It took longer than I thought it would to get to Shanghai so I had to skip my planned visits to Nanjing and Suzhou. I was originally intending them as day trips from Shanghai but my knee was banjaxed and I had some pretty bad blisters by now so I took Shanghai as a relaxing break in the middle of all the franticness. I ended up staying in the same hostel as the Dutch family from Xian, purely by accident, and we also hung out with a German girl who had been living in Shanghai for a year so she helped us find our way around.
Shanghai has a much more international feel to it than Beijing: Very clean, lots of skyscrapers, most people speak at least a bit of English, the people aren’t as friendly and it’s full of museums.
It’s also a very artistic city. Unfortunately the Rockabund art museum was closed but I went to the museum of modern art which was interesting
But way better was the M50 art district, it’s packed full of artists’ studios and galleries, there’s loads of cool things to see. Technically you weren’t supposed to take pictures, but I’ve never let that stand in my way in the past!
Another big draw of Shanghai was the architecture.
The Shanghai urban planning and exhibition centre is well-worth a visit. You can see a huge scale model of Shanghai, loads of documents and photographs of old Shanghai and a really cool trippy interactive exhibit about future Shanghai. (This is another place that accepts the Irish Garda ID card as a student ID)
The Bund is a lovely place for breakfast and a great place for a stroll at night. It’s the more European looking, older area of the city that presses right up against the river. You can look across the river at Pudong, where nearly all the famous skyscrapers are. To get from one side to the other you can take a boat, or else you can get the bund sightseeing tunnel. This is a really strange underwater tunnel with swirling lights, puppets jumping out and a strange intimidating soundtrack that randomly declares things like ‘SALT AND ICE!’ and ‘MAGMA IN THE EARTH’S CORE!’ I went to Pudong to see the Jin Mao tower.
Jin Mao tower is not the tallest tower in Shanghai but it was until 2007 (and at 88 storeys it’s still pretty close today). I wanted to visit it because it was on the curriculum in the school I worked at for the comparatives chapter. After having a room full of eight-year-olds chanting “The Jin Mao Tower is tall! Taipei 101 is taller! Taipei 101 is taller than the Jin Mao Tower!” at me I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. There’s quite a few skyscrapers that will let you go up to their viewing deck (for a “small” fee). The weather was quite wet and foggy the whole time I was in Shanghai, so I couldn’t get any good pictures from up top, but it was still a pretty cool sight, looking through the clouds at all the neon. I had to take three separate elevators to get there. At the top I had a jasmine infused peach martini to drink (and got a McDonald’s on the way home)
It’s also great for shopping (though on average is more expensive than most other places I saw). It’s full of ‘fake markets.’ I went to the Han City shopping mall. It’s huge, loads of stories of stalls and shops. Most of the sellers speak good English but it was always easier to bargain with them if I spoke Chinese. They seemed to appreciate it. Another great technique was coming up with a sob story (Oh, but I’m only a poor student, this is for mother at home in Ireland, it’s her birthday today etc etc). Sometimes getting belligerent worked, or lying and saying you’d seen it cheaper on a different floor and were going back there now to buy it, but usually if you just walked away they’d give it to you for your asking price. I got a few little touristy trinkets for various people as well as some “converse” runners, a “Michael Kors” bag and a dress that was supposed to be from a Chinese designer (but was also, definitely fake). However, all the fakes are very high quality, they’re durable and it’s near impossible to tell. I also bought a rolly bag because my back was starting to feel pretty sore from carrying everything and I was starting to accumulate a lot of souvenirs.
The French Concession is another great little area to explore and shop in. It’s lovely, if a bit expensive. A great place to buy pu’erh tea. It’s full of cool little picturesque alleys to explore and lots of bars and cafés. At one point the heavens opened up, and it rained for a good solid hour so I took advantage of 2 for 1 beers and just people watched and read my book. Tianzifang and Xintiandi are the most well known areas of the French Concession. Xintiandi is much more open and well designed, full of cool little things like the museum of propaganda.
People tried to lure me into the infamous tea house scam twice in Shanghai. It was my first time to encounter it in China, but the premise is you’ll be approached by a group of people who will initiate a friendly conversation with you, usually in English, then they’ll suddenly come up with the bright idea of you all going to a tea house to continue chatting or practicing English. Then either they’ll all suddenly disappear before the bill arrives or else they’ll have no money when a bill arrives for thousands of RMB for really expensive teas that you definitely didn’t order because they weren’t on the original menu, and they’ll all start yelling at you and threatening to call the police and stuff. Turns out they were in cahoots with the tea house owner all along. Basically ignore anyone inviting you to a tea house. I got roped into one when I was looking for a pharmacy to buy a knee support. I agreed to go to a tea house with them if they’d show me the way to a pharmacy first (I had spent a fruitless half an hour looking for one so far) and once I got what I wanted I faked a phone call and left. When a couple cornered me the next day asking me to go to a tea house I just spoke in Irish until they gave up and left me alone.
I had breakfast with my new roommate Cullen on my last morning in Shanghai. She said she took the name Cullen because she loved Edward Cullen, from Twilight. Her previous English name had been Vampire… The Shanghai train station was definitely full of the most interesting characters I’d seen so far in train stations. There was a scarily intense teenage girl who kept asking random, unrelated questions like it was an interrogation, there was a man who (once he found out I was from Ireland) wanted me to join him in his fruit and vegetable import/export business and another Business Studies college student who dressed like he had just walked out of a Jane Austen adaptation.
Overall Shanghai is its own thing. It doesn’t feel like the rest of China. It was almost a momentary break from China before I dove right back into the final leg of my journey.