We took the overnight train to Shanghai from Hong Kong arriving around 10am. Shanghai has a large metro system and we’d picked a hostel a few hundred metres from a metro station so we had almost no distance to walk (experience has taught us never to trust taxi drivers so we do our best to book hostels near a station). With very little effort or hassle we were in the hostel.
It was almost midday so we immediately went back out. And where in Shanghai is the first place to visit? The Bund of course! We stood on the ‘viewing deck’ looking over the Huangpu River and towards the famous skyline of Pudong District. Pudong is the district where the financial area is located and contains the skyscrapers which makes up the Shanghai skyline. Standing there it was obvious what to do first. Go up a skyscraper!
In Shanghai there’s plenty of choice for skyscrapers. We could go up the instantly recognisable Oriental Pearl Tower, or the Jin Mao Building (ex 5th highest tower in the world) or the Shanghai World Financial Center currently the 6th tallest skyscraper in the world and containing an observation deck on the 100th floor. We chose the latter and grabbed a sandwich on the way there. There’s a tunnel containing a footpath linking The Bund with the skyscraper area, costing 50 RMB (£5). That’s a bit of a ripoff in my opinion, the metro is 2 RMB (20p) for a short journey and only 4 RMB (40p) to cover a long distance! And that includes a train to get you from A to B! 25 times the price and you have to walk too! Nah, we walked a few streets back and got on the metro under the river.
We paid the 180 RMB (£17) each to go to the 94th, 97th and 100th floor. A false choice is provided of going to all three or just the 94th floor. After a short propaganda video we were shown into the lift and were blasting our way straight up the the 97th floor at a rate of 2 floors per second! At the 97th floor there’s a small observation deck but the windows weren’t very clean and there was a lot of glare in the glass making it very difficult to get any decent photos. So we got in another lift to take us up to the 100th floor. When you look at the tower from street level there is a quirky design, a ‘hole’ about 3 floors high. Annemarie says the building looks like a bottle opener!
The 100th floor is the first full floor again after the ‘hole’ and has a glass floor looking down onto the rest of building below and onto the nearby streets. I hate heights and stayed away from the glass floor as much as possible but Annemarie was fine and took photos on it.
We stood there looking down on the ex- 5th tallest building in the world.
And then we looked around at the city. Hundreds upon hundreds of tower blocks 5 or so stories high. In the UK they would be tall buildings, here they looked like toy houses!
Getting good photos was incredibly difficult. The windows were not coated with anything to stop the glare and inside there were a number of objects (handrail and air-con vents) causing reflections and bad light. The city had a layer of smog hanging over it making anything which was further than a few miles away disappear into the grey blanket covering the city. Plus the windows were dirty on the outside and even worse on the inside from sticky and greasy handprints. There were no information boards showing what we were looking at and it was a bit cramped in there. After visiting the 100th floor in Hong Kong, which has a huge floor area, information boards, crystal clear windows and seats, this building was a huge disappointment. Annoyingly the queue for the lift back down was positioned in the middle of the floor where the glass sections are. No consideration for anyone who might not want to stand on it! I guess not many people who are afraid of heights come up here, but luckily I managed to jump around the side and get in the lift avoiding the glass floor. The 94th floor has the usual bar and souvenir shop. The views were just as poor as the ones higher up due to dirt, oh and the smog!
Back on terra firma we admired a few of the buildings from up close. The Shanghai Tower will be the second tallest skyscraper in the world when complete. The twist design makes it stand out and look good.
We then headed back to the hostel and ate a cheap and boring meal in the hostel.
The hostel was a 5 minute walk to the People’s Park. This park contains the two museums we planned to visit. In the centre of the park is the Shanghai Museum, our first destination. In here we saw a large collection of metal works from the early bronze age through the many Chinese dynastys. Most of them were to hold wine or food but some had incredible designs, so intricate and detailed. We also saw the jade collection and saw the jade art through Chinese history. The museum contains a large ceramics section and we followed the development of ceramics from simple pottery pieces, to early glazing techniques into the world famous Ming Dynasty Ceramics of white and blue designs. Unfortunately, the audio guide wasn’t very detailed and there was no contextual information to put any of these objects in a specific location or time in Chinese history. For most people this isn’t an issue, Chinese people are only interested in taking photos of everything they see and themselves. For us it was annoying. Annemarie cares about the context and the wider world and I like the details. The museum is spread over 4 floors and houses large furniture and calligraphy collections too. We skipped those and left for lunch.
A short walk from the park is a dumpling restaurant called Yang’s Fried Dumplings. Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet had this place listed as THE place to get dumplings in Shanghai. The dumplings were 6 RMB for 4 dumplings. A bargain. We ordered some, plus hot and spicy noodles each. The dumplings are cooked fresh in batches of about 50. All 50 are usually sold within a minute or two and another batch are made. This means the dumplings are always fresh! And incredibly popular! When ours were finally ready we discovered why they are so popular, they taste absolutely delicious! The eating technique is tricky. First you punch a hole in the top using a chopstick. Then pour a little vinegar in. Stick the chopstick in a swish the vinegar a little. Then pick it up and suck the juices out. (The juices are hot and we burnt ourselves a few times. Picking them up with a firm enough grasp is very difficult too.) Once the juice is gone the dumpling can be eaten. Chopsticks are far from the ideal utensil but thankfully we weren’t the only people struggling to eat them. Many of the Chinese eaters were struggling too.The meal was very messy but so good! I ordered another 4 dumplings when we finished the first batch and the noodles. Yummy!
Then it was back to the park to visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, located on the edge of the park. This looks at the history of Shanghai from the time the British first came in the 1840s to now and beyond. The expansion of this city is nothing short of amazing. It’s gone from a reasonable sized trading port to the largest city proper in under 200 years. The entire city is planned almost to perfection. Nothing stands in the way of progress. The city planners have created large trunk roads into the centre, districts for major industries. Land was set aside for a new international airportand linked by public transport to the heart of the city. The exhibition showed in detail what we felt when we walked around the city, that this place was designed to be like this. Unlike most cities that develop chaotically over years, Shanghai is easy to navigate, skyscrapers sit together comfortably, green spaces are never too far away and the metro is also never far away. The exhibition was interesting in parts, but probably of far more interest to an urban planner than an ordinary tourist. The midterm also had many photos of Shanghai including ones labelled as from the 1500s. According to this museum, the Chinese invented photography many hundreds of years before anyone else… Or it was poor Chinglish. A huge model of the city has been created on the third floor. It has no information around it, no labels, no description, nothing. We get the idea that Shanghai is a big city, but we can’t work out what the purpose of this model is.
These two museums left us drained. We had a short walk around the park and went back to the hostel to eat another boring but cheap meal.
On our third day in Shanghai we walked to the French Concession. After the British and French inflicted a lot of pain and destruction on China in the 1840s China allowed the French to control small pockets of land in China. The French Concession in Shanghai is the most famous and important of those concessions. We visited a restored house and saw how the middle class Chinese lived around the turn of the twentieth century.
Near the French concession is the building where the first meeting of the Communist Party of China met. It has a little museum and some information/propaganda. When Annemarie attempted to take s photo of this interesting version of events the guards quickly rushed over. Still, this was where the first representatives of what would become the communist party first met and agreed the party policy. History was made here!
The restaurants here are aimed at tourists or rich Chinese and have menus above our usual food budget. Plus they are almost all European restaurants, not what we are in China to experience. European restaurants can be enjoyed almost anywhere in the world now, but proper authentic Chinese street food can only be purchased in China. We decided to leave and headed to the The Bund. Probably not a wise decision as there’s no Chinese restaurants out street sellers there either! After a rubbish and expensive lunch we walked south looking at all the old European buildings. There is a huge range of architectural styles on show.
We were walking down to the Yuyuan Garden. This garden is extremely popular and on the list of places tourists must see in Shanghai. Getting to it was awful! It’s very poorly signposted and hidden behind narrow streets full of shops and aggressive sellers. On both sides of the road sellers are out in force shouting at everyone who walks past. Walking past them is easy, but the street sellers carry nothing (probably because it’s stolen or all fake crap) and follow tourists down the street. The huge number of people crammed into the narrow streets means getting anywhere fast is impossible and getting away from the sellers is difficult. They are usually selling fake watches, but claim to get whatever you want. One seller bugged me for a while and finally asked “is there anything you want?” My sharp reply of “peace and quiet” finally shut her up!
Chinese gardens aren’t the most colourful gardens to visit. They usually have a few ponds or lakes, a few pagodas or pavilions, trees and bushes and a few rocks. They are more for tranquility and relaxation I think. Unfortunately that is impossible nowadays. The garden was full of tourists just like us. It’s a vast complex of small winding paths leading from pavilion to pavilion via interesting garden features. Most of these paths were crowded with tourists! Chinese tourists are obsessed with photographing everything and photographing themselves in front of everything. This makes getting around very difficult because they are constantly stopping or walking slow to find the next thing for them to stand beside and take another photo of. The wider areas were filled with tour groups. Tour groups in China are awful. The Chinese don’t care about been in peoples way, or blocking a path, or taking all the space. And worst of all, the tour leader always has a portable speaker strapped over their shoulder set to full blast and a microphone, so everyone within a hundred metre radius can hear! Having one of these groups in a confined space is pretty bad, having many in the space and it’s just deafening! The gardens would have been nice if it wasn’t so dammed crowded or loud. Totally fed up with the people we left.
As we walked back to the hostel we took a different road to usual. It was packed! Heaving with people! We complained at how many people there was and couldn’t believe just just how busy a street could be. It was worse than anything in the UK. This was Nanjing Road, one of the busiest streets in the world with over a million visitors per day! No wonder we complained about the crowds. The street has the usual line up of high end Western brands that you see in every Chinese city. We’re not here for expensive shopping hence our frustration at the crowds rather than our marvel at the shops.
It was now obvious we’d booked too many nights in Shanghai. We’d visited the major places (skipping the aquarium and zoo because China isn’t exactly known for good animal welfare standards, and the circus because it’s expensive) leaving us with little else to do. So we decided we’d spend most of the day walking around a huge park called Century Park. It’s located in the Pudong district quite a distance from the centre of the city near The Bund. So far in fact that we couldn’t even see the skyscrapers through the smog!
By the entrance to the park was a noodle seller, our meal of choice in China. We bought noodles each (with beansprouts, spring onions and a dash of chilly sauce) and walked to a bench in the park to sit and eat them. It was pretty hot and we were very glad of the shade. When I had finished the noodles I rested the tub on my legs and spilt the sauce all over my shorts. In the toilets I wet them and scrubbed them as best I could but the sauce had stained them, I had to walk around looking like I’d wet myself for the next 30 minutes! The park is huge and in the centre is a lake which we decided we’d walk around. I spied an ice cream seller and bought some, which I also dropped on my shorts. We continued walking around the lake at a leisurely pace for well over an hour. In total we spent about 3 hours on the park. It wasn’t very busy and was pretty nice to look at and wander through.
Thoughts on Shanghai
In hindsight we wish we’d skipped Shanghai altogether. We didn’t see anything there of real interest and certainly nothing we hadn’t seen better elsewhere. The 100th floor was an experience worth doing, but we’d already done that in Hong Kong and it was far better there. The museum had the same objects as we’d seen in other museums in China, but elsewhere had far better audio guides and much more information. The parks were nice but far too crowded and the atmosphere was killed by the guides and their deafening speakers. The city is a cultural void! Because almost everything has been demolished to make way for the modern city there is very little history on show. The city has few quirks or places of heritage. It is functional, utilitarian, easy, clean and efficient. It has everything that a modern city needs, but it has no soul. The streets are wide and straight, the buildings are modern and tall. The metro is never far away.
The city is very western. Hundreds of European restaurants serving food at prices about the same as Europe. Yes, a choice is good, and most of these restaurants are aimed at the Chinese as well as the European tourists. But what’s the point? You go to countries to try the local things which you can’t get at home. Then there’s the shops. Cartier, Rolex, D&G, Prada, H&M, Zara, etc. These are in every Chinese city. The centre of each city usually contains these shops and many more, in their swanky shopping centers. But again, why come here for shopping? The shops are the same price as Europe so you might as well combine shopping with a visit to a proper shopping city such as London, Paris, Milan, New York, Hong Kong. All of which have the same shops but in a city of cultural heritage and sights. The city has nothing unique to offer. It is in essence the perfect modern city for living, but dull and boring and not worth visiting.
We made two mistakes here. One was booking far too many nights and the second was not going on the maglev train. At 430kph it’s the world’s fastest passenger train. We had plenty of time but never took a ride on it. Shame!
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