After months of saving and planning, I started my seven week trip to China and South East Asia at 5.30am on a Sunday in June. This was also the beginning-of-the-end of any recognisable sleep pattern! My first stop was Shanghai, China, where we spent 2 days and nights, which felt about right. It’s an amazing city, but it’s not built for tourists. And in my experience Shanghai is extremely rainy!!!
Getting to Shanghai.
The flight was exactly what you’d expect from an 11-hour flight to China – long, not-so-comfortable, and it contained a large Chinese tour group talking loudly when you’re trying to sleep. When I eventually arrived in Shanghai, it was (apparently) early morning and I successfully met my brother Sam who’d been studying in China. Luckily, most signs are translated into English so you can ease yourself into your Chinese adventure.
To get to Shanghai from Pudong Airport, you can get a
fairly cheap subway, or a slightly more expensive Maglev train. We opted for the obviously cooler option and reached a maximum speed of 431 km/hour. For the difference of a couple of pounds, the comfort and time saved is definitely worth it. Plus, the views introduce you to the scale of Shanghai.
Where to Stay:
If there’s anywhere in the world where you won’t have trouble with finding somewhere to stay, that place is Shanghai. Do your research in terms of location, budget, and accommodation style, but there is a range of places to stay for pretty much every budget.
We stayed by the French Concession area, where there was a lot going on and it’s well connected to other sights in the city. It seemed to be where a lot of hostels were, and there’s plenty of places to eat.
If you’re starting a trip in Shanghai, don’t plan too much activities in your first day – have a wander round the city, but it’s not worth trying to stick to a detailed itinerary.
Things to Do:
The Bund is the iconic city-scape that sums up Shanghai. There’s futuristic sky-scrapers on one side of the water, and French-colonial style
buildings on the other. Unfortunately for me, the weather was awful, so I didn’t stay for long and I saw most of it under an umbrella. Sam managed to go the evening before I arrived, and it looked a great spectacle with everything lit up. Raining or not, you can’t go to Shanghai without seeing the Bund.
Due to the weather (did mention that it never stopped raining?), I’m in a good position to review a couple of museums. The Shanghai History Museum was surprisingly difficult to find despite being located under the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower.
Inside, it’s an odd (but very Chinese) experience – there’s a lot of miniature and life size models to show Shanghai’s urbanization. Unless you’re especially interested in that kind of thing, it’s probably worth exploring the huge shopping centre across the roundabout from the tower instead. The Shanghai Museum is easier to find (follow the signs from the subway), and although it’s miles better than the history museum, it’s probably not as good as the guide books will have you believe. There are lots of interesting artefacts and paintings, though, and it’s housed in a very impressive communist style building.
However, the best museum we went to was the Propaganda Museum [Address: Rm BOC, Basement, Block B, No.868 Huashan Road, Shanghai, China // Local name 上海宣传画艺术中心 / Local address 华山路868号BOC室]. This one is a taxi ride away from the French Concession, and you arrive at a suspicious-looking apartment complex. Follow the directions from the security guard, though, and you’ll eventually arrive in a weird but wonderful downstairs apartment filled with a history of China displayed through fascinating propaganda posters. There are English captions, and I found it a great history lesson for my Chinese adventure (alongside Sam, who studies History).
We might have stuck to inside activities in Shanghai, but there didn’t seem to be much more to do. There are a number of public spaces which are worth a visit – like the People’s Square, and the Bund – but most of the fun in Shanghai is the people watching, and just taking in the scale of everything from the thousands of motorbikes, the endless beeping of horns, to the realisation that the 5 stops you’ve taken on the Metro cover the smallest section imaginable on a map.
I can’t remember any particular places to eat in Shanghai to recommend, but I can advise being adventurous and considering a local canteen/cafe as well as restaurants . You can easily spend less than £1 on a filling bowl of rice or noodles and meat, and it’s a million times better than anything from the local Chinese takeaway at home. If you’re feeling less adventurous, there are plenty of fast food places – but why go all the way to China for a Big Mac?
When you spend a couple of days getting around on the Metro, and you’ll realise just how big Shanghai is. The stations are huge, the lines are massive, and it’s always packed. The cost of travel is cheap and the efficiency of the service is exactly how you’d expect. Perhaps the best part of travelling on the Metro, though, is the adverts that are projected onto the tunnel walls out of the windows between stops! Most Metro stops have multiple exits, so make sure you follow signs (that are all in English and Mandarin) for where you want to go.
If you’re not near a Metro stop, taxis are everywhere in Shanghai. Don’t get in a taxi without a meter, and most drivers only speak Chinese so try and translate your destination address before you get in so you all know where you’re going. If you’re lucky enough, your taxi might have an interactive screen in the back seats – it’s all in Chinese, but I enjoyed some interesting adverts and managed to get through a few rounds on a quiz!
Allow yourself plenty of time if you’re getting a train out of the city, and it’s worth collecting/buying tickets from the station a day or two before you travel (We were queuing for at least an hour and nearly missed our train).
Shanghai is a must-visit city, but not because there’s loads to do. Aside from the constant downpour during my stay, and even-more-constant beeping from any vehicle with a horn, I found Shanghai was a great introduction to China. It’s different enough to introduce you to the country, but Western enough that it’s not too much of a culture shock. There’s not enough to fill more than 2 or 3 days, so use Shanghai as a base to explore the rest of the country.
My lasting memory of Shanghai strangely arrived during one unforgettable toilet trip. I’m not joking – there were TV screens showing news channels in the urinal! Any city with ingenuity like that is alright by me.
From Shanghai, we travelled south to Guilin (via Ningbo) to explore China’s extraordinary rural scenery. Check out my blog of Guilin here, and take a look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the seven incredible weeks we spent exploring South East Asia.