Saturday, August 2, 2008

China Report #6 - Shanghai

China's New York City

Shanghai. The name itself conjures up visions of old China, back alley hustlers, shady saloons full of sailors from all over the world, sepia colored photos of dock workers, opium dens and black market transactions. At one point in history, that all was more true than fantasy. But today, Shanghai is the quintessential modern Chinese city - symbolic of the nation's economic rise and aspirations of modernity. If Beijing is China's Washington, DC, Xian its Boston and Guangzhou its, say, Chicago and Hong Kong its L.A., well then Shanghai is its New York City. Only it literally has twice as many people and twice as many skyscrapers! 

Another unavoidable thing about Shanghai is that it has spectacularly polluted skies. See my post about that here. After returning from our trip to China in May I learned that 20 percent of China's GDP is produced within, like, a 20 mile radius of central Shanghai. With China being the number one producer economy in the world, this easily explains why you can't see most the buildings on a sunny day because of how thick the smog lays in.

None the less, the city offers some really first rate things to see. Here are some:

This is the "old side" section of the city next to the river. You'll notice when visiting that the big buildings lining the riverside look distinctly European and of a certain vintage. Well, that's because indeed they are British built a hundred years ago or so. (See picture at left.) The British
won the "concession" of the land here as a result of them defeating the Chinese in the various Opium Wars. They proceeded to build grand hotels, office buildings and - most of all - banks. The Brits turned Shanghai into Asia's leading financial markets and trade ports.

Today, in a bit of double-irony, those former British banks each fly communist China's national flag or sport a red star (for example, see picture at right). It's a double irony, because some of these buildings so obviously marked with communist iconography are, in fact, now banks, fancy hotels, restaurants and spas. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anyway, the grand walkway up and down The Bund (see picture at left) is fun with great views (even with smog) of the old buildings and across the river to the new, gleaming Pudong section. At night, things go to another level with Pudong skyscrapers lighting up with massive video on their sides, street performers on the walkway and ships made of nothing but bow, stern, engine and a  huge video screen plying the river showing advertisements to the masses. 

Oh, and there are some really good restaurants encrusted on top of some of these old buildings. We went to M On The Bund for a spectacular meal and view.

Old Town
Just up the river from The Bund is the old town. One of the distinguishing traits of the old town is how it keeps shrinking as it's destroyed to free up land to build office buildings, malls, parking lots and new freeways. But, what's left is truly a step back in time with a labyrinth of narrow streets and everyday life happening right in front of you. Sure, a lot of tourists go to the old town markets for great shopping and eating, and we did too, but if you ever find yourself in Shanghai and the old town still exists, I recommend deliberately trying to get lost in it. 

Peek into the windows to see men playing dominoes, see how people buy their daily supply of food, dodge bicycles, soak up the smells and the "this is how it's been forever" atmosphere. (See picture at right.) Take yourself back to a little bit of that old Shanghai you might fantasize about. You ain't gonna see that anywhere else in Shanghai - or most big Chinese cities any more. When you're done, find your way to the Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant and do yourself a favor you'll always thank yourself for - order the dumpling lunch.

In a city full of new construction, this is the most modern section. From our experience, there isn't a lot to do here compared to the rest of the city. (Picture at left is a view of Pudong from The Bund.) But, there are a few exceptions to that rule. First, if you arrive into Shanghai by air into the Pudong Airport, you MUST take the Maglev train from the airport into the city - 
arriving in Pudong where you can easily take a taxi to your final destination. "Maglev" is short for magnetic levitation, the the Maglev train is a virtual rocket as it pushed along at 431 km per hour as it floats over a rail, suspended a few inches in the air on an bed of opposing magnetic forces. The whole 20 km trip takes maybe six minutes. 

Another exception is the Grand Hyatt at the top of the Jin Mao Tower. (See left tower in picture to the right). After two weeks of eating great Asian food and living life "closer to the ground," we were craving a five star evening and we got it 87 floors up at the Hyatt. Drinks at the bar, a wonderful steak dinner, piano bar, magician and a fortune teller all were on the agenda, all first class and all with a view of the city.

The other must related to Pudong in my book is you have to take the "Shanghai Tourist Tunnel" from one side of the river to the other. Taking you under the water in a tram via a tunnel, the trip is as close as you're going to get to a psychedelic experience while NOT on psychedelic drugs. Very bazaar, but fun. Puppets, flashing lights and weirdness abound. (See picture at left.)

French Concession
The British weren't the only country that won concessions from the weak and defeated Chinese empire in the late 19th century. The French were in on the act too. Today, the French Concession is a breezy, tree lined section of the city with low rise buildings housing art galleries, fashion boutiques, great restaurants and bars. Suffice it to say, it's worth going to for an evening's entertainment. We headed straight for Simply Thai for a wonderful change-up from the Chinese food we'd been eating for most our trip.

Shanghai Museum 
Finally, lest you think Shanghai is only about shopping, eating and architecture, check out the Shanghai Museum. Stationed in a park encircled by the numerous elevated freeways, the museum stands as a beacon of culture in a seemingly Blade Runner world of Shanghai.

The exhibits within are a concise, not boring and comprehensive view into Chinese history. Galleries feature ceramics, painting, furniture, ethnic groups, jade, coins, bronze, sculpture and whatever special exhibits are there at the time. (Picture at left is of a ceramic warrior in the museum.) Oh yeah, and the other thing they have there is a great shop where you can buy a guaranteed high quality vase. Sure, it's a bit expensive, but unlike the markets out on the streets, here you know you're getting quality - both in its composition and artistry, as well as authentic designs. We bought a wonderful Qing Dynasty vase here and love it.

So, to sum up...Shanghai is a far cry from the city of your imagination. It is indeed China's New York City. It offers the glitz, the glamor, the history, neighborhoods and the culture while serving as Exhibit A for where China is going - or hopes to go.

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