What a difference zero makes
Two little hours
Brought the sun and the…
No, there were no flowers, just buildings—an endless row of buildings that occupy block upon block of this industrial and eerily quiet part of Shanghai.
It was our first day in what is supposedly a swanky, cosmopolitan world city, but I have yet to find traces of that—or of anything modern, or even English-speaking—at the moment. And it has been over an hour.
My friend and I were walking along Guiqiao Road in Pudong in search of Shanghai United Cell Biotechnology Co. Ltd., where we were supposed to drop off a package before we toured the city. We passed the offices of international brands like Coca-Cola, Ricoh, Kodak (apparently, the legendary-but-now-bankrupt company still has its graphic communications group, with its Asia Pacific headquarters in Shanghai). But there was no biotechnology office in sight.
After finally being able to connect to the Shanghai mobile number of my friend’s colleague, we realized what went wrong: the taxi driver had dropped us off at 115 Guiquiao Road—the office we were looking for was at 1150 Guiquiao Road. Apparently, there was a miscommunication between our driver and the hotel concierge. Zero has never meant so much to me before.
And so began three days of perennially getting lost in Shanghai, most of them by design, some by real mistake. But don’t get me wrong—this is not because Shanghai is difficult to navigate. It is, in fact, pretty tourist-friendly for a Chinese city. It’s just that the city compels you to look up instead of look ahead to wherever it is you’re going.
The skyline of Shanghai is all that it was touted to be, a grand mix of European architecture and ultra-modern buildings that seem to shimmer in the sun. At night, the lights of the Bund can make you think you were on the set of Midnight in Paris, on the way to rendezvous with Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or somewhere far from the present.
The Bund (Waitan) is the first port of call for most Shanghai visitors, whether from first-world countries or the farming regions of China. Everyone goes to The Bund and gawks at The Bund. The colonial-era structures are beautifully preserved and still function as government offices or hotels. If there weren’t more Chinese than tourists, you wouldn’t think you were in China. It is utterly European—it even runs along a river (the river’s name however—Huangpu—gives it away).
There are no waste-of-time stops at the Bund. It’s a short length of waterfront buildings—26 Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, and Renaissance-style buildings, according to the Travel China Guide—that is perfect for an evening stroll.
Start at the famous Astor House Hotel, which was built by a British entrepreneur in 1846 as the first western hotel in China. It was also the first building in Shanghai that had electricity, making it one of the finest hotels in the country then. Its Peacock Hall, which now hosts fancy buffets, was once the Shanghai Stock Exchange trading floor. But that’s not even the coolest thing about Astor House Hotel. What makes Astor House a rockstar in the hotel league are its former guests—Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Bertrand Russell, Guglielmo Marconi, Zhou Enlai, to name a few historical figures. Thankfully, it still welcomes the curious. You can explore the hotel lobby, restaurant and shop even if you’re not booked there. Just ask nicely.
On the east end of The Bund is Nanjing Street, the world’s longest shopping district running almost 6 km, much of which is a pedestrian lane. After the Opium War in 1842, Nanjing Street was declared the British Concession where imported goods were dumped, making it one of the first shopping streets in Shanghai. Today, Nanjing Street houses international brands—it has one of the biggest Apple stores in China—as well as small, local shops, and receives a staggering one million visitors daily. It is a great place to spend the day, with the option to just sit and relax at the nearby People’s Park or check out the Shanghai Museum.
Another place to get lost in is the French Concession, which, yes, was an area given to the French from 1849 to 1946. This is a huge area that spans the Huangpu and Xuhui districts, and is famous for its century-old shops and Tudor-style mansions still standing on some streets. While it was designated as a residential area for the French in the 1800s, it attracted British and American expats in the area as well because of the immense space available for housing. Despite massive redevelopment, the French Concession has retained enough of its structures and charm to live up to its reputation as the Paris of the East.
Now if you’re yearning for some real Chinese destination in Shanghai, head to Yuyuan Garden, a classic Oriental garden built in 1577 by Pan Yunduan, an official of the Ming Dynasty. The 20,000-square-meter garden was meant as a retirement place for his parents but it didn’t last after the Opium War. In 1961, after years of restoration, the garden was opened to the public. Today, it’s a touristy place filled with souvenir shops, jewelry stores, food stalls, and fake/Chinese renditions of everything western from Snow White to Maltesers.
It’s a must-visit, though, not just because it has the palpable energy of Old Shanghai but because it has the Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant. Nanxiang is a town near Shanghai where the xiaou long bao originated. Everyone—even the Chinese—wanted a piece of that. As if that were not enough, the restaurant was made even more famous by celebrity traveller/chef Anthony Bourdain’s raving about its xiao long bao.
You don’t need an address for Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant. Somewhere in Yuyuan Garden, you’ll find a very long line of people. Follow it and you’ll end up at the restaurant. Waiting time can be a killer but here’s a quick tip: the longest lines are for takeout; there are shorter lines for the second and third floors of the restaurant, which are reserved for diners. Each floor serves different menus, but wherever you find yourself, rest assured, you’ll get a bite of Shanghai. ###
B’s note: Took an all-girls trip to Shanghai in February with my mom, sisters and a super friend/travel buddy, and for once, enjoyed Valentine’s Day without the dating crowd and the crazy flowers.