The Paris of the orient, according to our travel writers, and word on the street (Wudaukou - home to Peking University and Cambridge Chinese Class of 2014) is that Shanghai is where it's all at. Accordingly, Helen saved herself so that my 'first time' would be special for her too. And it was, as we wandered out stary eyed, or perhaps just tired, onto East Nanjing street to view Shanghai's night life. Unfortunately, what with it being late on a Sunday evening, most of Shanghai had gone to bed already and we were left confused and alone... Was it something we'd said?
Still, determined to find the real Shanghai we ventured out to the Old Town on our free morning before the train to Suzhou (Shanghai's quiet, modest, but definitely more naturally good-looking little sister) and here we started to see the city in it's daily life. The centre was crowded with bazzars, street sellers, markets, boutiques, expensive tea houses, expensive restaurants and cafes too, come to think of it. Being the quirky travellers we pride ourselves on being (and also because neither of us wanted to buy a map), we quickly found ourselves on the side streets. We were delighted that the alleyways lead to small, local markets, eateries and living quarters: the scene had changed completely within 200m! We came back to the old town centre eventually to take awkward photographs and crowd around statues, but it was with full stomaches (and purses!!) and pride that we'd seen the other Shanghai old town, the people's Shanghai.
I wonder how far I'd have gotten if, during all of the times in my life that I found myself sitting waiting for public transport with Helen Pittam, instead of giggling and formulating inuendo-related jokes, I had attempted to read all of the penguin classics. Still, by the time we reached Suzhou (half an hour on the high speed train, and by high speed I mean 300km/hour), we were both in need of something more beautiful than our very bad jokes. We were in luck. Suzhou is based around a grid pattern of rivers, so we were submerged into a landscape of bridges, low walls, pathways and rippling water. We planned to visit the gardens the following morning, so we spent the rest of the day strolling the streets and taking in the clean air(!). We later discovered that Suzhou by night is a treat, one of the (bigger) streets, Pingjiang Lu, opens up to market stalls and street sellers, couple this with the existing small shops, boutiques, open air restaurants, bars and tea houses, it's easy to see why the place is popular with toursits and locals alike! The street was buzzing, in a calm and welcoming way, and the lit up lantens bounced light into the river which then reflected over the crowds.
We spent the next day in the natural bliss of Suzhou gardens and Tongli (a local canal village which has managed to keep its traditional values despite the growing tourist interest - let's hope Tongli stays strong in the face of peer pressure!) and although we had to give up on the second garden due to a mass influx of Chinese tourists*, it was made clear to us that Suzhou and surroundings really are the epitome of Chinese natural beauty. Nature balance restored, we hopped back on the super speed train to spend a night in Shanghai and this time we were to make no mistakes, we headed straight to the bund.
[*'Comments: ... The first garden was an absolute pleasure to visit - it was calm, and peaceful (Suzhou gardens are famed around China - note: Here, gardening is an art form, as such, everything is symbolic, and the garden represents balance though 'subtle combinations'！ The second garden, however, was over-crowded and frustrating to visit. As it reached 11am we were forced to retreat from our garden viewing morning and take refuge in a teahouse in Pingjiang （Not that I was really complaining!), so we sat out on the balcony over the river and enjoyed fine Chinese tea - or orange juice in Helen's case. We think the over-crowding might have been because we were doing sight-seeing during a Chinese National Festival; the Chinese do enjoy their heritage too!']
So, The Paris of the Orient, you say? Well, I'd like to argue that Paris is the Shanghai of Europe. I encourage us all to think back to those plastic, glitter snow-dome Paris skyline modles, or Eiffel Tower keyrings and/or Eiffel Tower statues that light up, or talk (?!), when you press the button (until the battery dies - and nobody has the heart to change it) that have ended up on the mantel piece of most family homes, or worse, on Grandma's fire place. Shanghai is much to cool to offer these gifts. If you want to buy someone a gift from Shanghai featuring the bund, you're going to need some money on you. During our entire walk across the bund, we were approached by one or two photographers, and we saw a few stalls selling drinks and hot-dogs, but other than that we were left alone, to enjoy the bund, just as we wanted to. Honestly, I'm delighted that nobody has tried to capture Shanghai in a plastic dome, and I'm glad - because it's simply not possible. That skyline was incredible. Helen and I agreed, it's our favourite city skyline so far, and this girl has been to New York!
But back to the Shanghai of Europe, our Paris, to apologise for stepping on toes; I like Paris, I do, I've visited a few times now and I intend to go back. The city has a lot of history, character and charm. It saddens me to see just how much we've cheapened the city, and made it artificial; to see Paris in its true glory, you need to look far beyond the Eiffel tower (and preferably in the direction of Montmatre!). Because making Paris into 'The Eiffel Tower', just isn't going to cut it when you're up against The Bund.
Shanghai, too, has plenty to offer aside from its glorious skyline, and we explored the city the following day. The French Concession was at the top of our list to see, this is a sector of the city that was built by the French in mid 1800s and inhabited for just under 100 years - Helen likes politics, I like pretending to understand politics, we both like France and we both enjoy the quirkier city quarters. True to the plan, we visited the site of the first congress of the Comunist Party of China (CPC) and Sun Yat-Sen's former Shanghai residence. The afternoon was spent mostly in Tianzifang market, filled with 'those-arty-types', to be honest the area did have a bit of a 798 (Beijing art district) feel to it. However, the art wasn't in galleries, it was in the clothes in boutiques, the hand-made jewellery, and no doubt the fabulous conversations at the countless chic bars we couldn't afford to visit.
I really enjoyed Shanghai, and it was with a heavy heart (and slightly heavier backpack) that I left to continue travel on the over-night train to our next destination, The Shaolin Temple, where we were reminded not to worship false idols - Yes Gabby, that includes cities.