As an avid traveller I’m sick of saying “Oh I’ve never been to China” so I was very excited about this little Shanghai stopover of 48hrs (or 53 to be precise). You can now not get a trasit visa for short stopovers in major Chinese cities if you spend under 72hrs there. I’ve learnt that 24-48hrs in a big city can be plenty more than enough so my plan for Shanghainwas to tourist on day 1 and chill on day 2.
I arrived on a Wed night at 7:30pm on China Eastern Airlines – I’m baffling at how they snuck into the global airline club that is SkyTeam. Advice to future passegers is to carry your own food and minibar and don’t ask questions – the servious is attrocious and food indedible but hey, I’m on sabbatical and embracing all experiences.
I checked into this cute Airbnb apt in the French Concession that evening, a very convenient location and more interesting than staying in amongst the skyscrapers I thought. The cleaner was nowhere to be seen for check in but my nice taxi driver made some calls until she arrived on a scooter. Phew. First travel obstacle surmounted.
I was up early with locals to Pure Yoga, Shanghai (making a strong start on sabbatical goals). Very chic studio in IAPM shopping mall filled with Prada, LV and other luxeties. Good bilingual teachers and a great way to stretch off the 14hr flight cobwebs. Must be expensive for locals though, with NY style drop in rates of nearly $20 a class. At least for this price you get spotless showers, hairdryers and everything you need to make you tourist ready.
Breakfast in the French Concession
Next stop breakfast at a street stand in the French Concession with a local granny staring at me while I muched on fried pork dumplings with pork fat oozing out of each bite, washed down by hipster coffee at Café del Volcán next door. Fuelled by Jiaozi and caffeine I motored towards the Shanghai Museum, heading generally north on Xiangyang S Rd and East along Huaihai Middle Rd.
The great firewall side note: Google doesn’t work in China. I knew this before I left but I don’t think I really believed it. This means to Gmail, no google maps and downloading a serch engine like Bing or Yahoo. Yikes. I had downloaded an offline Shanghai Google Map that worked pretty well but trying to navigate listing and locations without Google was a challenge for me. The Shanghai Subway App on my phone was another lifesaver but if I go back to China, I’d probably buy a guide book.
Shanghai Museum and People’s Square
On the way I stopped off in local delis where people were lining up for fresh mooncakes for the Autumn Harvest Festival and strolled through the Yanzhong Park with its pretty ponds and young couples holding hands on benches. As you near the Museum and the river the buildings grow taller and you realize you’re in a city but I never got the sprawling, overwhelming, congested feeling I’d expected. For a first time visitor, the city is easily navigable mostly on foot.
A brief stop in the gardens of Peoples Square and then the iconic Shanghai museum, with anciet Chinese artefacts and a good temporary exhibition of Russian historical relics. Depending on how you do museums, you can get through this one pretty quickly. I spent lots of time on the floor dedicated to the cultural dress of China’s minority ethnic groups, which makes it sound like ethnic relations with the Governmnet are just hunky dory – no mention of Tibet or that they are in ongoing conflicet with the Uighur people of the Xinjiang region in the Northwest.
Walking Food Tour
At 4pm I joined a a Shanghai Foodie Walk by Intrepid. It was just me and the guide and we spent a pleasant early evening strolling around the Jing’an Temple area sampling things that were not too trying for my Western tummy. I consider myself more daring than the average foodie but I’d been burping up pork dumpling all day so this may have affected my curiosity. I also don’t eat offal or dried blood, which, as it turns out put numerous nibbles off limits. Luckily my guide was understanding and we stuck with a lot of veggie and black and red bean treats. Pork is hidden everywhere, even in seemingly desert-like pastries, identifiable by that slightly salty sweet taste. We strolled around a popular fresh foods market, where apparently live chickens were for sale until bird flu put a stop to it.
More interesting than the food was my guide’s stories of her life in Shanghai. The same complaints as many other urban societies: the cost of living is high, property prices outlandish but also some things I don’t hear every day: the government profits from our savings while we suffer, I have to import diapers from Japan and baby formula from France if I want quality. We talked about the one child policy a bit and she seemed to think that people would continue to have one child to give them a good education, even if they are now allowed to have more.
After the tour at around 7pm I forced myself to head over to the Bund to see the starry lights of what was swampland until the 80s when global financial services swept in. It’s an impressive display of lights and action but aside from the view there’s not much to do besides have a fancy drink in a hotel bar or if you’re the South African dude and his dad I met, head to Hooters and TJIF on the main drag for some action. For me, it was time for club duvet.
This time I tried a new yoga studio, Y+ Yoga, in the heart of the French Concession and a ‘class’ called Mysore. I’d never heard about it before but MySore seems popular in Shanghai. Technically its of the asana tradition but the best way to explain it is DIY or yoga at your own pace, with light instruction from the teacher, so definitely not for beginners. My British neighbor, also a newbie to Mysore actually stormed out mid-class and when I saw her in the street afterwards she complained that a) she wanted a proper teaching experience and b) that the class seemed available online but was actually packed: “It’s typical of the Chinese – they can’t be bothered to book anything.” To me, her commment sounded like such a typical expat thing to say, implying taking advantage of all the great expat benefits while passing scathing judgements the locals (in this case they’re too backward or lazy to use technology)
I softened towards the expats when I found this Aussie owned treat: Baker & Spice, at 195 Anfu Rd, serving delicious coffee and the best of breakfast, lunch and dinner that kept me going back for all my nourishment that day, breaking only for shopping and a massage at Zen Massage. Zen is a good option for traditional treatments in a modern setting without paying hotel spa prices. HOWEVER, I would say, that when they ask if you mind having a male or female therapist, you should definitely opt for female, UNLESS you are very comfortable with a man massage ‘professional’ very liberally touching your butt. That will be the last time I am massaged by a male, ever, in any culture.
By 4:30 pm it was time to start heading to the airport. My internal ultra tourist forced me to stop in the historic district at Yuyuan Old Street (with my backpack!) before getting the subway to the airport. In hindsight I would say skip – it’s full of hangers onners who want to help you part with your money, tatty jewellery markets, and a few random traditional Chinese temples and pavillions. It felt like an unsuccessful attempt to preserve ancient Chinese heritage in a city long since modernized.
The sardine subway in rush hour was mayhem and took a lot longer than expected. If you do take it at that time of day be prepared to be absolutely crushed and fight for every inch of space. Forget about a seat.
I had really enjoyed my visit but was quite happy to move on after my 2 days. Shanghai would be a great place to do a 3 or 6 month stint, or longer if you fancy expat life, but as a tourist I wasn’t interested in extending my stay. It had been a nice tame intro to the country and next time someone asks I look forward to saying I’ve been to China (or Shanghai, for 53hrs).