The Silk Route – Shanghai

Shanghai, meaning “City on the sea” is a metropolis on the east coast of China. Strategically situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River (the Yellow River), Shanghai is one of the largest ports in the world.

Due to its location at the meeting of China’s most important river and the sea, Shanghai always had great importance in the Ming and Qing era as a trading post. The First Opium war ended with the British forcing the Qing Emperor to open Shanghai port for trade with the west. After a few years, a Sino-American treaty forced China to allow foreigners to trade on Chinese soil, thus paving the way for different foreigner settlements in Shanghai. By early 1900′s Shanghai had the largest population of foreigners – British, American, French, Russian and Jewish refugees. At its peak Shanghai was the most important port Far East. Life here was beautiful and Shanghai was the ‘Oriental Dream City’ of westerners. The Sino-Japanese war ended with Japan becoming the super power in Shanghai. It was only after the second world war, that the Communist regime of China regained control over Shanghai and foreigners and foreign investments began their exodus to Hong Kong.

Probably because of Shanghai history of being a melting pot, Shanghai is a very modern city with eye-candy skyscrapers. If Beijing is all about culture and politics, Shanghai is all both progress and economy. There are very few buildings here sporting the typical Chinese architecture. But the old buildings along ‘The Bund’ and in the ‘French Concession’ still sport their European look.
On our arrival in Shanghai on 23 April 2010, we were met at the airport by our local guide. Straight from the airport, we drove to the Pudong area, renowned for some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. The highly modern Pudong is separated from the colonial ‘Bund’ (meaning embankment) by the Huangpu river which is a tributary of Yangtze river. We first headed to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the third tallest in the world. The tower that looks like a toothpick through a couple of balls has featured in some movies and distinctly marks the Shanghai skyline. We visited the Observation deck or ‘Space Module’ (at 350m of the tower) which had glass floor and glass walls. Stepping out onto the glass deck is like stepping into space with traffic and people moving around like ants on the road below. It is not for the faint-hearted as even without the force of gravity, you fell like you are falling down to the ground far below. We also visited the sightseeing floor at 263m which wasn’t as impressive, but offered good views of the Bund and Huangpu river. The tower also has a revolving restaurant at 267m, a shopping mall, a hotel and exhibition facilities. We also visited the Shanghai Municipal History Museum located in the second pearl. We are generally not a big fan of museums, but this one was very interesting with music and wax figures recreating flavors of life in Shanghai at its peak.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant that specialized in Dai minority cuisine. The ambiance was festive with ethnic dance and music entertainment for the diners. After dinner we attended the ERA Shanghai Acrobatic Show which is a must do in Shanghai. The show has been going on for years and apparently this group performed at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony as well. One of the highlights of the show was 5 simultaneous motor-bikers in a cage-like ball. Some of the stunts were amazing but we weren’t exactly bowled over by the show. The technology and multimedia content seemed updated though some of the stunts seemed stale.
The next day we were out on our own without a guide. We started the day with breakfast with my former college-mate who was working in Shanghai. It is a great feeling to catch up with old friends in random cities around the world! Before we bade farewell he showed us the ropes on using the metro subway system. That was our mode of transport for the rest of the day.
We visited the Jade Buddha Temple, a Mahayana Buddhist temple which houses 2 Jade statues of the Buddha that were brought over to Shanghai from Burma. There was a fee to view the Jade Buddha statues. This is in addition to the entrance fee to the rest of the Temple. Photography of the Jade Buddha is prohibited, but they hand out free postcard pictures of the Jade Buddha. There is also a large marble statue of the reclining Buddha which is from Singapore. Apart from these, there are golden statues of various Buddhas and a large golden statue of Guanyin, a female Bodhisattva associated with com passion. More than the huge and beautiful statues, I was impressed by young volunteers at the temple who led us on a free tour of the temple premises. As we were touring on our own, we bought tickets, entered the compound and looked around lost. Immediately this young girl turned up at our side, guiding us from room to room giving us some information on what we were looking at. We really appreciated the help.
We rode the subway to People’s Square, which is a public square in the center of the city from where distances in Shanghai municipality were measured. It was a great place for people watching. There was a large fountain spou ting water from the ground and kids were having fun running through this fountain. The Shanghai museum which has a unique shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel called ‘ding’, is besides this square as well. As Chinese cuisine doe not have any desserts to speak of (no, fortune cookies are not Chinese!), we were craving chocolates and ice-cream by the end of our visit. We saw a Haagen Daas ice-cream parlor near the square and couldn’t resist treating ourselves to a sundae! But it was more expensive than any ice-cream I have had in the US, costing about US$12 for a sundae!
Our next stop was Yuyuan Gardens which is the center of the old city. The garden is very old, established in 1559 during the Ming dynasty. The garden is surrounded by many small shops and eateries – a souvenir hunter’s paradise. But the area was so crowded that you were being constantly swept along by the thronging crowd! We bought ourselves a Green Tea ice-cream cone and let ourselves be swept along in the late afternoon sun. Here, housed in an old building we also spotted a Starbucks cafe. Western chains are very common and highly appreciated in Shanghai.

We spent the rest of the day at the Bund, taking in views of the historic European style buildings of the Bund and the awe-inspiring skyscrapers of Pudong across the Huangpu river. The colorful balls of the Oriental Pearl Tower gleamed in the evening sun. The next tallest building, the Shanghai World Financial Center resembled a shining silver bottle opener. The next tallest building, the Jin Mao, glinted, resembling a shining sharpened pencil. On the Bund side, all the buildings looked beautifully old. There is a height restriction imposed on buildings on the Bund. The Bund has about 30 historic buildings which are mostly financial buildings like the HSBC building. Some house hotels like the Peace Hotel. We shopped along Nanjing street, had dinner and returned to the Bund after sunset to admire the night skyline of Pudong, Shanghai. It was magical!

This year, Shanghai was the venue for the World Expo 2010. Shanghai was all spruced up for the event which was to begin the week after our visit. Due to this, Shanghai was pretty crowded as well. There were a lot of visitors from the rural areas of China as well. Everybody in China seemed to love foreigners. A lot of people would walk up to us, ask us where we are from and start a conversation with ease. In Shanghai, we were taking the picture of the mascot of the World Expo, ‘Haibo’ (meaning Ocean Baby) and a lady and her family came up to us and asked if she could take a picture with me! They didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Chinese. So there was a lot of hand waving involved in conveying and understanding the request. This was probably my closest experience to being a celebrity!

The next day, our local guide rode the ‘Maglev’ train with us, back to the Shanghai airport. Maglev is the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train (system that uses a large number of magnets for moving). These trains have no drivers and can attain a speed of 500 km/hr in a few seconds! Dilip rates this as his favorite experience in China.
Before we knew it our trip had come to an end and it was time to head back home. Though the familiar comfort of our home back in the United States was reassuring, we weren’t quite ready to leave this enchanting country behind. China is a very big country. Perhaps… some day… we will be back for more… !

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