Sights, sounds, scams and spectacular shows

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Where I stayed
Zhongya Hotel

Flag of China  , Shanghai,
Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Lonely Planet describe Shanghai as the 'Whore of the Orient, Paris of the East; city of quick riches, ill-gotten gains and fortunes lost on the tumble of dice; the domain of adventures, swindlers, gamblers, drug runners, tycoons, missionaries, gangsters and backstreet pimps'. Our first thoughts after arriving in Shanghai were that the city was polluted, gritty, bustling and filled with many strange spaceship like buildings. Our first impressions where definitely not greatest but the more time we spent in Shanghai the more it began to grow on us and impression begun changing as we started falling in love with this massive city.
Since we'd arrived on a weekend it was a good opportunity to catch up on some South African sport. Since we'd arrived in China there was very little English TV let alone any English sport channels. So after a brief chat with my mom back home we discovered that one of our local Super 14 rugby teams had made it into the semi-finals which would be played later that day. I managed to find a few sport bars in Shanghai and after some phone calls managed for find a bar called Big Bamboo that was showing the semi finals.
Big Bamboo was filled with expats from across the western world and we might as well have been in a pub in London or Dubai. I was very surprised to find that the rugby was broadcast on DSTV Super Sport our local South African satellite broadcaster and that the commentary was in Afrikaans, it was quite a nostalgic moment, sniff. The atmosphere was great, the beer and wine were great, the food was great and to make it even better it was happy hourJ. Sadly that's were the happiness ended! Our only South African team in the semi-finals, the Sharks, lost the game in what can only be describe as an appalling performance; we were out played by the Australian team for the entire game. The result might not have been what we wanted but it was a great evening out nonetheless.
The following day we were off the see the 'must see' Shanghai Museum and I'll spare the blow for blow commentary and simply add that it was a very interesting look into thousands of years of Chinese history and art. Since China is hosting the Olympics this year a special exhibition of the Olympic history was on display, courtesy of the London museum. We found this exhibit fascinating as it showed the story of how the Olympics developed into the spectacular that it is today. I personally still prefer the original Olympics that consisted of the basic athletics, boxing, wrestling and chariot racing, many of which could have resulted in death! Today the Olympics are littered with so call sports that like ribbon tossing, synchronised swimming, ball bouncing sports etc. that in my opinion rather belong in a circus! If anyone from the Olympic committee is reading this, bring back the real Olympics!
After the very interesting visit to the museum we started making our way to one of Shanghai's famous shopping districts called Nanjing road. As we were deciding which route to take to get there a voice popped up behind us and said "hey hello, how are you" in English, as this greeting was directed to Inge-Marie so I simply ignored it and continued walking as you often get people jokingly shouting out greeting in English often to show off to their friend rather than actually wanting to talk to you. When I eventually stopped Inge-Marie had begun chatting to a young Chinese couple or rather visa versa. They were asking here about why she was visiting China and where in China she had travelled so far and then wanted to know more about South Africa. The usual questions we get asked.
They introduced themselves as David and Lisa, their English names, and continued to tell us about the region they were from. They were apparently university students from an area in Northern China and where in Shanghai on holiday .After trying not to be drawn into the conversation I eventually politely but reluctantly joined in and answered a few questions. They asked where we were going to spend the rest of the day and we told them we were looking for Nanjing road as we simply wanted to browse through the shopping area and take in the sights. They then mentioned that they were heading that way and were on their way to a traditional tea ceremony that is very famous in China. They had apparently tried to go the day before and could not get in as it was too busy. They kindly invited us to join them and after briefly conferring we both nodded and agreed to join them.
From the beginning I was a little circumspect but though it could be a nice cultural experience that wouldn't be too expensive especially if locals were involved, I mean its only tea not cognac. We followed them to a little shopping centre called the Champs-Elysees where they led us up a flight of stairs to the inconspicuous looking Tea House. It looked like a pretty simple shop with a glass front and little rooms separated by screen doors and it certainly didn't look busy. When we entered the store we were met by a young Chinese lady and were escorted to a small tasting room which had small carved wooden table on which the tea was served and four stools places around it.
David begun talking to her in Chinese and said that she had asked what teas we would like to taste. He said he told her that she should choose as she was the tea expert and asked if this was ok with us? Not being experts either we agreed. A menu was quickly passed around with the some prices on it, in Chinese and English and at first I couldn't believe the prices which ranged from RMB32 - RMB38 per person per cup (USD 4 - 5). I though that maybe their might have been a mistake and that maybe since we were trying their selection as a group the price would be much cheaper or some sort of discount would have applied. I mean which student on holiday will pay RMB38 for a tiny cup of tea, how good can it be? Certainly not me!! I didn't even by beer unless it was happy hour. And before I could really get a decent look at the menu it was whisked away and the first tea was prepared.
There was much preparation that went into preparing each tea and it was very interesting to watch. David kindly did much of the translation as the girl serving the tea could not speak English and we got to hear about the various properties of each tea and the regions that had produced the tea. In total six different teas were served and even though the teas were very pleasant I still did not feel quite relaxed and was apprehensive that there was a nasty surprise in stall. At one stage we were asked if we would like to try some snacks with the tea and it sounded as if they were complimentary as no cost was mentioned. We all agreed and four little plates arrived with roasted pumpkin seeds coated in green tea, some salted peanuts and dried plums. We nibbled, sipped tea and chatted away.
When the final tea was served we were told that we could try any of the teas again if we liked at no additional cost. We tried one or two of the teas we enjoyed and where then asked if we wanted to buy any if the teas. Most the teas where priced between RMB 80 - RMB 160 per 50g so there was no way we were buying any even though we were told these were very good prices and unlikely to be found anywhere else in China. "But wait if you buy now we'll also though in a free tea box"! I still wasn't biting. "But that's not all the little tea pots that magically change colour when the water temperature it ideal are also for sale at a magical price" After turning down these obviously amazing offers the bill as brought out.
Now to put this in perspective I need to mention that our daily allowance for the two of us is about a USD100 or RMB 700. That would typically just cover all our transport, meals and drinks for the day, and obviously we were always trying to cut out all unnecessary luxuries where ever possible to make sure we had enough fat for any surprises. So you can imagine my astonishment when the bill totalled an astronomical RMB1100! The prices on the menu were correct and in addition to these high priced teas the use of the room cost us RMB80 and the snacks cost another RMB80.
At this stage I was very annoyed with myself for allowing the process to go so far and not saying "hang on lets have another look at that price list" and asking how much the snacks were before agreeing to have them. I also could not believe that two students were able to pay this much money to taste 6 teas and eat a few nibbles. I know China has one of the quickest growing middle classes and is churning out millionaires but come on this is still a lot of money. I reluctantly forked out the RMB 550 that was our share but didn't have the right change so ended up paying RMB600 as our gracious host asked if was ok if he kept the change.
To end a long story once we arrived back at our hotel we did a little research on tea ceremonies and found that many people had had similar experiences and ended up having to pay the entire bill or in excess of RMB1000 for a few teas. We might not have been scammed but I still can not believe two students would knowingly spend so much money unless there was some sort of commission basis or kick back we did not know about. Mostly we did not want to offend our hosts by questioning their motives and invitation by scrutinising the price lists as their intentions might have been genuine. We learnt a valuable lesson, and that is firstly to trust your gut and don't agree to anything before clearly understanding the cost implication even if you feel it could offend.
Inge-Marie still very much enjoyed the ceremony but I felt deceived that we were not told this would be an expensive experience. All I can say is "What goes around comes around".
We did make it to the shopping district and planned to pass through briefly and rather return after dark when all the fluorescent lighting would be turned on. At the end of Najing road is what is called the Bund area, basically a walkway along the river which is where the best views of the cities sky scrappers and historical buildings. Being a weekend the Bund was packed with people and walking was difficult through the masses and hawkers persistently trying to sell their wares to ever foreign looking person. We only lasted a few minutes after the relentless pestering of beggars and hawkers made it impossible to enjoy the view and decided to head back up Nanjing road where we could get a taxi back to the hotel, a true test of patience. All in all a day packed full of learning's.
During our stay in Shanghai we also managed to visit a magnificent old Chinese garden built between 1559 and 1577 called the Yuyuan Gardens. The garden is situated in an old part of town and surrounded by an old bazaar if hundreds of shaded passages. The garden was a maze of alcoves, pavilions and ponds filled with carp. Often we just sat and absorbed the serene ambiance of the garden and watch in amazement as the flag wielding tour guides lead their flock through the garden.
Another real treat we found in Shanghai was an acrobatic show called 'Era - Intersection of time'. The brochure stated that if you miss this you'll miss Shanghai so we decided not take a chance and bought tickets in advance! Even though we had some of the cheapest tickets we still had a pretty good view of the almost 300 degree performing area. The show can only be described as an acrobatic extravaganza that had us in the edge of our seats the throughout the entire performance. The choreography, sound and lighting were outstanding and the music and singing were live as apposed to being pre-recorded. Besides all the high energy acrobatic and trapeze acts the highlight for me was when 8 motorcyclists entered the 'cage of death', a metal sphere about 10 high. They entered one by one circling the sphere until all 8 were circling, crisscrossing and narrowly missing each other. If one accidentally fell they would be no time to react and they'd all end up in stitches. An amazing show all-round that we would highly recommend!
While in shanghai we also treated ourselves for some rather expensive drinks at the Grand Hayatt in the Jinmao tower (Chinas tallest building but not for long) which has a restaurant on the 88th floor with spectacular views of the city. We also spend an evening in the Xintiandi area which feels like you stepped into a little European village packed with beautiful restaurants, bars and shops. The more time we were spending in Shanghai the more we felt the city was growing on us and even though we felt we see many of the highlights we still felt there was so much more to discover.
The city of course has its positives and negatives like any major city would and one such positive we found peculiar was plastic recycling. In general there was not much litter on the streets but we were surprised to find that many people were actively collecting plastic bottles. To the extent that before you could dispose of your bottle in a bin there would be someone with a big bag of empty bottle asking to take your trash. It seems that recycling in China pays.
Sadly on a slightly less positive note, we'd noticed that since we'd arrived in China that we'd never seen a blue sky. It was either always overcast or just simply covered with a grey layer of either thin clouds or smog. We knew all the rapid development had to come at a cost but since we hadn't seen many factories or industry we were not sure if the lack of blue skies was attributed to pollution or that this was just normal for the time of year?
Upon flying out of Shanghai we discovered the true extent of air pollution. As we rose out of the haze and left the city behind you could suddenly see clear skies for the first time since we arrived in the city. It was as if the city was shrouded by a dirty brown cocoon of filthy air. The contrast between the clear blue sky and the pollution below was amazing and frightening at the same time and I had to take a few deep breaths to expel the last of the cities dirty air in my lungs when I realised what we'd been breathing. Let's hope Beijing has succeeded in cleaning its air sufficiently before the Olympics.
Despite the possibly dirty air, the possible scams and crowds we would happily visit Shanghai again, it had more to offer than we could have imagined.
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skylab on

that must have been some crazy tea you had there. well at least you learned. I would have went overboard as well.

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