A trip to China is always exciting, as the country has such variation in culture and food that you can go anywhere inside its vast borders and find something different to interest and excite you. I had similarly high expectations when I visited China’s busiest city, Shanghai, in the east of the country, but was left a little underwhelmed. I guess when you’ve seen the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, economic cities like Shanghai can seem a bit…dull in comparison.
I had actually arrived in Shanghai in daylight after a flight from Taipei via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. Usually, I make the noob mistake of arriving in a new city for the first time in the dark, so I have to risk taking taxis into the unknown without being able to see where I’m going. I have made that mistake initially in Beijing, Chengdu, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Medan, Seoul, Taipei, Siem Reap, Manila, Delhi, Kathmandu…the list goes on – one day I will book my flights in a more appropriate way! What surprised me was that upon arrival at Shanghai Pudong International Airport was that access to the MAGLEV shuttle train was very easy and I enjoyed travelling at 300kph+ away from the airport. When the train stopped at its terminal, we all had to get taxis into downtown Shanghai. My driver was a maniac, and the taxi didn’t have seatbelts. Plus it was raining. It seemed a bit of a dangerous way to begin my adventures in Shanghai!
Hostels in Shanghai are also very cheap, but as always with China, you need to be aware that hygiene standards are not the same as in other major cities in Asia (i.e. Singapore, and maybe Kuala Lumpur). Basically, you get what you pay for in Shanghai. The more you spend, the better the standard of accommodation. That may sound obvious, but if you’re on a tight budget and think you can save some Yuan by plumping for a cheaper hostel, you’ve gotta put up with the roaches – and the occasional theft! I didn’t spend too much time in my hostel, as I wanted to explore the city. The markets and backstreets of the city are great places to observe regular Shanghainese life. The quaint little coffee shops, gazillions of peddle bicycles (not many mopeds – Hanoi take note!), and a general lazy way of life were what I noticed when in Shanghai’s backstreets, and this is of course in stark contrast to the business that goes on in Pudong and Lujiazui districts in the steel and glass skyscrapers.
Even if you have high expectations, visiting Shanghai purely for tourism could ultimately lead to disappointment. When some of the major attractions are shopping malls and skyscrapers, you will perhaps begin to wonder why you didn’t go to Beijing, Xi’an, or Kunming instead. However, if you take a little time to research your Shanghai trip before (or during) your stay, you can uncover some hidden gems, such as the beautiful Yuyuan Garden, which was perhaps one of the highlights of all my travel in China, not just in Shanghai. Although I did just mock shopping, a trip to the famous Nanjing Road should be on the itinerary of all travellers!
Food in Shanghai is glorious (further reading: Snack Attack: China’s Best Street Food). While Chinese cuisine (I mean real Chinese cuisine, not the imitations you find in takeaways in Europe) can be somewhat hit and miss with a western palette, there are some local treats that everybody should try, including the delectable Shengjianbao, which are pan-grilled buns similar to baozi found in Beijing. Cong You Bing are scallion pancakes and these are also Shanghainese delicacies. If fast food is more your thing, then you may be heading straight to McDonald’s – and believe me, there are some amazing Chinese-style items on the menu, such as the black and white burger (the colours of which represents ying yang)!
While Shanghai is no way close to being my favourite Chinese city, it does have a certain charm about it. You cannot help but be impressed with its booming economy and the mix of old and new in terms of architecture (such as at Zhujiajiao Ancient Town close by). But Shanghai is very, very busy and perhaps not the first port of call for a first time traveller to China.