Monday, 22 April 2013

... Indochina: Top Of The World Lookin' Down On Creation

Known as China's ultimate east-meets-west metropolis obsessed with the latest fads, fashions and technology, Shanghai has got to be the most dynamic city in the world’s fastest- changing nation. Is there anywhere else in China where can you see traditional houses shadowed by towering skyscrapers? Not that I have seen any other part of China, aside from Hong Kong, but I doubt it. Here you ain't gonna see any dusty imperial palaces. Instead you are transported into a combination of Lost In Space/Tron with a twist of 60's Trek sci-fi skyline of Pudong (minus the space suits of course). Couple that with the European-style nuances and tree-lined neighbourhoods and you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually somewhere else. Admittedly I may have heard the 60's theme tune to Star Trek playing in my head as I walked along.

In the last 28 hours I've discovered that Shanghai is an exhilarating, ever-morphing metropolis that isn’t just living a dream, but is setting a pace that quite possibly threatens to leave the rest of the world in the dust.

If you’re into culture, The Bund (the waterfront area), the Shanghai Museum, the French Concession and Yuyuan Garden (Garden of Contentment) are just some of the places to visit.

The Bund (Wai Tan) definitely doesn't give you the impression that it was once merely a muddy towpath. Now instead it's a plethora of neo-classical and art-deco buildings, which includes the rather impressive former British Consulate. Most buildings now house trendy stores, bars and hotels which, of course, were of no interest to me. However, now that most of the traffic has been sent underground in the immediate vicinity, walking along the waterfront both during the day and after the sun has set is rather lovely, especially when armed with a camera. It did get quite chilly at night mind you, I guess after temperatures of +40 in the previous weeks anything below 25 was going to feel like I was in the Antarctic.

The Shanghai Museum is easily reachable by the Metro to People's Square (Renmin Guang Chang), which is an interesting place all of its own to stroll through. The latter was formerly a racecourse for the hoity toities to race horses and nowadays is a popular meeting place for Shanghainese. You can watch a Tai Chi practise, games of checkers and cards and yes, public aerobics! Despite this being in the centre of the city, it's really pleasant to walk around or simply sit and take in the scenery. It was actually very peaceful despite being incredibly busy. Apparently it is also home to a "Single's Market" aka "Wedding Market", where parents try to match their single kids to someone suitable.

Home to at least 11 galleries, The Shanghai Museum opened in 1996. It is here where you can spend many an hour, for free no less, viewing China's exhibits of Ming & Qing dynasty furniture, jade, bronze, ceramics, sculptures, coins, traditional dress and paintings. It is very well laid out making it easy to visit. I suspect you could easily lose yourself to half a day in here, if not longer. In any case you'll need at least 2 hours if, like me, you actually like reading the labels. There are English pamphlets at the entrance to each of the areas which show and tell you about the main artifacts housed in each gallery, I'm guessing so that you don't miss them. Some of the sections are absolutely mind-boggling and this was an exemplary museum to visit.

The French Concession will make you feel like you're not actually in Shanghai, as the name might suggest. This residential area was once designated for the French during the colonial era and is now a popular spot for tourists thanks to the plethora of coffee shops, little boutique stores & galleries and tree-lined avenues & lane ways. Sitting with a coffee and people watching for an hour or so is a great way to grab some downtime in an otherwise hectic tourist schedule. It's European eccentricity all the way here. Well may be except for the "Superman" panda t-shirt I acquired.

I had been pre-warned of pandemonium and commercial mayhem at one of Shanghai's most conspicuous sights, the five-acre Yuyuan Gardens. Initially, in my quest to locate this classical Chinese garden, I got thoroughly lost although this meant I got very familiar with the old China Town that surrounds it like a maze and a much needed pit stop at Starbucks. The garden itself was really lovely, despite the obvious inability to accommodate a thousand visitors every day. If you go early enough, however, you can still be a part of the tranquil surroundings that the garden is most definitely trying to achieve. There's the pre-requisite plants, trees, rocks and water providing lots of photo opportunities and if you get your timing downpat you can perhaps get the quintessential photograph minus some random stranger.

Shanghai's Lujiazui skyline (Pudong) is in a state of constant change. As each skyscraper is designed and constructed, it takes over from the previous as being China's tallest building. Currently that accolade goes to the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which took the title from the neighbouring Jin Mao. It is also the 4th tallest building in the world. However the Shanghai Tower, a 632-meter super skyscraper, is under construction next to both and so Shanghai’s skyline will change again soon, and there will be yet another reason for a postcard snap on the Bund. The Shanghai Tower is expected to be completed in 2014.

Without a doubt though, the Oriental Pearl Tower is Shanghai's most recognized landmark of Lujiazui. It rises 1500 ft above the Huangpu River, which is the last significant tributary of the Yangtze before it empties into the East China Sea. The tower has 3 metallic space-age looking spheres which, believe it or not house a dance hall, a karaoke bar, a rotating restaurant and an observation deck. When you stand there looking up at it it truly feels like you have been transported, at light speed, into the future. All I needed was a silver space dress and I'd have been set! During my walk along the Bund I joined a plethora of camera-laiden visitors in snapping shots of a well photographed skyline as the sun set for the day.

The Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) looks like a rather large bottle opener. It is a mixed-use skyscraper that consists of offices, the Park Hyatt hotel, conference rooms, observation decks open to the public (for a fee of course), and ground-floor shopping malls. There are 101 floors above ground, 3 below and 91 elevators, the top speed of which is 10 m/s. The main observation deck, the world's tallest at the time of completion, offers views from 474 m (1,555 ft) above ground level.

 The entrance fee is not cheap at 150¥ for a combo ticket to visit 3 observatory floors (94th, 97th & 100th floors), however the view of the entire city skyline is quite something and the reason why I opted for this view over the Oriental Pearl. Make sure you go when the sky is somewhat clear otherwise I suspect you will be disappointed. I went to watch the sun set and was not. It was pretty awesome to catch the space age style lift up all those floors within a minute where you can watch the height and floor figures rise and trust me this thing fair shifts. For someone with acrophobia, that being me, this will be quite the experience. I "eased" myself in with the 97th floor although could feel my legs somewhat losing their nerve as I slowly made my way towards the window to take photos. Bloody hell it's a bit high is this thing!? I made my way to the 100th floor thinking I'd gained this new found confidence.... Take that scary high building! That was before I saw the glass floor. Firstly let me elaborate. The "glass floor" is actually a series of clear glass tiles that run periodically down the middle of an otherwise opaque floor. Still, don't allow that descriptive to appear dismissive... they afford you the view...all... the... way... down. You know those action movies where someone is teetering along a cliff edge with their arms splayed in the seemingly misconceived notion that a) should they slip they will miraculously be able to suction themselves to the cliff face or b). by making themselves look bigger it will prevent them slipping to their death? I would have looked like that had it not been for the fact that the "cliff face" was also clear glass treating you to a 360 degree view of the city from above. A view where everything waaaaaaaaay down there on that nice solid ground looks the size of an ant. A little kid looked at me as he began jumping up and down on one of the glass tiles. I'm pretty sure I looked like I wanted to puke. I wasn't the only one struggling with the fact that the glass won't break. I walked, gingerly, down the one side which looked out across the city towards the International Airport planning to leave the best side until last. I'm pretty sure I stood contemplating how on earth I was going to "get to the other side" for a good 5 minutes, much to the amusement of the staff member who was stood right next to me. Whilst I have potentially painted a picture that makes this thing sound like it was as wide as a ravine, it was at best about half a metre, with at least an opaque tile on either side of the set of clear ones. I pretended to fumble with my camera lens... For a very long time. My heart was literally pounding in my ears... Out of fear. I chuckled to myself as I thought "For God's sake Nic, quit being such a wuss - you can't stay here all night" and went for it.... I still stepped on the opaque tile avoiding the clear ones at all costs. Hey you never know there could have been a trap door or something!?! After a while I found my British stiff upper lip and even sat down on, ok may be more semi-bum shuffled towards, the floor-to-ceiling window sitting half on a see-through piece of glass to take photos of the Oriental Pearl, Jin Mao, the river and the Bund.

It is kind of insane how high this building is and I am pretty sure it wasn't my acrophobic mind playing tricks on me when I thought I could feel it moving (there's information boards on how the building was constructed to deal with this). This admittedly was a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on my final night in Shanghai, with my head quite literally in the clouds. I felt I truly deserved my Ms. Shanghai cocktail with dinner at  the Blue Frog bar at the bottom of the tower courtesy of a freebie voucher that came with my SWFC ticket! As I made my way back to the Metro station the heavens opened and the top of the tower became hidden in the clouds.

Side note: Shanghai gets most of its drinking water from the Huangpu, and dumps most of its sewage into it (4M tonnes in 1990 and only 4% of it treated in any way). As a result of pollution, the tap water must be heavily chlorinated. In February and March 2013, thousands of pig carcasses were found floating in the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Yummy! Needless to say I only ever drank bottled water and I kept my mouth closed like a vice when taking a shower!


  1. These photos are awesome!! Love your writing...

  2. Thanks! All the pics are at the Flickr site.