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Life by Design


Shanghai: In Unexplored Territory

Posted by Carren |

IT started not with a bang, but with a gasp—two in fact.

Gasp! I have that many miles expiring?! (My reaction after opening an unassuming letter from Philippine Airlines) A flurry of headless chicken-like planning commenced. Food. Lodging. Money. Where was I going to get all this?

Gasp! The Shanghai air is freezing! The December air blasted through as the airline exits opened to let its passengers out and onto an awaiting bus going to the terminal.

So my sojourn into the sky rocketing city of Shanghai started.


Shanghai is a large city with expansive roads, pedestrian lanes and buildings that soar to the horizon. It even has room for a few quirky tourists like me. Equipped only with a minimal command of Mandarin and a guidebook locked away in my backpack, I gainfully negotiated the way to my hostel. To add to my anxiety, I didn’t even know if the online reservation I made really did work. I wasn’t about to call long distance to Shanghai to confirm that the email confirmation was real.

“Ni hao?... Qing wen, zai nar ke yi huan qian?” I mumbled to myself, desperately trying to practice my dusty Mandarin, knowing all the while, it’s too late to pick up the language. I ended up taking the bus, then the subway, and rolling a bright red Samsonite down Henan Lu to get to my abode. I felt like singing Hallelujah as I entered my room at Captain Hostel! I’m alive! And, this was my playground for the week.

My room was sparse, not that I didn’t expect it for the price I was paying. I was surprised at its cleanliness; I had horrible thoughts of grimy bathroom fixtures right before my plane took off in Manila. Its creamy interiors were worn on the edges and the television offered nothing but Chinese programming. It was a good choice for one who wasn’t planning on hanging inside the room all day. After resting my tired feet for a minute, I plucked up my courage, practiced a few more Mandarin phrases, and went out into the cold December air.

Bright Lights
Shanghai is a city always a-buzz. The fast paced walk of the millions of pedestrians, the honk of the automobiles and the ever present construction sites are a testament to its constant state of flux. As I stepped out of the hostel, I was greeted by the majestic view of Pudong skyline with Shanghai’s signature landmark, the Oriental Pearl tower. I know of no purpose for its three pink colored balls, except to elicit the shocking realization that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Pic 1: Poised on the historic Bund against Pudong’s promise of a bright future

I walked down to the historic Bund, Shanghai’s constant reminder of its cosmopolitan heyday in the early 20th century, I was just mingling with the crowd. With a country population of about 1.2 billion people, imagine what a crowd that makes. My purpose was to get to Pudong, and see that majestic skyline up close. I rode the subway once again to Liujiazui station, this time more confident that the ticket lady would understand my broken Chinese.

Pudong is Shanghai’s newest gem. Once known only as an area east of the Huangpu river, it has come into its own, covering almost the whole eastern bank of Huangpu. . The first year of Pudong’s development was hailed as Shanghai’s “Year of Finance”. It is now home to 3,300 domestic and foreign financial institutions, 80% of the world’s top 50 banks have branches here.

As I found my way to the exit, I saw the soaring buildings that make up the skyline, the tower of Babylon would be put to shame at the sight. Rows upon rows of majestic buildings lined up and an expanse of pavement seemingly wider than our EDSA separated them from each other. I was afraid to cross the pedestrian lane, knowing that I might not make it while the green man was flashing.

After taking all of this in, I walked down to the Shanghai Aquarium, one of Asia’s largest aquariums, to fulfill my own requisite sights to see in any given country (animals and museums). I spent the afternoon there, going through mazes and mazes of fish. Some surprising, some huge as I never thought fish could be-- like the arapaima that grows as much as a basketball player. Imagine that in my aquarium.

Their underwater viewing tunnels are a sight to behold; it’s the next best thing to going inside the water with all the fish. As I glided through the many tunnels, I could see sharks and turtles run a-gamut. The Aquarium certainly awakened my respect for the sea, this other world living beneath our very own.

Emerging from this watery dream, I found that dusk had settled and the twinkling lights of the city beckoned. The December wind was still as biting as ever and I was glad of the small beanie hat and double layered clothing I had on.

Bygone days

The next day, I awoke with the sense that I was on an episode of Amazing Race. This time, I would have to take the Chinese bus (where no one has the time to explain and bus signs were all in Chinese) to get to Old Town Shanghai.

Old Town is for me the last remnant of a past Shanghai. It stands a world apart from the modern sophistication of Pudong. It is the empress dowager in all her ancient glory.

I alighted in front of a flea market outside a mosque. Yes, that surprised me too. After much walking and surreptitious glances at my guidebook, the Yu Gardens and Bazaar entrance blossomed in contrast to the hanging laundry and alleyways of Old Town. Weaving my way through the Ming style architecture hiding away tourist storefronts and a lone Starbucks, I found the entrance to the Yu Gardens. 18 years in construction during the 1500s, it stands as the best preserved Ming-style garden in China.

Paying 30RMB for a ticket inside, I played stalker to an English speaking guide playing host to his foreign tourist. Overhearing snippets of information made me appreciate the gardens even more – the Dragon whose infinite quest for the pearl stands immortalized on the walls and scenes out of classical Chinese literature depicted meticulously over the rooftops sent my amazement through the roofs. All this was done almost 500 years before, and here I stand marveling at their beauty.

Pic 2: Yu Garden’s dragon wall scales to and fro in search of his pearl

I can almost imagine myself transforming into a Chinese princess as I wander through the Yu Gardens. Imagine living a life of this luxury – stone boats, jade rocks and even my own koi-filled pond. That is the life.

I was greeted with welcoming stall owners ready to hawk their wares to unsuspecting tourists as I ended my time travel to the past. I got a few precious trinkets making sure to haggle at least 60% below their asking price. I may be a tourist but I sure ain’t easy prey.

My one last pitstop was the Xiang Yang market near the fashionable Xintiandi district. This tiannge-style shopping area is where you can get anything and everything that’s close to the real thing, if you know what I mean.

Pic 3: Always up for a good bargain, even on super cold weather

Bags, shoes, clothes… you name it, it’s on sale. A tip for the newbie: just roll up your sleeves and haggle absurdly low prices. Let those stall owners know you’re not the first timer they think you are—no matter how broken your Chinese is. Though Shanghai is filled with the classiest name brand stores, I confess to enjoying myself matching wits with the stall owners. Never mind that their faces look as if I just insulted all their ancestors naming my ridiculously low first bid. I walked home with aching feet and a contented heart.

After thoughts

Now, sitting in front of my laptop reminiscing about that journey back to my roots, I realize that it was one I will never forget. Walking amongst the crowd of strange faces made them not so strange at all.

Perhaps, that is why traveling holds so much allure. It is a chance to escape from the ordinary routine that we have built for ourselves and to roam. Our eyes are opened to lives beyond our own. More importantly, we realize that the real unexplored territory is not what is out there but what is inside. Traveling is really about a journey into the self. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “We must not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know the place for the first time.” Not because anything outside has changed – but we have changed.

Pic 4: Sunset at Pudong airport.


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