Places to visit – Shanghai

We spent a few days in Shanghai directly after our visit to Beijing (covered in this post) and there was quite a contrast between the two cities! We took the high speed train between the two, which I think cost about £50 and took 4 hours. The whole experience was very smooth, although you got quite an interesting view of China from the train – lots of construction and smog-filled cities!

We stayed with a friend who has a very nice apartment in the French Concession area so I’m afraid I have no accommodation tips for Shanghai. This is a really nice area of Shanghai to live in, quite international in feel, quiet and leafy. Our friend has also lived in Beijing and he says that Shanghai is a nicer place to live but Beijing is a better place to be a tourist. We agree.

It’s not that Shanghai is a bad place to be a tourist – it’s a nice city, but it’s all just too modern. Coming from Beijing where there was so much history and so many interesting things to see, Shanghai felt a little boring by comparison! But in a way that was nice for us as we could relax a little – we were quite tired from rushing around Beijing so much.

So what did we see and do? Having left Beijing fairly early in the morning, we arrived in Shanghai at around lunchtime. We dropped our bags at our friend’s place and had a nice lunch at a bakery nearby. Then, with a few hours in the afternoon to ourselves, we decided to go to the People’s Square (which has its own metro station). The square and nearby People’s Park weren’t that interesting so we went into the Shanghai Museum on the edge of the square. This is a really good museum, full of Chinese art and artefacts. Unfortunately by the time we got there, there was only one hour before the museum shut so we didn’t see it all but it was impressive stuff nonetheless.

On the second day, we made straight for Shanghai’s main attraction – the Bund. It’s basically a long, grand street by the Huangpu river with an esplanade on one side and a line of large colonial buildings on the other. On the other side of the river is the Pudong area which makes up the archetypal Shanghai skyline, so it’s worth a walk down the esplanade just to see this view.

Pudong skyline

Pudong at night

Pudong’s development has been pretty rapid. This blog has a great pair of pictures comparing it in 1990 to 2010.

The Bund itself isn’t that exciting. I think that it’s pretty unusual for China, so if you live in Asia or perhaps somewhere non-European you might find the buildings quite interesting. But they do look like something you see in most European capital cities! However, we did have a drink in one of the hotels one evening, which was a lovely way to experience a bit of old-fashioned glamour!

Shanghai Bund view

Bund building and bull

Bund at night

From the Bund, we headed inland to the Yuyuan Garden (this also has its own metro station, but we walked). This area was very busy! There is a shopping area there which seemed to be a nice recreation of old-style Chinese buildings but was obviously pretty new. One of the buildings housed the Nanxiang Steamed Bread Shop, a xiaolongbao restaurant which had a large queue outside for the takeaway but we went upstairs and were seated pretty quickly (I talked about xiaolongbao in this post). We had several different kinds of xiaolongbao with different meats and flavours – all of them were really nice! I think this was one of Tom’s highlights of Shanghai ;)

After lunch, we headed for the garden itself. To get to the entrance you walk along a zigzag bridge over a lily pond, past the Huxing Ting tea house. The bridge was packed and I was worried that the garden would be too but actually it wasn’t too busy. It was a really nice example of a Chinese style garden and was bigger than I expected as well. I think we probably spent an hour in there! There were lots of beautiful features such as the dragon wall and some pretty lattice work.

Huxing Ting tea houseYuyuan Garden Shanghai

Yuyuan Garden lattice

Yuyuan Garden dragon wall

As we were leaving this area, I noticed a maze of streets with smaller, more local shops. I wish we’d have taken time to explore them – I might have found a bargain or two! The shopping area by the Yuyuan Gardens was very commercial and overpriced. But we wanted to move on and see one more thing that afternoon.

Our final stop for the afternoon was Xintiandi, which is an area of old Chinese buildings that has been smartened up and turned into a pedestrian shopping area with upmarket shops. It was actually a really nice quiet area to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by, but I don’t think we could afford to go into any of the shops!

In the evening we went for drinks in the Vue Bar at the top of the Hyatt on the Bund. The view was pretty good, but I really wouldn’t recommend the bar! Very busy and overpriced. I think there are many other bars with great views in Shanghai where you would have a better experience.

Bund from above

Pudong from above

On our last day in Shanghai, we headed into Pudong. Tom wanted to visit the Shanghai World Finance Center (at the time the tallest building in Shanghai and apparently possessing the highest observation deck in the world) so we went straight there. This is the building that looks a bit like a bottle opener, with a large square hole in the top. There are observation decks at the bottom and top of the square hole, and you get to spend a bit of time in each. To be honest, it’s not an experience I’d recommend – it’s really expensive, very crowded and busy and you don’t get a lot of time on each deck, whilst you do spend a lot of time queueing for the lifts. Plus, the smog means that you can’t actually see very much from it!

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Perhaps a better bet would be the observation deck next door in the Jin Mao tower (also a prettier building)? It’s not so high but its observation deck is cheaper, or alternatively you could visit the Cloud Nine bar in the Grand Hyatt (on the floor below the observation deck) and spend your money on a drink instead whilst looking at the view at your leisure. This is the Jin Mao Tower as seen from the World Finance Center.

Jin Mao Tower

Tom got a bit nerdy and took lots of pictures of the building work on the nearby Shanghai Tower. This is complete now (structurally at least) and is the second tallest building in the world!

Shanghai Tower construction

After leaving the World Finance Center we walked over to the area near the Oriental Pearl Tower, which wasn’t that easy to get to – Pudong seems to have been designed for cars not people! We had a bit of a walk around there, toyed with the idea of going to the nearby aquarium, decided we didn’t have the time and went back to our friend’s place. Pudong is definitely a financial area, not a tourist area!

In the afternoon we headed to the airport. We were flying from Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which meant we could get the maglev train there! Unfortunately, the train station for the maglev is in a bit of a random place (not very central) so we had to get a taxi there. I think the original plan was to continue the existing maglev line further into Shanghai but it was too expensive so the line stops very abruptly in mid-air, with houses on the other side of the road! If you decide to take the maglev, see if you can catch one of the trains that hits its top speed of 431 km/h (even if it is just for a few minutes) – the trains only do this at certain times of day. We were lucky that this matched with the time we needed to be at the airport. I can confirm that it is very fast indeed!

Shanghai is a nice city but I would recommend that you don’t need to spend more than a couple of days there to see most of what it has to offer, unless you plan to spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses or shopping!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

The Karst Hills of Yangshuo and Guilin

The Karst hills around Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province of China are some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Tom and I love it so much there we’ve been twice already! This is what I mean:

Li River Karst hills

(Unfortunately both times we’ve been have been early spring so the photos are a bit cloudy and gloomy!)

This area is so easy to get to from Hong Kong – the flight to Guilin is only 1h05min! Both times we stayed at the Li River Retreat, just outside Yangshuo. The hotel organised a taxi to pick us up from the airport (upon request) and the drive takes over an hour. But the last half of the drive goes through the Karst hills and local towns so there is lots to see!

I cannot recommend the Li River Retreat enough. The staff are extremely friendly and helpful, the rooms are large, clean and beautifully decorated and the setting is amazing. It’s also really good value for money at 300 RMB (approx. £30) per night for a Standard room (which actually has 2 large beds in!). We found it through recommendations on TripAdvisor but it also has its own website. This is the view from the main terrace (which all the rooms look out onto):

Li River Retreat Yangshuo view

A must-do activity when you come here is a trip down the river. The Chinese prefer to get on large boats at Guilin and go down the river that way, but the best parts of the river are closer to Yangshuo and a fun way to see them is to hire a raft for an hour or two. Again, the hotel organised this for us and arranged for a taxi to take us to Yangdi where a local took our receipt and arranged the raft for us. It was a bit bewildering but we ended up on a raft in the end! The raft tour takes 1-1.5 hours and finishes in Xingping where you can either have arranged for a taxi to take you back to the hotel, or catch a local bus back to Yangshuo (they seem to be fairly frequent, but you first have to catch a tiny bus into Xingping village, which is free for people with raft receipts). The rafting is fairly expensive, I think it was about 200 RMB (£20) each, plus 300 RMB (£30) for a taxi one-way, but it was totally worth it! This is what I mean:

Li River rafting

Li River mountains

Li River hills

Xingping Li River view

On the raft

Another activity I’d recommend is to hire bikes and go cycling around the hills. The land is really flat between the hills so it’s very easy to cycle around and you can be out of Yangshuo and into very peaceful, quiet countryside in no time. You see paddy fields, small villages and local people going about their lives in amongst these amazing hills. I guess they just take them for granted.

Karst hills and villages, Yangshuo

Fields and hills of Yangshuo

Countryside around Yangshuo

We found it a little hard to navigate based on the map the hotel had (which is definitely not to scale!) but every now and again there is a signpost to tell you where you are. We planned to cycle to Moon Hill (which has a crescent-shaped hole in) but it took a lot longer than expected and the saddle soreness got quite bad so we gave up and stopped for lunch in a small village by the river! Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the village, but there was a great little restaurant right on the waterfront and the owner spoke very good English and was very friendly. And the food was lovely too! The restaurant also organised a raft back up to Yangshuo with our bikes on too, for 200 RMB altogether, so we got to see even more of the river :)

[Edit: I have since been reminded that the village is called LiuGong (see comments). It was signposted from the ‘main’ road we were cycling along.]

Yangshuo itself is pretty touristy, but in a way that’s quite fun when you’re a tourist. There’s a great market where you can pick up all kinds of Chinese tourist tat (and some nice things too!) and have some fun bartering the stallholders down. We found the restaurants to be a bit of a mixed bag – one restaurant that we ate in was terrible! Possibly the worst food I’ve ever had in China. But the next day we went to Cloud 9 Restaurant, which was recommended on TripAdvisor, and it was fantastic.

If you’ve never been to this area and would like a weekend away, or if you’re planning a trip around China, I’d thoroughly recommend that you visit Yangshuo. It’s so beautiful, and very peaceful and relaxing too!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel