My original plan in China was to make my way north east to the city of Harbin, where an annual ice festival is held, but due to the time of year and the cost of staying in China, I soon realised that I’d have to head to Harbin another time. So, where to go?
Being in Beijing, the capital and of course a major transport hub, left me with a multitude of options but, in the end, I decided to head south to a city I’ve been oddly curious about for some time: Shanghai. Now, the journey wasn’t particularly long but I decided to break it up by spending a night in a small city called Suzhou which, looking back, was a good decision. Suzhou, or more specifically the old area of Suzhou, is a strange combination of canals, gardens, and bikeways (the newer area of the city is like most other Chinese cities-polluted and over crowded).
The canals are loaded with large Gondolas which, being controlled by douli wearing locals, creates a sometimes odd image; it really is like a small part of China is borrowing from a small part of Italy. Of course, the Gondola tours are expensive and, unlike Venice where you pass under small bridges lined with tourists, bicycles, and renaissance architecture, you instead pass under road bridges populated by lorries, cars, and an immense amount of people.
The gardens within Suzhou are plentiful and are beautiful to walk around but, again, the amount of people crowding the gardens is frustrating to say the least, and by this point during my time in China, I was getting tired of having to push and squeeze past people just to get from A to B (I say push, because a lot of the time the people haven’t got a clue what’s going on; the Chinese are in their own little world). However, after managing to stay calm and collected (something I’ve actually gotten better at over the last 9 months), I found the area quite a treat. Now, in terms of culinary highlights, I must say that trying Crab Ovaries was something I didn’t think I’d ever do, but they were surprisingly delicious.
The little steamed buns, filled with a variety of meats, vegetables and sauces, are something I’ve been making a habit of eating, given that they’re around 2yuan each, and the chance to try something new inside was a must.
I left Suzhou with a definite feeling of excitement; heading to Shanghai was one of the few places in China I was really looking forward to.
After a bullet train ride and a quick learning curve in terms of the metro system, I was in the heart of the metropolis. As I walked the pavement I felt my eyes being drawn to the skyline; the mixture of colonial architecture fused with modern aesthetics was enough to make me smile with amusement, before looking down at street level to witness the flow of the streets like blood vessels in a living, breathing city. Strangely, the nerve centre wasn’t the central part of the city, but an area to the west of the waterside walkway called the Bund. Here you can find michelin star food, fashion straight from Paris, and northern european ale; it really does have it all…for a price.
Yes, Shanghai is expensive, there’s no denying it and, though you can find cheap places to eat and drink, sometimes you just need to remember where you are; there’s no point travelling to these great places and not fully embraced the environment you’re in, is there? Don’t get me wrong, I was still very much watching my budget but when you’re walking the Nanjing or Fuzhou Roads (both of which pass by People’s Park) you can’t help but take a seat with a cold beer in hand, and watch the world go by-and it goes by very, very fast.
One thing I noticed about Shanghai was the amount of westerners who were seemingly living in the city. Up to this point I’d only seen a couple of dozen foreigners in each city, but Shanghai is, after talking to some locals about it, a haven for expats wanting to live in China. Though it’s more expensive than other cities (including Beijing), it’s more of an international city and so things are somewhat easier in terms of settling. As I’ve said before on the blog, I usually prefer the quieter places on my travels, the smaller cities or villages that you occasionally come across, but Shanghai was different: here I felt alive. I’m not sure if it was the flow of the city, the speed at which life seemed to go by here, or maybe simply the bright lights, but I felt a certain buzz as I walked around, a buzz I hadn’t really felt since I first entered China.
Of course, when in Shanghai, you have to walk along the Bund and catch a glimpse across the Huangpu river to the finance centre. This world famous view is unmissable really and, given that the light show is free, isn’t something you can find an excuse to miss. The view itself is staggering enough during the day, but at night, when the city is in full swing, it is simply sublime; I stood for a good hour just staring at the strange shapes and outlines of the futurist architecture, including the famous Oriental Pearl Tower; buildings that I hadn’t noticed during the day suddenly leaped out from the night sky canvas with their multicoloured lighting. It almost looks like something from a sci-fi movie.
If you choose to head over the river to the financial district then take a little extra money. When I got there I found that most of the places are significantly more expensive than on the west side of the river (though there are still KFC’s etc knocking about).
The district is filled with flash cars, high walkways, fanciful architecture, and top end shopping malls; I found it amusing that one of the malls (which had Armani, Prada and Gucci shops in) had bouncers on every entrance. Of course, a city like Shanghai has to have its high end places to cater for the higher classes just as much as it needs slums and overly crowded apartment blocks for the general masses; it is, like most cities, a jumble of classes, races, and displaced intricacies; I love it.
There’s something about the chaos of a city like Shanghai that really tugs on my imagination; there’s the poorer and working class areas set back just a 15min metro ride away from the centre (even the national art gallery is in a poorer area of town); the grey of the buildings blending into a dull, polluted sky yet, in the heart of the city, most of the buildings are trying to outdo their neighbour; every shop appears to have been decorated by an artist, and every walkway seems to have a definite purpose.
When compared to a city like London, Shanghai really is years ahead in terms of infrastructure and development but, as with most things of this nature, you get what you pay for.
Though I do enjoy the quieter way of living, there is a lot to be said about being kept awake by neon lights and the sounds of sirens in the early hours.
There’s something wonderful about walking through a city with a population the third a of a size of the UK’s. The difference in cultures, in tastes, in aesthetics all makes Shanghai a truly great city and, though I’ve enjoyed other cities in China, so far this is miles ahead…