Story by Shelly Pfeifer, photos by Troy Pfeifer & Shelly Pfeifer
Shanghai is an incredibly busy metropolitan city ten times the size of Singapore with 17 million people. It is 6300 square kilometers and has 13 million bicycles, 45,000 taxi cabs and 2.2 million private cars. There are also thousands and thousands of small motorcycles that blend in with the traffic.
The traffic is a little crazy and somewhat hard to get used to. Obviously there are traffic laws, but sometimes it seems as if drivers make up their own rules. You never know when it is absolutely safe to cross the road, even when you have a walk signal. You really need to stay alert when walking along the street and beware of cars, motorcycles and bicycles turning corners.
Shanghai is known for many things, one of them is Zhongshan Dong Lu Road or as the Westerners call it, the Bund. The buildings that parallel the western bank of the Juangpu Jiang River are the few reminders leftover from Shanghai’s colonial period. The Bund has been considered the city’s symbol since 1920. Many different styles of European buildings can be seen lining the bank of the river.
The Bund is a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Not only is this one of the best places to view the scenic panoramas of Shanghai’s skyline but small trinkets and souvenirs can also be purchased here from local vendors. Teenagers are also drawn to the Bund with their sweethearts, for it is a place where they can have some semblance of privacy from their family.
After a leisurely stroll along the Bund, a favorite stop is in one of the traditional tea houses for a lesson in tea serving. Not only is a wide variety of teas served here, they are also available for purchase along with a huge assortment of tea serving ware. One of the lessons to learn in a tea house is the health benefits of each tea. For example, oolong tea is good for the stomach, jasmine is great for women’s skin and green tea clears the brain after drinking too much alcohol. Your tea serving hostess will show you the art of how to properly wash the tea leaves, warm the tea pot by pouring hot water over it then how to smell and taste the tea. This process is done for each new tea that is served. The tea houses are state run so each tea is of the highest quality and always caffeine free.
If you are part of a tour group, for lunch you will be taken to a “Shanghai Designated Tourist Restaurant”. These restaurants are also state run and are very efficient at serving large groups of people at one time. A typical Chinese lunch includes bamboo bacon, chicken with peanuts, mushrooms with cabbage, coconut milk fish stew and a broth soup. For the most part, the food is tasty but there are some dishes you don’t know what you are eating. The waiters don’t tell you what it is when they serve the dish and they don’t speak English, so asking is pretty much useless.
If you want to explore beyond Shanghai, two nearby cities are worth the trip: Suzhou and Zhouzhuang. Suzhou which is about 30km from Shanghai is 2500 years old and has a population of about 1.5 million. This is considered a very small city in China. Flowing through the middle of Suzhou is the Grand Canal. It is 1500 years old and flows from Hangzou to Beijing, approximately 1700 km. It was ordered by the emperor to be built so he could travel to see the beautiful flowers and pretty girls. It took 7 million workers and 3 years to complete.
One tour that is always remarkable is to stop at one at the silk factories to find out how silk is retrieved from the silk worm cocoons. It is amazing to watch these incredibly thin strands of silk pulled from the cocoon then spun onto a wheel with the strands from other cocoons. Of course, at the end of the tour is a store where anything silk can be bought - from men’s ties, to women’s blouses to silk comforters and pillow cases. The store clerks will even package the comforters up small enough to pack in your suitcase or to carryon the plane home.
Zhouzhuang is a village much smaller then Suzhou with about 20,000 people and is about 900 years old. This city is known as one of China’s first water towns and is organized around a grid of Venice-like canals.
Not only are there small restaurants that line the canals, but there are also many craft stores to buy a variety of items. A few of the souvenirs to be picked up are hand painted wall scrolls, jade carvings and silk ties. Remember to bargin at least 50% lower. After doing a little shopping, the next thing to do is to make your way to one of the main canals where for a very small price you can take a ride down the canal on a boat navigated by an elderly Chinese woman. For pocket change, she will also sing you a few songs if you like. We had the added entertainment of having our private tour guide know the songs as well. He sang along with her as he played a small wooden instrument. As she slowly paddles you along the canal, you can gaze in wonder at the old buildings wondering what stories they have to tell after 900 long years.
After the boat ride, you can pick up where you left off on your shopping or stop at one of the small restaurants for a meal of traditional Chinese food.
There is always something new and interesting to discover around each corner in China. Small pockets of neighborhoods and cafes can showcase the most intimate workings of a large Chinese city. It is well worth it to take the time to explore each of these pockets.