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The thing I most wanted to do in Shanghai was walk along the Bund. This is a long promenade that runs beside the Huangpu River. On one bank are the stately old colonial buildings and on the other the new city that has sprung up in the last 20 years and is all towers and skyscrapers that look fabulously space-age when they’re illuminated at night.
I got my wish and the Bund was great but it was the things I didn’t know I wanted to do in Shanghai that turned out to be the most fun.
For example I didn’t know I wanted to get up early on a Sunday morning to eat street food and go to the park. There are people cooking up fast food on corners all over the city, especially beside the many street markets. I can be squeamish about this kind of eating but I wolfed down a jian bing, a yummy breakfast crepe with spring onion, chilli, soy and bean sauce and crispy wonton in the middle.
Hunger sated I moved on to Fu Xing Park where Shanghai’s citizens escape their cramped apartments for morning exercise in the great outdoors. There you’ll find the inevitable tai chi, as well as ballroom dancers, line dancers, people swinging swords and flags around, playing saxophone or simply drinking tea. Everyone seems very serious about it but greet them with ni hao (hello) and you’re rewarded with an instant smile. Fu Xing Park offers a glimpse of a traditional way of life although, since it’s mostly the older generation taking part, it may be one that’s dying out.
Another thing I didn’t know I wanted to do was learn to make kongbao chicken. But with the help of the chef at the Chinese Cooking Workshop in the French Concession part of town I discovered it’s a skill well worth acquiring. First we were taken to the wet markets to shop for food. There’s one of these in every part of town and it’s where the locals buy the freshest produce each day. Most markets aren’t for the faint-hearted. Chickens in cages wait to be taken home and slaughtered and there’s all manner of slimy bean curds and seafood. Kongbao chicken though is a safe and delicious dish with toasted peanuts, chilli, rice wine, soy, ginger and garlic. Although the chef spoke no English he made himself understood and soon we were at the woks stir frying like experts. In the next room they were learning to make dumplings and I’d love to go back some day and have a go at that.
I certainly didn’t know how much I’d enjoy seeing brides everywhere. It turns out that in China couples rent bridal clothes and pose for hundreds of photographs in the four to six months before their wedding day so they can create a wedding book. On weekends there seem to be brides and grooms taking part in photo shoots on every corner…it gives the city a very romantic feel.
Shopping was the one thing I was certain I didn’t want to do in China. It has never been my thing…but that was before I met Suzy Fewtrell of Shopping Tours Shanghai. Suzy is a New Zealander who’s lived in the city for five years and she’s put together a full day shopping tour that takes you to places you’d never find under your own steam. The traders all recognise her – some have agreed special rates and others know she’s a demon haggler so you’re not going to get ripped off. Basically shopping with Suzy saves you money in the long run! There are incredible bargains to be had once you’ve got someone to protect you from scams and aggressive salespeople. I shopped till I felt faint, snapping up gorgeous crackle glazed bowls for about $20 each, silk pillows for a steal, colourful pashminas at $10 each, leather belts for about the same, a string of freshwater pearls for less than $50 and best of all a bright orange cashmere coat that I was measured up for at the fabric market and was tailored and delivered to my hotel by 8am the next morning, costing only $150.
Suzy’s Best Of Everything tour includes backstreet places, a flower and antique market, a silk factory, a high-end ceramic shop called Spin plus a stop for a delicious Shanghai-style lunch. She and her guides also provide loads of information about local culture. She shed light on several things that had been puzzling me. For example the reason we were only ever brought a single menu at restaurants wasn’t that there was a shortage of them – traditionally the person who does the inviting does the ordering so you only need one. Oh and they didn’t bring rice as it’s considered a filler to be eaten at the end of the meal if you’re still hungry. Really who knew?
Shanghai is a city of incredible contrasts: side-by-side you’ll find old and new, slums and sleek modern towers, poverty and wealth, remains of old-style Communism and the new very capitalist spirit. At one point I heard the city compared it to Manhattan but to me it was far more vibrant, exotic and unexpected than that. I certainly never expected to have that much fun shopping……