Shanghai and Hangzhou
Even after traveling throughout Asia for three months, neither Jeremy or I were prepared for the culture shock we had once we arrived in China. First of all, we didn’t realize how much we've come to rely on Google (for mail, searches, maps, translating, etc) until we didn't have access to it. A loss of Google combined with no Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat made us feel really isolated and far from home. In addition, the people of Shanghai weren't the warmest or most welcoming and on our first day we only met one Chinese person that spoke English. The Internet in our Air BnB wasn't strong enough to connect to our VPN which would have given us access to the rest of the world and we both had mini panic sessions about booking our next flights/buses, signing up for health insurance for our arrival home, and speaking with our friends and families. Luckily over the course of our time in China our views of the country and its people changed for the better as we traveled to different cities and had access to better wifi!
Our flight from Hong Kong was delayed by about five hours and we didn't end up getting to our Air BnB until close to midnight. We were pleasantly surprised though that we had an entire studio loft apartment to ourselves in a trendy neighborhood of the French Concession, an area in Shanghai previously controlled by the French from 1849 until 1943. After spending three nights in our box in the Mirador we felt like we were living like kings!
After an amazing night’s sleep, we took off to explore Shanghai's main touristy area, People's Square and the pedestrian street Nanjing road to the Bund overlooking Shanghai's skyline. For the majority of the time we've been in China the sky has been cloudy, rainy and slightly smoggy, but for our first full day in Shanghai we had clear skies full of sun which led to some great photos of the skyline.
We also got to see a very traditional Chinese event at People's Park......we arrived to throngs and throngs of men and women, typically in their mid-50s, each with a piece of paper taped to an unfurled umbrella. We were very confused to what might be happening and deduced it was a market of some kind but we had no idea what people were selling since there were no goods in sight. We came across a European man with a Chinese woman who explained to us that this was the Shanghai marriage market! Parents who are trying to marry off their children write a description of them that usually includes their age, where they were born, occupation, height, where they live now, and education. Then they browse around other people's descriptions and speak with other parents to try and make a match for their children.
The woman told us that parents have a very big influence in marriage in the Chinese culture and even if a child is living abroad, if the parents say they have found a marriage match for them they usually come home to obey their parents. It was very different and interesting than how things work in the US, but Jeremy pointed out that it's really not much different than if parents had control of their kids Match.com or JDate profile!
Before heading down Najing road toward the Bund we stopped at one of Shanghai’s famous food streets, South Yan'nan where we happened upon a great little restaurant with a three course menu, soup, chicken and noodles for about $4. We just pointed at what other diners had and hoped it was what we wanted since none of the servers spoke English. In the end we got lucky as the food was filling, cheap and quite tasty!
Nanjing road is filled with all sorts of touristy stores, many from American companies, and lots of snack and souvenir stalls. Even amongst stores like Forever 21 and H&M our culture shock continued as we witnessed a parent lift their two-year-old child up so they could pee into a trash can in the middle of the super crowded public space!
At the end of Nanjing Road we arrived at the Bund area where the buildings are a clear display of the old and new that is life in Shanghai. On one side of the river the buildings reminded me of publisher’s row on South Michigan avenue in Chicago, and the other side of the river had funky looking skyscrapers making you think you’re somewhere in the future. It was a very interesting contrast of architecture to say the least!
The next day after desperately trying to get our VPN to work, we headed to the old part of Shanghai filled with traditional Chinese architecture, some beautiful gardens, and a great snack area. We decided to spend the money to explore Yuan Gardens which is filled with lots of beautiful corridors, pagodas and a pond filled with koi.
We also went to a famous steamed bun restaurant we found on a food and travel blog. We tried our first big soup dumpling filled with pork and crab roe soup that you sipped with a straw! And while the food was good, it wasn't any better than some of the street baos we've had throughout the course of our China trip so far, but we didn't know that at the time.
In the afternoon we took a drizzly stroll through Fuxing Park in the French Concession. Because it was raining we practically had it to ourselves (a rarity in China) and it had some beautiful gardens and we observed a bunch of older men playing cards and checkers under a pavilion. We strolled up several different tree-lined streets filled with hipstery coffee and beer shops and little boutiques. It was very relaxing to wander through a long strip of beautiful, huge homes in the neighborhood called the Sinan Mansions, and we tried a variety of Chinese sweet breads, cookies and snacks.
Tianzifang was our next stop on our French Concession tour and is known for their great food options, desserts and a lot of different souvenir shops selling jewelry, homemade scarves, Chinese traditional craft objects and more.
We ended up finding a place that had a beer and pizza deal and had an early dinner before heading back to our Air BnB to make use of the hosts Chinese Apple TV. Jeremy found a few American shows including one of his old faves, Community, and it was nice to binge some TV on a couch!
The next morning we had our first foray into self-touring Chinese style. Let me explain, most people (Chinese and foreign tourists) opt for either signing up for a group or private tour in order to see sights and small towns outside of the big metropolitan cities. But being seasoned travelers we instead opted for using public transportation in order to get to Zhujiajiao, an ancient Chinese water town known as the Venice of Shanghai.
All in all, it just required a little bit of extra research and making sure we had questions and directions written down in Chinese in case we got lost. So after taking a subway to a bus stop, we found the correct bus by matching up the Chinese characters on our phones and the bus stop and boarded for our one-hour ride. The bus was actually air conditioned and very comfortable, and I can imagine that a tourist bus probably wouldn't have been much nicer and we avoided all the extra stops they usually take like making you spend time at jewelry stores and souvenir shops.
Of course as soon as we arrived it started to pour down rain and we got suckered into taking a rickshaw to the main canal area instead of just walking ourselves. Oh well, it ended up being pretty cheap and was actually really nice not to have to navigate our way there trying to hold onto an umbrella and our phone out at the same time. The canal area was pretty beautiful even with all the fog/smog and lined with cobblestone alleys filled with stalls selling traditional Chinese street food like pig’s feet, dumplings, sweet and savory crackers and more. There were a ton of souvenir shops and restaurants, along with several art galleries and gardens that you could explore. We ended up spending time at a really cool watercolor gallery with a combination of both Chinese and foreign artists.
The next morning we were off to Hangzhou, a smaller city (in Chinese terms) about an hour train ride from Shanghai. I hadn’t heard of Hangzhou before leaving for our trip, but one of the people I used to work with at IFT is from there and recommended we take a day trip. Hangzhou is known for its famous West Lake, a very large lake with many different pagodas and attractions surrounding it. We didn’t realize how large it actually was until we started walking and after two hours came to the very first pagoda we had on our list to visit.
Leifeng Pagoda is a five-story tower with eight different sides overlooking West Lake and Hangzhou. It was originally constructed in 975, but collapsed in 1924 and was rebuilt in 2002, although many original parts still remain. The pagoda is very ornately decorated and had a lot of interesting historical facts about it throughout the floors like a museum. The view from the top was pretty amazing as well.
In the evening we planned to just wander down the food-filled walking street near our hostel, but on a whim decided to check out the other direction first. We were so glad that we did because we wandered upon our first Chinese night market with a ton of street food vendors. Prices were very affordable and everything was made to order ensuring that the food was super fresh and hot when it came out. We got a feast of crab, spicy crawfish, and delicious Dan Dan noodles along with a tower of beer. Then later in the evening after some browsing through the market we decided to have another beer along with some meat and seafood kebobs that you basically shopped for and put in a basket and then gave it to the chef to grill and then bring to your table.
Hangzhou in general was a great experience and really started to change how we thought about China. The people there were much friendlier than Shanghai, the food was cheap and tasty, and the beauty of West Lake was just what we’d been looking for after the two big cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The next morning we’d received a message that my IFT friend had sent two of his food science students to meet us for coffee before we departed, bringing with some high quality Chinese tea as a gift for us! We had a nice time chatting with them before they escorted us to the train station.
That evening in Shanghai we walked around a different area of the French Concession where we we had a new apartment and ended up getting a delicious Italian dinner. One of the dishes we ordered was a penne pasta with a wasabi cream sauce and smoked salmon, one of the most unique pastas I’ve ever tried and tasted a lot like bagels and lox with cream cheese, something I’ve been jonesing for since we left.
Although Shanghai was very much a Chinese city, it was so large and quite Westernized it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. People there just weren’t as friendly as they were in Hangzhou, or as we would soon learn, in Beijing or Xi’An as well. We were still glad we ended up penciling in a few days for Shanghai, because we would have regretted missing things like Shanghai’s skyline, the French Concession area, Hangzhou and the water town Zhujiajiao.