Next stop: The Pearl of the Orient

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April 4th 2016
Published: April 5th 2016
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Nihao! It’s been only 16 hours since landing in Shanghai and I’ve already seen and eaten so much – I can’t believe I have an entire week ahead of me!

My morning in Chicago was a blur to say the least – had a wee bit too much fun at Kasia’s surprise 30th so after waking up it was basically a scramble to make sure I had everything, shower, and run out the door. O’Hare wasn’t bad on a Sunday morning, and the check-in process wasn’t anything out of the ordinary apart from having my visa checked a couple of times. Since I was flying from Chicago I had 2 hours of flight time cut off from what it would have been from Boston – any little bit helps when you’re flying for over 14 hours. The plane was meh – I was lucky enough to have an open seat next to me, but 'Economy Plus' was still pretty miserable, though. The wifi was crap, the outlet was illuminated but didn't actually charge my devices, there were no individual TV screens, and they ran out of for-purchase snacks to add to the experience. I nonetheless survived and manage to doze in and out between doing some work and failing at learning rudimentary Mandarin.

The Pudong airport experience wasn't too bad, and within half an hour I got through customs, had my luggage in hand, and managed to find my driver holding up a sign with my name amidst 500 others doing the same thing. My coworker Monica, based in the Shanghai office, volunteered to meet me once I got to my hotel and take me around the city, so I literally hit the ground running (read: exhausted and unshowered). The trip from the airport to the Intercontinental Pudong was maybe 30 minutes, and while I clearly wasn't in Kansas anymore I can't say it really was hitting me that I was in China. It obviously isn't unlike a massive Chinatown, so that probably added to the feeling of uncertainty haha. The weather was sunny and in the 60s, so at least that inspired me to not go into a coma at the hotel, but my room was gorgeous and I was looking forward to staying there for a week. Highlights include a pillow menu with chrysanthemum-scented and "medical" jade pillows, among others, and a shower with remote-control blinds so anyone in the room can watch me while I shower when I choose!

Anyway, at 3:45 I headed to the lobby (after a brief scare with me thinking I lost my wallet) to meet Monica and we grabbed an uber to Nanshi, the old part of the city. Monica is from Qingdao, a coastal city to the northeast and home of Tsingtao beer), but she's lived in Shanghai for the past year and a half and knows her way around the city. Unlike other ancient cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, Shanghai didn't rise to prominence until the 19th century (think opium and foreign concessions) so the historic center is nowhere near as ample as other cities'. Still, remnants of 16th century city wall are still standing and the Yu/Yuyuan Garden complex, our main place to visit, was first built in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty. As it was a national holiday and 4 in the afternoon, the scene was a bit of a shitshow, with Chinese and foreign tourists everywhere. The garden itself is within what would become the Yuyuan Tourist Mart, a giant complex of shops and restaurants, so that added to the chaos.

Our first stop was the Temple of the City God, which dates to 1403 or earlier, a place of worship dedicated to the spirits/protectors of the city. There are various rooms dedicated to different deities, some known to give good fortune, others to bless you with fertility, etc. I lit some incense and followed what others were doing and stuck it in this big ash-filled thing. Fingers crossed I become pregnant as a result. Continuing through we purchased tickets to the actual garden which was much more tranquil and manageable than outside the walls. At this point I felt like I was in Epcot, so I guess props to Disney for accurately depicting Chinese architecture and gardens. The gardens were about 5 acres and various sections were separated by really cool tiled "dragon walls", and ponds with giant goldfish and giant jade rocks abounded. After maybe 30 minutes we'd had our fill and headed back out into the madness to grab some street food to nibble on.

There are still about 500 things I still need to eat while I'm here, but I started out with a dish of deep-fried fermented tofu known as chòu dòufu of "stinky tofu" - apparently it's an acquired taste but I didn't find it to be too out-of-the-ordinary. Next was a variation of the famed Shanghainese xiaolongbao, a steamed bun (tangbao) filled with soup and in this case what seemed to be minced pork. They serve it with a straw stuck into it so you can suck out the soup, then eat the bun. Delicious! I see many more of these in my future.

Satisfied with the snacks we then took an uber back toward the Huangpu river waterfront to stroll along the Bund. "Bund" means embankment and refers to the former 19th-20th century Shanghai International Settlement which runs along the western bank of the river facing the modern skyscrapers of Pudong. The architecture is obviously European with most of buildings former banks and trading houses of France, the UK, USA, etc. from the concession era. They later became home to China's major banks but eventually fell into disuse with the Communist takeover. Nowadays many of the hotels and other buildings have returned to their former use and the thoroughfare is a major tourist destination, especially given the striking views of Pudong to the East. Shanghai's newest skyscraper, the Shanghai Center Tower, completed just last year, dominates the skyline across the water. It is in fact the tallest building in the country and the second tallest in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Also of note is the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower with its flashing LED lights. As dusk fell the area became more and more filled with people waiting to see the entire city lit up on both sides, and at that point we headed further into the city for dinner.

I wasn't expecting to be taken out to a full meal after the street food, but I certainly wasn't going to complain. After a 5-or-so minute uber ride we arrived at Shanghai No. 1 Restaurant - quite the original name. After going up an elevator we entered into a big dining room reminiscent of dim sum places like China Pearl and Emperor Garden. As I was the only non-Chinese in sight it seemed like she'd picked a solid, authentic place known for Shanghainese cuisine. As is customary in China, Monica ordered for the table and we were to split a number of dishes. As I'd find elsewhere, a great picture menu with English translations was provided, so I technically could have ordered via the old pointer finger technique, but I was happy to go with whatever she wanted. To start were the cold dishes - a chrysanthemum salad with a soy-based dressing, soybeans soaked in some kind of broth, and pieces of sweet, smoked carp. Next came the hot dishes, starting with panfried sweet, red pork belly served in an earthenware pot type thing - super gelatinous but not overly oily or fatty. Next was a plate of assorted sliced pig parts - ears, feet, and intestines served over peanuts. This wasn't the most delicious assortment of pork I'd ever eaten, but it was definitely good and not too fatty or cartilagey as I'd expected. I'm of course also a sucker for weird dishes. Lastly was a plate of shrimp served with red hot pepper, ginko nuts, and an unknown green vegetable. I was pretty full by this point, and I was definitely feeling the fact that I was half-way across the world on very little sleep, but then came a big pot of soup that Monica forgot she'd ordered. In the milky-looking soup were mushrooms and clear, glutenous noodle blocks, but also a giant whole carp. The soup was very mild, but the fish and mushrooms added nice flavor and were a nice end to the meal.

Completely satisfied with both my meal and the afternoon and evening as a hole, I finally retreated back to my hotel where I stayed up for a bit more doing e-mail. One day down, 5 more to go!

Additional photos below
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5th April 2016

Do you think you are enough?
Even I'm impressed with the amount of food you consumed on your first day, not to mention the ground you covered. I always recommend hitting wherever I land hard jet lag be damned, when traveling internationally. You are a poster child for this approach. Pictures are great. As always love your meal descriptions. Monica's done a wonderful job introducing you to Shanghai.
5th April 2016

Academy Award
You deserve a "Best Actor" award! You may have felt like a zombie on your first day, but you look just fabulous! Thanks for the first look at China!

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