Sweating in Sweet Shanghai

Shanghai is a bit French, a dash British, part Russian, kind of American, Chinese to the core, and on a fast track to the future.

Sweating in Sweet Shanghai

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by midtownmjd on August 19, 2007

Shanghai was the city my friends and I came up with when we wanted to add a leg to our Beijing trip and didn’t think we had time for Hong Kong. It was my introduction to China, and to Asia, so I was bound to have tons of observations and opinions. Aside from complaining about the July heat as though I didn’t grow up in Georgia, my impressions were completely positive. I ended up loving the city and its fascinating mix of old, new, and everything in between.

For me, one of the city’s biggest surprise highlights was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, located in Renmin Park near the lauded Shanghai Museum. It’s one of the best museums I’ve been to in a long time; notwithstanding propaganda celebrating the displacement of many Shanghai citizens in the name of development, its six stories beautifully present many captivating exhibits.

I also loved exploring the two banks of the Huangpu River: the Bund and Pudong. The Bund’s European heritage and Pudong’s futuristic skyline couldn’t be more different, but they encapsulate two major stories of Shanghai’s history and offer a lot of interesting sights.

Yu Yuan Garden is another must-see spot. I could have spent many more hours than I did wandering its traditional Chinese temples, lakes, bridges, and flora. Its style is reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City, but on a much more human, intimate scale. The bazaar-like streets leading from Shanghai’s Old City to Yu Yuan were fun too.

My nighttime highlight was the view from the swanky Cloud 9 bar at the top of the Hyatt in Jin Mao Tower. It was a much nicer place than the bars in which I can usually be found abroad, but with the favorable exchange rate, we treated ourselves to drinks high above the city lights. We went from there to Hengshan Rd. in the former French Concession, one of the hearts of Shanghai’s social scene. The French Concession is well west of central Shanghai, but it’s worth the cab ride for the variety of restaurants and bars that fill the tree-lined colonial boulevards.${QuickSuggestions} While there aren’t a ton of attractions on the Pudong side of the Huangpu River, it’s well worth a visit. You’ll get a great view of the Bund, along with a taste of the future. Skyscrapers fill the sky as far as you can see, and the architecture is brilliant. (I especially love the globe-flanked Convention Center.) Go during the day and again at night for different views of (and from) the Jin Mao Tower, the tallest building in Shanghai. The district's modernity gives way to some original Shanghai neighborhoods, offering a comparison and forcing you to consider the future of these alleys and their residents.

To get to Pudong from the Bund, climb downstairs to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel for a 5-minute ride on a French-built tram. As you traverse the river underground, you’re treated to a trippy simulation of traveling through the earth’s core. It’s an easy way to cross the river and worth it for the kitsch factor (35 yuan, or less than $5). My favorite features were two figures waving us through the “hell” portion of the trip. It’s quirky and fun, but there’s no need for a round-trip ticket.

In Pudong, skip the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower and head to the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower for a free bird's-eye-view of Shanghai. This view is from a higher vantage point than the touristy TV Tower—and includes the TV Tower in it. Have a drink at the building’s rooftop bar or eat at one of its restaurants—but make reservations!

Shanghai is transforming at warp speed, so bring the most recent guidebook you can find, no matter the brand. I had oodles of background information from my Rough Guide, but none of it mattered when it came to figuring out where we were lost or which sights to visit (my favorite, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, was too new to appear in my 2005 guidebook).

If at all possible, avoid summer. July was 100 degrees and humid enough to feel much hotter.

Beware of scammers looking to charge you for "tea festivals." They're usually a man and a woman claiming to be students around Renmin Park.

Duck into the Bund's lobbies; many have concession-era painted domes, some with balconies for grabbing a drink or lunch.

To recuperate from walking all day, spend a few dollars on a luxurious hourlong foot massage, found everywhere.${BestWay} If you arrive at Pudong International Airport, 25 miles east of Shanghai, the most exciting way to make the trek into the city is via the maglev train. This high-speed train glides while suspended over a track, but it only runs during the day. Since we arrived after 9pm, we turned to an equally smooth Plan B. An expat in the immigration line told us that the cheapest way to get to Shanghai is to take an airport bus into the city, so we took bus #5 to the first stop after the river (an hour’s ride) and took a cab from there to our hotel. The cost of the bus depends on how far you ride; our trip cost 16 yuan (about $2) apiece. Airport maps tell you which bus to take, and an attendant stows suitcases and sells tickets onboard.

You can see most of Shanghai on foot; in fact, many must-see spots, including the Bund and commercial hub Nanjing Lu, are pedestrian-only stretches. Crossing the street is stressful, though, with zigzagging cars, bikes, and scooters bypassing traffic lights.

Cabs are an excellent alternative for longer stretches. The starting fare is 11 yuan and meters climb slowly. Always have your destination written in Chinese, whether you get it on the Internet or from hotel employees. Drivers won’t speak English and maps won’t help. Every driver we had was helpful and determined though; one pulled over and got out twice to get directions to an obscure Internet café (he also hit a woman with his rearview mirror, but she seemed unharmed despite an ominous thump). With five people, we had to take two cabs, and drivers didn’t mind waiting for a second cab at all. The fact that I was in a cab that hit a lady and I’m still raving about Shanghai cab drivers is indicative of their quality.

We departed Shanghai by train from Shanghai Station, one of two rail stations. It’s a chaotic scene, but easy enough to navigate and the overnight train to Beijing was top-notch. We had a four-person soft sleeper room and one extra bed on a Z-class train (the newest class). Having suffered miserable nights on trains in Europe and the US, we splurged, and it was well worth the 499-yuan and 479-yuan costs. (Amounts vary slightly for upper or lower bunks.) Each car had one Chinese-style and one Western-style bathroom.

Metropole Hotel

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on August 20, 2007

Just like the rest of Shanghai, the Metropole Hotel pleasantly surprised me. The only hint that it dates to 1930 is the authenticity of its Art Deco design—a welcoming yet sophisticated small lobby, special attention paid to light fixtures, three gilded elevators. Other than that, it’s all about modern conveniences at budget prices—about $50 per night for a room with two double beds. It’s a big hotel, housing 141 guest rooms in addition to restaurants and conference areas, but it felt intimate and we didn’t see many other guests.

We booked online directly with the hotel at www.metropolehotel-sh.com/l-en.htm; the process was seamless, and we paid on arrival. The hotel happily accommodated our late check-in (I sent an email in advance), and employees at the front desk spoke English beautifully. Bellmen took care of our bags (refusing tips), both bringing them to our rooms and storing them off the lobby the day we checked out. Metropole employees were also instrumental in hailing our cabs and explaining to the drivers where we were trying to go.

The level of furnishings and service is comparable to a Marriott. We had an extra cot placed in one of our rooms (for a fee), and they whisked it right up with extra toiletries, including slippers, in tow. The rooms had TVs, minibars, coffeemakers, and comfortable beds (in typical Chinese style, they were very firm and covered with duvets). Safes were available at the front desk (for "safedeeping," as the hotel’s card explains).

The Metropole’s location is perfect: about a block off the Bund in a circle lined with restaurants and businesses. It’s an easy walk to the Old City and the lovely Yu Yuan Garden, and cabs are plentiful. Despite the central location, rooms weren’t particularly loud. And most importantly, they were comfortably air-conditioned. Our street view wasn’t pretty—perhaps unfairly tainted by Ugly Naked Guy in the apartment building across the way—but I loved that my daylight introduction to China was to look down from my 6th-floor window to watch rush hour unfold on hundreds of bicycles and scooters.

I’d recommend the Metropole to budget travelers and big spenders alike. I thought that for the level of comfort and service, the room rates were a steal. After that, you can splurge as much or as little as you like; we passed up the hotel’s fairly expensive breakfast buffet for noodles at a nearby restaurant. Overall, though, the Metropole offers a delightful treat for backpackers or a reliable room for business travelers.
Metropole Hotel
180 Jiangxi Zhong Road
Shanghai, 200002
+86 (21) 63213030

Yu Yuan Gardens & Bazaar

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on August 20, 2007

We spent our first morning in Shanghai wandering until we reached the Old City, which led us right to the entrance of Yu Yuan Garden. I was a little skeptical of paying a 30-yuan entrance fee for a garden I’d never heard of, but Yu Yuan is not your average city park. Covering nearly 5 acres and dating back to the 16th century, it is the finest example of classical Chinese gardens in Shanghai, and reportedly one of the best in China. It’s been restored and opened to the public in the last half-century, and it retains the regal beauty that its imperial founder intended when he created it to please his parents.

The garden is laid out in a traditional, urban Suzhou style, with characteristic wavy roofs, zigzagged bridges (to keep evil spirits, who can only move in straight lines, at bay), and water features. The ponds, some full of hungry koi and others lined with dragon waterspouts, were highlights.

Around every corner is a building or rock formation awaiting discovery. We especially enjoyed our first taste of the intricate dragons, elephants, and other figures living on roofs all over China. There are peepholes, windows, carvings, and hanging lanterns in every shape and color you can imagine. There were moderate crowds, but the environment is so pleasing (and the garden big enough) that it feels quieter and more private than it probably is.

There’s a revolving art exhibit in the middle of the garden, which during our visit featured paintings from three Chinese artists that seemed right at home in the classical setting.

I’d love to have spent more time wandering the grounds. If I do return, I hope it’s during the Chinese New Year, when 10,000 lanterns light up the garden. I’d also spend more time in the entrance area, Yu Yuan Old St., to buy local crafts and souvenirs. I always wait until the last second to buy gifts, but this street had one of the biggest selections we saw and would’ve been a good place to stop and haggle.

Another place to stop is the adjoining Huxin Ting teahouse pavilion, famous for hosting guests like Queen Elizabeth and Bill Clinton, but open to everyone. Sitting near the entrance to Yu Yuan, it looked like a great place to sip tea and watch the world go by, but it was morning and we weren’t ready to take a break just yet. On the flip side, there’s a Starbucks across the square if you just need a quick caffeine jolt. And a Dairy Queen, should you need a dipped cone for any reason. OK, I mock, but I did buy bottled water there. Yu Yuan Garden is open every day from 8:30am to 5pm.
YuYuan Garden/Yu Garden
Center of Shanghai's Old City
Shanghai, China

Cloud 9

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on September 9, 2007

Glamour comes naturally to much of Shanghai, and Cloud 9 is the place to embrace the city’s film-noir sensibility. In fact, I can’t imagine a trip there would be complete without a drink at this bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower (the top floor of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai in Pudong), particularly if it follows dinner at one of the Hyatt’s popular high-end restaurants. The modern landmark is worth a visit just to see the soaring 34-floor atrium—from the bottom and then from the top—but the view from Cloud 9 is the tower’s real draw. One of the highest bars in the world, it literally sits above the clouds, but on a perfectly clear night, that vantage point is perfect.

We went on a Monday night, and there were only a few other customers (mostly hotel guests and couples on dates) in the large, lounge-y bar, but that gave us easy access to clear views from any window we wanted. We walked the 360 degrees around the bar’s perimeter to take in the city from every angle, and enjoyed the up-close views of the building’s own modern architecture as well. Then we sat at a booth and tried a variety of things from the extensive drink menu, from champagne to cocktails to tea. The prices were pretty reasonable by US standards (about $8 for a mixed drink), although it’s certainly one of the more expensive bars in Shanghai. It was a great place to kick off our night out, but we moved on before the tab got too high.

Cloud 9’s furnishings and atmosphere are dark and muted, although this impression was probably amplified by the lack of customers. Service was prompt and polite, but language was, understandably, a bit of a barrier. We felt completely unhurried and catered to, though—and kind of Bond-ish as well. The best feature is the way the bar wraps around the floor—every customer can see the view from every table.

The bar opens at 6pm Monday through Friday and 11am Saturday and Sunday, and closes between 1am and 2am each night.

The Jin Mao Tower is a quick and inexpensive taxi ride from the Shanghai side of the Huangpu River, or you can cross by tunnel and find your way to the building by sight. After our visit to Cloud 9, the tower’s helpful first-floor concierges helped us get cabs and choose our next destination.
Cloud 9
2 Shi Ji Boulevard
Shanghai, China, 200121
+86 (0)21 5049 1234

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on September 9, 2007

I never would have gleaned from the name of this museum how entertaining it is or how much I’d love it. Located adjacent to Renmin Park and across from the Shanghai Museum, it’s a brand-new building with a beautifully stark, mostly glass design. Its six floors are wonderfully planned (à propos for the subject, I suppose), with an open atrium in the center of the first few floors.

We paid the 40-yuan entrance fee and were immediately delighted by the lobby’s offerings: air-conditioning and restrooms. After we got over our thankfulness for these small miracles, we were even more taken with the lobby’s grander offerings: a golden, two-story model of Shanghai’s most famous skyscrapers and a smaller-scale model of the city in the future. Everything was completely accessible, so you could move around it and even touch the model (maybe too accessible—my friend promptly knocked over an 8-inch skyscraper).

After climbing the escalator to the next floor, we found even more interesting exhibits, mostly made up of models and photographs of the city’s past, current, and projected buildings. It was around this time that we became equally interesting to the school groups visiting the museum; we were asked to stop and pose in their pictures every few minutes. In between photo ops, we really enjoyed the visuals, even if actual background information in English was sparse.

The third and fourth floors are where the trip really becomes worthwhile; they house a scale model of Shanghai in 2020, with colored buildings representing buildings that exist today and clear ones representing vast future projects. The model takes up the entire floor and can be viewed from above on the next floor as well. As we walked around it, a worker crouched in the middle of the fake Huangpu River, painstakingly adding trees and bushes to its banks. The entire model is a visual masterpiece.

The next floor is devoted to temporary art exhibits. While we were there, there was one examining Austrian art in public spaces and one featuring scenes of Provence painted in Shanghai. Both were well worth a look. No one else ducked into these during our visit, and it was nice to enjoy the art in private (save one sleepy guard in the corner).

The top floor provided a glimpse into the mindset with which the government is pursuing the urban projects we learned about on previous floors. Multimedia exhibits present a whitewashed view of the displacement of citizens and traditional housing so that bulldozers can make room for the new skyscrapers. It was disturbing to take in the propaganda after seeing such beautiful, glossy representations of the Shanghai of the future. All of the floors add up to a great look at urban planning, though, and I can’t think of a city where that would be a more relevant or fascinating subject.

The museum is open 9am-5pm Monday through Thursday, and 9am-6pm Friday through Sunday. It offers a restaurant and a gift shop.
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
100 Ren Min Boulevard, People's Square
Shanghai, China, 200003
+86 (0)21 6372 2077


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