We went, we saw, we conquered. Or did Shanghai conquer us?
After six nights and seven days in China’s most populous city over Chinese New Year (CNY), we returned to Haiyang exhausted, yet rejuvenated. We made the most of our time back in civilization where taxis are a dime a dozen, restaurant choices abound, and an American can live pretty much like an American if one chooses. On some days we did; others not so much. It’s hard to sum up our trip to Shanghai (god forbid I bore you with too many details) and even harder to choose what I liked best about the city. But I can certainly narrow it down for you: (1) walking around the city and (2) the food.
Let’s start with walking, which we did plenty of. Shanghai has some seriously gorgeous streets nestled amongst the busier ones you’ve all heard about. You know, the ones filled with millions of people, all the usual shops (Gap, H&M, need I list more?), and the very tall, tall buildings. Some are tree-lined like the ones in the French Concession and Luwan Districts. Others just meander this way and that, offering up surprising historical lessons along the way. When I began to look closely at the buildings lining the city streets, I noticed not-so-prominently displayed plaques that provided historical tidbits about China. As far as I know, Shanghai has never been the capital of China, but I’d be willing to bet that its historical landmarks reflect just as much about China’s recent past as Beijing’s reflect the country’s older and famous dynasties. A nondescript brick building on a fairly nice residential street in the Jing’an District, for example, had been the home of a military commander who was “usurped” by none other than China’s infamous Chiang Kai-shek. A large European looking building complete with garage and gardens in the Luwan District had been the residence of Zhou Enlai, who was Mao’s No. 2 and who as Prime Minister in the 1960s and ’70s sold the supposed virtues of Mao and Communism to the outside world. For anyone interested in the Communist Party of China’s activities in the late 1940s — “a glorious chapter to the annals of China’s revolution” according to an informational brochure — I suggest visiting the building, which is open to the public and costs only 2RMB to tour (though on CNY it was free).
For all the history that the streets and buildings of Shanghai illuminate, they also showcase the wonders of local life…
Outdoor Kitchen: Shanghai has a pretty cosmopolitan feel, but there are stark reminders like this one that life here is a bit different from life in other international cities like NYC or London. The most interesting thing about this photo is that the apartment complex is right off a major upscale shopping street that features Gucci and similar shops that you and I will never buy anything from. What a contrast.
Laundry, Laundry, and More Laundry: The laundry strewn up all across Shanghai added a colorful dimension to the often grey and dreary city sky.
Multiple Purpose: I probably never would have thought to use laundry racks for meat. Ingenious.
Speaking of meat, I think it’s time to move on to the topic of food, which we ate way too much of, but, hey, we were on vacation. Luckily for us, we received an invitation to dine with one of our Shanghainese friends and her family for a traditional CNY’s Eve dinner and it was by far the best food we had while in Shanghai. Our hosts were nice enough to incorporate lots of seafood and vegetarian dishes into the menu for us, though there were several meat dishes for them to enjoy such as pig’s tongue. Yum?
We loved the culinary adventure of the evening, trying things we’d never eaten like jellyfish that had a surprisingly delicious flavor even if the texture was a little gummy. There were so many dishes to choose from that ranged from steamed spinach with a little bit of broth to a noodle vegetable mix topped with what tasted like sesame oil to a traditional CNY dessert: nian giao, a steamed rice cake filled with red bean paste that was mildly sweet, but oh so satisfying. We couldn’t believe all of our options and were pleasantly surprised to learn that we weren’t expected to eat all of the food on the table. Thank god because, as you can see, it was a lot. Whatever food was left over would stay on the table and be eaten over the next two days, as is part of the CNY custom.
Other food highlights included indulging in a genuine snack attack one afternoon while out walking. We had heard Sumerian had legit coffee, which is surprisingly hard to come by even in Shanghai. We checked it out and, along with our cappuccinos, we thoroughly enjoyed some cheesecake and a slice of carrot cake, which was shipped from Reading, PA. A hop, skip, and jump away from where I grew up and even closer to where my sister now lives.
We also satisfied our craving for good Italian food at Mercato, a Jean-Georges restaurant located smack dab on The Bund. The place had a great and familiar atmosphere and amazing views of The Bund and Pudong, which is Shanghai’s financial district located just across the Huangpu river. Chances are if you’ve seen any action movie in the last couple of years, you’ve seen the view of both many times.
Since we kicked off our CNY week in Shanghai with a traditional Shanghainese dinner, it seemed appropriate to end with one as well. We met up with a high school friend of my husband’s at Jian Guo 328 and scarfed down some deep-fried frog legs, eggplant casserole, fried duck leg, and celery with lily bulbs. Delicious. The dinner was incredibly pleasant not only because of the food, but also because this was one of the few places we found where we could eat and drink without the annoyance of smoke. Being in Shanghai — and China in general — makes me wonder how the hell I ever survived and enjoyed going out to the bars in my early 20s. Seriously, have people not heard that smoking kills?
What else can I tell you about Shanghai? So much! But, I’ve written enough and will let the photos do the rest of the talking. In sum, Shanghai was a blast, CNY was a pretty neat cultural experience, and by the end of our week, we were ready to go “home” to Haiyang. A feeling and fact that surprised no one more than us.