Shanghai: A delightful surprise
For a while, I thought I would never make it to China.
Leading up to my visit, I spend hours filling in a journalist visa form, penning interview questions, updating my itinerary, and trekking back and forth to China's visa office on a nondescript Wellington side street, where an official points to my form and stony-faced, orders me to come back with yet another document.
Even though the vast continent is now 144 hours visa free for many foreigners, I was invited to Shanghai on a work trip. On the last working day before I am due to leave, the officer breaks into the hint of a grin as he stamps a J1 journalist visa in my passport.
Of all the Asian countries on the world map, China has never been on my hit list. Over the years, Bali has seduced me with its warm temperatures, sunny beaches, friendly locals and incredible cuisine. I hope to go to Vietnam, which seems misty and mysterious. Hong Kong is exciting. Singapore is a clean and easy stopover to Europe.
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But China has always seemed like a huge, vast, unobtainable country. It will take me 16 hours to get there. Will I struggle to breathe on the Shanghai streets and need to wear a face mask? Will I be able to converse with locals, as the only Mandarin I can speak is a token "ni hao".
China is also tightly controlled. In this age of high-speed wi-fi, where the world is accessible via the click of a button or the swipe of an app, China's internet is so highly regulated that it has earned the nickname "The Great Firewall of China".
While in Shanghai, I won't be able to access Facebook, or search for local restaurants via Google, as both websites are banned, along with about 3000 others. Despite that, the Chinese access social media more than any other race, using their own versions, sites like Weibo, WeChat and Tudou.
I finally arrive late on a Monday night. Driving into the city, Shanghai reminds me of Hong Kong as we pass lit-up skyscrapers and buildings covered in Chinese script reminiscent of beautiful art works. No surprises so far, until our driver pulls off the highway and eventually slows to an area of narrow, leafy streets. Our hotel is on the edge of the Xintiandi district, a picturesque, car-free neighbourhood of shikumen houses and reproduction ones that have been turned into stylish shops and eateries.
My four days in Shanghai suddenly turn into an intense history lesson. I discover that the shikumen houses were built from the 1870s, about the time of the Revolutionary War of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. This part of Shanghai harks back to the 1842 Opium War, when Shanghai became one of five Chinese ports which opened to foreigners and traders, bringing in an influx of Europeans, Americans and refugees. The city grew into a glamorous but naughty trading port, seething with opulent halls and opium dens.
Different nationalities built neighbourhoods, and the French concession area sprawls over kilometres. As I explore the French quarter on foot, I pass art deco and Tudor villas, neo-Gothic offices and elegant mansions lining many of the city streets. Even though the 1965 Cultural Revolution began in Shanghai, many colonial buildings fortunately survived the Red Guards' attacks.
Five minutes from my hotel, Huaihai Road runs for kilometres, lined with international shops like Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana and Zara. When the French were here, it was a boulevard with a tramline, named Avenue Joffre after the French general, Joseph Joffre. Looking at the price tags though, Shanghai shopping caters for wealthy Chinese and visiting tourists, and it seems no cheaper than buying things back home.
I've always loved discovering the heart and spirit of a new city, rather than obvious places on the tourist map. City bikes line the footpaths in a kaleidoscope of colours, usable via a downloadable app. Joining other commuters, I freewheel south in a bike lane towards the muddy Huangpu River The traffic is surprisingly calm for an Asian city.
On the embankment, the Bund sits on the edge of a pedestrian promenade. One of Shanghai's biggest drawcards, the Bund is essentially dozens of historical buildings built by the British around the turn of the 20th century, turning this part of east Asia into a financial hub. There's even a replica Big Ben built in England which was assembled on the top of the Customs House in 1927.
I'd swear I was looking at English buildings peering over London's Thames, until China's red flags and a statue of Shanghai's first Communist mayor, Shen Yi, appear.
The Yuyuan Garden is another local landmark, and I hear from a fellow traveller that he couldn't move when he visited Shanghai's main classical garden one afternoon. I cycle there before the tour buses pull up at 10am, and wander through its tranquil gardens which were commissioned by a Ming dynasty mandarin in 1559. The two hectare property makes me catch my breath, with its classical pavilions, Chinese bridges and walls, and ponds teaming with koi, along with a quaint pavilion named the Chamber of the Ten Thousand Flowers.
The garden opens to Shanghai's Old Street packed with stalls selling Chinese fans and jade jewellery. I'm running out of time, so I instead head for what I hear is one of the city's best-kept secrets, Shanghai's Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market. I can't search for it on banned Google Maps, so I instead resort to an old-fashioned paper map.
Spread over three floors, I weave my way through stalls on the first floor, passing tables piled with linen, rayon, polyester and cotton fabrics of every hue. Sewing machines whir as tailors weave their magic. By the time I reach the top floor, I've passed dozens of stalls, and kilometres of fabric, but I'm hopelessly lost. No-one speaks English. I use my arms to try to gesture for an exit. Someone points to the right.
It's stuffy hot. In the heat of summer, this place would be insufferable.
Near the back wall, I almost fall over a table piled with striped cotton fabrics I've seen in homeware stores back home. A tailor smiles a toothless grin.
"Ni hao," I smile. Pointing to the blue striped fabric, I ask for a price. He pulls out a calculator and punches in a few numbers. A woman comes across from another stall. "Can I help you?" she asks in perfect English.
Five minutes later, we've negotiated a deal, via our voluntary interpreter. The tailor agrees to make me four duvet covers and four pillow slips for $150. Our interpreter has disappeared by the time I talk about the size, and as I want single covers, I put up one finger, and cock my head to one side, as though I'm sleeping.
Yes, yes, he agrees, nodding his head.
I'm flying back to New Zealand tomorrow. Can he post them? He motions to his watch. I can pick up the four duvets and pillowcases at 1pm tomorrow. Really? That's less than 24 hours away. He smiles again.
About 20 hours later, I finally find the stall again, after getting lost in a maze of fabric.
The stall holder pulls out a bag. My duvet covers are perfectly folded inside. He shows me one, flopping it on the floor. It's huge - at least a double. He has made me four double duvet covers. I pull out a pen and paper and draw a single bed. He points to his watch.
I can come back in 20 minutes and he will have fixed my duvet covers, says the interpreter, who has reappeared as though by magic.
Leaving Shanghai one day later, I've got four, handmade single duvets in my bulging suitcase. I think of the tailor with his toothless grin, and freewheeling through beautiful Shanghai, having a crash course in a city I never had a desire to visit, which seemed so prohibitive to get into.
I wish I had more time to explore Shanghai, I think, as I add Beijing to my travel bucket list. After all, the best places are those when you arrive with no expectations - it's like being single and falling in love when you least expect it.
Stuff Escapes – The Real China
Join us on our inaugural 16-day, fully inclusive Reader's Tour from 9-23 March 2018, in association with Wendy Wu Tours. This remarkable trip includes China's most spectacular destinations, with visits to the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, Yangtze River and more. Relax knowing all the arrangements are taken care of, with international flights on Singapore Airlines, all accommodation, meals and touring included. The group will be accompanied by our panel of guest China experts, whose unique knowledge of China's history and culture will turn your tour into an unforgettable experience.
Jeremy Rees is currently the National Communities Editor and is undertaking postgraduate study in Chinese history and culture at Auckland University. Jeremy will join us for the duration of the tour. Tony Browne, NZ Ambassador to China from 2004 to 2009, has travelled to 28 of China's 31 provinces and will be joining us in Xian. Suzy Fewtrell will join us for the Yangtze Cruise. She is currently regional director for Kea NZ, and has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, previously running her business Shopping Tours Shanghai.
The Real China tour departs on 9 March 2018 flying Singapore Airlines and is priced at $7,599pp twin share (plus tipping: RMB700). Book now by calling Wendy Wu Tours on 0800 266 610. Or visit wendywutours.co.nz/stuff-escapes for more information and booking conditions.