Brian's Blogs

First Visit to Shanghai – But mind what you drink!

From Urban Shanghai is famous for being a word which means kidnapping. It is also famous for having mainland China's most expensive taxis and whores, lots of bars and many, many tall buildings.

I’m all excited. It’s my first time to visit Shanghai. I’ve heard so much about it and I’m impatient for the off. I get online to to look for special bargains and try to book a flight with China Eastern Airlines. Sorry, I am told, your card is not accepted. Grrrrrr…. Who says booking online is easy?

I get onto China Eastern site itself and try again. No problems – and the flight is RMB200 cheaper than if I had succeeded with I sit back smugly … until four hours later I get an eMail from Lastminute to say my card has now been accepted. I am now the owner of two non-refundable tickets to Shanghai! It takes me two days of eMailing back and forth with Lastminute to get a promise that my ticket through them will be refunded … in five days time. Ah well.

Up before the crack of dawn to the airport. Beijing’s Terminal 2 is the old one. It’s the new Terminal 3 that is the showcase that was put up for the Olympics. But it takes me precisely 90 seconds of queuing up and another two minutes to be processed, before I am making my way through security and off to the gate where an Airbus is already waiting patiently for its fill of passengers.

China Eastern Airlines was founded in Shanghai in 1988, and has been a success story every since. OK, so it’s majority owned by the government, but it has swallowed up China General Aviation, Air Great Wall, China Yunnan Airlines, China Northwest Airlines and Shanghai Airlines during that time. It is also China's second-largest carrier by passenger numbers and the world’s third-biggest by market value.

Oh, and it’s also had four major accidents involving over a hundred fatalities – but I guess that is the last thing on anyone’s mind this morning.

Certainly your favourite blogger is already wondering what is for breakfast. In preparation we get given a “Distinct wet tissue”. Well I guess the packet is quite distinctive; it is certainly moist, if not dripping wet; and it is a tissue of sorts…

But the brown puddle that is trying to pass itself off as a flavoured congee is not up to much – even my fellow passengers quickly put back the lids on their proffered trays – though the strawberry flavoured drinking yoghurt isn’t bad and the Pingguo Zhi tastes distinctly of apple juice!

Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport is the main domestic airport serving Shanghai. Almost all international flights go to Pudong Airport. (Makes you wonder why they keep that “international” in its title.) It’s located 13 km west of downtown, and is the 4th busiest airport in China and the 41st busiest in the world. In preparation for the Shanghai Expo, the airport completed a five-year 15.3-billion-yuan expansion project two years ago, which included a 3.3km second runway and the new Terminal 2, boosting Hongqiao's capacity to 40 million passengers a year. Terminal 2 is four times the size of the original Terminal 1 and now houses 90 percent of all airlines at the airport.

Hongqiao Airport has a station that is served by the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway, and also three stations on the metro network on lines 2 and 10. And there are plans to extend the Maglev (magnetic levitation) Train, which currently runs from Pudong Airport to downtown, to connect the two airports. At top speed, the Maglev would take only 15 minutes to travel the 55 km route between the two of them.

Luckily my destination station is also on Line 2 and there is no possibility of getting lost as signs are liberally displayed on the floor areas.

It is now that I already start to notice the differences between Shanghai and Beijing. In fact, the more time I spend in Shanghai, the more they feel like totally different countries. For starters, prices are much higher in Shanghai…

  • The metro fare is based on distance rather than BJ’s flat fare. RMB5 from the airport to downtown and an average of 3 or 4 for most other journeys – as opposed to RMB2 for most of BJ’s Subway network.
  • Taxi fares start at 14 rather than 10 in BJ
  • The Shanghainese are much more stylish and fashionable than the Beijingers
  • Shanghai girls wear their skirts shorter, love high heels and wear more makeup
  • Shanghai is remarkably clean; Beijing is remarkably dirty
  • In Shanghai they rarely spit in the street. In Beijing, they rarely stop spitting in the street
  • Shanghai is a modern, vibrant city that is always looking to the future. Beijing is an old city that is forever celebrating its past
  • Over four days in Shanghai I rarely get to see a RMB1 note. In Beijing, I rarely get to see a RMB1 coin

Anyway, the metro journey takes all of 45 minutes and I finally emerge at Lujiazui (陆家嘴) station. Lujiazui lies on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River, which turns from flowing north to flowing east here. Its importance stems from the fact that it lies directly across the river from the old financial and business district of Shanghai. Until the 1980s, it was just a relatively low-built area, featuring houses, warehouses, and factories. But now it is Shanghai’s main financial district with over 500 financial and insurance corporations and there are currently more than 30 buildings over 25 storeys high with commerce as their leading function.

Oh, another difference. Shanghai feels much more international than Beijing and it is not hard to find many English speakers, especially in bars, cafés and shops. But few public signs are in English here, as opposed to in BJ which made a special effort for the Olympics. But nevertheless, they do make some kind of an effort here with their “Informationcener forInternationalvisitors”!

Of course, I have timed my trip to perfection. Not only is it the National Day holiday, but also Mid Autumn Festival. There appears to be a Shanghai Festival to coincide with this, though details are sketchy…

The whole of China is on the move. Especially in the area around Nanjing Road in the old financial district. Nanjing Road is the world's longest shopping district, around 6 km long, and attracts over 1 million visitors daily, though I think all one million are pushing in front of me today. Traditionally it’s the hub of European-style restaurants and cafés, but I don’t see many people enjoying a quiet cuppa…

Nanjing Road started life in 1845, when it was known as “Park Lane”. In 1862, it was formally named “Nanking Road” but after World War Two the government changed its name from Nanking Road to "East Nanjing Road", and the former “Bubbling Well Road” to "West Nanjing Road”. In 2000, a 1,200 metre section was pedestrianised.

Today, however, the crowds are so vast that we are held back at the traffic lights by PLA soldiers holding hands (no gay jokes, please!), while trains don’t stop at Nanjing Road East station for fear of people getting crushed.

Things are much more laid back in the hotel though. You’d hardly know there was a public holiday going on. Everything is cool, calm and collected. Hey, they even ask you – everso nicely – not to use the lift if there is a fire and earthquake happening around you. Presumably you can use it if there is a fire but no earthquake, or an earthquake but no fire, though I think I would probably take my chances on the stairs…

I mentioned that the hotel I am staying in is situated in Lujiazui – it’s one of these tall buildings close to the TV tower that can be seen from the other side of the river on the Bund.

The Bund, of course, is the waterfront area in central Shanghai which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River, facing Pudong. The term Bund usually refers to the buildings and wharves on this section of the road, as well as some adjacent areas. It means an embankment and is named after the bunds/levees in Baghdad along the River Tigris. It was the Baghdadi Jews who settled their businesses in Shanghai in the 19th century and built heavily along the banks of the Huangpo.

Apart from the Customs House and old hotels, there are also loads of old bank buildings. Everyone goes on and on about how amazing these old buildings are – guess they haven’t been to Europe where they wouldn’t cause a second glance … but still, it’s quite pretty.

I mentioned before that prices in Shanghai are a bit steep at times; but there is one exception. Want to cruise the river? Or simply cross the Huangpu?

Take a taxi through one of the river tunnels and you are looking at a minimum 14 kwai. Take the pedestrian tourist route tunnel – where in fact you sit in little cars that whisk you through in a matter of minutes as you are force fed a sound and light show – and it’s going to cost you 50 kwai! That’s £5 FGS!

But hop on a ferry that takes five minutes to make its leisurely way across and you will be relieved of a mere 2 kwai if you use the main tourist route between Jinling East Road and the Dongchang Road; or only 5 jiao for the other 18 routes across!

Once you are away from the main touristy places, the crowds ease back a lot. Walking through the old French Concession quarter takes you down some very picturesque streets where you see a lot of the old Shanghai that doesn’t appear to have been influenced by the modern tourist invasion.

Nearer the Houaihai Road, however, things get much more “modern” with street sculptures that attract even novice poseurs such as this little cutie…

Near to Fuxing Park is a street called Sinan Road (renamed from Rue Massenet) which is where the “good and the great” hung out.

First up there’s a French/Spanish style villa in which the PRC’s first premier Zhou Enlai lived in 1946. (Zhou was then head of the Communist Party's Shanghai office, and spent much of his time giving press conferences and dodging Kuomintang agents who spied on him from across the road.)

Apparently his old black Buick is still parked in the garage. I say apparently, because right now the entire villa is closed for business while it undergoes a restoration.

Just up the street (in a part of the road that was then called Rue Molière) however, is another building – this time a two-storey residence where, from 1918 to 1925, Sun Yat-sen and his wife Soong Ching Ling lived. It was Sun Yat-sen who planned the overthrow of the last Chinese dynasty and the establishment of a republic and is widely regarded as the father of modern China. After Sun’s death in 1925, Mrs. Soong continued to live here until 1937 when the Japanese army occupied Shanghai. Most of the furnishings, which were those used by the couple, are displayed where they originally were.

Apart from the inside of the house, there is also a free mini museum downstairs which has all its explanatory text in both Chinese and Japanese, but no English. Sun spent a lot of time living in Japan while in exile and there are still strong connections. This mini-museum has a few black and white films looping round showing old footage related to Sun. There is also a display of communications equipment, but apart from that there is little to see.

A little further west from here is an area known as Tianzifang. It’s Shanghai’s answer to BJ’s 798 District. Tianzifang is as pretentious as 798, being a transformation of the original residential architectures and factories into an artsy area housing bars, cafés, craft shops, design studios, galleries and boutiques.

Here you catch Shanghai’s new In-crowd - yuppies, trend setters, designers … oh and the gullible expatriates, of course!

Tian Zi-fang, by the way, was China’s earliest recorded painter. The last word ‘fang 方' was turned into ‘fang 坊' meaning mill, quarter, lane or workshop. (Oh you’ve gotta love Chinese humour!) And a stele with Tianzifang written on it was hung over the entrance of Lane 210 in 2002, being one of a number of labyrinthine alleyways off Taikang Road. The area is therefore also referred to as Taikang Lu.

One particularly yuppy notice catches the eye… “More than Toilet – Delicious and Happy”. What on earth can this be? It’s only later that I am able to do a Google search and kick myself for not investigating further while I had the chance…

This brand started off in Taiwan back in 2004,” I read, “and as is to be expected from its name, has a running theme of toilets through both its interior decoration and even its food! Seats are in the shape of toilets, with gold urinals hanging from the walls. The theme continues to the food with urinal shaped bowls serving up deserts in the shape of…well…lets just say it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Completely bonkers but a memorable experience!” Wow. Must add Taiwan onto my destination list!

But enough of such frivolity!

Let’s turn East again… and this time head for what used to be the horse racing course in Shanghai. After gambling and horse racing were banned by the new Communist government in 1949, a part of the race course became the People's Square, which included a large avenue and spectator stands for use during parades. The Shanghai Museum (formerly the clubhouse buildings), Shanghai Grand Theatre and Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall all followed.

Part of the race track became People's Park in 1952, a nicely laid out public park which is free to enter.

One of the unexpected side shows you can see on Saturdays next to the modern art museum in People’s Park is something known as "zhenghun": marriage seeding. It's all about family and how the Chinese view it. I have lost count how many Chinese girls complain to me that their parents tell them they MUST get married by the time they are 30, or become an old maid. More importantly, they must get married and have a kid, in order to support grandma and grandpa in their old age.

And here they take that to extremes by showing up with fliers and advertising their daughters on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from about noon to three. Parents can search for prospective matches by birth year, by height, by geographic location.

Following China's launch of its one-child policy, it has been estimated that in ten years China will have approximately 24 million unmarried Chinese men who cannot find wives. (That’s in stark contrast to what I have been told in Beijing that there are many more females than males looking for partners. Again, I have lost count of the number of girls asking me to recommend them to my male friends as they HAVE to find a BF – by order of their mothers!)

Well, obviously it seems to work. I see couples posing for photographs in front of the likes of Tiffany’s and heading for receptions in some of the posh 5-star hotels back in Pudong.

Restaurants can naturally be found everywhere in Shanghai. I mean, eating is one of the principle pastimes of the Chinese. Not sure, however, that I’d particularly fancy trying out the duck from this particular eatery with its principle ingredients being left outside in a courtyard for hours on end open to the elements…

And what’s this guy doing outside this restaurant in the gutter?

Or this one? Need a closer look? Hey – they’re preparing oysters for the restaurant, opening the shells and scooping out the contents into a bucket, while discarding the old shells into the gutter. Oh Yummy! Hope the street cleaners have been along there first. Hmmm… maybe not so yummy!

It’s time for a coffee, methinks. I find a square around which are five coffee bars. Four of them have a number of customers enjoying their brews. The fifth is totally deserted.

How can this be?

I get closer. On every table there is an advert for…. Unicum! OMG, it sounds like a horny students’ drink. (No, don’t ask if you should spit or swallow! This is a family blog, FGS!)

OK, so Unicum is regarded as one of the national drinks of Hungary, consisting of herbal bitters. In many parts of the world it has been rebranded as Zwack – but not here in China, apparently. I wonder if someone should tell the café proprietor?

My visit is drawing to a close. As night time falls, the lights of Shanghai proclaim a modern city with a touch of panache. Even ugly buildings seem to stand out in a grandeur all of their own – perhaps none more so than the distinct landmark that is the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower.

Love it or hate it (and there are many on both sides of the divide), the tower was completed in 1994. At 468 metres in height, it was the tallest structure in China from 1994–2007, when it was surpassed by the Shanghai World Financial Centre. It is the world's third tallest TV and radio tower after Toronto and Moscow.

The design of the building is said to be based on a verse of the Tang Dynasty poem Pipa Song by Bai Juyi about the wonderful sprinkling sound of a pipa instrument, like pearls, big and small falling on a jade plate.

As always, the touristic blurb goes overboard… “The designers magically set the eleven beautiful spheres of various sizes up from the green grassland to the blue sky with two giant spheres shining like two rubies. The whole design is rich in poetic and pictorial splendour, which gives the tourists the impression that pearls of various sizes are dropping onto the emerald plate.” Yeah, right!

But there’s no doubt that it is impressive. Perhaps even more so from a distance…

I head on back to the airport and go to check in.

Sorry sir, your flight has been cancelled.
But not to worry. We can get you on a later flight in three hours time.
Or if you like there is a flight leaving in an hour’s time, if you don’t mind heading straight for the gate?

(As if I really want to enjoy the ambience of the airport!)
I head for the gate and arrive back in Beijing over an hour earlier than originally planned.

How I love China Eastern Airlines! (And this time the food isn’t bad either!)

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