I guess time flies when you are having fun, because I can't believe that it's already the end of February, which means I have officially been here for six months. Things have been crazy as we have been getting ready for graduation at school. My six year olds needed to do a 15 minute drama performance of "The Wizard of Oz" and a dance, along with singing other songs. My five year olds had similar requirements and of course nothing short of absolute perfection could be accepted. Work has been really stressful but thankfully, graduation is over and it went wonderfully! The kids have worked their butts off for months, I was so proud of them! It's sad to see a lot of my older kids head off to elementary school. They have become such little adults, full of personality, sarcasm, wit, and of course amazing intellect! Many will be coming back for our elementary after-school program and I'm excited for the challenge of some new babies coming in!
So let's rewind a bit to the beginning of February. In Korea, Lunar New Year is referred to as Seolnal. At school, the kids wore their hanboks. Children traditionally bow to their family members and receive gifts for the holiday so we all learned how to bow correctly. We also played some traditional games. It's always fun to do these things with the kids. Enjoy a few pictures ....
After celebrating the holiday at school, I was ready to have my own celebration in China! We got a great deal on a flight and hotel quite a few months ago and the anticipation was brewing! We spent many the joyful hour talking to Joe's sister and brother-in-law, Meg and Matt, who lived and worked just outside Shanghai for over six months. They were so wonderful, telling us an abundance of insider knowledge, sending us a little phrasebook they made, a recommended itinerary, and an additional book to the Lonely Planet we got. Meg and Matt, we still can't say thank you enough for all your help and guidance!!
After a short, one-hour flight, we landed in Pudong International Airport and headed to the Maglev, the third fastest train in the world. Joe was beyond excited to experience premium acceleration created by magnetic levitation. We flew off into Shanghai at 431 kmph (~260 mph), banking turns, and quite literally gliding above the roadways below. The quick seven minute ride brought us 30 km towards Shanghai where we took a cab and tried our hand in speaking Mandarin. We were faced with success and got to our wonderful hotel, the Rayfont Shanghai Xuhui Hotel, in the beautiful French Concession around 3 pm on Wednesday, February 2nd.
Instead of taking you on a step-by-step tour of Shanghai through our eyes, I'll highlight some of our favorite spots. It's nearly impossible to pick our favorites because we were both absolutely in love with nearly every aspect of Shanghai!
The French Concession
Our hotel was located in what is considered to be one of the trendiest areas in Shanghai. It was once the home to adventurers, revolutionaries, gangsters, prostitutes, and writers, able to flaunt Shanghaiese laws within the confines of the concession and under the protection of the French. People such as Sun Yat-sen, sometimes referred to as the Father of Modern China and his wife as well as notorious mobsters and Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, gathered in this area at one time or another. Now it is a strikingly beautiful area that encapsulates why Shanghai is often referred to as the "Paris of the East". The streets are tree lined and filled with French-influenced architecture. There are no major skyscrapers or anything reminiscent of a colossal, growing city, but instead you seem to warp to old Europe where you are just taken in by the charm and character of every corner, each quiant shop and restaurant, and immediately we were in love. We had the luck of absolutely beautiful weather so on our first day we spent about five hours walking the streets of the French Concession with no need for a coat.
Within the French Concession, we visited Fuxing Park. A PARK?!?!... It could have been any green space at all and we would have jumped for joy anyway since Busan severely lacks for it, but Fuxing is an absolutely beautiful park. The French created the park in 1909 to serve as an area for residents of the French Concession to relax and escape the city's hustle and bustle. The park was later used by the Japanese as a parade ground in the late 1930s. While Shanghai Parks are notoriously great places to people watch with men bringing their birds, people dancing at their leisure, practicing taichi, men playing chess, people walking backwards... unfortunately we didn't get to experience many examples of this since we got there only shortly before sundown. Nonetheless, we loved walking around the park and having it almost to ourselves for self-timer assisted photo-ops and some yogi moves!
After Fuxing Park we decided we were a bit hungry so we headed over to Xintandi. This area was modeled as a traditional alleyway, chock-full of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and shops. In a time when most of Old Shanghai is being destroyed and replaced with new architecture, the popularity of this complex, replicating old architecture proves it still has an abundance of charm. The area is divided into two pedestrian blocks and is a pleasant area to stroll about.
It is worth mentioning, that China is nuts about fireworks which was only exacerbated ten fold by the celebration of Lunar New Year. It quite literally sounded like we were in a war zone with fireworks going off every minute of every day, no exaggeration. Everyone from five year olds to ninety-nine year olds were setting fireworks off. At midnight, on Lunar New Year, we stood on our 25th floor balcony and were amazing at the hundreds of grand finale's that were simultaneously going off. It was truly incredible! We took a video of it but it was unable to capture the sound and ridiculousness of the impromptu show we experienced.
Renmin Gogyuan : People's Square and People's Park
This area lies at the heart of Shanghai and had such an overwhelming feel of Washington, DC, ironic since it's establishment lies largely in the communistic trend to have an imposing square for it's people. While this Chinese square may pale in comparison to Beijing's Tienanmen Square, People's Square is open and beautiful. There are no confining features of the area, rather only incredible sights, such as Shanghai Museum to the south and Shanghai City Hall and the Urban Planning Museum to the North, separating People's Square and People's Park. This area is known as the home of some of the best museums and theaters in Shanghai. Once again we enjoyed the beautiful open space and were drawn to this area time and time again, to sit and take a moment to breathe at the end of a long day of walking. After taking my picture with City Hall (I've decided to take a picture with every city hall we come across, in hopes of it bringing me good luck that I may one day have my head shot in front of a city hall that I am running), we were asked by an entire Chinese family to take a family picture with them. They wanted me to hold their infant while grandmas, grandpas, children, and parents collected around us and smiled for a beaming moment. I must say, walking around China, we felt more like celebrities than ever before. People were constantly taking our pictures, smiling at us, and overjoyed to say hello.
Across the street, to the north rests People's Park which occupies the site of a colonial racetrack. It was actually used as a holding camp as well during WWII. Weird fact, People's Park is also the home to an unofficial matchmaking market on the weekends. Parents come to the park without their children but carrying their resumes in an attempt to find a successful spouse. (I'd kill you, Mom!) The park is also overlooked by Tomorrow Square which is one of the many examples of the new overshadowing the old. Tomorrow Square is the fourth tallest building in Shanghai and surely looks futuristic. Perhaps Uncle Bob uses something similar looking as a dental instrument?!?!
Oh, the Bund!! I was absolutely in love from the second we stepped onto the Bund. This is the most famous area of Shanghai and encompasses much of the city's riverfront and some of the city's greatest buildings. The Bund lies on the west bank of the Huangpu River and gained it's importance after the First Opium War. It became the commercial heart of the city and the Brits named the waterfront road The Bund, after the Persian term for embankment. While the Bund was part of the British Concession, in 1863 the British voluntarily merged with the American Concession to create the International Settlement further north. By the early 20th century, The Bund was lined with banks and trading houses representing many nations including, Great Britain, the US, Russia, Germany, Japan, Holland, and Belgium. Surprisingly and thankfully the architectural beauty of these buildings have survived years of communism. I was enamored by The Bund by day, by night, and by sunrise! I just couldn't get enough!! Everyday, after hours of walking, no matter where we were I made sure we ended the evening at the Bund.
One of our most memorable moments in Shanghai, was sunrise on our last day. We got up nice and early and took a cab to the Bund. After being there several times as one in thousands of other people we were essentially alone this time. All the lights on both sides of the river were off and there was an overwhelming solitude. It was incredible to feel like we owned The Bund... we even got to do some gymnastic moves! It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to Shanghai!
Pudong : The New Face of Shanghai
Now on to Joe's preferred side of the Huangpu. Across the river to the East, is the up and coming, starkly different, and almost Jetson-like futuristic part of Shanghai. It is quite interesting to stand in such a historic area and look across the river at this cityscape that looks like something from the 30th century. After Shanghai's modern development began to take off, Pudong transformed from an area filled with rice paddies, market gardens, and rows of rundown warehouses to an overwhelming urban landscape full of skyscrapers and there seem to be a never ending race to reach the clouds first with tall building, followed by taller building, then tallest building, while the foundation is being built for yet another, even taller building! Some of the most popular buildings along the skyline are the Oriental Pearl TV Tower that is 1,535 feet tall and is the home to nine TV channels and ten FM stations. The Jinmao Tower is the third tallest building in China, standing at an impressive height of 1,381 feet. There are signs on the Jinmao Tower that say, "No Climbing". Apparently, they were put up after a Frenchman, dressed as Spider Man, scaled the Jinmao Tower in 90 minutes in 2007. He was the second person to do this, after a shoe salesman spontaneously decided it would be fun in 2001. Now they explicitly tell you otherwise! Even taller (to make it the tallest in China and the second tallest in the world) is the Shanghai World Financial Center which measures 1,617 feet and while it may not be the tallest building in the world, it is the world's tallest observation deck. Not for long though, the groundwork has already begun for an even taller tower to be built next to these two mammoth buildings. CRAZY!
There are many ways to cross the Huangpu River, on our way east we chose to take The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. This tourist trap is about 707 yards long and is "China's first under-river artificial sightseeing tunnel". I must be honest and say that I don't even know what that means but it is indicative of the unusual experience this "artificial sightseeing tunnel" provided. We traveled in "environment-friendly non-driver traction compartments", which were made of mostly windows so everyone could have a panoramic view of a quite unusual (I keep saying unusual but theres no other way to describe it) light show with projections along the tunnel walls accompanying a crazy soundtrack including random English interjections such as "fire and ice, hell on earth"... hahah. A tourist book correctly states that "passengers are treated to psychedelic lighting and images of Shanghai's and China's history".
Once in Pudong we headed over to the Jinmao Tower. After taking three different elevators and feeling quite VIP, we made our way to Cloud 9, the bar at the top of the Tower with amazing views of the Bund. We sat, drank a glass of wine, and enjoyed sundown and the lights coming on in both the new and old skylines.
On the way home, we decided to take the cheapest route back which was a ferry that cost essentially $0.30 each. It was quite the experience in and of itself but it provided us with a quick, cheap, and beautiful trip back. After docking back on The Bund we headed to the hotel to get ready for two hours massages. HEAVEN!!
Making it's way through the middle of what was the British Concession is Nanjing Road. It extends west from The Bund all the way to People's Park. Nanjing Road is now the shopping epicenter of Shanghai. It is a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare full of shoppers, street sculptures, toy trains, street performers, scam artists, and the like. There is no shortage of people trying to sell you everything and anything under the sun, always walking up to you with a magazine like pull out offering you the world at your fingertips. It's both overwhelming and mind blowing. It make's NYC's Chinatown look like a walk in the park, although quite notably Nanjing Road is clean and void of the raunchy smell of fish! Plus 1 for China! Nanjing Road is the place for locals to be seen, to see others, and to shop with the best of the best. It is considered one of the city's parade grounds for prosperity which can be felt through the non-communist, free enterprise, profit oriented atmosphere that surrounds you as you walk Nanjing Road.
Nanshi : Shanghai's Old Town and the Beautiful Yu Yuan Gardens
If there could ever be a polar opposite to Pudong and where Shanghai's crystal ball seems to be showing the future, it would be Nanshi, or Shanghai's Old Town. While one may think that in a city that seems to be wrecking ball and bulldozer friendly, the fate of Nanshi may seem dim; however, it seems that the area is changing fast, but in a very good way. The area is experiencing a great upswing in it's real estate with a drive to maintian the character of the area while cleaning it up and making it safer and more prosperous. A protective wall was built around Nanshi in 1553 when it was once the epicenter of Shanghai. The wall protected the community for about 289 years until the British decided on one fine June morning in 1842 to surmount the wall. Today, Nanshi is now a thriving business center with an abundance of souvenirs, local foods, and imperial and revolutionary nostalgia. ... Looking for a Chairman Mao lapel pin and propaganda posters -- Got it! What about opium paraphernalia? Sure, they got that, too! Pictures of 1930s Shanghai calendar girls?? Why, of course!! There is something to fill all of your desires in Nanshi!! We walked most of Nanshi and got to see the only remaining traces of the city wall, a Taoist temple, and a mosque but not until after we experienced the chaos of Yu Yuan Bazaar and Gardens.
Yu Yuan Bazaar & Gardens
Yu Yuan Bazaar is a re-created, Ming dynasty-style low rise shopping area. It was named for the gardens within but this is by all means a mob scene of people all bustling and pushing to get into shops and stores to buy anything from traditional medicines to chopsticks, umbrellas to walking sticks, bamboo furniture to ceramics and pottery. Once again, the options are endless... are you seeing a trend there yet? To say that the bazaar is a fire hazard to the few thousand people packed inside would be the understatement of the century. There were times when I quite literally did not have my feet on the ground and was just going where the crowd took me. Joe, on the other hand, took the bulldozer approach and was barging through crowds with women and children yelling and crying in his wake. He was the King Kong of Yu Yuan Bazaar while we were there. Since I was being taken with the crowd behind, I got the opportunity to take in reactions of the people as he passed by and act like I didn't know him! haha As if the bazaar is not crazy enough, in the center outside the Gardens is the Huxinting Teahouse. As you may guess, the crowds are genuinely outlandish. Patrons wait in a line on a zig-zag bridge which was not created just to add to the chaos of the area but was rather constructed such to confound evil spirits and malicious ghosts who, naturally, can only travel in straight lines. It's like an insurance policy for the teahouse to ensure only the good and kind enter! People such as Queen Elizabeth II, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schroder have all had their tea at this famous teahouse. Given Joe's King Kong nature of the day, it was decided he may have been mistaken for one of the evil spirits trying to enter so we went elsewhere! LOL
As I've mentioned, in the middle of the bazaar there is a sanctuary of peace and sanity for any who enter the Yu Yuan Gardens. The Yu Yuan Gardens are an example of traditional Suzhous gardens and were established in 1559. In creating the gardens, there was a goal of creating a world in microcosm, with mountains and ridges, lakes, forests, and caves. The more practical purpose though was to create an ideal retreat from the outside world and its problems for its owners and his aging father. They took two decades to create and they have withstood damage at the hands of the Brits, the French, and the Japanese. After being restored, they are now once again breathtaking. While the gardens were not much less crowded than the bazaar itself with over 1,000 visitors daily, it would be hard for anyone not to enjoy the beautiful 5 acre garden that includes six scenic areas, 30 pavilions, all of which are linked by incredible bridges.
While I left out so many wonderful memories and visits to temples, parks, and any neighborhood our feet would take us to, for the sake of your reading pleasure I'm afraid I need to cut myself off at some point. It's safe to say that we both were reluctant to leave Shanghai to head off to Korea and back to reality. We were both so enamored with the city as a whole and enjoyed every minute we had! It gave us the incentive to budget every won we spend so we can have more of these incredible and priceless moments all over Southeast Asia at the end of teaching. While I'm missing home, I have never been more thankful for this opportunity!
There are more pictures of Shanghai online
love & miss you all!