Reflections from China: Bustling Shanghai does its own thing

'Reflections from China' series

Michelle in ChinaReporter Michelle Baran recently returned from a trip to China to discover how the country was faring with the Summer Olympics approaching. The third of her five reports follows.

In China's largest city, Shanghai, aside from some billboards and glaringly bright TV advertisements, there was little other sense that the country's capital, Beijing, would be hosting the Olympics this summer.

There was also little sense that there was a massive earthquake in the Sichuan province just weeks before.

Quite frankly, there was little sense of anything other than Shanghai. It was as if Shanghai was in a world of its own. And it seems that in some ways, the city has been in a world of its own for many years now, forging ahead as the financial capital of China.

In fairness, taking into consideration the language barrier, I can't speak for Shanghai residents and whether they were excited about the Beijing Olympics. I can only speak from a foreigner's perspective.

But visiting Shanghai felt quite pleasant and normal despite everything that was going on in China, unlike Beijing, which was markedly quiet, and obviously unlike Chengdu, which was abandoned. It was the most carefree destination of my entire trip, partially because of that feeling of disconnect from the rest of the country.

newdispatchChina-PudongBut it was also because of Shanghai itself. Unlike Beijing, Shanghai is much more walkable. True, it was easy to hop into taxis because they were everywhere and very cheap in comparison to New York (no trip exceeded $2). But getting around on foot was not out of the question.

I quickly oriented myself in Shanghai. One of the first stops was the Bund along the Huangpu River with views of the Pudong skyline. Though Shanghai is a modern city, I was amazed at how silly and dated (very 1980s) the Pudong skyline looked, but that also lent to its intrigue. As for the Bund, most of the colonial buildings that define the waterfront were in a state of transition. They were being gutted and renovated to house newly minted hotels and luxury stores. I'm sure it will be very welcoming when it's done, but the partially or totally abandoned gray buildings are now quite eerie.

I had the pleasure of being in Shanghai during a national holiday: Dragon Boat Festival. By coincidence I ended up where every single Shanghai resident, it seemed, went to celebrate the holiday, the Old City. It was crowded, happy chaos at its best.

I waited in line with what seemed like hundreds of natives for some of the best Shanghai-style dumplings (soup dumplings) in the city. I battled the masses trying to get photos of the dragon boat floating outside of the Yu Garden. And I ate some unidentifiable, soupy dessert made with rice milk. I almost felt like I was celebrating the holiday, too. I guess, in some ways, I was.

newdispatchChina-TaikangLuMy favorite area of Shanghai, and of the entire trip, was the French Concession -- more specifically, Taikang Lu Road. It was a bit touristy but not necessarily in a bad way. This one-time artists' district has been transformed into a maze of galleries, clothing boutiques, trinket shops and cafes. I was overwhelmed by the wealth of shopping and culturing that could be done here.

And I guess that was just it. Whether I was getting an evening drink at one of the swanky rooftop bars on the Bund or roaming through the charming French Concession, there was this smugness and sophistication to Shanghai (which isn't to say Shanghai didn't have a typical, big-city, chaotic quality). But compared with Beijing, Shanghai was ... well, it was just different.

After returning to the U.S., when people asked me which I preferred, I said I would never recommend going to China and seeing Beijing over Shanghai or vice versa. With the history entrenched in Beijing and the modernity of Shanghai, the two cities complement each other perfectly. But I guess if I had to choose, I'm a bit more of a Shanghai girl.


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