Shanghai was once known as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’, yet stepping off the plane I walked into a mash of Blade Runner, Gotham City and The Jetsons, with a touch of The Fifth Element thrown in for good measure.
The Maglev, the world’s fastest train, raced me from the airport to the city at 430 km/hr. At first, the train passed farms and fields, which rapidly became smaller and smaller plots as houses and then apartments dominated the landscapes. Soon there was nothing but high-rises scraping at the sky. Multi-lane highways floated through the air before merging with massive overpasses. A hover-jet would not be out of place.
It was late morning when we landed; by the time we reached our hotel the sun had become an orange ball floating behind a haze of smog. This was the first time I've stayed in a hotel that comes with gas masks in the room.
Yet Shanghai began life as a small fishing village nestled on the banks of the Huang Pu River, near where it flows into the mighty Yangtze. Despite her now gargantuan size, parts of the old town are still to be found — although they, too, are rapidly vanishing. As the city rushes into the future and the population continues to grow, land is simply proving too expensive to preserve the past.
A glance at a map shows Shanghai is not a place for aimless strolling. Few taxi drivers speak English (our hotel supplied cards with the name and directions in Mandarin); the subway is efficient but the crowds can be overwhelming at first; then there are the sightseeing buses which go to the main sights but the stops can be hard to find. All adds to the chaos and charm, and a stiff drink at the end of the day definitely helped!
The Old City lies to the northeast of the city and was once the heart of Shanghai. Until the early 1900s, it was surrounded by a wall, which had been built in the 16th century to defend the city from Japanese pirates. After the Opium Wars, when much of the city become dominated by Foreign Concessions, the locals retreated behind these walls. The Old City remained under Chinese control and foreigners rarely ventured here.
For me, the Old City remains the most charming and traditional area of Shanghai — but actually getting into it is a bit difficult. The City God Temple marks the entrance to this area — taxis will bring you here, but the area is pedestrian-only. It is filled with hawkers, who vanish as soon as I went through the gates, for they are not allowed within the Yuyuan area. (In fact, hawking is illegal — hawkers simply show you photos of their wares. Should you be brave enough to make a purchase, you’ll be led into a back street, away from the prying eyes of police, to complete the purchase. Count your kidneys when you leave.)
Writing about my time here, reading through my diary, remembering the day; I still feel the sense of being overwhelmed. My maps which were simply confusing because so many of the streets were missing (there simply wasn’t room for them all). The crowds created an echoing cacophony of noise which added to the chaos. In the end, it was easiest just to submit and wander.
Just north of the City God Temple lie the Yuyuan Gardens, built during the Ming Dynasty, destroyed in numerous wars, and just as frequently rebuilt. In between is the Yuyuan Bazaar — perennially crowded, with the atmosphere of Disneyland, it is filled with (new) buildings in the style of the Ming Dynasty to complement the adjacent Gardens.
The crowds were such that it was nigh impossible to see the buildings; instead, I viewed them from the windows of the dumpling shop, Nan Xiang. Their dumplings are so famous I found the queue before I found the shop. Fortunately, the queue was for the takeaway window, through which you can watch the dumplings being made by a team of cooks.
Upstairs, I overlooked the skyline of the buildings and down to where the Huxinting Teahouse (frequented by Bill Clinton and The Queen) floated on its emerald pond. The Teahouse is reached by the famous zigzag bridge (or Bridge of Nine Turns), designed to deter ghosts and evil spirits who can travel only in straight lines. The bridge was so crowded the evil spirits didn’t stand a chance.
Instead, I turned my attention to food. The dumplings here are unique in being little puffs of soup. The trick to eating them is to first pick up a dumpling with chopsticks and rest it in your spoon, before making a tiny hole with a chopstick to suck out the broth (carefully, as it will be hot). Finally, eat the dumpling; they are simply delicious, and incredibly light. The soup base for each was different, whether crab and prawn, beef, chicken, or any of the myriad of fillings. The shark-fin and abalone came in its own pot, complete with straw so as not to waste any juice.
With its holiday atmosphere, Yuyuan Bazaar is a place of make-believe; searching for how Shanghai once was, however, I took the exit which leads not to the Yuyuan Gardens (which are equally as crowded, and whenever I stood still someone offered their services as a guide) but instead towards Old Shanghai Street. Also known as Fangbang Middle Road, it is reached via Anran Street.
Between these two roads, all the tourists suddenly vanished, and I entered a mish-mash of small streets and laneways, where the washing was strung between old tenements (all 5 stories high), makeshift restaurants stood at every turn, old men played mahjong in sunny corners, and shops had everything for sale — as did the street markets.
The area is now so small in size it often doesn’t appear on tourist maps. The only concession to modernity is the tangle of electricity wires overhead. The streets are only a few steps wide, and both wet and dry markets sprawl the length of the street.
In the wet markets, the whole carcass is cut up and displayed, from the tongue, lungs, heart through to the tail. Alongside tanks of live fish are fresh crabs, toads and turtles; even fresh fish maws are on display.
The winding lanes proved so confusing (and the signage non-existent) that I’m not convinced I even made it to Old Shanghai Street – but the wandering itself was itself an adventure. Turning down an alley I found a man selling postcards and memorabilia of Old Shanghai. His thumbnails were long and filed to an elegant point, in the manner of Mandarins of old.
I headed home as darkness fell, a cool breeze blowing in from The Bund. There was still much of Shanghai to discover, but at least I had tasted both dumplings and Old Shanghai, before both disappear forever.
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