I have quipped over the years that visiting Singapore is like experiencing Asia-Lite. The most orderly city in Southeast Asia feels, well, a bit too safe – the vibrancy and drama oozing from every pore in many cities in the region sponged up and transplanted by clean streets and an excellent standard of living. All completely commendable, but a little boring nevertheless.
Finding that balance between mayhem and order, authenticity and comfort is fraught with tension in rapidly modernising cities that still have one eye on a tourist trade. As a traveller, it is easy to forget that world cities such as these are not moulded with tourists at their centre – there are now more dollars in manufacturing and financial services. No city embodies this tension better than Shanghai, the entirely capitalistic communist metropolis that offers much more than it promises at first glance.
As Shanghai is one of their main gateways to Europe and the rest of Asia, our national airline has spent precious dollars promoting China’s commercial capital as a tourist destination. Because of this, I travelled as their guest, bumped up for my first business class experience in over 200 scheduled flights (your own budget notwithstanding, the upgrade on Air New Zealand is a worthwhile investment).
As is often the case, the arrival was illuminating. Following serious infrastructure investment, Shanghai is now a breeze to navigate: a programme to replace every single street sign with a bilingual one ahead of the Shanghai World Expo 2010 underlines this commitment to international visitors.
Although public transport options, including the rapidly expanding metro system and the squadrons of cheap taxis, are plentiful and excellent, most of my travels around the city were by bicycle. At first, streets where red lights seem optional and silent electric scooters provide a constant threat require careful consideration, but once one becomes accustomed to the local lack of rules, the flat, spacious streets are a total joy to ride. In particular, the leafy French Quarter, with its dusty colonial buildings and hidden art deco gems can be happily criss-crossed for hours: the sights, smells and sounds are intoxicating.
Shanghai is not a budget location any more. Prices for accommodation are more expensive than in many other Asian cities and shopping is ubiquitous but at global prices. Food and transport are the big exceptions. Whilst you can pay big bucks for any variety of global cuisine, local restaurants without bilingual menus offer local delicacies for only a couple of dollars. And the croissants in Shanghai are the best I have had anywhere outside France. This truly is a world city in every sense.
Don’t wait too long to visit though: one of the last large central areas of hutongs, the traditional neighbourhoods that used to dominate the built environment, was being torn down during my visit, no doubt replaced by another towering apartment/shopping development. Land in this city is too valuable to leave with the people and, although government guarantees new accommodation for residents, it is usually far from the centre of the city.
The very fact that this incredible city can offer incredible new sights and experiences and feel like a home in only seven days was a revelation. The conclusion would have seemed improbable on the outward leg: Shanghai is now the perfect ‘gateway’ city for those wanting an introduction to Asia. There is still enough rough in the diamond to allow for a sense of exploration, but without any of the risks usually associated. Asia-Lite can be a compliment then. Sorry, Singapore.
Top 10 things to try in Shanghai
Cycling the city
Get on your bike for as little as $6 a day. Shanghai has world-class cycling provisions that will be a revelation to Wellingtonians. It takes only a wee while to get used to the rules: remember that red doesn’t always mean red. Lights and helmets are optional!
Although they aren’t the very best xiaolongbao, the soup dumplings served at Shanghai institution Yang’s are excellent nonetheless. There are several branches of the restaurant – just look for the pink signs.
World Expo site
Whilst there are a few current attractions still operating on the Expo sites such as the Power Station of Art on the north bank and China Art Palace on the sprawling south bank site, the vacant crumbling national pavilions are the most fascinating to explore.
Shanghai’s most famous neighbourhood, this leafy quarter is worth a full day of wandering on its own. Great bars, shops and restaurants also abound.
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
This fantastic museum has four floors of exhibitions on Shanghai’s past, present and future. Its centrepiece is a scale model of the whole city that is as big as a sports field. A must-see.
Choose any one of Shanghai’s urban parks and visit at different times of the day. You will find group activities of all kinds: prepare to expect the unexpected.
Just because it isn’t in the guidebook doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. My best meals were in local restaurants close to my accommodation.
Ferry across the river
Forget the tourist boats: local ferries weave their way across the river at several locations. All provide amazing views and all cost less than $1 for a return trip.
This technological wonder doesn’t connect to the centre of the city yet, but as part of the city arrival or departure process it is still worth experiencing speeds of over 400km/h. Do check the timetable, though, as top speeds vary throughout the day.
The best experiences are often under your nose. Don’t head straight to honeypot sites – wander down the alleyways and smaller roads instead to unlock a little of Shanghai’s swiftly disappearing communal life.[/info] [warning]
Best web: smartshanghai.com has lots of info for expats and tourists alike.
Best magazine: Time Out Shanghai (free) is crammed full of tips and listings.
Best map: Although wi-fi is easy to find in Shanghai, you will need a street map just in case. Also check out The Art Map, which will help you navigate the many independent galleries in the city.
Best pre-arrival tip: For those addicted to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, either prepare for a detox or research a VPN prior to leaving New Zealand.
Best packing advice: Shanghai is surprisingly seasonal, so plan your wardrobe accordingly. As with many Asian cities, spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
Air New Zealand operates daily direct services to Shanghai from Auckland. One-way economy class airfares start from $879 per adult including taxes. For further information on Air New Zealand services to Shanghai, visit airnzewzealand.co.nz[/warning]