After they gray skies of Beijing and a more traditional Chinese experience, I was ready for the glitz of Shanghai. After all, visiting Shanghai, known as the Pearl of the Orient, is an adventure like no other. For me, it was definitely a China I didn’t expect.
The Pearl of the Orient
Shanghai, known as the Pearl of the Orient, has paved the way for the Chinese reforms for over a 100 years. It’s been a hub of activity going back to the days of the Opium Wars. The Opium Wars were fought between the English and the Qing dynasty over opposing views, including trade.
It was after that war, that Shanghai became one of five treaty ports during the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This is the same treaty that ceded the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. The treaty ports ensured that foreign trade stayed open and accessible to the British. As such, Shanghai became a major administrative, trading and shipping centre. It remains so today. A true Pearl of the Orient.
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Visiting Shanghai today
I was both excited and curious about visiting Shanghai. It is one of the largest and populous cities in the world with over 24 million residents. I really wanted to see what being in a place with that many people felt like. Would it be overwhelming? Crowded? Something else?
In reality, I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t. I’ve lived in large cities all my life, perhaps not this large, but large enough for this to not feel overwhelming. However, I found Shanghai fascinating.
The glitz and glare
Shanghai is full of contrasts. I was blown away by all the opulence that is literally everywhere. It is a city where you can’t use the Gucci store as a point of reference. There is one on every corner, just like Starbucks. There are expensive stores, cars and designer everything. Whatever you are looking for, from cheap knock-offs to expensive designers, can be found here.
On the other hand, you will find the poor begging on the streets. I lost count of how many times I saw a person with missing limbs lying there in despair, begging for change. It was heartbreaking. Communism is a confusing system as it’s based on the principle of common ownership without social classes and money. This is in direct contrast to what I saw in Shanghai. It was a lesson that not all is as it seems until you see it for yourself.
The Bund is a very interesting area, full of history, charm and money. Lots of it. It’s a very picturesque part of town, along the westside of the Huangpu River. With the bright lights of the Pearl tower in Pudong across the river, this is a very popular spot among the tourists.
After the treaty of the 1840s, the Bund underwent a major development. Rows of European-style buildings were constructed and it became a major financial hub of East Asia. A 100 years ago, this was the cultural and political centre. The Bund was home to major banks and consulates, businesses and newspapers. In other words, the place to be.
I really enjoyed the architecture here. It was somewhat familiar, yet in a totally foreign place. It’s really amazing that you can find the familiar in the most unexpected places in other parts of the world.
Nanjing Road starts at the Bund. It continues for 5.5 kms (3.4-miles) untill Jing’an Temple and West Yan’an Street. It is China’s premier shopping strip and a must-see destination for fashion shoppers that flock to this city. Thanks to its status as a treaty port, this English Concession and later International Settlement, became an early shopping destination.
Walking along Nanjing Road is fascinating. It is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops of all kinds. Western brands, local ones and others that I haven’t heard of. The street is full of lights and people, both tourists and locals alike. From McDonald’s to Tiffany’s to street vendors, the options are wide and varied.
Street art, outdoor bars and street musicians add to the experiences. You can even hop on a sightseeing train if you are tired of walking. Nanjing Road is definitely a sight during the day and night.
At the other end of Nanjing Road is the Jiang’an Temple. It is a famous spot in Shanghai and it is absolutely amazing. As beautiful and detailed as it is, the temple is actually not the original structure.
It was first built during the Three Empires Period (220 to 280 AD) in a different spot. It was relocated to its current location during the Southern Song Dynasty, between 1127 and 1279 AD. The orignal temple was destroyed by fire in 1972. It re-opened to the public in 1990 after extensive renovations.
The Jing’an Temple is worth visiting during the day and I would recommend visiting it at night. It looks absolutely spectacular with lights. I couldn’t get enough of the place. Luckily, I was staying nearby and was able to enjoy it while I was there.
Jade Buddha Temple
The Jade Buddha Temple is another spectacular sight to visit. It’s away from the opulent parts of Shanghai, in a more humble neighbourhood. The temple gets its name from the two jade Buddha statues housed inside. The statues came from Burma at the end of the 19th century. It was at that time the original temple was constructed.
Unfortunately, the political unrest destroyed the structure. However, it was rebuilt in 1928, and that is what you see today. This was my first time in a place of worship, so very different from what I’m familiar with. I found the smell of incense a bit overwhelming, but it was fascinating to watch. As much as I tried to be respectful of the worshippers, I wondered if they got annoyed by all the tourists trampling around. If they did, they didn’t show it.
Exploring the French Concession
Going back to Shanghai’s colonial past, the French Concession area is another example of how the past has shaped the city we see today. It was pretty much what it sounds like. A territory was conceded to the French in 1849 for development and remained in its stronghold until World War II.
Today, the French Concession is a large neighbourhood with tree lined streets and certain old-world charm. There is a certain hipster vibe here with the low key coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Not as ostentatious as other parts of the city, this is a great place to stroll around and soak up the past.
The Yuyuan Garden with the nearby Yuyuan Tourist Mart and the City God Temple, is what I imagine China looked like before all the modernism. The garden was built around the middle of the 16th century by one Pan Yunduan for his father. Over the years, it changed hands, had many improvements and additions. Today, it’s a very touristy area where you can buy anything you want.
Despite being harassed by pushy street vendors trying to sell me pearls, iPhones or other things I didn’t need or want, I enjoyed strolling along here. The old architecture with the gardens are truly spectacular. The only thing that spoiled it a bit was the giant Starbucks sign in its mist. I guess you have to pretend it’s not there to get the whole experience.
Bringing it together
Visiting Shanghai is definitely an experience. It’s a mix of the old and the new, in styles, cultures and politics. Everything I have ever heard about China before coming here was nothing in comparison to what I saw. I had so many questions about this whole system, flawed yet somehow functionable.
The uber rich, the expats, the poor and everyone in between. It was a feast for the senses.
Shanghai is definitely a different China than what I saw in Beijing. It is a country that raises more questions than answers. For me, it was an educational experience. I saw amazing things and some I’d like to forget. Despite that, I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit the Pearl of the Orient.
Have you been to Shanghai? What did you think? Let me know!
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