Friday, January 29, 2010

Shanghai - East absorbs West

This was the last day of my Yangtze journey and the entrance to a wildly fascinating blend of East-West and what the 21st century has in store.
You rise early - entry into Shanghai harbor is scheduled for 8 a.m. and you do not want to miss it. At about 6:30 a.m. we began threading our way down the Huangpa River, leaving the Yangtze to wend its way to the sea without us. 

River traffic was something else - as crowded as it was varied with mammoth barges filled with coal, motorcycles, even mature trees sharing narrow invisible lanes with cruise ships, tiny sampans and tugs.

If Beijing is China's Washington, Shanghai is its New York City charging into the 21st century on speed. A perpetual motion machine pausing only when 12 lanes of traffic from two 2-lane streets funnels into a two-lane tunnel.

You'll be awed, intimidated and invigorated. Building cranes may have become Beijing's state bird during the run-up to the Olympics but they were Shanghai's way before that. Leave for a day-long side trip and you'll return to find something new.
                                                       The Bund, seen from Pudong.

Most of us start with the old even though Shanghai, which means "above the sea," is a newcomer by Chinese standards. Despite people living here for at least eight millenia, Shanghai began to shine only after becoming an international trading port in the 1840s.

West met East and liked it here. British, French and America staked commercial claims, the French to its cultural heart, the Brits to its banks, the Americans to its warehouses. There's still a small army of expats, including Wood Zapata, the company run by a Georgia architect and his Ecuadorian-born partner, preserving Xintiandi's Shukumen-style brick houses by turning them into restaurants, homes, nightclubs and bars.

Good news: You'll like it because it's flat, especially when compared to where we've been!

The Bund, a mile-long pedestrian promenade along the river - is a logical place for Westerners to start. Originally built as a dike against floods, it was faced by the city's international establishment. People flock here, from early morning exercise groups to late night party-hoppers.

Tip: Stand with your back to the river to get a feel of the city's layout. Old Town is to the left and behind it the French concession. The British section begins with the promenade, followed by the Russian and American sections. Locate the Peace Hotel, once center of the city's social life. Across from it on the Bund is a pedestrian tunnel under the river to Pudong with its high-rising hotels and office buildings. Also a stand-up tram that goes through a kitschy but fun sound and light show. From the right side of the hotel and back is Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping street. If you tire, hop the motorized sight-seeing tram.  When cars take over the road, immediately to the left is People's Park then Renmin (People's Square) and the Shanghai Museum. Beyond the museum is Xintiandi. Straight ahead is the Shanghai Centre with the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Nanshi - Old Town
Hungry? Dine like a Shanghainese and stop at the food court, a covered, cavernous expanse of short-order cooks and diners. Make a choice, pay for it and the beverage of your choice, find a table and tuck in. No language barrier here. You'll find good shopping nearby.

Thirsty? Take the Bridge of Nine Turnings, which keeps you safe from demons that travel only in straight lines, and stop for a cup of tea at the Huxingting Tea House.
Warning: There are stairs, narrow ones, but it's doable. Just take your time.

Frazzled? Spend the better part of an afternoon in YuYuan, Yu Pleasure Garden just beyond the tea house. Begun in 1577 and completed in 1709, its five acres are a maze of ponds, rockeries, 300-year-old wisteria, paths, bridges and Ming Dynasty pavilions. Each detail - and there are many - is worth noting: Doorways shaped as vases, leaves or moons; double corridors wider for men than for women; winding paths to vary the view, river rocks composed to resemble sea and mountains. You soon forget there's a city anywhere near.

The Jade Buddha Temple looks older than it is (1918) because of its Song Dynasty (960-1279) architectural style of swirling eaves and incense darkened interiors. Decor is gaudy for Western tastes, the atmosphere is touristy but the White Jade Buddha upstairs is a gem. Twice life-size from a single piece of jade, the 455-pound Buddha is adorned with 24K gold and jewels, including a cap of all black pearls. The larger Sleeping Buddha is rough by comparison.

Nanjing Road area
Shopaholic? Go crazy in a silk shop. The fabric is fabulous, the tailoring is superb and your garments can be done in two days (including the initial and a second fitting) and delivered to your hotel for a pittance of what you'd pay in the States. Consider it investment dressing. Wish I'd bought more.

The Shanghai Museum is arguably the best in China and well worth a hunk of your time. The fountain outside with its shooting water and surround sound from four mushroom-shaped speakers is fun to watch and, if it's hot, to play in. The kids won't mind.

French Concession
Tree-shaded streets make for good ambling as do its chic shops and good restaurants. At the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute, housed in a grand old French Renaissance-style mansion, you can watch some of the country's best artisans create needlework, intricate paper cutting and other amazing crafts. Admission is free but dare you not to buy something.


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