Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Shanghai Old and New

I can understand why people love Shanghai. It is urban, has great architecture, and is constantly evolving. Take the Maglev train into the city at 431 km/hour and you know that this is a city screaming into the 21st century fast.

I decided to meet Brian in Shanghai for the weekend. We stayed at the Jia Hotel, a hip, boutique spot that would be comfortable in any metropolitan city. And while Shanghai has all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city -- posh restaurants, upscale shopping -- there is still enough of old China that exists that makes this city a cultural destination.

By far, my favorite glimpse of Old China was a side trip we took just outside of the city to Xi Tang. This 1,700-year old water is considered the Venice of Shanghai, and it’s just as picturesque with a definitively Asian flair. We saw old stone bridges flanked by willow trees; square homes with intricate roofs decorated majestically with red lanterns; and women washing their laundry in the river – even on this cold day.

One could spend hours touring the 120 tiny alleyways of this city. Around every new corner seems to be lurking a postcard perfect picture, too. There are also great bargains to be had in the variety of shop stalls set up around the town -- look for the natively made blue and white batik goods.

Back in the city, though, you can forget that China does have a quieter side. As far as population goes, Shanghai is more than 3 times as dense as Paris, and 1.5 times more dense than New York. Older (more charming) buildings are being bulldozed at an alarming rate to make room for more high-rises and large skyscrapers, the most famous of which are on the Pudong side of the city. This is where you can see famous buildings like The Pearl Tower and The Shanghai World Financial Center, known to locals as The Bottle Opener.

After taking a bird’s eye view of the city from the top of the sky deck, we decided to spend a quieter

afternoon in the famous artist district off Moganshan Road. This enclave is home to painters, glass blowers and sculptors, with a good dash of restaurants and retail shops. It’s a great place to spend the afternoon wandering and picking up souvenirs.

We ended our long weekend meeting up with friends and taking in a leisurely brunch in The French Concession. This old area of the city has beautiful sycamore trees that line the streets and parts of it are definitely reminiscent of Europe.

It seems that you can still find balance in Shanghai. There is the culture, the sophistication, the quieter streets and alleyways. Shanghai is a city that impresses on the breadth of what it offers and what it has the potential to become.

Other fun spots we visited in Shanghai:

Spin -- great pottery boutique. I could have bought everything.

Shintori -- warehouse-sized space that serves some of the city’s most fresh, if not most avant garde, sushi.

Kathleen’s Five -- glance around at what Shanghai might have been at this restaurant/bar on top of the Shanghai Art Museum, the former Jockey Club.