It was winter of 2007 when my wife and I made this trip. I haven’t seen winter anywhere before, so the thought of walking around in the biting cold did not bother me. In fact I was excited to get a chance to freeze my behind out on the cold, and at the same time hoping that I could see some snow falling. We came prepared anyway, with all the winter clothing we need, from coats and gloves to thermal underwear.
We were going to a country where dragons bring good fortune, and are not to be slayed by knights or wizards from Hogwarts. Our destintation was China, and we had two stops on this trip, the first one was Shanghai.
Shanghai has always been one of China’s more popular cities, and today it is one of its largest commercial and financial centers, in competition with Hong Kong. The place is undergoing a building boom, and the business district was filled with brilliantly lit skyscrapers (the Makati CBD would look like a pity, in comparison). It is so thoroughly westernized and modern, you could forget that the country was, until recently, a backward economy. The city is perhaps the most potent symbol of China’s growing economy. If the country is a car dealership, then Shanghai is definitely its showroom.
We entered China through the new and very modern Shanghai-Pudong International Airport. Our PAL (Philippine Airlines) fight landed on a very damp and foggy day, and right after stepping out of the plane, we were welcomed by chilly winds, the kind that “bites” bare, exposed skin. We didn’t disembark through a “tube”, as the plane parked on a remote bay, so we had to go down by stairs and run (or walk hurriedly) to the waiting bus below.
This trip was a guided tour through and through, and thankfully so. Unlike in places like Singapore, where common folk can get by with broken English, here English was really scarce. We asked some workers at the airport for directions going to the meeting place with our tour guide, and absolutely none of them could understand what we were saying. For a while there I did get a bit scared, of being stuck in a strange land where nobody understood a word coming out of my mouth (save for fellow tourists who would be equally clueless). Eventually we were led to an attendant of some car rental company, who they knew could speak English.
It was already early evening by the time we stepped out of the airport, together with our tour group. First on the agenda for the day was of course, dinner, and then we were taken to the Pudong area, Shanghai’s business district, and the site of the city’s new icon, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The whole of Shanghai was covered by fog, and though the bright lights of the buildings were still clearly visible, the tops were already obscured by the fog. These were tall structures indeed.
We also went up the observation point atop the TV Tower (its short name), to get a 360-degree view of the city at night. Unfortunately for us, but as to be expected in any foggy day, visibility was dismally low. I could still make out the structures at the immediate vicinity of Pudong, but beyond that, it was all just blurry lights and patches of darkness.
We then crossed the Huang Po, a wide, navigable river that bisects the city, via the underground “sightseeing tunnel” which passes underneath the river. The tunnel was, to be honest, a bit tacky and over the top. People going through the tunnel would ride glass covered cars, pulled by cable from one end of the tunnel to the other. Think of it as a glass elevator, but instead of travelling vertical, it moves horizontal. As the car travels through the tunnel, you get to witness laser lights, various sounds and some music, the kind that you would expect to see and hear in a science museum for kids, and it didn’t suit my taste exactly. Don’t get misled my the name “Sightseeing”…there are no sights here, apart from the laser lights, since it is underground.
The tunnel does provide the quickest way though, to get to The Bund, on the other side of the river. The Bund (meaning an embanked quay), is part of the old “international settlement” area of Shanghai from the 19th to the late 20th century. This part was occupied by the western imperial powers, and it’s where they set up their businesses, including the old headquarters of HSBC. The architecture of the buildings on The Bund are definitely 19th century European, such that it feels as if a piece of Europe was carved out and dropped in China. Though the area may feel “out of place” in a thoroughly oriental country, is does look stunningly beautiful, especially at night when the buildings are brightly illuminated. Also, the sight of the very 19th century Bund, beside the very 21st century Pudong just across the river, gives a very pleasing contrast, that perhaps could be seen nowhere else. It’s a shame that I wasn’t yet a photography enthusiast back then. A shot with an Ultra-Wide Angle would have been lovely.
After some picture-taking at the Bund, we were taken for a cruise of the Huang Po. It was a short cruise of around an hour aboard a ferry, which took us through the river bend and back, basically covering the length of the Pudong district. From the river, one could see Pudong on one side, and the Bund in the other, in all their shining glory. Most of our pictures taken from here ended up blurred though, due to the boat’s rocking action.
It’s amazing how we did all that on one evening, and right after a 3-hour flight from Manila. All that walking in the cold does take some endurance though, so after the cruise every one was “battery low”, and so we were dropped off on our respective hotels.
THE FOLLOWING DAY
We woke up to a complimentary buffet breakfast, on the following day. On the two hotels we stayed on in China, both served breakfast composed mainly of congee (rice porridge), eggs, vegetables, noodles, and some dumplings. Westerners used to light breakfasts may find it unusual, and the picky ones might squirm, but no problem for most Filipinos who can even have “bulalo” in the morning if there’s nothing else. There is unlimited coffee too, for the addicts.
We then had a brief stroll outside, while waiting for our pick-up time for the tour. If I’m not mistaken, our hotel was in Shanghai’s Hongkou district, and we took the lull on our schedule for an opportunity to witness locals in the vicinity go about their morning routines.
This being a guided tour, we naturally had to go through various souvenir shops, where the tour company gets commissions on sales. We were first taken to a jade factory, where they process jade into various different forms. It’s also there where we bought a pair of white jade Pixu. (Pixu is a mythical being that gathers money, and this is often seen on the entrance of many Chinese owned businesses, even in the Philippines. It comes in the form of a lion with its mouth wide open. They always come in pairs, one on each side of the entrance, and sometimes one leg of the lion rests over a ball).
The Chinese also have a special devotion to jade, which they equate with strength, which is why jade is such a valuable mineral there.
Next we were taken to a silk factory, where we saw actual silk production. Of course, they also had a big store inside that sells everything made of silk, from beddings to garments.
We had lunch after that and then we headed out to a place that sells chinese medicine. There we were given a brief lecture on Chinese medicine, a brief back massage and a “check-up” from their medical specialists. Of course, after all that, they give a diagnosis on your condition and sell you some traditional medicine. Whether it’s effective or not, I don’t know, but it was darned expensive.
The trip to the factories and the medicine place gives the tour a bit of a “school field trip” feel, but it does give one a chance to get a glimpse of life at the inner roads of the city, away from the tourist spots. The older part of Shanghai, including the district where our hotel was, is like Binondo with wider roads and clean sidewalks. Buildings are functional and not fancy…just what’s needed for business, and you see a lot of overhead electric cable wires. There are a lot of large, bright signages too. Inspite of having been a controlled economy for some time, this is still a country of merchants after all.
Just like large cities everywhere, Shanghai is also subject to horrendous traffic jams. They have elevated expressways, like Manila’s skyway (only theirs are much much longer), but even those can get clogged to a standstill. We actually spent a lot of time in the tour van, stuck in traffic. If ever I could get back here some day, I’d want to try their subway system…I just have to find a way around the language barrier.
In the late afternoon, our tour guide took us to an acrobat show. He dubbed this as the Chinese version of Cirque du Soleil, and it didn’t disappoint. I had a tingling sensation on my spine all throughout. The tricks and maneuvers were skillfully executed, and what’s more is that it was synchronized with wonderful music. I have a video of the entire show, as pictures simply won’t be able to convey the experience. The video is in Mini-DV though, so I don’t have it on this journal.
After the show we were then taken to the city’s two shopping districts, the high-end Xintiandi, and the shopping street Nanjing Road. Xintiandi is the more “elitist” of the two, and is quite similar to Manila’s Greenbelt complex, lined with brand-name boutiques and upscale restaurants. Nanjing Road meanwhile is a pedestrian-only shopping street filled with department stores and the usual fast food outlets (eg. McDonalds, KFC, Yoshinoya, etc.).
Nanjing Road capped the evening, and we were brought back to our hotels afterward.
The following day, we were fetched from the hotel and brought to Shanghai’s other, older airport. Shanghai-Hongqiao was the city’s airport before Shanghai-Pudong was built. It is still in operation today, but only serves primarily domestic flights.
From there we boarded a China Southern flight, to our next destination, the 2nd half of our jaunt in China.
* all photos taken by my wife with her Canon ixus izoom
This trip was made December 2007
The Oriental Pearl, The Bund, and the Other Sights of Shanghai