Since we landed here in China, we’ve heard a few people talk about a Beijing-Shanghai rivalry, so we wanted to check out the latter sooner than later so we could begin to understand that dynamic. So on Friday afternoon, we hopped a bullet train south, and, five hours later, found ourselves 1,214 km (754 miles) away.
This was my first bullet train experience in any country. It felt like riding on an airplane, except, you know, you could see hills and towns and streams as you whipped past. We also got glimpses of the massive high-rise building projects China undertakes in remote towns — the half-finished bones of skyscrapers rose from otherwise quiet squares. It was a terrible pollution day in Beijing on Friday, so it was fun to gradually emerge from the cloud of smog — and somewhat terrifying to see how far the cloud extended out into the country.
Quick geography lesson: Shanghai is divided along the Huangpu river; Puxi is the western part, and Pudong is the eastern part. Puxi has historically been the heart of the city — “I’d rather have a bed in Puxi than a room in Pudong” was apparently a common refrain of yesteryear (this is the only thing I retained from our bus tour) — but Pudong is now the financial center and is its own kind of impressive. More on that in a second. We stayed in a Puxi neighborhood called Xintiandi, which is sort of right between the Bund the colonial/art deco part of the city that hugs the river and the part of the French Concession that actually looks French.
Here’s the view from our hotel:
Our biggest lesson that first night was learning that Shanghai restaurants shut down early — at 9:30 p.m., everything serving local fare seemed to be shuttered. This is in sharp contrast with Beijing, where you can find restaurants and street vendors turning out snacks into the wee hours. Our friend Ami, a food writer whose parents live in Shanghai, told us not to bother with the non-Shanghainese regional Chinese in Shanghai; it’s better in Beijing. We ill-advisedly ignored her suggestion and had a feast of mediocre Sichuan food only to be filled with regret.
Western food, on the other hand, she recommended highly, and while we still feel a smidge guilty about eating non-Chinese foodstuffs in this country on the other side of the world, we took her cocktail bar recommendation and had a couple of drinks at Union Trading Company in the French Concession. You know the type. Well-mixed classics, house creations made with weird ingredients like mustard and banana, denim-aproned and be-vested bartenders, low lights, soundtrack that blends indie and motown, rare whiskey on the backbar, inside jokes. As Rob says, “This is like every bar we go to in Brooklyn.” Drinks were good, though, and maybe a wee bit cheaper than they are in Kings County (but not much!).
Pro-tip for anyone trying to see all of Shanghai in a weekend: consider buying a bus tour ticket on the City Sightseeing bus tour (not to be confused with the much more expensive, and likely much more informative, Big Bus bus tour). We spent 50 kuai each (less than $10) for two days worth of transportation among Shanghai’s highlights — we could jump on and off the bus whenever we pleased, and we could switch bus lines. This was way more economical than taking a cab, and cabs are cheap. Just don’t expect to come away incredibly informed. The English audio tour channel occasionally filtered through in Chinese, which didn’t matter much, because insights were fairly surface level.
The thing did point out buildings like the Peace Hotel, a refurbished art deco lodging house that also houses a jazz bar. We went to that jazz bar because we heard it had the oldest jazz band in Shanghai. We took that to mean longest running jazz show in Shanghai. We now think the statement actually referred to the age of the players:
And now, because this post is very long, a list of other Shanghai highlights:
-The Bund, best viewed from the Pudong side when lit up at night.
This massive row of photographers agrees:
-Pudong: this is where the movie Her was filmed, and it feels like a glimpse of the future. Space age buildings, elevated walkways, panic-inducing crowds of people. It’s nice-looking from the Puxi side of the river, but you gotta get in it to feel what it’s all about. It feels like living in a computer game:
-The Jade Buddha Temple: This temple out of the city center houses a famous Buddha carved from jade (bet you can guess how this place got its name). Not totally sure which one is the jade Buddha, though, because I read later that many tourists confuse the large marble Buddha with the jade Buddha because the marble Buddha is larger and grander. I feel fairly certain I made this mistake, but who knows? I assumed the Buddha I was not allowed to photograph was the real one. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.
-Yuyuan garden: “This is my favorite thing we’ve done in China so far,” declared Rob as we wandered through the idyllic paths of this massive pristine retreat, built in the 16th century by a Sichuan governor. It was also a nice respite from the hordes in the tourist market just outside the garden walls:
In the tourist market, we met a very nice Chinese man who asked us for recommendations about where to go in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. After we talked to him for awhile, he warned us not to talk to Chinese people at the market, because they would take us to a bar and rob us. Then he invited us to a bar. And we were like, is that what you’re trying to do? He didn’t rob us, thankfully. He seems to have actually just been nice.
-M50: This is the Shanghai arts district. The Beijing arts district is larger and more renowned, likely because Beijing attracts more artists. But we did duck into a few cool contemporary galleries, and we happened upon an opening at a really cool space — Island 6, mayhaps? Also, the streets and buildings themselves were interesting — warehouse-y and labyrinthine.
-Soup dumplings (xiao long bao): I now wish we’d spent many hours stuffing our faces with soup dumplings, but alas, our time was limited, and we spent our nights chasing closed restaurants instead of street eating. We hit one of the top shops, Jia Jia Tang Ban, and had thin-skinned soup dumplings stuffed with crab and pork in a setting about as hospitable as a school cafeteria. It had its own charms, though — the people we were seated with were clearly on a dumpling pilgrimage of some sort, and one lady told us how much better these were than other places she’d been. We failed to order pork blood soup, which seems to have been a mistake — almost everyone else had a bowl.
Our biggest surprise treat of the weekend was the pan fried soup dumplings we picked up on the street one morning. These have thicker bottoms than the steamed version, and they get nicely crisped in a well-seasoned pan. You get the same savory deluge of pork soup plus the juicy meatball, but with a nice textured bite of fried dough. Hello, beautiful.
-Heading to the restaurant M Shanghai because the patio’s view of Pudong came so highly recommended, and then deciding it was too hot to sit on the patio. And getting roped into spending a fortune on brunch anyway. (Note, if you are reading this for Shanghai ideas: do not make our mistake. Go during an off hour and have a cocktail and a pavlova and call it a day.) But at least we got that photo up top out of the deal! That was good for a few Instagram likes!
-Knowing that restaurants close early in Shanghai, and so hauling ass to a Shanghainese restaurant to dine before it closed, only to get turned away because the kitchen had closed long before the restaurant did. Unfortunately, this meant we also screwed ourselves out of eating at any other Shanghainese restaurant, too. Hence our lack of experience with Shanghainese food and our abundance of experience with mediocre restaurants. Night two, we hit Boxing Cat Brewery, where the beer was quite good, but we could have done without the pizza.
-Not going to the National Museum, despite the fact that it’s supposed to have some really good Chinese artifacts, because the line was an hour long each day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
-Enduring the swamp-like heat and humidity, and the frequent torrential downpours. Apparently, August is not the best time to go to Shanghai.
And now for a discussion of Shanghai vs. Beijing: You likely know that Beijing is the country’s cultural and political center, while Shanghai is the financial hub. Shanghai has had more western influence than Beijing, at least in fairly recent history — after the Opium Wars in the 1800s, it became (by force) a trading hub with the West, and foreigners moved in to areas like the French Concession, a piece of the city that was given up to the French for development (I’m sort of glossing over the history here, so Wikipedia at your leisure). It served as sort of a gateway between the East and the West until China kicked out the foreigners after the revolution.
Shanghai was one of the first cities to really open up under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and it got a head start on development in the ’90s. It now attracts finance types from all over the world: the very first thing we noticed about the city is that it feels much more globalized than Beijing — most people seem to speak English, and foreigners are everywhere.
Beijing, by contrast, attracts expats interested in politics and culture — there are a lot of writers, artists, and chefs here, as well as people working in think tanks, NGOs, and consulting firms with a regulatory or political bent. They’re also further and farther between — the expats cluster in a few key areas in Beijing, but even there, they’re mixed into Chinese neighborhoods. That doesn’t seem to be quite so in Shanghai.
Not that Beijing is a backwater. In the lead-up to the Olympics (and in the years after), the city gutted old sections of its city to erect new buildings, built a massive subway system, and propelled itself at lightning speed to the modern metropolis it is today. In fact, we’ve heard a few long-time Beijingers say, noses wrinkled in disgust, that Beijing is becoming more like Shanghai, and it seems fated to continue this trajectory, especially since it just won the winter Olympics. It also happens to have some of China’s most famous old sites — the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple — some of which are actually located in the center of the city, engendering a bit of a preservation of Chinese flavor and culture amid all that new architecture.
Our own thoughts? Only hasty conclusions. We feel like we made the right choice to go to Beijing — Shanghai feels a bit like it could be anywhere in the world, only there are more people there, and crowds give me anxiety attacks. But we’d like to explore Shanghai more at some point, if only to eat more soup dumplings and see the National Museum. And hey! It’s only a five-hour bullet train ride away.
Here, look at a couple more photos: