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Impressive Shanghai

Author: Aida M Garcia-Toledo (More Trip Reviews by Aida M Garcia-Toledo)
Date of Trip: October 2007

Shanghai is like Manhattan and London combined and on steroids. It is the definition of a mega city. In Shanghai the buildings seem even taller, the crowds seem larger and there are hoards of people everywhere. If you stand at a busy intersection here at rush hour you will literally see a sea of people walking towards or away from you. Look up and you will see huge buildings towering over you. It is exciting, urban, hip, modern and still a bit traditional. Shanghai is where all the cool kids in China choose to live and where they have perfected the art of balancing western and eastern traditions with brilliant results.

Shanghai, of course, was not always the mega city it is today. Westerners first came en masse to Shanghai in 1842 when the British opened their first concession. At that time the area was little more than a small fishing village. Five years later when the French arrived, a growing international community was already also settling in. By the end of the 19th Century the area was decreed as a Special Economic Zone and divided into various parcels, sovereign from Chinese law; each governed by its respective country. In those 50 years (mid 19th Century to 1900) the population of Shanghai more than doubled to over one million, with an expanding expat community.

The 1930's were legendary in Shanghai. The city was rich from trading opium, silk and tea and thus attracted the most powerful financial institutions and individuals from around the world. Soon Shanghai had the tallest buildings in the world and was a deemed a city of the future, but with all the excess came numerous brothels, opium dens, and gambling establishments. It was a decadent oasis for rich and/or ambitious Americans, French, British, Italians and Japanese men and women.

Once the Communist Party took over China, Shanghai's bon vivants either toned it down or left town. Just over 50 years later, Shanghai is once again a legendary and vibrant city. It has continued to grow at an astonishing speed; just imagine that the Special Economic Zone of Pudong which today is an urban planners dream with some of the most modern and tallest buildings in the world and a world renowned financial and business district was, just 20 years ago, little more than a large marshland!

The minimal amount of time you need in Shanghai is 3 full days. There is plenty to see and experience in this dynamic city!

Perhaps the most well known area in Shanghai is The Bund. It is Shanghai's famous river side promenade where you can admire some of the city's best views. The Huangpu River divides Shanghai into 2: Puxi and Pudong. Puxi is where you will probably spend most of your time. It is the oldest side of the city, its former financial and festive district from the 1920's and 30's. Pudong, across the river, is Shanghai's newest ubber modern financial hub. There you will find, among other things, the famous Oriental Pearl Tower.

You can, and should, visit both sides of the river, although the view from Puxi towards Pudong and the Oriental Pearl Tower is probably THE most spectacular and well known view of modern day Shanghai. It is worth coming during the day as well as the night, as the city's lights and night views are a lovely sight.

Shanghai might be an ultra modern city, however deep inside its maze of streets is an urban oasis called the Yu Yuan Gardens. The area around Yu Yuan Gardens is a touristy shopping district that used to be the 'Chinese City' in colonial times. Here traditional Chinese architecture creates a huge, although welcomed, contrast with the rest of the city's modern sites. Red balconies are carved in traditional Chinese style, complimenting the white facades and topped off with traditional Chinese 4-point tiled roofs. The streets are cobblestone and red lanterns hang from most of the balconies. Downstairs different stores line the streets; here you can find everything from tea sets and kites to exotic herbs and exotic medicinal rarities (for westerners). Be warned: this area is full of tourists, and thus best to visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

The Yu Yuan Gardens date from the second half of the 16th century and in a way they could serve as an escape away from the busy city, however only if you manage to visit at an 'off peak' time (usually just before the gardens close at 5pm or on a cloudy or rainy day!). Your walk will then be a delight for your eyes with beautiful flowers, bamboo, ponds and carvings to admire.

At sunrise or sunset you have an opportunity to find peace and relaxation in many of Shanghai's city parks. At Fuxing Park (entrance is at Yandang Road near Nanchang Rd just off Huaihai Rd) members of the older generation take some time to practice tai chi or fight their shadows in slow motion with silver swords. Mesmerizing best describes this sight

Shopping in Shanghai must be one of life's most delightful experiences. This is the home to many a mall and many a store, but more importantly it is the home to countless original designers; finding something unique is not very hard.

Taiking Road is literally a hidden jewel for shopping. Neither our guide or our driver had ever hear of it and it took persistence and a lot of asking around to find this hidden haven, but it was worth the effort. The area is located down a somewhat plain looking street (almost alley) off a main avenue. Eventually this community of artists and designers with unveil itself with countless cool stores, galleries and cafes that sell up and coming young designers' creations. Everything from clothes to accessories to home decor can be found here.

Xintiandi has been called the destination where "yesterday meets tomorrow today in Shangahai". It is a mostly pedestrian district in Shanghai where you can stroll, shop, eat, drink and people watch. The surrounding facades are mostly restored Shikumen (stone) houses, a style of architecture in which at one time 80% of Shanghai residents lived in. Located near the former French concession area, it is an ideal place to spend the afternoon browsing through the stores and galleries and venturing into the side streets and then onto the old French Concession Streets (try the area between Julu Lu to the north and Huai Hai Lu running through the center. At Chang Le Lu and Xin Le Lu you can also find small designer clothing shops).

The food in Shanghai is eclectic and scrumptious. There are numerous wonderful restaurants with world renowned chefs working diligently in the kitchens creating world class gastronomical experiences. But you don't necessarily need to visit a Michelin Starred restaurant to experience the Shanghai gastronomical experience.

Today, when I think of Shanghai I still have pleasant dreams of dumplings; the best dim sum I have ever had was in Shanghai, at Crystal Jade inside the Xintiandi Shopping Mall. The crowded and noisy restaurant is a favorite of locals and just about anything you order will leave your taste buds begging for more... until you overdose on dumplings that is!

Enjoy your time in Shanghai, but make sure you plan your meals just as much as your visit.

Under an hour from Shanghai are the Water Towns. Best described as China's Venice these towns are a spectacular way to see what small town life is like in China. Yes they are a bit more worn down than Venice, and yes the narrow streets where food is being sold can smell a bit foul (but even romantic Venice sometimes doesn't smell that great! ), but the experience is unforgettable.

Some of the water towns go back more than 2,000 years, and have remarkably preserved their rural Chinese origins.

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