Shanghai, city of contrasts!

When we went to China, Shanghai wasn’t high on our list of places to visit. As you can probably guess by now, we’re fascinated by history and culture and I viewed Shanghai, with its population of 23.5 million people, as little more than a massive modern city. The only thing that actually drew us to Shanghai as a possible place to visit was the fact that we had friends living there. We got to know the Kawabatas when we attended the same church during our year in Japan and Itoshi was transferred to Shanghai not long after we left that country in 2009.

When we discovered that the tour that included everything we most wanted to see in China ended in Shanghai, we decided to go there after all. We timed it so that we’d finish our tour on a Friday afternoon and then spend the weekend with our friends before flying back to Canada from there.

As time went by, I became more excited about seeing Shanghai. I looked forward to seeing the contrast between the old and traditional in Beijing and the new and modern in Shanghai. Little did I know that I would see both in Shanghai. It is truly a city of contrasts!

Our Lonely Planet guidebook suggests that “Shanghai is best seen as an epilogue to your China experience” and I’m glad we saw it that way. It also refers to Shanghai as “the future that China has long been waiting for”.

Our tour began at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall which gave us a good overview of the city both past and present before we began to explore it. With its massive model of the city and its dizzying 3D wrap around virtual tour in which we seemed to float over the metropolis, we soon felt as if we were no longer strangers there. Historic photos, maps and dioramas gave us a picture of its colourful past. Our next stop was the 88 storey Jinmao Tower for an amazing bird’s eye view of the city.

After lunch, we were off to the most traditionally Chinese part of Shanghai where we toured the classical Yu Garden, founded by the Pan family, rich Ming dynasty officials in the 1500s. Afterward, we relaxed over coffee at Starbucks in the middle of the adjacent and very crowded bazaar area with its many tacky tourist shops and outdoor vendors.

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The building under construction in the background will be the world’s tallest when it’s finished.

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Our evening was free so we took the subway from our hotel to East Nanjing Road, one of the most famous and crowded shopping streets in China. The pedestrian street was a glowing forest of neon lights and crowded with people. It was a vibrant and noisy hub of activity with people strolling, singing, and dancing while others hawked their goods. We even joined one of the groups for an old time waltz!

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The next morning we were back on East Nanjing Road to see it in the daylight and do a bit of shopping. Look very closely and you’ll see the same KFC and McDonalds signs in both photos!

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From there, it was an easy walk to the Bund where we strolled along the riverfront in awe of the contrast between the two sides of the river. On our side stood stately very European looking buildings. Symbolic of the city’s colonial past, they once housed Shanghai’s most powerful banks and trading houses. Today, the Bund is a designer retail and dining area with some of the city’s most exclusive boutiques, restaurants and hotels. Across the river, is the futuristic skyline of the Pudong New Area looking like the set for a science fiction movie. Thirty years ago, that area was still farmland.

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Perhaps the most amazing building we saw in Shanghai was the one where our friend, Itoshi, works where we were dropped off at the end of our tour of China!

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  1. Trackback: Real China | Following Augustine

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