Shanghai 2017: overview, arrival, and hotel

Beijing was our first trip to mainland China two years ago, and it left us with a bad taste in our mouths. Literally – the air quality was so bad when we visited that it hurt our throats. But China is a big place, so we knew we had to give it another chance when some very cheap deals popped up for Thanksgiving week, and this time we stayed closer to the coast and visited the megacity Shanghai.

RDU-ORD-PVG

Thanks to some amazing friends with system-wide AA upgrades, we were both upgraded to business class on the flight from Chicago to Shanghai. That definitely made the 15 hour flight more pleasant!

stretching legs before a 14 hour flight  bubbles and amenity bag

It took about an hour to get through customs and then a few extra minutes to figure out where to purchase the Maglev tickets and 3-day Metro passes. The weather conditions were good for the high-speed train so we got to hit the max speed – 431 km/hour!

Where We Stayed

The SSAW (Narada Boutique Hotel Shanghai) was a short walk from the metro and our room on the third floor was huge with a fancy bed, large seating area at the back and a good-sized bathroom. The shower was separated from the bedroom by a glass window with internal blinds. Thankfully the bed was nearer to the hallway because the windows were thin and the street noise was loud most of the day.

SSAW hotel lobby

our 3rd floor room @ SSAW Boutique Hotel Shanghai Bund

For our second three-day stay, we asked for a room away from the road and we were given a much higher floor facing the same direction. The room was smaller and the road noise was still enough that we had to sleep with earplugs again.

Breakfast at the hotel was a large buffet spread with noodles, dumplings, pastries, juices, teas, etc. We only had trouble finding seating the first morning, after that we got there earlier found a table with no problem. It took me a while to figure out the best way to make a latte with the coffee machine but by the third morning I had it down. I also liked the pick-your-own ingredient miso soup station. The outdoor seating area would be quite nice in the summer.

First night in Shanghai

Once we got settled in, we took a walk to the Bund area – wow, what a skyline! Lots of colors and despite the chilly evening, many people enjoying the views.

Bund skyline

shanghai-7

Afterward, we walked to Nanjing Road to admire the neon signs along the pedestrian way.

Nanjing Road

Feeling a bit hungry, we stopped in to Yang’s Dumplings for a quick dinner. We ordered the traditional pork and a cabbage variety, the pork was better. The ordering process was a bit confusing as we paid at the register on the right, then turned around to a glassed window on the left with the receipt to collect our order. Seating was first come first served but the turnover was quick. The dumplings were a bit hard to eat with chopsticks given the soup inside and crispy bottoms but we managed. :)

Mr. Yang's dumplings

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so I went back to the room and Eric went out a second time, visiting the rest of the Bund, the Waibaidu Bridge, Nanjing, etc. He received lots of propositions for massages, watches and various other suspicious activities.

Shanghai: Yuyuan Gardens + Tianxifang

Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the famous Yuyuan Gardens, so we decided to start there. After making our way through the maze of stores we found the small ticket counter, where it was all-cash. Unfortunately, purchasing our tickets to the Shanghai Circus through the hotel before we left that morning had depleted our cash reserves. Oops. So we set out to find an ATM, which was not as easy as it had been in Malaysia (especially considering all the stores), but after backtracking several blocks we found one that worked.

Cash in hand, we bought our tickets for the garden, a beautifully designed space with meandering pathways through rock gardens, nice pagodas, and old trees. Foot traffic was fairly low, so we had several opportunities to enjoy the view without other people around.

Yuyuan Old Street  tickets for Yu Garden

Yu Gardens

Yu Gardens  Yu Gardens

Yu Gardens

Jiuqu Bridge

On our wander through the market area we discovered a few interesting snacks among the numerous food stalls and shops. I tried a warm fermented yogurt drink (surprisingly good), walnut cake (tasty fresh but not so great a day later), and a bag of 5 spice beans (we think; still trying to figure out what to do with these!)

slow fermented yogurt drink - available EVERYwhere  enjoying my (warm!) yogurt drink

walnut snacks - best fresh and warm

We headed back to the hotel to drop off our shopping bags, charge our phones and do a bit of planning, then took the subway to Xianping. This area is a blend of French and Chinese influences with scenic leafy lanes, and lots of cafes and high end shops.

there are a lot of bikes in Shanghai  danger

Fuxing Park was our next stop where we discovered old ladies doing tai chi, old men playing card games while drinking green tea, and kids flying kites. The whole park felt very French, even down to the benches.

We had read that Tianxifang was an interesting place to pick up gifts so we explored the warren of alleys with boutique shops, cafes, and takeaway stands. Picked up a hanging ceramic vase and gushed over some cute dumplings (looked better than they tasted). One of the best food items on this trip was from a Korean hot dog stand – a cheddar cheese wrapped hot dog, battered and fried then drizzled with sweet chili sauce and cheese mustard. SO. Good.

Tianzifang

adorable dumplings

Korean hot dog stand  hot dog battered, fried, coated in breadcrumbs and drizzled with sweet chili sauce. OMG.

Tianzifang

Full for the moment, and a little tired from all the exploring, we walked over to Boxing Cat Brewery for their happy hour half-price beer. While we were deciding, the bartender poured us each a small sample of the Sweet Science Summer Ale, nice but too hoppy for us. Eric had the Smashed Pumpkin Ale and I got the King Louie Imperial Stout. Both were solid. The accompanying spiced nuts were hot – whew!

beers @ Boxing Cat Brewery

One stop up on the metro was Jackie’s Beer Nest – so small! Lots of taps, including two sours. Eric got the Jackie’s Beer Nest big sour, a raspberry lambic. I tried the Viking Imperial Wheat Stout (a collaboration between Epic Brewing and Jackie himself). A nice cozy place with many more beers to try…

taps @ Jackie's Beer Nest

Shanghai: Qibao Ancient Town + Shanghai Circus

Rain was in the forecast and arrived as promised on Tuesday morning. After breakfast, we waited a bit for the rain to let up then jumped on the subway for about 40 minutes to Qibao Ancient Town. Exiting the subway, we were greeted with misting rain that did not let up for the rest of the day. Boo.

To help keep Eric’s camera dry, we stopped at a shoe store selling umbrellas for $1.

A short walk later and we were standing at the entry gate where a kiosk was selling prayer items and attraction tickets.

Qibao Ancient Town entrance

prayer requests

We continued to the historic old town and wandered around. Lots of strange snacks like young marinated chickens, quail eggs, and flayed squid, along with ceramic items, scarves (likely not all silk), wooden combs and jewelry. Glad we skipped the tourist pass to get into various sites as it was hard to find these places and we never located the miniatures museum which is the only one I actually wanted to see. Picked up a few gift items and then headed out after about an hour to dry off.

hundreads of quail eggs

Qibao Ancient Town

Qibao Ancient Town

Qibao Ancient Town

On the way back to subway, we stopped at J’s Beer Fairy to warm up and grab a beer. You select your beer from one of the many fridges, pay, then grab a branded glass from the fridge and a bottle opener. It was a nice, relaxed setting.

beers @ J's Beer Fairy

After picking up a pork floss donut to munch on for the trip back to the hotel, I wanted to try Dahuchun, a well-reviewed dumpling place, for dinner before the show. The cashier lady basically ignored me and took several transactions ahead of me until I finally said “one” and thrust money at her. Ugh. Dumplings were just okay, Eric liked Yang’s better.

Still hungry, Eric grabbed a pastry at a local bakery and then we headed to the Nanjing shopping street by People’s Square to waste some time before the circus.

Shanghai Circus World was easy to find and very close to the subway stop, although with poor signage on which way to go once once you exited the subway station. Since we bought tickets through the hotel we had merely picked a price we wanted to pay but not the seats or section. No worry though because we were second row! Our seats were totally fine for viewing the show even though we were off to one side. The VIP section only had 4-6 people in it the whole time. We arrived about a half hour early to a nearly empty venue but the theater quickly filled in with busloads of tourists (including a chatty mom and daughter next to me) but we both really enjoyed the show.

Shanghai Circus World

Shanghai Circus World  Shanghai Circus World

Shanghai Circus World

Acrobats, bicycles, and motorbikes in a cage lead to lots of exclamations and clapping from the audience. The 90 minute show was touristy but fun and we were happy with what we paid ($56 each) for the experience.

Shanghai 2017: overnight to Hangzhou

Wednesday

For the middle of our trip we decided to visit one of the nearby cities, Hangzhou, which is famous for its leafy West Lake. To get there we took the metro about 45 minutes to the cavernous Shanghai Hongqiao train station where we planned to catch the high speed train to Hangzhou. We were surprised that the metro was packed all the way to the end of the line.

The Hongqiao train station is overwhelming to say the least. We stood in line downstairs (ticket office #4) for a few minutes but after asking for advice at an English-speaking tourist booth we headed to the ticket office upstairs hoping for an English-speaking agent. After the brief security check (very common in China) we found the lines to be much shorter, and although the transaction was a bit touch and go, we managed to get the correct tickets with a return for the following day. Hooray!

buying tickets to Hangzhou

Unfortunately, the next train was full (I assume) so we had to wait an hour and a half for the train after that. To kill some time, I wandered around the station marveling at the high tech bathrooms, finding our track number, and observing the boarding procedures.

Boarding started about 20 minutes before departure and we easily found our coach and seats, pleased that we had two seats to ourselves. The 85 minute ride was smooth and we were able to use the machines in the Hangzhou metro to get a one-way ticket closer to the lake. Very glad we didn’t have our heavier carry-ons with us as we had to cross a few busy streets underground which meant quite a few sets of stairs.

Upon check-in at the Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake, we were upgraded to Club room (4th floor) with nice views and a huge bedroom with open tub and vanity area.

Sofitel lobby

our room in Hangzhou

our bathroom

Eager to get out and explore, we inquired about rental bicycles from the front desk at the hotel. The prices were 30 rmb/1 hour, 50 rmb/2 hours, 80 rmb/3 hours, 12o rmb / 4-6 hours and because of our Club upgrade we got two hours free!

We spent a leisurely three hours cycling and walking the 11km around West Lake. A lot of fun.

biking along Nanshan Road

West Lake views  Leifeng Pagoda

West Lake boat

street flatbread  Yangdi Jingxing

Yangdi Jingxing  Gushan Road

West Lake

Garden paths extend along the entire lake, with pedestrian sidewalks and bike lanes throughout most of it. Even though many of the flowers were no longer blooming, the lake was beautiful, and this was a highlight of our trip.

After returning the bikes, we each got a glass of wine at the Le Bar in the hotel lobby to make a dent in our $60 credit then wandered down the shore to see the nightly musical fountain show at 7pm.

We chose Grandma’s Home for dinner because of the great reviews but our experience was both confusing and underwhelming. We walked inside and after asking the attendant we were impatiently directed back outside, where we apparently needed to take a number from the two people who let us walk past them just a moment before. Now with a ticket we sat down and waited for our number to show up on the monitor. Five minutes later we returned to the indifferent attendant who wrote ’67’ on the back of our slip and pointed to the stairs. We walked up three levels and wandered around a bit before someone came over and asked to see our slip, then pointed us to a section. Turns out that ’67’ was our table number… many of which also have letters. Once seated, we were (thankfully) given a thick English menu with photos but many of the options had fish and/or were out of stock. After ten minutes of matching the Chinese writing from the photos to the printed menu slip (numbering the dishes would have helped tremendously, alas), we ended up with spicy noodles (small portion, best of our choices) spinach with glazed pork (spinach was good, pork was a bit too rich and sweet), and dried eel (interesting but the bones threw me off). Eh, dinner was cheap at least, 68rmb, or about $10.

We retreated back to the hotel for a nightcap, champagne for me and Talisker for Eric.

Thursday

The buffet breakfast at the hotel was crazy good with abundant French and Chinese options.

breakfast buffet @ Sofitel

After breakfast we headed out to Hefang Street for souvenirs. The street was under construction for a large swath but we didn’t give up and finally found the historic section further up. So many shops with silk, snacks, knick knacks, tea and other items.

gold buddha on Hefang St

Hefang Street

We went back to the hotel to check out of the room, then used up the rest of our credit with a glass of champagne. With an extra hour and half we headed back to the lake to explore on foot until it was time to leave for our train at 3pm.

boats on West Lake

pagoda on West Lake

annoying trams on the sidewalk

Our train back uneventful, as the Hangzhou train station was less hectic, and the ride back took less time due to fewer stops. Plus, it got up to 308km/hour!

reclining on the train

Shanghai: Thanksgiving Dinner

Before we left for our relaxing trip to Hangzhou, I had made a dinner reservation for Thursday night at Cucina at the Hyatt. Unfortunately, neither of us checked WHICH Hyatt the restaurant was located in and of course, we went to the Hyatt on the Bund instead of the Grand Hyatt. Instead of just taking a cab (the fastest option), I wanted to walk and it took way longer than expected due to construction and confusing elevated walkways and long story short we arrived half an hour late and frustrated to our reservation. Boo.

Thankfully the place was not at all busy and we were seated next to the window with expansive views of the Bund. Unexpectedly, the Pearl TV Tower shut off its lights at 9pm so we only had several minutes to enjoy that building.

Service was a bit hit and miss but the wine prices were reasonable and Eric enjoyed his Caesar salad and spaghetti with meatballs. I had the 24 month aged Parma ham pizza which was perfectly fine. The highlight of the evening, however, was a delicious chocolate tart. SO GOOD.

Thanksgiving dinner views  delicious chocolate dessert

Shanghai 2017: Nanxing

After a leisurely breakfast, we spent a couple of hours Friday morning on FaceTime with family and friends wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving back in the States (where it was still Thursday evening).

After our calls home we took the subway northwest to Nanxing, known for its xiaolongbao street and Guyi Gardens. We started with lunch at Fengji Xiaolongguan, and ordering was an experience without any knowledge of Chinese. Thank goodness we knew the word ‘xiaolongbao’ so that worked, but I also ended up ordering us a soup without realizing it. Soup came out first and I was confused (and a little disappointed) but the dumplings quickly followed so all was well! Everything was tasty (even though Eric had to fish all the cilantro out of his soup). And cheap. We were both stuffed for under $6 USD.

xiaolongbao on Guyiyuan Rd

enjoying the soup dumplings

From our lunch place it was a short walk to the north entrance. After paying a modest 12rmb entry fee we entered a peaceful garden with gorgeous stone pathways, water features, pagodas and waterfalls. Like many parks in Shanghai, there were also lots of groups of old men playing cards and old women chatting on benches. We spent about 1.5 hours exploring before heading back to the hotel.

Guyi Garden map

Guyi Garden  Guyi Garden

Guyi Garden

Guyi Garden

After a quick recharge (for us and our phones), we took the subway to Jackie’s Beer Nest 2 located in the basement of the Hamburg House. Two beers for each of us – strong stouts for me, and a sour ale for Eric after his smoked beer kicked the keg after half a pint. The fried wontons made for an excellent snack with our beers.

tasty dumplings @ Jackie's Beer Nest 2

Jackie's Beer Nest 2

Curious to try a whisky bar, we walked over to MaltFun but found the place shuttered at 9pm on a Friday night with no explanation. Oh well.

Shanghai: M50 & Jing’na Sculpture Park

Today was to be the day for travel to the nearby ancient town Suzhou… but alas, we were thwarted! Though there are a reported 60 train trips available between the two cities, we couldn’t get a train for several hours when we showed up at 10am to purchase tickets. Whether that was due to actual busyness or poor communication we’ll never fully know. On a side note, the main Shanghai Railway station was quite confusing, as you have to cross the street to get to the ticket counter and you can’t enter the main station without a ticket. At least we learned that English speaking agents are identified by a small sign in the upper right corner of their ticket window.

Instead, we wandered over to the M50 Art Center area. This space is a colorful mix of galleries, workspaces, and cafes. Very chill on a Saturday morning save for the horde of teenagers on what seemed like a scavenger hunt. While there was some street art, it was nothing too special. We did, however, find a nice pottery gallery where we found a vase for ourselves and a few other pieces for gifts. Our favorite spot was the Island 6 gallery, with lots of LED ‘paintings’ and other interesting art.

M50 art district

M50 art district

M50 art district

We stopped by the hotel briefly to drop off our pottery, then traveled to the Jing’an Sculpture park near the Natural History Museum. Lots of families were enjoying the nice weather in this park. While we were here the fountain turned on, surprising everyone with several cool patterns. Amongst our other favorites were the deer with butterfly antlers and the metal hands sculpture, “Sisters.”

Jing'an Sculpture Park

Jing'an Sculpture Park

Jing'an Sculpture Park

Jing'an Sculpture Park

On a friend’s recommendation, we tried Vegetarian Lifestyle for lunch. The ‘short ribs’ were great but the Kung Pao ‘chicken’ was just OK (the texture was spot on but the flavor was very one-dimensional). Leandra’s dumplings with mushroom and other veg were also just OK, a bit bland, and the dipping sauce that came with didn’t add much to the party. Service was incredibly slow with our waitress disappearing for long stretches. Pricey for what you get, I don’t think we would return.

meatless kung pao chicken @ Vegetarian Lifestyle

We had some daylight left, so we hopped on the subway to the Pudong side for views of the Pearl TV tower and other downtown buildings up close via the circular pedestrian walkway.

selfie w/ the Oriental Pearl TV Tower  Shanghai buildings

sculpture in Ming Zhu Park

Thinking a glass (or two) of wine would be nice, we jumped back on the metro (thank goodness for three-day unlimited metro cards) to the Jing’an Temple area, which was all messed up with construction. We arrived at Dr. Wine after Google said they would be open, but there was no one inside and the place was very dim. Disappointed, we started searching for other options when a man walked past us into the restaurant… they were open, just really quiet! With the choice of any seat, we grabbed a cozy couch I ordered a Nelson, NZ Chardonnay, then a Sav Blanc from the same region. Leandra had a rosé and then a South African pinotage, and we split a dried fruit and mixed nuts snack. Several groups came in for dinner and were seated upstairs so the downstairs lounge remained relaxed and uncrowded for a Saturday night.

wine bar still life