Asia, China, Destinations

Shanghai – Our first encounter with the Chinese culture

June 9, 2015
View of Shanghai cityscape by night

The first clue that you are in Shanghai, the most modern city in China, is being revealed as soon as you step out of the Pudong International Airport and of course you want to get to the city. There is no other mean of transportation but the high-speed magnetic levitation train, Maglev. And when I say high-speed, I mean 431 km/h, even though only for a couple of minutes. Given the very short distance, the whole trip lasts about 8 minutes.

Maglev train displaying the top speed

The magnetic train top speed

Shanghai is the largest city of China (about 24 mil), definitely the most modern and a global financial center, but still different from what one might imagine.

I was still struggling with my luggage getting out of the metro station when I saw some guys in green military uniforms, standing still, “guarding” the entrance. I realized later on that it wasn’t an isolated case. Every metro station, touristic objective, bridge or major intersection had a few of them, making sure everything went smoothly, especially the intersections. When the traffic lights went green for the pedestrians, four of the soldiers were marching towards each of the 4 lines of the intersection, creating a human square, so that nobody could cross the intersection in diagonal and create chaos.

I found that fascinating, especially because it was the first encounter with the Chinese life, but I have to admit that my arrival coincided with the Expo 2010, so all this supplementary police and military presence might have something to do with that.

When entering the metro station your baggage would be scanned, as well as when visiting a museum, where in order to get inside with a bottle of water, the security asked us to drink from it …I’m glad it wasn’t gasoline :).

People are usually very friendly, smiling at you and often offering their help if they see you lost and starring at the map. Of course help comes in the form of body language because very few speak English. It helps if you have written down your destination, or use translation apps or a dictionary.

But Shanghai is far more than that. It combines the modern side represented by The Bund, a formerly muddy bank of the river Huangpu, crossing the city, now transformed in a beautiful promenade from which you can admire most modern skyline from the other side of the river, with the old and traditional represented by the Yuyuan gardens and the bazaar, where the pagodas and small shops selling souvenirs and food are everywhere.

If you only have a few days to explore, here are the top Shanghai attractions:

  • The Bund – with its famous skyline captured in all postcards, which can now be seen from the newly renovated other bank of the river, opened for public in 2010
  • Yuyuan gardens and bazaar – where the smells coming from the different cooking tables sometimes soften your knees, but also the hundreds of small shops from which you can bargain all the souvenirs you fancy for up to half the asking price. At the end of the bazaar is the Food Market where you can find live chickens and ducks, fish, crabs or some pork lying in plain sight on the table lined up on each side of the street
  • Xintiandi neighborhood – an area with an European vibe, where rich locals go out shopping or bask in the sun at one of the fancy terraces on the narrow alleys.
  • Jad Buddha Temple
  • Nanjing Road – the most important shopping street in China, stretches on 5 km and displays a few shopping malls, the most important brands and lots of flashing neon lights.

Day trip from Shanghai:

If you get tired of all these skyscraper, glass and neon lights, you can escape to Zujiajiao, a small town 1,000 years old, a little Chinese Venice, with canals, boats and terraces.  And the good part is that it’s only about 50-60 km away, so if you catch an early morning bus you can be back by 2-3 o’clock.

As a personal conclusion, I think the biggest disappointment so far was the food.

I consider myself a huge fan of Chinese food and I think that one of the main reasons I chose China as a destination was food, but I discovered that the real Chinese food found in food courts, on the street at the billion food stalls, has NOTHING to do with the adapted Chinese food we are used to in Europe, US, or elsewhere.

Here were all kinds of spices, meats and vegetables specific to China, yet for me, they were impossible to digest. Amongst the worst ingredients were intestines and belly (which they consider meat), that smell horrible, and no matter the dish they are in, they make it uneatable.

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