After three grueling days of walking in and around the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, the time had finally come to enjoy the city. I had already developed blisters on both feet by this time. Each step was a test of will, curiosity, and desire for new experiences.
The lake at the center of Century Park was calm. It was only disturbed when one of the small rental boats ran across it. Most renters were happy to take their boat to the center of the lake and linger in the midst of the serene setting.
Children frolicked all around without a care in the world; their parents following along enjoying a day of rest. It was Sunday and the next day was the start of a new week. Each adult would return to the established 9-9-6 work week adopted by most of China.
I sat for a few minutes longer watching the boats cross the lake. The sun was beaming down on my face and I had to decide between pain from the sun or pain from walking. Ultimately, the sun became too much to bear and I had move on.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
A few hours later I sat on a red plastic stool among 20 or so other people while about 40 stood outside waiting for their chance to enjoy the delicate taste of dumplings. I was alone so they brought out one basket of pork and crab dumplings just for me along with a giant bottle of “pijiu.”
A young couple in their early twenties sat across from me on the same table. They didn’t say a word to me but I’m guessing they were surprised to see me get started on a beer by myself. I’ve found drinking in China to be a social sport. The bottle even came out with two cups, as if I was expected to share with someone. I extended the offer to the young man but he politely refused. I’m guessing he didn’t want to upset his girlfriend. Or perhaps he just didn’t think it proper to drink with a total stranger. Not being one to allow good beer to go to waste, I made nothing of it and proceeded to drink on my own.
The dumplings were delectable. I didn’t use any sauce or ginger, instead opting for the simple taste of the piping hot soup inside. Once the basket and the bottle were empty, it was time to keep moving.
Two More Parks to Visit
I made my way to the People’s Square and what I saw perplexed and amazed me all at once. The Hong Kong protests that erupted due to a new extradition law were still going strong. From what I was able to make out, the park was filled with people who had lost loved ones to the separation between China and Hong Kong. There were open umbrellas everywhere, some with the British flag adorning signs with statements written in Mandarin. It was impossible to ignore what seemed like a peaceful protest within a nation usually intolerant of such demonstrations.
I went back underground to the subway again. This time I headed to the Yuyuan Garden. I could’ve simply remained on this train all the way back to the hotel to rest my aching feet but I decided to push on instead. I had only the one day to roam and was determined to make the most of it.
It was gloomy when I surfaced from the subway station. There was less than one hour of light left for me to find these gardens and I had read they were a little hard to find.
The street was busy and there were small shops along the right side. Along the left, a massive structure with old Chinese architecture stood at the corner of the main intersection—the Shanghai Center Tower juxtaposed behind it rising into the clouds.
It was shortly after that intersection that I found the first of the laneways into the garden. The alley beckoned, adorned with Chinese lamps overhead and shops selling all matter of trinkets to tourists eager to let go of their cash.
Inside the laneway was the entrance to the Yuyuan Garden. It was an oasis protected by concrete walls from an invasive modern world. That feeling unfortunately lasted only a short time. Once among the crowd, it became a tourist trap I couldn’t wait to get through. The main attraction is a bridge that travels in various ninety degree angles above a giant lake. At each turn a fountain or statue, and tourists taking selfies or posing for pictures with loved ones. The bridge is narrow and you are forced to traverse it through the countless posing crowds, children on leashes, and parked strollers and wheelchairs.
From the moment I set foot on the bridge, my goal was to come out at the other side. I squeezed through, went around, and pushed my way through the crowds. In the middle of the commotion, you are swallowed by it. The beauty of the place can’t be ignored and you take pictures. Inevitably, you too become a tourist.
I survived the bridge of the Yuyuan Garden and got back on the street with still some light remaining. While I was walking back to the subway I remembered a small food stand that got my attention on the way in. It was at that stand that I picked up a scallion pancake. Each bite of the fried, salty wheel put me at ease as the remaining moments of light faded away. It was the perfect drug for the anxiety I had felt in the outdoor maze moments before.
The night came and there was still no time to rest. I met up with some colleagues who knew Shanghai well. They said they would take me to dinner and to the place I needed to see on my last night in Shanghai. I prayed they were not talking about Shanghai Disney.
We met by the convention center and made our way down the block to scope out the various food options. Everything on the block was crowded. We settled on a hot pot place mostly because it had one, and only one, table available when we walked by it.
There are two things needed to get to know a new place: a local you trust and a desire to try new food. Spending time with locals makes ordering food in a strange land a breeze. Not speaking Chinese, it’s difficult to get too creative with ordering when alone. That’s not to say I don’t try. It’s just easier with others who do know the language and the food. Hot pot was a great option to just have my friends choose whatever they wanted.
We were waiting for the food to arrive when the whiskey bottle made its appearance. I don’t recall the brand but do remember it was Scotch whiskey. We were a few glasses in by the time the food came out. We ordered it with a divider between mild and spicy. This proved a fantastic choice as none of us could’ve done only the spicy soup if we didn’t have at least one serving of mild flavor to rest our burning tastebuds.
There were four Chinese men in their late 30s on the table across from us. As the drinks flowed at both tables, we eventually became one party. We shared a few laughs and a few drinks with our new friends to end our dinner and said our goodbyes. Our original group then grabbed a cab and headed to the most famous strip in Shanghai.
Traffic started building both with cars and with pedestrians on the sidewalk. To my left were old buildings resembling British palaces. To my right, what looked like a wall with elevated lighting. I could not make it out from the seat of the car. We got off and made our way to an opening within the wall and took some steps up and found ourselves on The Bund. This is the must-see destination for anybody visiting Shanghai. It is an elevated walkway straddling the Huangpu River. We walked north on the famed walkway stopping to take pictures and take in the views.
There was so much to admire from this mile-long walkway. The old Shanghai most visible in the grandeur of buildings like the Custom House with a giant clock atop its central tower. On the river itself, countless boats moved back and forth in a dazzling display of marketing. Seemingly every boat included bright advertising for global brands. The most popular examples on this night were Visa and Kia.
Of course, the real display of lights, the one that really makes the show of the Bund, is across the river. The Oriental Pearl sits right on the edge of the water fully illuminated. The buildings of the financial district stand to its right creating the multicolor skyline of Shanghai; their changing lights and giant LED advertising screens reflecting off the water below. And to bookend the entire area, the enormous Shanghai World Financial Center reaching as high as the eye can see. The top of the building completely hidden from view thanks to the fog only adding to its mystique.
We spent about an hour on The Bund and then it was back to the hotel for me. It was late and I had an early flight the next day with a 4-hour layover on its way to Los Angeles. My time in Shanghai had come to a close. It was early October of 2019. Only one month later, a new strain of “flu” began spreading in a city about 500 miles from Shanghai and changed the world forever. Today, I sit at home with memories of past travels and dreams of a day when exploring the world will once again be possible.