So my first visit to Shanghai was a brief one, only staying one night, and spending most of the day running between embassy buildings chasing visa paperwork. I managed to take a couple of photos and have a drink in a a hostel bar with a couple of other local teachers, but it left me wanting more. The first tier city seemed a far cry from the rural norm we are used to, and a completely different side of China. I resolved to get back there as soon as possible and have a better look around. Little did I know that opportunity would come after just two weeks, when Sam said she wanted to go somewhere exciting for Christmas.
China doesn’t celebrate Christmas as anything other than a minor shopping occasion, and it isn’t a national holiday, so it’s still possible to do things spontaneously, without booking a dinner table or a hotel room 6 months in advance, luckily. We threw some clothes in a duffel bag, picked up some last minute train tickets, and booked a double room in my regular hostel on the way.
Unfortunately neither of us are the kind of anoraks that get excited by trains, but if we were, China would be our paradise. The stations looks like airports, complete with waiting lounges, gates, and security checkpoints, but the queues are quick and the staff helpful. After 4 and a half silky smooth hours on a bullet train, slicing through rural China at almost 200mph, we alighted at an almost identical super-station in Shanghai.You could legitimately set your watch by their punctuality.
Below in the metro station, (equally pristine, we may have invented the underground but there are no prizes for coming first in this race, it seems everyone who has done it since has done it bigger and better) you can buy an unlimited 3 day travel pass for £4.50 that will take you to within a 10 minute walk of anywhere in the city.
First stop was the hostel, to unload the luggage and get set up. they recognised me from my previous stay, and after a little querying of visas and looking up paperwork, we were in. Much like any hostel, they foyer and public rooms were filled with the usual gap year students and seasoned travellers, all eager to swap stories and share recommendations. We didn’t stay long, and headed back out on the metro, aiming for the central shopping streets and tourist destinations.
The waterfront promenade area known as “the Bund” is genuinely spectacular. As you stand on the embankment, behind you are the stately monuments to Shanghai’s history, a brilliantly lit-up wall of old consulates, banks, trading houses and hotels are a rival for any other street of classical architecture I have seen. Across the busy river, used extensively both for shipping and tourist cruises, is the polar opposite view.
The Pudong financial district is the ultimate in modern city skylines. For a long time this side of the river was farmland, too marshy to develop, until more modern methods allowed. Once the government incentivised development there, creating a Special Economic Zone to boost trading potential, it erupted in growth, and is now the hub of China’s finances. As a result, the buildings literally scrape the sky, leaving trails in the cloud as it blows overhead. Once lit up after dark, the river lined with these monoliths, both old and new, makes for a spectacular sight.
But by this point I was hungry, it was Christmas day, and I was demanding a roast potato.
We headed back into town, phoned around a few english bars and hotels that might be putting on a Christmas dinner to no avail, and eventually stumbled on a decent looking steakhouse. “close enough” we both thought, and headed in.
Greeted at the lobby by a fully kitted out bell boy, we immediately felt under-dressed, and when he insisted on pressing the elevator buttons for us we believed we were out of our depth. One look around the restaurant and I was ready to turn around and head to McDonalds, but the staff, undeterred by our casual attire, insisted we looked at the menu. Turns out, 5* hotel silver service restaurants on Christmas day with no reservation are actually incredibly affordable, and my fears of being under-dressed evaporated immediately when I saw the other guests.
Fashion is huge in china. Apart from the obvious construction workers and uniformed officials, everyone who leaves their house is making some kind of statement with their clothes. You can pretty much wear anything anywhere as long as it covers your privates and you wear it with panache; indeed the more outrageous the better. They also love anything western, and some o1f the translations we’ve seen on t shirts are amazing, but I digress.
Steak, and plenty of it, preceded by 3 starters and followed by 2 desserts, accompanied by 2 large glasses of wine. Just the ticket.
After this we headed to Captains Bar, a rooftop cocktail bar with a nautical theme over looking the Bund and Pudong, for a Christmas drink. I’d been here before, and will go there again, genuinely one of the best bars in china, and considering its location, its also equally affordable.
As the rain started, we caught the last tube back to the hostel and called it a day.
Boxing day started as all boxing days should, with a decent fry up breakfast, provided in this case by the hostel. The first bacon I’d had in China, and it was good. We were joined by the hostel cat, a cheeky fella who Sam immediately fell in love with, and took some dragging away from. But drag her I did, and we headed back on the tube, this time to Peoples Square, a large park built on an old horse racing track when China outlawed gambling. It was raining, but the oriental gardens were beautiful, and we ducked into an art gallery with some cool exhibitions to avoid the worst showers.
Before we knew it it was lunch time, and we found a lovely restaurant in the park to eat at, with panoramic windows looking out over the koi pond. Sat next to us were an English family evidently on a Christmas break, and listening in to their conversation, we both realised how comfortable we had become with the norms of life in China. Even though we were equally new to Shanghai, we had a very good idea how things were done, we knew who to ask and where to look, what you could and couldn’t expect, and when to try and use Chinese or just to pantomime your requests. I suppose that’s the advantage of spending months in a country rather than weeks or days, but we hadn’t realised how confident we had become until we saw someone “fresh off the boat”.
After lunch we picked up an umbrella, a must have here, as much to fend off everyone elses as to protect you from the rain, and headed to Fuzhou Lu (Road) , famous for it’s book and art shops, for a look around. There seems to be an unspoken hive mind among locals when the rain falls, as they all whip out their brollies and form a sort of roman battle formation of shields, where each brolly protects not only the holder, but everyone around him. It’s hilarious to watch, especially if you, like me, are head and shoulders above the sea of mushrooms that line the streets.
Apologies, Sam has just set the kitchen on fire.
Ok, crisis averted. where was I….
Fuzhou Lu (Road), a sort of arty jazzy place, with lots of cool bars and shops. we spent a good few hours here, picking up various supplies to indulge Sam’s creative needs (thankfully no glitter) and a stack of books to add to our reading list.
After this we headed to Pudong to see the sky scrapers up close. By now the famous smog had set in, and between that and the umbrellas and the rain, the view was thoroughly mediocre. We headed into a mall to get warm and found a Thai restaurant, where in a fit of menu ticking, we accidentally ordered 6 main courses and a bucket of rice. We did our best, but as usual, our eyes were bigger than our bellies, and thankfully the guys at the table next to us taught us how to ask for a doggy bag to take it away in.
Now somewhat sleepy, we made plans for an early start to the zoo in the morning, and headed back to the hostel for a beer and a game of pool, before bed.
The next day we woke early and looked out the window. No one wants to be traipsing a brollie around when you have a duffel bag full of stuff and a girlfriend to tow. Luckily the sky was blue, the air crisp, and the hostel happy to look after the most of our luggage after check out. So away to the Zoo we headed – brollie in hand.
Out of the subway we expected to have to walk for a way, but found the entrance of the Zoo right outside the station exit. £4.00 each, and we were in. Firstly, we HAD to see the crocodiles and snakes, which were being fed live animals – The underdog stories were incredible. After watching the snakes for over 20 minutes, we only saw one Indian Cobra actually catch his dinner. The crocodiles were equally amazing, being in open cages, if one had long enough arms you could literally pat them on the back – thus ending up with short arms.
Following this we met an open lake full of swans with short-man-syndrome; they were sharing the pond with a flock or two of pelicans. I don’t know if you have ever seen wild pelicans, but they are immense. As big as a man and then some, with beaks that could take your eye out from over two feet away, they made the swans look like common Mallards. And the Mallards look like swallows. And the swallows look like Mosquitos. (There weren’t many mosquitos, thank goodness).
From here we found the cats. Both big and small, caged and feral; the Zoo is littered with them. With more than one enclosure for many of the big cats, they had a lot of space to move around. Again, most of the enclosures were open, which literally meant that you could throw naughty children to the lions if you so wished. Equally, we watched a Sun Bear, clearly accustomed to tourists, begging for food, and a woman feeding him with Pak Choi. The other bears were asleeping, due to the cold (5 degrees) winter, in artificial caves. We only woke a few up (gently) to get a photo or two. Again, the enclosures were open, and so if we woke them up with too much noise, I’m sure they would be able to come and give us a stern telling off/eat us.
From here Sam couldn’t cage her enthusiasm any more and we headed towards the PANDAS. Behind a glass screen, on a stage sat two very shiny looking pandas, eating from a HUGE pile of bamboo. Happy as lambs they were, and after a long time of watching them eat (which is actually very skillful; they break the outer twigs off, munch them from the base end, and twist the leaves around in their hands to make a bamboo-spring-roll) we decided that we would venture further and come back later.
Further found us some healthy looking English Foxes, and a large handful of meercats, some slightly bored (indoors for the winter) but nonetheless impressive elephants, and an incredibly curious giraffe (or six). We set back towards the pandas before the monkeys, to find them asleep in a strange sleeping-on-my-face position and Sam was upset that she couldn’t be there to see his hairstyle after he awoke. The pandas did less Kung-Fu than I expected, though for such clumsy looking animals their dexterity when eating was impressive. Their teeth were massive and scary, for such an adorable herbivore, and we were reminded that they were actual bears. Although not a far cry from the adorable cuddlies that you see on the adverts and in the cartoons, we realised that you may not come out from a cuddle with a panda alive.
The monkeys were equally impressive. The Golden Monkeys, after which the Chinese named one of their Folk Legends – The Monkey King – are the lesser known of China’s two national animals. They were quite happy to sit and let us take a good photo or two before swinging around their cages in search of somewhere warm. All the monkeys were incredibly human-like in their behaviours, with one even touching the glass when Callum put his hand on it for a high-5. The Orangutans were the most interesting of them all, with one gazing lovingly into Callum’s eyes, seeming genuinely as interested in us as we were in them. Although their enclosures looked boring they had incredibly complex feeding puzzles, with one of the Chimpanzees being the best at these. They were kept entertained by ropes and tyres, alongside the games of trying to catch grapes and grubs from inside these curious contraptions.
China may have a reputation for particularly bad treatment of animals, however, all we saw at the Zoo was wonderful. The animals were all well kept, their fur was shiny and clean, their enclosures were big and interesting, and they were kept entertained with a myriad of toys, ponds, hills, rocks, tyres, and in the cases of the herbivores, they had mixed animal enclosures. There was a lot of educational information both in Chinese and English about animal welfare, about animal charities in China, and we learned that many of the animals in the Zoo were rescued from horrifying conditions (no censorship on those photos) and had been rehabilitated and nursed to health in the Zoo. So whilst China certainly has a different attitude towards animals in general, they are by no means ignorant of animal welfare, and the extreme cases that get shown on western media are as much of a shocking minority here, and unheard of in the cities. They have a very pragmatic view of animals here, street dogs and cats are fed and vaguely looked after, because they catch the rats, but they are not given pet names, or given fuss and attention, because they are seen as dirty. From a western perspective where we treat dogs better than homeless people, but couldn’t care less about butchering cows or caging chickens, some of it is odd, but i can’t fault their candour.
After the zoo, we picked up a quick pizza, and headed back on the metro and the train to Fuzhou. Sleeping on the train is the norm, and before long we were both napping, exhausted. Outside the station, we grabbed some street food, (indeterminate meat on a skewer, grilled on a smoky barbecue on the back of a trolley), a far cry from the gourmet steak of two nights previous, but equally delicious, and caught a taxi back home.