China: March 2017 (Part I – Shanghai)
I went into the first leg of this journey having a few preconceived notions about China. Here’s what I expected:
- every place to be sardine-can crowded,
- most foods to be completely obscure and (possibly) distasteful to my pallet,
- people to show little-to-no emotion, and
- horrendous air pollution.
I was only marginally accurate in my expectations … but, there is so much more to China than I ever considered!
I have to begin by saying that our journey through the Middle Kingdom was made exponentially easier by traveling with good friends fluent in Mandarin. Yes, some businesses and taxi drivers do speak limited English, but it is very, very limited. Jeremiah prepared for the trip for about eight months working part-way through Rosetta Stone’s Mandarin program. He also created and printed a list of common phrases, pictures of important things (e.g. noodles, train, toilet, beer) in simplified Chinese characters, and pictures of hotel and train station addresses along our route … I, conversely, flew completely blind and culturally unprepared.
Here is what I learned, in a nut-shell: Chinese are a lovely, proud people. Proud of their culture, skylines, cutting edge technological advancements, photographs, and language. The more I witness and learn, I think they have every right to be proud! There are things in China that make my brain spin (mostly in awe rather than disbelief).
Don’t get me wrong … I am painfully aware of the obvious ecological issues plaguing this vast nation. One day in Shanghai (and worse yet, Xi’an) and my throat and eyes were begging for mercy from the chokingly polluted air. Similarly, my heart sank as we flew over heavily traveled sea cargo lanes, drove through land masses formed from compacted trash, and discarded dizzying volumes of plastic packaging during our stay. This nation is far from perfect, but their accomplishments are wondrous. I believe that more of the world’s future is influenced by China than we may want to admit (for better and worse).
Jeremiah does a marvelous job planning our flights and transportation for all of
our trips. Through trial, error, and word-of-mouth, he has gleaned a handful of little-known travel planning websites that are huge assets if you like to travel and save money. Preparing for this trip he used an online Chinese travel website called C-Trip to book really great deals on airfare.
His favorite go-to lodging website is, hands-down, Agoda. Travelers of all budget ranges (hippy backpackers to high-rollers) can find deep travel discounts to fit their style on both sites. We save hundreds of dollars each year just by using these two websites!
From the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport we enjoyed a sparsely populated direct flight on Hainan Airlines to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. I wish all international flights were this enjoyable (and roomy)! We arrived mid-afternoon on a breezy Tuesday feeling moderately well-rested. Greeted by friends at the airport, we were promptly whisked to the taxi queue and began the 50-60 minute journey into the heart of Shanghai.
As Jeremiah is a huge fan of exceptional views, we allowed ourselves to splurged on a room at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai for this first stop. The hotel itself is gorgeous; rich woods, countless mirrored surfaces, intriguing traditional Chinese design influences, and Hyatt’s impeccable presentation. Our room was located on the 78th floor of this staggeringly tall building.
One entire window wall of our hotel room faced the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center (affectionately nicknamed the ‘Bottle Opener’ by locals), and Shanghai Tower with the Huangpu River winding just beyond. I could have never left that room and still felt as if I had experienced something amazing in Shanghai … but we were just getting started!
Our travel companions have both called Shanghai home at different times in their lives, so they were excited to introduce us to their local friends and enjoy the city’s glamorous nightlife. There was no time for jet lag today! Quickly, we settled into our room and freshened up. Within two hours of our arrival we were, again, out the door.
We met up with an intimate group of vibrant, well-educated friends for dinner and drinks at Hakkasan. I highly recommend at least stopping here for one of master-bartender, Alan’s, scrumptious libations! I fell in love with a rosemary-infused gift to my taste buds called “Jade”. The restaurant is comfortable yet elegant. The dining room offers intimate seating areas decorated in rich jewel tones, supple fabrics and skirted by a stunning view of the Shanghai skyline.
Moving on from the restaurant, our growing group cozied up in a couple of taxis in search of someplace to get our boogie on; we found it at Myst. From the street we could barely hear the faint rhythm pulsing from inside. We climbed the wide, black staircase to the club’s entrance. Almost as if my hesitation was expected, the neon red-lettered sign on the wall of the upper floor’s landing teased, “ARE YOU READY?” I’ll admit it now … my jet-lagged brain was NOT ready for the sensory overload that followed.
The doors swung open into a gymnasium-sized room literally vibrating from the music inside. Blue and white lights pulsed over the teeming mass of dancing bodies on each of the club’s three levels. The entire wall behind the DJ booth was a digital kaleidoscope of light and color, ever changing with the beat of the music. What a party!
As if to punctuate the festivities, confetti rained down on us at regular intervals. We took turns throwing handfuls into the air and dancing it into paste underfoot.
We finally slunk back to our hotel around 6:00am as the sun began to rise over the waking city.
We awoke only a few hours later to the call for a brunch of spicy Chongqing noodles we were told would “change our lives”. These noodles originate from the Chongqing area in southwest China and are called ‘xiao mian’ in Chinese. Xiao mian refers to a group of plain noodles seasoned with vinegar, sugar, red oil, ginger and scallion. Sometimes the noodles and broth may be topped with meat. Noodles in northen China emphasize the soup base and the quality of noodles, while Chongqing noodles are focused on seasonings.
We taxied under the Huangpu River to West Nanjing Road much the same as we had the evening before. As we drove through this sprawling city I couldn’t help but think that all of the storefronts seemed identical. Perhaps not identical … but a succession of the same stores repeated in random order. At one such row of non-descript storefronts we exited the cab, entered an unlabeled, white facade building, and ordered several bowls of spicy beef noodles with peanuts and greens.
Upon arrival, there was nothing noteworthy about the appearance of this restaurant. Workers sat at tables in the back corner mashing peanuts and preparing other foods; customers sat cafeteria-style at long wooden tables and hard, wooden benches; a handful of faded, framed pictures of various soup dishes lined the walls at eye-level, and we even brought our own tissues/napkins and drinks (purchased from the convenience store across the alley). The noodles, however, did make the world right again!
Our oversized bowls were served brimming with crushed peanuts, chopped greens, strips of beef, broth, and noodles hiding below the surface. The slightly oily broth was fiery red throughout, dotted with orange and red chili flecks. We anxiously cooled our dishes and then happily wept as the spice filled our senses (and sinuses). I am so glad I packed extra tissue packets! Even though we were achingly full at the end, friends still eagerly picked over the empty bowls for any morsels left behind.
Late morning gloom turned into rainy afternoon skies and chilling wind. We gathered with friends again as dusk fell and headed out to glimpse the lights of the city. We started the evening with a sunset view from the second highest observatory in the world, the 119th floor of the Shanghai Tower.
Fun Fact: the Shanghai Tower stands, currently, mostly empty. Yes, this 137 floor behemoth of a skyscraper (5 basement levels, 127 floors above ground and 5 podium floors) uses electricity (daily) on every floor, and only operates businesses on a few of the basement levels. Weird, right?!
Anyhow, we wound our way from the entry ticket counter (the price for taking the elevator to the sightseeing deck is CNY 160 per adult, CNY 90 for children between 3.3 and 4.6 feet, and this service is available from 9:00am to 9:00pm) down several levels of spacious escalators to the stark white, and very dotted escalator queue.
Entering the elevator meant passing (for an ever-so-short moment) over a howling gap filled with biting air. The ride was lightning-fast (55 seconds to travel up 119 floors) and so smooth. As we reached our stop, the car swayed and stalled in its tracks and sent all our stomachs to our feet. Jeremiah glanced down the chasm while exiting and stopped in his tracks. He held onto the door, swayed, and giggled nervously. I hate heights, so I nudged him impatiently forward without looking into the abyss between.
The mouth of the elevator emptied into a beautiful yet simple doughnut-shaped space ringing together an observatory deck, gift shop, gut-clenching simulated shattering glass floor (complete with sound), seated cafe area, and local-area history placards. On the north side, the evening’s storm whipped rain against the glass and only offered limited visibility. The southeast lit up bright along the winding industrial riverside. Finally, the sun went down in the west beyond the Bund area in a haze of smog and rain. Every visitor walked laps around the observatory taking in the enormity of the structure as an accomplishment … and the view didn’t hurt!
I imagine that vantage probably allowed you to see for 50 miles on a high-visibility day. The Shanghai World Financial Center appeared dwarfed by the new Shanghai Tower and I couldn’t help but be amazed at how quickly the Chinese culture strives for the next great thing, even to the end of one-upping itself. I heard there is another tower being built in China now which will be taller than the Shanghai Tower … wow!
Admittedly, the sunset in Shanghai wasn’t nearly as beautiful as the colored lights that began to dazzle us from the land below.
The landscape of Shanghai at night is stunning. Bright, dazzling lights adorning buildings, new and old, in a wash of vivid color. What an amazing time to take lifestyle photographs of some great people! On the city streets of Shanghai, at the feet of these glass and steel sentinels we were (moments before) standing atop, the love for Shanghai our friends share came alive in electric images.
We played with depth and perspective to capture the scale of the surroundings and had a blast creating a long exposure image of the couple hugging amidst the busyness of Nanjing Road (know as one of the most traveled shopping streets in the world). Across the Huangpu River on the Bund, Jeremiah was able to capture the couple’s favorite view, the whole Shanghai skyline, with them front and center.
Location photography sessions in an area of significance to a couple are always special! The subjects’ familiarity and pride in their surroundings comes across in the images we create … the results are magical.
We rounded out the evening with a late-night supper of grilled frog, pickled and spiced green beans, and a whole baked fish at an unassuming roadside cafe and liquor mart. I had never tried frog before and was pleasantly surprised. The mild white-meat flavor of frog is worthwhile, but I did find that the little bones throughout proved difficult when trying to negotiate with chopsticks … I managed fine once I got the hang of things, though.
As the city slowly grew quiet and the glistening lights of storefronts fell dark in the late night hours, we walked contentedly back to our hotel for much needed rest. Tomorrow we would board a fast train for Xi’an and the ancient Terracotta Warrior Army excavation and exhibit site. Although exhausted, we each buzzed with excitement for the adventure to come.
Until next time … Safe travels,
Shaunna & Jeremiah