Last year, some friends of mine went to go teach in Shanghai after being in Seoul for more than two years. After some mishaps with their new school (mostly due to an illegal bait-and-switch scheme on the employer’s part), they returned after about a week to Seoul. Shanghai is the biggest and best city in China, most people say, but the friends sparing in their praise about it. Many advised me not to take such a long trip in China in the first place, and certainly not to see any more than the bare minimum of sights and major cities. After a long stay in Shanghai, I moved west to the more remote areas in China, far less well-trodden than the coastal cities I’d visited thus far.
The train from Nanjing to Shanghai, now that I was not actively becoming sick like the last train journey, was far shorter and easier this time. I would have to decide how long I would ultimately stay in Shanghai and whether to skip the next city or two on the way west. The subway from the train station proved to be easy, easier than Beijing, but crowded because it was rush hour time. It was also easy to find the hostel (it’s painted bright orange). I searched the neighborhood for food, but ended up getting McDonald’s as everything was closed even at 8:30. It was a residential kind of area where I was staying. At Macca’s, there was this stunningly ridiculous black-cone, matcha-syrup oreo ice cream sundae mess which, of course, I had to buy. It was too sweet, but it looked like Halloween, so I couldn’t not get it.
This hostel, too, was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Great café with a beautiful common area, easily accessible, and knowledgeable staff. In addition, it seemed to be a traveler’s kind of hostel. Behind the desk were scores and scores of China, Shanghai, Beijing, Tibet, and other travel guidebooks, all in different languages. There was a noticeboard filled with posters and business cards of similarly famous hostels in different cities around the world. In addition, one of my goals for a trip like this was to bring a book, finish the book along the trip, and trade that book at the hostel. This hostel was the first one where I actually finished my book (Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84) and got to trade, even though most of the books there were in German, French, or Chinese and almost none in English.
While in Qingdao, at the beer museum actually, I stumbled on a phenomenal piece of good luck. I was scrolling through facebook in a rare moment of wifi access when I saw one of my friends from high school’s post. He was in Shanghai? Had he been here this whole time? I messaged him to find out. He told me we could meet up when I got to Shanghai, and to ask him for any advice I might need.
My first full day in Shanghai, the plan was to meet with that friend, Nick and check out some museums. I didn’t have much of a breakfast because I just snacked on things I’d picked up at the convenience store. I became addicted to this “salt” lemonade (maybe the salt was electrolytes?) during this trip, and it sustained me on many long days.
The first stop was the Shanghai Museum. In many ways this museum was better and more impressive than the museum in Beijing. There were many more facets of Chinese art history covered here (compared to some of the more propaganda-like communist art exhibits in the Beijing museum), and I enjoyed the exhibits on carved name stamps and clothes from ethnic minorities from Tibet, Mongolia, and elsewhere. I had some moments of pause here because I saw some art pieces (particularly a centuries-old painted stoneware pillow) that I distinctly remembered from a book on China that I had when I was a kid. How surreal to read about something like that in childhood and get to see it in person years later! But, I suppose, that was the point of the trip.
The second stop of the day was the Shanghai Urban Planning museum, which was a cool combination of maps, old and new photos, dioramas, and interactive exhibits. There was this unreal model of the city that lit up with the different buildings and rivers; it took up an entire floor of the museum and you could walk around it to see it from different angles. It was fascinating to see how much Shanghai has changed in such a short time—the comparisons are truly jaw-dropping.
I met my friend Nick in People’s Square. It’d been so long since I’d seen him, and I was a bit jealous to find a friend who seemed to have his life so well figured out, to find a place that suited him so well. He certainly has a very solid and comfortable niche carved out for himself in the city, and intends to make it his forever home. We got bubble tea, walked through the park, and tried Yang’s fry dumplings. We walked through Nanjing Road to see the Bund, the famous riverfront park where everybody has to take their selfies with the new and bright buildings on one side and the historic buildings on the other.
There were some banking issues that I wanted to resolve, and mostly these stemmed from using the wrong ATMs and the fact that my bank didn’t know I would be in China. When I got back to the hostel, I asked the front desk girl where an ATM was, which she readily told me, but after an hour of walking around, I never found it.
I don’t know how I planned to stay only three days in Shanghai. There was a lot to do and I didn’t nearly touch the half of it. I’d seen some truly lovely pictures of Yuyuan Garden and bazaar, so it was my plan to go there. I didn’t consider two things: 1) that Yuyuan gardens is one of those crazy-busy places all the time, like Myeongdong in Seoul, and 2) that the day I was planning to visit was a Saturday. When I arrived, it was so crowded at the bazaar, when I finally made it to the entrance of the gardens, I didn’t even go inside. Something for the next trip.
A highlight of the Shanghai stay was the art compound M50. It took a while to find, but the walls covered in graffiti led the way like blazes in the forest. It was a very avant-garde complex set in an old factory with spaces set up for each artist or group of artists. Some were active studio spaces, others were galleries, some were installations, and some were a mix of all of them. There were little cafes and restaurants hidden in some of the spaces, too. I had some curry rice for lunch while I took some wifi. In the evening I found the neighborhood called Tianzhifang, another one of those historical districts like Nanjing’s Laomendong where there are no cars and the houses are all in the old grey-brick modular style. It was crowded there, too, with an insane amount of bars, eateries, and boutiques crowded within the small space. I ate chips for dinner at the hostel and extended my stay.
The next morning after my social media binge over breakfast, I went to Jing’an Temple. This is definitely one of the more resplendent temples that I visited in China (some would argue that I left out some of the most stunning examples, but I tried my best), with beautiful wood carvings and plenty of gold-painted details. The contrast between the traditional temple and the modern glass skyscrapers behind is what I think China is all about. Visitors get to light incense and try to toss a coin into the bronze tower in the center of the courtyard. I think real monks live in the temple, but I’m not sure. I got pho for lunch near the station, and afterward got my tickets to Changsha at the railway station. The last stop of the day was the Rockbund Art Museum, which I ended up having a blast at. It was a really nice modern art museum, and the explanations for the choices in art works were really thoughtful, too. I got some cute stickers for my laptop there and got an iced americano at the museum café while I curated some photos for Instagram. The station closest to my hostel was Zhangshan Station, and in the food court of the station I finally got some xiaolongbao, soup dumplings. I think I could easily eat these soup dumplings every day and never get sick of them, and these were definitely some of the best. After dinner and a nap, I’d intended to go to another neighborhood called Xintiandi but I was too sleepy. I formed a “snack fortress” and chilled out in the hostel bar drinking tea and beer.
The last day in Shanghai was a non-starter day. I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and did my laundry. I tried to get the soup dumplings in Zhangshan station again, but it was too crowded at lunchtime so I lost my nerve. I went to Xintiandi, but that ended up being a more highbrow version of Tianzhifang, just a very upscale lifestyle center that just so happened to have these extremely pristine historical buildings. There were lots of chic-looking cafes and restaurants on the block, but not much to do in the way of entertainment. In the evening I had a long Netflix session, camping out on one of the couches in the hostel café. The normalcy of that was very comforting.
I slept terribly that night, so I woke up even before my 5:40AM alarm rang. I was packed up and checked out by 6. Of course, in order to do so I’d woken up the front desk guy sleeping in front of the door to give back my key. It’s a rough life for a hostel front desk worker on the overnight shift. I was at the train station ready for Changsha by 7, and one of the most surreal parts of my trip was yet to come.