Seventy-two hours in the ‘Paris of Asia’

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Seventy-two hours in the ‘Paris of Asia’

One phrase you’ll find handy in Shanghai is “Discount, please” (pien-i-diar) ―not because everything’s pricey, but because haggling is expected. A phrase you won’t hear much is “Excuse me”; at any rate, I didn’t hear it much from the elbowing crowds during my three-day, two-night stay. But neither of those drawbacks overshadow the fun you can have in the “Paris of Asia.”
Home to interesting conflicting images ―locals feasting on duck heads in seedy back alleys, not far from the architectural splendor along the Huangpu River ― Shanghai is a fast-changing place that is quickly reclaiming the cosmopolitan glamour it had in the 1920s and 1930s.
And residents of Korea can make the most of it. Following the lead of the red-eye weekend getaways to Japan that have become popular lately, at least one travel agency is offering a package that lets you fly to Shanghai on a Friday night and come back late Sunday for 329,000 won (about $325), tourist hotel accomodations included ― quite a deal, considering that a round-trip ticket from Seoul typically costs 350,000 won. This package, launched late last year, doesn’t include a tour guide, so your schedule is up to you.
Unlike the Tokyo red-eye packages, in which you arrive early on Saturday morning, this one got us to Shanghai on Friday night, giving us a chance to sleep and get a fresh start Saturday morning. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought earplugs to keep out the sounds of honking cars, shouting passersby and fireworks (more about that later). But apart from that inconvenience, there’s no denying that this is a fun place to visit.
My tour group landed an hour ahead of time and was bused to a hotel in the northern part of the city ― not close to downtown, but right next to a subway station. On Saturday morning, after a not-bad hotel breakfast, the highlight of which was the dumplings (it’s Shanghai, after all), my first destination was the Jade Buddha Temple in northern Shanghai, about a 10-minute taxi ride from my hotel. Taxis are pretty affordable, starting at 10 yuan, which is about $1.20 or 1,200 won. You can simply show the driver the Chinese characters in a map or guidebook.
The main attraction at this temple, built in 1882, is a jade Buddha, lying on the altar in a pose one could almost describe as seductive. The Buddha is delicately sculptured from quality jade from Myanmar. When I first approached the temple I thought it might have been on fire, but the smoke was coming from bundles of incense that locals were burning for the Lunar New Year.
As a dutiful Korean with a sense of history, my next stop after the temple was the remains of the Korean provisional government building, which from 1910 to 1945 was the base for overseas resistance to Japanese rule.
With a humble location in a back alley in central Shanghai, this building features meeting rooms and private quarters used by the dissidents. It was full of Korean tourists when I visited. I must say, however, that the site is unlikely to mean much to anyone who isn’t interested in Korean history.
Next was the Shanghai Museum downtown. Founded in 1951, it has an excellent collection of more than 120,000 historic pieces, from calligraphy to furniture to sculpture to clothing. The museum provides audio guides in foreign languages, including English.
I could have happily spent an entire day at the museum, but time was limited and I was getting hungry, so it was off to Wiwian Xiangchang (Wiwian Commercial District), a Chinese-style garden attached to a big commercial district that’s clogged with souvenir shops and restaurants.
According to my research, there was good, cheap dim sum to be had at a dumpling restaurant called Nanxiang Shaorong, which could be easily recognized by the long line of people. This turned out indeed to be the case. I soon regretted having decided to get in line; a good half-hour passed with no sign of the line having moved. People were constantly cutting in line as if it were the most natural thing on earth.
The dumplings, once I finally got them, were pretty good (of course), but I can’t say they were worth the wait. I consoled myself with the thought that it would be a fun memory, and refreshed myself at the nearby Starbucks. Then I visited the garden itself, a peaceful Ming Dynasty site that was built over an 18-year period in the 16th century, full of authentic Chinese landscaping.
By then it was late afternoon, and time to get ready for sunset along the Huangpu River. The pier along the Zhongshan Dong Erlu (there’s another pier on Zhongshan Dong Ylu, so be careful) is an easy taxi ride from Wiwian Xiangchang. At the pier, there are shuttle buses to Oriental Pearl Tower, whose antenna reaches 468 meters high; the tower is said to be the tallest of its kind in Asia.
The tower’s observation deck is quite a tourist attraction; it’s said to offer a great view, but I’d recommend not paying the 100 yuan for the experience, especially if you’re on as tight a schedule as I was. Because the elevators were remarkably small, I wound up stuck in line again, wasting a precious hour looking at nothing but the jostling crowd. One of the best decisions I made in Shanghai was to get out of line and head to a nearby cluster of cafes, where the view of the Bund ―the riverfront of European-style stone buildings dating from the 1920s and ’30s, spectacularly lit at night ―was breathtaking. Here, I came to truly appreciate the beauty of Shanghai.
After that, a good place for nightlife is the district called Xintiandi, whose Chinese characters mean “a whole new world.” It’s about a 10-minute taxi ride west from the Bund. Xintiandi is the hot upscale spot in Shanghai, full of trendy bars and cafes.
When I came out of the bar, though, I was confronted by a terrifying spectacle. The air was filled with thick smoke, and popping, bursting sounds were coming from all directions. Let me tell you, I haven’t been that scared in some time. I soon found that it was just people setting off fireworks.
Back at the hotel, I asked what it was all about; a staffer explained that this was the night when the god of money comes down to Earth, and that people were simply paying their respects. He said this as though I were the one making an unnecessary fuss. I thought about buying some fireworks myself, but only briefly. The welcoming ceremony, or whatever it was, continued all night, and I didn’t get to sleep until dawn.
My last day was a bit hectic, because I was due at the airport at 5 p.m. You can design your own itinerary, of course, but some good destinations are Nanjing Dunglu, a shopping district that’s a bit touristy, but convenient for first-time visitors; Huaihailu, an upscale shopping district; the French Concession, which was a haven for foreigners in the years before World War II; or the antique market in Dongtailu. At the markets, be sure to bargain. If a shopkeeper asks for 100 yuan, offer 50. (Some say you should ask for 30.) A Maglev (magnetic levitation) train will get you to the airport from the Longyang Lu subway station in seven minutes, an amazing experience in itself.
So here I am back in Seoul with my memories. I’m not sure when I’ll be in Shanghai again, but I’m already getting a craving for dumplings.

by Chun Su-jin
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