October 20, 2010

Shanghai Thoughts

Wife and I had frequent flier miles expiring soon. Had enough for a free ticket, but only to Hong Kong or China. We'd been to Hong Kong not that long ago, and plane+hotel combo plans are so cheap that a free flight plus full-fare hotel doesn't save much. So we decided to go to Shanghai since I hadn't been except once for work and wife's dad is there. Tried to book in May and couldn't get a place until August. We knew that wasn't the best time to visit but we were caught between the expiration deadline and the lack of seats during summer-vacation time, so we had to take what we could get and off we went.

  • Shanghai was hot. Really hot. Breaking 40C hot, with humidity. In the city center the suffocating AC exhaust of the high-rises only added to the misery. We pretty much bought a cold drink every time we passed a convenience store. I think we spent more on drinks and ice cream than on real food.
  • Hotel prices were through the roof on account of all the summer tourists visiting the Expo. Wife's dad booked us a business hotel next to the Hilton at a nice location for RMB550 a night, which is almost Tokyo-level prices, for not much more elbow room than the Japanese closet-hotels. At least the bed was realistically large enough for two people, unlike the Japanese twin-sized single-doubles.
  • The half-price night-session ticket was definitely the best way to visit the World Expo. Temperature was more bearable in the evening and the crowds, too. Entrance at 5pm made for some nice sunset photos of the pavilions just as the lights come on. Couldn't see quite as much but then we weren't going to see everything in half a day anyway. Wife wanted to see the European pavilions and with the shorter lines we saw the Spain and Dutch pavilions in full. Both were quite avant garde in their own way, Spain with its combination of flamenco dancer and giant baby, Netherlands featured house-booths showing off their designers, artists, and corps. Also went into the Australian pavilion which featured a more conventional video show with twirling LED screens and giant stage props showing off its melting pot heritage and optimistic urbanism.
  • Took the maglev train to the airport just to try it once. It's a bit of a hassle since you have to take the subway to Pudong to transfer to the abbreviated maglev track. And it doesn't even run full-out 400kph most of the time. Our trip only got up to 300kph which was actually less than the top speed of the long-haul CRH conventional high-speed trains. The train and station seem a bit run-down in general as it's obviously become more tourist trap than mass-transport. It was still neat to see the train levitate as the magnets energize, though.
  • The new Hongqiao Train Station is jaw-droppingly massive. And the station is purely dedicated to China's rapidly expanding high-speed rail network, the planned scale of which is breath-taking. Funny how they'll sell standing-room tickets for a 350kph train.
  • We really had some lousy timing. Went to 陸家嘴 Lujiazui at night wanting to see the Bund all lit up from the Pudong side of the river. But we ran into the declared day of mourning for the victims of the Gansu mudslide disaster and the entire Bund remained dark for the evening. Even the Oriental Pearl Tower was lights-out. On the other hand, I guess it's a more unique scene to have the lights not on, even if that made picture-taking into quite a challenge.
  • Had to coordinate our schedule with wife's dad so we mostly took our meals on the run. The one splurge was for Saturday brunch at M on the Bund. It was kinda nice to take our time and enjoy the nice room, away from the suffocating heat and crowds outside. The crowd was mostly foreigners, or Chinese hosts and their Western friends. The brunch menu were mostly standards like fish-and-chips for FIL, eggs benedict for me, and English-style fry-up for the wife, but it's a bit less expensive than the full lunch menu. The most spectacular attraction is the view from the patio, with the entire Bund's buildings and waterfront curving away before you and the glittering Pudong high-rises across the river, albeit misted by the smog and humidity. Too bad it was too hot to eat outside.
  • Picked up a local transit card for a RMB20 refundable deposit and was able to get around the city via subway for 90% of our needs. A typical subway trip would be 3-4RMB, and even the long trip to Hongqiao was only 6RMB. Thankfully we avoided the worstest of the work-day rush-hours when they push people into the cars to pack them as tight as possible. But occasionally one does have to be aggressive to push through the crowd.
  • Shanghai Apple Store's circular glass structure at the entrance should become as iconic as the New York store's glass cube, and even if only a tiny fraction of the visiting crowd bought into the Apple brand that would still bode well for my AAPL shares. But no iPad, no iPhone4, not even a Magic Trackpad to tempt a purchase from me. Lame that the latest products aren't on sale in the country where they're all made.
  • Yang's Fried Dumplings 小楊生煎 was tasty as advertised. Rarely does both Chinese and English-speaking foodie boards agree on a good Chinese place. 5RMB for four juicy meaty dumplings is a heck of a bargain, too. Amazing how the locals can suck out the meat juices out of the hot-from-the-griddle dumplings while us tourists stumble and drip all over the place.
  • Hired our own private driver in Suzhou for a day for 100RMB. He was alright, but he suckered us into going to a second-rate garden instead of the World Heritage site Humble Administrator's Garden. The wife had even visited it once before and didn't recognize the tourist trap until we'd bought the expensive tickets. Oh well, 拙政園 would've been ridiculously crowded and hot, anyway. At least we managed to visit the UN-recognized Lingering Garden 留園 in the afternoon when it finally got a little cooler. And that was a truly beautiful and well-preserved garden to make a fine example of the Chinese-style of luxury country villa.
  • 田子坊 was a fun diversion to see how they're managing to redevelop a historical hutong without tearing it all down. The old brick buildings are rapidly, and somewhat haphazardly, being converted into boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. And there's a new mall and subway stop opening up across the street to offer modern conveniences to the tourists tired of crowding in the narrow alleys.
  • I've spent most of my China time in Shenzhen, with its boom-town construction and zero-history. So Shanghai's Concession-era boulevards with their European, tree-lined flavor was a pleasant sight which the wife also enjoyed. The walking would've been so much more pleasant if only it were five degrees cooler, though.

So it wasn't exactly a dream vacation. A diversion from the daily life was still appreciated, though, and we didn't spend too much money for the trip (Uniqlo clothes turned out to be cheaper in China than in Japan). Now with the direct flights from Taiwan, Shanghai is now about equidistant with Hong Kong, but we agreed that HK is still a more pleasantly cosmopolitan destination for now. There's no question Shanghai is still on its way up, though, and it'll be a world-city very soon, if not already.

Posted by mikewang on 03:23 PM