Trip Start Aug 03, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2008

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The overnight train to Shanghai was a great experience. We passed the forested hills of Hong Kong, through a security fence and moat and were in mainland China. For the entire trip there seemed to be houses, farms, factories, cities, roads and activity. In the night, we were occasionally woken by the train grinding to a halt at a station but for the most part the journey was smooth. Once at the station in Shanghai, we had to fight through throngs of people all pushing and shoving their way to the exit. Eventually we were spat out of the station and were met by a gentleman in a suit who asked us if we needed a taxi. Foolishly we said yes and followed him a short way to a carpark. Suddenly we realised that we were being scammed, that the taxi was just an ordinary car and that there were now four aggressive types surrounding us. We were not even in a position to bargain and so got in the car. We were annoyed with ourselves, since after the friendliness and honesty of Malaysia we had let our guard down and were promptly caught out. We didn't have the hotel address in Chinese but had the phone number and so the driver called the hotel for directions. Eventually we arrived at our hotel and we were lucky, having only paid about ten times the normal price.
We were staying at the Astor Hotel, an historic building opposite the Russian embassy. Here the first light bulb in China was switched on and luminaries from Einstein to Charlie Chaplain had stayed. Our room was enormous with a hard wooden floor and old fashioned (but nice) furnishings. The hotel would have been in a much better location, but the historic bridge across the Suzhou Creek had been removed just the week before for repair. Yes, they removed the entire bridge! Across Suzhou Creek and following the Huangpu River is The Bund. This promenade was part of the British concession and is lined with a string of grand old colonial buildings. The 1.5 km promenade looks across the river to Pudong. In 1990, there was nothing there, but now it is the modern Shanghai business district. The centre piece is the Oriental Pearl Tower, a strange building that looks like it's a spaceship from the Thunderbirds. The Bund is full of Chinese tourists and a great many touts trying to sell kites, clip on roller-skates or boat cruises.
We left the Bund and walked up Nanjing Lu, a wide street that about half-way up becomes pedestrianised. So nice after all the parts of SE Asia where we had to walk on the street. The road was full of red Olympic banners and thousands of people. Lining the street were big department stores selling the latest designer gear from Adidas to Rolex. At the end of the street was a large park with the famous Shanghai Museum at one end. On the way to the museum, we were approached by three young ladies and were promptly scammed again. They claimed to be students from Beijing and wanted to practice their English. Once we started talking, it turned out that they were in Shanghai for an art show. Some of their art would be in the exhibition. Did we want to have a quick look at it? We said yes. We ended up in a room with a few more "students" and along the walls were large paintings. They explained to us the meanings behind the art...but some of it looked very familiar. When we said we needed to go, they asked us to buy at least one to help with their "scholarship". We almost ran out the door. The last thing we needed was to buy photocopies. Still it was another wake-up call. As we were soon to discover no-one in Shanghai acknowledges you, let alone approaches to talk to you, unless they want to sell you something.
In the evening, we met Franz's cousin Ross who lives in Shanghai. We all grabbed a cab and soon found ourselves in the Xintiandi area. We were treated to an excellent dinner of Shanghai dumplings in a famous restaurant. We then took a cab to a nearby area with cute, narrow streets that was lined with restored or reconstructed Chinese brick buildings full of modern cafes and bars. This is a popular haunt of the expat community. We wandered about and then settled in for a great catch-up with Ross and some excellent advice about where to explore in the city.
The following day we headed to the old city, which in an ironic way, is Shanghai's Chinatown. This was a roughly circular area, surrounded by a wall, where most of the Chinese lived during the days of the European Concessions. It is full of narrow streets with tiny tumble-down houses crammed in alongside. However, it is now being changed. Huge eight-lane expressways carve the area into small pieces. Large concrete apartment buildings surround the area and some are even built inside the old city. Where we arrived, at Chenghuang Miao, the area had been rebuilt as a giant tourist shopping complex. This was a car-free zone of buildings styled to look like old Chinese palaces. It actually had been done really well. The streets were strung with lanterns, the nice tourist shops crammed full of goodies and there were crowds and crowds. After a good explore and even a quick meal, we left the area to wander through the authentic old city. Here the crowds thinned out and the shops catered to local needs. It could hardly have been more different. While the streets were narrow and winding and we saw no other tourists we felt completely safe and spent the rest of the morning exploring. Eventually, we headed back towards the river at about noon and came across a pretty park. While there were many people there, they were all sitting on the few benches or strolling around; no-one was on the grass. It soon became apparent why. A little boy ran out onto the turf, immediately there was a shrill whistle and a uniformed "park nazi" stormed over to the boy, grabbed him roughly by the arm and hauled him back to the pavement for a lengthy berating. As we walked around the park we came upon nice water features and a bamboo grove where some elderly Chinese were sitting, playing music and singing. But always, in the background, we could hear that shrill whistle.
In the afternoon we caught the ferry across the river to the Pudong district. We walked along the waterfront and wandered through a cold and ugly mall. On the outside we were amused to see that Hooters has made it to China! As Shanghai is hosting the 2010 World Expo, the city is completely focussed on preparations for that. Even the Olympics hardly rate in this town. The city is building about 6 new metro lines and so to complete the task in time whole streets are being dug up, whole neighbourhoods have been "relocated" and there are hoardings, cranes and construction noise and dust everywhere, 24 hours a day. To get across some roads we found ourselves walking under the sparks of welders, across wires and past huge temporary hoardings. Many pedestrian crossings were missing and so we just went with the crowd, through the traffic. In the Pudong, this meant that to get to the Jinjiang Tower we couldn't simply walk the 200 meters directly there but had to take a huge circular detour that took over half an hour. When we finally reached the tower we took the lift to the Cloud Nine Bar on the 88th floor for spectacular views over the city. We stayed for sunset and lingered as the night-time lights came on. We were able to wander around the entire floor as few people were there.
The next day we caught up with Ross again and he showed us around the French Concession. This large area was full of wide tree-lined streets, a few nice parks and we stopped in at another hidden-away cafe area. Louise's cold and particularly her cough had been getting steadily worse since Kota Kinabalu and so we went to a pharmacy. Even with Ross, who spoke Chinese, it was difficult trying to get some medicine. There were no recognisable Western brands and the local stuff was decidedly dodgy. We could have bought a herbal elixir guaranteed to cure both coughs and constipation! After that, we bid farewell to Ross, returned to our hotel and then went to the train station. It was May Day and extremely busy, the toilets were shocking and the Communist Party had requisitioned our 2 berth cabin, indeed the entire premium carriage. We took an alternate train to Beijing and were pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was.
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