Shanghai Walking Tour: Part I, The Morning

Ayun Halliday’s travel book No Touch Monkey features a couple of tales of travel woe, backpacking through Europe with a boyfriend who clearly didn’t see eye-to-eye with her modes of exploration. I vaguely remember grimy college summer tension in a train station or hostel or something that nearly doomed their relationship, or perhaps did doom it, given that in subsequent stories she writes more fondly about her husband-as-travel buddy. I suspect I wouldn’t cut Hallidays’s mustard either, but that’s not the point. The real lesson is that travel compatibility is crucial to the success of any good relationship. Some travelers are first classers, others a hostelians, still others Travel Channelites, preferring their living rooms to security checkpoints and phrase books. I am a street walker. Luckily, my two travel companions, AS and MCZ, were game.

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It all begins with a good breakfast. Now, continental breakfasts can be excellent fuel and sustenance, providing that the continent in question is Asia. We were neither blown away, nor repulsed by the “century egg.” I had always imagined it to be the Icelandic rotted shark of China. Not quite, but should this trip turn me into a sinophile, I think I might still prefer my eggs scrambled, over easy, or rancheros-ed. Breakfast bao, fried rice, dumpling soup, fried string beans, and peach juice, however, put Wheaties to shame.

When we set out after breakfast, it wasn’t clear how walkable Shanghai would prove to be. With 18 million people to house, one might expect a bit of sprawl. As someone pointed out to me later in a bout of obviousness, all maps are roughly the same size, but what they represent tends to have a bit more variation. In other words, we weren’t really sure what we were doing. Our strategy for the day was something like “small ball” in baseball. We adopted station-to-station tourism: pick a place to go, get there, and then worry about how to get moved over to the next place. Stop 1: People’s Park.

Immediately upon hearing the name of the park, I started having visions of People with a capital P, you know, of the communist revolutionary sort. Maybe instead of the crazy street corner preachers we have in Chicago, there would be old time Maoists reading from The Little Red Book on milk crates. Not quite. While the park notably houses the Shanghai Museum (we are going to try to see that on our return to Shanghai), it really has neither the beauty, nor the life we saw in other parks later in the day. Perhaps it is actually a vestige of the old China and the other parks are more representative of China's future of prosperity demanding green cultivated backdrops for their urban leisure. It would be a few more hours and none too little inappropriate footwear ruing before we got to those parks. One nice People's touch though is that the park posts the daily newspapers for people to gather around and read. I would like to think that this creates a public square for gathering and, one presumes, the discussion of events and news for People's Park regulars, but this is probably idealist given that most of the people by the papers were of a far older generation.

Running on the northern edge of the People's Square, which is itself on the northern edge of People's Park is Nanjing Lu or Nanjing Road. Wikipedia will tell you that this is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. I will tell you that I think it's a tourist trap and the people who were there seemed less like city dwellers and more like Shanghai's equivalent of Schaumburgers or Napervillians, suburbanites headed for the big city. Nanjing Lu may also be the site of some sort of government economic development program because we were constantly accosted by men waving what seemed to be standard issue laminated cards featuring pictures of "Rolexes" and handbags. I was a treacherous walk, hordes of pedestrians posing a danger to other pedestrians, but we happened upon dancers in groovy sweaters, so it was all worth it.

Nanjing Lu terminates ate the Huangpu River and the area known as the Bund. The Bund is where it's at if you want to see the international influence on Shanghai. The buildings are virtually all western looking, edifices of the European and American financial power that took root in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century. The area, however, has been thoroughly reclaimed since its days as Shanghai's International Settlement. Next year Shanghai will host the World Expo and a massive effort is underway to build a riverwalk and park for the event. There also appears to be a massive effort to market Haibao, the mascot for the Expo, to fund the construction. MCZ wondered if Haibao is supposed to be a dollop of toothpaste. We could not confirm or dismiss this theory.

For now the 21st century Bund is a fenced-off, earth-moving, scaffolded work-in-progress, and therefore kind of an eyesore. The real draw is not the Bund itself, but the vantage from the Bund. The heavy industrial river traffic and the view of the skyline of the financial center of Shanghai on the other side is worth the price of admission. Tourist lore says that the view of all views is from a restaurant called M on the Bund, which is where we ate brunch. Not exactly traditional Chinese fare - my meal involved two course of the pastry variety, one savory and puffed, the other sweet and baked. It was tasty, but less a site for food porn and more one for skyscraper porn. Though I hear banana fritters with mascarpone are the doctor-recommended treatment for a morning of walking.

Coming Soon: Part II: Back from the Bund!