Beijing Getaways: Shanghai Guide
The Sister City: Shanghai serves up culture, clubbing and concentrated capitalism
Loved as the Paris of the East or reviled as the Whore of the Orient, China's eastern coastal megalopolis of Shanghai has had a chequered history. It was the largest and most prosperous city in the Far East during the 1930s, and remained the most developed city in Communist China - now the good times are rolling again as China's economic boom has lifted Shanghai from the doldrums and given this city of 17 million people a high-tech makeover of mammoth proportions.
The varied sights and constant modernization of Shanghai make the city a great place to visit. A two-hour flight from Beijing, there are also a number of comfortable overnight express trains from Beijing which leave the Chinese capital in the evening and arrive in Shanghai in the early morning. The best times of year to visit Shanghai are in spring and autumn - summers can get very hot and winters cold, wet and windy.
Shanghai's cosmopolitan past has given the city a rich architectural heritage. The historic shikumen houses of the now-trendy Xintiandi area fuse Chinese style with European design flair, and the city also has one of the richest collections of art deco buildings in the world. As a result of the numerous Concessions (designated districts) granted to Western powers at the turn of he 20th century, Shanghai sometimes has the feel of Paris or London, while Tudor style buildings give a German flair, and the 1930's buildings put you in New York or Chicago.
The largest city in China, Shanghai's geography spans 6,218 square kilometers (2,400 square miles) - that's about eight times the size of New York. Nowhere else in China is the contrast between old and new China so striking - sidestep from a glittering shopping parade into a narrow pedestrian alley and 15 seconds later you are in another world. Insulated from the noise, congestion and non-stop commerce, the quiet neighborhood life of a residential block continues like it has for decades. Housewives dry their laundry outside, beat carpets and take more than a few breaks to gossip and laugh with neighbors.
Soaring office buildings and bustling commercial zones encircle intimate and traditional pocket neighborhoods. Fashionable locals and well-heeled western expats are elbow-to-elbow in upscale cafes and trendy bars. Bicycle-bound local entrepreneurs compete for road space with fellow countrymen in Mercedes and BMWs. Tourists can depart the bland interior of a Starbucks, cross the street, and experience a gritty basement-housed live seafood bazaar - where for decades fish unknown to western palates have been chopped and prepped for sale.
After the building boom of the 1990s, Shanghai is now relatively easy to navigate by taxi, metro, maglev, bus, ferry, and on your own two feet. Preparations for the 2010 World Expo are well underway, and the face of the city will continue to change as roads are ripped up, subway lines added, and new skyscrapers built, but the basic infrastructure and services in place make Shanghai a more user-friendly city than Beijing.
Shanghai is bisected by the Huangpu River, with the older town (Puxi) on the west bank and most of the brash new development on the east side (Pudong). The space-age Pudong skyline is dominated by the bold (some might say hideous) Oriental Pearl Tower, which reaches a height of 468 meters (1536 feet) and is the tallest TV tower in Asia. It's possible to ascend the tower, either halfway or to the "space capsule" in the top sphere - tickets range from 70 to 135 RMB. Nearby the Pearl Tower is the far more aesthetically pleasing Jinmao Tower, currently China's tallest building and third highest in the world at 421 meters. The Cloud Nine bar on the 88th floor, part of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, offers magnificent views.
Pudong also offers good views (especially at night) of another of Shanghai's iconic sights the Bund (Waitan in Chinese). Stretching for about a mile, the western end of the Bund is the most attractive, with various buildings of differing architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Renaissance. During colonial times the Bund was the centre of Shanghai's politics, economy and culture, housing numerous consulates, banks and businesses. Today it has been renovated and houses various exclusive eateries, boutiques, wine bars, clubs and salons.
If you're walking along the Bund be sure to check out the Peace Hotel (Heping Fandian), an art deco mansion that epitomizes the colonial romance of Shanghai. Built in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a British descendant of Baghdad Jews who'd made their fortune in opium and real estate, the building was originally part office/residential complex known as the Sassoon House, and part hotel, the Cathay Hotel, one of the world's finest international hotels in the 1930s. Admission is free.
Just off the Bund is Nanjing Lu - a mecca for shoppers. A 1-km long pedestrian boulevard lined with busy shops, Nanjing Lu is often packed with people on weekends and holidays. The shops are often targeted at domestic tourists, so the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Local people often look down on Nanjing Road and shop at Huaihai Road (another busy shopping boulevard with more upscale stores near the Xintiandi area) instead.
Another Shanghai must-see is Xintiandi, currently Shanghai's hippest lifestyle destination. A 2-block warren of upmarket restaurants (some of Shanghai's best), bars, shops, and entertainment facilities, mostly lodged in refurbished traditional Shanghainese shikumen (stone-frame) housing, Xintiandi is the first part of the Taiping Qiao Plan, a 52-hectare urban renewal project that resulted in the relocation of 3,500 families. (Check out more about this project at the excellent Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre (Shanghai Chengshi Guihua Zhanshiguan) in the People's Park (Renmin Gongyuan).
Two more popular sights in Shanghai are the Jade Buddha Temple (Yu Fo Si) in the northwest of the city, dating back to 1882 (admission 20 RMB), and Yu Garden (Yuyuan), a famous classical garden located in Anren Jie, south of the Bund. Built between 1559 and 1577 by local official Pan Yunduan as the private estate for his father, Yu Garden (meaning "Garden of Peace and Comfort") is a maze of Ming Dynasty pavilions, elaborate rockeries, arched bridges, and goldfish ponds, all encircled by an undulating dragon wall.
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