Wednesday, 8 April 2015

My Solo China Trip: Shanghai First "Part 1"

Wow, my first solo international trip at the age of 36.  Feels weird saying that, but I guess I've never really been single when traveling in the past…so here I am... in a pretty intimidating country, ready to see what ever this ever growing country will reveal to me.

Good start… so far.   
I was pleasantly surprised with my flight to Shanghai.  Delta did a wonderful job easing the unavoidable strain these long transpacific flights sometimes inflict on weary travelers.  13 hours over the Pacific was accompanied by endless movies, 4 meals, free alcohol, and thank goodness…a lovely seat neighbor that was very accommodating on well timed idle chit chat….just enough  for me to be enlightened  when needed, but not too much to be overbearing.  Also, my kudos to the serving crew…the entire 13 hours was served with a smile on their face, never revealing the overwhelmed look we Canadians are so accustomed to seeing.  BTW…my upgrade to economy plus…worth every penny…the 4 extra inches of leg room was much needed.

After a silky smooth landing, the gauntlet of getting through the airport was quite painless.  A short line at customs to review my visa, a short wait for luggage, and before I knew it…exhausted and red eyed to boot…I was officially in Shanghai. 

Fastest train in the world!

I headed straight to the Maglev train …a particular goal of mine, as it is known for being one of the worlds fastest trains…. a max speed of 430km/hr!  As I made my way to the train entrance, I was approached twice by 2 men claiming they worked for my hotel and had a ride waiting for me.  Good thing I’m not that gullible.  $10 later, I boarded the relatively empty train (maybe 50% full), eager to experience the high-speed magnetic levitating joyride…but to my disappointment, this never came to fruition.  We maxed out at 310km/hr.  Maybe it was due to the unenviable darkness, or some other unforeseen reason I can not comprehend, but all I know is, seeing I was not able to ride the advertised speed, I think I would of saved myself $6 and taken the subway.

After the 8-minute ride, the next step was to disembark the Maglev, and transfer over to subway line #2, which would take me within 3 blocks of my accommodations near Nanjing Road, the Grand Central Hotel.  The train was packed…shoulder-to-shoulder, full of commuters glaring at me without any worry of me catching their stare.  My suitcase and backpack added to my glaring personal anguish, but overall, the trip was painless, and before I knew it…I had reached my destination.  Luckily in my jet lag state, I took the right exit (choice of 4), and was surprised to find myself still oriented in the proper direction as I walked directly to my hotel….a nice added bonus to my start.

French press in my hotel room was much appreciated

Nice little ceiling feature in my room

I checked in.  I was fully aware the price quoted to me did not include the 15% service charge…I just was not ready on how much it would equate too lol.  Still a bit sticker shocked on the final price, I stumbled to my room on the 12th floor, passing out at 8pm local time.

Day 2

I was wide-awake at 4am.  This gave me the chance to type up some quick notes, take a much needed shower (a lovely rain fall shower faucet I might add), and to confirm the internet issues I hoped would be avoided…no Google or Facebook…oh the humanity!   My deluxe King room was quite refreshing with a zen like feel to it.  Included was a beautiful ceiling feature, a well appointed office area, and a large bathroom, fully trimmed with as much gold fixtures you could imagine lol.  The bed was large and firm, just the way I liked it.  I had 4 pillows with different firmness to choose from…all of which were still too firm.  I enjoyed a makeshift french press coffee at 5am which helped propel myself out of my room to experience my first day in Shanghai.

Subway at 6am

Today was going to be a walking day.  6am, I embarked onto subway line #2, and from there, transferred to line #1, and began my French concession assault.  Starting this early was wonderful as I was able to learn the subway ins and outs at a leisurely pace.  Most places were still closed, but I didn't mind, I wasn't here to shop (though I was a bit disappointed the foot massage store I planned to visit was still closed for several more hours).  The quiet streets and walkways added to the tranquil pristine feel one would usually not find in a city with over 24 million inhabitants!
I immediately got lost by going in the opposite direction that I had previously planned, but it led me past a quaint little egg wrap vendor in an alley that cost me 7 yuen…that’s 1.50 CAD!  I quite enjoyed it as I got myself back on track.  I passed many “Plane Tree” lined streets with very affluent communities exhibiting a unique French feel…European buildings blended with the assumed Chinese culture feel.  It wasn't mind blowing by any means…just enough of a carefree vibe which was thoroughly enjoyed.  I passed several small parks full of older men and women executing the full rendition of tai chi, with a hint of badminton mixed within.  One path was littered full of hanging birdcages, all chirping in a barrage of tones.  I guess folks would hang these cages each morning to create some sort of soothing atmosphere?  I will later research this in more detail, as it seemed a bit odd. 

7 yuen wrap at 6:30am

One of the many parks within the French Concession

French Concession District

Birds in cages hung throughout the park

I then turned down another quiet street and saw a line up of locals waiting to purchase steamed pastry meet buns.  I joined the line, feeling a bit like a fish out of the water.   I wanted to try as many popular local cuisines as possible.  I watched as the customers in front of me asked for quantities anywhere in the range of 5-10 buns…but I only wanted a snack….so I asked for 2.  I apparently had many choices but I didn't know how I could convey this, so I left it for him to choose.  I was handed these big raw looking steamed dough buns.   They were each 1 yuen!!  That’s 20 cents each.  I’ll tell you one thing…if I don’t start eating fruit here soon, your going to have to roll me out of this country, because man, the food here is addictive, and probably not the healthiest, and all quite tasty!

steamed meat bun

I walked a few more kilometers, grabbing a Starbucks coffee along the way (which will be my last one btw as it was 25 yuen….basically twice the cost of  Canada).   After stopping myself from buying several more pastry options, I was about to enter the subway #10 line when something caught my eye that resembled fruit.  On the back of some guys bike, was a large glass case containing many different fruit shish kabobs.  The caramelized sugar Strawberries on a stick were too tempting to pass up, so I bought one.  The guy took a long time to hand gesture me the price, but when all was said and done, I paid 8 yuen; a bit more then expected…ah well…still a nice snack under $2.  It was tasty, but more in a candy kind of way.  Now if I can only force myself to eat healthier in this country lol.  Tomorrow morning I will hit up a fruit stand.

Sugared strawberries…quite good
I was able to finish the 15+km walk before 10am, which allowed to me to take a quick dip in the hotel pool before starting my afternoon Bund walk.

Only a block away from my hotel was the ever-famous Nanjing road.  For me, it had that Las Vegas atmosphere full of high priced retail stores.  It was noon, and the crowds were just beginning to build.  I had no interest in shopping, so I bee-lined it towards the Bund.  I was approached approximately 10 times by men trying to sell me fake watches, and twice by local women asking me if I could help them take a picture.  I had read that this was one of the many scams drawing you in, only to be asked if you want a lady massage.  I didn't bite.

Nanjing Road…of course Apple has the premium spot

An efficient 10 minutes later, I arrived at the Bund.  For me, this was what I had envisioned Shanghai to look like.  I personally have a fascination in skyscrapers, so Shanghai did not disappoint.  The smog was a slight issue (very common), but I was still happy I was able to witness the towering infernos free from any clouds obstructing my views.

I headed south on the sprawling walkway lining the Huangpu River, taking in the extensive views.  To the right of me were impressively grand old 1940’s banks and Hotels…once owned by the British settlement.   To the left were the massive towers Shanghai was so well known for…. including 3 of the top 20 tallest towers in the world, which notably includes the second largest in the world, just completed this year.  The smog diminished a bit of their grandiose feel, but all in all, it was still enjoyed.

I took a right off the Bund once the crowds subsided, and meandered through the small Gucheng Park.  The goal was simple… walk directly to the Yuyuan Gardens to experience the tea ceremony.  Lets just say I took the non-conventional multi-circular route through the Huaihai Rd/Fuxing Park region.   How can I describe this region…old world Chinese architecture amidst very narrow alleys, jammed packed full of Chinese tourists.  Stores upon stores selling everything from a variety of green tees, to jade stones, to paintings.  It felt like an ongoing maze.  My navigation would go like the following…make a right, then a left, thinking I was close to the tea house, when to my surprise, would arrive back to where I started.  This lasted for at least an hour, which built up a hunger, so I decided to look for some food.

I tend to eat where the locals eat, so when I saw a mall like food court lined with locals, I thought this would be a great way to sample some local cuisine.  The portions looked large, but everyone was loading up, so like they say, do as the Romans do.  I loaded up 3 interesting bowls and sat down unsure on how I would eat all this food.  The total came to 61 yuen…a bit more then I hoped for.  Everyone stared at me, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I tried to ignore them.  Much to my surprise, all those full trays everyone loaded up…were for full families lol.  I felt a bit like a gluten sitting there with all that food in front of me.  I was only able to eat half, and got the heck out of there before I felt any sillier. 
Food court

61 yuen…way too much food for me

With a full belly, I decided to follow the crowd; maybe everyone else knew where they were going.  Sure enough, they led me to the pond I was so desperately trying to find.  I squeezed my way along the crooked walkway (built this way based on the premises that evil spirits could only travel in a straight line…a bit odd don’t you think?)  I entered the temple in the middle of all the chaos.  I felt a bit nervous as the majority of customers were white Caucasians…but seeing I needed the break to slow my pace down, I took a seat upstairs and ordered a flowering tea for 60 yuen.  When it arrived, 3 quail eggs and 2 gummy candies accompanied it.   I pealed a bit of the shell back on the first egg only to see grey veins running through it…that was enough for me to push the other two away.   I sat back and sipped on my tea, relieved I could finally force myself to slow down and take it in.   It was nice to relax in a quiet atmosphere while surrounded by the chaotic hustle and bustle outside. 

Yuyuan Gardens…the crooked walkway

my flower tea

after a minute or so, the heat blooms the flower

After 25 minutes or so, I was done physically, and exhaustion (or jet lag) began to set in.  I decided to forgo the subway and walked to People’s Square before heading back to the hotel for a nap.   When I got there, I was VERY underwhelmed.  I stayed for maybe 5 minutes, looking for anything that would offer a reason for coming here.   I found none, so I headed back to the hotel where I immediately passed out.

Turn down service woke me up at 5pm.  She gave me 2 chocolates and disappeared.  My blood shot eyes and bags under my eyes probably expedited her flight.  I jumped into the shower for a quick wake up…there was no way I was going to miss the chance to sit on a roof top terrace on the Bund with a beer in my hand…unfortunately this would later be the case.

The sun was setting, and now was the time the skyscrapers shinned…literally.   Elaborate light features on every tower danced in the night sky.   My camera naturally couldn't capture the full extent of the lights, but it was good enough I guess.   I hunted for a lounge to take in the views, but was extremely disappointed when it was brought to my attention that ALL terraces were closed for another 3 weeks.  Noo!

dusk on the Bund

Shanghai's famous downtown skyline

 I decided to hit a brewery for a quick beer.  If I could at least stay up past 9pm, I would be beating my jet lag.  I ordered a pint and a bowl of mushroom something something lol.  Again the bowl came out in a family sized portion (a trend I would be all to familiar with).   I ate half of it and did the international sign for check…or so I thought.  The waitress was confused when I pretended to scribble on my hand.  A few moments passed when she finally decided it meant I wanted to write something on my hand.  She handed me a pen eager to see what I was about to do.  It dawned on me what just happened as I chuckled…then said “pay bill”.  We both laughed as I paid and left for my hotel for the night. 
I barely made it to 9pm before passing out again for the night.

Day 3

I was again wide-awake at 4am.  I took this chance to check the hockey scores and attempted to send emails with no avail.  It was early, and I was way to alert to wait for everything to open, so I decided to take the subway downtown.  This ended up being a great decision.  There was no one out at all.  I had the entire downtown catwalk to take pictures of all the world-class towers to myself.  The sun had just risen, and I started to get a hankering for a coffee.  I went to McD’s…the only place open before 8am.  I relaxed for 30+ minutes before heading back to my hotel region to hunt for that elusive banana I needed before my next flight to Tunxi.  After I found one (2 yuen), I skimmed through the alleys for another egg based panini style sandwich, and after I found one, headed back to my hotel to pack up for the subway for the 45 minute journey to Hongquia Airport.  Check out was easy, and before I knew it, I was looking at Shanghai in the rear view mirror.  

Shanghai was a breeze.  Onward to Tunxi and Hongcun.  This would be the beginning of the real test (Part 2)

Far right tower is currently the second largest in the world.


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