China Travels March 2017 (Part I – Shanghai)

China: March 2017 (Part I – Shanghai)

Many English signs and product descriptions are misspelled in China; a fun game if you pay attention

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!

Native speaking travel friends is a huge bonus when traveling in China

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.

Shanghai is vivid, busy, and full of things to look at everywhere

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).

One of at least a dozen nuclear power plants I saw from the train line to Xi’an

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

Ctrip is a Chinese website offering great deals on airfare

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.

Agoda is a great online discount lodging tool for international travelers

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!

Our Hainan Airlines direct flight from Seattle, Washington to Shainghai, China was comfortable and spacious

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.

Looking down from the 78th floor is mesmerizing and dizzying

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.

Even though these buildings vary greatly in height, they all tower above the city streets below

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!

This adventurous couple shares a kiss under the captivating Shanghai skyline they love.

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.

Hakkasan Shanghai is a beautiful stop for dinner or a quick drink before a night on the town.

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.

Club Myst in Shanghai really knows how to rock a Tuesday night

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.

Colored lights, confetti and music on an unassuming Tuesday evening at Myst in Shanghai

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.

Morning or night, chongqing noodles are an exciting treat in China

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.

After this meal of spicy Chongqing noodles our group left full and happy

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!

Chongqing noodles have a wonderful flavor and zesty broth

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.

Standing on the street below these enormous Shanghai skyscrapers gives a small idea of their enormity

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?!

The architecture of the Shanghai Tower is beautiful and intricate (even down to the details at the basement escalator)

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.

Friends having fun in front of the amazing view from the observatory floor of the Shanghai Tower

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.

West-facing dusk view from the Shanghai Tower of the bustling city below

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!

Shanghai Financial Building and River view from the observatory deck of the Shanghai Tower

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.

Playful couples in spectacular cities make taking amazing photos fun!

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.

Young vibrant, couple under Shanghai neon night sky

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.

Late night bites at a no-name shop don’t get much better than this … frog, fish, and spicy green beans, oh my!

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *