Given that we had spent all of the previous day at Disney we wanted to make the most of our last day in Shanghai by seeing as much of the city as possible. We had booked a walking tour with Noodle Tours around the old part of Shanghai to see the comparison between the shiny new skyline and the more traditional older city. When booking I thought it was going to be an eating tour, given it was described as a street food walk and so we met our guide Lily on an empty stomach just a short walk from our hotel at the Fabric Market. She spent some time explaining to us that Shanghai used to have city walls and that in fact the street we were on would have previously had a city wall. These were destroyed to make room for the expanding city but the Chinese government realised they were potentially missing out on a money making opportunity and so a new ‘fake’ wall has been built (or a section of it at least) to allow people to see the city walls. We strolled into the old city and stopped by a traditional rice dumpling stand where we asked our guide if we could try the dumplings. They were really delicious, stuffed with rice and mushrooms and quite different to any other dumplings I have had before.
By this point we realised that a food tour this was not. Lily was really knowledgeable about the area and the history of the city but had absolutely no clue about the best places to eat or famous ‘foodie’ things to try. If only we had known we could have eaten breakfast before we started! We continued our exploration of the old city where bikes and people jostled for space down narrow alleys. It was actually quite shocking to see how the people in the old city still live with no in-house toilet, a honeypot is required in case of night-time calls of nature. When you think of Shanghai you think of this modern metropolis and so to see that a huge proportion of the city are still living a very simple life with shared kitchens and small shared family houses was something I didn’t expect. We walked past a small shared kitchen where a lady was cooking and she kindly invited us into her home to see, there was 8 little workspaces and so 8 families shared this tiny room. The area was bustling with activity with everyone trying to make money and survive in the big city by any means possible, we walked past one family who collect rubbish to recycle which gives them money. It was definitely an eye opening few hours and Lily told us some great stories of her own family who used to be based in this area of the city and the difference her life is now in comparison to the way her parents grew up.
Having not had any breakfast and just a small dumpling earlier our stomachs were rumbling and so as we got into the more touristy part of the old city Lily took us into a hawker market Chinese style to get some food. She is obviously not a tour guide and while she could tell you what some thing was, she couldn’t tell you the best things to eat, in fact she even admitted while we were choosing that she had never eaten at this particular place before which I thought was quite bad, if I wanted to wander and randomly stumble on somewhere to eat I wouldn’t have paid a guide to take us. Anyway we ended up going for; shrimp dumplings, pork bao buns, lotus flower with beans, pepper octopus and warm crab with custard tarts for desert. The food was fine, the custard tarts definitely the highlight, but nothing novel or particularly Shanghainese in style which was disappointing. After we finished eating we continued our exploration of the old city, this time in the area more frequented with tourists and then came to the famous snack market. Lily hadn’t mentioned we would be coming here and so we had eaten quite a bit at the last stop and as a result were not feeling hugely hungry. This was such a shame as this market was bustling with people and full of so many tasty local snack options. We wandered around and then luckily came across 4 seats. We took the opportunity to grab them and I headed off to get some sweet battered prawns, scullion pancake and soup dumpling. We also took the chance here to get some fresh juice, I opted for mango and it was absolutely delicious. I would highly recommend visiting this market if you are in Shanghai, it’s quite famous and easy to find but the quality is high and the snacks all very authentic. It was just a shame that the communication on our tour hadn’t been great or we would have eaten a lot more here.
We then had a choice for our final hour. Lily said we could visit the famous Yu Garden or to go for a tea ceremony. We opted for the tea ceremony as I thought it would be something new and quite different for my dad and Gillian, I absolutely love Chinese tea and you could easily visit the Yu Garden without a guide. I was not disappointed with my choice. Lily took us to a teahouse very close to the main tourist area but it was quite difficult to find as you had to go up in a service elevator and came out at this lovely old style house with some pretty great views of the Shanghai skyline in the distance. The tea ceremony consisted of us trying 8 teas, from green, to oolong, to fruit including a tea that becomes a flower which can be preserved as a table decoration. Lily had pre-warned us that the ceremony would be free but that the people would try and encourage us to buy some tea which we were more than happy to do given how tasty some of the teas were. It was an indulgently tourist experience where I imagine we were overcharged but a nice relaxing way to end our tour of the old part of Shanghai.
Lily walked us back to the station and we said our goodbyes before we took the subway line a few blocks to the East Nanjing Road. This is the nearest stop to the famous Bund, the walkway along the river in front of Shanghai’s famous skyline. On the walk down to the river which took just less than 10 minutes you could immediately tell the difference between this part of the city and the one we had just left. We were surrounded by massively tall buildings with malls and brands such as Tiffany and Chanel, this is where Shanghai’s prosperous future can be seen in live time. We crossed at the traffic lights and were wowed by the famous skyline stretching across the river from us. We spent 10 minutes or so having obligatory pictures taken before we unfortunately had to hotfoot it back to the subway station to head back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and head to the train station. I would definitely have liked to spend longer in the more modern part of the city, there is a lovely Riverwalk you can do and lots of activities in the area which I have added to my list for next time. Although, seeing the juxtaposition between the old city and the new modern area was definitely something I am glad we did, I feel we saw the real part of the city rather than the shiny tourist part.
About 6 months before our trip we had all watched the ITV Joanna Lumley programme where she had travelled by train through China and then taken the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia. On the journey, she took a bullet train in China and this was something my dad had said he really wanted to do. I loved the train travel in Japan and India and so we decided rather than flying to Beijing, the final stop of our trip, we would take the bullet train. One thing to note, business class is actually higher than first class and so for a last blow out we went for that. I had pre-booked the tickets through a local travel agent which was really easy and she advised us to be at the train station 2 hours before departure to collect our tickets, hence the rush at the Bund earlier. We took a taxi to Hongqiao station and I waited in a VERY long queue to collect the tickets. It absolutely astounds me that Chinese people think despite there being a queue with maybe 100 people in it they can walk straight to the front and be served without waiting. Anyway, with Gillian as queue guard preventing people from skipping in front of us we collected our tickets, went through the security scanners and made our way to the gate for our train. Unfortunately, we were not aware that in this square where everyone waits for their trains there is no access to food or drinks and you have to go back out into the main train station area to get any food. It was only about 45 minutes until we were due to depart and so we decided to just wait for the train food (which wasn’t great, definitely get snacks and food for the train before boarding). We boarded about 15 minutes before departure and we definitely made the most of our luxury fully reclining seats. It was a lovely way to travel and if I am travelling in China again I will definitely be opting for business class. I watched the greenery speed by before the person sitting next to me got on and we spent the next 4 hours having the most interesting chat about China, politics, communism, Brexit and travel. It was one of the best most interesting conversations I have had in so long and amazing that a total stranger would be so open and willing to chat to you for so long. He gave us some stellar Beijing restaurant recommendations and told me I am the most inspiring person he has ever met (not bad from a wealthy Chinese businessman). We took a cab from the station in Beijing to our hotel – Swisshotel Beijing – before crashing out for the night. Another long day and tomorrow we had more exploring ahead.