Published: November 18th 2009October 5th 2009
China's National Day (like our Independence Day, and this year their 60th) and Mid-Autumn Festival were close enough together this year to form a mammoth nine-day nationwide vacation. On my second day in China, the secretary in the international department invited me (not because I'm special; it's common to invite all of your co-workers) to her wedding, which would be held October 5th, in the middle of the break. So my travel plans had to be local, which was fine with me as I was eager to see Shanghai. I also wanted to check out some of the nearby cities in Jiangsu Province (namely, Suzhou, Nanjing, Nantong, Yangzhou, and Wuxi), and one of the students who helped show me and the Finns around in early September already had plans to visit a friend in Wuxi, departing Changzhou the evening after the wedding I would be attending. She happily added Suzhou to her itinerary, and my October holiday plans were set.
I got a train ticket and four-night hostel stay in Shanghai on last-minute notice, a miracle considering my stay in Shanghai would be the days surrounding and including the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Many have asked
The Bund from Pudong
My two favorite buildings are just to the right of the flags
if this was one of those super-high-speed bullet trains you've heard about, and the answer is no; but 100 miles in a bit over an hour, especially with several stops, must be the fastest train I've been on so far. I arrived in the pouring rain and spent a good 10 minutes figuring out where my bus stop was, and then trying to ask the locals what the fare cost. Despite completely full hands and a zigzagging bus route stacking the odds against me, I found my hostel and checked in. I opted to walk around the neighborhood and get a bite to eat before taking my desperately-needed nap, which unsurprisingly turned out to be the wrong order, the rain finally letting up just as my soaked sneakers approached the hostel at the end of my stroll. Oh well.
There were a number of friendly people at my hostel, including two Australians, two different groups of Danes (seven in all), and three English in their 20's who were teaching in Hunan province. I latched on with the Brits (David, David, and Clare) for dinner, then out with them to a wonderful little pub with a super cool server whose
English name was Katelyn and who played pool with us, and finally to a great nightclub called Club J's, which boasted its 2009 founding on its awning -- wonderfully (though inadvertently) fitting for a hypermodernization-crazed city like Shanghai. For my remaining five days, I hung out with the Brits here and there (boy were their accents thick! I was asking them to repeat themselves more than I have to do with all the non-native speakers here!) and I hit up the top neighborhoods you'll find in a travel book:
- People's Square, including the Urban Planning Museum, which has a stunning computer-graphics flyaround of Shanghai on a screen that surrounds you 360 degrees -- check out the videos above
- East Nanjing Road, a bit like Broadway in terms of lights and shopping (but not theater)
- The Bund, which maintains most of the colonial architecture
- Pudong, across the river from the Bund, which 15 years ago was flat and largely deserted and today is jam-packed with spectacular skyscrapers. I timed my visit to the 88th-floor observation deck of the Jinmao Tower perfectly, arriving a bit before dusk with the sun still out, and staying one hour until the
Pearl TV Tower
What do you think?
sun had set and all the lights in the city had come on
- The French Concession, with narrower streets, older buildings, the Propaganda Poster Museum, and an incredible gem: a network of alleyways hidden within city blocks but jam-packed with art galleries and restaurants (and tourists -- OK, it's not so hidden)
It's not every day that something happens involving Yao Ming and salsa. After dinner the first night, we were looking for a bar in our hostel's sleepy Jing'an neighborhood when saw an incredibly tacky sportsbar-themed restaurant called Texas BBQ. In a move that I thought was a bit insulting, one of the Davids went into this bar and asked if they could point us in the direction of another bar. They didn't offer much concrete advice (I don't blame them), but we found the aforementioned pub that I loved and in fact returned to twice. Anyway, we met a Dutch guy at the pub who seemed to be a regular, and I mentioned that I was hoping I could find some salsa dancing in a cosmopolitan place like Shanghai.
"Oh yeah," the Dutch man said, "they have salsa on Friday nights at Yao Bar right
around the corner."
"Yao Bar? How did we miss that on the way here?"
"I don't know; it's pretty big. It's called Texas something. They call it Yao Bar because Yao Ming's cousins own the place. He goes there sometimes."
Not only had we insulted the place that might have salsa, we insulted the place where we might have a shot at meeting Yao Ming.
I returned Friday night at 11:30 PM only to discover that the dancing had ended. In Argentina, a quarter of the country isn't done with dinner at 11:30 PM, and the earliest of the early birds arrives at the dance club at 2! But the bartender and remaining stragglers told me that there had indeed been dancing, and that there would be again the following night. So I returned, but alas, it was only a lesson, and pretty expensive, and without very many people in attendance, so I'm still waiting for my salsa. And there was no Yao Ming, but there were lots of pictures of him and other athletes and celebrities on the walls. And there was an autographed pair of his shoes -- a sight to behold.
Jing'an's best pub
David, Katelyn, David, Clare
Shanghai, Shanghai. I coincidentally had to write a paper about Shanghai and the 2010 World Expo for my Urban Theory class junior year, long before I had any idea I'd be coming here. Still, I think my observations that follow are colored far more by what I saw during my five days than the scholarly journal articles I labored through in the library basement two years ago.
Shanghai is like New York but built yesterday and on hypermodernization steroids. It is trying to become (with remarkable success so far) a city of global status as elite as New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris, and is trying to do so as fast as possible. Pudong is its manufactured (as opposed to organic) counterpart of NYC's financial district, growing from shrubs to skyline at pace far beyond that of Battery Park City's. Shanghai is trying to top the feats of the metropolitan giants that came before it, but it is not learning enough from the mistakes of other cities (especially the other recently-emerged third-world megacities). It's a city of extremes: awe-inspiring buildings (I love the Jinmao Tower and several smaller skyscrapers) right next to hideous ones (namely, the Pearl TV Tower),
and unimaginable wealth being built and served by unimaginable poverty, which often resides practically next door. The upcoming Expo has exacerbated Shanghai's ethos of rapid development at any cost.
As for me, my long-awaited first date with Shanghai was a great experience, and I'm hoping to return many times to get better acquainted. Though it's twice the size of New York in terms of population, it didn't take me too long to feel pretty well oriented. Don't get me wrong: my map was, as usual, by best friend. But this was my first time ever in a place bigger than my hometown* and I did just fine, eager to come back for more.
*I did spend three days in Mexico City during my summer studying in Oaxaca, but I had a preplanned daytime tour itinerary, a 1 AM curfew, and a free-roaming radius of just five blocks.
There are more photos below