Sizzling, Spectacular Shanghai - December, 2016

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December 15th 2016
Published: December 20th 2016
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Sizzling and Spectacular Shanghai –

December, 2016

Mainland China has always beckoned to me, and even though I have visited Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan previously, I consider them to be just tasty appetizers compared to the dazzling entrées that China offers. When the Chinese government decided to expand their visa-free transit policy for a few specific locations back in January, it was a sign…..destiny was knocking on my travel door….Shanghai here I come!

For anyone also considering Shanghai as a destination, this newly-expanded policy is a godsend, but of course there are restrictions which apply (isn’t there always a dark side?) Currently, travel to Shanghai is allowed for a layover of up to 144 hours (6 days in total, as the clock begins counting down at 12:01am the morning after airport arrival). The caveat here is that onward travel has to be to a third country and not returning to the origination point, evidenced by an existing airline ticket and/or travel itinerary. Also travel is restricted to the greater Shanghai region, so no side trips to Beijing or Chengdu, for example. As I intend to spend the entire 6 days exploring this most European of all Chinese cities, I qualify for this.

Only two flight segments for my transpacific journey today, but still that god-awful, zero dark thirty alarm clock bell pulls me from a deep sleep – there needs be a law against flights departing prior to 8am from Las Vegas – this 6am crap is getting old. My royal blue trusty steed (aka Super Shuttle) arrives at 4am and within an hour, I’m drinking Starbucks at the airport café, in a vain attempt to keep my eyelids open.

The standard 3-cup coffee/Baileys flight schedule applies once again, and just after 7am I’m curled up in a comfy lounge chair in the Los Angeles Delta Sky Lounge, where I have a 4-hour layover before boarding. 15+ hours trapped inside a metal tube hurtling across the Pacific Ocean is in my immediate future – oh joy – but there’s always the lie flat beds and flying waitresses to ease my discomfort. And let’s not forget the endless alcohol being poured by the aforesaid FWs….please let there be champagne onboard today – I feel like a couple of Mimosas to get this trip off with a bang.

Overall a great flight, but then Delta usually obliges with them on a regular basis. The onboard service was delightful and I even managed to snooze a little under the feather duvet. Got to catch up on the new movie releases while sipping champagne….I can get used to this. Delta is really stepping up their game these days. For the first time ever, I was offered a lounge suit for the long flight…, not the god-awful “lounge lizard” polyester nightmares of the 1970’s, but a light grey flannel set of sweat jacket and pants, perfect for sleeping in. The three scheduled meal services were probably overall the best food I have ever eaten onboard in the past few years and by the time we touched down, I was feeling pretty good all things considered.

Customs and Immigration in China is really different, especially for this new “visa-free transit policy” procedure. When I handed over my passport and copy of travel itinerary, I was told to take a seat in the Arrivals Hall while my information was verified. I have no idea if this meant they were validating my hotel reservations, my onward flight to the required third country, and/or whether I was on a terrorist watch list somewhere, but it took 50 minutes before the officer returned and finally affixed a paper visa into my passport, along with a printed voucher sternly instructing me not to venture beyond the confines of the city of Shanghai and to ensure I depart the country within the next 144 hours. I was starting to think I would be deported before I ever set foot outside the airport! But all’s well that ends well and once I claimed my bag from the luggage carousel, I walked out into the terminal and there was my driver waving my name sign over his head.

I had decided a few weeks ago, I wanted to try something different in the way of airport transportation on this trip – Shanghai has exactly what I’m looking for: the high speed Maglev train. It’s the world’s fastest commercially-operating train, with a top speed of 268 mph. It does the 22-mile journey from the airport to the city center in 7 minutes – talk about blowing back my wig! Ton (my guide and driver) grabbed my bag and we walked about 600 yards across the international terminal to the Maglev Train Station which is located inside Shanghai’s vast PuDong International Airport. I had a window seat and watched the suburbs give way to the exotic city center while silently speeding above the magnetic rails – so smooth, no noise, no vibration of any kind – I loved it. Then a short walk across the street where a private car waited to take me a few blocks to my hotel. I was checking in by 9pm – just 2 hours after I had landed in China.

The Doubletree Hotel in the PuDong neighborhood will be my host for the next week. Set in the heart of Shanghai’s business district, it’s ideally located just minutes from the Shanghai Stock Exchange and New International Exposition Center. It’s an easy walk to attractions such as Century Park, Oriental Pearl Tower and the Bund. As usual I was upgraded to the executive level, and when I opened the door to my suite, I about fell over. It’s a self-contained one bedroom apartment with separate fully-equipped kitchen, guest bathroom off the large living room, dining area, a wonderful bedroom and one of the biggest bathrooms I have ever seen – I could hold a dance in here. And if my assigned suite is fabulous, just wait until you see the bath tub….how’s this for a view? I just might soak in here for a couple of days. I have ceiling to floor glass walls in all rooms (it’s a three-sided corner location) on the 39th floor and the city is spread out at my feet – the views are to die for.

The hotel lobby is an oasis of tranquility (not to mention the gigantic Christmas tree standing at least 40’ soaring into the vaulted atrium)….I can see myself relaxing here during the afternoons, enjoying a good book and sipping jasmine tea. This is shaping up to be one hell of a great stay in China!

I awoke to my first morning in China, with a temperature of 34f and enough air pollution to choke a horse. Not on the scale of India’s, but definitely running a close second. According to the Shanghai Daily, pollution levels should drop in the midafternoon – hopefully so, I want to take some photos from my windows but right now, it’s just a misty blur blotting out most of the scenery.

A little history lesson:

Shanghai is home to one of the richest collections of art deco architecture in the world. A mix of western influences and 'Chinese deco', the city's signature style saw its heyday in the 1930s and gives insight into the cultural movements of the era. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the city embraced the mix of east and west in every aspect, from fashion to architecture. There were large numbers of westerners living in the city, particularly British, American and French, whose nations had established official diplomatic concessions in Shanghai.

While foreign architects dominated the scene at the time, it was Chinese architecture graduates returning from study abroad programs who developed the Chinese deco style, incorporating upturned eaves and traditional Chinese motifs into their designs. A number of their buildings were situated along the Bund, a riverfront international settlement that still contains Shanghai’s most famous and best preserved collection of colonial architecture from this era. Chinese deco could even be seen in Shanghai’s fashions of the period – from the ladies' glamorously wavy hairstyles to the high slits in their qipao (fitted dresses often made of silk), which allowed more movement for swing and Charleston dancing.

An icon of Shanghai, the Bund has served as a cinematic backdrop in films from the Bond movie Skyfall , to Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard’s auto-biographical novel of the same name, which was set in Shanghai around this era. The stretch of colonial buildings on the west bank is peppered with art deco motifs. These were the last to be completed here before the Republic of China was established in 1949, signaling the end of colonial influence in China.

A number of Shanghai's most iconic art deco structures are the legacy of Sir Victor Sassoon. An influential businessman from a Baghdadi Jewish family, Sassoon brought his family’s business empire from Mumbai to Shanghai in the 1920s and subsequently went on to build many of the city's art deco buildings.

From the architectural landmarks lining the Bund and the rickety charm of Old Town, to the leafy backstreets of the former French Concession, Shanghai is a city that just begs for wandering, and eating. Nothing beats slurping a bowl of hand-pulled noodles or biting into soupy dumplings costing just pennies, and then splurging on cocktails and fusion fare, gazing out from a rooftop bar on the Bund over the Huangpu River, to Pudong’s space-age night scene. Shanghai's rollercoaster back story is as decadent as it is debauched, but these days there is a palpable energy and confidence that this is a city on the rise…yet again.

Bejing often hogs the limelight as China’s cultural nexus, but for what is essentially a town of wheelers and dealers, Shanghai is surprisingly creative. Many art galleries are exciting, offering a window onto contemporary Chinese concerns, while nightlife options have exploded. Acrobatics shows are always a favorite and you might grab the chance to catch some Chinese opera. Shanghai’s music and club scene is a vibrant place: from unpretentious jazz and indie venues, to all-night hip-hop and electro dance parties, the city swings with the best of them.

The city is home to the world's second-tallest tower and a host of other neck-craning colossi. But it's not all sky-scraping razzmatazz. Beyond the crisply cool veneer of the modern city typified by Pudong, you can lift the lid to a treasure chest of architectural styles. The city's period of greatest cosmopolitan excess – the 1920s and 1930s – left the city with pristine examples of art deco buildings, most of which survived the 20th-century vicissitudes assailing Shanghai. And there's more: from Jesuit cathedrals, Jewish synagogues and Buddhist temples to home-grown housing, Shanghai’s architectural heritage is like nowhere else.

Bearing in mind that Chinese shoppers constitute up to 47% of the global luxury-goods market, shopping is rarely done in half-measures here. Retail therapy is one way of spending new money and the Shanghainese aren't called little capitalists by the rest of the country for nothing, especially at the luxury end of things. But it's not all Prada, Gucci and Burberry. There are pop-up boutiques, bustling markets, cool vintage shops and young designer outlets. Beyond clothing you're also spoiled for choice, whether you're in the market for antiques, ceramics, art, and Tibetan jewelry…whatever is on your shopping list.

Thirty years ago, Shanghai’s dour restaurant scene was all tin trays and scowling waiting staff, with international food confined to the dining rooms of exclusive hotels. Today, the mouth-watering restaurant scene is varied, exciting and up-to-the-minute, and the city will be getting its own Michelin dining guide in 2017 – proving just how far the city has come. Food is the hub of Chinese social life. It’s over a meal that people catch up with friends, celebrate and clinch business deals. Some of my best memories of this city will be culinary, so I’m doing as the Shanghainese do and making a meal of it, and then some!

Following my usual routine when arriving in a new city, day one is spent quietly in and around the hotel getting my bearings, researching all the best sightseeing locales and catching up on much-needed sleep, following my 2-day transit across the globe. After breakfast and armed with a bundle of tourist literature compliments of the concierge desk, I curl up on the living room couch, switch on CNN International and prepare to plan my next few days of sightseeing in this incredible city. Looking out over the landscape, I can see the fog is lifting somewhat – bodes well for later in the day, when I just might decide to venture outdoors and explore the immediate surroundings.

Had a relaxing and productive first day at the Doubletree. By 1pm I had completed my sightseeing research and found out that I could use the City Sightseeing HOHO (hop on/hop off) bus at a fraction of the cost of the Big Bus HOHO service I generally use: $7.50 vs. $45.00 and both companies take basically the same routes around the city. Being the super cheap person I am, my wallet was singing my praises over this! Also got all the goodie info on Shanghai’s famous metro system (touted as one of the best in the world), so tomorrow morning after breakfast, I will sally forth to conquer this extensive metro with a 3-day unlimited use prepaid card – I can’t wait. The hotel also has an ATM machine which dispenses Chinese yuan, currently exchanging at 6.95 RMB against the $ Dollar. It’s a fairly expensive city but I always find the cheap stuff…’s hardwired as part of my DNA.

This Doubletree is different in yet another way: it has its Hilton Honors elite members stay in a separate wing with the Executive Lounge on the ground floor. It’s a very large restaurant/lounge combination with one wall entirely built of glass overlooking a wooden walkway, very reminiscent of the famous Atlantic City boardwalk. This walkway surrounds a beautiful Zen garden, immaculately maintained by an army of dedicated gardeners and as you can imagine, it evokes a calming and peaceful response just sitting by the windows and gazing out. Beyond the Zen garden is an array of condo residence buildings, each at least 40 to 50 stories tall, currently under construction. Evening cocktails begin at 5pm until 8pm and I’m anticipating a lovely evening here when all the garden lights come on.

Just returned from my first, and definitely not my last, experience in the lounge where I got to meet the assistant manager Nick Yang, Nick walked me thru the long buffet tables set up for dinner and the choices were very impressive. Pork and vegetable dim sum, baked salmon in a light apricot sauce, salads, dumplings, soups, rice and noodles by the boatload, and don’t get me started on the dessert table – fabulous. When I saw a massive bowl with mounds of chilled cooked shrimp on ice, I knew where I would be eating every night I’m in Shanghai……what a dinner I had. Nick kept my glass wine topped off with a delicious Riesling which I sipped while watching the lights come on around the hotel. Back in my room a little after 6pm full darkness had fallen, and the city transformed into a magical kingdom of colored sparkling lights set against the ink black sky, as far as the eye could see.Housekeeping had been in to change towels and turn down the bed, leaving a chocolate mint on my pillow…..what a perfect end to my first day in mainland China.

After breakfast the next morning, I was out of the hotel before 9am and found the nearest Metro station about 3 blocks away. A cool and sunny morning around 48f but at least the pollution levels were much lower than the previous couple of days. Being a Sunday morning the station was relatively empty, but the ticket booth was open and I bought my 3-day unlimited travel pass for 45 RMB ($6.50). Shanghai’s metro system consists of 16 different lines covering the entire city and outskirts, but the most popular routes which run thru the downtown tourist area, are #2 and #9 – I’m starting on route #6 and will transfer to #2, which will bring me to the most visible of the city’s monuments: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. At a height of 1,545’ it’s the tallest in Asia and the 3rd tallest in the world. The designer arranged 11 spheres in a straight line, hanging like a string of pearls from the blue sky to a carpet of green lawn, with two colossal ruby-like spheres held high on it. Double-stacked elevators traveling at 23’ per second, each capable of carrying 50 passengers, are unique in China. It sits right on the waterfront directly across the Huangpu River from the Bund, and will be my orienting marker while I explore this exotic city over the coming days.

I saw the City Sightseeing buses across the road from the tower, so after purchasing my 2-day unlimited use pass for buses and ferries, which also included a 1-way trip thru the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (more on this place later), I was ready to begin. Of course, I immediately went up to the open-air top deck of the tour bus and had the place to myself until a couple more tourists boarded, just before the bus began the short trip to the ferry terminal. This HOHO bus company runs 4 different routes around the city, overlapping in some areas, but each centering on a different section of Shanghai. They all operate on the opposite of the river, so first I had to board a ferry for the 10-minute ride to the Bund terminal.

While waiting for the ferry to arrive, I watched the comings and goings of the river traffic – very busy with an assortment of water taxis, garbage scows and even empty oil tankers cruising along the river which splits Shanghai in two. Once on the opposite side, I had to find the nearest tourist bus stop but wasn’t having much success. A very young Chinese cop saw me with map in hand and came over to assist. What a sweetie – he didn’t speak a word of English but obviously recognized the map I was holding and promptly escorted me about 300 yards to the stop. How cool is that? I get a personal escort from the local constabulary! LOL

First bus available was on the yellow route which would mainly cover the waterfront and two of the main suspension bridges spanning the Huangpu - the entire circuit took more than 90 minutes to complete, with a total of 13 stops. This city is such a contradiction – soaring 21st century glass edifices dedicated to titans of industry, sitting right next to back alley shanties which had to be at least 70 to 90 years old. The amount of new construction is amazing, cranes dot the skylight in every direction – there must have been massive demolition in the recent past to account for the number of new buildings going up like mushrooms.

A couple of the stops really stood out for me. First was the City God Temple and Yuyuan Garden, an area covering approximately 7 city blocks, and you would swear you had stepped back a 100 years in time. Each building is in the typical Chinese fashion with red lanterns hanging from the roof corners. People packed the street and vendors cooked noodles right on the sidewalk. A cacophony of noise filled the area with blaring radios, jabbering vendors hawking their wares - all in competition with one another. Second was the Mercedes Benz Arena nearby….it is a massive alien-looking space ship designed building which seats 18,000 people and it hosted the opening ceremony of Expo 2010. Many major stars such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, the Beach Boys and Jennifer Lopez have performed here.

Back at the Bund bus stop, I hopped on the next bus departing which happened to be the purple route. This circuit would take me in the opposite direction which also ran along the waterfront, passing a number of cruise ship terminals and the Xiahai Temple. This route was another 90-minute circuit before arriving back at the Bund station. It was now midafternoon and as these tour buses quit at 4pm during the winter season, I knew I wouldn’t have enough time for the remaining two routes – those will have to wait until tomorrow.

So, to finish off my first full day of sightseeing, I decided to use the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel as my way back to the opposite river bank to catch my metro ride back to the hotel. What an experience this was! It has a total length of 2,175’ from the Customs House on the Bund, under the river, to the Oriental Pearl Tower. Modern high-tech is used on the tunnel’s walls designed to provide passengers with background music and photography, patterns and views of people, history, culture, science and technology combined with natural scenery of China. The non-driver traction compartments are completely transparent glass enclosures which slowly move thru this incredible wonderland, while 6 soundtrack and HD stereo systems match the changing views – it makes you part of the entire scene. I adjusted my Nikon camera to night landscape mode – see the rest of my incredible photos on my blog site – they are simply amazing!

Back at the metro station, I rode the two trains to Lancun Road Station and by 4:30pm, I was at the Doubletree Hotel, more than ready for a cold shower and a couple of gallons of cold water. What an incredible day this has been….can’t wait to download the photos from today’s explorations. Now I will enjoy another early dinner in the executive lounge and relax with a couple of glasses of chilled white wine.

Day 2 to enjoy the last two bus routes (green and red) on the far side of the river. This means another ferry ride across the Huangpu but at least this time, I won’t need a police escort to find the bus stop! Breakfast first in the lounge and I’m out of the hotel by 10am. I decided to wait a little longer this morning as I wanted to ensure I missed the Monday morning rush hour which, in a city of 24 million plus people, can be total chaos.

First the red route, which really should be called the Shoppers Paradise Express as it runs thru the area of Shanghai where every famous designer name has a store, from Gucci to Hermes to Tiffany to Vera Wang to Cartier – they are all represented here on Middle Huaihai Road. One entire city block is known as the Nanjing Pedestrian Street and the teeming mass of humanity is like a rolling sea….don’t these people have jobs to go to? Tea houses and coffee bars are on every street corner; video arcades beckon with flashing neon lights and loud hip hop recordings; local street musicians add to this visual and audio chaos….what a hoot! I can see why this particular part of the city is so popular.

Finally the green route, the shortest of the four at just 45 minutes. This takes me to the Shanghai Museum, Madame Tussaurd’s and my final stop at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center which is an event in itself. Fabulous architecture with flowing water steps and the entire history of the city laid out inside. You walk thru authentic models of buildings and streets reaching back hundreds of years…I spent a couple of hours in here, fascinated by everything I saw. Before taking the ferry back across the river, I simply had to try some street vendor noodles so stopping at the nearest one, I pointed at a picture on the side of his cart and he began building my meal. First a teaspoon of 4 different spices and chilies, before dumping a mound of noodles into the bowl and topped it with a ladle of steaming hot chicken broth….all for 3 RMB (about .45c) complete with chop sticks. I found an empty bench overlooking the river and while I slurped noodles and broth, I had the most incredible waterfront view of the opposite bank. Can life get any better than this? I think not.

I’m riding the metro trains like a native now….hopping from one to the other without checking the reference maps – they really are the way to go and so cheap. The stations are clean and well sign-posted, with everything in both Chinese and English. As each station has multiple exits, it really helps that they list the surrounding points of interest for each, this way you get where you plan to go in minimal time. Each train has the upcoming station announced in both languages with a corresponding wall map, lighting up the individual stations as they approach – you really can’t get lost in here. Why anyone would ever use a taxi in Shanghai beats me – they have a superior metro system right under their feet.

My last two days in mainland China will be spent riding the metro to other points of interest I’ve seen on the map. One especially captures my imagination: the Lotus Super Center which is advertised as “one stop shopping”, offering a large assortment of quality merchandise at low prices. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, electronics and sports equipment – everything from soup to nuts by the sound of it. Should be a blast and gives me the opportunity to pick up some bargains hopefully, and use up the remainder of my Chinese currency.

My time here is coming to a close and it’s time to begin packing my bag for the next stop on my southeast Asia journey. Shanghai has more than met my expectations and I have certainly had a marvelous time here. For anyone reading this with a desire to see China – just go – Shanghai is a kick and well worth a visit. This visa-free transit policy makes it so easy to enter the country and there is a plethora of things to see and do, you certainly won’t ever be bored!

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