When my friend Polly messaged me to say she was moving to China to study for a year and would I like to visit, I started researching flights possibly before she even bought her own.
We planned to meet up during China’s New Year Spring Festival in 2014, when my friend would have 2 weeks off, along with the rest of the Chinese population. We arranged to meet in Shanghai, then travel by train and plane across a few cities, finishing up in Beijing for New Years Eve.
But first things first, I had to get a visa and luckily for me, I was living in Salford at the time, so it was a short tram ride to the Manchester Chinese Visa Service where after a nervous wait, clutching all my evidence, I was issued with my visa.
I landed in Shanghai at a ridiculously early hour, after travelling via Dubai, and was greeted by my friend who had landed an hour earlier than me from Wuhan (yes that Wuhan) where she was living.
After dumping our bags at Shanghai Blue Mountain Hostel we headed straight to the waterfront, known as The Bund.
The Bund is a one mile stretch of land alongside the Huangpu River, full of historical houses all in varying styles of architecture, showcasing just how important and influential Shanghai’s old waterfront used to be. You can spot Gothic, Renaissance, and Art Deco buildings all along here, with important trading houses and banks from all across the globe making the Bund their home. This established Shanghai as a major financial hub in Asia from as early as the 1860’s. Impressive buildings we spotted included the Customs house which has it’s own version of Big Ben, the HSBC building with its mosaic interior ceiling, and the red bricked Russian Consulate, although a lot of the buildings are now high end shops and hotels its still makes for a fascinating wander.
Although the majority of the old buildings are no longer being used for their original purpose, Shanghai is just as important as ever as a major business and financial hub. Directly across the river from the historical centre is an incredible feast of skyscrapers all jostling for position in the new financial district, particularly the Oriental Pearl Tower with its two colourful spheres and we knew we had to make a visit there later in the day.
Time for something more peaceful, we made our way over to the old town and to the beautiful Yu Gardens. Built in the Ming Dynasty in 1559, I really felt like I had been transported back in time, with the beautiful Huxinting Teahouse, sitting on stilts in the middle of the lake. We spent a good chunk of time, ignoring our impending jet lag to explore the gardens, with each turn and crossing of the little bridges taking us to new discoveries like the koi ponds, the Jade Rock, colourful pavilions and ceremonial halls.
The whole place had been decorated too for the New Year, full of vibrant red ribbons and lanterns, with the star of the show, a large golden horse in the centre of the courtyard, as this trip was back in 2014 and it was about to become the year of the horse!
Next door is the City of God Temple, which has been standing even longer than its neighbour the teahouse. Now a Taoist centre, it has been providing a place for peace and prayer since 1403. It felt a welcoming place as we explored the grounds, breathing in the woody smell of burning incense and as we rang the prayer bells, it felt like there was no better way to start our Chinese adventure.
It’s pretty chaotic once you leave the confines of the temple and gardens, the immediate area is full of shops, stalls and markets, and the place was awash with even more bright red, as locals stocked up ahead of the new year celebrations just over a week away. We grabbed some incredibly sweet toffee covered strawberries squashed onto a long stick and headed back to our hostel for a rest.
The evening brought with it one of the main challenges we faced, as we travelled across the country independently – food. Luckily my friend Polly spoke pretty good Mandarin and was able to decipher most menus, as some of the English translations didn’t really inspire much hope. When the first place we looked at for dinner served ‘deep fried smelly bean curd’, I thought I may struggle to adapt to the diet, but then we discovered fried dumplings and I was in heaven, in fact I ended up having some of my most favourite dishes ever on this trip, that I still rave about today.
That evening we jumped on metro line 2, over to Lujiazui and the new financial district, where we took the elevator a quarter of a mile up to the observation deck of the Oriental Pearl Tower. The views from up high were unreal as we rather unnervingly realised we were higher up than most of the surrounding skyscrapers, all of whom were lit up and glowing in the night sky. As well as a revolving restaurant, shopping centre and an indoor roller coaster (no thanks!), we got our adrenalin rush from standing on the transparent 1.5 metre glass walkway. The views down below made a little queasy if I’m honest, especially when Polly starting jumping up and down on the glass – eeek, after a while though, I plucked up the courage and managed to pose for a quick picture before returning to the slightly less scary wooden platform.
As we headed back down to the lower ground, I think the adrenalin rush faded and jet lag arrived with full force and it was back to the hostel to collapse in a heap and rest for the night.
The next morning we started off with a street food breakfast as we explored the famous Nanjing Road, a pedestrianised street, full of both designer shops and local traditional stores selling tea, jade, herbs and more. It was here that we almost got scammed by a seeming innocent young women, who stopped us in the street and after a brief introduction and announced she would love to take us to a local tea house. But Polly was wise to her within a few minutes, and unbeknownst to the women, had also been living in China for about 4 months at this point so was already well versed in popular tourist swindles. Like the true Brits we were, we kindly thanked the women for her invitation and intention to scam us out of our entire holiday budget and headed off in the opposite direction.
Walking south, we arrived at People’s Park, this huge park and popular tourist attraction has 8 gates, a tea house, a theatre, dance house and museum of contemporary art. There were locals playing chess on stone benches and yes just like in the movies, people practicing Tai Chi.
One thing I wasn’t expecting in the park was to stumble into a Marriage Market, I had quite clearly missed reading that chapter in my guidebook, but apparently it occurs every Saturday and has done since 2004. Standing around both parents and grandparents show off pictures and a brief written profile or biography of their single child in the hopes they get a match. Tinder it ain’t, and if I’m honest the whole thing felt weird and clinical, but it’s not my culture and so not for me to judge, it was just another one of those unique experiences that I will remember forever on this trip to the Middle Kingdom.
That second evening a bunch of us from the hostel headed off to a popular dim sum restaurant, and between maybe the 10 of us, managed to order a good portion of traditional dishes from the menu. With Shanghai’s location close to the East China Sea, seafood is commonly served with such delights as sliced eel and hairy crab to be found, but also chicken and pork meatballs heavily feature too. If like me you don’t eat meat or fish, you still had lots of choice with steamed noodle dishes, spring rolls, fried dumplings and soups all offering veggie options. I did try a little piece of the famous 100 year old egg dish, which is basically a black egg sat on a plate, though I had to quickly wash it down with a Tsingtao beer, never to be tried again.
Fully stuffed on dumplings and beer we headed off on what became one of the more surreal nights out I have ever had, in a nightclub in the middle of a Shanghai shopping mall. On a hot tip from the hostel reception, we arrived all dressed up (as much as you can do when you are living out of a backpack) and were treated like A list celebs (or foreigners with money) as we stepped out of the elevator and escorted to our own private booth for the night, with table service, free snacks and lots of champagne. Slightly worried it was another scam, we were relieved to learn that no, this was all legit, and we danced and drank and snacked on skewered fruit till the early hours.
After making arrangements to meet up with some of our fellow hostellers later in the trip in Beijing, we got ready to travel onward. But not before we found a back street food stall and devoured a breakfast bowl of noodles to help remedy our hangover from the night before. Then it was off to the massive Shanghai train station to continue our journey across this magnificent country, I couldn’t wait to experience more.
EATS – Eating at little stalls and tiny cafes is going to be the cheapest and most likely the tastiest option, but if your language skills are limited to 2 phrases like me, then ordering something specific could become a challenge. I was lucky travelling with my friend who was able to order on my behalf. That said, restaurants in the heart of Shanghai do cater to foreigners with menus featuring photos of the most popular dishes and often with English translations, which although rarely translate into something you would recognise, are incredibly funny. Our big meal out though was at the Dim Dim Sun Hong Kong Style Cafe with free wifi and a massive selection of delicious dumplings.
COFFEE AND CAKE – Although I usually try and avoid the obvious coffee chains both at home and abroad, there is no mistaking China’s most popular coffee shop, and that’s Starbucks. For the first day or two I got my caffeine fix at either a Starbucks or a Costa (of which there are also plenty) because they had a diary free option and I wanted to gently adapt to the diet. But I got braver as the trip continued and was drinking CoCo Milk Tea by day three when I discovered they had a diary free creamer in their milk tea and I was smitten!
TOP TIP – Don’t presume pedestrians have the right of way, even if the traffic lights are on red! I almost got run over at least twice during my trip, heart stopping stuff, when you cross the road, you take your life in your hands.
ALWAYS BE POLITE – Xièxiè – ‘Thank You’ – I really struggled with the correct pronunciation of this word, so I’d recommend you listen to it on youtube or a translation app, I kept saying ‘shayshay’, but often just got a blank stare in return, which my friend thought was hilarious, at least I tried . .