quinta-feira, 11 de outubro de 2012

China's Big Apple: Shanghai


Finally I reached the biggest and most developed city of China, and also ranked among the most influent cities of the world. Shanghai was a secondary minor city, less important than Nanjing, Hangzhou or Suzhou until the Opium War. After that, the city, which is strategically placed next to the sea and big rivers coming from inner China, was compulsorily openned to trade. 

Location of Shanghai in China
In 1842, eight Western countries - Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, US and UK - and Japan were granted territorial concessions which worked as international independent areas. Even though most of the population were Chinese, the Chinese law did not apply in these areas. Since then Shanghai went through an economic, social and cultural boom becoming around the 20's and 30's the most developed city in East Asia.

Map of Shanghai in 1907
Shanghai started to loose its prestige in 1937, after being conquered by Japanese and experiecing a sharp decline in trade even after it was returned to China. Following those events, after the Cultural Revolution, most of business and cultural influence fled to Taiwan and Hong Kong, starting decades of shadow coupled with communism power over China.

In 1990, Shanghai started to reborn from the ashes through a government programme that planned - and was successfull - to transform Pudong area in financial services center and also headquarter area for big companies. Nowadays, there's located the 3rd tallest building in the world, Shanghai World Financial Center. The city enjoys an extensive public transportation system, some great green areas, and lots of buildings in European style that remained from the old concessions. Add up to that a population of more than 23 million people and the dream of wealth for the rich - qualified professionals, university students, etc - and the poor - rural migrants looking for jobs.

Actual map of Shanghai
Arriving in Shanghai

As I planned I left Suzhou very early, around 7 am, and took the bullet train with destination to Shanghai. The trip didn't last 30 min and I arrived in the city's central station. I bought a map and found the way to my hostel in the central area. I was sleeping at the Mingtown Nanjing Road Youth Hostel, which had an excellent cost of 50-60 RMB/night in the dorm.

Location is everything around Shanghai, and you're gonna probably find lots of hostels around the whole city but it's worth to pay a little extra to stay next to the central area. There's an excellent subway system but it cannot take you everywhere, and, remember, if everything was far and big in whole China, imagine in the biggest city.

I left my stuff and looked for a train ticket branch - in the big cities you'll often find train ticket branches outside the train stations. This time I needed a combo Shanghai -> Huanghsan -> Fuzhou -> Xiamen. There is my last 4 train tickets to be bought in China. The city of Fuzhou was not a touristic stop, just technical, to change trains and get to Xiamen. Some may br asking why I would do that in my first hour after I got to Shanghai. The answer is that train tickets must be bought in advance in China, otherwise you'd rik yourself to get a standing ticket - yeah, exactly, no seat - or, getting some boring overstay and loose your itinerary.

Purchasing the tickets

As I got more experienced on that, I asked a hostel employee to write down all my needs in Chinese in a little paper. Then, I reached the train ticket counter I just had to show them the paper. Still, there were some doubts - apparently the teller could not believe that some arrivals/departures were so close to each other, but, yeah, that was my plan. What wasn't part of my plan was that she misunderstood me - and I realized that too late - and instead of taking sleeper seats - so I could sleep - she took all hard seats - which basically means no sleep at all while you'll get 90o seats squeezed with many other Chinese. So I got happy for the next days without knowing about my conditions in the train to Huangshan.

Time to meet Shanghai!

A map, a bag, an umbrella and it's time to get on the street to explore this giant!

Yuyuan Gardens

The story of the the Yuyuan Gardens goes back to 1559, during Ming dynasty, when Pan Yundan decided to build a sumptuous garden - it came to be the largest and most prestigious one in Shanghai at that time - to his father Pan En.

Inside of Yuyuan Gardens

However, expenses with the construction would eventually led the family to bankruptcy. Since then the garden changed many hands, was taken by the British during the Opium War and by the Japanese during WW2, finally being reopenned to public in 1961. The entrance costs 40 RMB.

Around Yuyuan Gardens

Maybe more interesting than the gardens itself is the neighborhood around. A big commercial area with plenty of traditional Chinese style buildings which were restored to give room to dozens of stores that offer from souveniers to meals. A good time to buy little gifts and put your bargaining skills on practice. Be ready to ask 5-6x less than the advertised price, and buy at that value. The walking away tatic works!

The view around Yuyuan Gardens
City God's Temple

Temple's facade pciture
This is a tiny temple next to the gardens and the entrance costs only 10 RMB. It's not so special if you're not a Buddhist. Maybe the most attractive thing is the temple's facade, quite adorned, however it could be seen for free from outside.

There's still China in Shanghai

Picture of a small
 street in  Shanghai
If you talk to people that went to Shanghai or even read books as Lonely Planet there's some significant chances that you end up seeing the city as something that do not represent real China, a modern Frankenstein created as a combination of years of Western and Eastern influences aimed to trade and commerce. Truth is that most parts of Shanghai do not look like other "Chinas" I've found in Beijing, Datong, Pingyao or Xi´An. However those cities did not look like Nanjing or Suzhou. As I've said before in another post, in a general manner, the cities located at China's Eastern coast are likely to be much more modern than the others, which is natural, since that are has been undergoing economic liberalization for many years already. That doesn't mean that the old China does not exist. You just need to walk, get lost, and.. suddenly...

Yeah, I suddenly found a rare place in Shanghai - chaos, mess, wires, chickens, dogs, sellers, typically Asia. For instants I found I had gone back to Cambodia - Eric, one of my Chinese friends once said that when he as born in the 80's, his city Guangzhou was quite similar to what he has seen in Cambodia. So, yes, the old China is there, we just can't get restricted to guide books about what's nice or what is not in a city. A simple walk would reveal interesting impressions.

People walking in a small street of Shanghai

Since I was in the middle of the neighborhood I decided to explore it on foot and I noticed people were not that used to foreigners there. A maze of small alleys with small houses circled by avenues and buildings in construction - the own reflection of China in modern times. I bought an ice-cream - btw, ice-creams in China are wonderful and deserve an article about even taking into account the fact that I ended up with a red beans ice-cram! - and I went walking and observing people around, carrying everything and remembering some months ago. Then I thought about testing the prices and looked for a barber shop. I found and asked him to cut my hair and thought we had agreed in the price - 5 RMB. In the end I was giving him the 5 RMB bill when he showed me the 50 RMB bill. Obviously he was trying to cheat on me, but since 5 RMB was actually too cheap - even less than Cambodia - I paid him 10 RMB and left his shop.

Is it possible to find Chinese enjoying free time in Shnaghai?

Curiously looked that my trip in Shanghai had been granted the mission to prove some mistakes from common sense about there. From what I read back in Lonely Planet, differently from other Chinese cities it would be much harder to find someone having free time or doing common and usual daily stuff  because Shanghai was the chaos of black-tie men, the taxis and skyscrapers. Well, it did not take too long until I realized it was not that way. First with the small neighborhood I found and second, with a park in the French Concession area.

Fuxing Park

Picture of Fuxing Park -
French architecture
Fuxing Park was built inside the French Concession and thus shows French architecture elements. My expectation was to find an empty park but it happened the opposite and I found Chinese elderly make active use of their free time.

Not so different from our "serestas" in Brazil - at least for someone who was born and raised in the countryside - there were many Chinese dancing, doing exercise, or just enjoying their free time in a Thursday morning.

Chinese dancing
Chinese in the park
Kid and grandpa playing
There's some reflex of the Chinese society. The one child per family policy has been reducing Chinese families size generation after generation. Naturally, now young grandparents (~60) can help their son to raise their kids. For example, instead of hiring nannies, it's very common that the grandparents spend their free time with their grandchildren. There were many elderly and babies or young kids in the park.

French Concession

A street part of the
French Concession
Also known as La Concéssion Française de Shanghai, this part of Shanghai will never be found with that name. This region was initially given to France in 1849, having its area expanded twice, in 1900 and 1914, and finally becoming not just a French settlement but the final destination of many Western imigrant nationalities. However, years of European culture have left its legacy with hundreds of architecture style buildings left behind, many trees and even churches.

To find the old French Concession you'll need to go to the districts of Luwan and Xuhui, easilly accessible by subway. In a general manner the region extends from the Center until South and West of Shanghai and can be better explored on foot. Unfortunatelly as it's not an open museum neither has the whole region been restored, there are "traces" of old architecture and history combined with modern buildings and other kinds of buildings. But, I'd recommend to do the tour. It's worth saying that a great number of the old buildings are being converted into luxury brands retail shops.

Trees and traffic at the French Concession
It was lunch time and I was looking for some cheap food in the area - hard task. I ended up finding a small restaurant whe many construction workers had their meals. In a completely finger pointing communication I made myself clear and spent just 10 RMB for a delicious meal.

Shanghai at night

If Shanghai it's an interesting city during the day, at night is something incredible. In other words, Shanghai has its full charm at night. All the colors, buildings, get mixed and that creates a magic atmosphere in the city. Not by chance, some time ago, it was called Paris of the East.

The Bund

European style building at The Bund
Traffic at The Bund's area
The Bund is the name given to the West riverfront area in Shanghai's Center. Bund was a word from many possible origins which designates river banks. The Bund area was first developed to host banks, trade houses and consulates of the former European concessions. Further, in the 40's, Chinese financial institutions until the Cultural Revolution removed such usage and all foreign symbols. The Bund came back to live in 70's and 80's with Deng Xiaoping's reforms and restoration urban plans.

View from the Bund from the
pedestrian path next to the river
Nowadays the area has not just financial institutions headquartered there but also hotels and luxury clubs, being at the same time one of Shanghai's postcards. Another interesting view is to watch the Bund from Pudong, in the East bank of the river. However, as the buildings are small the view is as not as impressive.

The Bund seen from the East bank of the river, Pudong

Pudong is neighborhood which marks Shanghai's ascension taking back its place as one of the world's most important city, since it was developed from 1990 onwards. So, what you gonna see now, before 1990, wasn't anything but rural undeveloped areas. That's the moment to get impressed with the size and power of changes taking place in China. The world's 3rd tallest skyscraper was built were less than 20 years ago there were just farms.

One of the best views of Shanghai -
Pudong's horizon seen from The Bund

Arriving in Pudong can be done by subway, by ferry/boat or by a "special subway". The most logical option for me was to take the subway which delivers you right in the heart of Pudong for just 2-3 RMB depending from where you're coming from. The boats could cost splurge amounts if you're willing to have an onboard dinner - I'd not expect that from a low cost traveler. And, the "special subway" for 40 RMB doesn't make any sense if you can just take the regular one.

As you get there you gonna notice many avenues and flyovers - yeah, the Lonely Planet was right when they mentioned that the area was not "pedestrian friendly". Not because of danger but because it makes you a little bit confused about where and how to go. It's possible to visit many skyscrapers there, including the Oriental Pearl Tower (tower w/ the balls), a traditional element of Pudong's skyline. Other options could be Jin Mao Building and the gigantic Shanghai World Financial Center, 3rd tallest skyscraper in the world, 494 m tall and the tallest of China, however planned to be surpassed by Shanghai Tower which will be finished by 2014 and will reach 565.5 m.

I didn't go upstairs at any of those buildings because: Shanghai World Financial Center was closed for visits and, even though it would cost me 300 RMB to get its final observation deck, it was something I would pay for. As a consolation prize I had dinner at the world's 3rd tallest building - at the Subway restaurant, in the S1 level for just 15  RMB, hehe. Other towers, in my opinion, were too expensive for what they'd offer. I got happy enough with the ground's views.

Shanghai World Financial Center in the back
 and Jin Mao Tower at the front
If you want to watch views of The Bund from Pudong you need some extra courage. There are no indications showing you how to get to Pudong's river bank. Go in the back of the Oriental Pearl Tower, and always go to the river's direction. You'll find some sort of parking lot and, after, there'll be a public pier where you'll find the views you're looking for.

Zhujiajao Water Town

There's a little 60.000 people water town just 40 minutes away of Shanghai and with more than 1,700 years of history. Basically it was trade based village connected to rivers by small cannals. To get there you'll need to get a bus for 12 RMB at People's Square in Shanghai. You'll reach the square by a subway station with the same name, and then walk until the bus terminal. The bus is painted in pink and there's no number or name identification so it's recommended to take a paper with the final destionation written down in Chinese.

When you reach Zhujiajao's bus terminal there aren't direct indications how to get to the historical area. Hawkers will try to sell you maps but don't buy it because when you purchase the entrance ticket to some old buildings there's a map included anyway - 30 RMB.

Picture of Zhujiajao in the river bank
Like any trip, the people around you can impact a lot the quality of your tour. In general, in all my trips in Asia, I have never had a problem with that. But, in that day, I grouped myself with a couple of German mathematicians and the result was not as expected. I was a low cost traveler, they were people looking for average-high end experiences. I believe that the final result was that I haven't spent as little as I wanted and they didn't have the expected extravagances. So, here goes some advice, always try to travel with people who have the same interests and are looking for the same thing you are, otherwise conflicts are inevitable.

Picture of the main temple of Zhujiajao
The city's best attraction were the cannals and the possibility to rent a boat - 60 RMB - and make a tour around. Unfortunatelly the internal area of the buildings gives no great experience when compared with what you can find in Shanghai or Suzhou.

Scams in Shanghai

Do you remember when I told you about scams aimed at tourists in Beijing? Well, in Shanghai I found it even worse and better planned. It could be at the People's Square, or East Nanjing Street, or at The Bund, areas of lots of people, be aware, especially if you're alone, that you're surelly being watched. People will come out of nowhere asking who you are, where you gonna go and what have you done so far in China. Or, they gonna ask you to take a picture of a couple or a group of friends and then start the same script followed conversation. As I said other times, Chinese, in general, are shy, and if they want to interact with you they gonna do it in a shy and careful manner. A too expansive behavior - including invitations to drink something in another place - should be taken very carefully and considered as out of common atitude in Chinese culture.

Next post will be about Huangshan, or the Yellow Mountain, back into China's countryside again, and a crazy sequence of bad slept nights in train hard seats! 

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