I am back in Shanghai from the gardens of Suzhou and the lake of Hangzhou. The train ride from Hanhzhou had a bit of an adventure (see the Chinese Train Experience below). But all turned-out well and here I am refreshed, renewed, and excited to back once more.
I first arrived in this vibrant city past midnight of Saturday after my flight from Manila. The first thirty or so minutes of the flight was a little unnerving as right after take-off as the plane was climbing steeply it hit some turbulence and rocked a bit. It was weird—turbulence right after take-off. The seat-belt sign went on a few times with the plane shaking a bit but at least there wasn’t any dives. Nobody seemed disturbed. We arrived ahead of schedule and I was out of the airport a little past 12. and took one of the cabs at the taxi line to Biktime Hostel at Xianjang Road (RM 230). My reservation was there and I went up a flight of stairs to the dorm-room. I took the only vacant bed in the 4-bed room and the people stirred a bit when I entered. I just plopped by pack down, took off my shoes, and slept.
I woke-up around 7 and only then saw my dorm-mates. On the top bunk was a chubby Malay-looking guy who was awake already. The other bunks were occupied by a young European couple.
I took a quick shower and fixed my stuff. Forgetting something, when I returned to the room, the guy, who was clad only in boxers, was up and had a hard-on poking from his shorts. I think I he was about to do a little loving to the girl as he was standing by her bunk. Hehehehe.
Biktime is a couple of blocks from the East Nanjing Metro and the pedestrian section of the road. The interiors have a charming bohemian feel ( I think a lot of hostels consciously try to do this) but the dorm room was small though the bed was comfortable. The showers could also be better and they should add at least one more Western-style toilet as there was only one for the entire floor!
I was leaving for Suzhou the next day so priority was to get my train ticket at the main railway station which was a quick ride away on the Metro. Shanghai’s metro system is simply fantastic with 10 lines serving various parts of the entire Shanghai area, not just the center. The ticketing, the traffic flow, the trains, are just perfect. On my way to the East Nanjing station, I grabbed a quick breakfast of fried dough sticks and what looked like a perfect square of bread deep fried at a roadside stall. When I bit into it, I thought it was hash browns, a few more bites and then I realized it was rice!
The Chinese Train Experience. At the main railway station, machines were dispensing tickets and as I would experience later on the train to Suzhou and the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai, there is a lot I need to learn about riding trains, especially in China.
First mistake was thinking that economy was the hard seat. So I bought a business class ticket for RM65 for the 35 minute trip. Finding my way around the massive station was easy enough as electronic boards announced the train number, time, and the waiting area. About 10 minutes before departure, the platform for getting to the train is announced (thankfully with an English translation) and the electronic board lights up. People start to queue and once the gates open, there is a mad rush for the train.
I get into one of the cars and look for my seat number. It is only when someone comes to claim my seat that I realize there is a car number. It turns out I was at car# 2 which was economy. The train attendant who is dressed like a flight attendant looks at me and tells me I am at car#7. I rush through the corridor to get to my car. If economy had airline-type seats, business had airline business class type seats. The leg room was wide and the seat was big. I looked weird with my large pack and dressed in shorts and shirt mixing in with what loooked like a business crowd. The RM65 for the 35 minute ride was probably the most expensive I have ever paid for land transportation.
Where’s My Seat? The train ride back to Shanghai this morning from Hangzhou was close to being a nightmare. I arrived at the Hangzhou station a little past 9am. I had asked the girl at the hostel to write on a card the destination and time in Chinese. There were almost 30 ticket booths and I was pointed to either booths 22 or 23. I showed the girl the card. She said something in Chinese which I nodded to and paid. The waiting lounge was full and I stayed behind a group of Europeans. A uniformed lady was urging the people to go upstairs. I showed her the ticket and she pointed up and made sitting motions. She did the same to the Europeans. I took it to mean that there were seats upstairs. So I went up and there were seats. I went down and back to the line 15 minutes before the 10:02 which was departure time. Finally the gates opened and we all rushed to the train. I went to car#2 (which was on my ticket). So where do I sit? I noticed that my ticket had no seat number but there were Chinese characters. I figured that the characters probably stood for a number. I asked this pretty young girl what my seat number was and she looked at my ticket and said “you have not seat.” My worst fear had come true! I had no seat on a 1 hr and 20 minute ride! “Why wasn’t I given a seat?” “You bought a ticket that had no seat,” she said. “But I paid the same amount.” She loooked puzzled and told me to wait while she looked for someone to ask. I saw a train attendant and pointed her out. They spoke and the train attendant explained that there was no seat but I could go to first class, look for an empty seat and pay an additional RM 12. I really couldn’t thank the girl enough as she was very very helpful and didn’t let up until she could help me. I had less than 5 minutes to rush from car #4 to car#13 which was first class. I went to the platform and made a mad dash for it. I hopped on to the #13 and explained to the train attendant my predicament. She asked me to just choose a vacant seat which I did as soon as the train started to move. Seveal passengers were still heading to other cars. A few minutes later a wel-dressed mother and daughter arrived with the mother giving me the evil eye. “Are you seated here?” She nodded haughtily. I stood up and tansferred to the next seat. She said something to her daughter and placed a magazine for her to sit on. Thankfully, no one else came to claim my seat. I paid my RM12 to the nice train attendant from car#4 and settled in. Looking back, maube that’s what the ticket seller was telling me, that there was no more seats at economy.
Lesson learned: Ask someone not to just write the time and destination but also that there should be a seat.
That was my experience with Chinese trains. Anyway, back to my Shanghai Day 1.
Shanghai Day. After purchasing my train ticket, I was back at Line 1 and got off at the People’s Square station (RM 3) . Exiting the subway, when I emerged from the station, the first sight that greeted me was the public toilet where you drop a coin to use it.
Lonely Planet Shanghai guidebook on hand, I followed the walking tour and started at Renmin Square.
First stop was the Shanghai Museum that stood out in the center of Renmin Park. There was a long line as security was quite tight. Bags had to go through an ex-ray machine and even my bottle of water was inspected. The guard asked me to take a sip just to make sure it was really water. The museum has different galleries which were all laid out very nicely and had English captions. But most important and impressive of which was the one housing its bronze collection. Bronze has always been integral in human history and just as what the Chinese did with pottery through their masterful handling of porcelain, so did they too with bronze.
A large gallery displayed Chinese scroll paintings some of them painted on rice paper while others on silk. I have always enjoyed looking at Chinese landscape painting with their unique take on perspective and depth and their delicate brushstrokes. The exhibit on the different Chinese ethnic groups also seemed popular. The ceremonial masks from Tibet and those of other highland groups were elaborately carved and designed and were truly works of art. People were queuing at to the Russian exhibit on Catherine the Great so I skipped it.
The imposing and modernist Shanghai Grand Theater looked like it was ready to fly off the ground with its roof of upturned eaves similar to the traditional roofs of houses during the Song Dynasty. It’s all-glass facade reflected the sky for an airy and light feel. On their line-up was Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nebelung.”
Opposite the theater was the Shanghai Government Building which looked so staid and so typical of a government building. Turning right at North Huangpi Road, there is Tomorrow Square with its glass tower reaching up to the sky. It also houses the Mariott Hotel and is beside Ciro’s Plaza which it totally dwarfs.
Detours away from the beaten trail are always fun. Leaving Huangpi I crossed the street on the side of Tomorrow Square and walked to the Bird, Flower and Fish Market at Jiangyin Rd. In spite of the skyscrapers towering above the quiet street the atmosphere was old Shanghai. Locals went about quietly with their business while the sound of birds and crickets filled the air. Store fronts displayed birds and crickets in cages while other had large aquariums of colorful fish. One large shop had cricket cages of all kinds from simple wooden ones to more elaborate lacquered types. I should have bought one of the cricket cages which looked very cute.
Back at the main road and on to West Nanjing, on the right is the Shanghai Art Museum with its vine-covered walls. Entrance was through the side. On the lawn opposite the doors, there was a large tarpaulin of someone and flower stands were being arranged around it. There seemed to be an event so I didn’t go in. It’s a pity that the centerpiece of the museum, the clock-tower was appropriated as the entrance of Kathleen’s, a restaurant on the top floor, rather than the museum’s.
Beside the art museum grounds ss Barbarossa which seemed like a nice pit stop with its shady and leafy grounds but it looked like you needed to be in decent clothes and I was just in my sweaty shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. Continuing along the road, opposite is the Grand Theater which was Shanghai’s best theater in the 30’s. It’s wedged between some shops but I could imagine how nice it must have seemed before.
I also saw this nice building that seemed like an apartment block as washing was hanging from its balconies and windows. I took a picture of it at it looked so typically Asian:)
Yuyuan Gardens and the Search for Xialongbao
From Renmin Park, I took a cab to Yuyuan Gardens (RM 12) in search of Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant which is reputed to be THE place for xialongbao , those delicious steamed dumplings with broth inside. It was past 1 already and I was really hungry and disoriented. I was in search of a garden and was avoiding the entrance to the bazaars so I ended up at Taiping Garden instead. Ahout to faint from the heat and hunger, I bought 2 pieces baozi at Wa Nun Diang and made my way up to its restaurant hoping to grab a seat and order a proper meal. It was crowded and the line at the counter where you place and pay for your order was long. I left and ate my delicious baozi on the street. It was very savory as the filling was mushroom. Invigorated, I somehow found myself to the gardens. Apparently, the entrance to the garden was through the bazaar which I had been avoiding all the time.
It was very crowded in the bazaar and the streets between the shop buildings were narrow. Following the signs, I found Nanxiang and there was a looooonnnngggg line. I instead made my way to Ning Bo Dumplings, pointed to some dumplings displayed at cart and a baozi that had a straw and got a seat. I had my first taste of xialongbao and it was delicious! The baozi with a straw was really tasty and fun to eat. You had to sip the broth through the straw then eat the baozi.
The bazaar was crowded with people and it was quite hard to browse at the shops. Souvenir stalls crowded each other out for space and buyers. I resisted the temptation to buy some stuff as I was heading to Suzhou and Hangzhou and didn’t want to lug so many stuff around with me. I had learned my lessons last year when I bought so much stuff in HCMC then had to carry it around with me all the way to the Mekong Delta, across the border to Cambodia, and then on to Bangkok. There was a small store selling musical instruments such as drums, cymbals, pipa, and erhu. I took note of the store (#36) so I could go back to it.
Just outside the garden and the bazaar is the City God Temple, a fairly large complex and that had a lot of people at lighting joss sticks inside. There was RM5 entrance fee to go inside but the temple wasn’t really interesting unless you’re a big fan of Chinese temples with giant-sized effigies.
After the hectic scene at Yuyuan, I crossed the park and made my way on foot to The Bund. From where I stood I could see the Orient Pearl TV Tower so I figured it wasn’t going to be much of a walk. About half-an hour later, I was at Shanghai’s most beautiful strip. It seemed so surreal as along East Zongshan Rd European colonial buildings massively stood while across the Huangpu River modern skyscrapers reached for the sky. The pedestrian walkway was expectedly crowded. While taking my picture with the Oriental Pearl Tv Tower behind me, a young Japanese couple stopped and the guy offered to take my photo. They probably felt sorry for me as I was holding-up my camera taking a self-pic. The Bund would have made a really nice walk but the sun was out in full force.
Leaving The Bund, I made my way back to the pedestrian strip of East Nanjing Road passing by the side of the Peace Hotel. If it weren’t for the Chinese script,the pedestrian part of East Nanjing Rd would have looked like the Las Vegas Downtown Strip. Hotels, department stores, malls, and shops lined the street while small electric train-like shuttles brought people up and down the kilometer long street. There were so many people it was difficult to walk on a straight line. Every meter or so, people would come up and hold-out small printed cards showing watches and clothes and ask you if you wanted to buy cheap shirts, Rolexes, and Iphones. Others would offer “massage with sexy ladies.” Sexy and well-dressed women would come-up and try to strike a conversation apparently offering the famous Shanghai Tea Scam that’s written in every guidebook.
For dinner, I had shengjian and fried rice bought at the food court at the second floor of the Shanghai First Food Store, a massive area with a ground floor selling probably every Chinese snack. Unlike xialongbao whichisi steamed, shengjian is pan-fried on a large black pan. Actually, I first had some dumplings filled with spinach and pine nuts at Wan Nun Diang also at the food court but it wasn’t very filling so I bought the dumplings and the fried rice.
Later in the evening, I met up with Rover, a local from Batou in Inner Mongolia. We went to the Bund which was beautifully lighted in the evening but was even more crowded. So we ended up at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at Xintiandi. A small area of renovated shikumen, Xintiandi, had a self-conscious atmosphere where people were dressed-up a little bit more while they sipped or dined al fresco. It was a nice place that was a big change from the pace and crowds at People’s Square but it all seemed too artificial to me.
It was past 11 when we left Xintiandi and decided to just walk back to East Nanjing which took from 30-45 minutes. Crossing the metro stations, people were rushing as the last trains were departing. It was almost midnight, when I got to East Nanjing. The neon lights were off but the pedestrian section was brightly lit with street lamps. People were still walking up and down the street with several coming-up to me and selling “massage with sexy lady.” When I got back to Biktime, my dorm mates were asleep already and the bunk above me was empty which meant that the occupant had gone home already.
So that was Shanghai in 24 hours.