Many friends and colleagues had told me that Shanghai was the most European of all Chinese cities. This is very true but one part of the city that is still very traditional is the Old Town. The hotel we stayed in was situated on the edge of the Old Town so I didn't have to walk far to investigate. On the second morning of our visit I went walkabout on my own and had a great time,so many streets, buildings, old temples to see.
Walking down the main stretch is just like all the other major streets in Shanghai, it was only when I turned off on to the backstreets that the hidden underground world opened up. The side streets are dark, narrow and crowded. People, people everywhere! It was fascinating to observe these small gentle people weaving between cyclists, traffic and carts as they crossed the streets. I had to keep turning around to see what was behind me as not all cyclists beeped their bells or drivers honked their horns. I could see with my own eyes how ordinary people lived in these tiny streets, how they cooked in the open with pots and pans lined on the pathways with a sort of gutter running down the street. I hate to think what the yellowy coloured liquid was that ran into the gutter. At a guess I would say it was a mixture of drained rice water mixed with urine. Some of the houses were so ramshackle that there was no way they had bathrooms or even toilets.
Life is definitely apparent on these tatty streets and all tasks are carried on outside. Mod cons haven't reached this part of Shanghai yet. Ladies sat on street corners with big red washing bowls washing and wringing out clothes, then hanging them on lines along the street so the clothes could dry by flapping in the warm wind. The smell of greasy cooking and petrol fumes permeated the wet clothes and my nostrils, at times I felt quite nauseous with the aroma of smelly drains, urine and the sweet smell of dumplings.
The noise of so many people chattering at once and the sounds from the traffic can be a bit off-putting and at times I thought I was going to go mad but it didn't stop me investigating every nook and cranny. I could never work out whether the small establishments that housed 2 tables with huge pans of rice on the top, 6 tatty chairs and a stove outside, were cafes or just the working kitchens of the people sat on the chairs. It was also exciting when I came eye to eye with a golden Buddha or a stone lion. These usually belonged to a mildewed temple or nunnery but I would never have known as there weren't any signs telling me this.
I was out and about in the streets of the Old Town for a full day and I would say that I didn't see many foreign visitors. My guess is that tourists like to visit the Old Town to go to the YuYuan Bazaar where you can certainly pick up a knick knack or two. This is an interesting and fun experience but I wouldn’t have missed my walk around the alleyways and dark streets of the Old Town for anything. I saw the real Shanghai and its inhabitants, one of the reasons I went to China in the first place.