The first afternoon in Shanghai

By the time we ventured out of our hotel in Shanghai it was almost 5 in the afternoon. We were tired from the lack of sleep. I could feel a migraine about to come on. Tourism would have to be light and we would need to retire early. From our hotel off East Nanjing Road it was about a kilometer to the Bund. We could do that.

East Nanjing road is fun in a very commercial kind of way. There are big stores lining the street, and a large number of well-dressed young people hanging around, especially around the apple store. In search of something local, we wandered into a bustling food shop. It was full of food we didn’t quite recognize. The Family picked up a packet of a local sweet. As we were paying for it we noticed that next to the cashier there was a container of hot water with skewers of boiled meat. Now that was local! There was also a counter of local ice creams doing brisk business.

We continued to the Bund. This was really full of life: local and tourists. The sun was going down behind us, so the skyscrapers of Pudong (East of Pu) were in bright sunlight. The golden hour had brought out an incredible number of photographers, so the edge of the Bund was crowded with tripods. Behind that phalanx other people walked, played or sat. I watched a couple of children playing as their grandmother looked on happily (photo on top). We walked on to see the everyday life of a Chinese city unfolding before us: so very much like ordinary life in India. We watched Pudong come alight as the sun set behind us. When the sky had turned a deep blue and Pudong was bright with lights we came down from the Bund.

David Sassoon’s is a famous name in Mumbai. This 19th century trader has left his mark on the urban geography of Mumbai. At the junction of the East Nanjing Road and the Bund is the house he built for himself. This grand structure is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. As we wandered past we saw this brace of photographers intent on capturing a piece of this history. They’d brought along a ladder: equipment that no photographer should be without. They saw me taking their photo, and had a laugh: a good way to connect with photographers with whom you do not share a language.


Dinner? The Family was wary. So we went into a mall which had two restaurants per floor for 6 floors. Two floors up we saw a restaurant called something like the Local Taste of Shanghai. Curious, we walked in. It was full of local couples. Very reassuring, we thought. We got the English menu, and decided to start with a beer and three things which looked innocuous: an abalone pancake, steamed dumplings, and a pumpkin pie. The pancake was like an Indian stuffed puri, the sesame covered pumpkin pies had a bean-paste filling, and the dumplings were like the Chinese dumplings we were used to. The Family decided that China was good. We were still hungry, so we ordered a plate of mushrooms, a plate of fried green beans and a bowl of rice (mifan). Our waitress helped by making a face when we ordered things that she thought wouldn’t go well with the rice. This was nice dinner to start our trip with, and it cost us only around INR 500 per head, with beer. It’ll be fun if we continue to eat like this.

After dinner we strolled down the road, people-watching again. This part of the town is full of lovely 19th and early 20th-century architecture covered with the glitter of the newly commercial 21st-century China. The combination can be somewhat startling (as in the photo above), but lively, and much fun. My migraine had receded after dinner, but both of were drooping. We returned to our hotel and turned in early. We had complicated plans for the next day.

Arriving in Shanghai

We left Mumbai precisely at 1:30 in the morning, local time. I fell asleep immediately and woke up groggy in 6 hours, just before our plane landed in Chengdu. The ticket gave us a single flight number, but China Airlines made us go through immigration and made us wait a couple of hours till we got on to a domestic flight to Shanghai. Strangely, in Pudong airport we were herded together into the international terminal again, where we collected our bags and went through customs. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, local time.

Shanghai Pudong airport is a busy international airport with a maze of corridors. As soon as we got out of the customs, we started looking for an ATM. There was a bunch of four right outside the exit. One of them was occupied by a young harassed-looking tourist whose card had been eaten up by the machine. We tried the next machine, and it would only allow transfer of funds to another card. The same thing happened with another machine in the row. The Family went to look for information on other ATMs while I stood there with the luggage cart. As I watched, another Indian went to the fourth machine, the one which we had not tried yet, and extracted cash from it! The Family was back looking dejected by now, but she perked up at this sight. We finally got our cash, and were set to venture into town.

The maglev has a rather plush interior
The maglev has a rather plush interior

How? A bus to the hotel was quickly ruled out. We could take the metro all the way from the airport to the hotel, but that could take almost two hours. So we decided to take the maglev (cost 50 RMB) and then switch to the metro. For only 5 RMB more, you can add on a ticket which gives you a 24 hour pass on the metro. This is a good deal, because it takes 3 RMB for a single journey on the metro. We rushed on to the train. The maglev accelerated smoothly to its top speed of 300 kms/hour, and in 7 minutes took us to the other end of its journey. We took an escalator down to the metro station.

In the Shanghai metro you have to put your bags through a scanner when you enter. We’d just done that, when a very helpful local told me in English, ” If your bags are heavy, come with me. There’s an elevator to the platform”. How nice and helpful! We walked across the station to the elevator, where he murmured a complaint about bad design. He was going the same way, so he helped us on and told us to listen for the announcements, which come in both Chinese and English.

All through our stay in Shanghai we kept meeting people who would realize that we needed help, and come forward to help us without being asked. Not too many people spoke English, but those who did (and many who didn’t) were very helpful. What a delightfully friendly city we had discovered!

Deciding without knowing

Eventually it always comes down to this: you decide without sufficient knowledge. The Family and I have six days in China before my meetings start. What should we see?

Since my work is in Beijing, we will have many days and weekends to explore the region around the capital, so we can leave it out of the plan for the crucial six days. Xi’an is an easy weekend hop away from Beijing, so we can leave that out of our plan as well.

We pare away the exotic Gansu, with its silk route connections and the incredible landform of Zangye. Since it is not the core of China, as we imagine it, we will visit it on a future trip. The silk route used to terminate in the old capital city of Chang’an which is modern Xi’an (as I realize in a brief “duh” moment), so we will touch that bit of history.

We subject ourselves to the tyranny of maps and flight schedules. The south, Guangzhou, Guilin, and the Li river are also sacrificed. One day we will add this to a trip through Hong Kong, but that day is not today.

Mongolia and its sea of grass has been a dream destination for me. One day The Family and I will take a train to Ulan Bator and then drive out on a road trip without roads, into a landscape without trees. Are there birds in Mongolia? That dream allows us to let Inner Mongolia and other northern parts of China slip out of this trip.

Shanghai, Ma'anshan, Huangshan

We are left with Shanghai and Anhui province. I tell myself that city people like us can handle Shanghai in a couple of days (even though we have zero Putonghua), then spend a lazy couple of days walking around Xihu in Hangzhou and visiting tea gardens and still have a two days left over for other things.

The Family and I were keen on visiting Huangshan in May, the season of azaleas. Manon also recommended this in an earlier comment on a different post. I look at the details. It seems that the bus trip from Hangzhou to Tunxi would take three and a half hours, and then you would have to get to Huangshan: not too far away, but the hours start to mount. A cable car up and down, and the bus back would eat up the rest of the day. Is it worth the dash? Or should one spend the night on the mountain and watch the sunrise before coming down. The area also has a couple of reputedly beautiful villages (Xidi and Hongcun where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot), which we could try to squeeze in. The bus from Tunxi takes 1 hour to Xidi and another half hour to Hongcun. Perhaps Huangshan, Xidi/Hongcun can be done in a couple of days, but a large part of it will be on buses. We discussed this with one of my Chinese colleagues, The Prosperous, who said it could be complicated if you only speak English.

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
(Li Bai)

What else can one do in two days? Ma’anshan, where Li Bai died, is not so far from Shanghai. But it is in the middle of the mining area. Wikipedia says the town “is not as polluted as other major Chinese steelmaking cities”. But I’m not so sure that 14 centuries after Li Bai drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the the river, the Yangtze will be the quiet place he wrote about. We will give this a pass for now.

Other options are the villages of Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Wuzhen, Nanxun. The pictures we see and the descriptions we read are nice. Perhaps we don’t need to plan in greater detail.

Maybe we don’t need to plan in greater detail. We will touch Shanghai and Hangzhou, and do as much travelling around parts of Anhui and Jiangsu as seems possible.

Preparing the mind

The first thing I need to check about China is the exchange rate. These days using a quick conversion of INR 10 to RMB 1 is good. This resonates strangely well with the idea one hears now and then: that a new-rupee which is worth INR 10 would be useful (for example, new-rupee coins might become feasible).

Numbeo has a great idea; it puts together the current cost of lots of different things. Interestingly the cost of one kilo of rice is RMB 6.60. Basic mobile tariffs are RMB 0.50 for one minute of voice call. Rice, tomatoes, beer, apples (and yes, even oranges) are priced similar to India; mobile rates, bus tickets, wine and bottled water cost a little more. It seems that China is a little costlier than India. [But see Manon’s cautionary comment below].

Hard beds on chinese trains

How should one travel in China? Google knows all. It directs me to Beijing Travel‘s website, from which I find that one can fly from Beijing to Xian in 2 hours. The flights cost around RMB 750 in the early morning or evening, but climb to RMB 1000 or above during the day. The fast train takes about 5 hours and a 2nd class seat costs RMB 516. If we plan to get away to Xian on a weekend, then flying seems to be the better option. I should cross check this.

Manon has a wonderful blog post about the nitty-gritty of travel by train in China (it is good to know that you need to arrive early to check in your baggage). There are slow night trains, which seem to be roughly like Indian trains in speed. The interiors look like Indian trains as well. I do want to travel by train at least once. With my time constraints, it looks like I can only do the Shanghai-Hangzhou stretch by train. The web site of China train guide informs me that it takes about 2 hours by the slower K train and half as long by the G or D trains. The prices are about RMB 25 (K train), RMB 50 (D train) and RMB 75 (G train).

Beijing-Shanghai bullet train: 2nd class seats

Bejing to Shanghai by bullet train may take about 5 hours zuǒyòu (I’m proud of my first word in Chinese: it means approximately), and costs RMB 555 by 2nd class seater. The price gradation is steep: 1st class seaters on the same stretch cost RMB 933, and you need to pay RMB 1748 for “Business class”! Then there are sleeper trains which take 15 hours and cost RMB 150 zuǒyòu. The “hard sleeper” interiors look like Indian 3-tier coaches. The equivalent of Indian 2-tier coaches are called “soft sleeper”. I guess the names also have something to do with the padding. Beijing-Shanghai flights seem to be comparatively cheaper, ranging from RMB 350 to 800. Flying always seems to be an option.

The land of tea and oranges

I finally proposed, and the answer is yes. The Family loves the idea of a trip to China.

Now the slog begins. We will go to Beijing, so the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are definitely on. We can’t miss Shanghai, after all one of its landmarks is named in Hindi: the Bund. We must see Xian, with its terracotta warriors from the early days of unified China, and its Chinese muslim street food.

On a first trip to China we will probably not try to cram in Xinjiang and Tibet. In any case, Tibet may involve special diffficulties for an Indian. The trouble with pragmatism is that the dream of taking the Beijing-Lhasa train remains a dream.

The rest is hard to decide on. Should we see the limestone mountains and the cormorant fishing in the Li river? The West Lake near Hangzhou sounds really nice, and there seem to be interesting villages to visit nearby. Huangshan, the yellow mountain, sounds attractive; specially since azaleas will bloom there in May. The painted hills of Zangye look beautiful, and Gansu has the added attraction of being on the old Silk route.

How expensive is flying in China? How long do trains take? Can we do all of these? With no knowledge of any Chinese language or dialect and no ability to read the script, can we travel on our own? China has been added to the list of countries for which Indian visas can be obtained electronically, and stamped on arrival. Does that mean a Chinese visa is also simple to get?

Decisions! Decisions!