Shanghai & Hangzhou, China

Shanghai:

As soon as we got into Shanghai (after our 5 hour high speed train from Beijing), the first thing we wanted to do was get out there and check out the Bund. We picked up L+B from their hotel and walked down East Nanjing Road (the main pedestrian street of Shanghai) and one of the most famous streets in the city, toward the water. We could immediately see how high-end and cosmopolitan this city was going to be, with its streets lined with fancy stores and shopping malls. Shanghai is known as the city of fashion, and after just a few minutes, we could already tell that its nickname would fit the bill. We were staying right around East Nanjing Road and the Bund and it was pretty amazing, because as fancy and high-end this area was, you crossed one street (to our street) and it turned completely local, with cheap food and shops, and a much more local feel. It’s always very cool to us when a city can go from very fancy to very local in just a few steps, and this aspect of Shanghai reminded us of Bangkok.

It was a rainy and cloudy afternoon, so some of the views across the river of the famous skyline of Padong were covered in clouds, but it was still impressive with skyscrapers galore, including the famous Pearl Tower and the World Financial Center (the two tallest buildings in the line-up). All along the bund, on our side of the river, were older historical buildings, and the whole set up reminded me of walking down South Michigan Ave. in Chicago. By the time we were done walking around, we were all getting hungry, so we picked a good-looking restaurant (Grandma’s Kitchen) from our book and went to check it out. We were sold after seeing their big picture menu and their specialty of braised pork (we also got their other specialty, egg and tomato, three-cup chicken, sweet and sour eel, and a veggie). It was all delicious, and we’d finally figured out the perfect amount of food to order for the four of us – 3 entrees and 2 apps/sides.

Since most of our time in Beijing had been spent seeing much older sights, we decided to start our tour of Shanghai with the newer side of it (we’d save the Old City for the following day). It was still raining, but we were all ready with our umbrellas, ponchos, and mine and Dave’s sweet new rain shoes which we picked  up for $3 each.  We checked out People’s Square and the Shanghai History Museum (unfortunately the museum we really wanted to see, which highlighted Shanghai’s future, rather than its past – we’d seen a similar exhibit in Kuala Lumpur that we loved – was closed on Mondays) and then went for a great lunch of soup dumplings on Huangpi road, which is filled with lots of dumpling shops (our book calls it a food street, but it’s really more of a restaurant street).

After lunch, we headed over to Padong to see what that was all about. Linda and Bob had originally wanted to go to the top of one of the towers to see the view, but since the weather and the view that day wasn’t so great, we just walked around for a bit near the Peal Tower. We wanted to go back to our side of the river through the “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” which we mistakenly thought would just be a free tunnel that we could walk through. Instead, it was more of a light show, which you could ride a little train through for $8. We opted out of this experience and just went back to the train for 50 cents. We all think that this might be the cheapest train system we’ve seen in any city before!

Later in the evening, we headed to Xintiandi in the French Concession. This area is very fancy and cute, with a series of alleyways filled with fancy and trendy restaurants, all with outdoor seating. We walked through and picked our favorite to sit down at for a drink before dinner. It was definitely a fun place for people watching. Once we’d finished our drinks, we walked a little deeper into the French Concession (it’s a huge area, with Xintiandi just being one condensed little part of it) and found a Hunan place for dinner.  This was probably the spiciest meal we’d had to date and every dish was filled with chilies. Dave and I wanted to try something new, so we ordered the Hunan bullfrog, which we’d seen on several other menus and had been wanting to try. B+L ordered a shrimp dish and we all shared an order of ribs and chicken wings, Hunan style.

Our second day in Shanghai, we spent the morning in the Old City. It was a very cute area with lots of traditional Chinese architecture. We walked around the Yu Gardens and then the huge market surrounding it, where we all bought the last of our souvenirs and gifts. Then, we headed to Tienzifang in the French Concession, which our book describes as the new Xintiandi. This area is a little less fancy but just as trendy. It’s another big series of alleyways filled with shops and restaurants, which we explored for a while. I really liked this area a lot and could have spent more time here, but we were all getting hungry for lunch, so shopping time was over. We were all needing a little break from Chinese food, so Dave and I picked up a couple slices of pizza from (believe it or not) a place called Chicago Pizza (or something like that) and B+L went into the food court by the train station that we’d seen on our way out, and at our recommendation, picked up Hot Star, the huge Taiwanese fried chicken place that Dave and I had tried in Taipei (which also has a location in Bangkok among other places).

We had a few hours to relax in the afternoon before we were all meeting up for dinner. Since it wasn’t raining (and unbelievably hadn’t all day), Dave and I took advantage of the weather and went for a run on the Bund. Of course, this was the first time that we had been able to see to the very tops of all of the buildings… but we didn’t bring our camera. We didn’t want to miss the photo-op, so we asked a girl if she would take a picture of us on her phone and email it to us. She agreed and after we got to talking, we learned that she was actually an English teacher in Shanghai and had been living there for about 6 months so far. She’d wanted to teach in Thailand, but had a hard time getting a job because she wasn’t a native speaker (though she was definitely fluent, from what I could tell from our short conversation). We’re still waiting for an email from her with our picture, but I have high hopes.

For dinner that night, we’d seen a few really good-looking restaurants right near our guesthouse. Since our guesthouse had a really nice rooftop patio, L+B decided to come to our place before dinner for a bottle of wine (and some Facebook checking – they haven’t been able to see Facebook since they arrived in China because they don’t have a VPN). The second they got to our place it started to pour (good timing!) so we hid out there for a while, Linda checking Facebook and Bob and Dave playing pool. We even got to video chat with Tracy for a few minutes to wish her a happy birthday (and see Jack!).  Also, amazingly, our guesthouse has a movie night every Tuesday playing very recent movies. We didn’t watch, but this week they were playing the new Mad Max, which we’d seen just a few weeks earlier. We guess that this is how they get around not getting many American movies here.  We went to dinner and ordered some traditional Chinese favorites (eg, sweet and sour pork, fried noodles, beef and broccoli, etc) before splitting up for the night. Dave and I made one last stop over at the Bund for one more view and then headed home to bed. We had an early morning the next morning for our next stop to Hangzhou.

We really enjoyed our time in Shanghai and China, in general, has continued to pleasantly surprise us. It’s so much cleaner, friendlier, more modern, and even more livable than we thought it would be. So far, we’re big fans, and I expect that we’ll continue to be pleasantly surprised in Hong Kong/Macau, the last two big cities of our trip. Hopefully our feeling won’t change once we get out of the big cities, but I’m hoping that even if getting around is more difficult once we’re in more rural areas, the places we’ll seeing will make it worth it. We’ll start to see in Hangzhou tomorrow.

HANGZHOU:

Before arriving, we thought Hangzhou, known for its famous West Lake (which Marco Polo once described by saying, “there is heaven, and then there is Hangzhou.”) was going to be a small little lake town. We were staying near the Old Town area (and near the main train station and West Lake Ave. which we assumed would be the main part of the city). Our part of the city had that smaller town feel, but then later in the day (when we got to the main part of the city around the lake) we realized that in fact, Hangzhou is a city of 6 million people, which I guess is “small” for China, where the big cities have 25-30 million.

Dave and I were staying overnight in Hangzhou, while Bob and Linda decided to make it only a day trip and go back to Shanghai before meeting us in Hong Kong the following day. We took the hour-long fast train from Shanghai and after dropping our stuff at our hotel, we all made our way over to the lake. We are always amazed and shocked when we go somewhere and ask someone to direct us to the main attraction of the area (many times this is in a small town where there is only one attraction for tourists) and they look at us like we’re crazy and have no idea what we’re talking about. Even if we don’t have the name for “West Lake” in Chinese, you would think that just because this is what people come to visit Hangzhou for, everyone would know/recognize that name. Of course, like so many times before, that wasn’t the case at all. It’s happened so often that I’m not sure why we’re still so shocked by it, but it just seems pretty crazy.

We finally found the lake (with little help from the locals – we could already tell that the language barrier was getting more difficult outside of the really big cities), and it was beautiful, despite the crummy weather. It’s a very big lake surrounded by parks and paths and shops with beautiful trees and flowers all around, overlooking the lake which is filled with boats and mountains in the background.

Our two options for the day were to take a buggie around the lake or take a boat on tour the lake. At first, we thought we’d be able to hire a private buggie of some kind to take us around, and this was our first choice, but when we got there, we realized that the only option was to go in a big golf-cart like thing with about 10 other people and a Chinese speaking tour guide. As soon as we saw that, this option lost all its appeal. Instead, we opted for the boat (55 yuan pp), which takes you to an island in the middle of the lake and then to different points around the lake (we later learned that you can go from anywhere on the lake to the island and then take one ride back to wherever you want – we originally thought that we could go anywhere/everywhere, as many times and as often as we wanted). We started by going to the island, which was very beautiful. In fact, one point on the island is the photo on the 1 yuan bill, which I learned after seeing people taking pictures of their money right in front of the scenic spot. After walking around there for a while, we had to choose another boat ride to take. We ended up on the boat to Hubin Park, and it’s lucky that we did. This ended up being the last ride we were able to take and luckily, it took us back into the city (the actual city, not the area where we were staying – this is where we discovered just how big Hangzhou actually is).

After walking around the city for a while and picking up another fried chicken from Hot Star for Bob (he’s in love), we put B+L back on the train to Shanghai. From there, Dave and I decided to walk home so we could get a little more time around the lake. We ended up back by us and in the Old Town, with lots of stands and shops selling all sorts of souvenirs and food. We walked around there for a little while, but Dave wasn’t feeling very well, so we headed back to our place to have a relaxing night in. It was just what we needed after a busy week with Linda and Bob.

Hangzhou was a nice stop for a day and it was nice to have a break from the big cities (even though this proved to be one too) and get a little bit of nature. I’m not sure that I would agree with Marco Polo about it being better than heaven, but the lake was very nice. I’m sure had it been a beautiful, sunny day, it would have been even more beautiful and enjoyable, but at least the rain didn’t stop us from doing anything we wanted to do.

Now off to our last stop with L + B, and our last big Chinese city, Hong Kong (followed by a night in Macau) before Dave and I head west for three weeks to explore the natural wonders of China.

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