hanghai is an unusual place to come for a holiday. Most first-time travellers to Asia usually opt for Bangkok or Bali — somewhere with surf, sun and enough escapism to spend a fortnight in a hedonistic haze. Here it’s the rainy season, fewer waves exist than on a lake and technically we’ve got work obligations, but the welcome we get is typically Asian. Jumping in our first taxi we try to explain to the maniac driving that we’re from New Zealand. He realises after a while, removes his hands from the steering wheel, baas like a sheep while making some strange sort of pawing action, abruptly stops the car and rushes into a nearby bakery. Not quite the result we were going for, but it’s nice to stop to catch our breath. He returns with strange gelatinous balls of dough, handing them to us with a sauce of condensed milk. They taste terrible, but the gesture is appreciated. I guess Kiwis are liked everywhere.
Of course, it’s not just the people that will make your Shanghai stay a lovely experience. As you’d expect from a city founded in 221BC there are some must-see city locations too. In Pudong (the business district that’s less than 20 years old), buildings lunge through the clouds like Jack’s giant beanstalk, updated for the Jetsons. The world’s second largest skyscraper juts mildly higher than the rest and hawkers push identical junk at identical prices. It’s a far cry from the Ancient City on the outskirts of town (built on a network of rivers and islands best negotiated by boat), or the classical French architecture on the bank across the Huangpo river but then — like its smiley people living under a repressive regime — Shanghai’s wonder is in it’s contradictions.
Having grown up with the misconception that China is dour and serious, it was one of the most pleasant realisations of the trip to find it isn’t. In fact, it’s the complete opposite — people are content and friendly, bikes are left unchained, shopkeepers go out of their way to help you find paracetamol for your hangover (having watched you perform charades to explain what it is you want), and the default expression of strangers is to smile as they pass you by. Even the locals’ attempts at abuse were delivered with a grin (I got told to ‘go home’ at one point — though admittedly I was trying to appropriate a golf cart at the time).
Transportation links are remarkably quick and easy too. The subway spends a large portion of its central route operating on raised rails, giving you a great view of the city, and providing easy access to many of Shanghai’s attractions. Nanjing Road is an oasis of upmarket stores and high street shopping at bargain prices, while culturally the city is on a par with any European capital. The classical music scene is flourishing, bars are classy and upmarket, clubs are hedonistic, while its museums, art galleries and the stupendous new opera house are not only architectural feats but are brimming with world class exhibitions.
With the borders opening to tourists and a Western influence extending into retail, food and art, China has entered a new, cosmopolitan era.
But what prevails most is a feeling of inevitability. There’s a momentum here that sees a surging middle-class, a youthful rally for humanitarianism, an embracing of capitalism and a unified hope for the future. It’s a wave that’s building, and it’s one that will break soon when China becomes the new world super-power. I recommend a visit to the country in the meantime.
Off the beaten track
Take a day trip to Hangzhou
If you fancy getting away from all the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, 180km inland is Hangzhou, considered to have some of the most beautiful natural scenery of any Chinese city. Small by comparison (with only 6.5 million people), there’s acres of personal space.
The capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (which presided over southern China until 1276, and was the first in the world to issue paper bank notes), it takes about two hours to get to by train and has a large lake as a starring attraction.
Surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, palaces, pagodas and cultural sites, it’s easy to spend a day wandering through postcard-like scenes.
A causeway splits the lake in two, so aim to be on a bridge for rush hour when streams of boats bring commuters home after a day’s work.
In the hills nearby, be sure to visit the Lingyin Temple.
It’s one of the largest Buddhist temples in China, with the “Flying Peak” (a mountain of limestone decorated with dozens of carved Buddhas) located in its grounds.
Despite being easy to get to from Shanghai, very few tourists bother coming— so don’t be surprised to be asked to pose for photos solely because you look different.
Applying for a Chinese visa
It takes a day to apply for a Chinese visa. Be prepared to wait at the embassy on Great Portland St for a long time.
Be sure to join the line before midday (no applications are accepted much after this).
Book a hostel and have printed proof of the address.
Have printed proof of your flight to and from China.
Apply with the passport you are using in the UK. The embassy needs to see proof that you’re allowed in the UK.
Have cash on you. Cards are not accepted.
What’s on the menu
Proper Chinese food couldn’t differ more from much of the fare you get slopped on a plate in Chinatown. For some authentic dishes, have a taste of these:
No doubt known by many a different name, this is a bowl of broth with boiled chicken, pork and turtle floating in it. Pretty damn tasty
Imitation meat products made with soy protein come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It looks like meat, tastes like meat, but apparently isn’t meat.
Black bean snails
These tasty, meaty morsels go perfectly with black bean sauce and water chestnuts.
Sweet corn juice
Yep, that’s right — served straight out of the fridge, this is nothing but the juice of corn on the cob.
Bean ice blocks
These taste just as bad as you might think. Imagine eating half-frozen mushy peas.
Who knows what meat is in them and who really cares? Jiaozi dumplings are steamed balls of heaven.