May 23, 2013. Shanghai, China – The colored lights swirled around our time capsule as we traveled more than a hundred years in just a few minutes.
We were in a small compartment, part of a maglev train, moving slowly through the Shanghai Sightseeing Tunnel under the Huangpu River. The tunnel connects the classic early 20th Century buildings lining the Bund on the west bank of the river, the remnants of the vibrant European community that helped shape the city’s history, with the 21st Century plus glass towers and spheres in Pudong on the east bank, a symbol of its future.
That experience, as tacky and touristy as they come, captured the essence of Shanghai for me, a living, breathing museum of architecture and culture. As we walked by buildings in a range of early 20th Century styles including art deco, neo classical, French Renaissance, among others or through the 16th Century Yu Garden in the Old City, we could look up and see the futuristic, fifteen hundred foot high Orient Pearl Tower across the way.
Or we would walk along the Nanjing Rd Promenade – 5-10 times wider than the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica with at least that much more bling in the stores and in the huge neon signs lining the promenade – then duck down a funky, cluttered side street of Chinese tenements for some juicy dumplings.
These dumplings, known as xiao long bao, sometimes referred to as soup dumplings, are typically stuffed with pork and crab. If you don’t eat them correctly, by nibbling on the end and sucking out the juices, they will burst and spill hot liquid all over your shirt. In Los Angeles, one of the cities outside of Asia where you can actually find good versions of these hot flavor bombs, you have to drive miles to get them. All I had to do in Shanghai was walk a few meters in almost any direction. And that was the other defining feature of the city for me – the food. Whether it was a food stall on a side street, a take out counter in a shopping mall, or a restaurant (one in an old Russian Orthodox Church in the section of the city called the French Concession), the eating was extraordinary. I ate more dumplings in four days than I have in the preceding 2-3 years. Plus pan-fried pork bao, noodle soup, crispy pork with sautéed onions and fluffy white buns, the aptly named stinky tofu, or what I could only describe as a layer cake of pork (skin, a layer of fat, a layer of pork, more fat, more pork, etc.). Fortunately, Shanghai is a very walkable city so we had ample opportunities to walk off some of the calories we consumed.
Other noteworthy experiences – the best foot massage I have ever had, walking through the classic Chinese Yu Garden in the Old City, and happy hour vodka martinis at the Peace Hotel, the art deco masterpiece on the Bund once owned by the family of Vidal Sassoon.
Most notable of all was walking along the Bund at night looking at the brightly lit classic buildings on one side of the river, then at the brightly lit towers straight out of a sci-fi movie on the other. In a few hours we leave for the airport for the last leg of our round the world journey. Shanghai — with one foot in old and one foot in the new, one foot in the west and one in the east — was a memorable way to end this remarkable once-in-a-lifetime trip.
(Note – I will supplement all of my posts with an overview of the trip, descriptions of life on the train, specific info about restaurants and hotels, and more photos when I get home. Right now, I have a bunch of dirty laundry to pack.)