For our first foray into China we joined a group of friends for a weekend in Shanghai. As Australians we required visas. After completing the paperwork, paying a not insignificant fee and surrendering our passports for a few days they were returned to us with a neat visa permitting two visits to China.
Our Friday night flight was delayed, and tired from the week at work we barely glanced out the minibus window as it ferried us to our hotel. Thus we had the delightful experience of throwing open our Shanghai hotel curtains the next morning to the breathtaking view of a Jettson-esque futuristic city. A 60s vintage flying saucer perched atop one building, another was shaped like a vast bottle opener, a third topped like a fountain pen nib and a forth wore a spiky floral crown. Orbs were skewered on a narrow spires to form the distinctive Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and everything gleamed in the morning sunlight – welcome to Shanghai.
Getting around Shanghai can be a bit of a challenge for non-Mandarin speakers. A map or guidebook with the names of locations in Chinese characters should save you the embarrassment of jumping into a cab and then having to climb out again after being unable to communicate your destination to the driver.
First stop was the French Concession where we strolled around leafy Fuxing Park taking in the cosmopolitan array of activities. Families parted on the wide paths to give couples space to tango. The slow flow of tai chi continued unfazed by the small but enthusiastically loud crowd partaking in Chinese opera karaoke. Calligraphers dipped fat brushes with long handles in pots of water and laid out elegant grids of Chinese characters which slowly faded as the water evaporated. Older gentlemen played chess and children raced about the playground as busts of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels watched on stony-faced.
Next stop was Tiánzǐfāng, a labyrinth of narrow traditional longtang alleyways lined with small shops and boutiques selling jewellery, artwork, clothing and crafts, interspersed with cafes, restaurants and bars. A few trinkets and a bite to eat at a sushi restaurant that played death metal and we were on our way to the Bund, a 2km elevated promenade running alongside the Huangpu River. Elegant buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s line the Bund and now house banks and hotels whilst over the river in Pudong a forest of gleaming glass and steel makes for an eye-catching skyline.
Feeling parched we stepped into the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria, a haven of dark wood and soft leather where fans turned lazily overhead. We sipped cocktails, sampled oysters and tried to ignore the noxious cigar smoke as unfortunately China is yet to ban smoking in bars.
Shanghai has a vibrant restaurant scene, but on several independent recommendations we returned to the Bund for dinner at Mr & Mrs Bund. We sipped on creamy lemon tart martinis sprinkled with crackling pop rocks while we perused the never-ending menu, finally deciding on juicy scallops topped with shavings of black truffle and an enormous serve of short ribs. Between courses the boys perched on an oversized chair to play Pacman on an arcade game near our table and the girls took in the view of the Bund from a small astroturfed terrace. A further advantage of dining at Mr & Mrs Bund was that we were able to jump the queue of young beautiful people waiting to get into Bar Rouge, the rooftop bar above the restaurant. Seated on white couches we sipped champagne (that had arrived in a flamboyant flare of fireworks) and watched the sea of people surging along the Bund, the brightly-lit boats passing on the river and the flashing neon of Pudong reflecting in the Huangpu River.
The next morning it was off to 580 Nanjing West Rd, three floors of Chinese souvenirs, bags, shoes, pashminas, watches belts and more – all fake and all cheap. All I needed was a makeup brush and a bottle of nail polish, but I also walked out with two pashminas, two pairs of shoes and three belts. Even my shopping averse husband bought two shirts. With a little haggling everything was purchased at half the initial asking price, with the associated theatrics (I can’t sell it that cheap, I’ll go out of business) and compliments (you have excellent taste, beautiful lady). We later discovered that one of the shirts had a stain, the other was several sizes larger than the tag indicated and one pair of shoes disintegrated after only a few wears, but the other purchases have survived ok so far. Best to heed the old adage – you get what you pay for.
After our shopping expedition it was time for lunch with a view at 100 Century Avenue, a restaurant on the 91st floor of the Park Hyatt in Pudong with spectacular views of the Bund and Pudong, including the Pearl Tower. With steak, seafood, Japanese and Chinese dishes on the menu there was something for everyone but we went for a couple of Shanghainese dishes; drunken chicken and barbequed pigeon. Drunken chicken is a cold dish (as the waitress warned me) of juicy chicken marinated in 10-year-old shaoxing rice wine served in a chilled broth of wine and ginger, delightfully refreshing. The barbeque pigeon formed part of a trio of barbequed meats, pigeon, pork and duck, and was tender with a crispy skin, its rich gamey flavour complimented by the barbeque marinade.
We ended our trip by catching the only magnetic levitation train in commercial operation – the futuristic MagLev. It whizzed us to the airport, the screens reporting a top speed of only 300km/hr during our brief but smooth eight minute ride, far short of its top speed of 430km/hr, but fun all the same. Those with a need for speed would be better advised to visit Shanghai in April when it hosts the Formula One.