“Shanghai is split by the Huanpu River, a tributary of Yangtze…The one thing I know for sure about China is; I will never know China. It’s too big, too old, too diverse, too deep. There’s simply not enough time. That’s for me the joy of China, facing a learning curve that impossibly steep.”– Anthony Bourdain, “Shanghai” on Parts Unknown
I have discussed my one-month stay in China in June of 2018 twice on this blog. Once, I discussed the trip in the context of the brewery scene in Shanghai. More recently, I detailed my weekend excursion to Beijing and visit to the Great Wall of China. Even so, I failed to cover, purposely, some of the significant locations I visited and experiences I had during my time in Shanghai. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to venture back to Shanghai and explore some of those incredible moments that I think about fondly. With the ability to travel still at a standstill, the best I can do is travel into my memories. In those recollections, I discover that I am a pretty capable traveler.
Background to Trip, One More Time
For those ill-informed about my travels through China, please check out the following posts, Exploring Shanghai and My Journey to Beijing. My time in China was incredible, but not without low moments. While I thrived as a solo traveler, ate excellent food, made friends, and had fantastic encounters, I suffered from anxiety and had a panic attack. Even so, my travels offered me the opportunity to expand my understanding of the world and myself, and I explored alone and with others, like colleagues or my wife, Corinne. I will showcase Shanghai’s parks, gardens, and architecture in the context of a larger story. If I do not have another opportunity to visit Shanghai, I am satisfied with what I accomplished and accept Bourdain’s assessment of the city from 2014.
It shouldn’t be surprising that I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain, although a latecomer, by most standards. It wasn’t until a year before his death that I watched Parts Unknown for the first time. It was inspiring. Upon learning of my soon-to-be visit to Shanghai, I watched the episode he filmed there in 2014 and gained valuable insight. It is he, as well as Corinne, who taught me the value of travel and how to dive into new experiences with open arms. Slightly outside my natural self, diving in led me to enjoy the moment. By the end of my trip, I had the reputation of someone who explored locations worldwide solo for years. Colleagues couldn’t believe this was the first time I had traveled so far, alone, and acclimated so smoothly. I have Bourdain and Corinne to thank for that compliment, although I felt somewhat undeserving.
If Bourdain inspired me, and in the end, prepared me for my trip to Shanghai, weirdly enough, it is a YouTuber who intellectually nudged me to recall my travels in this post. Recently, after watching a Disney vlogger, probably Molly from Allears.net, or Jackie from Super Enthused, vlogs which have become something of a pandemic staple in our home, Corinne watched a video by Taylor Wynn. After her recent video, the algorithm suggested one from four years ago, and it was Wynn’s eight-day trip to Shanghai. While she traveled differently than me, it was nostalgic, in a way, to see her enjoying parts of the city I briefly explored.
I admit Taylor Wynn’s video isn’t the only inspiring nudge I received to write this post. Recently, anticipating the release of Roadrunner, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain, I bought Laurie Woolever’s book, World Traveler: An Irreverent Guide. The book, so far, is refreshing, and for travel, and Bourdain, starved individuals, it is beautiful and sad at the same time. It feels as if Bourdain is speaking his truth regarding his travels, and on page 68, his trip to Shanghai appears, with a nod to his 2015 Parts Unknown episode. After reading his quotes and getting a small appetizer size of additional information, I finally felt the time was right to reconsider my Shanghai experience. Let’s explore Shanghai, one topic at a time; for the last time, for the first time.
Sculptures, Memorials & Parks
The first park visited in Shanghai was Xujiahui Park, a couple of miles away from my hotel. I somewhat stumbled upon it one morning after securing a one-month gym membership. Z&B Fitness, located in the French Concession, is a gorgeous hip and chic gym. Tons of equipment, but small, the gym allowed me to get exercise throughout my stay. After buying my membership, then enjoying an “Elvis” bagel, wheat bagel with banana, honey, and peanut butter, from Boom Boom Bagel, I walked back to my hotel instead of taking the metro. Along the way, I passed by a large park entrance with a massive sign and tree sculpture. Inquisitively, I entered and enjoyed the quiet, colors, and atmosphere on a cloudy morning.
What struck me, as I strolled along tree-lined paths, perfectly manicured, was that the park was impressively large, even for being in the middle of a bustling Xuhui District of Shanghai, population over 1 million in the district alone. The artificial lake, sculptures, monuments, sky bridge, and greenery with a massive city skyline backdrop were stunning. It’s strange, the ability to hear a pin drop in the middle of the third most populous city on earth. It takes a moment to recognize that hostile force of nature, the rawness of activity, alongside the quiet, reflective power of green open space. I might not have been able to read every word or recognize the cultural and historical significance of every sign, but I was a respectful traveler.
The second park I visited was the Longhua Memorial Park of Revolutionary Martyrs. It is a short walk from the Longhua Temple, a Buddhist temple that “preserves the architectural design” of the Chan School, a monastery built during the Song Dynasty. “It is the largest, most authentic, and complete ancient temple complex in the city of Shanghai.” Before heading to Memorial Park, I strolled around the area adjacent to the Longhua Pagoda, which is one of sixteen remaining pagodas in Shanghai. I was fascinated by the Temple gates, even though reconstructed but preserving the original stone lions. The temple has, sadly, observed its difficult moments in history. Built around 242 BCE, it was destroyed by war during the Tang Dynasty, rebuilt in 977 BCE, and has witnessed political struggles for power over the years. Still, the Longhua Pagoda has subsequently resisted the erosive dangers of time.
I didn’t realize until I arrived at the Longhua Memorial Park of Revolutionary Martyrs, another part of the Longhua’s Temple history. There, in 1927, the Kuomintang (Chinese National Party) executed political opponents, Communists (CCP). Thousands were killed and interred in the cemetery and, today, the park serves as a memorial. I spent several hours touring. During the Second World War, I learned that the Japanese, who exerted control over Shanghai, operated their largest civilian internment camp in the area on the grounds of the Longhua Temple. There the Japanese held Americans, British, and others in terrible conditions. This historical event is central to Steven Spielberg’s epic 1987 film, Empire of the Sun, starring John Malkovich and Christian Bale. Based on J.G. Ballad’s novel of the same name, the movie is one of the first “war” films I watched.
While Longhua Memorial Park of Revolutionary Martyr’s primary focus is on those killed in 1927, it is dedicated to victims of those tragic events above. My visit was terrific, even if sad. As one writer stated, “While the cemetery’s history is one of suffering, the area is a suitably quiet and reflective spot away from the bustle of Shanghai’s streets.” The park around the cemetery is massive, laid out with excellent scenic paths, tree-lined canals, an idyllic lake, and sculptures, oh my, the statues. They are numerous, and they are impressive examples of stylistic memorialized history. On the grounds, a museum guides visitors through the site’s history, one filled with excellent bamboo-lined paths, luscious grass with memorial stones, water features, and a partially submerged sculpture of a falling martyr near an eternal flame.
Another park of note was The People’s Square, a 24 acre “public park in Huangpu District of central Shanghai. Located south of Nanjing Road, a major shopping street.” I found this park expansive with a central lotus pond, marriage market, English corner, Shanghai History Museum, The Antarctic Stone, a teahouse, and wonderfully vibrant. The last park, Jing’an Sculpture Park, created in 2007, is “one of the region’s largest parks of its type. It serves three functions as a modern sculpture park: popular leisure, exhibition, and part exchange.” Referred to as “Shanghai Civilized Park,” the sculpture park covers a vast acreage and incorporates genuinely remarkable creative pieces offering different visual effects. It was unique but offered quiet, green open space, walking paths, and an opportunity to see an artistically beautified side of Shanghai.
I enjoyed both of those parks, but I found the sculpture park charming. The layout was fun, and it seemed that around every corner was a vibrant or unique piece of art. The sculptures, too, were linked to visitor surroundings and incorporated into the park design. Rather than solely admired, you instinctively interact with various sculptures as you explore, whether as archways or creatively magnifying the skyline. I especially liked the deconstructed man and what I think was a fox, or coyote, on a shipping container. Those spoke to me, although several allowed me to reflect on the artist’s attention to detail. Not all parks in Shanghai are created equal, but they are equally impressive.
The Bund & Pudong Park in Lujiazui
I love architecture, not that I know anything about it. The heart of Shanghai’s financial power, including the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Pudong is home to the most prominent skyscrapers in Shanghai. Pudong is east of the Huangpu River, extending to the East China Sea, across from the city’s main center. The Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and, my favorite, Shanghai Tower are the backdrop of Pudong as witnessed from west of the Huangpu River on the Bund. This area serves as a reminder of former concessions in China. So, by far, as someone who finds skyscrapers inspiring, backdrops captivating, and structural markers as cultural pin-drops fascinating, the Bund and Pudong Park in Lujiazui are must-visit locations in Shanghai.
My first visit to the Bund, or Wàitān, was during my first week in China. A couple of colleagues went to the popular tourist area to observe Pudong’s famous skyscrapers illuminated and bursting with life. When asked to join, I gladly accepted. One of my colleagues speaks Mandarin, so she navigated us to the Bund by taxi, and, at the conclusion of our visit, impressively negotiated our fare back to our hotel. Probably 99.9% of all my exploring of Shanghai, or even Beijing, was by metro, flawless my entire stay. When we arrived at the Bund, I was in awe of the area’s beauty at night. The Bund is a waterfront area with one sizeable walking path near the river. There are many outlets from the main thoroughfare to the waterfront path. We entered from East Zhongshan Road, which is adjacent to several architecturally, and historically significant buildings.
Many of the buildings along the Bund have long, complicated, and culturally essential histories. Still, illuminated they radiated a powerful message, focused on the future, with a nod to the past. The Bund often “refers to the buildings and wharves,” as well as some adjacent areas, like the famous Waibaidu Bridge. In those years, “1860s to the 1930s, it was the rich and powerful center of the foreign establishment in Shanghai, operating as a legally protected treaty port.” But each building, with varying design styles, is seen through a tourist’s gaze of wonder. Tourists, by the thousands, walk the waterfront as Pudong’s modern skyscrapers light up the evening sky, and the vibrancy of the older buildings along the Bund offers competing visions of Shanghai.
When I first visited the Bund, it was crowded, lively, and three fellow faculty accompanied me. We walked for an hour and marveled at massive ships passing by on the river, crisscrossing reflected images of Pudong’s skyscrapers in the water, indicating the economic importance of this area. The Bund was not an area solely reliant on the visual appeal of the architecture. It was, in fact, alive with commerce, even as tourists walked the waterfront, often looking up rather than towards the water. I visited the Bund two more times. Once, with my wife and the other when our professional program organized a faculty-only tour of Shanghai. The last one was in the daytime, which offered a different perspective of the area. Of course, it was at night, with Corinne, and our joint visit to the Bund that I recall nostalgically.
When my wife visited me in China, one of our first excursions was to the Bund, which I bragged about visiting. We explored at night, and after walking along Nanjing Road, which is over 3 miles in length, has a reputation as China’s premier commercial center, and is the oldest commercial street in Shanghai, dating back to when the government opened the city to foreign trade. We followed a similar observation path to the one I took on my first visit, but it was glorious experiencing it with Corinne. When I visited the Bund in the sunlight, with a larger group, it was sparse of people, and we had the opportunity to observe the area as the sun shined off the skyscrapers across the river. This view offered a new perspective that inspired me to visit those massive structures serving as a background to the famous Bund.
My first visit to Pudong was in the morning, during local work hours, so I was the lone tourist among metro cars full of workers journeying into the heart of Shanghai’s business district. It was a cloudy day, but I wanted to use a few hours that morning to map out a future visit to the area. I walked around the feet of massive buildings, strolled down to the waterfront, observed the Bund from the other side, and eventually walked the pedestrian bridges that crisscrossed the area. I found this a brilliant example of urban planning. The cars take command of the streets as tourists, workers, and pedestrians walk safely above on paths taking you to key locations in Pudong.
The next time I was in Pudong Park in Lujiazui, I had a more organized plan. I got up early, ate my traditional Chinese breakfast, and took the metro to Pudong. The trip is around 25 minutes, give or take, but easy and comfortable. When I arrived, I headed straight for the Oriental Pearl Tower building, which is a TV tower and, at one point, was the tallest building in Shanghai. It no longer is, but it offers spectacular 360° views of the city from its observation decks, one of which has a 1.5-inch-thick glass floor. It was exhilarating riding the glass elevator to the upper level and walking the observation deck, at one point gaining the courage to walk on the glass floor with views directly below me. I am not a thrill-seeker, but when in Rome, right?
I completely understand the concept of architectural, or skyscraper, tourism. I have always admired massive buildings of these types, probably since I visited the Empire State Building in my youth. While the Oriental Pearl was unique, it wasn’t the tallest building in a city with massive structures. I sought to remedy that the next time I was in Pudong. During my last week in China, two colleagues expressed interest in visiting “the” Shanghai Tower, which is a “128-story, 632-meter-tall,” or 2,073 in feet, “megatall skyscraper” in the Lujiazui area of Pudong. As of this writing, it is “the world’s second-tallest building by height to the architectural top, and it shares the record of having the world’s highest observation deck within building or structure at 562 meters,” and the second-fastest elevator, with speeds reaching 46mph.
I was eager to see Shanghai Tower, and my two colleagues, Joan and Claire, knew this. So, on a sweltering afternoon, the three of us explored Pudong and one of the skyscrapers making it a popular tourist destination. We began by walking the waterfront area outside of the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower. Once we walked for a while, we took our time in and around Shanghai Tower. Depending on how close we got, it was as if we could only see a wall of towers, seemingly blocking our advance. But, once beside the footprint of Shanghai Tower, all I could do was look up in amazement as three massive structures, Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai World Financial Center stretched towards infinity. The design of the Shanghai Tower is impressive, with its extended twisting features. With the sun shining, Shanghai Tower reflected off the glass of Shanghai World Financial Center, capturing a fascinating image.
Floor-to-ceiling windows, stunning views that go on for miles in every direction, and low crowds, made this an enjoyable time at the top of the world. I can only compare it to how I felt the first time I stood on the observation deck at the Empire State Building or my visit to Top of the World atop the South Tower of the World Trade Center complex in the mid-1990s. Those memories are encapsulated as a snapshot in time. From the 118th floor of Shanghai Tower, the highest observation deck on earth, I looked upon the world and observed the majestic nature of human ingenuity. It was incredible how Shanghai Tower made the surrounding buildings look small, even though they looked like mountains minutes before. I knew I might never return to that height, so I observed the curvature of the river below, the Bund’s length, the pattern of streets in Pudong, and around the deck I meandered, taking it all in.
Exploring Zhujiajiao, Twice
Instead of gardens, parks, memorials, or massive skyscrapers acting as inspiring beacons, it was a water town on another occasion. Zhujiajiao is on the outskirts of Shanghai, “established about 1,700 years ago.” Within the town’s boundaries, which date back nearly 5,000 years, thirty-six stunning stone, wood, and marble bridges from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and numerous rivers, or canals, permeate the area, and “many ancient buildings still line the riverbanks.” I decided to visit Zhujiajiao, often referred to as the Venice of Shanghai, when I discovered it was accessible from Shanghai by metro and didn’t require an overnight stay, like Suzhou, which several of my colleagues explored. So, rather than venturing to Shanghai Disney, I embarked to see a water town.
On the day of my journey to Zhujiajiao, I got up early and had breakfast in the hotel with several colleagues. I found out that two of them were planning on making a trip to Zhujiajiao too. Honestly, at first, I was eager to explore the town alone. So, after breakfast, I wished them the best and went back to my room to prepare. As I departed the hotel, I noticed my two colleagues appeared baffled and befuddled regarding their journey to the water town. I did research, so I knew which metro to take and the route, once in town, to follow to the popular tourist areas of Zhujiajiao. Being in the moment, I asked them to join me. They said “yes,” and I was better for it.
When I think back to my first trip to Zhujiajiao with Susan and Sandra, I can’t help but be disappointed with myself for having wanted to go alone. We had incredible conversations on the metro, enjoyed our casual stroll along the town’s riverbanks, explored dozens of shops, and visited several food stands to sample local favorites. I feel fortunate that I opened up to another possibility. Together we explored historic rice shops, looked at old banks and spice stores, and were in awe of the narrow streets lined with two-story wooden buildings with roofs that connected. I had an opportunity to make a quick pass through the Zhujiajiao wet market, which covered significant square footage, and included observing unique and local meats, seafood, produce, and more. It was an eye-opening experience, one that only rivaled the accidental pigeon auction I walked in on, which I mentioned in my Beijing post.
I revisited Zhujiajiao when I took my wife there on one of her first days in Shanghai. As it was my second time, I guided Corinne to see those areas I visited and those I didn’t, like our venture to the edge of town to see Yuanjin Temple, also known as the Temple of Goddess. I wanted Corinne to see and experience as much as she could. So, we walked along the canals, climbed over historic bridges, snapped countless photos of stone and wooden dragons, and had several “foodie” treats from local shop keepers, including a sizeable crunchy dessert shaped like a pinwheel, which Corinne loved. It’s one thing to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of Zhujiajiao with coworkers, and it was another to be with my wife doing something we never dreamed possible.
Yu Garden & Incredible Museums
Water towns, sculpture parks, skyscrapers, and open green spaces; Shanghai has everything. Yet, it would be remiss if I did not discuss or introduce my two visits to a beautiful garden and a couple of museums – all of which left me in disbelief over the city’s immensity in historical legacy and urban design. It should be no surprise that I include a couple of museums in this post; recently, I posted about my love of museums, which you can read here; Visual History. So, which museums did I visit in Shanghai? I explored the China Art Museum, Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the Shanghai History Museum in the Oriental Pearl Tower, and the Shanghai Natural History Museum located in Jing’an Sculpture Park. All of these were, of course, fantastic, but my two favorites were the Shanghai Museum and Shanghai Urban Planning & Exhibition Center.
I enjoyed these museums for different reasons. For the Shanghai Urban Planning & Exhibition Center, I was amazed by Old Shanghai’s historical images and maps from an engineering and urban planning perspective. I especially enjoyed the 3D virtual tour, but what won me over was the enormous model of Shanghai located on the top floor of the museum. As someone who seeks out urban tourism and exploring cityscapes, this museum offered a fresh and thorough approach to understanding Shanghai as an urban behemoth. The building that houses the artifacts, history, and model is itself uniquely and stunningly designed. It is breathtaking to observe, and it helps preserve a thorough understanding of Shanghai’s urban history.
If tours, detailed explanations, and conversations with colleagues filled my visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning & Exhibition Center, my visit to the Shanghai Museum was contemplative. As opposed to the Urban Planning Center, Shanghai Museum is a world-class museum focusing on ancient Chinese antiquities housing collections that include 120,000 pieces of “bronze, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, jades, ancient coins, paintings, seals, sculptures, minority art, and foreign part.” The Shanghai Museum is located in The People’s Square and has a beautiful ascetic design, both inside and outside. It is easy to navigate, and the collections are outstanding. I had never before been in the presence of such antiquities. It was rather emotional. As someone passionate about historic preservation, the museum is a perfect example of how the past is protected.
While exploring two museums might have been one way to spend a couple of afternoons in Shanghai, strolling around the Yuyuan Bazaar and Yu Garden proved to be one of the more notable places I visited in Shanghai. No skyscrapers, no extensive artifact collections, no marble floors, or high-speed elevator. Instead, the over 400-ear-old Jiu Qu Bridge (the Nine-Turn Bridge), colorful gardens, a beautiful koi pond, and incredible wooden dragon carvings are what my eyes observed in a garden area that dates back to the Pan family of the Ming dynasty. The Yu Garden is impressive and offers a design that blends “decorative halls, elaborate pavilions, glittering pools, zigzag bridges, pagodas, archways, and impressive rockeries.” One can spend hours in the Yu Garden complex, and most, if not all, will leave with memories of an unrivaled experience.
I visited the Yuyuan Bazaar twice during my stay, once with Corinne and with colleagues on an organized tour. That same tour provided access and time within the Yu Garden, located within the Bazaar, for an entrance fee. Yu Garden comprises six areas; “Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall, and the Inner Garden.” The tour was terrific, and along with several colleagues, we explored every hall, pond, archway, and, well, everything! I marveled at the stonework within the garden, epically the woodcarvings of dragons, which grace archways and stone walls.
When my wife visited, we spent an afternoon at the Bazaar. During my last visit, I followed my previous footsteps and showed her classical Chinese architecture, beautiful sculptures and carvings, and a busy Yuyuan Bazaar. We had a wonderful time walking over old bridges, eating delicious foods, and stopping for a tea demonstration. Corinne was taken aback by the entrance archway, the Bazaar’s architecture and vibrant colors, and the building’s bright lights as the sun went down. It was a wonderful time spent there, concluded later in the night by a brewery visit and delicious local cuisine. My treks to Yu Garden and the Bazaar amount to tremendous experiences I will not soon forget. If this statement seems redundant, so be it. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to observe these places, sometimes multiple times.
Wicked Entertaining to the End of the Trip
During one of my first weekends in China, the company that supervised our teaching organized a fun Saturday night out. Accompanied by two colleagues, Claire and Susan, our hosts booked us a private room at a fancy local Shanghai karaoke. The night lasted several hours, and eventually, more colleagues joined as the night went on and free food, beer, and fun endured. For a couple of hours, Claire, Susan, and I, as well as a couple of hosts, sang countless songs. It’s strange sometimes to recall. A trip that began with anxiety, a brutal panic attack, and self-doubt morphed into a journey of discovery where I uncovered what I was capable of on the other side of the world.
My China travels feel like a lifetime ago. I overcame travel insecurities, learned to embrace the fulfilling power of a solo journey and shared unique experiences with those around me. I have only begun to assign value to those beautiful moments. The trip scared me, but it changed me and has inspired me, which constantly reminds me of the importance of travel. As Anthony Bourdain once said, and a quote I often use, “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.” China was as unknown as a place could be, and I visited despite that fact. I discovered, during that karaoke night, that I am, as Bourdain said, “not afraid to look like an idiot.” Keep the mic charged; I am ready for the next adventure.