23.5 hours in Shanghai

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The Bund looks like the future.

As an American, getting a visa for China sucks – it’s $200 for a dual-entry visa that’s only good for six months. (And as an American in Korea, there’s a extra stipulation about how much time you have left on your Korean visa for some reason.) But there is a small exception – Americans can spend up to 48 hours in Shanghai visa-free. Which was good news for me, as I ended up with a 23 and a half hour stopover in the city on a flight from Korea to Taiwan for my summer vacation.

With so little time to spend in the city, the was no time to waste. Luckily, the process of getting into the country without a visa was relatively hassle-free, with only a small delay waiting on a special passport stamp. Hopping onto Shanghai’s extreme high speed “maglev” train took us the 18.5 miles into downtown in under 8 minutes. Not bad.

Originally, my travel buddy and I had thought we’d try to spend all 23.5 hours exploring the city without sleeping, but after a late night of packing, we decided to check into a hostel. The Blue Mountain Youth Hostel was just off a busy shopping section of East Nanjing Road, not too far from the Bund. We immediately headed out to start exploring, only to be greeted by a torrential downpour, and so sought shelter in a cozy little restaurant resembling an American diner. There we ordered some awesome dim sum, which was served ala carte. Many dumplings, some pink guava green tea and kumquat juice later, the rain had let up enough for us to head over to the Bund.

On one side of the river, the skyline on the Bund looks like the future. I think the architecture would be much better accompanied by some flying cars and hovering space stations than the ordinary accoutrements of the present. On the other side, the Bund is lined with buildings that seem better suited to Europe a couple hundred years ago:

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It’s an interesting contrast.

Probably the most fun way to get across the river is the Bund sightseeing tunnel. The sign at the entrance gave us some pretty high expectations:

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We headed down a sizable escalator to the tunnels’ entrance. An usher quickly pushed us into what looked like a tiny, glass-walled subway car with 6 other passengers and away we went. The awesomeness of the ride itself was simply too great for my measly camera to capture, so instead I will provide you with as close of an approximation as could be found on the internet:


It was basically the same, just a bit less psychedelic (and a bit less Gene Wilder).

The city on the other side of the Bund was all newly built-up from the city’s World Expo in 2010. There was an elevated pedestrian walkway that reminded me a bit of the Highline in New York City. It took us right past several western fast food eateries, including a Dairy Queen, where I enjoyed a black tea and red bean Blizzard. Which may sound strange, but was actually really good.

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From there we headed back to our hostel to see if we couldn’t find some fellow travelers to join us in checking out the nightlife. The hostel was a nice enough place, but also gigantic, with tons of rooms spanning a couple floors in a giant apartment building, so it didn’t have much atmosphere. That night they were having a “luau party”. We met some local college students, who recommended a rooftop bar on the Bund. We headed over with a 19 year-old from the nearby city of Hangzhou, which I was rather embarrassed to admit I had never heard of after learning it was bigger than NYC.

The Captain’s Bar was actually on top of another hostel, but was unlike any hostel bar I’ve ever seen. It was very fancy and quite expensive. The bar was completely dark, only illuminated by the lights of the skyline. The view was great, so we decided to stick around for a couple Tsingtaos despite the expense. After so many months of Korean beer (not my favorite), Tsingtao tasted pretty good.

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East Nanjing was packed with people making their way to the Bund. Despite the crowds, I did notice there was quite a bit less pushing than what I’m used to in Korea.

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A bit further down the street, there were some open-air dance lessons. It made me miss living in New York, where coming across these sorts of random happenings on the street is an everyday occurrence (not so much in Ulsan):

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Another interesting mix of old and new:
Old meets new in Shanghai

The street back to the hostel off of East Nanjing was lined with food vendors selling durian and other unfamiliar fruits, meat on a stick, and dumplings. If I could, I would spend more time in Shanghai just to eat more dumplings. But with only 23.5 hours, so many dumplings, so little time…

A bit of an aside about Shanghai: the road traffic there is crazy. I thought the driving in Ulsan was bad, but it’s nothing compared to Shanghai. So many scooters and bicycles, going every which way, and loaded up with anywhere from 2-5 people. I think the record number of people I saw on a scooter in Shanghai was 5: one adult and four children. I’d never seen anything like it.

The next morning, we woke up early to check out the old French area. It was early enough that the city was just starting to wake up: old women washed vegetables on the sidewalks, next to old men in their undershirts chasing children stacked three to a bicycle down the street. We bought some dumplings and spicy sesame pancakes for breakfast from a street vendor for under $1. I was extremely happy to find a sesame pancake, as it’s something I’ve been searching for since having them at my favorite dumpling store in New York.

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The French district was incredibly ritzy, with tree-lined streets and a super-expensive pedestrian-only shopping area.

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It was almost as if we had stumbled into Europe.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard a lot of people say that Shanghai “isn’t really China.” I get what they mean, as the city is in no way a representation of the rest of the country. East Nanjing Road has more expensive shopping malls and designer stores than I’ve ever seen, probably in my entire life combined. When we first hopped off the subway, I saw a giant advertisement for BOSS with Ryan Reynolds and one for Avril Lavigne’s new album. But Shanghai isn’t just like a European or western city, either. I don’t see why people feel the need to classify its culture as one way or the other, as “authentically” Eastern or not. Shanghai has its own culture, entirely different from anything else. It’s “authentically” Shanghai, and I don’t see why people seem to think it should be any less a city for not being something it’s not.

Just down the street from the French district was a big antiques market, where old men were selling all kinds of interesting knick-knacks and old communist propaganda. I wanted to stay to look around, but unfortunately we were out of time and had to head back to the airport.

In 23.5 hours in Shanghai, we didn’t make it very far from the Bund. But it was definitely worth the detour.

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