Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.
We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.
The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.
Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.
Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.
Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.
Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle. Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.
Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.