Ni hao from China! This week, we’re continuing on with an around-the-world trip on Jet Airways. When we left off last, I’d just told you about the flight from India to Shanghai and about my stay at the highest hotel in the world, the Park Hyatt Shanghai. This week we venture outdoors to sightsee and check into another skyscraper hotel, The JW Marriott, which has the Guinness record for highest library in the world.
Natalie and I were slow to leave our room each day but you would be too if you were staying at the brand spanking new Park Hyatt — the highest hotel in the world. After filling our bellies with both western and eastern breakfast dishes, we took the elevator down 87 floors and walked around in Shanghai’s polluted air. Actually, it wasn’t very smoggy and I had no problems breathing.
Our first mission was to find an ATM, which wasn’t too difficult since Shanghai has plenty of them. Your best bets are the ones from Bank of China, HSBC and ICBC. The official name of Chinese currency is renminbi (RMB) or “the people’s money”. But everyone uses the term yuán, which is a basic unit of RMB.Yuán are divided into 10 jiao, which are again divided into 10fen. That’s way too confusing for me too, so will I just refer to the currency as yuán or CNY. 1 CNY = $0.14 USD or $1 USD =6.83 CNY.
GET A TAXI CARD
Before leaving the hotel, get a taxi card. I always do this, especially when I’m in a foreign country where English isn’t the official language or isn’t widely spoken. This way, I can make it to my destination by jumping into any taxi and without having to act like a monkey, miming landmarks and pointing to buildings. Most taxi cards include the names of local attractions and restaurants, written in both the local language and English so you can just point to where you want to go … and go. The first ATM we found was across the street at the Jin Mao Tower, which is home to another Hyatt hotel, the five-star Shanghai Grand Hyatt hotel. This hotel, which occupies floors 53 to 87 has 555 rooms. It used to be the highest hotel in the world until the Park Hyatt came along.
Shanghai has plenty of street signs pointing to landmarks and they are written in both Chinese and English. It turns out one of the biggest tourist destinations in the city is the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) which is where our hotel was located. The SWFC is the tallest building in China and has observatory decks on the 97th floor (where there’s a retractable roof) and one on the 100th floor (this one has a glass floor). But we weren’t going to pay150RMB (about $22USD) apiece to go up since our room was just a few floors below. Because the hotel and the observatory decks are run by two separate companies, the only way to get to the observatory deck from the hotel is by going all the way down and walking to a far flung elevator to go all the way back up.
SHANGHAI CENTER TOWER
Shanghai is growing so fast that the SWFC won’t be the highest building for long – construction crews are currently working on an even taller building, the 1,901-foot Shanghai Center Tower, which will have 127 floors and will be shaped like a coiled dragon’s tail. It’s slated to open in 2015.
ART STUDENT SCAM
Many times when I travel, I pre-arrange tour guides. But on this trip, Natalie and I were on our own. On the flight over, I read a good portion of the Frommer’s Shanghai guidebook, which supplied a ton of good information. The greatest was probably alerting me to an art student scam. It read: “Visitors should also beware of scam artists who will use the pretext of practicing their English to try and befriend you, with the goal of separating you from your money. As far as many Chinese are concerned, there’s no such thing as a poor foreigner. These scams can range from “art students” taking you to special shops and pressuring you to buy paintings that are neither authentic, unique, or worth what’s claimed … ”
Sure enough, two young girls approached Natalie and I and said, “Where you from? We are art students.” I just said no thanks and walked away. I’ve experienced my fair share of scams and if it weren’t for this book, I would’ve been suckered again. FYI: The last time I got hosed was in Budapest. Here’s that story.
Natalie and I walked a lot. Shanghai’s a good walking city and our goal for the morning was to make our way to the Bund, which was just across the way from where we were staying in Pudong. Our first stop was the unlikeliest of places … a mall. That’s right – when you walk by a mall with a girl who loves to shop, it’s tough to pass it by. Actually, it was me who wanted to go in since I was surprised to see huge signs for Toys R Us and Best Buy. Usually, I would run from a mall but we were in China and I was interested to see what the mall was like. It was just like any mall in America with the same set up and most of the same stores and a variety of restaurants. There was even a Travel & Leisure photo exhibit going on so it felt like home minus the fact there were no westerners running around. The people in Shanghai like to shop and dress well. The girls were dressed like they were strutting down the runway at a Milan fashion show. The malls stay open late, too. While we were there, the mall was open until 10:30pm on a Sunday!
THE BUND SIGHTSEEING TUNNEL
Right outside the mall was a little waterfront area with shops and restaurants. It had great views of the Bund, which was now directly across the Huangpu River. The hotel bellman had told us we couldn’t walk there but I remembered reading something about an underground tunnel. Then, just like in the movies, I saw a street sign that could have been glowing, stating Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. We took the escalator down and it was as if we’d entered a time warp; I’m still not quite sure if it was to the past or the future. It cost 40 yuán ($6) a person to get in this funky train car. It turned out to be like a really bad Disney ride, with flickering lights of and abstract imagery of all shapes and sizes. Thank God it was only five minutes long. It transported us under the Huangpu to just where we wanted to go.
To get to the outside world we walked past some tacky shops and up the stairs to the heart of the Bund. The Bund literally means “the embankment” and refers to Shanghai’s famous waterfront, which runs 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) along the west shore of the Huangpu River. After the 1842 Opium War, the foreign powers used to arrive here to Shanghai, which is why they erected the colonial-style structures that were used as banks and trading houses. Trading was so popular that in the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was Asia’s leading city and looking at these buildings across the busy street, you would swear you were in Europe.
THE BUND’S BIG DIG
That busy street between the Bund buildings and the river will be undergoing a Boston-style “Big Dig” so it will turn into a landscaped area with parks and pavilions. All traffic will be rerouted to an underground tunnel except buses and taxis.
The Bund’s promenade is a great place to go for a stroll because of the exceptional views of the colonial buildings and the Pudong skyline. The structure that stands out the most is the Oriental Pearl Tower, which unfortunately isn’t pretty or sleek like our hotel building, but rather trippy and maybe belongs in a Blade Runner movie. Unfortunately, the Bund is tourist central and street hawkers mob foreigners. It’s unbelievable the reaction Westerners get walking through and it’s like that in many of the popular places. However, after a while I figured out a way to get them to stay away from you (besides dressing up as a cop). Just hold up your camera or better yet video camera, as if you are video taping them and they will run like chickens. Take a look at my video below.
NIGHT AND DAY
Everyone we spoke to advised we visit the Bund twice– once during the day and once at night. They were right. The feel and the views are completely different. I personally prefer nighttime since it’s more colorful and futuristic. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, the best time to visit is early in the morning where you will see tai-chi practitioners and ballroom dancers.
It’s difficult to walk through the area without buying anything, as some of the gadgets are actually really cool and cheap. One guy had wheels you just slap on your shoes so you can roll around like those little kids you find yourself dodging in the grocery store. Another had a rubber blobs that you chuck on the ground; it squishes like jelly before quickly transforming back to its original shape. No matter what you buy — bargain hard. It’s a game with these street hawkers. FYI: You can’t bargain in the stores. One guy wanted 30 yuán ($4.40) for the squishy little people. I just kept saying no and continued walking. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and he followed me down the street until I finally agreed to buy two for 5 yuán ($0.73 cents). I also bought a pair of sunglasses since I’d forgotten mine back at the hotel. Cost: 20 yuán, ($3) down from a starting price of 100 yuán ($14).
Near the southern end of the promenade are docks with plenty of large boats and signs advertising Huangpu River cruises. There are all types available – lunch, dinner or hour-long sightseeing cruises. We just wanted to go for an hour so we paid 50 yuán($7) per person. At first I felt like we were being scammed since we were being led away from the docks to the street where we, and about 15 other paid customers, boarded a bus. No one knew what was going on but the ride took about 10 minutes and we ended up at a boarding dock at the other end of the river. It turned out to be a pretty nice boat and there was no pressure to buy anything on board (they did serve food and drinks) and the tourtook exactly an hour. We just cruised one way up the river along the Bund and back. There was a commentary in both English and Chinese but it wasn’t very memorable.
We weren’t going to go back to the Bund so we flagged down a taxi to take us to our next stop, Xintiandi. Getting a taxi was never a problem (but I hear it’s difficult during rush hour or when it’s pouring.) What’s nice is that taxis are incredibly inexpensive and the drivers don’t try and take advantage of you because you are a Westerner like they often do in Thailand. Here, they just put the meter on and when they flip it, a welcome greeting and instructions to fasten your seat belt are played in both Chinese and English. To give you an idea of prices, this ride took at least 15 minutes and cost just 18Y ($2.63) and there’s no tipping.
2010 WORLD EXPO
Almost all the taxis have billboards advertising the 2010 World Expo, which is going to be held in Shanghai next year. The city is hoping it will be the largest World Expo in history. World Expo is held every five years (the last was in Japan) and this year’s six-month event will be held between May 1 and October 31, 2010. The city is expecting 70 million (primarily Chinese) visitors. Over 200 participating nations have already signed up and I was told that it’s not just a Shanghai event. It’s a national showcase because both the city and the country plan on rivaling the performance put on during the Beijing Olympics. Now that would be something.
Xintiandi (or xin tian dì) is an upscale area with pedestrian only streets that aren’t very long. There are plenty of indoor/outdoor cafes, coffee shops, expensive boutiques and a couple of malls. There were lots of well-dressed tourists, locals and Westerners who appeared to be working and/or living in the city. Natalie and I were starving and our guidebook highly recommended Crystal Jade restaurant, which was in one of the malls on the second floor. We arrived outside of peak lunchtime hours, so we didn’t have to wait to be seated and the food was good … and actually looked like the pictures that were in the menu. I had the Dan Dan noodle soup, which was not like the Dan Dan noodles at PF Chang’s (can you believe I actually preferred the Americanized version?) but the garlic pork dumplings were awesome. Natalie had a dish of beef and bok choi, we had a couple of non-alcoholic drinks and lunch came to 149 Y ($21.78) … and that’s expensive by Chinese standards. There’s also no tipping at restaurants either. Crystal Jade, 123 Xingye Rd., 12A-B, 2nd Fl., No. 6-7 Xintiandi South Block, Luwan Shanghai; Tel: 86-21-6385-8752.
DIN TAI FUNG
The following day we dined at the popular Din Tai Fung, which has restaurants around the world. It’s in the same mall and on the same floor as Crystal Jade but the line here was much longer (it moves quickly though). We had a similar experience as Crystal Jade and both places offered amazing and friendly service. Din Tai Fung, Shop 11A, Building 6, Xintiandi South Block, Shanghai; Tel: 21-6385-8378.
GETTING LOST SHOPPING
We wanted to explore and since we were so full, we decided to walk off lunch. We just turned down random streets that looked interesting and we discovered a wide variety of them. The entire time we didn’t feel unsafe or unwelcome and there were always lots of shops and street vendors selling everything from fruit,vegetables, balloons, chestnuts, exotic fruit, fish, tea, trinkets and cotton candy, to nasty looking eggs, wool scarves, and evendried snakes … The most fascinating was Huaihai Road which was also the most crowded it was an amazing street that was full of tourists, where the architecture looked like what I pictured old China to look like. Here, there was shop after shop and street hawker after street hawker but because it was more touristy, salesmen would come up offering to sell you fake Rolexes, Mont Blanc pens, iPods … Again, it was bargaining time and one item up the street being sold for 115 Y ($17) ended up costing us 15Y ($2). Four doors down, the same item was priced at 80Y ($11) and when we laughed and said that another vendor was selling it for 15Y, she said, “Okay, 15Y” … so we probably could’ve gotten it for less.
Natalie wanted to take a picture of a distinctive looking street vendor selling hot yams. Like a good traveler, she asked before taking the picture. He didn’t speak English but somehow conveyed that if we bought a yam, we could snap a photo. Fair enough. So I gave him my smallest note – expecting a good amount of change back. I could tell he was suckering me when he handed me two yams and no change. So I just stood there with my hand out. While he slowly and reluctantly handed me a couple of crumpled up ones, a middle-aged Chinese woman saw me there and asked in Chinese how much I’d paid. Although neither of us spoke the other’s language, we knew what was going on. I showed her how much, indicating that that’s what I’d paid. Her eyes lit up like I was being completely ripped off. She just started chewing this guy’s head off and then another lady jumped in and did the same. I thought it was so cool that these strangers were sticking up for me and soon enough, the vendor began giving me back the bank notes he owed. All of this was creating a bit of commotion and then out of nowhere, two twenty-something Chinese guys, who must’ve thought I was someone else, got off a bus so they could take a picture with me. It was a bizarre scene.
I tried to give the two hot yams to the women who’d stuck up for me but they declined, so instead I gave them to a homeless woman with a baby, begging on the sidewalk. I didn’t expect to see so many beggars and the old women were aggressive and could move surprisingly quickly to get your attention and money. The most disturbing scene I saw was a baby girl who couldn’t have been any more than nine months old, just sitting on the sidewalk with a bucket and a sign. I didn’t see any parents around anywhere and I stood nearby just to watch for about five minutes or so. The locals just did double-takes and kept on moving. I felt like taking her home but I’m sure (I hope) her parents were watching nearby.
JW MARRIOTT SHANGHAI
Our last night in Shanghai we spent at the JW Marriott, which is ever popular with Americans and Europeans. Before checking in, I asked a local who I’d befriended what she thought of the JW and she said that it’s really nice but old. OId?! The 342-room hotel was built in 2003 but that just shows you how quickly the city is changing. When we pulled up to the 60-storey “Tomorrow Square” building that has a unique shape, I asked the driver if the hotel was safe (since the JW in Pakistan had recently been attacked). He said: This is China – one of the safest countries in the world, which is why there are no security checks or roadblocks coming into the hotel driveway.
The hotel is housed in the upper 24 floors and the service was unreal from the moment we arrived. An army of bellmen attacked the car, grabbed our luggage, opened the doors and whisked us up to the lobby, which is on the 38th floor. The service was even more impressive (if that’s possible) on the club floor, which is on the 59th floor. The waiters there would call me by name and get whatever I wanted: fresh glasses of watermelon juice (or OJ, grapefruit, cucumber …) hot tea, breakfast, appetizers and/ordesserts, depending on the time of day.
The room was your standard, cozy JW Marriott room, well appointed with full amenities and spectacular views. I’m not sure if it was because I’ve been staying at so many Marriotts lately (since the beds are pretty much all the same and I’ve grown accustomed to them) but I had my best night of sleep here — even though a ray of bright sunlight peeked through the blackout curtain, which wouldn’t stay shut in the corner (I really like it pitch black when I sleep). I could live in this hotel and many businessmen do, as it has everything you need including high-speed Internet that rocks. Wi-Fi is free but if you have an old-school computer that only allows for LAN, it costs 120Y.
Breakfast in the main dining room on the 38th floor was stocked with all kinds of food: Western, Chinese, Japanese, baked goods,fresh fruit. I had eggs, dim sum and exotic fruit before going over to the dessert section where they had tons of those deliciousmacaroons that you get in Paris. There weren’t any spoons because it was really for lunch and dinner but I wanted to try one so I took a spoon from one of the cereal jars to put a couple of them on my plate and quell my sugar fix. All of a sudden, I heard an American guy say, “What are you doing over there? What are you getting?” I couldn’t believe I was getting scolded but I dropped the spoon and turned around only to see that the man wasn’t looking at me. He was talking to his four-year-old who’d snuck up behind me and was trying to get at them, too. JW Marriott Shanghai, 399 Nanjing West Road, Shanghai, China; Tel: 86 21 53594969.
SHANGHAI OR HONG KONG
There’s only so much we could see and we explored more around the area of the hotel, which was in a great area near People’s Park with loads of attractions including Shanghai Grand Theatre, the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Art Museum and mega-malls. You hear so much about communism in China but I didn’t see it at all. Shanghai to me was a very capitalistic city, though I hear that anytime CNN or BBC mentions a few key words like Tiananmen Square or Tibet, they turn it off for a half hour or so. Many of my friends told me they prefer Shanghai to Hong Kong but not me. Hong Kong is still one of my top three favorite cities in the world. Sorry, Shanghai.
Next week we finish our Jet Airways around-the-world trip with our final destination – San Francisco! Wait until you see the new but historic hotel we check-into. Wow!
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