Getting to China on this trip represents a real milestone for us. China has always held a mysterious lure for me and I have been wanting to visit here since I was a child. With independent travel around China easier than ever, we decided to ignore some of the doom merchants who advise against travelling here. We just hope this country manages to to fulfil our flashpacking expectations. Bizarrely, for the first time on our RTW trip, we had quite a lot of nerves as we left the tarmac at Seoul as a few people say it can be difficult to tour China without a guide or pre-planned itinerary.
We flew here with China Eastern Airways and the flight was pleasant enough. I wish the same could be said about the booking process. I made a mistake on John's name when booking the flights, I thought it would be easy to make the change. I shall not bore you with the whole story but it took almost three hours of calling China Eastern helplines around the world before I got it sorted. In the end I had to cancel the flight and start again – it cost less to cancel the flight than make a name change apparently. I couldn't cancel the booking on-line because I didn't have a Chinese mobile telephone, to receive a cancellation verification code. Let's just hope this isn't an omen of things to come.
It seems strange but after the fairly long winded process of getting a visa for China, going through immigration was as simple as any we have experienced on our around the world journey, no questions about what we are doing here, where we are staying or when we plan to leave - we did book a cheap ferry ticket to Macau from Shenzen so we had some proof of exit, but in the end it wasn't needed.
As we were soon to discover about the rest of Shanghai, the airport is huge and, in parts, still under construction. In fact building construction is going on in the city at an alarming rate. It reminds me very much of London in the heyday of the eighties when the city was getting rich and developments were guaranteed not to fail. Until of course they did dramatically some years later.
The Chinese rich kids, don't seem to tire of adding a new multi-million dollar housing or hotel developments to their portfolio before they have completed the last fully. I do hope it doesn't all end in tears.
We spent a total of three nights and four days in Shanghai and had an interesting time, though I can't help wondering that we have not yet seen the 'real' China . It felt very much like any of the other rich Asian capital we have been to, although on a much bigger scale. It is a vast capital and home to over 23 million of the 1.3 billion that live in China.
Am I in Shanghai or Liverpool?
John was particularly looking forward to visiting Shanghai, having being raised listening to his Dad's stories of visiting China as a merchant seaman. In fact, John's dad, and the ship that he was sailing with, on one his visits around China was impounded during the 1960s, at the time of the cultural revolution. The crew of the ship were forbidden from leaving China for over a month, but this only cemented his love of all things Chinese.
On learning we were coming to Shanghai, John's father who was born and grew up in Liverpool's Chinatown, gave us some travel tips from his last visit to the city over 45 years ago. Needless to say, many of the back streets and alleyways no longer exist, having being replaced by posh restaurants, hotels and bars. Although his insights into Chinese culture were helpful. John shares his dad's love of Chinese food and his ability to work his way through a menu would see us eat cheaply and well in Shanghai.
There are many similarities between Liverpool and Shanghai, the most striking is the iconic waterfront building, The Three Graces, which was modelled on its older namesake adorning Liverpool's UNESCO waterfront. Looking at this striking piece of architecture from certain angles, you could easily be in Liverpool. Ironically, Liverpool is currently constructing a new controversial waterfront building called the Shanghai Tower.
Cyclists and motorcyclists seem to have right of way on the pavements around the city which is pretty dangerous by day, but takes on a whole new level of alertness on your part at night when they take to the pavement without any lights switched on. Just to add to the sport the vast majority of the mopeds are electric vehicles and make no sound at all until they snap at your ankles and make you jump out of your skin. The bus and car drivers however have no aversion to using the horns and you will hear honking of car horns throughout the day and night. In fact it became quite restful at times, a sort of concerto to Shanghai, if you will.
If you read our Korea blog
you will know we only had one minor annoyance which was the bumping and grinding of people wandering down the street. It was great training for China as they seem to play the same sport here – heading directly for your path when you haven't moved from your original trajectory. There is obviously no concept of the personal space in such a densely populated city. You can happily be admiring some Shanghai sight or an exhibit in a museum and one of the Chinese will dart about two inches from your nose and stand there looking at the same thing you are.
Accommodation in the City
There is no shortage of different types of accommodation and it is easy to search for hotels online to fit any type of budget. We would have loved to have stayed in one of the big luxury hotels just for one night, but were more than satisfied with our flashpacking hotel choice, which was of good quality for the money we paid.
There has been a surprising lack of street vendors in our travels around Shanghai, we found a few dotted here and there but nothing like we are used to in other Chinese areas of Asian cities. We have though found two special food delights here. The first is Yang's fried dumplings. These are something we have never experienced before, the pork filled dumplings are first steamed and then crammed into a massive frying pan to have their bottom made crispy. They are usually served with a bowl of noodle soup and the whole meal will cost you about US $2 or just 90 cents if you skip the noodle soup.
The art is in the eating, you take a little nibble out of the side and then suck out the wondrous juices that have been cooking up inside. Once you have almost emptied it you can dip it into your soy and chilli mix to finish off in bitefuls.
We also discovered a wonderful eggy and onion breakfast pancake we think is called Jian Bing. Layers of egg and onions are stuffed inside a fried crust and make a wonderful start to an energetic sightseeing day and will cost you no more than a couple of Yuan.
Getting Around Town
It is relatively easy to get around, but not quite as easy as Tokyo or Korea, transfers on subway lines seem to take forever with connecting lines quite a distance - through a series of very long tunnels. Its also pretty hot down there with no breeze or air conditioning. I presume they have switched it off for Autumn, but you can't complain when you consider that no journey ever costs us more than 4 Yuan (60 US cents)
We rode the Maglev into the city. I know we could have got the metro directly here, but as a part time trainspotter this had to be done. The promise of magnetically levitating and travelling at speed of 300 Kmph (301 to be precise) was not to be missed and it was another one of those things crossed off my travel wish list.
The Shanghai People
One of our stereotyped preconceived expectations was that people here would be a bit rude and a little offhand. These were the reports we had from some people who had travelled here, but so far we have not really had any of that. It is true to say that Chinese have their own style of customer service but we have had laughter from most people we have interacted with and everybody has been very helpful, despite the language barriers. The Chinese are particularly pleased to hear a hello and thank you in Chinese, and seem to be put at ease when you make an effort to engage this way.
Business is business here and most know how to turn a tourist dollar. The Bund has been developed beautifully for the Asian tourist market. There are theme rides under the river in the form of a multicoloured tunnel ride and a plethora of boats that ply up and down the waterfront offering all manner of different cruise options.
Shanghai Tourist Office
Don’t go into the tourist office expecting too much help, the leaflet racks were bereft of leaflets and after handing over the map the staff considered their job complete. They did speak pretty good English and John would not give up with the questions until he was satisfied they had earned that hour's pay.
If you sit down to have a fag, or stop to consult your map in any of the main tourist areas you will get some unwanted attention in Shanghai. This comes in a number of forms.
The Tea Scam
As happened to us, two nice young innocent looking girls will approach you and start a conversation with you in impeccable English. They will want to know how long you have been in Shanghai where you work etc. We knew this was the scam from the onset, but played along with them for a few minutes until getting up and saying we had to go. Then they quickly turned on to their sales pitch for the ‘unmissable’ traditional tea ceremony that should you wish to partake will empty your wallet of Yuan faster than your tea can brew.
The Tourist Price
We were by People's Square, which is one the places where you will find some street food vendors. We decided that a couple of foot long chicken skewers looked appetising. Sadly they also decided to double the price for us which we quickly discovered when we watched Asian diners pay half what we had for them (it was only 75 US cents extra, but its the principle right). This sent John into a indignant rage and by the time he finished they probably regretted scamming the extra money from us, after initially playing dumb to what had occurred.
From his relentless angry sign language, attempting to photograph the staff hiding under the counter to shouting threats of police involvement. The locals were embarrassed and sad that we had been treated like this, but to be fair, most tourists pay this without batting an eyelash. I am pleased to say that this is the only one time this has happened in our three days here (and on our whole tour of China) so its not all like this. Most of the shops and food places away from the main tourist sights charge the same prices as the locals.
Massage, Watches and Bag Offerings
If you are Western and in a tourist area and in our case, two single males, , then you will probably get offered one of these services at least every ten metres. It can get a bit annoying as they are quite persistent at times and will follow you for at least twenty meters until they realise that your'e not in the market. We've found the best thing to do is slow right down, look straight into their eyes, walk into their space, give your biggest smile and say strongly 'no thank you' in Chinese, without looking at whatever it is they wish you to look at.
So first impressions of Shanghai and China have been very favourable, with the night-time walk along the Bund on our first night the highlight so far. In our next China travel blog post, we'll be writing about things to do in Shanghai, now we have a feel for the city.