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Twelve Days in China Part 2: Hangzhou and Shanghai

Apologies that part 2 has taken so long. Real life and more traveling gets in the way sometimes, but now it’s time to finish chronicling the journey across China. If you haven’t read part 1, it can be found here. So last time we left off, my friends and I were leaving X’ian via plane for Hangzhou. We had only scheduled a day there and looking back, I might have just flown into Shanghai and taken a train in for a day trip. Even the slow train only takes two hours, but hindsight, 20/20, etc. Getting into Hangzhou and to our hostel was the low point in the trip. My friends and I were getting in late as it was and our flight ended up being delayed for two hours and I was worried out hostel was going to give away our room. All the stress lead to interpersonal drama and it colored my experience of Hangzhou a bit, but it was still enjoyable.

Hangzhou

Lake with mountains and a pagoda on the far shore
West Lake, Hangzhou

This place really is very, very beautiful. Hell, even Marco Polo said so, saying it was, “the finest and the noblest in the world.” The main attraction is the West Lake and if you only have a few hours here, it’s a great place to spend the day. If you’re staying in the old part of the city, it’s about a twenty-minute walk. The lake is huge and it would take you most of the day to circumnavigate it. You can take a boat tour, which my friend and I wanted to do, but we were pressed for time and the tour guides wanted more money than we were willing to pay. The park surrounding the lake is also lovely and after spending so much time in city environments, it was nice to be in green space for a little bit. There is also plenty of hiking around the lake and various temples to visit that offer views of the lake. As I said, given the lack of time we had, it wasn’t possible to do half the things I wanted to, but just spending a day by the lake was good enough, especially after the stress of traveling for so long. If you ever plan on traveling to Hangzhou, the Wikitravel site is a great resource (that I also used for the other places I visited).

From Hangzhou, we took the high speed train to Shanghai. The high speed train is NICE and only takes about an hour. Honestly, why the U.S. hasn’t invested in high speed rail is beyond me. It’s a great way to travel. A note on booking train tickets: do it in advance in China, either on the Internet or through your hostel or hotel. Trying to buy tickets in the actual train station was a bit of a nightmare. The lines for each ticket counter were long and they would close at with no notice and there were no signs in English. Also, line cutting was practically an Olympic sport. My friends and I had to be constantly on our guard unless we wanted to make our wait longer and I watched in frustration as a girl rocked up to the very front of the line after we’d been waiting for at least a half an hour and was able to convince a guy to let her skip in front of him. My friend who is British was even less amused, since queue jumping is practically considered a felony in the U.K. We did manage to get tickets and then it was on to Shanghai.

Another view of the lake, dotted with boats
West Lake, Hangzhou

Shanghai

For the record, I really, really liked Shanghai. The main criticism I had heard of the city was that there wasn’t much in the way of major tourist attractions and it was mostly a shopping destination and to some extent, that’s accurate. But just as a city itself, it’s just cool and somewhere I would seriously consider living if I were to do any ESL teaching in China. Given the fact that it was once a major British outpost, the city has more of a European feel and, after spending over a year and a half away from Western culture, I’m not going to lie, it was comforting and made me a little homesick (it was worse for the Brit and the Irishman accompanying me). Like everywhere else in China, it was hot, but it was ridiculous in Shanghai. The temperature reached 115F the two full days we were there. My advice to you is to do as much stuff inside as possible and leave everything else for the nighttime. The public transportation system is top notch and they have subway lines going from all the major train stations and airports. The subway system is also very easy to navigate.

The Bund

Brightly-lit skyscrapers reflected in the water at night
The Bund, Shanghai

Speaking of nighttime activities, the Bund is the most iconic sight in Shanghai and best enjoyed at night with all the light and the people. I loved stolling along the water front with the skyscrapers on one side and the historical British architecture on the other. There’s not much to do besides walk and take pictures, but it’s still amazing anyway. There are riverboat tours available, but they are expensive. However, you can take a boat across the water for only 2 RMB. Seriously, this was probably the highlight of my trip after the Great Wall. There was just something magical to me about the Bund. I think I fell in love with Shanghai right then.

The Shanghai Museum

If you’re looking for something indoors to do during the heat of the day, the Shanghai Museum is a good option. The museum is divided up into several sections and goes into more of the ancient history of China. My favorite section was the sculpture exhibit, which showed work from pre-historic up until the later dynastic periods. It was amazing to see the progression of art throughout the ages and the subject matter sparked an interest in learning more about ancient Chinese myths and folktales. The jade exhibit is also very cool and the artistry of the pieces is astounding. There is also a ceramic exhibit where you can see the pottery and ceramics from the infamous Ming Dynasty (which is not as old as I always believed it was as a child.) There is also a calligraphy exhibit (which frankly I found a little dull), and an exhibit dedicated to the traditional dress of China’s minority people, which, while fascinating, made me feel a little uncomfortable. The section dedicated to Tibet left me squirming a bit given what I knew about China’s history with the country. All in all, not a bad way to spend a few hours.

The Shanghai Aquarium and Pearl Tower

I’m not going to lie, I love a good aquarium. If it’s even rated halfway decent, I’ll try and make a stop there. The Shanghai Aquarium isn’t half bad. There’s an interesting exhibit of indigenous freshwater species and the requisite shark exhibits (though frankly, the Busan Aquarium in South Korea has a much better shark exhibit, in my humble opinion.) All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours out if the heat. The Pearl Tower, which is the iconic building of the Shanghai skyline is right next door so my friend and I decided to take in the view from the top of the tower. Now, I’m sure the view is absolutely astounding were it clear; however, due to the amount of pollution, it was pretty difficult to see far. The most unexpected surprise though was the Shanghai history museum, which was included with admission to the tower. The museum in itself was worth the price of admission. It’s highly interactive and incredibly detailed and I could have spent quite a bit of time in there.

Picture of the author in front of the skyscrapers of the Bund
Shanghai, I like you.

I would also recommend doing a tour of the old Jewish Quarter of the city. It’s very highly rated and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to book it in enough time, but my friend and I decided to visit the synagogue and Jewish History Museum. The only downside was that a typhoon that had hit Shanghai a few days before we arrived had knocked out the electricity to all, but one exhibit in the museum, but given all the kudos it received, I feel confident in recommending it.

One last highlight of Shanghai was our visit to Mark & Spencer’s. Yes, you did read that right. Usually, I avoid fast food and other familiarities like the plague while traveling overseas, but to my Brit and Irish friends, it was like a piece of home so we ate in the food court for lunch one day and had breakfast there the day we left to fly back to Korea. I’m not going to lie, the baked goods were almost worth the entire trip. As much as I love many things about South Korea, they don’t do baked goods very well here, especially bread. After biting into my chicken Caesar sandwich on a french baguette in the food court, I turned to my friend and said, “The bread tastes like bread!” It was heavenly.

From Shanghai, we flew back to South Korea and then I had to be back in school teaching the very next day (I really should have planned that better.) I had a wonderful time in China and my only regret is that I didn’t get to see and do more. I’m hoping I get to return one day.

By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

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