After Singapore, we flew to Shanghai on Singapore Airlines. A+++++!! Would fly again! I really enjoyed their thoughtful seat back design. Plus, they had holiday wreaths in the economy cabin.
A few hours later, we were in China, which, if we’re talking about paying for things, is a totally different world from the rest of the world.
Paying for Things
Firstly: Bring cash. If you haven’t already exchanged it, exchange a chunk of it before leaving the airport, because you may have a hard time finding an ATM that works for your international card. We tried 3 or 4 different ATMs in Pudong with no success. Thankfully, the one at our hotel worked. So there’s that. Try ATMs in hotels.
Having said that, cash is not king here. AliPay and WeChat Pay are. They’re super convenient and I wish we did our payments that way here as well. Unfortunately, you’re going to have a hard time getting money into AliPay or WeChat Pay without some help. As of this writing, AliPay funded from a friend or Swapsy “friend” was the only workable option.
Credit cards aren’t a thing at most places, and even where they’re accepted, they have to be UnionPay. If you’re from where I’m from, your cards probably won’t work. Discover cards will supposedly work, but I brilliantly left mine at home when I was packing because its acceptance rate is so low. Totally outsmarted myself there, didn’t I?
Fancier establishments will likely take Visa, but that’s no way to explore China.
I’m hopeful things will soon evolve to be more foreigner / tourist friendly.
I tuned into NPR a few months ago and heard NDGT talking about the Maglev at Pudong Airport. I made a mental note: Take the Maglev from the airport!
And we did. I was excited to go for a ride into the future. Take me away, Maglev time machine!
We got on, and, well, it felt like a time machine all right. A time machine from the 1970s.
I felt surprised and not surprised all at the same time.
The train only hit a top speed of 300 km/h. I was disappointed, except when we passed the other train. It was over in a split second. FOOMP!
All the visitor guides said to visit the Bund, so I did. I got on the Metro, got off at East Nanjing Road, and started looking at signs, which, from where I was standing, were all in Chinese.
I remembered that the Bund is along the water, and my Mom’s lesson about Chinese words having to do with water having the three water strokes on the side. So I looked for a character that fit the bill and walked in the direction of its arrow. Success!
This is probably a good time to write about the air quality in Shanghai. It’s terrible. That’s not fog in the picture. It’s smog.
Smog or not, I went for a nice long walk along the water. Also, the buildings light up all pretty at night. Animated, too!
All the visitor guides also said to visit the skyscrapers. Aaron and I chose the Shanghai Tower because wowowow it’s the second tallest building in the world!
I mentioned skyscrapers plural. There are 2 supertall and 1 megatall skyscrapers in Shanghai, all next to each other. Looking down at two of the world’s supertalls is not something you get to see every day:
What really gets me about that picture is when you look past the 2 skyscrapers in the foreground and at still-tall yet tiny buildings a couple blocks out. That really drove home just how tall the Shanghai Tower is.
A couple notes if you visit: You need to buy a special ticket at the main ticket window to see the mass damper. If you don’t, you’ll find out once you’re at the top of the building, at which point you’re out of luck. Don’t do what we did. *cry*
Enjoy the elevator ride! You can’t tell because the acceleration and deceleration are so smooth, but you get to ride in the fastest elevator in the world.
I visited the Pearl Tower with my aunt and cousin’s son Marcus. The view from the top is pretty good, but it was the overall experience I enjoyed. There’s an observation deck, the space capsule, a glass floor, and outside deck, futuristic displays (about the future, of course), an arcade, a 5D theater, a VR roller coaster, a gift shop, a shopping center…
I’m sure I forgot some things, but you get the idea.
It’s pretty neat to look down through the glass floor, 259 meters off the ground:
I hadn’t planned to go to the aquarium, but it was next to the Pearl Tower and seemed like a fun thing to do with Marcus. And it was! There’s something wonderful about seeing an aquarium through the eyes of a child. It’s a great reminder of how I want to take in the world.
We saw a lot of divers in various tanks. I think it was poop vacuuming day.
It was pretty neat to watch this hitchhiker glide by:
Tianzifang is a fun neighborhood of alleys filled with shops and restaurants. Aaron and I wandered and snacked and shopped for refrigerator magnets.
All of a sudden, a kid popped in front of me, looked right at me, and said, “Auntie Vivian!”
It took me a second to figure out what was going on. It was Marcus! My cousin had arrived from Hong Kong and they were out shopping and eating in Tianzifang as well. Randomly running into family is pretty darned awesome.
A couple alleys later we came across this savory soft tofu stand. So fresh and delicious!
Old Town & Yu Garden
Old Town felt like a bigger version of Tianzifang, on steroids, with less variety and charm. It looks pretty cool in pictures but when you’re there it’s just crowded and fabricated. I took a bunch of pictures and realized they all had McDonald’s, Starbucks, or Peppa Pig in them.
Peppa Pig is a thing here. That in itself seemed interesting, and then I looked it up and read about how she almost got banned in China for being a gangsta. Not even kidding.
I went back to Old Town in the evening a few days later with Aaron. It’s definitely more photogenic with the lights on.
Yu Garden is accessible from Old Town. It’s small, crowded, and fabricated as well. Not terrible, not great. Good luck getting a shot of the buildings without power lines or skyscrapers in the background.
Humble Administrator’s Garden
The Humble Administrator’s Garden, on the other hand, is vast and beautiful. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and most certainly deserves this distinction. If you get a chance, go. Wander for a couple hours and take it all in.
If you do decide to go, you may consider hiring a car. I’d totally recommend our driver Felix. Solid English and just the right amount of guiding to get us on our way at each location.
Zhujiajiao Water Town
You probably also want a car to visit Zhujiajiao. (You can do it on the same day as Suzhou.) It’s a network of alleys and canals, complete with touristy boat ride.
There’s definitely a touristy main drag, but there are also smaller shops run by locals, for locals. There was an entire store of pickled things, which I have not done justice with words. An internet search turns up “century-old pickle emporium”, which comes a little closer, but really, you just have to go visit this place yourself.
The other thing you need to experience here is the scent of stinky tofu wafting down the alley. It’s super potent, and you can’t get away. I loved this.
There are a few temples you can visit in Shanghai. We chose the Longhua Temple because it has the tallest pagoda, but when we got there we pretty much looked at the pagoda and shrugged. The true experience came behind the temple gates. I was surprised to find myself in a fully operational temple with hall after elaborate hall of deities. This was far more extensive than the temples in Singapore and Taiwan, and far less touristy than the temples in Bangkok.
I have only this picture of the front gate to show for my visit, because I felt it would be disrespectful to take pictures once inside.
Even more of a surprise than the temple? Coming across the Shanghai Marriage Market.
We had no idea this was even a thing. Sunday afternoon, we decided to check out People’s Park. It had a nice exercise area, tables with groups gathered around mahjong and card games, a kid’s play area with construction equipment. We were following signs to the waterfall when we spotted a huge crowd to the right. We were curious, so we walked over.
We saw walkway after walkway lined with umbrellas along the sides. Each umbrella had a sheet of paper fastened to it. The paper had stats of some sort. Age, height, weight, and sex, along with some additional information. Missing persons?
The stats were all for 20 and 30 something year olds. Ohh… these were personals ads! The Marriage Market is where parents go to find a match for their children.
I snapped only a couple hasty photos of unattended umbrellas. It felt wrong to document parents and the ads for the world to see.
Propaganda Poster Art Centre
In a total change of pace, there’s a guy who collects Chinese propaganda posters and displays them in a museum of sorts in the basement of an apartment building. To get there, you walk about 20 minutes from the Metro to a residential neighborhood, scratch your head at where the heck you’re supposed to go, walk into an apartment complex past the guard booth, and turn around to find said guard handing you a piece of paper with directions. You follow the directions to the correct building, then walk down some narrow stairs to the basement.
And then… propaganda posters! There were a lot of expected themes: the US imperialists are bad, the Soviets are our brothers, the Tibetan people welcome us, Mao is teh bestest. What I didn’t expect were posters in support of the Vietnam War protests, and the black civil rights movement in the US.
This poster reminded me of my Dad and his stories of his super patriotic childhood:
I didn’t take this picture, but this is my favorite of all the posters on display. (Thanks internet.) Something about how science is hard, but we must do it.
As of this writing, the Starbucks Roastery in Shanghai is the largest in the world, and it is freaking amazing. Just… go. Go and marvel at the ceiling and walls and merchandise, then spend forever watching the giant machines roast and cool and transport and degas and package. Then go watch them brew said coffee 5 different ways. Then go upstairs and do it all over again. I don’t care if you don’t like coffee, or don’t like Starbucks. Just check this place out.
Food here is cheap, fresh, and tasty. Procuring said food without speaking Mandarin can be an adventure.
I had my first adventure on day 1, when I ordered noodles for lunch. I fat finger pointed at whatever was next to the intestine noodle soup, and got intestine noodle soup. It was delicious! Best fat finger ordering ever.
Also on day 1, I had noodle soup for dinner with Aaron. I pointed precisely at beef tendon noodle soup, but didn’t realize the type of soup I had ordered had numbing spice in it. Um, why does my mouth feel weird?
Later in the week, we had potato noodles in Zhujiajiao. I got mine with large intestine on purpose.
Just like in Singapore, pork floss is popular here. (I like to call it pork sung, or pork fluff.) We came across a place with spicy pork floss egg waffles and decided we had to try it.
Me: *points at spicy pork floss on menu*
Employee: *asks me something in Mandarin*
Me: *looks confused and shrugs*
Employee: *points at 3 sub-choices on menu*
Me: *randomly points at one*
Employee: *looks worried says something to coworker about* … hao la!
Employee: … hao la!!
Employee: *to boss looking lady* … hao la!
Boss looking lady: *says something unintelligible*
Me, realizing “hao la” means really spicy: Oh! Bu yao hao la! (Do not want!)
Me: *makes gesture for small*
Employee: *looks relieved*
Our mildly spicy pork floss was delicious.
The next day later we encountered sticky rice balls with salted egg and pork floss filling. It sounded weird so we tried it. That was also delicious.
Xiaolongbao. People kept asking if we were going to have xiaolongbao in Shanghai. Yes, of course we did! Aaron loves xiaolongbao, so we made sure to try it in its city of origin. We even stood in a giant line for it.
It was all right. But then, I don’t actually like xiaolongbao that much compared to other kinds of dumplings.
What I loved were the fried dumplings. They’re filled with soup as well, but they’re also doughy on top, crispy on the bottom. There’s a place called Yang’s Dumplings across the street from the picture above that sells them. I could eat them every day, they’re so good.
Speaking of doughy and crispy, I was quite fond of all the green onion pancake stands on the street. You can get a warm crispy perfectly salty green onion pancake for 5 yuan. That’s less than a dollar. It’s oddly satisfying to watch them make it.
Those stands also sell fried cake things with shredded turnip inside. It was actually hard to choose which to get because I liked them both so much.
Also sold from stands: skewers of all sorts. There are to go skewer shops and sit down skewer stands both on the street and at food courts. Here’s Aaron with a cup of 20 skewers for 10 yuan:
On Tuesday, I had Shanghainese food with my aunt. My Dad had asked me to eat his favorite dish for him, Shanghai style “smoked” fish. My aunt did even better and we also ordered Shanghai style tofu, jellyfish, plus a couple other dishes. Shanghainese cuisine is pretty sweet. I loved it.
I discovered midweek that McDonald’s serves congee for breakfast. I love congee for breakfast, and I’m on a quest to try a local item at McDonald’s everywhere I go. It was exactly what you’d expect from a McDonald’s breakfast: not gourmet but gets the job done. Bonus: We had a taro pie for dessert. Deep fried, like they should be, like they used to be in the US, and like they still are outside of the US.
Aaron continued his boba consumption from Singapore. Brown sugar boba is popular right now (I hope it’ll spread to the Bay Area soon) and we ordered that a few times. Thanks to the language issue, we accidentally got a default hot boba the first night. It was actually quite enjoyable because it was cold out, and we purposely chose that for the rest of the week. As Mom would say, warm drinks are better for your stomach; they don’t shock your system like ice does. Along those lines, the water dispenser at the airport has two options: hot and warm.
There was an exception to the warm boba, in the form of Hey Tea boba ice cream. Hey Tea is all the rage right now, and it took us 3 attempts over the course of several days to try this dessert. It was decent, but I’m not sure what the hype is all about.
Finally, haw is a common flavor here. It’s a flavor I grew up with in Haw Flakes, and I was happy to have it again in juice form.
My first couple days in Shanghai were kind of stressful. Not being able to understand a language everyone expects you to understand based on how you look felt really uncomfortable. Eventually I got over it, and I was actually able to understand some things based on a rudimentary grasp of certain characters and sounds.
English translations for things range from bad to ridiculous and unintelligible. In Shanghai of all places you’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult to find someone for a one-time sign translation, but really, I think they just don’t care.
Along those same lines, I decided after a few days in Shanghai that China is a perfect example of how you can do things at 70% quality, but push nonstop at 110%, and progress in leaps and bounds.
My aunt put it pretty well when she said, “The hardware (technology) here is good. The software (people) needs to catch up.” Spoken like a Hong Konger!
Speaking of Hong Kongers, apparently they like to come to Shanghai on vacation. As Christmas weekend started, I all of a sudden started hearing a lot more Cantonese. One vacationing family even helped us translate the Chinese-only menu at the xiaolongbao place.
Back to hardware. Scooters are everywhere. They ride on the streets, they ride on the sidewalks. They’re also 100% electric. Even the rattiest scooter on the street is electric.
Actual software: Don’t trust Google Maps here. It gave me walking directions for a vehicle-only tunnel under the river. I walked a LOT of steps that day.
People software: It’s crowded here, and jostling is accepted practice. It didn’t bother me while I was in Shanghai, but the moment we landed at SFO, the lady behind me who tried to push her way off the plane got a death glare.
People hardware? Statues here are very nationalistic. Also, they have captions that speak of “significant contributions” and “great accomplishments”. Yup, our current president talks like a propaganda statue.
People: In many countries, lower wage jobs are filled by foreign workers. I didn’t see this in China. Instead of importing workers from across the border, I think they just import workers from poorer parts of the country.
We didn’t see a lot of dogs in Shanghai, but Aaron made the following observation from the few that we saw: Chinese dogs wear sweaters. White people dogs are naked.
I have no idea how a Chinese card catalog works.
When we were walking around in Suzhou, pairs of nervous young adults would attempt to talk to Aaron, fail, and giggle about it with each other. He had been warned by his coworkers about scams, so he ignored them. After a while, I decided there couldn’t be THAT many pairs of incompetent scam artists, and slowed down enough for a couple girls to build up the courage to approach.
“Hi, we are from Suzhou Early Childhood Education College.” It turns out they needed to interview a foreigner for a homework assignment.
Aaron didn’t want to do it, but I was curious, so I did their homework for him. He still had to take a picture with them, though, for proof.
Do they look super nervous in this photo? Because they are.
Photo album here.