Sorry for the long post – I’ve been writing this for a couple of days but haven’t been able to post anything because WordPress (as well as Facebook) is blocked in China.
In the last 36 hours, I’ve walked over 5 miles around the city of Shanghai, rode the subway 8 times, used my first squat toilet, visited a museum with some beautiful Chinese art, been asked by a Chinese businessman if I was in to S&M (I think), walked down the busiest street in the world, been scammed by four people that I thought I had made fast friends with, sloppily ate several rounds of soup dumplings, visited the world’s highest observation deck, and had three nose bleeds from breathing in the horrific air pollution.
All I can say is, it was a bizarre start to my epic adventure!
Shanghai isn’t a place that I’d initially dreamed of visiting. It was meant to be a quick stopover because I’d used my miles to book an essentially free flight from LA – I figured I could use miles to get to the continent and then take advantage of all the cheap flights around to the places I really wanted to go. But somehow I talked myself into staying a couple of nights in Shanghai because I thought, why not? China seems like a fascinating place to me and I’m already there. Why not check out what one of it’s biggest city has to offer?
I arrived at my hotel on high note – the room I’d booked at the Dorsett Shanghai was incredible. For around $75 a night I’d somehow booked an amazing suite with a bedroom, separate living room, two balconies overlooking Century Park and two huge bathrooms, one with a giant Jacuzzi tub. Score! I hit the jackpot my first time using Jetsetter.
After a sub-par nights’ sleep (I blame jet lag and the malaria pills) I woke up extremely excited to hit the town. I hit up the Dorsett’s huge breakfast buffet, which mixed Western stuff (bacon! Yay!) with some Chinese items, most of which I didn’t recognize but tried anyways. I had some delicious dragon fruit and fried thingys with red bean paste inside, but I didn’t try the congee – I couldn’t figure out if it was oatmeal – or the soy soup.
I jumped on the subway and headed towards the People’s Square Station, where I planned to start wandering. The subway is very cheap ($0.97 each way!) and surprisingly easy to navigate, with everything in both Chinese and English, and is really no problem if you’re familiar with any major city subways – London, New York, etc. And the cars were packed with people, who were all strangely silent, and I noticed several people in business clothes fast asleep.
Once I got to People’s Square, there was plenty to see and I wandered through the People’s Park and the square. The area reminded me a lot of any big European city, but it being around 9am on a Wednesday morning, there weren’t a lot of people out and about. Thankfully I had downloaded this app called CityMaps2Go and in it a saved map of Shanghai. I used my phones GPS to easily navigate around and even used it tell my taxi driver where to go the night before. It is a MUST for international travelers!
At one point I made a pit stop at a public toilet, only to discover that each stall held squat toilets! I had prepared myself for these and expected to encounter them in Nepal and the remote parts of SE Asia I’m visiting, but not on my very first day in a massive city in China. I wish more than anything I could see what my face looked like when I first saw them! I wasn’t entirely sure how to use it, but I looked at the feet of the people in the stalls next to me and figured it out. I of course dropped my $5 sunglasses into it after it flushed itself and decided to leave them behind. I bought 4 pairs of cheap sunglasses because, well, I know myself.
I visited the Shanghai Museum, which was free and had some lovely Chinese sculptures, scrolls, jade work and my favorite, a selection of traditional clothing from many of Chinese ethnic minorities. It was nice, apart from the nervous, well-dressed Chinese businessman who approached me in the atrium. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him America, he responded with “Are you familiar with the game S&M?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, so I asked him to repeat it, and he said the same thing again but slower. I just looked at him oddly and said no, and he suddenly became super apologetic and excused himself. Uhhh…..WTF?
After the museum I was on my way to eat some dumplings when a group of young casually dressed Chinese students asked me to take a picture of them, which I did. We got to chatting (their English was pretty good) and they asked me where I was from, and we totally hit it off right away. They were from Nanjing, and they were visiting Shanghai on vacation. Besides them, I’d hardly spoken to anyone in the last 12 hours since I’d arrived (besides creepy S&M guy) so I was really excited that I could finally have a friendly conversation with someone. They asked me if I wanted to come a long to tea festival with them, and I did – which I found out later on was a massive scam and they’d been lying the entire time. I am considering writing an entire blog post dedicated to this elaborate scam, which really tarnished my entire experience in Shanghai, but suffice it to say that if you ever go to Shanghai, don’t trust anyone who is super friendly. I hate to say that, but after spending a couple days there I realized that the Shanghainese (in my opinion) are pretty reserved, especially towards foreigners, and after reading up on this scam extensively after the fact, it seems that anyone who is outgoing in any way is more than likely out to scam you or push you into buying something from them. Don’t worry, I was never in any physical danger, I got most of my money back and even got an apology email from one of the scammers (I know, a guilty scammer, hilarious!) but the entire thing was a harsh kick in the stomach and a hard lesson to learn on my first day!
After recovering from the emotional blow of finding out my four new Chinese friends were just unbelievably good actors (seriously, Meryl Streep could learn a thing or two watching them) I went back to the hotel for a quick recovery cup of coffee and headed back out. I wasn’t going to let the scammers or the pouring rain stop me from doing the thing I was most looking forward to – eating traditional Shanghai soup dumplings!
I made it to Yang’s Dumplings, a place I read about on a couple of travel blogs that seemed right up my alley. These dumplings have soup cooked inside them and are delicious, even if you can’t figure out how to properly eat them (guilty). They are too big to eat whole, but if you take a bite into them the soup goes everywhere. I tried watching the locals, and I think it’s some combination of piercing the dumpling, sipping out the soup, and then biting into them, but who the hell knows. And yes, I was the awkward American sitting in a place full of locals staring at them all, confused. But they were suuuuuper tasty, and they only cost 6 RMB for 4 of them (less than $1). They really hit the spot on a rainy day.
After that I did some serious walking, all the way down the pedestrian Nanjing Road, the supposed busiest street in the world. Even though it was raining, it was quite crowded. I’d heard there would be some good shopping and markets to be had here, but all I found was basically Times Square, but in Shanghai. All the typical American shit was there – Forever 21, Starbucks, Nike – you name any store found in the Beverly Center, it was there. I didn’t stop at all because I didn’t come to China to buy overpriced shit I could get at home!
I kept walking about a mile down to the Bund, which is the waterfront park that overlooks the newer area of Shanghai across the river. It was definitely an area I would have spent a lot more time if it wasn’t pouring rain, because it was a beautiful view of the Shanghai new area across the river and all the incredible skyscrapers it boasts. The Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center (aka the Giant Bottle Opener) and the to-be-completed-this-year Shanghai Tower are a pretty incredible sight, even in the rain and impenetrable smog. What is amazing to me is that area was supposedly just farmland 25 years ago, with most of the giant skyscrapers having been built in the last 15-20 years.
The next morning (after a restless night’s sleep and another hearty hotel breakfast) I set back out to that Pudong new area to visit the observation deck on the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. Today, it was supposedly sunny, according to all the weather sites I checked…..but I think this is as sunny as it gets in Shanghai, where the air pollution is so bad that some days you can’t see 10 feet in front of you. I took this picture at sunrise from my balcony. Let me know if you see the sun, because I sure as hell didn’t spot it the entire time I was in Shanghai.
At the observatory, the view was still impressive, despite the smog. The 100th floor is called the “Sky Garden” and it at the top of the “bottle opener” meaning it was all glass with a floor that was mostly glass too. What a trip! And I mean that literally….I got vertigo for the first time in my life looking down and I struggled to move steadily on the glass bits. At times I couldn’t tell if the building was swaying or if it was just in my head, but it was still an incredible experience being able to spy with my zoom lens over all the bits of the city surrounding the Pudong area. The Pearl Tower and Jin Mao Tower were awesome to see from so high up, and seeing the rows and rows of apartment buildings with colorful roofs was so interesting. I sat down with my zoom lens and spied for a bit on the city below.
After descending in the ear-popping elevator back to earth, I made my way back to the hotel, grabbed my bags and headed to the Maglev for my train ride back to the airport, and now I sit here on my way to Kuala Lumpur for a quick overnight layover before flying to Kathmandu tomorrow.
It was definitely an interesting day and a half in China. Most of the time I felt like Arthur Weasley, fascinated and enchanted with the strange customs of the people of Shanghai, wandering around with a kind of dumbfounded look on my face (if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you know what I’m talking about). I’ve resolved that going forward, I’m going to act less like a newbie and more like a consummate world traveller. I figure, fake it til you make it, right? I’m sure at the end of my two month journey, I’ll be more seasoned (and far harder to scam!) but for now, I’m taking the tough lessons I learned in Shanghai and forging ahead, still smiling and embracing what is to come.