Shanghai is the kind of place that inspires thoughts of the "pinch me, I'm here!" variety. Chills literally scamper down the back of my neck with the onboard announcement that we've arrived. This most exotic place is the stuff of wild travel dreams, and it's amazing to be here.
Actually, we aren't quite yet "here" at this point. We arrived a day early for our call -- due to the aforementioned port cancellations -- and our berth at the cargo port is not quite ready yet. As well, the Chinese take a lot more time to clear a ship (we learned that already in Hong Kong) than do other countries' immigration officials. Similar to our early arrival in Hong Kong, much of the day is essentially spent at sea or, in this case, on the Yangtze River. Our berth will be ready this afternoon, and we'll move in a few hours.
At least the sun is shining, and the sea is placid!
What I've learned about Shanghai, so far, is that it's more westernized than is, say, Beijing, and it's akin, at least in its brash style, to a Chinese version of New York (you could argue that Beijing, the government's hub, represents the Washington D.C. of China). This city is experiencing an unprecedented expansion boom -- some 15 percent of all the construction cranes in the world, according to Fodor's, are here! There weren't even any skyscrapers in Shanghai in 1993, one passenger, who last visited then, told me. Now they dominate the sprawling city of 15 million.
The city dates back to 1842, when it was established as a treaty port that the British, American and French occupied for many years. Each had their own neighborhoods where their own laws ruled (only that of the French -- the French Concession -- still exists in any significant form, though of course, all have long been gone). Shanghai's heyday was the 1920's and 1930's when it was quite the racy, cosmopolitan burg -- opium dens were particularly popular. These days, the city, which is divided by the Huangpu River, is more inclined toward contemporary traditions (like many places in Asia, shopping isn't just a pastime; it's a religion).
It's relatively easy to get your bearings here because Shanghai, at least for tourist purposes, is divided into two major areas, both bordering the river. The more traditional Puxi, on the river's western side, is home to Nanjing Road, the city's premier shopping street, its old town and its cultural venues, like the Shanghai Museum. Pudong, on the river's east side, is all new and flashy -- here's where the newest candidate for tallest-building-ever is under construction, and the gaudily-lit Pearl Tower dominates the skyline.
Once again, the shore tour staffers on Sapphire Princess have rallied due to an unexpected schedule change.
This time, they pulled together a last-minute raft of additional, nighttime shore excursion options. When we arrive at our pier in mid-afternoon, shuttles to town (once again, they're free) and shore tour motorcoaches are lined up, waiting. One of the gifts of this cruise has been the unexpected chance to see Hong Kong at night; the opportunity to tour Shanghai after dark is just as wonderful. And we have a full day tomorrow to explore as well.
Smaller ships can dock downtown -- right in the heart of the city -- but our ship is too big (as is Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, which is just beginning its Asia itineraries). The city is a long 45-minute ride from the cargo shuttle, and the traffic, especially when you get close, is pretty daunting.
The shuttles transport independent-minded passengers to a central point in the city (a relatively easy walk from Nanjing Road's famous promenade of shops), but this is a place that is rather hard to get around unless you either know Chinese or are extremely adventurous. If it's easy to get a feel for Shanghai, actually getting around town is a bit more complicated. Key tourist-oriented neighborhoods are often fairly long walks apart, and a bizarre system of raised highways makes simply crossing the street a challenge. And let me add that simply crossing any street is a life defying experience -- drivers, particularly those piloting taxis, treat Shanghai's roadways as if they were competing in a race for Formula One or Nascar.
Please be wary about riding in the taxis as well -- you can't use a seatbelt in the back seat (in every cab I took the seats were covered with a nice clean seat cover -- lovely touch -- that alas covered the seatbelt buckle, making it unusable). An added element of risk is that most drivers don't speak a lick of English or even Anglicized Chinese (and that held true for all of mine); be sure to have names of places written in Chinese on hand (the ship provided such a guide).
So all of these factors make the ship's shore tours look pretty darn appealing.
If Shanghai's swift metamorphosis into an uber city has a downside, it's that the boom is swiftly gobbling up (or, rather, tearing down) many historic buildings that lie in the path of progress. So don't expect too much historic ambience here. Having said that, our tour's first stop at its famous Bund -- Shanghai's name for its waterfront promenade -- was a gorgeous surprise. The promenade, located on the Puxi side, has some superficial similarities to that of Hong Kong's waterfront -- you look across the river at a landscape of brilliantly lit skyscrapers -- but the big difference is that both sides of Shanghai are beautiful. Puxi's waterfront is lined with the city's most exquisitely preserved historic buildings -- all grand structures built in the Art Nouveau period. The structures, which house Shanghai's grandest banks, shops, restaurants and the storied Peace Hotel (currently closed now for renovation), are all softly illuminated with a glow-in-the-dark effect.
The promenade's got another advantage over that of Hong Kong's harborfront -- all along the way are souvenir shops and stalls selling food, as well as chic restaurants. So it's a destination for more reasons than watching a light show (which Shanghai actually doesn't offer).
We covered the key "first timer" sights this evening and, after The Bund, headed over to nearby Nanjing Road (or Nanjing Dong Lu). As the city's retail Mecca, the mostly-pedestrian street is lined with big neon signs that don't so much identify retailers as scream their names out loud. It's a fun, fascinating place to watch locals go about their daily lives -- and is also an intriguing mix of practical places (such as food markets and drug stores), fashionable boutiques (most of them Chinese), and huge and famous department stores like Shanghai No. 1. What was interesting about this area, in addition to its energy, is the fact that, unlike Singapore or Hong Kong, the stores weren't simply global chains of U.S., U.K. or European brand names. It's all about China, and it's unique, though I expect that to change as the city continues to grow.
On this short evening outing, I abandoned the tour to head to the Grand Hyatt, a destination in its own right. Resting on the top floors of Shanghai's current tallest building (Jin Mao Tower), it's located in Pudong, across the river, and is "the" spot for the ship's officers and crew to visit when allowed time off. Canton is the specialty restaurant at the hotel and a particular favorite of Robert's, one of Sapphire Princess' head waiters. It certainly has an interesting menu (fancy a taste of shark fin or bird's nest?); it's perhaps a bit too daring for me! While I wouldn't want to stay in this bustling hotel (too much of a tourist attraction with its ambience of an inner city train station), it does house one of the city's most popular venues -- Cloud Nine, a swanky bar atop the hotel. It takes three different elevators to reach Cloud Nine, which is on the 87th floor; a cover charge keeps out the riffraff. I don't remember anything about what it looks like because frankly the emphasis of this dark place is, of course, the views outside -- you can literally see forever.
Weary from my fast-paced mini-tour of Shanghai, I headed back to the ship around 11 p.m. (the shuttles run all night). Tomorrow's a busy, jam-packed day of sightseeing beyond the Bund and Nanjing Road, so I head to bed early.