Shanghai

The first-time visitor to Shanghai can be overwhelmed by the sheer scale and energy of China’s largest city, also one of the world’s ten largest. With a population touching 14 million occupying an area roughly twice the size of greater Melbourne, the inner urban core is a network of highrise apartments, shopping malls and parks inter-connected by a labyrinth of multi-level freeways, towering bridges and narrow laneways.

Like most international visitors we arrived at Pudong International Airport, itself a construction of immense size and scale. Opened in 1999 the airport already exceeds its capacity and an additional terminal and third runway will open for the Beijing Olympics giving a capacity for 60 million pax per year. Within 7 years, the airport will have 4 terminals, 5 runways and be recognised as one of the world’s largest and busiest airports.

We were met by our CTS guide and escorted to the coach for the 50 minute drive to our digs, Shanghai’s historic Jing An hotel. The drive was a revelation, giving our first glimpses of Shanghai’s spectacular skyline. Check-in was a breeze; our keys were issued on the coach ride.

The Jing An hotel is comfortable and convenient, a short cab ride to the “action” areas, although there’s plenty of nightlife, bars and cafes in the immediate vicinity. There’s a subway station a few minutes’ walk away at Jing An Temple, and over the road is the hospital catering for foreigners’ needs (not that we had any). There’s a lobby bar and restaurants on the premises, plus gift/souvenir shops and access to a health/fitness centre. We found the service to be of a high standard and happily revisited at the conclusion of our China visit.

Our first day in Shanghai was devoted to business meetings, but we concluded the day with a celebratory dinner at a superb Shanghai-style restaurant in a restored 1930’s department store near the shopping strip of Nanjing Road. This remarkable art deco restaurant, named Xian Qiang Fang, is one of a small chain, but as their flagship diner, it’s a real showpiece. The Shanghainese menu offered a sumptuous seven course feast accompanied by fine wines and beer. The service was good-natured and attentive, and the overall feel was of quiet sophistication and thirties elegance. After a couple of cleansing Tsingtao’s back in Jing An’s lobby bar, we retired to bed.

Next morning our coach ferried us downtown, to the banks of the Huangpu River, at Shanghai’s historic and visually spectacular riverfront precinct known as The Bund. The carpark, teeming with tourist buses gave a none-too-subtle hint of the size of Chinese tourism, and the pride felt by the Chinese in their own country. With a population around 1.3 billion, it seems that 10% of China is on vacation at any time, and they’re all queuing in front of you, sporting colour-coded baseball caps and herded around by flag-toting tour guides.

The Bund precinct is the global symbol of Shanghai, typifying the wealth of commerce from the past and the future. An architectural free-for-all of Gothic, Neo-Classical, Baroque and Art Deco styles, the historic buildings are now prized as homes of international banks, boutiques and restaurants.

On the opposite bank of the Huangpu River is the other, futuristic, view of Shanghai – the new financial and technical zone known as Pudong New Area. We boarded one of the many river ferries which carried us down river, almost to the junction with the Yangtze River where it drains into the East China Sea. The two hour cruise gave spectacular views of the Pudong area, and it’s signature skyscrapers such as Oriental Pearl TV Tower with its accompanying superdomes and the impressive Jin Mao Tower, third tallest building in the world, where one can drink cocktails in the 88th floor bar of The Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Following the scenic river cruise we again boarded our coach for an hour-long drive to the famous water township Zhouzhuang. Fuelled by an excellent lunch at a local eatery, we entered the town through a magnificent archway and spent a few hours wandering through the ancient town.

Zhouzhuang is a well presented and picturesque township with a history stretching back 700 years. A magnet for domestic and International tourists, it gives glimpses into a unique canal-side lifestyle. There are numerous artisan galleries and stores carrying a wide range of  souvenirs and memorabilia.

On return to our hotel the group decided to visit the area known as the French Concession. This lively precinct was formerly the favoured area for ex-pat residents and visitors, and the tree-lined streets are home to galleries, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. After a period of indecision, group-think took charge and we ventured into a Paulaner Brewhouse – a German beer hall franchise – for plentiful plates of European-style fare and countless pints of lager in a riotous, rollicking atmosphere.

Originally intended as a “free” day, our genial host, Jimmy Liu of China Bestours, suggested a visit to the historic Shanghai Old City and a lift out to the “Knockoff” market for those so inclined. Almost everyone was. We were coached down to a large bus park and escorted on a twenty minute stroll that took us to a fabulous, and very popular shopping district that housed the ancient Yuyuan Gardens – an oasis of serenity surrounded by the helter-skelter lifestyle of the Old City. While most of the group visited the gardens, we opted to join the queue outside Shanghai’s famous Nanxiang Steamed Buns Restaurant for a dozen of their world-famous dumplings. We queued for about 30 minutes, and after feasting on their delicious produce we clearly understood why the locals will line up for hours. They were utterly delicious – and a bargain to boot.

Before breaking from the group, our guide arranged a meeting place so that all could explore the Old City before re-grouping. The agreed location was outside the Starbucks opposite the nine-angle bridge. It appears that this location is the meeting-place of choice for all Shanghai’s tour groups. It was a teeming mass of humanity punctuated by a forest of flags-on-sticks, the beacons of individual tour groups.

Naturally, such a concentration of tourists brings its assorted quota of touts, hustlers, spivs and other ne’er-do-wells. We had a very enjoyable time dodging purveyors of fine writing implements and elegant timepieces, but when I slipped on a step, breaking my expensive (and very authentic) sunglasses we were hit upon by a swarm of touts like seagulls on a hot chip. We succumbed to one touts’ insistence and followed him on a circuitous route to his ‘showroom’. The tat they were hawking was poor quality rubbish and generally unrepresentative of contemporary brands. We didn’t spend.

On leaving the Old City en route to the knockoff market we had our first real daytime opportunity to observe the city and some of its infrastructure. Shanghai is definitely a growing city, and a civil engineer’s wet dream. Three-level highways, winding through ranks of fifty-storey buildings; bridges that soar hundreds of feet above the river accessed by spiralling cloverleaf ramps and speedy, punctual subways are just some examples of engineering in this vast city on the move.

The knockoff market is conveniently located at a subway station right opposite Longyang Lu station which terminates Shanghai’s world-famous Maglev (magnetic levitation) airport shuttle train. The Maglev is the world’s first highspeed magnetic levitation train to operate commercially. It makes the 33km trip to Pudong International Airport in 8 minutes, reaching a maximum speed of 430kmh, and is a cheap and efficient way of killing a few minutes before haggling for cheap knockoffs at the market.

We spent an hour or so picking up an assortment of copied ‘essentials’ before catching the subway back to our hotel for another business meeting. This time we had a late lunch in a cheap and cheerful local diner where the regulars and staff seemed bemused by our patronage, but served up tasty tucker and chilled beer at bargain prices.

On returning to the hotel we joined in with one of the party who was preparing to fly out by ensuring he had no surplus stocks of single malt whisky to carry on the plane. We were delighted to help lighten his load. Dinner that night was an impromptu pizza in a cafe just behind the hotel.

Last day in Shanghai, indeed China, and nothing is planned. No sightseeing, no meals; not a thing. After ten days of life being ordered and managed down to the nanosecond it should have felt like Nirvana, but we felt oddly at a loss. There were things that we would have liked to do yet somehow felt disinclined, but eventually girded our loins and set off to the subway station to catch the train into Nanjing Road; Shanghai’s pre-eminent shopping street.

We roamed the shopping district for a few hours before traversing the People’s Square and returning to the French Concession for a bite in a bustling cafe. A bit more rambling and we headed back to the hotel by cab to shower and change. Cherri and her driver returned promptly as arranged and we, once again, found ourselves on the packed expressway to the airport with somewhat more luggage than we had just ten days previously. After a somewhat poignant farewell from our new chum Cherri we hustled into the departure lounge to await the boarding call for our overnight flight back to Sydney to join with our Melbourne connection.

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