Shanghai At First Glance

As a first time visitor to China, Shanghai seems to me an excellent point of entry. Its international atmosphere gives a welcoming familiarity and allows easy transition into Chinese culture which can be initially daunting for newcomers. Give yourself a day or two, and you’ll be ready to plunge into its rich history and tradition and crave to see something more essentially “Chinese”. And trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

China is conquering the world in leaps and bounds within and beyond its borders. Its landscape is changing at a ridiculous speed that’s awe-inspiring but deeply disturbing even for natives. Lost in decades of uncertainty, poverty and brutality under the hands of revolutionaries who didn’t know better (or so it seemed), it is unbelievable how much this nation has turned things around, rising from the pits of unimaginable suffering that only the older generation can attest.

But that aside, one can easily forget the country’s war-torn past the moment its globally competitive infrastructure and highly urbanized cityscape roll into view. Shanghai, for example, showcases a beautiful blend of the old and the new China. Walking along The Bund, especially at night gives one a European vibe of the surroundings. Passing through the lanes and alleys of the old town lined with a plethora of food stalls, kitschy gift shops, traditional crafts and what-nots transports tourists to the bygone days of China’s imperial era. You’ll discover ingenious Chinese craftsmanship, as well as craftiness if you’re THE (un)lucky one!

Shanghai appears to have everything for everyone. It doesn’t fail those accustomed to the little cheers of city life. World renowned establishments sprout from almost every nook and cranny of this bustling city. I see Starbucks everywhere I turn! Ok, it is amusing for as long as it wafts a familiar sense of comfort. But the novelty soon fades and becomes an irritating distraction, like a gum stuck in your shoe that’s almost impossible to wash off. Coffee culture is basically the same in any city. I travel to explore and experience something new, not slosh around in what’s a commonly popular nave back home.

Exploring Shanghai can be enjoyable, too, without having to spend your hard-earned savings. For history buffs and artistic geeks, there is a number of sights to see and things to do for free. Unfortunately, I couldn’t cram all of what’s on my bucketlist in just a few days. But Shanghai Museum, China Art Museum and Tianzifang Art Center shouldn’t be missed. There’ll be more about these places in the succeeding posts. Promise!

One thing I regret not having done though is shopping. Unbelievably true! I am not a very impulsive buyer (ok, just a little!) nor am I the shop-til-you-drop kind. So I kept putting off my plan of purchasing a really nice Cheongsam as a souvenir in an attempt to get one with good quality at a reasonably affordable price. I kept thinking I had a lot more opportunities in other cities I will be going to. Needless to say, I ended up empty-handed. Shanghai is a booming commercial hub which makes shopping a lot more worthwhile, especially if you have acquired the wonderful art of haggling. Indulge in a shopping spree at Nanjing Road (No.1 Street in China) and Huaihai Commercial Road (compared to Avenue des Champs Elysees of Paris or Ginza in Tokyo). Don’t make the same mistake I did. A miserly shopper doesn’t necessarily make one a smart buyer.

So if you happen to be in the city for whatever reason, drop by any Tourist Information Center to make the most of whatever time you have and enjoy Shanghai’s modish fusion of the past and present.

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"The beauty of the truth is that it need not be proclaimed or believed. It skips from soul to soul, changing form each time it touches, but it is what it is."— Mark Helprin