Having never been to China before landing in Shanghai, I thought I was in for something completely different, and that's exactly what I got. Sort of. Being a fan of pubic transportation, we opted to take the metro into town. Perfect, we'll take a look at the touch screen metro ticket machine and compare the Chinese characters to the ones on the map. It will be fun! Shortly after examining the touch screen they had an English language translation screen. Well, that was easy.
The following day we went to the train ticket sales shop in town. This was a dirty urban area with no apparent English happening anywhere. What should we do? Get out the Chinese language translation book and start practicing. We probably wouldn't get the translation right, but it would be worth a laugh. After practicing the phrase "Two tickets to Harbin, please." we walked up to the window. Before we had a chance to embarrass ourselves, the Chinese man behind the desk said "hello, how can I help you?"
My point is this: China today is incredibly easy to get around, even if you don't speak a word of the language. They know English and are happy to use it on you.
Shanghai is a funny place. You have to love it. You can't not love it. Shanghai has everything that is incredible about China. It is all about success and money and big beautiful buildings with a side of dirty Chinese history.
The popular tourist street, Nanjing, a place with brand names merchandise and even an Apple store. You'd think the Apple products would be cheaper there, but no, they are not.
A statue of Mao Zedong looks over Pudong, across the Bund. The amazing aspect of China and Shanghai in particular, is that the principals which China was developed on are not what it practices. Mao would be rolling in his mausoleum if he knew the capitalist class driven society that China had become.
Try a game I uncovered in Shanghai called Food Roulette. Walk down some of the smaller streets, the dirtier roads just off the main drag, that have food shops lining the street. Find a place that has menus with no English on them and start pointing. I guarantee you will be impressed. Sure you could find yourself eating mystery meat, but hey, you're in China. The only problem with Food Roulette is that you may never know what you ordered or how to get it again.
You can't talk about China without mentioning corruption and communism. For an excellent book on the history of China's political system you must read The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Richard McGregor does a great job reporting events of the last 4 years which help define and explain why China is this way.
Another fine example of documentary journalism comes from the BBC, (surprise, surprise) Triumph and Turmoil, as Niall Ferguson examines the ride of China as a world power. The brilliant three part series looks at how China got there and where they are headed. He draws a few scary conclusions.
Seeing Mao reflected in everything from cheap tacky gifts to 30 foot statues is incredible for all the wrong reasons. Mao reminds us how one man can be responsible for the deaths of about 35 million people in the late 1950's, yet become worshipped by the country years later. Can you imagine going to Germany and seeing Hitler being worshipped by the whole country?
The Bund on the West side of the Huangpujiang River, has a great European feel and history to match. On the right side of this photo you have the Peace hotel, with the world world renowned Peace Hotel Jazz Band. The band is famous in China because it was allowed to play during the Cultural Revolution, a rare opportunity that was not available to other musicians.
Zhou Zhuang Water Village is located a one hour bus ride from Shanghai. Small streets made for walking lined with tacky souvenir shops define this crusty water village. Its gets you out of the big city for a day, but I don't suggest spending more time than that.
The Shanghai is impossible to define in one simple article, but at least you've got some idea as to what you can expect. China is an incredible place. I would recommend food places, but honestly, every restaurant you go into will have delicious food.
The world is too amazing not to share.