Wandering In China: Shanghai
We landed in Shanghai in the late morning, and the first thing that struck me was how the whole city seemed to shimmer. Bold skyscrapers with lacquered glass loom over neighborhoods pulsing with neon-sign-storefronts and kilometers of rope lights. Sunlight reflected off almost every surface.
They say Shanghai is the Paris of the east, but I'd say it's more like China's Manhattan. It's slick, shiny, full of people trying to see and be seen. And for that reason it's a city best absorbed by walking the streets. It's most famous attractions aren't galleries or museums but sprawling shopping districts and waterfront walkways.
Shanghai is shimmering lightness, and ought to be enjoyed the way a mousse dessert is: don't chew or work too much, just bask in the beauty.
We explored the financial district first, full of sharp suits and tall buildings. There you can go up the Shanghai World Financial Centre, a 101 floor building that gives some of the best views of the city. Tickets are a bit pricey, but the feeling that accompanies the view is worth it. I've always been afraid of heights, and walking the glass floor at the top was terrifying. Strangely, though, the longer I looked at the world from up so high the less scared I got and the more I loved the shape of the skyline.
From the financial district you can walk to the Bund, the local name for the city's waterfront. Here restaurants and coffee shops abound, perfect for enjoying the view. Snag an outside table and watch the lights go up on all the buildings as the sun goes down. This side of the Bund looks onto art-deco era buildings that act as offices and embassies, shining a light on the city's multicultural past.
The side of the bund you'll be seated on is also a must-see, so be sure to cross the water one evening and take a photo in front of the newer, neon-laced buildings of the financial district. The side of the river that offers this view is a public space crowded with tourists, so don't expect the same leisurely sunset you can enjoy from the financial district side. But the view is so jaw-dropping and electric I promise you won't even notice the jostling around you.
[Images, from top: 1) The Shanghai World Financial Centre, 2) My selfie from the Centre's 101st floor- to prove I made it to the top despite my fear! 3) The Bund after dark]
In the name of the lightness in the air, we spent an entire afternoon on day 2 wandering through the legendary Nanjing Road, a pedestrian-only shopping mecca. I ate sweet potato gelato and tried on millions of pairs of shoes, met models peddling perfume and was photobombed by hustlers in trench coats selling fake timex watches outside Cartier.
Even if you aren't looking to update your wardrobe, Nanjing road ought to be added to your itinerary as there's also a few vintage Shanghai-style department stores- places where haggling is the local parlance, and traditional Chinese medicine is displayed. Shanghai might be the only place in the world where shopping and culture can intersect so neatly.
All too soon, with wallets as light as our hearts, we crossed a wide intersection and went to the Shanghai Museum. An enormous attempt to catalog all Chinese culture, you could easily spend days there. For me, it was a surface-skim that made me want to learn more when I got back home. For those tight on time, I'd recommend a morning on Nanjing road and an afternoon spent at the museum, which often closes at 4.
For those with a few more hours-or rumbling stomachs- take the time to turn off one of Nanjing's side streets and take a glimpse into regular life in Shanghai. Street vendors selling fruit, local restaurants with authentic food and adventure await!
[Images, from top: 1) Nanjing Road, 2) & 3) M&M world Shanghai, located on Nanjing Road, was our playground for a few hours! 4) turn east off Nanjing Road and a whole other side of Shanghai awaits- this Mom'n'Pop restaurant served delicious bamboo and dumplings!]
Our third day in Shanghai was spent wandering around the French Concession, a historic neighborhood where many French expats lived during the '20s. There are stories of Charlie Chaplin making an infamous name for himself on these cobblestone streets, but for mere mortals like us it's the perfect place to browse boutiques, sip coffee, enjoy the tree-lined streets and feel a bit like you're travelling through time. This area has some of the most character of anywhere in town, so I'd suggest looking up a hotel here, too.
Grab a dessert to go from any of the adorable cafes in the area (we liked a place called Simply Cafe) and head to the nearby park, with its palm trees and long grass. Accessable green spaces in China can be hard to come by, and the French Concession's park is the perfect blend of maintained-yet-not-too-manicured. It feels very alive, much like the city itself.
[Images, from top: 1) A guard suspicious of my photography at the First Communist Congress, 2) Our desserts from Simply Cafe, 3) The park in the French Concession]
On our wanders through the French Concession we also happened upon the First Communist Congress, a museum dedicated to the rise of communism in China. Letters from a young Mao to his friends are mounted on the wall, and a waxed replica of a dinner where young activists first met fills a crowded display room. No matter your politics, it's a well-put together museum that shows a different side of the story of communism than many of us ever hear. Oh, and the admission is free, so give it a chance!
After the museum, we had dinner in the sunshine. I drank Chinese beer and ate Shanghai Spaghetti, a dish of noodles in fermented soybean sauce. My thoughts were flooded with this notion that I was seeing the other side of the east-meets-west narrative so familiar to me. And I was fascinated by all the space between the differences and similarities.
Soon it was time to move on to our next destination. The feeling of being light-as-air, dressed in chiffon, eating sweets for lunch and marveling at how even the sidewalk seems to gleam in Shanghai: it all left me light-headed.
It was like seeing a painting you know by heart from the wrong direction, hearing a favorite song played in reverse or seeing a look-alike of an old friend on the street.
How big is the space between new and familiar? And how does it shine so brightly?