirts of Shanghai. Like Zhujiajiao Ancient Town, Suzhou Tongli Town and Zhouzhuang Water Town, Qibao is an ancient water town that has managed to retain quite a fair bit of its old ancient architecture and charm (I will be posting more on Qibao later). After doing quite a fair bit of research, I decided on Qibao due to its proximity to Shanghai (it is the closest and easiest to get to) and also due to reviews of it being less commercialised compared to a much larger Zhujiajiao (47 square kilometers).
I loved my day trip out to Qibao. There was so much culture and history to absorb. I only wish I had more time in Shanghai to visit the other ancient towns. Buses 92, 763, 513, 753 from around central Shangai stop at Qibao. Alternatively, take the subway (Line 9) all the way and get off at Qibao station. Take exit 2 and follow the crowd straight up, taking the first right and then walking some more. You should be able to see the start of Qibao town on your left. It takes approximately 40 minutes on the subway from Pudong area and I found my journey on the subway to be quite comfortable.
Old shopping Street in Qi Bao
View of the famous Qi Bao Bridge from the Shadow Puppet Museum
Typical Ancient Chinese courtyard
Tip: Avoid the weekends and public holidays if possible. There was quite a large local crowd there. Also, try the street food and go for the shadow puppet show! I will be writing more about the Qibao and the attractions later on.
4. Xin Tian Di / Western Quarters
I have nothing but fond memories of Xin Tian Di. I loved how it was so laid back, how there were restaurants and bars aplenty to suit everyone. It was different strolling along Xin Tian Di. The streets were cleaner, people more alive and happy and completely unlike the crazy hustle and bustle of central Shanghai with the hordes of people.
To get to Xin Tian Di, the subway station (Xintiandi) is on Line 10. Alternatively, it may be better to go to Huangpi South Road (Nan lu) station on Line 1. From Huangpi South, its a walk along Madang Road to Xintiandi.
Tip! Go to Xin Tian Di for food, for drinks but not for souvenir shopping. Gifts there are double the price. Bring your credit card if you would like to do some serious shopping (like branded kinda stuff). Many people tell me that they go to Xin Tian Di for the atmosphere and not the food and drinks because it is quite pricey for Shanghai’s standard. I cant help but agree but I couldn’t pass on having at least one proper Chinese meal there, so I did and I utterly loved it.
5. Old City of Shanghai and Yuyuan Garden
If time is an issue and you do not have any to journey to the outskirts, definitely do not miss the Old City of Shanghai and Yuyuan Garden. Not only will you be able to find age old architecture (constructed in the 11th Century), you will also be able to enjoy some peace and quiet in Yuyuan garden itself, do a little shopping, eat some street food and just take a little stroll back in time. Perhaps people might find Yuyuan really small and nothing to be impressed about compared to many other places in China but I was quite captivated by the ancient architecture and history that the place holds and so I truly enjoyed my few hours of exploration there!
To get to the Old City and Yuyuan Garden, you can get there by bus (736, 920 – drop at Lao Ximen) or take the Subway (Line 8 to Laoximen Station / Line 10 to Yuyuan Station).
Old City Architecture
I loved how they managed to preserve this little oasis in the middle of the city!
Inside Yuyuan Garden
It was really beautiful and surreal inside
Tip! I suggest once again avoiding the weekends and the public holidays. Also, to get a guide to take you around Yuyuan garden. I was too cheap so I ended up missing out on the amazing history lesson given by the tour guides and so I had to lurk around others pretending to take pictures when really I was eavesdropping on them.
Tips for surviving Shanghai!
- Plan your trip!!
Try to never travel during the Chinese Public Holidays. in a nationalistic country of 1.3 billion, limited tourist attractions in Shanghai, expect massive crowds everywhere! Public transport is going to be most uncomfortable and hailing a taxi will be akin to going to war with the Spartans.
Many of the locals do not speak English and even if they do, its pretty limited so planning for a trip there or anywhere in China is critical. As mentioned earlier. Google is blocked and the google equivalent is Baidu which isn’t so easy to navigate. That being said, there is a tourist information centre on the Bund, but I would advise doing ample research before heading there (unless you already know someone living there) or you can try asking your concierge for information on the best places to visit as a last resort.
- Take some time to understand the Subway!
The Subway system in Shanghai is pretty efficient but difficult to master. Signs are clear enough and the ticket machines have an English-language option. All lines are numbered, so simply find the location on the line you want and if you need the other line to transfer to another. If you’re still unsure, ask for an English-language subway map as back up. A 24-hour ticket is only 18RMB, about $3.30.
- Watch out for Scams!
Watch out for scammers and touters who will rip you off. Starting with the scammers, I have heard so much about seemingly friendly locals who would come up and chat with you (in either fluent or broken english). They are pretty resourceful and if you ask for recommendations on where to go to buy a certain item, they would take you to a shop and tell you how great the shop is and then you would proceed to buy items (which may be fakes) from the store at exorbitant rates. If you ask for food recommendations, they will take you for a meal, order the most expensive on the menu claiming that they are local specialties and then the bill comes at the hefty price for you to settle.
This can be quite disconcerting because what if there are actually nice decent people in Shanghai who would actually want to befriend you and to take you to a teahouse or an art gallery? I guess, you’ll have to trust your gut and decide if the locals there are genuine about befriending you or if you can sense that they may have an ulterior motive. If you think they do, best to err on the side of caution and run. Things in Shanghai are generally not expensive and if you are taken to an expensive looking place, run! That is one “friend” no one needs! I hear these scammers often work in pairs and around popular tourist places (Nanjing Road and Houhai Lake) so hopefully that would help?
I hear also about taxi scams where there are those old dodgy looking taxis who put a fake taxi logo at the top and a fake meter in the car. As much as possible, take the official looking taxis (black and yellow) and if you are not able, always (1) insist on using the meter the moment you enter, (2) confirm that the taxi driver knows the destination you are headed to, (3) confirm that the price you pay on the meter will be for ALL the people in the taxi (some insist that the metered fare is for each passenger).
- Embrace the Culture
Chinese people are loud, they speak really fast, can be brash to some and may not be aware or something called personal space or boundaries. If you do encounter any of the locals who are described as so, don’t be alarmed or offended because this is all part of their culture. Chinese people are often brought up in large extended families and so often speaking loudly, not observing personal space and speaking in a straight forward manner is all part of their Asian culture. I suppose if you do meet a friendly chinese, the louder and closer they are to you, the more happy and comfortable they are! Join them, be loud and bold and amazing too!
If you happen to see people spitting on the roads, or pissing, or even taking a dump (don’t even get me started) don’t be horrified. I wouldn’t go so far as to say embrace it and join them. Just take quick glances (although if they are so brazen about it, I don’t think they would mind you staring as long as you don’t start taking pictures), pretend to not be horrified, peek some more and try to erase that mental picture forever. They hygiene standards from the past pale in comparison and after spending 2 weeks in Yunnan 10 years ago and another weekend in Shanghai, safe to say nothing really flinches me anymore.
- Dont drink Water from the Tap!!
Everyone reminded me not to drink from the tap countless times. Bottled water is cheap. Get them, drink them and use them to brush your teeth. I remember being in Yunan years back and the locals used to dump their waste (human waste and trash) into their only fresh water lake that was used to supply water to their taps. I’m not sure if this is why people say you should never drink water from the tap in China but given what I saw in Yunnan, I would happily buy bottled water to bathe in it if I could.
- Bring Tissues wet and dry wherever you go (hand sanitiser too)!
China has come a long way in terms of public hygiene and restrooms where there are no flush systems or doors to give you any privacy are now a rarity. Public restrooms in China now have toilet bowls and an actual pipe and flush system. However, you will not find these places stocked with a supply toilet paper.
Traditional squat style toilets are still quite the norm and if you do encounter one, do not be alarmed. Just hold your breath, get good balance (for the ladies) and generally try not touch anything. If you do happen to accidentally miss, your wet wipes and hand sanitiser will come in very very very handy.
- Bargain, Bargain, Bargain!
Don’t be shy, don’t feel bad about a bargain. Its all part of the Chinese culture to drive a hard bargain. Shop keepers expect these and ALWAYS will quote you a high price (even if it may seem reasonable to you, the cost price is always dirt cheap) and expect their customers (local and foreign) to slash their first quoted price by half. Sharpen your bargaining skills and never fear their fast speaking chinese gibberish. They always sound pissed off when you slash their price by half but either you keep at it or walk away. There will probably be another selling the same goods. Another tip would be to never show excitement and to tell them that their goods are inferior to others. You can also pretend to walk away. These shopkeepers will often call you back offering a much lower price.
Pedestrians are right at the bottom of the food chain. Traffic lawlessness is rife as the cars, buses, motorbikes, and bikes come out of nowhere and traffic lights are sometimes nothing much an open air museum artefact. It would take some serious skill to drive in Shanghai and even more skill to Jaywalk. I would suggest never trying this at all cost.
I find hiding behind a local using them as a human shield to be very helpful when I really need to jaywalk. If traffic is coming from your right, always make sure there you have a human shield on your right. Likewise, if traffic is coming from your left, your body guard should be on your left. Always pace them. If they stroll, you stroll with them. If they run for their lives, you ought to run for your life too!