Distance Travelled: 8549 miles
Date: 22-26th July
While sitting on the 330kph high-speed rail link from Beijing, I got out my kindle and booked myself a hostel in the city. I wasn’t to know it at the time, but it would turn out to be one of the nicest places I stayed at.
It was called Rock and Wood Hostel, and if anyone ends up in Shanghai, I’d highly recommend it. The place had only recently opened when I arrived, so it was still relatively cheap.
And there was a bar with beers for £1, and three for two on offer. I loved the place.
The first night, I wandered down to the waterfront and the Bund. This is the quintessential 1920-1940s art-deco waterfront. Across the Hangpu river is the newer development of Pudong, the Chinese answer to colonialism. This was one of the best views in China, and really showed off the contrast between old and new.
The Bund is made up of dozens of historic buildings that once housed banks, trading houses, hotels and clubs from the international communities that colonised the city. By the 1940s, the Bund was the headquarters for most of the major financial institutions operating in China, but after the communist victory in the 50s these were moved out. It still strongly evokes the image of those heady and decadent interwar years.
Calling an end to the night, I wandered down Nanjing Road, and went back to the hostel. Nanjing Road is the main shopping street in Shanghai, and one of the busiest in the world. It is also the longest shopping district in the world, at 6km. At the time, it felt further.
Back at the hostel I ended up meeting up with a guy called Hugh, who I would spend a lot of my time in Shanghai hanging out with. Cool guy. We went out for noodles and then crashed.
The next day I went out and investigated the town. Now, this is not to say that Shanghai isn’t a cool city, but it was definitely the worst place I visited in China. It was just a big city; relatively normal, and not that exciting. I think that a large part of that was just that I was feeling broke after Beijing, and Shanghai is expensive. Not London-expensive but definitely significantly more than the rest of China. And it was by far the most ‘Western’ city in China. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that, but I hadn’t travelled eight and a half thousand miles to see the same sort of things.
The other thing that I had against Shanghai was the huge gulf between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. Not that this isn’t a significant issue in the UK, and many other places I’d visit, but in Shanghai the disparity was particularly obvious and overt.
On many occasions I’d wander down the classiest streets, flanked by Bvlgari, Hugo Boss etc, and then I’d take a side alley and be confronted by the ‘slums’ with chickens being slaughtered in the streets, garbage everywhere and cheap noodle bars. One of my strongest memories of Shanghai is a particular smell. The hot, sweaty and sharp odour of garbage that had been left out for weeks. It was terrible, but impossible to get away from, and although it wasn’t exclusively Shanghainese I will forever associate that smell with the city.
I spent much of the following day wandering around the French Quarter, and some of the older parts of town. There are some really beautiful sections, and the most amazing street food. I picked up some chow mien for around a couple of quid, and headed down to the Yu shopping area.
This would turn out to be one of the busiest areas I would visit, but it was worth it. The area is made up of traditionally designed buildings full of pearl markets, restaurants, art shops, and other tourist traps. A beautiful area though.
Walking back to the subway, I passed the craziest skyscrapers I’ve ever seen. There are towers with UFOs perched on the top; shards of brightly lit glass stabbing the sky; swirls of colour rising up; what appears to be brightly lit scaffolding, and many others. They were really quite inventive.
Back at the hostel, Hugh introduced me to the ‘grilled stuff’ stall two minutes from the hostel. ‘Shwar’, as it’s called in Mandarin (there’s no way I can write that accurately). After a couple of beers, Hugh, I and a couple of others went down there and bought dinner by pointing at things that looked tasty. Pork, chicken and squid kebabs were on the menu that night. The next day I would come back and get a whole fish skewered on a stick. One of the best restaurants I found in China, and it was a stall on the side of the road. I don’t think that the three-for-two beers all night had anything to do with it.
The Shanghai Museum
There are a lot of really cool artifacts in this museum, with the added bonus that it was free. Coming from London this is fairly normal, but in China, free is rare, and awesome (there’s probably something interesting to say on capitalism vs. communism here, but I’ll spare you). The exhibits are of Chinese artwork, from ancient to modern, and include exquisite examples of jade, pottery and gold work. On the other hand, there are the things like calligraphy and seals, and these get old really quickly. I get that they are priceless artefacts of the Chinese dynasties, but they really do get boring fast.
It was half spectacular and half dull, but definitely worth a look, especially as it has air-conditioning, a luxury not to be sniffed at in the stifling heat of China’s summer.
When I was hanging out along the Bund with a beer I got chatting to a Chinese girl, and a couple of her friends. They told me that I’d really missed out on not checking out the Yu Gardens when I was around the area earlier, and it would be a real crime if I never visited while I was here.
I took their advice the following day, and I’m really glad I did. I think without exception (including inside the Forbidden City), these were the best Chinese gardens I visited. They incorporated rockeries, koi ponds, orchards and beautiful architecture into a harmonious natural space. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. I had a book with me, and sat and relaxed in the shade of one of the many drooping trees, and wandered through the maze-like paths for most of the afternoon.
Most of the next couple of days were lost to laundry and sorting out my transport for the following day. I took the opportunity to have a burger – my first ‘western’ food in weeks. Honestly, it wasn’t that great, and I gave up with that particular nostalgia for a few weeks.
The Cotton Club
Giving up with the normal places around the Bund, I headed over to the Cotton Club, one of the oldest Jazz bars in the city, and nearly impossible to find.
As bars went, it was really expensive – £5.50 a beer? Crazy. But the music was good enough for me to stay as long as I could. Unfortunately I pushed my luck a bit too far, and I missed the last train by 1 minute (not even exaggerating – in China the trains are timed to the minute). This gave me the opportunity to spend another hour or so back at the bar. Not the worst problem in the world, and it wasn’t anything that I was going to complain about.
Walking home, on the other hand, was less than fun. At this stage, I didn’t have any idea where I was staying, not even the name of the closest subway station. I could have pointed it out on a tube map, but my ability to remember long complicated Chinese names is not very good. All I was confident about was the rough compass direction I needed to go from the centre. I didn’t have the confidence to ask a taxi driver to take me home, so I decided to attempt it myself.
After deciding to walk home, the unsettling thought struck me that Shanghai is the single largest city proper in the world, with a population of over 23 million (London is 7.8, and the whole of Australia comes in at only 22.3 million). Worse, it’s spread out over a municipality of around two and a half thousand square miles. The buses were utterly indecipherable – the only thing I’d translated at this point was ‘train station’. Either way, I decided to keep walking until I found something I recognised. Fortunately, I found the Zhongshan Park, near my home, at around 2a.m. so I got a decent night’s sleep.
My last experience of Shanghai was at the train station. Sadly, it wasn’t a good one. On my way to book a ticket to my next destination, I got to see one of China’s many pickpockets at work. I was too far away to do anything about it, but as I watched he pulled an iPod out of someone’s pocket by the headphones, grabbed the hardware and disappeared into the crowd. I attempted to follow, but wearing a massive backpack means that you are unable to move with any speed, especially through crowds. All I could do was get into the train station, and watch the bastard run out another exit at the same time.
Anyway, I had to get myself a ticket out of Shanghai, but because I booked late there was nothing left until the following week. All there was left was a ‘standing room only’ ticket, if I wanted to take it.
Seriously, if anyone reading this gets offered this option, just say no – it’s always going to be worth wasting a couple of days to avoid having to stand the entire way.
From Shanghai to Xi’an, I was forced to stand for sixteen straight hours. If it had been during the day it would probably have been bearable, but overnight? When you need to crash out? I really don’t recommend it.
Up until 2-3 a.m., the carriage attendants would keep wandering up and down the carriages with trolleys, because obviously people needed some fruit at two in the morning. This would be alright if I had a seat, but spending my time in the aisle meant that I had to jump up and get out of the way every fifteen minutes.
Eventually, one of my fellow passengers offered me half of his seat. In the early hours of the morning, and with the rocking of the train, I jumped at the opportunity, and managed to get a couple of awkward hours of sleep.
I woke up in Xi’an, one of the most fascinating places in China.
You may have noticed that I reorganised the site a little. One of the major changes I implemented is I added a ‘photos’ tab at the top – if you click that you’ll be given a link to my picasa account, and all the photos that have been put up here. I’ll make the photos public once I’ve written about each place, so check back there often. I haven’t been including every photo taken in the blogs, so there should be some on picasa that aren’t up here.