Shanghai, China: A City of Future and Past Mixed with Memories that Last

By Joshua Head

 

Pudong, Shanghai China

Pu Dong District of Shanghai as seen from The Bund

We arrived to the Miami International Airport very anxious and a bit sleepy.  It was 4:30am and we’d only had about 3 hours sleep.  We were very lucky to have been able to use miles to upgrade our flights though even in First and Business class for 18 hours is exhausting.  To be quite frank, the flights were unremarkable for the most part.  Breakfast on the flight from Miami to Chicago consisted of a tex-mex omelet with a black bean and corn salsa-  please explain to me the chef’s mindset of adding beans to ANY airplane meal????  Needless to say, I didn’t eat any.  It was good none the less.

The American Airlines flight to Shanghai had a great staff that understood my need for wine on such a long flight.  We ate lunch/dinner where I had a tenderloin steak and Doug had Asian infused pork and noodles.

Once fed, nearly an entire bottle of wine consumed, it was time to nap.  I had an unusual one that consisted of about 5 hours with l’aide de vin.  I’m not one that sleeps very easily on a plane (this will be a reoccurring theme in my writings as you’ll see).  The rest of the flight consisted of more food, videos, wine, cocktails, and a bit of dozing.  We landed about 14 and half hours after take off to a beautiful and sunny Shanghai.

Going through customs was very easy.  They just looked at our passports and visa, typed a bit, and said good-bye.  With all of the neon orange I have on my luggage you would think I wouldn’t have a problem finding it.  However, leave it to someone else to have the same type, and champagne color bag as me with a neon orange nametag.  Luckily I had put more neon nametags on my bag which helped to distinguish the two.

The cab ride from the airport to the hotel was like riding a rollercoaster.  I’m fond of rollercoasters mind you but not in a cab.  We zigged and zagged in and out of bumper-to-bumper traffic nearly hitting many of the vehicles around us.  Brakes slamming at times or going nearly what seemed 100mph, I eventually just shut my eyes as Doug just laughed at me.

The Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel Shanghai

The Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel Shanghai

The hotel, The Howard Johnsons Plaza Hotel Shanghai is nice.  Easy check-in and our room had such a great view of Century Square and Nanjing

Road.  Exhausted from the flight we chose to take a quick nap before exploring a bit.  That nap turned into a 4-hour sleep catch-up session.  After wiping the sleep from our eyes, we ventured out to Nanjing Road to find dinner and almost instantly Doug was propositioned for a “good massage” from a nice looking Chinese guy looking to be in his 20’s.  This was to be a repetitive occurrence throughout the 45 minute stroll only by more women/girls. I’ve never been propositioned more in my life.  We had a laugh or three and settled to something more familiar, KCF.  Believe me when I say that the chain restaurants don’t serve the same foods as back in the U.S.  Our chicken sandwiches weren’t bad, however, there were lots of things on the menu I didn’t know nor could figure out what they were.  After dinner we were still tired so at 10:30ish local time, lights out.  2:30a.m. local time I’m awake and having a difficult time sleeping- we eventually wake up and get our McCafe breakfast with McCoffee and we’re now officially starting our vacation.

 

howard-johnson-shanghai-room

Friday

After our Mc Café coffee and breakfast sandwich that consisted of egg, what’s supposed to be sausage topped with ketchup on a hamburger bun, we headed out to the Bund.  It’s only a very short walk from our hotel.  The buildings here are a mixture of New York City meets Paris, meets The Jetson’s. And I must add that there’s more people than I thought could exist in such small areas.  Familiar logo signs such as Mc Donald’s, KFC, and Subway remind you that capitalism is thriving well in this semi-closed country.

We walked to the Bund, a pedestrian walkway that lends spectacular views of Pu Dong with its Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center (the bottle opener) and the Huangpu River.  On the opposite side of Pu Dong, the architecture is completely opposite from the likes of the Pearl Tower.  French colonial influences cannot be overlooked with each structure sending visions of Paris through my mind.  Many of these buildings have been renovated over the last few years and the area cleaned up making this a beautiful area to stroll and take in the scenery.

While walking down the Bund, a young Chinese boy along with two female friends asked if I would have my picture taken with one of the girls.  I’d read about this, so I politely obliged with smiles.  It’s an odd feeling, I must say, being me in this city.  It is a feeling so many must have felt in my country, in my city of Miami Beach, not knowing the language and unable to communicate well, if at all.  I have a new found appreciation for those people.

After a long walk, it was time to go back to the hotel to freshen up and make our way to the next special thing on this amazing trip of a lifetime.  What? You might ask?   We signed up for a Chinese cooking class.

We made our way to the subway station and easily got our tickets and found our train.  Using the subway is quite easy and straight-forward.  Luckily it wasn’t rush hour so the trains were only a little packed.  It seems as if every city has something different about their subway system.  In Paris, you have small ticket stubs you must hold on to until you exit the subway area so that when you go through the turn stalls, you insert that ticket into the stall so that it turns and you can exit.  Some cities you can toss the ticket once you enter the subway.  Some cities use coins, and some cities use credit card size paper cards.  Shanghai, being different, uses plastic cards that to enter you wave them across a circular area on the turn-stall.  To exit, oh as I said before, some cities are different,  Here you don’t rub that area as you did to enter, nor do you place it in the slot on top; no, here you must insert it in the slot on the side of the stall and it “eats” it allowing you to leave.  Thank you, sweet Chinese girl who explained this crazy concept to us.

We arrived to the address of the cooking school only to find an empty alley.  Luckily there was a security guard that found us the correct person to see.  This polite lady took us deep into the alley to a very non-descript and tattered building with no sign at the entrance.  Up a winding staircase we went in this building that was in a bit of disrepair and aged.  Honestly, I was worried what we had gotten ourselves into.  We eventually made our way to the “classroom”.  “Oh my” I thought, this was going to be a bit more interesting that I expected.  Guess what? Not only no English was spoken but not even any Engrish. That wasn’t what the website alluded to when we signed up.  Not much later, a Chinese girl joined us and then a few minutes later a Japanese lady also joined.  Although I didn’t get her name, she spoke English very well.  She and her husband had just moved to Shanghai about a month prior for his job.  They will be there for about three years, she told me.

We first began to mix our dough and lard along with the water next. A bloody mess I made of this but eventually the dough was ready for a big block of margarine.  Evidently my pastry talent didn’t show through for this part of our cooking exercise as I didn’t knead the dough very well and our instructor “assisted “me by pushing my hands away and taking over herself until it was to her liking.  Doug looked on and laughed.  While letting the dough rise (it didn’t rise very much if at all) we went over and mixed our minced pork mixture that would be the filling for our dumplings.  Then we returned to the dough and cut out a number of pie crust circles as well as strips that we turned in to sweet flaky pastries.  After filling our pie shells with an egg custard we had previously mixed and sending them to the oven, we began constructing our pork fried wantons.  My artistic side must have shown through for this task for I was able to fold the edges so well that our instructor held mine up for the others to copy.  I had redeemed myself.  Once we had all of the dumplings constructed, we went over to the wok to deep fry them.  Once all of our delicacies were cooked, it was now time to eat our creations, each dunking our fried wantons in ketchup and devouring them.  Remember, I must emphasize that this three hour class occurred with maybe 10 to 15 words of English spoken; and none from our instructor. It was an experience that probably few have had and one I will never forget.

egg-tart-recipejosh-cookingfried-wontons

After a relatively short rest back at the room, we headed out to dinner with my brother and his Shanghai native workmate/guide.  Just by coincidence my brother was in Shanghai the same time I was.  We venture out to join the madness that is the hustle and bustle of this massive and populous city.  We walked to what the locals call “Delicious Road” where restaurants line either side.  We had come to realize that the Shanghainese love their stairs and yes, we climbed a few to get to our restaurant.  Being from Miami, we’re used to getting water in green bottles

frank's dinner

It was a lot of food

but I quickly found out that what our guide Frank had ordered was beer instead.  Trying to be polite, I drank one glass and then asked for Pepsi.  I’m really more of a margarita or wine type. Frank ordered us a spread of food fit for a king (a Chinese king) including pork stuff, chicken stuff, fish stuff, beef stuff and eel stuff- OK my Chinese isn’t good so that’s as close as I get.  The first pork stuff was ok as was the fish stuff. When the beef stuff with what I thought was snow peas came, I was very happy.  I used my chopsticks and placed a small mound of beef and peas there.  After placing a piece of beef in my mouth, I followed that with one of the snow peas.  I quickly and unfortunately and painfully realized it wasn’t snow peas but some type of very hot pepper.  It burned all the way down and three hours later, as I was writing this, I still had burning in my stomach.  It was a burn that left my mouth very very slowly.  Needless to say I didn’t eat any more of that.  Frank had ordered even more food including sweet and sour pork and steamed dumplings and as mentioned earlier, eel. There was so much food that we all were too full to finish it.  It was nice to couple this culinary smorgasbord with wonderful conversation with my brother and his native guide learning about the food, culture, and their jobs.  And the bill for this delight was less than $100 for 4 of us.

Still caught between local and U.S. time, we chose to return to the hotel but only after going to the market and picking up a bottle of Blue Nun rosé wine to cap the night.

Tomorrow our tour guide Frank would to take us to a market that my brother says will “knock our socks off”.  And indeed it did.

Saturday

Once again, my internal clock is a bit off and I can’t sleep past 5:30 a.m.  It isn’t easy getting used to this massive time change.  After catching up on emails and news, we get dressed and meet my brother over in Pu Dong.  His guide Frank has promised to take us to a market where we can buy anything from jewelry to famous “named brand” bags or even shoes.  And famous names indeed abound; Gucci, Armani, Diesel, Rolex, jade and onyx as far as the eye can see.  Software from games to Rosetta Stone languages, electronics such as cellular phones to iPads- they have it all and aren’t afraid to let you know it.  You can’t walk two feet without someone asking if you want a watch or bag (at first I thought they were asking to watch our bags).  At times it was if a hundred bees began to swarm around us and I just had to laugh.  This was indeed a market that knocked my socks off.  I did buy a “jade” pendant symbolizing happiness for $7US.  We spent hours roaming around this underground maze of knockoff shops.  Literally, here you could buy anything that was “named brand” as long as you didn’t mind it being FAKE.  Since I didn’t want trouble going through customs, I chose to stick with my faux jade pendant.

After lunch we headed over to the French Concession district.  Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed.  It was interesting to see life outside of the rat race of the city but it wasn’t the tree lined peaceful neighborhoods I read about and expected.  We made our way to a shaded park and cooled our sun and humidity soaked bodies with what else? Icees! That’s right, those red, white and blue cups with the trademark polar bear and all.  It was so much what my dehydrated body needed, I had two (Don’t Do This).  Once we finished our frozen concoctions of relief, we strolled back over to our hotel for a cocktail or two and some conversation and just enjoyed the atmosphere.  I marveled at the thought that half way across the globe, my brother and I happen to be in the same city at the same time by sheer coincidence.  The day marked done, my brother made his way back to his hotel on the other side of the city so he could go to work the next day.  We relaxed in our room after a long day of shopping and sightseeing.

Sunday

We made our way over to Yuyuan Gardens to do a bit of exploring.  About a 25 minute walk from our hotel, it wasn’t the most comfortable trek as the heat index reached near 100°F.  It was interesting being able to see so much futuristic architecture in a city so steeped in history.  Oh, and the walk itself was interesting too as trying to cross any intersection makes you feel as if it is a life or death situation.  The old video game Frogger comes to mind.  Although this city has crosswalks and crosswalk signs, they are only observed in theory.  If you automatically begin walking when the sign turns green you will be hit and squashed like a bug by either the vehicles or the motorbikes that pay no attention to traffic signals, pedestrians, or common decency.  Ok, Western common decency.

Once we arrived in the area where Yuyuan Gardens were, we realized there was indeed a new subway train that goes to that area, line 10.  At least when we left we would have a much easier time.  I wish we had known that going.  The subways in Shanghai are immaculately clean and efficient.  Trains run nearly about every 3 to 5 minutes and are the smoothest riding rail trains I have ever been on.

Yuyuan-Garden yuyuan-garden-market

At Yuyuan Gardens, there is a huge bizarre with shops selling souvenirs, tchotchkes, fake jade or onyx jewelry, and of course “silk” garments.  Inside the area is the entrance to the garden which we almost went in but decided not to because of the line of people waiting to get in.  Around the outside of the entrance is a man-made pond with a winding boardwalk over it.  In the water are hundreds of Chinese ornamental carp and giant gold fish swimming all in unison at times in large swirls.  If put to classical music; it would have passed as a beautiful ballet.

The heat was oppressive and almost too much.  In the bizarre, there are many Western eateries such as Dairy Queen which with the heat is what we opted for.  Not wanting ice cream necessarily, we chose Lemon Ice with Red Bean.  We had no clue what red bean was but the lemon ice sounded quite refreshing.  When we received our Asian inspired concoction we quickly realized that they indeed meant RED BEAN for it had a small layer of red beans in the bottom of the cup with a lemon slushy mixture on top, with a bit dollop of soft sever ice cream in the center.  Needless to say Doug didn’t leave one red bean in that cup and I left every single one except for the first one I tried to see what it was.  An oddity to say the least because I fail to see any relationship between red beans and desert or refreshing drinks.  The beauty of it was the great laugh we had over it and in life that is what counts. (Again, Don’t drink these.)

We strolled along the shops for a while and after buying some magnets for souvenirs, we decided to go over to Pu Dong where the Pearl Tower is Pearl Towerlocated.  Thank the heavens for that new Line 10 train because it was truly a lifesaver for me.  You see, each subway station, unlike any city in the U.S. I’ve visited, has air conditioning; and good air conditioning too.  And the trains themselves also have good air conditioning.  It was so refreshing that I almost wanted to continue riding even after we got to our stop.  We exited the station and like in Paris when you go to Trocadero to view the Eiffel Tower and you round the corner and BAMM there it is, so was this giant tower with glistening orbs.  It is definitely one of those “wow” moments.  Across the street we could see the ticket office and it was quite empty.  “Maybe this was a sign that this attraction would be overlooked by the masses”, I thought.  We chose to go to the very top as the ticket was only $7 more than the price to go to the middle; a total of l150 = $22.  After you enter the gates, you get a surreal look at this massive tower that is a good bit taller than the Eiffel Tower.  The pink colored orbs glistened in the mid-day sun and the heat bore down on us like an angry Saharan sun god.  We quickly moved inside the tower to find that the extra $7 spent on our ticket was wise as the line for the underclass tickets snaked completely around the bottom orb of the building.  The people of China have no problem spending hours of their day standing in lines it seems.  At least 2 hours wait to enter the elevator for them, where ours was a much shorter 20 or 30 min.   It seems that almost every attraction in this city there are massive lines taking anywhere from between 30 min to hours and hours such as the lines at the Shanghai Expo.

You first enter an elevator that holds about 15-20 people and it quickly climbs you 170+ floors in the air.  A smooth ride, you can hardly tell you’re moving at all.  Once to the first observation deck, you exit the elevator and stand in another line to take an even smaller elevator to the top.  And I do mean smaller as this one only held 9 people, closely packed in like sardines.  This line took another 20-30 minutes to complete but once at the top you had panoramic views you would get few other places.  It was a partly cloudy day and with not too much haze obstructing your view.  You could see for ten’s of miles in all directions; spectacular views of a city that seems to be endless in size and in every direction. Was the wait worth it?  I’ve  been to the top of the CN Tower in Toronto, Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Empire State Building in New York City and I can safely say that neither the wait nor the cost was any worse than the others, but the views were equal or better.  I definitely think it worth the extra money to go to the top and I am very glad this was one attraction we chose to wait in line for.  Now, had that line been outside in the oppressive heat, no, it would definitely not have been worth it.  The line back down seemed almost as tediously long but alas, only took us about 30 minutes more.

View from Pearl Tower

View from Pearl Tower
Click to enlarge

view-from-pearl-tower

View from Pearl Tower
Click to enlarge

 

Once exiting the Oriental Pearl, we decided to really be tourists and take the Tourists Tunnel back over to the Bund.  If you are reading this and you are planning a visit to Shanghai- SKIP THIS.  Save your money and use it on a cold drink, extra steamed buns, more noodles, ANYTHING.  Yes, we too had read these warnings but you know, sometimes you just want to be a tourist- we did.  After paying your l45 for 2, you enter a pod on rails that take you down into a tunnel under the river.  This tunnel is about as cheesy as cheese can get.  Wisconsin would have thought it too cheesy.  A few blinking light, swirling lights, 1960’s Star Trek background projections- all of about 5 minutes worth and it is done and you are left laughing at yourself for taking the time and spending the money on it.  It is called The Tourists Tunnel for a reason.  It should be called the idiot’s tunnel.

After arriving back at our room we decided to freshen up and find dinner.  Be forewarned, guidebooks are not always correct.  Like our Fodders guide, the subway map is out of date, a shop called I love Shanghai described in one section but located in a different, and like this night, a recommended restaurant in a building that is gutted.  Being flexible, we eventually found a noodle bar.  While in line, a young man ducked in behind us, an obvious Westerner as well with his bright blond hair.  We all three peered over the menu on the counter that had English translation and chose our meals.  One table was available so we sat down and offered a seat to the young man that followed.  His name was Felix and he was a student from Germany.  He’d just arrived and was going to be here for a year doing his mandatory year of community service.  When our dishes were being brought to the table, an unfortunate mix-up occurred and I wound up with his dish and he with mine. We had a laugh and chatted more over our meals.  We finished up and walked over to the subway station where we parted ways.  I wish him the best because this is one city I absolutely could not live, not even one year.  Exhausted, we opted to put off one more night the viewing of the Pearl Tower at night from the Bund and at 10pm we went to bed.

Green Tea and Mocha Frappuccinos

Don’t drink iced drinks in a country where you’re not supposed to drink the water. It can give you the Shanghai Surprise.

Monday

Our last day in Shanghai and we really feel as though we accomplished our sightseeing goals.  This final day we chose to do something educational and cultural; the free Shanghai Museum.On the way, we decided to stop by Starbucks for refreshing Green Tea and a Mocha Frappuccinos. (Again, don’t do this if you are American).

Shanghai has many museums but this being free and air-conditioned, it was a perfect way to close out our five days in China’s megalopolis. The museum is a square structure with a round second level.  In total, four floors of ancient Chinese artifacts dating back some 5000-6000 years.  When Westerners think of history, we think of Rome, Greece, or even Egypt and times dating back some 3000 years.  We see cave drawings in Africa or tomb inscriptions in the Middle East and think, “This is where it all began”.  Chinese history tells us different as this museum shows.

Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum

Artifacts such as wine vessels, pottery, jade carvings some dating back to around 6000 years.  And what artistic people they were, and are.  This ancient art is many times quite accurate and lifelike.  Their depictions of people and animals are so different than the pictographs and hieroglyphics we’re used to seeing.   I was amazed at the level of detail these artists went to, even on the blades of their daggers and spears.  Each level of the museum showcases different aspects of the Chinese (and human) history by way of pottery, bronze and metal work, money, jade carvings, and

Wine Vessel

JIA (Wine Vessel) with animal mask
Mid Shang (mid 15th-13th century B.C.)

even writing; each room and theme telling stories of human kind thousands of years ago.  This is a must for any visitor to this most amazing city.  You can expect to spend 2-3 hours depending on your level of historic intrigue.  If you need a break, there’s even a tea-room on the second floor serving European style coffee or Asian teas as well as an assortment of pastries.  I should add that these also come with higher prices than you’ll be used to elsewhere in Shanghai.

After the museum, it was time for a quick rest and to freshen up before heading to the Shanghai Circus World.  The show, ERA is an assortment of acrobatics that will amaze you from beginning to end.  We chose to get the l280 price tickets.  Careful because you might be up-sold unnecessarily as our hotel concierge was told they only had higher level tickets and when we said we didn’t want those, they magically found us two seats for the level we wanted.  The venue is not super-large and with the steep stadium style seating, nearly any seat is a good seat.  Luckily ours were directly in the front although in the upper level.  Acts include teeter-totter, trampoline, contortion, and the finale was the motorcycle globe of death.  You may have seen this before but not in this spectacular fashion.  It is quite special and a sight to behold and worthy of being the finale.  I would say that these two activities made for a much more relaxing day and actually a bit more enjoyable.

We ended our sightseeing with a stroll down to the Bund to view Pu Dong at night.  It’s a much different sight than in the daytime and worthy of a video camera as well as a standard point-and-shoot.  The city comes alive in lights and could rival Vegas in power consumption.  It is a spectacular sight not to be missed, and you’ll not be missing it along with thousands of others along the Bund.

Shanghai Panorama

Shanghai Panorama at Night
as seen from the Bund

Our Shanghai trip complete, we capped the night with a bottle of Chardonnay in the hotel wine bar reminiscent of a South Beach swanky lounge.

Final Thoughts

Shanghai is a marvelous city with some of the most futuristic architecture I have ever seen.  My views of China have certainly changed from what they originally were.  Although every country has its faults and every government its own problems, I no longer see China as this oppressive country filled with millions of poor and deprived.  No, as in most industrialized countries, this one has a thriving metropolis filled with wealth and capitalism exemplified.  Nearly everywhere we went in this city people were carrying shopping bags of some sort.  This newly opened country is experiencing growing pains and will falter, but the now second biggest economy next to the U.S.A is a prime example of how capitalism works.  You can see how the Westernizing of this city over the last twenty years has changed even daily life of teens as observed in the malls with their brand named CK or Hugo Boss department stores and the numerous teens with their cell phones. However, capitalism is in direct contrast to this country’s history and customs.  It is odd seeing how some things are blocked from view, such as certain websites, and some others that are similar aren’t.  It is a country that is intent on controlling information and not yet one of the people and by the people, therefore doesn’t really protect the people.

Shanghai itself continues to grow, and in my eyes, it is a microcosm of the country.  It is quite easy to get around on the subway or if your nerves can tolerate it, a taxi.  It is a city filled with more people than I knew existed in the world, much less one city.  It is a city filled with people that obviously don’t mind standing in lines for endless hours for what may be a 5 minute experience.  And on top of that, they’ll brave extreme elements such as 104F heat indexes for that 5 minute experience.  As an American, and a general Westerner, I have difficulties understanding many of the Chinese ways.  They have a mentality that I can’t quite wrap my head around and yet it is working for them.  And although I have my difficulties in understanding this people and country, I have a new found respect and cherish all that I learned.  Although their culture is ancient they are experiencing a relatively new society and it will be interesting to see where they end up.  If you enjoy modern architecture and a city in transition, this is definitely a city you should visit.   If you seek the traditional Chinese experience, you may not find this city that appealing.

Thanks for tripping with me.