Walking the Old and New Streets of Shanghai

by Nancy Bestor

China’s city of Shanghai is a crazy blend of old and new, spartan and luxurious, classic and new-fangled. Bob and I just returned from a week there, walking (and walking, and walking) its streets and enjoying both worlds, from its fantastically designed high-rise buildings and high-end shopping streets to its timeless Buddhist temples and teeming back alleys.

We took a comfortable ride from the airport into the heart of the city on a magnetic levitating (MagLev) train, whose speed reached a smooth 430km (267 miles) per hour, then walked down bustling cobblestone alleyways to reach our hotel. On another day we were the only westerners on a narrow two-block-long alley with food stalls lining the sides—locals squatting down and selling their wares, including vegetables, chickens, fresh cut meat, fish, and black, purple and spotted eggs—and when we stumbled out, fascinated by what we had seen, we were immediately thrust into a modern neighborhood with an Apple store, a fancy confectioner, and a designer sunglasses shop. One minute we’d be walking in front of an old Chinese man, listening to him spit loudly and hoping it wasn’t on our shoes, and the next we’d be walking by a hip young Chinese couple, dressed in their finest and preparing to have glamorous wedding photos takenon the street. Shanghai residents are obviously used to this amazing blend, but for us foreigners it was a fascinating lesson in how old and new have come together to make one great city.

With six full days in Shanghai, Bob and I had plenty of opportunities to explore enchanting sites and eat great food. Our Lonely Planet guide was the perfect companion, breaking the city down into eight neighborhoods, with recommendations on sites, shopping and food for each. We took advantage of many of the book’s suggested neighborhood walking tours—I’d guess we put in an average of eight miles a day. Some mornings my legs just didn’t want to get out of bed, but once I stretched and got moving, they grudgingly cooperated. We tried to catch a cab once or twice, as they are inexpensive. But it turns out that although there are many, many taxis in Shanghai, there are apparently many, many more people who want to ride in a taxi, as we could NEVER find an empty one willing to pick up a new fare.

One of our top visits was to the Jade Buddha Temple in the Jingan neighborhood (20 yuan each to enter - $3.25 - plus 10 yuan to see the Jade Buddha itself - $1.75). This temple isone of Shanghai’s few active Buddhist monasteries, and features three halls with stunning Buddha statues in each. The highlight is the regal six-foot Jade Buddha that was carved from a single piece of lustrous jade and imported from Burma in the late 1800s. We were fortunate enough to visit another Buddhist temple—the Chenxiangge Nunnery (admission 10 yuan each)—during a service where nearly 100 brown and gold clothed nuns chanted and sang. It was beautiful.

Perhaps my favorite stop on our walking tours was the Flower, Bird and Insect Market in the Old Town. Parents with teenage children might remember from Disney’s Mulan that the cricket is a very important part of Chinese culture. A cricket is seen as a symbol of good luck, and many Chinese families keep them as pets. The sound that a cricket makes is not considered noise, but music. They are also kept for cricket fighting, and a good fighting cricket can sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. We knew none of this when we stumbled into the market, so we were quite confused to see booth after booth of live crickets in small jars, and lots of men and women crowded around, perhaps discussing the merits of and negotiating the prices for the sometimes grossly large insects. The market also houses birds, and some fish and flowers, but a more apt name for it would really be the Cricket Market. Another fascinating item for sale was pairs of walnuts, sometimes in velvet lined boxes. It turns out that walnuts were once the toys of China’s imperial court, and now wealthy Chinese are buying them as a status symbol. That’s right walnuts as status symbols. A pair of walnuts is said to be of value when they are bigger, older, and more symmetrical than other walnuts. And when rotated in the palm of your hand, they are thought to stimulate blood circulation. I read a report on Reuters that said there are pairs for sale on a popular trading site for $31,000. Yes, I am still talking about walnuts here. Fascinating.

One of our “modern” experiences was a visit to the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 1614-foot building in the Pudong neighborhood across the Huangpu River from Old Town. Completed in 2008, this 101-story building is currently Shanghai’s tallest, but next year will be eclipsed by the Shanghai Tower, at 2074 feet. The World Financial Center is right now the third tallest building in the world, and a look out the floor-to-ceiling windows from the 100th story observation deck made my stomach turn. It didn’t help that much of the floor of the observation deck is also see through, so as you’re walking you can look straight down to the ground, 1,600 feet below. This was by far the most expensive thing we did in Shanghai, as it cost 150 yuan each ($25). It was the best money I have spent in a long time.

Our favorite sites in Shanghai, however, were at street level. The small lanes and back alleys we walked in every neighborhood were full of nearly everything one can imagine. Most days we’d take at least two hours to just wander around with no real destination in mind, and find ourselves in cramped alleys and streets where the “real” people of Shanghai seem to live and do business. We walked past a lot of small card and gaming rooms each filled with local men and women sitting at felt-topped tables, playing and smoking. We saw street-side barbers and butchers, vegetable sellers with their wares on the ground, cobblers sitting on boxes on street corners, bike repairmen repairing tires by the side of the road, and roadside food stalls. Delicious and cheap roadside food stalls.

Lonely Planet pointed us to our first block of street food stalls, and although we found many, many similar areas, it remained our favorite. Every morning we’d walk the few blocks from our hotel to Jiangxi Road for breakfast, which on any given day might have been dumpling soup ($1.50 each), cold wide noodles with peanuts and vegetables ($1), steamed pork buns ($.50), a plate of stir fried eggplant, fried pork, and green beans with mushrooms ($2.50), to name just a few. We’d always finish with fresh squeezed pomegranate juice ($1.75), and a variety of fresh baked cookies, crackers and cakes that we would pick out and fill a small bag with, usually for about $.50. It was outstandingly good and astonishingly inexpensive. The success of our first food stall foray opened the floodgates and we began trying more and more street food, and found it far better than the meals we ate in the only two “real” restaurants we went to. Twice we came upon vendors who had set up stir fry carts, decided we were hungry, pointed to choose the items we wanted, and in three minutes, were served a steaming, spicy and delicious bowl of noodles, vegetables, sausage, egg and the like, for about $1.50 each.

We got good at pointing in China, as few people spoke any English. Perhaps at restaurants more frequented by tourists the basic English might be better, but at the places we chose to eat, if there weren’t pictures of the dishes available that we could point to, or they weren’t cooking right in front of us so we could make gestures of what we wanted, we didn’t eat there. Throughout the city, whether we were shopping, eating or just plain walking, we often got a second look, because one of these things was not like the other (or in this case two), but after glancing at us, most people went back to their business and ignored the two laowai (white foreigner). Bob wore shorts every day we were there, and this often got him a second glance. A few folks even commented on it in Chinese, pointing at his legs and smiling. We would nod and smile back, not knowing if they were saying “you have nice legs,” or “you are one crazy white dude.” We didn’t care, as we’re always happy to provide some entertainment to those in other countries.

—Bob was extremely entertaining to everyone in our subway car one day. He befriended a Chinese toddler, and got her to smile and giggle. She could not stop looking at him. Until he took off his hat, when she burst into tears. Every single person in our car, including her parents and grandparents, burst out laughing.

Notes on Shanghai:

  • We stayed at the Astor House Hotel, just off the Bund, the city’s main strolling promenade. The Astor is a beautiful old world hotel, and we had a lovely large room on the sixth floor with wireless internet for $90. I highly recommend it.
  • When we couldn’t walk anymore, or needed to get somewhere in a hurry, we took the Metro. We never paid more than $1 each for a ride, and it was clean, efficient and easy to use.
  • Even if you don’t want to go up into a 1600 foot building in Pudong, don’t miss taking the ferry across the Huangpu River at night, so you can see the fabulously lit buildings on either side of the river, one side offering classic architecture and the other the crazy, newly designed, ultra- modern high rises. The ferry costs all of 2 yuan each ($.33 cents).