I awoke muzzily to a chorus of snores, a veritable symphony of sleep apnea as a trainful of sleeping Chinese variably shifted, snorted, and settled themselves into sleep. We were on a sleeper train from Jinan bound for Shanghai, the nine-hour ride bringing us into the city by 6 AM. It’s a useful but rather unglamorous affair, each car outfitted with a line of six-person sleeper compartments down one side and a very narrow aisle with fold out seats and tables on the other side. The compartments are also not completely enclosed, but have one side open to the aisle for easy access in and out – but also not providing much in terms of sound insulation. Earplugs are your friend!
Restrooms are located at the end of each car, along with hot water dispensers. Hot water dispensers are very common in public areas of China – everyone seems to bring with them a thermos or jar of tea that they add water to and sip all day long. I even ended up buying a special tea bottle with net inside to keep the leaves separate from the water. The beds themselves are pretty hard but that’s pretty common for Chinese beds in any case, and they did have pretty good head clearance so that was a plus. Honestly, I slept quite well on the train – the rocking motion is so soothing and reminds me of the NYC subway, another site of restful naps while clutching my bag.
We were coming to Shanghai not just to play tourist, but also because one of my husband’s cousins lives there with his wife and it would be an opportunity to visit them. I had actually visited Shanghai the year before and seen the famous Bund, so this time we decided we would forgo that area and focus on the old city area of Shanghai as well as the downtown shopping area. After this trip, we would head to Guangzhou to visit his high school friend and then it would be back to Jinan for the remainder of the trip.
Our train arrived promptly at 6 AM, as the sun was just rising in the city. Our taxi took us to our hostel first, driving through a city that was waking up. The sun made for some dramatic silhouette shots with the distinct shape of high rise buildings in the foreground. Our hostel was once again, sparse but definitely livable, and they even included a hot water kettle and cups for us. The best feature of the hostel though was its location – it was right across the street from a MTR station and also close by to many food shops.
Our first order of business was food, glorious food! After we dropped off our backpacks at the hostel, we quickly got acquainted with the restaurants in the area. In general, we follow the rule that if a restaurant is crowded, that means good things are happening there! Here, we found a restaurant where people were massed up front, shouting out orders for noodle soups and fried buns. The smells were tantalizing and the place definitely passed the popularity test, so we decided to give it a try also – and we were not disappointed!
The noodle soup was flavorful, with chunks of pork and vegetables to add substance, and of course the tender noodles. My favorite part though was the pan-fried shengjian mantou, buns filled with pork and soup that are fried on shallow round pans. The tops of the buns are steamed and are tender, while the bottom is fried resulting in a nice crispy crunch. And of course the inside, tender pork and fragrant soup… yum! Makes me drool just remembering it.
Of course the most famous food of Shanghai is probably the xiaolong bao – dumplings that also have pork and soup inside but are completely steamed and are shaped different as well, like little volcanoes I’ve always thought with the twist on the top. Maybe it’s because we often eat it when we are back in NYC so we didn’t actively seek out the xiaolong bao here, but I’m sure they would have been delicious as well!
Now that our hunger had been satisfied, we made our way to Shanghai Old Street, an area that is now a tourist attraction due to the virtue of having the first bank, jewelry store, gold shop and tea house in the city in that area. Now it has been built up into many small stores in classic Chinese architecture, with pagoda roofs and lanterns hanging from the eaves. The stores can range from amazingly intricate paper-cutting to touristy chops to bubble tea shops – it’s really a very diverse range of goods in one area! And I do believe they had a McDonald’s there as well, haha. Also famous in the area is a teahouse in the middle of a manmade lake, at the end of a zigzag bridge. The bridge is always crammed with tourists taking pictures – of course we were did it too! The zigzag bridge was made because it was thought that bad spirits wouldn’t be able to navigate the sharp turns – after all, it would be much more difficult than just going straight through! Makes an interesting kind of sense.
However, the main reason I was attracted to this area was the YuYuan Garden, which is right next to this area. There is an entrance fee, but I consider it well-worth it because you step into a beautiful garden with meandering paths, multiple pavilions and lovely water features. There are many different areas of the garden, with a small bamboo forest, a rock garden, etc. It’s easy to get lost (literally) but in an enjoyable way as you admire the scenery.
After the garden, we headed over to visit my husband’s cousin and his wife at their apartment, which was very modern and had a good view of the surrounding neighborhood. We had a delicious home-cooked meal and sat down to chat in their living room, which was connected to the small dining area and kitchen. It was not a very large apartment, with two bedrooms and one bathroom, but the layout made the most of the limited space and it was very comfortable! I don’t even want to ask how much they had to pay for it, though. Housing prices in Shanghai are notoriously high and have gotten even higher in recent years.
We didn’t get to stay long in Shanghai this time around, but we definitely enjoyed the time that we did have! Shanghai is a huge city with lots of do and see, so I’m sure we will be back t visit… especially now that his cousin and wife have a new baby boy!