Due to a severely late train and some pretty unclear hostel directions, I didn’t actually get to sightseeing in Shanghai until 3:30 p.m., about 5 hours later than I planned. The good news as there were only three things I badly wanted to see there, and after seeing the hour-long at least line heading into the free Shanghai Museum, that became two.
Yuyuan Garden was next on the list, an impeccably preserved (and likely greatly rebuilt) Ming Dynasty-era garden that transports you back centuries as long as you can find a corner free of cameras, smartphone zombies and the neither fish nor fowl tablets that make you look like you’re dragging technology back kicking and screaming to the 80s every time you take a picture or, hilariously, make a phone call. Anyway… Yuyuan Gardens is rather small, but full of enough rocky grottoes, koi ponds, and traditional architecture to satisfy your yearning for something with a bit of age to it in a city so uniformly modern.
All around it are winding alleys selling normal tourist knicknacks and an incredibly popular array of steamed and fried buns and fried tofu, all quite delicious. The former are sneaky if you aren’t familiar with them, as they’re filled with hot broth that will shoot anywhere if you’re not careful (I’m notorious for spilling everything, but emerged unscathed this time). Some of them even come with straws to suck the thick, greasy, chicken soup-like broth out with.
After Yuyuan, I headed to the Huangpu River to see the real attraction of Shanghai at the perfect time- its stunning, always-growing neon skyline, with its distinctive Oriental Pearl Tower, imposing, bright-lit World Trade Center, and the hulking still under construction Shanghai Tower, that will soon dwarf them all. On the other side of the river lies The Bund, the former financial center of Asia during the time that Shanghai (and much of China) was divided into foreign spheres of influence, called concessions. The colonial past now faces the meteoric future across the river, and I opted to take a 90 minute river tour to sail right through the heart of it.
I met a couple of British guys working for Bentley, buffing out the dings and scrapes of luxury vehicles’ ocean crossing before delivery to the perfection-demanding millionaires who can afford to pay China’s 150% import duty on luxury goods. Over chatting about China’s future, British football, and local travels, one inventively-built, brightly colored skyscraper or convention center after another passed by at the river’s pace. I kept looking out for the striking office towers from Skyfall, but couldn’t identify them. That turned otu to be for good reason, as those scenes were actually cleverly shot in London… oh well. Otherwise, regardless of the late start, Shanghai delivered exactly what I was hoping for.
The next morning provided one more obstacle to flow around- somehow my formerly trusty alarm clock/MP3 player slipped exactly one hour late for some reason I couldn’t identify (hostel prank? sleep walking/alarm change?) Since all of China is on the same time zone (way out in Tibet, they just start their day at 8 a.m.’s sunrise, and end it at 8 p.m.’s sunset to make up for the two-hour geographic difference) this was curious indeed. The funny thing is, my internal clock woke me up about exactly on time, as usual, but I ignored it… damn. Thankfully, the station attendant switched my missed ticket for another at the train station all the way out by the airport (where the sleek, ultrafast bullet trains leave from) and my day trip to Hangzhou became much like my daytrip to Kaiping- a lightning tour. An intensely stressful lightning tour.
Thankfully, Hangzhou wasn’t terribly interesting, because if I’d found even 30 minutes more of things I felt I needed to see, there’s no way I would have made it back. This is due mainly to the tendency of Chinese cabdrivers to only pick you up if business is slow enough to force them to. The Chinese people I’ve met as a whole are incredibly nice, but the cabdrivers are uniformly horrible, horrible people.
So, about Hangzhou- once a mighty port and Song Dynasty capital, for centuries it was a magnet for artists and poets describing and painting its renowned West Lake, crisscrossing by tree-lined causeways and picturesque bridges for its many small watercraft to pass under. When I arrived at the train station and nabbed a beautifully drawn map, my reaction was “oooh!”… but upon arriving at the lake it was more of an “oh.”
Part of the problem was the haze, which blurred the small mountains surrounding the area, and part was the deadlocked traffic, the modern buildings encroaching on one side, and part were the everpresent tourist hordes. The upshot was, though, that either the old Chinese poets and artists had terminally overactive imaginations (partly true), or that the double tap of the cultural revolution’s steamroller (I saw remnants of defaced carvings there “destroyed in the 1960s”) and rampant modernization have sucked the soul out of the place.
What’s left is basically a sprawling, very nice Oriental garden, but there’s arguably just as much age and authentic Asian spirit in the St. Louis Botanical Garden’s Oriental Section. If Jeonghee was there, we would have a very pleasant day strolling around and enjoying each other’s company in the pleasant surroundings (and many Chinese couples of every description were- the people watching was as interesting as anything). However, for the independent traveler, I’d recommend spending another day getting to know nearby Shanghai.
A couple of places that were interesting were the hermit poet Qui Jin’s simple grave, a grass-covered mound of earth identical to most Korean graves, and Baochu Pagoda, an interesting if obviously rebuilt monument perched atop a hill overlooking the West Lake, with several uniquely stark rocks above it bearing inscriptions like “Don’t climb, your life is precious” and a swarm of Chinese of every age climbing them. Of course, I did as well, and the view was worth the honestly treacherous ascent (there are plenty of handholds on the rock, but it’s worn so smooth you can’t trust your footing). However, the sight of impatient parents bullying their justifiably reluctant small children up the rocks makes me wonder if whenever a kid doesn’t look like it’s turning out right, they go rock climbing, and try again next year…