Travel distance from Hanoi to Shanghai is not too far. It turns into a long journey though when Lisa decides she is young and wants to save money. Singapore was included in my around the world ticket and acted as my hub. I booked cheap single Jetstar flights to get to Vietnam. I took one flight from Hanoi back to Ho Chi Minh, another one back to Singapore, spent the night at Singapore airport (no fancy hotel, I was going to sleep on a bench but actually ended up writing my travel diary at Starbucks the whole night) and then straight to Shanghai. Last but not least I got to try the famous not so ‘cakey’ Singapore carrot cake which is basically scrambled eggs, shrimps, and tofu with spicy sauce. Onboard, I again found myself in the dilemma ‘you need some sleep’ and ‘you want to watch as many movies as possible’, it ended up being the latter.
Arriving in China
When I got to the border control I realized I didn’t know the address that you’re supposed to write down on the arrival card which was not the best situation to find myself in strict China. Well, no phone reception and no better idea led me to just writing ‘private stay’ and believe it or not they let me in. I still don’t know how! Shanghai was all about family since I was visiting a friend I know since Kindergarten. He is Chinese but was born in Germany and was here to visit his family for his cousin’s wedding which I was invited to as well. All relatives would be referred to by nicknames, at the airport, the ‘Taxi uncle’, who was obviously a former taxi driver, picked me up with my friend. ‘Lisa do you want to rest or shall we get to town and meet my sister and her friends?’ Oh, I was so tired but too excited to hit town which resulted in me falling asleep in a hotel lobby later that day.
I love the Chinese hospitality. In China, everyone is somehow connected and people are always welcoming. I also love the food diversity…it’s simply the best FOOD. For a variety of the most delicious food Shanghai has to offer, try to the ‘Southern Barbarian’ and order as much as you can: goat cheese platter with eggplant & tomato, marinated beef jerky, rice pancake, pineapple rice served in a pineapple and definitely fried insects. Downstairs is a bar called ‘Closless’ that is designed like a tunnel and serves local drinks and actual hot cocktails. At home, my friend’s father would always cook fresh traditional Chinese food.
Another thing that proved to be a tradition were FOOT MASSAGES – in the middle of the night. The salons are open until 2 am. There we were, 6 of us in a tiny room enjoying our 60 min. foot massage. Earlier that night we celebrated a big K-TV Party. KARAOKE is THE thing. Back home I know Karaoke from Karaoke bars that look like regular pubs. In China, it’s a massive hotel building complex with private rooms of different sizes, each with their own professional stage, of course.
Day trip to Nanjing
A good day trip will be going to the former capital NANJING which is north of Shanghai (Beijing is in the south). Nanjing is easily reached by train and tickets can be booked online beforehand, beware you will have to get up early like 5.30 though to make the most of the day. Grab some breakfast on the way like some spicy pancake rolls which are sold by street vendors. Man, was I tired again (‘What is Lisa doing there, sitting next to the homeless people on the ground, is she alright?’). We were headed to an architecture exhibition ground called the ‘Sifang Collective’ which is a broad area with unique architectural designs of Steven Hall Architects. Our friends (all architecture students) analyzed the deep meaning of the designs and how it represented the architect’s soul. My friend and I were just like ‘Yeah the building looks…really nice!’. Don’t get me wrong it sure was impressive! You will need some time to walk around. We didn’t even manage to see everything we wanted to. Again I was freezing, it was a Shanghai thing, I was freezing the whole time. The weather could have definitely been nicer as it was drizzling and gray most days. We still managed to visit the ‘Jiangsu Temple Grounds’ but unfortunately didn’t have enough time to walk around the area. We finished the day with a delicious dinner of traditional Nanjing specialties. All regions in China have their own specialties so it’s worth visiting local restaurants to try them out.
Things to discover in Shanghai
You will most likely end up playing the ‘BUND (Shanghai skyline) game’ at some point, let me tell you, it’s a bit tricky to get there in time to catch a glimpse of the famous skyline. The first time we were too late since the lights are switched off after 10 pm. The second time we were too early since the lights are only switched on from 6.30 pm. Well, the third time is the charm! There are even regulations for when the power is turned off in certain districts in order to save electricity.
Shanghai is a nice CITY to walk around. There is an underground shopping center that reminded me of the Venetian in Las Vegas. I managed to totally screw up the conversion rate and ended up buying a 15$ frozen yogurt (‘Eat very slooooowely!’). Definitely go to one of those ‘noodle bowl places’. There’s a counter where you can choose vegetables, all sorts of pasta, meat, fishballs…it is then cooked in front of your eyes and is served as it is prepared. We finished the day off with a big family dinner at my friend’s aunts (‘government aunt’ since she has got a very situated job working for the government). The food was all home-cooked and heaven! The late evening turned out to be a very special night in particular. As I said before, in China everyone’s connected so it didn’t surprise me that the bar owner of that fancy whiskey bar, ‘Connoi Seur’s’ at 1 Wulumuqi Nan Lu, was a family friend. But that was only the beginning. Had I known that we would stay there till the early morning hours, tasting the finest whiskey as a complimentary for family friends, I would have jumped with excitement right away. We had drink after drink and I probably had the best Moscow Mule (THE drink in Hamburg with vodka, ginger beer, and lime) in history and even got to take the beautiful bronze steel mug home (‘Can I please buy it off you!’ ‘Please, just take it!’). Happily smiling I fell asleep in the cab on the way home, again!
The next day we were slowly getting ready for the BIG WEDDING CELEBRATION. The ‘hairdresser uncle’ welcomed us to his former hairdresser salon and we got a haircut for free. My positive excitement quickly switched to ‘Oh God, I am scared!’ but I got the nicest haircut of all times and was really sad knowing I couldn’t take the cute old Chinese guy with me to always cut my hair. The afternoon was spent shopping traditional green leaf tea with the ‘shopping aunt’. I am still living off that tea assortment I purchased in the cute hidden backstreet store. As every evening we had tons of food. I love the Chinese restaurants with the massive round tables that are great for socializing. Another great bar is ‘Logans Punch’: it’s got cute dark corners where you can enjoy an awesome cocktail that smells like the smoked pork belly dish in restaurants, sounds disgusting but the drink is very good. While you do that you can clink glasses with Barney Stinson who is only one among the famous actors looking down at you from the picture frames on the wall.
And then it was time for the BIG WEDDING CRAZINESS. As assumed nothing went as planned. Starting from ‘you’ve got tons of time to get ready later’ to ‘you’ve got 5 min. NOW’. Chinese weddings are somewhat different. It was all happening on a Sunday and went on for the whole day. First, everyone gathers at the bride’s home and waits for the groom to successfully complete games to be granted access to see his bride. He will have to hand out little red envelopes with money in it, mostly to the children, as a kind of road toll. Once in the apartment, a tea ceremony with the bride’s parents will commence and all guests will have food together, all squeezed in the tiny apartment.
The whole time the sound of exploding firecrackers was present which is a way to express joy. Well-fed we all went downstairs where the cars were already waiting to take the crowd to the couples’ new home which they would officially move into after the wedding. Another tea ceremony, this time with the groom’s parents took place. The whole place looked like a photography exhibition with professional couple pictures everywhere. All pictures were also displayed in an album, the pages were made of glass…why not glass?! From the apartment we were headed to the official party location, taking hours and hours since we had to take a detour and our driver got lost. It means bad luck to take the same road twice on the wedding day, funny tradition.
The location was massive and ice sculptures were already awaiting us in the entrance hall. In the garden area, another wedding was happening which we were watching from the balcony while having snacks and drinking beer. Chinese weddings are so different from anything I have experienced. The wedding ceremony was comparable to an entertainment show. It seems to be more about entertaining the guest: no feelings are expressed and the couple is rushed through while changing clothes and preparing for the next act. A unique tradition is that the bride presents various dresses on a catwalk. The number of dresses symbolizes the wealth a bride brings into the marriage. Another unique tradition is throwing the bridal bouquet in a different way I was used to. Ribbons are attached to the bouquet and are pulled off and one ribbon won’t come off.
And if you wondered how a wedding on a Sunday would ever come to an end, there’s an easy answer to that. The wedding involves no dancing, the program is well scheduled, dinner is served in time and the wedding ceremony only lasts right up to the point it’s scheduled to and if that is 9 pm helpers will start to take down the stage on the dot, although your still eating at the other end of the room. Also, you will have shot after shot with literally every person in the room (luckily the shot glasses are tiny which is the only way you’re going to survive all the rounds). Before returning home we went…guess where…to have a foot massage to finish off the day which truly was the best way to end this amazing day full of new impressions.
Sadly, my time had come to an end. My last morning, I was alone with my friend’s grandparents. These situations are often the most intense situations. Both of them didn’t speak a word of English and so we ended up simply communicating with gestures and made up our own cute language. To get to the airport another adventure was awaiting me…taking the ‘Transrapid’. Shanghai is a great time and I think even better when you know an insider who can show you around and speaks Chinese, and not only Chinese but Shanghai Chinese (there’s a huge difference!). That will save you a lot of stress. Maybe staying with a couchsurfer will be a good alternative if you don’t know anyone in the area.
~ Off to rural Thailand to teach English in a local school ~