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The Bund

Started: 2016-02-11 19:11:00

Submitted: 2016-02-13 14:02:57

Visibility: World-readable

14 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator explores Shanghai, starting with The Bund

I woke up in my hotel room in Shanghai after my first jet-lagged night on the west side of the Pacific Ocean. I headed down to breakfast in the main ballroom on the first floor, the Peacock Room, which was elaborately decorated -- restored to some version of its earlier grandeur -- with a giant chandelier in the middle of the room. The room had been used, among other things, as the Shanghai Stock Exchange's first trading floor when the exchange first opened in 1990. The breakfast buffet was almost as elaborate as the room, featuring a variety of western and Asian foods. I started with congee and coffee, and moved on to noodles, fruit, and pastries.

Peacock Room at the Astor House Hotel
Peacock Room at the Astor House Hotel

Properly fortified, I set out to explore Shanghai, starting with the historic hotel I was staying in. Various signs on the walls gave the hotel's history, dating back to the 19th century, and various rooms had signs in front saying which famous people had stayed there. (My room did not have any historic visitors.) The wood floors were a little creaky, but I did enjoy the sense of history, especially in the brick-walled atrium placed somewhat incongruously on the second floor, off to the side of the main lobby and ballroom.

Atrium at the Astor House Hotel
Atrium at the Astor House Hotel

My hotel was in the Hongkou neighborhood, right across Suzhou Creek from the northern end of the Bund. (Hongkou was originally the American concession in Shanghai, after the Opium Wars, in the era in which my hotel was first built.) I walked across the Garden Bridge, an old steel bridge built in 1908, and found myself on the bank of the Huangpu River with a great view of the new modern buildings across the river in Pudong.

Jaeger and Pudong, Shanghai
Jaeger and Pudong, Shanghai

I walked south along the Bund, looking at the historic buildings on my side of the river, mostly dating from the first half of the twentieth century when the British government controlled this part of Shanghai as a sort of a colony. The buildings that survived were bank buildings and hotels, and demonstrated a variety of architectural styles, all of them interesting.

HSBC Building, The Bund, Shanghai
HSBC Building, The Bund, Shanghai

The weather was cool in the middle of January, with a daily high temperature around 45°F, but the sun shone brightly through the haze, shrouding the buildings in Pudong and making it difficult to get good pictures of them. It was a little chilly with just my sweater, so on subsequent days I wore my jacket as well.

Pudong, Shanghai
Pudong, Shanghai

I finished my walk along the waterfront along the Bund and tried to figure out what I ought to do next. I ducked into a Starbucks and tried to order coffee in Mandarin, with mixed results. (I did get my coffee, but we reverted to English, which the cashier spoke well enough.) I looked through my guidebooks and found things I wanted to see during my four days in Shanghai, and noticed that Yu Garden was close enough to deserve a visit.

I walked to Yu Garden and found myself in the midst of the adjacent shopping arcade, packed with little shops selling trinkets and souvenirs and stuff, with throngs of people pushing their way through the narrow alleyways between the shops. At one shop I found and bought a bottle opener with a picture of the Shanghai World Financial Center on it -- which seemed appropriate since the building itself looks like a giant bottle opener, with a large opening at the top.

Towards the center of the shopping block were food vendors selling things I barely recognized. I was getting hungry, so I walked from shop to shop trying to figure out what they were selling and whether it was vegetarian, eventually reverted to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on meat-eating (if it wasn't obviously dead, I could eat it), and bought a cup of deep-fried tofu in a sweet sauce and some sort of deep-fried pancake with green onions cooked inside it. Neither I nor the vendors spoke enough of the other's language to talk, but I could point and they gestured as to how much money they wanted in return (or, often, rang it up on the cash register, from which I could read the numbers). Both the pancake and the tofu were good, though I have only the vaguest idea what I was really eating.

Yu Garden
Yu Garden

I paid for an admission ticket into Yu Garden itself, which was a traditional Chinese garden in the middle of Shanghai. It had originally been built centuries ago, and had been restored after being damaged during the Second World War. The garden covered most of a city block, but was carefully divided so only a small portion was visible at any one time, and the path through the garden to see it all wound back and forth on itself. Around every new wall and through every gateway was another pavilion overlooking a pond with a gnarled rockery on the other side, but every one was different and I wanted to see them all.

Yu Garden
Yu Garden

I emerged after wandering around the gardens and hunted down the nearby Town God Temple, where I saw a bunch of idols I didn't recognize on various alters, with incense permeating the cool air and people performing various worship rituals in front of the idols.

Town God Temple
Town God Temple

I walked in the direction of the nearest Metro stop, along narrow streets lined with an assortment of small shops targeting locals. (At one point I saw a shop selling off-brand Legos, which were clearly using Lego's trade dress but with a different brand name.)

I took the metro a few stops to People's Square, and I was pleased to see that I could successfully navigate the metro in English, without having to rely on my very limited Chinese: the machines selling tickets had the option of an English menu on their touch-screens, and all of the stops and signs were labeled in English as well as Chinese. Every stop was announced on the PA in both Chinese and English.

I found the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center in People's Square, which had exhibits explaining the history of Shanghai, discussing specific historical building patterns, and looking forward to the future of the city. I picked up an audio guide to help me understand the exhibits, and I was interested by the historical discussion of Shanghai, since the urban development of the core of the city is inexorably linked with the period of time when Shanghai was divided into concessions given to various foreign powers, but the exhibits tended to take a "woe is us" approach to this period of history, which I found historically inaccurate and not especially helpful for moving forward.

Scale model of Shanghai at the Urban Planning Exhibition Center
Scale model of Shanghai at the Urban Planning Exhibition Center

The centerpiece of the museum was the giant scale model of the city of Shanghai, sprawled out on most of the third floor. The model featured the Bund and Pudong, the twin centers of town, separated by the Huangpu river, but also showed the outlying neighborhoods, identifying what makes them unique and interesting, though it stopped short of the newer international airport in Pudong and the surrounding farmland. I found the model useful in orienting myself to Shanghai and its neighborhoods, and took notes on the city and places to consider visiting.

East Nanjing Road
East Nanjing Road

The museum closed and I walked back to my hotel along the East Nanjing Road pedestrian shopping road, brightly lit by neon signs at dusk. I passed an Apple Store but resisted the urge to visit.

I returned to my hotel and contemplated my options for supper. My hotel was not especially close to any metro stops, making it somewhat more difficult to get out into the rest of the city. I looked online and found what appeared to be a vegetarian restaurant a few blocks from my hotel, also in the Hongkou neighborhood.

I headed out on foot in search of the restaurant, guided by Google Maps on my phone and my own fairly-good sense of direction. I found the address given on the Internet, which had a small restaurant, but the storefront did not resemble the picture I'd seen on the Internet, and there were no helpful English words to guide me. I took a deep breath and dove in, and found that they were happy to see me but they didn't speak any English, and had a menu printed in Chinese with only a few pictures and no English at all. I was in over my head, and tried to figure out what I was seeing on the menu using my guidebook's menu decoder and Google Translate. (It turns out it's hard to use Google Translate when I don't know how to type the character in the first place -- which probably means I need to find an additional input method that doesn't involve typing in Pinyin.) I eventually pointed to two of the pictures that seemed edible at the bottom of the menu, one of which was a spicy fried eggplant dish that was quite good, and the other of which was a cucumber salad with garlic in a vinegar sauce, which was good in small bites but a bit overpowering when I tried to eat too much at once. I managed to get steamed rice ("fan") to go with the eggplant. The whole thing cost ¥25 (less than US$4) and was a great adventure, even as I tried not to dwell on the food-safety implications of the people rolling egg rolls at the next table.

Menu entirely in Chinese
Menu entirely in Chinese
Supper: eggplant and cucumber
Supper: eggplant and cucumber

I headed back to my hotel and started taking notes on what I wanted to see in Shanghai the next day, before heading to an early jet-lag bed to try to put my sleep schedule onto something resembling normal for my new time zone.

For a few more photos from my day in Shanghai, see Photos on 2016-01-14.

Most of what I've told you is an absolute fact.
- Doug Logan, 22 December 1999