Friday, 18 January 2013

Back to “Western” China

Upon reaching Shanghai after 10 days in Beijing and Xi’an, my comfort level soared. The latter two places are clearly Chinese cities. Westerners are welcome, but they are clearly “other.” Shanghai is a more cosmopolitan place, a mix of east and west with a splash of sophistication.

In some ways it’s very similar to Hong Kong, with a thriving consumer culture – and taxi drivers who don’t speak much English. But from what I understand, Shanghai isn’t a city that worships work with 12-hour days as the standard. There seems to be time for play, too.

I flew into Pudong International Airport and took the renowned Maglev (for magnetic levitation) train to its endpoint. The train reaches speeds of 430 kph and actually banks as it goes around curves, although the passengers don’t feel it. Very nifty.

Rather than stay in a hotel, which gets tiring and impersonal after a while, I found a serviced apartment to rent for the week and am thrilled with it. I can cook or not, and I have a bit of space to spread out. Since it’s the off season, I got a great deal, as I have throughout this trip. China is not a winter vacation hotspot.

Day One was spent at the Shanghai Museum and on the Bund. The Shanghai Museum is home to wonderful collections of ceramics, bronzes, seals and calligraphy, plus a gallery featuring costumes worn by a variety of minority ethnic groups. Interestingly, most Chinese museums that I’ve visited don’t frown upon photography, so I was able to take shots of some of the stunning pieces on display. If I can’t take the pottery home with me, this is the next best thing.

The Bund is the street that fronts the Huangou River to the west, and it is renowned for its early 20th century commercial architecture. In its heyday, it was home to the most prestigious banks, exclusive clubs, grand hotels and commercial enterprises.  Today, it still houses many banks, including the Bank of China, and upscale hotels like the Waldorf Astoria.

The avenue itself is wide, with equally spacious sidewalks and landscaped park areas, but the city has brilliantly erected an elevated promenade along the riverfront that has become a destination. Vendors sell ice cream and drinks and people stroll to look at the Bund and the skyline of Pudong across the way. (Toronto, are you listening?) Everyone has access to the riverfront, and they definitely take advantage!

Across the way is Pudong, the new district of Shanghai, home to a number of corporate headquarters. Thirty years ago, I’m told, this area was just fields. Today, it is a field of skyscrapers and interesting architecture. So, a walk along the promenade is an architectural feast for the eyes, no matter which way one looks.

Day Two took me to the French Concession, an area that was home to ambassadors and expatriates, along with well-to-do Shanghainese, at the same time the Bund was flourishing. It is reminiscent of Forest Hill in Toronto or Short Hills in New Jersey, with a bit more commercial activity thrown in. It has many large, stately homes of brick or stucco, plus some low-rise apartments mixed in, and lots of chic boutiques and fine dining.

I landed there first for a cooking class – I’ve decided this is a wonderful way to meet people and learn more about the city and the food – and stayed to wander the streets. Very pleasant and even within walking distance of my apartment – if you don’t mind a bit of a walk.

I find people here more fluent in English than they were in Beijing, and they are just as nice and willing to help. In fact, today for the first time, someone stopped while I was perusing my map and asked if I needed help. This hasn’t happened in China or in HK previously!

Aside from my cooking class, I haven’t dived into the food in a big way yet, but I have been a regular at the stand that sells bao (steamed buns). The red bean variety is divine!

So, on to days three through seven. I’m sure they’ll be equally enjoyable.

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