About 10 years ago, I really got into an author, Lisa See. After reading Shanghai Girls, which describes the former French Concession in great detail, I knew I had to visit Shanghai one day. Before the Second-Sino Japanese War (during WWII, I also love WWII history), Shanghai was described as the “Paris of Asia”, and the French Concession was an area designated for the French, still popular amongst ex-pats.This is the worst, unedited picture I’ll ever post on this blog. China is renowned for its smog, and it was the worst view of a city I’ve gotten upon landing. The flight from Bangkok to Shanghai was about 4 hours, and when I booked with United I was able to choose a vegetarian meal, which I got on both flights to Shanghai and then back to the US.
If you are from the US or various other countries and are only transiting through China in 18 designated cities for less than 72 hours, you don’t need a visa (more info here.) You head to a separate line at customs in the airport, get your passport stamped, and you’re on you’re way. Just make sure you keep the exit form they give you, which you’ll need to have with you when you return to the airport to depart China. Honestly, while I loved Thailand, the 10,000 shrines to the royal family started to remind me of Kim Jong Un portraits. For the record, there were a lot more in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai I saw hardly any. What’s ironic is, despite how modern I always heard Shanghai was (“an international business city”), you immediately know you’re in a communist country when you land. The reason I say this is you literally have to go through 5 employees before you get 1 who knows the answer to a question. It seemed like booths were over staffed, and there were several mannequin-like people in the airport just standing around who’s job I don’t even know, they were like Walmart greeters. I’m going to say this is because China, as a communist country, likes to boast a near 100% employment rate, but it ends up being very inefficient and works against them. I did around 30,000 steps that day, with 20,000 of them probably being at the airport. I unfortunately had to pick up my bag since I wasn’t flying United all the way through from Bangkok to LA, and while I knew there was luggage storage in the terminal 2 exit for international arrivals/departures where I landed, I wanted to try to get it checked in with United first. I had to ask several employees about this before I found one who spoke English, it was like the never ending line of referring to someone else. The United counter didn’t open until 10:30am, and after all this waiting for my luggage and back and forth nearly 3 hours had gone by since I landed. In comparison, I was in and out of Tokyo Haneda in less than 40 minutes, but I didn’t have to pick up a bag. The Japanese are very efficient though, and I don’t believe it ever would have taken that long. It turned out I couldn’t check my bag in Shanghai until 5pm (3 hours before my flight), so I used the luggage storage facility, which only takes cash. You’ll see Chinese currency (yuan) written as CNY or RMB also. It cost $8 to store until 5:30pm when I said I’d return for my 8pm flight, 40 CNY to be paid upfront and 15 CNY when I picked it up. I had to use an ATM in the airport and took out about $90 USD (600 CNY.) Outside of airport restaurants and kiosks American credit cards aren’t accepted in China, so I knew I needed cash for taxis and food. At this point, I really couldn’t add any more to my 20kg suitcase, as Thai Lying kept reminding me how oversized it was.Transportation: I said traveling in Thailand wasn’t for the faint of heart, but China made Thailand seem like a piece of cake. I downloaded DiDi, the Chinese version of Uber which apparently released a beta version in Shanghai that was compatible with American credit cards (I tried 3 of mine before it accepted one.) But when I went to use the app, I’d wait several minutes for a car and just ended up canceling my request, so I don’t know if this is because drivers really weren’t available to accept my ride or if it was (most likely) due to the American credit card issue. Uber, Lyft, and Grab connect you with a driver immediately, so something seemed off here. Make sure you follow the signs for taxis at the airport and don’t go with the people asking if you need one inside the airport. You HAVE TO have the written Chinese location of where you want to go to show the taxi drivers, who DO NOT speak a word of English. I thought they’d be familiar with certain words they’d frequently hear from tourists or business travelers, but they weren’t, so I made sure to take screenshots of the areas I wanted to visit beforehand. Even when I said “airport” and “Pudong” my taxi driver didn’t understand me (possibly due to my American accent and because Chinese is a tonal language.)
This is what I showed my taxi drivers. The Maglev is a high-speed magnetic “levitation” train which is apparently the fastest train in the world and would have been cool to take, but it doesn’t go to the destinations I wanted to visit, so I’d still end up having to take a taxi. Being from NYC I’m no stranger to hailing a cab, even though I can’t remember the last time I took one because I always use Uber now, but in some areas of Shanghai it’s extremely difficult. I had a hard time finding one to get out of the French Concession area where the roads are narrow, you either have to wait for one who’s dropping off a passenger to stop, go to a hotel, or a wide, busy road where they have plenty of room to stop (hailing a taxi near the Bund was easier.) After Thailand, it was refreshing to see seatbelts that worked in the taxis in Shanghai. The meter starts at 16 CNY, and despite the language barriers taxi drivers in Shanghai were very honest. Both trips to and from the airport came out to around 155 CNY ($23.) It’s not customary to tip but I’d leave my change which they were grateful for. Three Chinese words I do know are “ni hao” (hello), “xie xie” (thank you, pronounced like “shay shay”), and “meiguo” (American, because someone once told me a long time ago that the Chinese translation for America was “beautiful country”- “mei” pronounced “may”, meaning beautiful.) This was at least somewhat helpful and the people seemed happy with my effort. The interaction with taxi drivers was funny because we both just kept talking to each other in our respective languages, as if all of the sudden he’d understand English and I’d understand Chinese. I kept thinking “Why does he keep talking when he knows I don’t speak Chinese at this point?” Then I’d start saying “I don’t understand, I’m American I don’t speak Chinese”, as if this would make him stop. He was probably saying the same thing to me in Chinese, it’s funny how I realized our instinctual reaction is to just keep talking.
Google: Most Americans have probably heard that google (including G-mail and google maps, my savior for navigating international cities and transit), is not allowed in China. I was expecting this, and bookmarked Baidu, China’s top search engine, but for some reason I can’t explain and haven’t been able to find the answer to, google, Facebook, and google maps all worked for me without using a VPN. In case you’re curious, I’ve mentioned this before on my European travels; for short trips I just use AT&T’s international day pass plan, which allows you to use the same plan you have at home in most countries for an extra $10/day. For longer trips getting a local SIM card (make sure you have an unlocked phone) would be more practical, but I have unlimited data with my plan and for $10 it’s worth it, especially if you’re traveling to multiple countries. I would find it near impossible to navigate without my phone for the maps feature, as well as ordering cars using services like Grab and Uber.
My walk to the former French Concession. Ruijin Road had a lot of shops and restaurants that seemed to be popular with locals.I finally made it!I unfortunately wasn’t too inclined to indulge in much of the local food other than French pastries because most of it seemed to contain pork or seafood, everything was written in Chinese, and no one spoke English (I didn’t need another papaya salad experience.)Changle Road has a lot of little fashion boutiques. Having been to Paris, the architecture, streets, and greenery in Shanghai did have a very Parisian feel. The French Concession area is now home to numerous western businesses.Chinese version of Apple.A Walmart greeter at his best at this public bathroom. I’m not really sure why this is a necessary job.China has “squatting toilets.” In this restroom, 4 were the squatting type, while 1 stall was a western-style toilet. I did not opt to use the squatty potty, old habits die hard.I finally caught a taxi and made it to the Bund, which is known for its waterfront views of the skyline. On a clearer day or at night, I imagine this view would be much better.
After seeing the Bund, I was ready to get out of the cold and rain which also felt like Paris. Back to the airport I went, for yet another flight. It was 9 hours to LA, where I spent a few days relaxing in Newport (okay, actually sleeping 14 out of 24 hours of the day) before having to head back to NYC. The trip was enlightening in many ways, and while I most likely won’t head back to mainland China for a vacation, I would definitely go to Thailand again (this time to the islands.) As I said in a previous post, Japan was awesome (definitely a country I want to explore more of), and if you want to experience Asia and not be too far “out of your element” you should probably head to Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Singapore, which are more modern (no squatting toilets) and clean (there aren’t many garbages in Shanghai and Thailand and they really limit you on napkins, I had to carry my own packs of tissues around, more so in Thailand.) For the most part, you’ll be given 1 or 2 thin napkins instead of a dispenser you can take as many as you want out of. I do try not to be wasteful, but this was really insufficient in a lot of cases. No napkins with your street food! In the aforementioned countries (other than China), you can pay with American cards and use Uber or its local equivalent, and more people speak English. I travel because I want to experience different cultures, so I say this with no disrespect. Sometimes it’s good to get out of your element, Shanghai just wasn’t for me. While most Thais spoke English, if you want to experience a rich culture so very different from the American experience and be humbled in the process, head to Thailand! I don’t expect the rest of the world to speak English, I try to learn a great deal about other cultures and am near-fluent in Spanish, which took years of studying and immersion I forced upon myself outside of school. The greatest thing you will EVER learn is another language. I don’t think anyone who can’t speak another language fluently (or even passably), should ever judge anyone’s ability to speak English, these are just my observations and suggestions for anyone who isn’t comfortable traveling to places where they don’t know the language.
Travel tips: On a side note, I had heard United wasn’t great for international long-haul flights. While it wasn’t bad, it’s definitely worth paying extra for a seat choice, and they don’t provide the luxuries other airlines do, such as toothbrushes or slippers. My feet always swell up on flights and I forgot to take my slippers out of my suitcase, so I bought Chinese ones in the airport. I definitely recommend doing this on long flights if you don’t want to be walking around in your socks! I should also mention that in Thailand and Japan all of the hotels and airports had dual European/American style outlets for your phone (don’t plug an American blow dryer into one unless you want it to blow up), but in Shanghai the outlets were Chinese-specific, so I was happy I brought an outlet converter I got on Amazon with me. I recommend Uniqlo’s Ultra Light Down jacket when traveling between cold and warm climates (Shanghai and Tokyo were cold), because it rolls up really small into a drawstring bag it comes with and is easy to travel with or fit in your suitcase.