A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go on a University Exchange to Shanghai for a month in July. Perhaps, to East Asians, this may not be a particularly exotic destination, however, as an English citizen, it was a big adventure, with many culture shocks. I hope this account inspires you to visit the city. All photos are my own, taken on an iPhone 5C with no filters :)
After a gruelling 12-hour flight next to a very talkative old man, I arrived at Pudong International Airport in rain and intense heat (an unusual phenomenon to me). At 8am, I was surprised at how eerie the airport was- there was an almost suffocating silence, the staff were unsmiling and unfriendly and there was a huge sense of tension as people crossed the immigration desks. I wasn't quite prepared for this after the warm service onboard the plane and it was very daunting.
Once I collected my bags, I took the Maglev (magnetic-levitation) train that hovers above the rails and goes at speeds of up to 430km/h, which was a breathtaking and smooth experience! I remember being very amused by the military-style staff who marched up and down the plane in ridiculously old-fashioned uniforms- a stark contrast to the modern-ness of the train.
The eerie, yet sleek interior of the Maglev train
I wasn't the most street-wise traveller, and arrived at rush hour with 3 bags! In my slightly delirious post-12 hour flight state, I decided that the metro would be a sensible idea.
The physical reality of being in the city with the highest population on the planet.
Shanghai's rush hour is insane- I have never seen so many people in such a short period of time- the crowds were crazy and with my luggage, it was a very stressful experience! I learned the hard way that it's important to ensure that your mobile has INTERNET when you arrive in a new place! I arrived at my destination station with no way of communicating to the very provincial taxi drivers the name of the university I was trying to get to. I had assumed that their English ability would be vaguely competent- this was a huge oversight! After hunting for a mobile telecommunications desk, I managed to get a SIM card and get the written address up to show the taxi driver.
Arriving at the University (ECUST)
I was part of an international programme learning about Chinese Language and Culture. We were given the International Dorms, which were apparently the best rooms on campus, which, at £6 per night, seemed like a bargain! However, you get what you pay for and it was quickly apparent that the "best rooms" were still miles behind what I am used to back home.
Learning Mandarin sounds!
I wasn't the most disciplined at attending courses, given the wild nightlife we were allowed to experience (will address this below)! Mandarin is great fun to learn, with lots of Alien sounds and structures, to a Westerner, but the teaching style was very unimaginative and so it was hard to be motivated to attend classes every day. It's a skill I still want to acquire as 1/5 of the population of the world are Chinese.
"Oh so communist!" - My University Dorm room
In case you needed reminding! This sign was posted in our Dorm corridor!
The next thing to hit me was the weather above Shanghai- the layers of smog were suffocating, combined with humidity and 36 degree fahrenheit heat, the conditions were almost unbearable. Going outside instantly caused one to sweat like a pig and it was tiring simply getting from A to B. Going out at night was wonderful however, one could wear a t-shirt and shorts at midnight and feel perfectly comfortable, which is very different to home.
City - Smog - Sky. Taken from the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center
Life as a Westerner in Shanghai
This was one of the most surprising aspects of the trip. Our University was located in a suburb of Shanghai and the locals mostly didn't speak English. This made communication quite difficult. I went to a restaurant early on with a friend and was totally bewildered by a non-English menu. We pointed at pictures nervously and hoped for the best! We were served a kind of ramen (I hadn't had ramen before), however, the noodles were on the side. Utterly terrified of the meat floating in the broth, I decided that I'd just eat the dry noodles- I know what noodles look like and so it seemed like a safe decision. As soon as I put a noodle in my mouth, about 6 members of staff noisily descended on me and everyone was staring horrified at me!- apparently you had to put the noodles in the soup to cook them!!!! I was promptly given A BIB, STRAW AND SPOON!!!!! I'm sure all the customers thought I was a very ignorant and basic Westerner! I was mortified!
Stunning modern architecture (no filter, shot on iPhone)
It was really surprising to see that instead of having a 'Chinatown' as we do here, there was a European area of Shanghai, with alfresco dining and Western food. It was surprising how upmarket and popular it was- it reminded me of my tourist status, but was comforting to be able to have food that I recognised from home!
Drinks at a rooftop bar on The Bund
On the positive side, in the more modern area of Shanghai, (the Pudong side), Westerners seemed to be very revered. Locals wanted to have pictures with us, we were given seats on the subway and given lots of attention. It was almost celebrity-status! We attracted the attention of a club promoter who offered to take us out most evenings to the hottest clubs in Shanghai with free bottles and open bars! This became quite a habit- we would go to amazing clubs and get absolutely s***faced, spend the following day hungover and then return to a different club after. It was a really memorable experience. (I shan't show pictures from the clubs- they're very messy and embarrassing!)
My friend got bitten by a monkey in a NIGHTCLUB! It was trained to steal people's purses, however, she decided to nurse it (HAHAHA) but had to go to a really scary and backwards hospital to have TWENTY SEVEN anti-rabies injections! Yikes! It cost £1000, so don't forget to buy travel insurance!
TMSK Bar- my favourite bar design in Shanghai- very beautiful decor throughout
The Gay Scene
Shanghai's gay scene is small and very underground. This is quite thrilling- there is a sense of danger and secrecy about it that is very appealing. Perhaps as a local, this may feel very oppressive and tiring, however, as a tourist, this was somehow exciting and new to me. In retrospect, it is quite sad that I am able to take experiences like this as recreationally amusing, almost taking the security of gay life in the UK for granted. The club we went to was almost dead inside, save for a few lone older men puffing cigarettes (a foul custom in China- smoking inside in public is illegal at home) and a couple of rentboys dancing vigorously on their own! I was invited back by quite a sleazy older man "to party" which I politely declined.
Food in Shanghai is not revered throughout China- it is known for being greasier and blander than the spiciness of Sichuan or the elegance of Cantonese cooking. I was shocked to see that you could buy CHICKEN'S FEET in vending machines?! I was brave enough to try shark fin, chicken's feet and snails during my trip and save for the shark's fin, they were all disgusting! Despite this, I had some really delicious meals, and it was nice to taste food that is genuinely Chinese, rather than the rubbish they serve on 'Chinese' menus in the UK.
Hundreds of frozen Chicken's feet available at WalMart!
Tradition vs Westernisation
Shanghai is opening up to the Western world, with many MNCs choosing to invest in the development of the city. There is a very clear physical definition between the Western and Traditional sides of Shanghai: the river. The Pudong area is full of international hotels and offices, whereas the city itself is much more traditional and local. Yet directly next to the river on the traditional side, The Bund area of 1930's colonial architecture has been taken over by Expat bars and rooftop haunts. It's a magical cosmopolitan area and the contrast in architecture on both sides of the river is stunning. As a result of western influence, the metro is the best to the second with impressive tv screens in all carriages. The infrastructure is barely struggling to cope with the development of the city- congestion was appalling.
View of The Bund and the Jin Mao Tower from above
Hongqiao station- as big as an airport terminal! Impressively efficient and effective design
I was lucky enough to get away to the city of Hangzhou and Zhujajiao, a 'traditional' village, which seemed more of a tourist trap, but it was beautiful nonetheless. The windy streets that traced the path of the rivers alongside traditional boats peacefully punting along was really picturesque. It was interesting enough to spend a day there, exploring the bric-a-brac market stalls and stopping for a refreshing pot of tea.
A quick stop for tea served very elegantly
Hangzhou is an interesting city, where urbanisation meets tradition in quite a dramatic way. Built beside a lake, the huge city juxtaposes an area of outstanding beauty, culture and tradition. Surrounding the rest of the lake are pagodas, temples, green tea hills and historic landmarks. I met a gentleman who let me stay with him in the city- he taught English to students and was keen to show me the local area (he was quite excited to meet a Westerner). We made a beeline for the temples and joined crowds of Chinese tourists and well wishers who flocked the temples to gaze upon the grand statues, pray and burn incense. I don't know much about Buddhism, but there seemed to be a tradition of purchasing turtles and releasing them into the water (only to be plucked out later to be resold for release- what a scam!). The area was outstanding and had a real sense of tradition and calmness (despite the franticness of Chinese tourists). It was a welcome break from the chaos of Shanghai life- I'd recommend it to everyone.
Burning incense outside the temple- graphically and aromatically pleasing
My escape from Communism
After the hardship(!) of university life, I decided to book into a 5 star hotel for a night, to get back in touch with my creature comforts. The room itself blended western and eastern styles quite pleasantly, and it was a calming oasis! The toilet was a work of art - blowdrying your bum is the secret to VIP status! The view from the shower was rather daunting, but also awe-inspiring. Opposite the skyscrapers of Pudong, the view from the Hotel Indigo was so beautiful, it really topped of a memorable trip.
My room- A harmonious blend of tradition and western design
The range of toilet-related treatments! Some of them seemed a bit too invasive... not sure I'll ever understand the diagram of the 'FRONT WASH'!
The view from the shower!
Shanghai was a highlight of my university experience and this article barely scratches the surface of the sheer incredibleness of the trip, from the wonderful nights out I had, the fantastic people I was able to meet, the unique experiences that were on offer in the city to the memories I have with friends there! The last picture I share was of the final night- my friends and I decided to travel to The Bund at 5am to watch the sun rise.
As I sat with my friends, I willed for time to stand still for a moment as I gazed at the kites flying freely above the city. I thought forward to my flight home, my keenness to get home (to eat proper bread and drink proper milk!) was tainted with sadness at losing the life I had become accustomed to in Shanghai.
Time and distance would replace the love, joy and memories we shared together, so I felt a huge sense of gratitude for the time we had and regret at losing touch with it as it was consigned to distant memory. I wanted to savour this last moment with my friends and try to hold onto everything we had experienced together.
As people began to pour back into the streets, I realised how privileged I am to be able to enjoy the city, yet escape from its chaos. I'm desperate to go back and explore more of East Asia: the richness of a different culture is a fascinating/crazy experience. And so I must close by wholeheartedly recommending Shanghai/Hangzhou- do let me know if you decide to go or have been before! I would love to know your thoughts!