“I guess that this sort of thing is part and parcel of travelling, you go to places that do not have the same laws and ideas that our home country has and it often seems almost alien to us. It is also these differences that often help to create the culture and society we’re seeing – the very reason why we’ve gone there.”

Hark back to the end of 2013 and you would have found me in China. For the most part I was based out of Hangzhou. Of course China is a huge country and I’ve yet to see one larger. While you’re working though, it’s a little difficult to get out and see as much as you’d like. However, I tried my best and one of the places I managed to get to was Shanghai. I had friends from university who happened to be interning there at the same time so it just seemed like the most logical place to go! Not only that, it was just a short hop on their super-fast trains to get there from Hangzhou – no more than an hour and a bit. So what is the financial capital of China like? Well let me detail my experience!

 Admittedly I didn’t get much time in Shanghai, two days and one night only. Myself and one of my colleagues headed to train station early Saturday morning and got there in decent time to have a full day. First off, I’d like to talk about the trains. They are amazing; clean, quiet, comfortable and outrageously efficient – basically don’t expect trains to run like they do in the UK. If it says it leaves at half past in China it will leave at half past on the dot so don’t miss it! I seem to remember them playing either movies or television shows, I can’t at the time of writing (nearly three years later) remember which, nor did I understand much of what was going on, what with it being in Mandarin and all. So I spent time gazing out the windows as I watched the city of Hangzhou give way to sweeping green countryside, which was in turn quickly blitzed by many an urban development. There is always a huge amount of construction going on in China and when we were approaching Shanghai it became clear that there were no rules regarding urban sprawl like there are in the UK. The Green Belt in London was created to stop just the madness going on in Shanghai. We had 40 minutes until we arrived and according to google maps we were already on the outskirts of the city. The sprawl is massive and I believe it was at the time, and in all likelihood still is, the largest urban city by land area. Also, bear in mind that with size comes population, it had around 23 million in the greater Shanghai area when I was there. It’s around 24 million now. That’s more than double the greater London area. So Shanghai is BUSY. Of course that’s what makes it interesting! I incidentally later found out that in the last year, China has used more concrete than the United States has in the last 100 years. That’s kinda scary if it’s true and as such it’s not surprising considering the amount of construction going on.

To get to where we were staying we required the metro. Again, this was clean, efficient and cheap. Working with the exchange rate at the time it was about ¥2 one way, when there’s ¥10 to the £, it becomes clear that each journey was costing me about 20 pence; I know London is the oldest metro in the world but still, this put it to shame. To be fair we had a pretty easy journey. We jumped straight on subway line 3 (yellow) or 4 (purple) and went three stops to Caoyang Road from the main train station. We stayed in the Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel just around the corner which is currently priced at £14 a night, which was similar to when I stayed. It was and still is a pretty epic price when you consider how central we were. I guess the name suggests it all! It was everything you’d expect from a budget hostel, but I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and amenities on offer, plenty of maps and helpful staff and lots of (clean) showers and rooms. It even had a bar, though I’d be surprised if you needed to use it, there’s so much to see in Shanghai! If I went back to the city, this is where I would stay.

That morning after checking in was mainly a food hunt. We were both pretty hungry and since we were heading to the center of the city to meet my friends for lunch we got a quick bite to eat in Starbucks (cultured I know), but it was just after Christmas; December 28th to be precise and China gets jolly cold. So that hot chocolate was just what the doctor ordered. We would be meeting my friends around the People’s Square. Once we had found one another, they took us through a “marriage market”. The concept of which still baffles me today. Basically the idea is that parents head to the market with photos and information about their children, hoping to find potential suitors. In essence they are marketing their children off to the highest bidder really – all in the name of ‘love’ of course. We weren’t approached and asked to marry any sons or daughters so I’m not sure if I should be relieved or insulted. It was entertaining though and very surreal. Definitely worth checking out! We were also warned about a particular scam that often takes place where tourists are offered some traditional tea and taken to a tea house, where they are then charged extortionate amounts for really very little. We even saw this in action, but my friends swooped in to warn them not to go. Good work I say!

After a quick bite to eat we headed over to the Yu Garden on Fuyou Road. There’s a lot to see here, it’s like a Chinese market where you can buy pretty much anything you want and it’s all decked out in traditional Chinese architecture. The place is complete with complex bridges (which are supposedly to stop ghosts following you since they apparently can’t walk round corners) spanning over Koi filled ponds and dotted with numerous temples and statues. The place is a real treat. I’d very much recommend heading there. Especially if you plan on heading to Pudong after. It’s easier to get the metro since you have to cross the river and there are not a huge number of bridges, by which I mean there are none. I genuinely just had to check Google Maps to count how many as upon reflection I don’t remember seeing any and it turns out there are none. They have tunnels for trains and cars and save the circular highways running around the city you’ll be lucky to find access! So, yes I guess you’ll have to get the metro, unless you want to swim or play in the traffic – I’d not recommend either. This brings me to a good point to be fair. The metro, similar to the Underground in London, has a card – much like the Oyster. I think it cost me about ¥50 for both the card and some money on it. This easily lasted me the time I was there so it’s well worth investing in. I just got one at a manned ticket office.

After a quick walk around the Bund, which is the river bend at the center of the city we hopped onto the metro and actually headed to Pudong to grab food. This is where the wealthy come to play. Big buildings, big budgets and big lights. It’s very much worth checking out if you’re in Shanghai. It gives the city its modern vibe which is, in a sad way now dominating the culture of Oriental China, but coming from Yu Garden to Pudong provided quite a stark contrast. When I was there, a building, known as the Shanghai Tower was being constructed. It was, unbeknownst to me at the time, the second tallest building in the world after the Burj in Dubai. There’s a terrifying video of two crazy people climbing it – you should watch it – hell I might link it at the end of this just so you have to watch it!

We wanted to go the top of the current tallest building in Shanghai and I’d have loved the Tower, but since I’m not quite as daring as those guys in the video and I’d rather not get arrested in China for trespassing, we settled for the next tallest and much more legal to ascend; Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC). It is otherwise known as the Bottle Opener for its bottle opening abilities or rather uncanny resemblance to a bottle opener – it’s not entirely clear which. Note: that was sarcasm. I’m willing to bet it was a Brit that nick-named it, we like nick-naming buildings. That said, it may not have been as tall but it was still half a kilometer to the top and it was reputedly the highest observation deck in the world. I’d been up to the 102 floor of the Empire State and the Top or the Rock in New York City earlier that year, so I was keen to get up there and see the sights. There was even rumours of a glass floor! Price wise, it was ¥100 for students or ¥150 for non-students. Either way it’s pretty reasonable. The lift ride takes a matter of seconds and like everything in China, it has a light show. The ceiling ‘pulsates’ with light every-time it passes a floor, so you get this speedy “whoomp, whoomp, whoomp” effect at the beginning, speeding up as you gain momentum, until it slows down as you’re nearing the top. I remember it being one of those lifts that moves so fast it shakes. Fun though. From the lift to the escalators surrounded by mirrors, very cool indeed with good photo ops and then out onto the deck. It’s an enclosed space, floor to ceiling glass, with a glass floor running down the middle. Though the glass floor is less than impressive due to that bottle opener design. The deck is on the ‘top’ of the gap and runs the width of the building. So the glass floor looks down onto the ‘bottom’ of the gap several stories below it. Nonetheless, it was dark at this point and the city looked spectacular and to be fair to the glass floor, there are points where you can stand and see straight down. Look for the feet on the floor and stand there and look down.

After an hour of admiring the views and light displays on surrounding buildings (I suspect this is why they have to burn so much coal. China’s energy bill must be staggering) and many photos being taken we headed down and went to explore some of the malls. I’m not a big shopper, but if you like your designer stuff, head to the malls of Pudong, the one we went to is called the “Super Brand Mall” I think it says it all. There’s some good restaurants there though, and unlike shopping, good food I can get behind! Make sure you try the ice cream on the top floor. Hmmmm tasty. Of course we couldn’t end the night there so we moved back to my friends flat and then out for some drinks. Around Pudong would have been too expensive for my taste. I’m more of a dive bar kinda guy. I can’t be 100% certain what the bar was called, I foolishly never took note of it, but it was a good laugh. Reasonably priced beer and a fairly easy walk back to the hostel. I’m pretty sure we weren’t far off of Wuning Road, which could be any number of hundreds of streets so sorry folks. It was a good, chilled night though. I had to navigate us back after several pints. My colleague was a little apprehensive. I think they thought they might not get back to the hostel – but we made it! They didn’t call me Fearless Leader in school for nothing.

Since we had packed so much into the first day, and since we had to head back to Hangzhou that evening, we decided to have a more chilled affair on the Sunday. It’s a day of rest after all… We headed back to the People’s Square and used that to explore some of the side streets of the city. I remember coming across birds in cages outside what must have been the equivalent of a pet shop. It’s one thing I hate, animals in cages. It’s worse with birds. They have wings and are designed to fly. These cages weren’t big and there were literally hundreds of birds crammed into them. So tightly they couldn’t move. How an earth the shop owners got them in there I dared not think about. It made me kind of sick. I guess that this sort of thing is part and parcel of travelling, you go to places that do not have the same laws and ideas that your home country has and it often seems almost alien. It is also these differences that often help to create the culture and society you’re seeing – the very reason why we’ve gone there. Often these can be positive. In this instance it was not. I wanted to swiftly move on. After more street wandering we headed back to the People’s Square and then onto the Jing’an Temple, for a bit of traditional culture. Like most places of Buddhist tradition, there was incense burning and coin throwing. One woman launched her coin up and instead of getting it into the center as you’re meant to, it sailed clean through and hit my camera lens as I was aiming a photo up. She was most apologetic. I was just impressed at the accuracy. We spent a while here taking in the statues, including one very large solid silver Buddha. They were currently fundraising for a larger solid gold one. Outside the temple we met up with one of my friends from the night before, the other sadly had to go to work and they suggested trying our hand at bargaining. I had tried this before in Morocco and I still wasn’t a big fan. British anxiety tells me that I could go too far and underhand the owner of the product, yet if I don’t push far enough I am liable to get ripped off myself. I thought I’d give it a go anyway and see what became of it. So we headed to a large market not far from the square. I again was a fool and did not take note of the name and as such cannot tell you where exactly it was. I decided to invest in some pearls, they were not perfect spheres but they were genuine – scratch test provided and all. She strung them for us and I ended up with two sets which I intended to give as gifts. So not a bad haul. Think they cost me ¥100 each. Though we got discount as my friend had been there before. He did most of the bargaining. Before we had to head back to Hangzhou we decided to head to Pudong and see the city in sunlight. I for one was impressed. They looked even more daunting up close and personal during the day!

Sadly though, we needed to catch our train and didn’t have time to see much else. But Shanghai was awesome and it was well worth visiting. I just wish I had more time there! So until next time I shall dream about it!


Cover Photo: Lighting incense at Jing’an Temple, Shanghai.

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