What to do with a week in Shanghai

By Megan Singleton

Megan Singleton feasts on Chinese delicacies and snaps up some bargains.

The busy crowds ambling through the streets of Shanghai will have you jostling for breathing space. Photo / Thinkstock
The busy crowds ambling through the streets of Shanghai will have you jostling for breathing space. Photo / Thinkstock

It's hard to believe that only 20 years ago, the skyscrapers that stand so tall and proud over Shanghai's dark grey Huangpu River weren't here. Nothing was here but farmland and crops.

Today, any one of these towers would be a landmark building in New Zealand, yet here they stand side by side in "look at me" fashion in Shanghai's booming centre of commerce.

This city is a juxtaposition of China's new wealth and extreme poverty.

Under the shadow of these architectural masterpieces, a street vendor rides his rickety three-wheeled bike towing a trailer loaded with knick-knacks that he will peddle for a few yuan. Dilapidated apartments with laundry hanging under the eaves are dwarfed by five-star hotels and towers.

Yet somehow amid the din of a city of 23 million people, individuals manage to carve out places of serenity.

Along the Bund, the concourse that stretches along the river, you'll find groups of locals dressed in matching outfits doing Tai Chi.

Wander down here early enough and you'll see men flying kites that disappear into the grey sky before packing them up and cycling off to start their day.

Here are a few things I loved on my first visit.

Shopping

Brace yourself for crowds and hit Nanjing Rd. It has more than 600 stores ranging from European High Street shops like Zara and H&M to local department stores and traditional Chinese shops selling cure-alls and silks. For those who'd rather not shuffle along shoulder-to-shoulder, nip into a hotel and head for the bar, sit by the window with a cocktail and watch the throng.

Huaihai Rd is another great street to shop. It's six kilometres long so the best place to start is the Huaihai Middle (as opposed to East or West). This is more "upscale" than Nanjing Rd, you'll find shopping malls and department stores. Some call it the Champs Elysees of Shanghai.

Shanghai Shopping Tours

Suzy Fewtrell is a Kiwi who moved to Shanghai with her pilot husband when Air New Zealand started flying here. Book a full day on one of her shopping tours and you'll visit five factories and outlets, including the Fabric Market where I picked up a lined cashmere cape for $120.

At a silk factory you'll watch how they weave silk from worm cocoons, then buy a silk-filled pillow or duvet inner ($200 for a king-size duvet plus two pillows). Buy contemporary ceramics, jewellery, hand bags, shoes and as many knick-knacks and collectibles as your luggage allowance will permit.

A cooking class

Book a class with a chef who will also take you to the local market to buy the ingredients. Our chef didn't speak English but his translator helped us out, a little.

"Stick together like sticky rice," he said before disappearing into the three-storey market and striding between vendors choosing chicken, pork, tofu, greens, garlic and chillies.

Expect to be shocked by live chickens in cages or the fish that only seconds earlier lost its head.

Back at the cooking school we had a hilarious time trying to follow directions, and managed to make some tasty kungpao chicken and a delicious spicy pork and tofu dish.

It was all assembled at one long teaching table before we squeezed into the galley and took turns tossing our raw ingredients through the provided woks.

Touring in style

Your Air New Zealand flight lands in Shanghai about 7am, so it's not likely your hotel will be ready. To wake you up, take a morning tour with Shanghai Sideways.

You'll be driven around in the sidecar of a vintage motorbike and explore the French Concession, the Bund and try to get your bearings in this vast city with its eclectic pockets of ethnic groupings, colonial architecture, piazzas lined with cafes and boutiques, high streets with designer brands and narrow alleys.

Dining

For contemporary Shanghai fare and spectacular evening views over the Bund, book a table at M on the Bund. Typically dishes are served to the table and everyone helps themselves.

We also loved Lost Heaven on the Bund. You'll get to try Yunnanese and Burmese cuisine and, again, order lots of dishes and share. It's busy and the ambience is fabulous.

If you're feeling brave, try the street food. It's fresh, tasty and safe. We discovered jian ping - a large pancake cooked on a flat element, topped with an egg, sprinkled with spring onions, chilli sauce and a crispy cracker folded into it. It'll set you back around 50 cents.

Wander around some back streets and you'll be sure to stumble on a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a chef making dumplings as fast as he can. These tasty little parcels are filled with pork and a pocket of liquid stock that explodes in your mouth.

If English is a problem, just do what I did and point to the picture on the wall and hold your fingers up for how many servings you want. I paid $4 for 20.

When it's time to come home, taxi to the train station and take the Maglev, the fastest train in the world, to the airport. It will take less than eight minutes to travel 30km to Pudong International, and can reach a top speed of 431km/h (although it barely reached 300km/h when I took it).

Keep your eyes glued to the hurtling view and watch as the skyscrapers disappear into the kind of farmland this vibrant city has replaced.

Megan Singleton travelled to Shanghai with assistance from Air New Zealand, which flies direct between Auckland and Shanghai four times a week.

- Herald on Sunday

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