I never thought I would ever choose China as a holiday destination on my own but somehow it happened. My first encounter with China was Zhuhai a year ago and that place was beyond bad. Having some prior knowledge of the culture and knowing where to set my expectations, I consider myself mentally prepared this time before the trip and that helped a lot in allowing me to enjoy this trip.
What they say about China is true – pushing around, hygiene standards etc. However, if you want everything to be like what you are used to, you would have better luck staying at home. Going to a foreign place, you must accept that different places in the world have different benchmarks and norms, so what you consider as rude may be nothing to them. For example, nobody take the pushing they get to heart and if you even bother apologizing when you did push somebody, that’s becomes an extra gesture and not what is expected by default. The other party may not even acknowledge it. It took 1 day for me to understand the pattern of living here and the subsequent days were all good!
I started making my bookings for the trip probably only a week or two ahead of departure. To get to Shanghai, there’s only Singapore Airlines or China Eastern to choose from, unless you are ok with transiting – which I am not. I chose the former because I wanted to book an open jaw trip, coming back from Hangzhou (it’s very near Shanghai). I like open jaw trips and usually this is only possible if you take your national carrier.
I also have no intention to ever try China Eastern hearing about it.
From my experience in Zhuhai (it was so bad, I didn’t even blog about it), I learnt not to stay in locally owned hotels. The bed may turn out to be a wooden plank with sheets on top (yes, it sure felt like that) so if you intend to sleep, go for international chain hotels. Thankfully they have plenty in Shanghai and it’s inexpensive! The same hotel in Singapore could be 3x more per night. Locally owned hotels may be even cheaper (probably half the price of international ones) but it’s not as if the international chains are unaffordable.
Before I go on about my itinerary, here are things to know about Shanghai/ Hangzhou/ China that could get you mentally prepared:
1. Do not expect manners/ feel obliged to be polite
Because nobody expects anything from you. If you are not aggressive you can’t get anything done here. If you get pissed each time your queue gets cut, you are only wasting your own time. Just learn to be fast and get things done. Fend for yourself.
2. Unsee anything ugly
Spitting, rubbish, anything you don’t like, don’t see. No point cringing each time because it’ll be too often to keep track of. Ignore and you’ll only see the beauty of the place.
3. Everything local is cheap
Food, transport, hotels, everything! On the flip side, foreign brands and products are severely overpriced. If you are used to Singaporean cost of living, you’ll feel like a rich man here.
4. Just keep walking
When asking for directions I was told to 一直走一直走. This reminds me of a Chinese foreigner in Singapore who asked me for directions – I told him his destination was a far 30 minutes walk away and he told me that’s not far at all. Well think of it this way: Singapore is tiny so 30 minutes can cover quite a distance, but a huge land like China, walking 30 minutes you’re basically still in the same place. A 30 minutes walk is nothing so just walk.
5. Mandarin Chinese is spoken everywhere
For years I was under the impression that people use Shanghainese dialect primarily but that wasn’t the case at all. The younger generation conversed in Mandarin Chinese by default and only one old man initiated with dialect. Same thing in Hangzhou.
6. Don’t expect a super modern city
Even though Shanghai is a metropolis, it is no where near being as advanced as Tokyo or Hong Kong. Don’t expect things to be as high tech/ advanced everywhere.
7. No Christmas festive vibe at all
I already anticipated this but it’s interesting to finally be in a place on earth where nobody cares about Christmas. In Singapore months before Christmas you’ll see the whole of town getting into the festive mood even though most of us aren’t part of this religion. In Shanghai, only certain malls put up some patronising decorations. On the streets, you won’t feel anything. You won’t even realise it’s Christmas. It’s a regular day there, no public holiday. The SQ828 flight had more festive decorations than anywhere else.
8. It’s cheaper to join tour groups
Many tour agencies in Singapore offer China tours at very attractive rates, at high frequencies. I was tempted but decided not to because it’s pointless if I didn’t get to eat everything I wanted to. Tour group has the advantage of having transport taken care of so you might want to because lugging the luggage around if you go to multiple cities may be a problem.
After arriving at Pudong Airport, I opted to take a Taxi direct to my hotel. I wanted to avoid lugging my luggage on the metro so this was the best option. Business travellers without luggage issues may want to take the Maglev, a magnetic levitation train which brings you from Pudong Airport to the outskirts of central Pudong within 7-8 minutes. This is the fastest train in the world.
I chose to stay in Grand Mercure Shanghai Central (Accor hotels) because it was located right next to Shanghai Railway Station. My main consideration was getting to Hangzhou on Day 4 and staying near the station, I could avoid lugging my luggage on the metro which is always packed. There are 2 train stations in Shanghai – Shanghai Railway Station and Shanghai Hongqiao. Hongqiao actually has a lot more bullet trains headed for Hangzhou while Shanghai Railway Station only offers 2 trips a day. However the location of Hongqiao is more inconvenient to live in while exploring Shanghai city because Shanghai Station is relatively nearer to the main attractions in Shanghai itself so this is the best location in my opinion. Other than high speed rail at Shanghai Railway Station, there are also several metro lines here – Line 1, 3 and 4.
The hotel was $106 a night including taxes, booked on Hotels.com and it was a luxurious stay! I’ve never had a hotel so cheap and good before. Free Wi-Fi is available (but well, many things are blocked unless you have a VPN. Baidu works fine though.)
Grand Mercure Shanghai Central 上海中亚美爵酒店
330 Meiyuan Road Zhabei District, Shanghai 200070, China
After settling down, it was mid afternoon and I decided to check out the Bund area. Being unfamiliar with the metro system, I got off at the wrong stop because I had bought tickets for the wrong stop. I only realised later on that the fare is the same (RMB 3/ S$0.60) for most stops within the city so it didn’t matter actually. Oh well, I made it here anyway. The nearest station should be East Nanjing Road on Line 2 or 10 and if you wish to cross the Huangpu River over to Lujiazui, the financial district of Shanghai boasting many skyscrapers, you can take Line 2.
The bund area looks something like London. I didn’t manage to take a nice picture of the bund but here’s one of me facing Lujiazui across the Huangpu River. Everything across this river is considered as “Pudong” – east of the river, and the CBD is there, while most of the cultural infrastructure like touristic attractions likes in “Puxi” – west of the river.
There are river cruises along the Huangpu river but I didn’t want to get on any of them because it was winter.
After walking around in the cold it was time for dinner. I am not a fan of Chinese food so the meal I was most looking forward to was actually at Mr & Mrs Bund. It’s ranked No.21 in Asia according to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant List 2015. I had prior reservations and I chose the day of my arrival in Shanghai to have dinner here because there’ll be surcharges from 24th onwards. Read more about it here.
外滩18号6楼,中山东一路18号 (靠近南京东路) 上海 200002
I requested a bund view seat when making my reservation and this came at no extra cost. It was stunning when lights came up! I went up to the rooftop bar on the same building and snapped this picture. It was too cold to stay outdoors so this rooftop bar will probably be better for non winter days.
After dinner, I returned to my comfortable hotel because it’s just too cold to be outside at night!
The plan for day 2 was to check out the most popular tourist attraction – Yuyuan and Cheng Huang Miao. Everything cultural is located here but the influx of tourists kind of makes it a tourist trap. Anyway, it is still a must visit site. The nearest metro station is Yuyuan on Line 2. Cheng Huang Miao area has a cluster of traditional looking buildings like Yuyuan and many cultural activities.
Nanxiang is a very famous shop for xiao long bao and the building is iconic. If you didn’t get here early enough, there’ll be a queue. I strongly advise reaching early because queuing up is not worth it. In China with exploding population, queues are bound to be really long.
There’s a Nanxiang franchise Singapore too and my experience there wasn’t good. This original shop in Shanghai was better of course. In my opinion, these were ok but not fantastic. I had the original pork, matsutake mushroom and crab roe xiao long baos. The latter 2 were better than original in my opinion, especially the matsutake. Matsutake is heavenly! I didn’t like the normal pork.
Overall, it was nice but not better than what you get in Paradise Dynasty in Singapore texture wise. In fact, I think Paradise Dynasty’s are better because every flavour of theirs tastes good.
It was interesting to dine in such a building but if there’s a wait, it’ll not be worth it. I recommend trying only if there’s no queue. This is famous but not the best in Shanghai.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant 南翔馒头店(豫园路店)
85 Yuyuan Rd, Jing’an, Shanghai, China
After my brunch, I entered Yuyuan to take a look.
To be honest, I’m clueless about Chinese history and culture so I don’t know what this place is about other than it being the epitome of what a Chinese garden is supposed to look like. When in Shanghai, do check this out. This place is historical (as for the story, Baidu can answer you better than I can) and has existed through several dynasties.
Yu Garden 豫園
218 An Ren Jie, Huangpu, Shanghai, China
Being still full from brunch, it was a good idea to slowly sip some tea and this beautiful teahouse, Hu Xin Ting, looked like the perfect location. A pavilion surrounded with water.
I ordered Da Hong Pao, a famous premium oolong tea from Wuyi, Fujian Province, and it comes with the kung fu tea apparatus and tea snacks. Spent a good hour here sipping Chinese tea and watching the crowd outside.
Huxin Pavilion 湖心亭
I’m quite pleased with how it turned out! If you have plans to do this, do step out with makeup and appropriate hair and all because this no frills service doesn’t include any of that.
The nearest metro is actually Changshu Road on Line 1 if taking this Line is convenient for you. This area of Shanghai is pretty unique. The landscape is not very Chinese cultured and it’s near the Library. It feels like a scholarly area and the streets were not crowded at all.