Despite Shanghais dogged march into the future and its obcession with chrome, glass and making buildings even taller - there is still enough Old China left in Shanghai to excite visitors.
For tucked away is the Yu Yuan gardens which is a touch of classical China. The China of the Ming vases and winged pagodas. The Yu Yuan gardens and bazaar take you to an era of humpbacked bridges, goldfish filled ponds and drooping willows. The China of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Old Cathay is still here, although wrapped in tourist silk for Shanghais many visitors. Foreign suits are shown Yu Yuan on their business trips to Shanghai - and in response it is a little like a Chinese Disneyland. But considering it is the only thing like it amongst the modernity of this go-getting city - I think we can forgive Yu Yuan a little gaudiness. It sometimes comes across as a "Chinatown" in the middle of a very Western looking Chinese city.
Yu Yuan has survived nearly five hundred years. It was originally created for the governor of Sichuan province in the 16th Century. It lies in the Old City, which is to the south of the "foreign concessions" and once was the village of Nanshi which has been around for about 2,000 years. The Old City was surrounded by a three mile section of walls which were torn down in the sixties to become the very busy road Renmin Lu. The area within the walls was nearly totally Chinese as well as being squalid and overcrowded and the gardens themselves became neglected and careworn before being rescued in the 18th century.
To reach the gardens head south from Nanjing Lu or the Bund until you hit the curves of Renmin Lu. Just keep going south, until you see the beginning of the bazaar stalls and under the 'dragon arch'. Then you know you are entering Yu Yuan bazaar.
To get to the gardens you have to traverse the bazaar. This area has been completely rebuilt in mock Qing and Ming dynasty styles. Tourists lose themselves in a warren of narrow shoplined lanes stuffed to the hilt with antique crafts and art, foodstuffs and jewellry. Shop after shop sells jade chess sets, ornate fans, silk kimonos, lanterns and ivory screens. I must admit I loved it. In a world of glass skyscrapers the sheer strength of Chinese culture was a tonic for a man like me. The only problem was where was the entrance to the fabled gardens?
You blunder into the entrance at the heart of the bazaar. In front of walls crenallated with dragons was a lake overlooked by a magnificent mohoghany Chinese teahouse. The teahouse, called Huxtingting, stands above fishfilled waters on stilts. It is an impressive sight with curving dragon wings, slatted windows, streaked red paint and has been serving cups of cha for 400 years. To reach it you must cross a zig-zag bridge, made because supposedly 'evil spirits' cannot turn 90 degree corners. I had a look in the teahouse and it does have an 18th century ambience with tea being served in clay cups and gnarled old men smoking in alcoves. Back in 1985 I remember the Queen paying a visit to Shanghai and she came here, it may be twenty years ago, but I can still hear a Shanghaiese playing "English country garden" to her on the pan-pipes.
It costs 30 yuan to enter the gardens. First of all, these are not gardens laid out in a big open space but a set of white walled compounds with one leading into another. Sprinkled amongst the compounds are about thirty pavilions, lakes, pagodas, bridges etc. Everything is laid out like a work of art. The first few compounds had rockeries of white limestone and were made interesting by water trickling down to a set of ponds. Bamboo groves dotted each rockerie as did firs and chrysanthemums, statues of ancient Chinese gods reared up from the flower beds, dragons snaked sinuously around the compound walls and stone snarling lions guarded each exit.
Rock was the overwhelming feature of the gardens, with some pieces so big they incoorporated passages that led you Narnia-like to hidden pavilions where watercolour artists were at work. But the overwhelming feeling was of peace and tranquility, everytime you stepped into another compound you were embraced by a scene showing willow brushed ponds crossed by arced bridges full of koi carp. Or a pagoda soaring into the air from a clump of bamboo..
I was sorry to eventually leave Yu Yuan. It is the China of the watercolour paintings and has made me want to see more of the country. Easily the highlight of my two-night stay in Shanghai.