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Shanghai, back to the future

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaDespite crabby cabbies, travellers are making a beeline for Shanghai to savour some authentic old world shikumen-and-cheongsam nostalgia.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Shanghai embarks on a nostalgia trip - and so should you

AS our taxi sped around People’s Park in that bone-shaking stop-start manner favoured by Shanghai cabbies, we suddenly came to a screeching halt by the side of the busy road. With trucks and buses hurtling by, our driver opened his door and, without so much as a glance in our direction, leapt out, dodged the cars, and ran towards the park fence. He scaled it in one desperate jump and disappeared at a fast canter into the spring foliage. It was right out of Monty Python. My colleague and I stared at each other, mystified, as peak hour traffic roared around our marooned taxi.

At length, the gent returned, adjusted his trousers, and we juddered off. Mystery solved. Call of nature amidst the begonias and petunias. Not too bad, we thought. A previous cabbie, unable or unwilling to locate our address, had gruffly suggested we get off and find it ourselves on foot. I gather a rather colourful discussion followed. But not privy to Mandarin Chinese, I marvelled at the skyscrapers as my colleague and the driver exchanged some high velocity vitriol.

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Suffice to say, we made all our appointments. And, for those who are genuinely stuck, there are some sharply painted cycles – in blue, orange, yellow and green – that can be rented by the hour and dropped off at various parking points in the city. Along the historic Bund with its neo-classical buildings and imposing stone facades, a small truck does the morning rounds picking up cycles that have been deposited hurriedly all over the place.

{The Oriental Pearl TV Tower – that always reminds me of a liposuction gone horribly wrong – is an interesting distraction, especially at night

On a brilliant and crisp spring morning with the smog in partial retreat, I raced down the very same Bund, camera in hand, snapping merrily all the way from the stately Waldorf Astoria to the bronze bull, which does a fair Wall Street impersonation, where even at this early hour tourists were gathering to pose.

Spotting my camera gear, one cooing couple mustered the courage to shyly enquire if I might take a picture for them. I obliged and clicked the de rigueur ‘V’ signs. They thanked me and sauntered off while another elderly couple approached with eager outstretched hands clutching mobile phones. I obliged again. Before long, a small queue had developed behind me.

Curious onlookers assuming this was some sort of professional service gave me their cameras along with some very detailed suggestions. At length, the good citizens of Shanghai decided it was my turn and they cleared the throng so I could get in a clear shot of the glowering bull. As I raised my camera, an old codger sauntered into the frame, cigarette in hand, only to be met by the stern mob and carted off bodily to one side. I must be the only person to have a Bund shot entirely devoid of people.

Tackling heaving crowds and traffic in Shanghai - as well as impromptu queues - a city of 24 million people, is a fulltime job, made vastly easier by the excellent subway trains that handle as many as 11 million a day at peak (double the metro traffic of Mumbai). Build up your calories for this endeavour chomping on giant Yang’s dumplings (dotted around town), sampling Shanghainese at the roll-up-your-sleeves Jesse (Tianping Road), or nibbling on some exquisite local ‘Kaluga Queen’ caviar at the swish Ritz-Carlton Pudong with its breathtaking views.

Rush hour in Pudong? No worries. Pootle down the IFC mall to catch Line 2 across the river to Nanjing East Road on the Puxi side, cutting a daunting road journey of over an hour down to a trifling 10 minutes. Then, along pedestrianised Nanjing Lu – I’ve walked all the way from Jing’an to the Bund in 45 minutes, a Paul Bunyan excursion that never ceases to appal locals – enjoy window shopping, food stalls, or an impromptu alfresco waltz.

{Despite the boisterous teen effervescence of its modern architecture, this is a city obsessed with nostalgia and the search for ‘old’ Shanghai...

Another transport option after enjoying the scenic Mandarin Oriental riverfront promenade – with grand views across the river – is the local ferry that runs every 20 minutes till 7pm. It does a leisurely waddle to the other side arriving right next to the Banyan Tree hotel (a short distance from the main Bund) where it disgorges its haul of motorcyclists and pedestrians. It’s just Rmb2 and comes close to matching Hong Kong’s iconic Star Ferry crossing. I have to say, the bulbous Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which always reminds me of a liposuction gone horribly wrong – and somewhat dwarfed by the soaring 632m Shanghai Tower - is an interesting snap-happy distraction, especially at night.

On the Bund, the posh, clean, and contemporary Peninsula - wreathed in the latest Chanel aromas - now also manages the former UK Consulate General building, a storied site of considerable vintage (the building dates to 1871). This is a spoiling garden-and-villa area for events and more.

Despite the boisterous teen effervescence of modern Shanghai architecture, this is a city obsessed with nostalgia. From tourists to residents, everyone is in search of the ultimate ‘old’ Shanghai. Think silk cheongsams, ‘50s hairdos, toy dogs and rustic retreats. In the tree-lined French Concession beyond Jing’an, Capella has launched a distinctive ‘shikumen’ town house retreat for connoisseurs, a mini district of narrow two-storey red brick alley buildings in the classical mould. Climb up the water tower for a breezy rooftop Mary Poppins view.

At the southern fringe of the Bund where the imposing blocks taper off, is the charming 8 Art Hotel, a boutique digs with dollops of art, grunge interiors, creaking floorboards, and enough scabrous exposed cement ceilings to delight or dismay depending on your age and attire. It’s a steal at US$80 a night with breakfast and a super location. You’ll also get endless scratchy renditions of “I left my heart in San Francisco”. No views alas, of either San Francisco or the Bund.

At Pudong International Airport I hunted for WiFi and then had a brainwave. Why not try Burger King? It boasted a free connection. I queued up for a good 15 minutes and finally ordered, only to be informed that there was no WiFi. At least I was seated right above Gate 25 where my Hong Kong Cathay Dragon flight KA865 was to depart from. I ate in no undue haste and sauntered down to the gate. It was empty. Had I missed the flight? No, it was 20 minutes to departure time.  A bored gent opened one eye and muttered the gate had changed to No.58 right at the end of the terminal. I sprinted.

Take nothing for granted. Shanghai always surprises.

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